David MacRitchie was the younger son of William Dawson MacRitchie and Elizabeth Elder MacRitchie. He was born in Edinburgh and attended the Edinburgh Southern Academy, the Edinburgh Institute and the University of Edinburgh. He did not gain a degree but qualified as a Chartered Accountant. His father had been a surgeon in the East India Company.
Career as folklorist
In 1888 MacRitchie founded the Gypsy Lore Society to study the history and lore of Gypsies. He was also a member of several folklore societies. In 1914 he joined the Council of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, serving as vice-president from 1917 - 1920. He was noted for his interest in archaeology, being appointed as a trustee for Lord Abercromby's endowment for an Archaeology department at the University of Edinburgh. He was also a member of the Scottish Arts Club and Vice-president of the Philosophical Institution.
In 1922 until his death he served as the treasurer of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society.
David MacRitchie was a prominent proponent of the euhemeristic origin of fairies, a theory tracable to the early 19th century that considers fairies in British folklore to have been rooted in a historical pygmy, dwarf or short sized aboriginal race, that lived during Neolithic Britain or even earlier.
MacRitchie is often credited as being the founder of the euhemerist school regarding British fairies. However historian Edward J. Cowan has noted that the folklorist John Francis Campbell first founded this school of thought about 30 years before MacRitchie. Carole G. Silver, Professor of English at Yeshiva University has also traced the euhemerist theory of fairies further back to Walter Scott in his Letters on Demonology (1830). With the emergence of anthropological schools in the late 19th century, various renowned anthropologists such as Edward Burnett Tylor (1871) became proponents of the euhemeristic origin of fairies, in direct conflict with the religious or psychological theories of their origin.
Fairy Euhemerism, as developed by MacRitchie attempts to rationally explain the origin of fairies in British folklore and regards fairies as being a folk-memory of a "small-statured pre-Celtic race" or what Tylor theorised as possible folk memories of the aborigines of Britain. MacRitchie's theory subsequently became known in the late 19th century by folklorists as the "Ethnological or Pygmy Theory". The euhemeristic theory of fairies became considerably popular through MacRitchie's key works The Testimony of Tradition (1890) and Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893). Different theories however in the late 19th century and early 20th century surfaced concerning the racial origin of the proposed dwarf aborigines of Britain and these theories ranged from proposing that they were real African Pygmies, Eskimos or a short statured Mediterranean race. MacRitchie himself argued in his Testimony of Tradition, under a chapter subheading entitled "A Hairy Race" (p. 167) that they were somewhat connected to the Lapps or Eskimos, but were a distinct race because of their very long beards, concluding: "one seems to see the type of a race that was even more like the Ainu than the Lapp, or the Eskimo, although closely connected in various ways with all of these" (p. 173). In MacRitchie's view the indigenous population of Britain were thus a "quasi-European" Ainu race, with minor Mongoloid traits who he considered ancestral to the Picts, a view earlier proposed by Walter Scott. The identification of fairies with Picts, MacRitichie based primarily on the earlier accounts by Adam of Bremen and the Historia Norwegiæ which describe the Picts of Orkney as "only a little exceeding pygmies in stature". MacRitchie also discovered through the The Orcadian Sketch-Book by Walter Traill Dennison (1880) that legends across Scotland describe the homes (usually underground dwellings) of the fairies as "Pict's Houses" and so he believed the Picts were literally the basis of fairies in British folklore. In Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893), The Northern Trolls (1898) and The Aborigines of Shetland and Orkney (1924) MacRitchie attempted to further identify the fairies of British folklore with the Finfolk of Orkney mythology, the Trows of Shetland myth, the Fianna of Old Irish Literature and the Trolls as well as the Svartálfar and Svartálfaheimr (elves or dwarfs) of Norse mythology. A 12th-century Irish manuscript is found referenced in Fians, Fairies and Picts which equates the Fianna to fairies, but this is one of the few literary sources MacRitchie used as evidence, instead he turned to philology and comparative mythology.
