Robert Kirk (folklorist)
9 December 1644|
Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland
|Died||14 May 1692
Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland
Cause of death
|Other names||"The Fairy Minister"|
|Alma mater||University of St Andrews (1664)
University of Edinburgh (1661)
|Occupation||Minister, scholar, folklorist|
|Known for||The Secret Commonwealth (1692)
An Biobla Naomhtha (1688)
Psalma Dhaibhidh an Meadradchd (1684)
Ministry at Balquhidder
|Spouse(s)||Isobel Campbel (died 1680)
Margaret Campbell of Fordie
Robert Kirk (9 December 1644 – 14 May 1692) was a minister, Gaelic scholar and folklorist, best known for The Secret Commonwealth, a treatise on fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts, and second sight, a type of extrasensory perception described as a phenomenon by the people of the Scottish Highlands. Folklorist Stewart Sanderson and mythologist Marina Warner call Kirk's collection of supernatural tales one of the most important and significant works on the subject of fairies and second sight.
In the late 1680s, Kirk travelled to London to help publish one of the first translations of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic. Gentleman scientist Robert Boyle financed the publication of the Gaelic Bible and pursued inquiries into Kirk's reports of second sight. Kirk died before he was able to publish The Secret Commonwealth. Legends arose after Kirk's death saying he had been taken away to fairyland for revealing the secrets of the Good People.
Scottish author Walter Scott first published Kirk's work on fairies more than a century later in 1815. Andrew Lang later gave it the popular title, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1893). Multiple editions of The Secret Commonwealth have since been published, with notable scholarly analysis by Sanderson, Mario M. Rossi, and Michael Hunter.
Kirk was born in Aberfoyle, Scotland, the seventh and youngest son of James Kirk, minister at Aberfoyle, Perthshire. He studied theology at St Andrews and received his master's degree at Edinburgh in 1661. Kirk became minister of Balquhidder in 1664, and later of Aberfoyle, from 1685 until his death. In 1670, he married his first wife, Isobel Campbel, the daughter of Sir Colin Campbel of Mochaster. Isobel produced a son, Colin, who became a writer to the signet. When she died on 25 December 1680, Kirk cut out an epitaph for her with his own hands. His second wife, Margaret, the daughter of Campbell of Fordy, bore him a second son, Robert, who became a minister at Dornoch, Sutherlandshire.
Kirk was a Gaelic scholar, the author of the first complete translation of the Scottish metrical psalms into Gaelic, published at Edinburgh in 1684 as Psalma Dhaibhidh an Meadrachd, &c. (Psalms of David in Metre, &c.). During its preparation Kirk learned that the synod of Argyll intended to bring out a rival version, and stories are told of how he used to keep himself awake while working to be first in the field.
In 1689, Kirk was called to London to superintend the printing of An Biobla Naomhtha, the Gaelic Bible that had begun decades earlier under the direction of Bishop William Bedell. It was published in 1690. To this version Kirk added a short Gaelic vocabulary (6 pp.), which was republished, with additions by Edward Lhuyd in William Nicolson's Historical Library (London, 1702).
Kirk's involvement in Bedell's Bible was at the request of his friend James Kirkwood, a promoter of Scottish Gaelic literacy. The printing was funded by scientist Robert Boyle, a member of the Royal Society.
Scottish studies and folklore scholar Stewart Sanderson (1924–) reports that Kirk
was in the habit of taking a turn in his nightgown on summer evenings on the fairy hill beside the manse, in order to get a breath of fresh air before retiring to bed: and one evening in 1692 – 14 May – his body was found lying, apparently dead, on the hill.
Kirk's tomb is located in the Aberfoyle churchyard. His grave was marked by a stone with the inscription, Robertus Kirk, A.M., Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen. Popular legend questions whether his ashes or even his body is buried there. After his death, folktales arose saying that his body had been taken away by fairies to become the "Chaplain to the Fairy Queen". Roderick U. Sayce, then at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, noted the similarity between the legend of Kirk's death and the Germanic legend of Dietrich von Bern, who in one tale was taken away by a dwarf when he died. According to Sayce, both share a theme common to ancestral spirit cults—the departed are taken away to fairyland.
The Secret Commonwealth
According to George MacDonald Ross, professor of philosophy at the University of Leeds, Kirk documented fairy folklore from traditional accounts in the Scottish Highlands to promote Christianity and its biblical account of "non-human spirits". Historian Michael Hunter believed that "Kirk also saw the value of second sight in vindicating the supernatural against 'atheists'". Kirk probably encountered opposition to his supernatural beliefs in the secular and sceptical climate of 17th century coffeehouses in Restoration London, during his visit in 1689.
