At Dunvegan Castle lays a treasure that was, allegedly, bestowed upon the MacLeod family by fairies themselves. Behind this curious artifact lays a story of romance, loss, and, surprisingly, luck. In Gaelic, it is known as Am Bratach Sith.
The fairy flag is a treasure your eyes might pass over if they should ever come through the doors of Dunvegan castle. In this age, it appears tattered and brown and quite a ruined object. However, in its heyday, this object protected Clan MacLeod time after time.
Like many magical objects, there are a few origin stories of the fairy flag. The second one is the more romantic (and more popular) tale so that is what I’ll be telling you. Legend has it that a fantastically noble, young Chief of the MacLeod clan fell in love with a fairy princess. The pair, just like Arwen and Aragorn, planned to marry but the fairy princess’ father would not hear of it. However, the king of the Fairies saw how distraught his daughter was at the idea of never being able to marry her dashing MacLeod...so, he offered her a deal. He would allow them to “Hardfast.” Hardfasting was a common practice in the Scottish Highlands in which a pair could be trially married for a year and one day. However, the King said, at the end of this time the princess must return and take nothing human with her.
Their time together was nothing short of blissful and soon enough a baby boy was born to the couple. Each day the new family’s time together dwindled and dwindled until there was none left. Honoring her promise to her father the princess returned and the couple parted with great sadness in their hearts at the fairy bridge that connects our world to theirs. She made Chief MacLeod promise that he would never allow their son to cry. The princess claimed that these cries would follow her into the fairy realm and cause her untold amounts of grief. The good Chief kept his promise and his son was never left unattended or given the chance to cry.
Although he still had his son as time went on the young chief continued to mourn the loss of his fairy wife. The clansfolk desperately wanted to lift his spirits so they decided they should throw him a grand birthday party to take his mind away from the fairy princess. This idea worked...for a spell. The young chief enjoyed himself alongside his clansmen and the merry-making lasted well through the night. However, the nursemaid tasked with watching over the little baby soon grew restless and jealous of the other partygoers and went to the edge of the room to open the door and observe the festivities. She was so entranced by the wonderful party that she did not hear the little baby begin to whimper.
The fairy princess heard his cries from the fairy realm and instantly appeared by his crib. She took him into her arms, cradled him back to sleep, and wrapped him in her own shaw. The maid returned when she heard the princess singing. The maid ran into the room, picked the baby up, and ran to the chief to alert him.
Years later when the baby became a young man he told the tale of his mother visiting him in his infancy and deemed that the shaw should be a great talisman of luck and good fortune for the MacLeod clan. He claimed that his mother somehow communicated to him that if they waved this flag in battle the fairy legions would rush forth to ensure their victory. The only catch? This flag could only be waved three times and only three times would the fairy legion rescue the MacLeod’s. So, they both agreed to share this tale with the clansfolk and keep the flag in a safe place.
According to the legend, the flag has been used twice.
First, it was used when the MacLeod clan was outnumbered by their most hated enemy, the MacDonalds. The Chief took the flag from its case and waved it. It was at this point that the battle took a turn in favor of the MacLeods, despite being outnumbered.
It was used a second time when the entire land of the MacLeods was plagued and the cattle continued to get sick. Because of this, many of the MacLeod clan were dead or dying of starvation. The Chief at the time waved his flag and the cattle were raised from the dead and the plague ended.
The legend has continued to have great meaning to the MacLeods in the centuries since. In fact, many MacLeod men carried a picture of the flag in their wallets in WWII. Additionally, Dame Flora MacLeod during WWII offered to bring the flag to Dover and wave it, in the event that the Germans should invade.
The flag remains encased at Dunvegan castle.
A photo of the Dunvegan Cup, Fairy Flag, and Rory Mor's Horn. This image is a cropped version of the photo which appears between pages 38-39, in the book The Macleods of Dunvegan from the time of Leod to the End of the Seventeenth Century. The photo is credited to Roderick Charles MacLeod. It is the public domain.