MacRitchie's rationalisation of fairies, as having their basis as a historical population of diminutive size, won over much support from anthropologists from the late 19th century who questioned the religious or psychological origin of fairies. A notable proponent of the theory who had read MacRitchie's earlier works published in the Celtic Review was Grant Allen, who became convinced that fairies were modeled on an indigenous population of Britain, specifically the Neolithic long barrow makers. The archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins found MacRitchie's views also appealing, since in his Early Man in Britain and His Place in the Tertiary Period (1880) he considered Upper Paleolithic culture across Europe (including Britain) to have been founded by a proto-Eskimo or Lapp race, a view at the time which was popularised after the discovery of "Chancelade Man", in southwestern France by Leo Testut in 1889. Scientific consensus after the 1930s however agreed that the remains of "Chancelade Man" were Cro-Magnon, however some modern anthropologists still propose Cro-Magnon morphological traits appear distinctly in Lapps. Within folklore, MacRitchie's euhemeristic view of fairies developed a racialist school which considered that the fairies and other beings such as elves and goblins of British myth represented primitive pre-Aryans, a view proposed most notably by John S. Stuart Glennie, Laurence Waddell and Alfred Cort Haddon. According to Haddon: "fairy tales were stories told by men of the Iron Age of events which happened to men of the Bronze Age in their conflicts with men of the Neolithic Age". In both Haddon's and Waddell's view the fairies or other beings of British folklore were based on the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain.
Among folklorists who considered, supported or praised MacRitchie's views were Laurence Gomme, who in 1892 published Ethnology in Folklore, which argued folklore preserved a strong racial history of conquered or replaced indigenous peoples. The folklorist Charles G. Leland, who positively reviewed MacRitchie's book The Testimony of Tradition (1890), wrote "The book should be of exceptional interest to every folk-lorist, both on account of its subject-matter and also on account of the manner in which it is treated".
MacRitchie's theories of fairies sparked criticism from proponents of the religious or psychological origin of fairies. Walter Evans-Wentz strongly criticised MacRitchie's theory in his The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911). This prompted MacRitchie to respond to such criticisms in several articles published in the Celtic Review (October 1909, January 1910). It was mostly however MacRitchie's theory that the Picts were a dwarf or short statured race which was strongly rejected. Most historians of the day rejected Mackenzie's "Pygmy-Pict" theory. T. Rice Holmes for example mocked MacRitchie's claims, considering them eccentric and baseless since no archaeological evidence had ever proven of a "race of pre-neolithic or even prehistoric pygmies existed in this country". Other scholars attempted to pick holes in MacRitchie's claims on mythology, for example Wentz noted that the Fianna of Irish myth are sometimes described as "giants". MacRitchie acknowledged these criticisms in his own writings but attempted to work around them and provide solutions:
|“||"In regarding the Fians as a race of dwarfs, I do not overlook the fact that they are also spoken of as “giants.” But to assume them to have been of gigantic stature is both totally at variance with the bulk of the evidence regarding them, and at variance with the fact that the word “giant” has very frequently been used to denote a savage, or a cave−dweller."||”|
Therefore in MacRitchie's view the Irish myths and folkloric accounts which describe the Fianna as "giants" only did so in a non-literal figurative sense to describe their savage type nature, not size. This idea was later expanded upon in his The Savages of Gaelic Tradition (1920) yet was not well received by contemporary folklorists. However ancient authors such as Macrobius shared MacRitchie's beliefs that the "giants" of mythology were not giants in size, but huge in impiety (or their primitiveness). According to MacRitchie there were also "two" Pictish races, the former were the aboriginal dark Lappish or Ainu race while a later white-skinned red-headed group invaded them, who he considered the Caledonians.