Kirk collected these stories into a manuscript sometime between 1691–1692, but died before it could be published. More than a century would pass before the book was finally released by Scottish author Walter Scott in 1815 with the title, The Secret Commonwealth or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and for the most part) Invisible People heretofore going under the names of Fauns and Fairies, or the like, among the Low Country Scots as described by those who have second sight, 1691. Folklore scholars consider The Secret Commonwealth one of the most important and authoritative works on fairy folk beliefs. He describes the fairies as follows :
These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People […] are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.. .
Andrew Lang published a second edition of the book in 1893, under the title The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, followed by a 1933 version with an introduction by Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. Stewart Sanderson edited a new edition for the Folklore Society in 1976 followed by a contemporary version published by Robert John Stewart in 1990. Michael Hunter edited a new edition in 2001, and the New York Review Books published a new version in 2006 with an introduction by Marina Warner.
- Sanderson 1964, p. 4.
- Sanderson 1964, p. 1; Warner 2007, p. viii.
- Löffler 2006, p. 207; Goodare 2003, p. 180.
- Henderson & Cowan 2001, p. 172-173: "It was thought unwise to speak of one's knowledge of the fairy folk, for revelation of their secrets would incur their displeasure and subsequent infliction of punishment...it was commonly held that those who had been in some way close to fairies would end up in the fairy realm at the termination of their earthly existence...Rev. William M. Taylor...reported that at the time of Kirk's death people believed that he had been taken by the fairies because he had been prying too deeply into their secrets." See also Cheape 2004, p. 19: "Such was his familiarity with the wee folk, it was said in the district, that he was carried off by them the following year and his headstone stands over an empty tomb."
- Hunter 2001a, p. 48.
- Hunter 2001b, p. 12.
- Or possibly as late as 1669. Narváez 1997, pp. 98–99.
- Smith (1921) gives the date as 1677. Needs verification.
- Smith 1921, p. 240.
- Kirk (1976) p. 6
- Hadden 1892.
- Lang 1893
- Smith 1921, p. 238.
- Henderson & Cowan 2001, pp. 172–175.
- Smith 1921, p. 237.
- Sayce 1934, p. 136.
- Ross 1998
- Hunter 2001a, pp. 48–53.
- Marina Warner in Kirk 2006, p. viii; Henderson 2003, p. 278.
- (Kirk & Lang 2007, p. 39)
- (Mérindol 2009, p. 400)
- Hunter 2001a, p. 41.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Hadden, James Cuthbert (1892). "Kirk, Robert". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 31. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Cheape, Hugh. (2004). Gaelic Genesis. Scottish Book Collector 7: 9, 15–23.
- Goodare, Julian (2003). Albion 35 (1): 180–12.
- Henderson, Lizanne; Edward J. Cowan (2001). Scottish Fairy Belief: A History. Dundurn Press Ltd. ISBN 1-86232-190-6.
- Hadden, J. C. (1892) "Kirk, Robert (1641?–1692), Gaelic scholar," Dictionary of National Biography.
- Henderson, Lizanne. (2003). Untitled. Folklore. 114 (2): 278–279. (subscription required)
- Hunter, Michael (2001a). "The Discovery of Second Sight in Late 17th-Century Scotland". History Today. 51 (6): 48–53. ISSN 0018-2753
- Hunter, Michael (2001b). The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-801-3.
- Kirk, Robert. (1976) The Secret Common-wealth & A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels. Edited by Stewart Sanderson, Mistletoe series. Cambridge, D. S. Brewer for the Folklore Society.
- Lang, Andrew. (1893). The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. London: David Nutt, In the Strand.
- Löffler, Marion (2006). Koch, John T. ed. "Bible". Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-440-7.
- Narváez, Peter (1997). The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-0939-6.
- Ross, George MacDonald. (1998) Occult Tendencies in the Seventeenth Century, published as ‘Okkulte Strömungen im 17. Jahrhundert,’ translated into German by Andreas Beriger, in J.-P. Schobinger (ed.), Friedrich Ueberwegs Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, Reihe 5, 17. Jahrhundert, Band 1, ed. J.-P. Schobinger (Basel: Schwabe), 196–224. ISBN 3-7965-1034-5
- Sanderson, Stewart (1964). "A Prospect of Fairyland". Folklore. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 75 (1): 1–18.(subscription required)
- Sayce, Roderick U. (1934) "The Origins and Development of the Beliefs in Fairies". Folklore. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 45 (2): 99–143.(subscription required)
- Scott, Walter. (1830). Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Murray.
- Smith, David Baird (1921). "Mr. Robert Kirk's Note-Book. The Scottish Historical Review. Edinburgh University Press. 18 (72): 237–248.(subscription required)
- Tanner, Marcus (2006). The Last of the Celts. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-11535-0.
- Rossi, Mario M. (1964). Il Cappellano delle Fate. Naples: Giannini.
- Stewart, R. J. (1990). Robert Kirk: Walker Between Worlds. Shaftesbury: Element Books.
- Stott, Louis. (1998). The Legend of Robert Kirk Reconsidered. Journal of the Forth Naturalist and Historian 21, 89–96. ISSN 0309-7560