A Wonder-Filled Compendium: On Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth: Of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies”

By Andrew SchenkerJune 30, 2019

A Wonder-Filled Compendium: On Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth: Of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies”

The Secret Commonwealth by Robert Kirk

IN 1691, Robert Kirk compiled a study of the fairies and other spirits that he believed populated his remote corner of Scotland. The brief manuscript — which would not be published until 1815, when Walter Scott brought it out in an edition titled The Secret Commonwealth — was written at the end of a fraught century. The upheavals of the English Civil War (1642–’51), which caused Kirk’s family to lose their home and possessions, gave way to the philosophical revolution of the early Enlightenment. By the time Kirk began recording instances of supernatural activity in his native Aberfoyle, the rationalism of John Locke held sway in London intellectual circles and would soon make its way north, finding Scottish exemplars in the likes of Francis Hutcheson and David Hume.

Writing about fairies against a backdrop of rising rationalism is one thing, but what really complicates the picture is the fact that Kirk was an Episcopalian minister, having succeeded his father at Aberfoyle in 1685, and having served a neighboring district for two decades before that. And yet, Kirk did not appear to see anything contradictory about his position. He seemed more or less at ease with a nexus of religion, rationalism, and the supernatural, even if he felt some need to justify his project in both Christian and Enlightenment terms. An open-minded, non-judgmental chronicler, Kirk treats the fairy stories of his parishioners, which form the bulk of his inquiry, with face-value seriousness, deploying ample quotation of biblical verses, as well as his own solid reasoning, to prove that there is no inconsistency in believing in both the Kingdom of God and the realm of faery. The result is a book that is at once a wonder-filled compendium of supernatural delights and a neatly structured argument.

The book’s first section introduces the world of fairyland, offering numerous examples of the behavior of these unearthly creatures and their interactions with the human world. The recollections are taken at second- or thirdhand from the people in his district, “some whereof I have from my acquaintance with the actors and patients, and the rest from eyewitnesses to the matter of fact,” but are always related in full seriousness. What emerges from Kirk’s credulous curiosity is a portrait of a rich and varied universe that parallels and occasionally intersects with the “superterranean” world — i.e., our own. The creatures, possessed of ethereal bodies, nonetheless make their habitation below the earth, where they live in their own ordered community. “They are distributed in tribes and orders and have children, nurses, marriages, deaths, and burials in appearance even as we,” Kirk writes. They sometimes take on a helpful character, warning people about dangers to come or performing small household tasks; at other times they behave mischievously, borrowing nursing mothers to attend to their own children or seducing men. Rarely, however, do they resort to the perpetration of any out-and-out evil.

The ability to see these creatures is given only to a select group of men (it is almost exclusively men) known as “seers” who are endowed with the “second sight.” These gifted persons do not directly control their powers, being subject to the whims of nature. “The men of that second sight do not discover strange things when asked,” Kirk notes, “but at fits and raptures, as if inspired by some genius at that instant, which before did lurk in or about them.” What these men do see, when so inspired, is nothing short of revelatory, and Kirk’s descriptions of these findings are among the most vivid and haunting in the literature of the supernatural. In one passage, Kirk describes the presence of a spirit known as a “reflex-man” — a “coimimechd,” or “co-walker,” who takes on the shape of a man, serving as a kind of doppelgänger. The coimimechd is “every way like the man, as a twin brother and companion, haunting him as his shadow.” This creature appears to others while his real-life counterpart lives, and hauntingly continues to manifest even after the man’s death. Eventually, though, as mysteriously as it came, the spirit departs, as “this copy, echo, or living picture goes at last to its own herd.”


After this compilation of the lore of his district, Kirk devotes the three remaining sections to negotiating how a belief in these supernatural creatures can cohere with both the author’s religion and his position in the wider world. The second section consists of a lengthy excerpt from a 1678 letter written by Lord Tarbat, a Scottish nobleman, in response to a request from Kirk’s associate, Robert Boyle, to fill him in on the supernatural dealings supposedly taking place in his corner of the world. The letter, which was well known in its day, recounts instances of mischievous supernatural behavior that Tarbat compiled by consulting the people around him. It’s a skeptic’s account that nonetheless takes the claims he has heard seriously. Still, Kirk, while appreciating Tarbat’s observations, finds fault with his conclusions on several matters, and the third section of the book is devoted to a point-by-point rebuttal. In this rejoinder, as well as in his responses to the imagined objections of readers (which comprise the book’s fourth section), Kirk lays out a justifying rationale for his project.

Kirk’s response to Tarbat begins with small-scale issues (he again insists it is mostly men who have the second sight), then widens out a little (the visions seen by the seers are not, Kirk insists, mirages but the presence of real, corporeal entities), before moving on to larger matters. After answering some doctrinal questions, Kirk gets to the meat of his project: “Having demonstrated and made evident to sense this extraordinary vision of our […] seers,” Kirk writes, “it now remains to show that it is not unsuitable to reason nor the Holy Scriptures.” His “rational” arguments, however, are not really convincing. For example, he claims that — because all levels of the earth, from the ground, to the skies, to the oceans, are inhabited by creatures, and because heaven and hell are likewise inhabited by their own creatures — it would not make sense that the “middle cavities” of the earth, the areas supposedly populated by the fairy population, should be empty. He similarly argues that, because the “Son of the Highest Spirit” assumes a human body, “no other thing that is possible needs be much wondered at.”

While Kirk’s stabs at rationality may not hold up, the effort behind them is inspiring to witness. He clearly wants to believe and communicate that belief, but he realizes that he is writing for a largely skeptical world. Therefore, he attempts to explain something rationally that cannot be rationally explained. At the same time, he displays a wondrous faith that anything that can be conceived of is potentially possible. After all, it is already a leap of faith to accept the doctrines of Christianity. If Kirk is able to make that leap, then there is no reason he should not make a further one and accept a whole new invisible kingdom. His efforts to square this fairyland with Lockean reason and the Bible may not succeed, but then, they don’t really have to.

Toward the end of the third section, amid all his weighty self-justification, Kirk comes out with the following statement:

Therefore every age hath some secret left for its discovery, and who knows but this intercourse betwixt the two kinds of rational inhabitants of the same earth [humans and fairies] may be not only believed shortly but as freely entertained and as well known as now the art of navigation, printing, gunning, riding on saddles with stirrups, and the discoveries of microscopes which were sometimes as great a wonder and as hard to be believed.

That this has not come to pass in no way dilutes the sentiment. Whether or not we believe in the supernatural, we close ourselves off to the mysteries of the world at our own peril. For surely there are “extraordinary visions,” in whatever form they may appear, waiting for us somewhere in the visible world, if only we have eyes to see.


Andrew Schenker lives in Upstate New York.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Schenker lives in Upstate New York.


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