British origin of Gypsies
In his Ancient and Modern Britons, MacRitchie claimed that the Gypsies were not of foreign origin, but were in fact the more conservative element of the native British population who had retained their nomadic way of life while the majority adopted a settled lifestyle. He further claimed that the ancient Britons were a dark-skinned people, a claim which elicited the interest of Afrocentrist authors, but has no support amongst mainstream historians or scientists.
Early Black Britons, Danes, Ireland and Northern Europeans
MacRitchie believed that blacks were the original inhabitants of Northern Europe especially in Scandinavia, Wales, Scotland and Ireland going into the Middle Ages. He list numerous Vikings who he believes to be black
- "The Danes, then, were like the "Moors"—black." Page 121;
- "The Danes, then were not "of pure colour." They were dubh, black." page 114.
- "In other words, the "Gentiles of pure colour" and the "black heathen," known in history as the Norsemen and the Danes, had in this particular family become amalgamated." Page 153
- "So that the Picts Proper and the Black Danes, being both Moors and both being "black strangers" or dubh galls, in the sight of the white races of Britain..." page 201
- "For the black people, as we know, ante-date the Danish branch of that stock by many centuries, - how many, no one can tell" Page 157
- "Accepting this conclusion, then as, in the main, correct, we have before us undeniable evidence - historical and ethnological - of the immemorial presence of the blacks in this country [Great Britain] page 157-158
- "We know that the first inhabitants of Britain and more especially those of the northern parts, were craniologically of a type approaching to the Negro or the Australian race" Page 7-8
- "'The black herds of Scots and Picts' were all alike to British Gildas Page 216
- "Therefore, it becomes evident that some race of Scandinavians must have been Black Huns also, with physical characteristics approaching those of the Pictish Moors... Page 110
- "...yet there is word-evidence in our Islands [Great Britain], as elsewhere, of a time when a conquered race was of black colour." Page 37
- "That the wild tribes of Ireland were black men is hinted by the fact that "a wild Irishmen" is in Gaelic "a black Irishman" (Dubh Eireannach). And that some of the natives of Scotland, as well as of England, were of this race also is evident when one remembers that, according to Skene, the powerful tribe of the Damnonii, which was the chief of the Maeatae, or marsh-dwellers, who were a part of the Picti or Caledonii, were probably relations of their namesakes of South-Western Britain; which indeed is almost a certainty, if nomenclature goes for anything" Page 45
- "The Wild Irishmen, or Black Irishmen, presumably of the same race, were the same. Page 62
- Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 1925, p. 49.
- "Review of Scottish culture", Issue 10, National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, 1997, p. 131.
- "The English Gypsy Lore Society", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 34, No. 134, Oct. - Dec., 1921, p. 399.
- Records of The Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society
- Scottish fairy belief: a history Edward J. Cowan, Dundurn Press Ltd., 2001, p. 21.
- Cowan, 2001, pp. 21-22.
- MacRitchie himself acknowledged the earlier work of Campbell in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893).
- The idea is also found in Sven Nilsson's The primitive inhabitants of Scandinavia (1868).
- "On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romantics, and Folk Belief", Carole Silver, Browning Institute Studies, Vol. 14, The Victorian Threshold, 1986, p. 143.
- Silver, 1986, p. 149.
- The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911, p. 234 
- Tylor, "Primitive Culture", 1871, pp. 385-386.
- Wentz, 1911, pp. 234-235.
- "Were Fairies an Earlier Race of Men?", Canon J. A. Macculloch, Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 4, Dec. 31, 1932, p. 366.
- "Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics", Part 9, James Hastings, Kessinger Publishing (reprint), 2003. p. 126.
- "Folklore and the fantastic in nineteenth-century British fiction", Jason Marc Harris, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008, pp.64-66.
- The fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, Jarlath Killeen, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007, p. 137.
- The different racial theories are found discussed at length by T. Rice Holmes in his Ancient Britain and the invasions of Julius Caesar (1907).
- Scott pioneered the "Lapp−Dwarf parallel", writing "there seems reason to conclude that these duergar [dwarfs] were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations."
- Science, Vol. 21, No. 523, Feb. 10, 1893, pp. 82-83.
- Cowan, 2001, p. 21.
- Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893), footnote 51
- The testimony of tradition, David MacRitchie, Paul. Trench, Trübner, 1890, pp.60-67.
- Cowan, 2001, p. 21.
- Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893), footnote 21
- Silver, 1986, pp. 47–52.
- Professor J. Kollmann, of Basel, in his Pygmden in Europa (1894), argues for the existence of a European pygmy race in Neolithic times
- Macculloch, 1932, p. 362.
- "Who were the Fairies", Cornhill Magazine, 1881, xliii. 338f.
- "The Arrival of Man in Britain in the Pleistocene Age", W. Boyd Dawkins, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 40, Jul. - Dec., 1910, pp. 233-263.
- Recherches anthropologiques sur le Squelette quaternaire de Chancelade, Bull. Soc. d'Anthrop. de Lyon, 1889.
- Niskanen, M. (2002). The Origin of the Baltic-Finns from the Physical Anthropological Point of View. Mankind Quarterly Volume XLIII Number 2, Winter.
- Phoenician Origin of the Britons, Scots, and Anglo-Saxons (1924, 2nd ed. 1925), in this work Waddell cites MacRitchie.
- Silver, 1986, p. 150.
- Folk Memory Or the Continuity of British Archaeology by Walter Johnson (1908) is another work in this vein.
- Quoted in "Fairies in nineteenth-century art and literature", Nicola Bown, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 166.
- The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 3, No. 11, Oct. - Dec. 1890, pp. 319–320.
- Macculloch; 1932, p. 366 ff; Silver, 1986, pp. 143-152.
- The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
- "A New Solution of the Fairy Problem", David MacRitchie, The Celtic Review, Vol. 6, No. 22, Oct., 1909, pp. 160-176.
- Cowan, 2001, pp. 21-35.
- Ancient Britain and the invasions of Julius Caesar, Clarendon Press, 1907, p. 393.
- Fians, Fairies and Picts
- Celtic Review, "The Pygmy-Fairy theory examined" (June, 1921).
- Macrobius well explains the meaning of " giants" as distinguished for their enormous impiety : "Gigantes autem, quid aliud fuisse credendum est, quam Hominum quandam impiam gentem, Deos negantem ?" Saturnal. I. 20.
- Ancient and modern Britons, a retrospect, Vol. I, 1884; see also "Memories of the Picts", David MacRitchie, The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, Vol. 14, No. 55 (Jan., 1900), pp. 121-139.
Publications by MacRitchie include:
- Ancient and Modern Britons, a Retrospect, 1884
- Accounts of the Gypsies of India, 1886
- The Testimony of Tradition, 1890
- The Ainos, 1892
- The Underground Life, 1892
- Fians, Fairies and Picts, 1893
- Scottish Gypsies under the Stewarts 1894
- Pygmies in Northern Scotland, 1892
- Some Hebridean Antiquities, 1895
- Diary of a Tour through Great Britain, (editor) 1897
- The Northern Trolls, 1898
- Memories of the Picts, 1900
- Underground Dwellings, 1900
- Fairy Mounds, 1900
- Shelta, the Caird's Language, 1901
- Hints of Evolution in Tradition, 1902
- The Arctic Voyage of 1653, 1909
- Celtic Civilisation, No date
- Druids and Mound Dwellers, 1910
- Les Pygmies chez les Anciens Egyptiens et les Hebreux (with S.T.H. Horowitz), 1912
- Les kayaks dans le nord de l'Europe, 1912
- Great and Little Britain, 1915
- The Celtic Numerals of Strathclyde, 1915
- The Duns of the North, 1917
- The Savages of Gaelic Tradition, 1920
- The Aborigines of Shetland and Orkney, 1924
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