Robert Kirk (folklorist)

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Robert Kirk
Born(1644-12-09)9 December 1644[1]
Died14 May 1692(1692-05-14) (aged 47)
Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland
Other names"The Fairy Minister"
Alma materUniversity of St Andrews (1664)
University of Edinburgh (1661)
Occupation(s)Minister, scholar, folklorist
Known forThe 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
ParentJames Kirk

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 called Kirk's collection of supernatural tales one of the most important and significant works on the subject of fairies and second sight.[2] Christian philosopher and religious studies scholar David Bentley Hart has praised Kirk for writing The Secret Commonwealth to defend "harmless Scottish country folk who innocently dabbled in the lore of their culture" and "found themselves arraigned by Presbyterian courts for practicing the black arts."[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

Scottish author Walter Scott first published Kirk's work on fairies more than a century later in 1815.[6] 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.[7] Kirk became minister of Balquhidder in 1664,[8] and later of Aberfoyle, from 1685 until his death.[7] In 1670,[9] 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,[10] Kirk cut out an epitaph for her by himself. His second wife, Margaret,[11] the daughter of Campbell of Fordy, bore him a second son, Robert, who became a minister at Dornoch, Sutherlandshire.[12][13]

Kirk was minister at Balquhidder until 1685.

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.).[14] 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.[12]

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.[15]

The Secret Commonwealth[edit]

The Secret Commonwealth is a collection of folklore collected between 1691-1692 and published in 1815. Folklorist Stewart Sanderson and mythologist Marina Warner called Kirk's collection of supernatural tales one of the most important and significant works on the subject of fairies and second sight.[2]

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".[16] 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.[17]

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 under 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. The autograph copy is currently unaccounted for, and published editions rely on one or more of 4 known manuscript copies. Walter Scott's 1815 edition was based on one of these 4 known manuscripts, which he borrowed from the Advocates Library to copy, and which has been missing ever since.

The book also contains Kirk's transcript of a letter from George Mackenzie, Viscount of Tarbat to Robert Boyle.

Folklore scholars consider The Secret Commonwealth one of the most important and authoritative works on fairy folk beliefs.[18] 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.[19][20]

Image of hand-written manuscript page
Secret Commonwealth Manuscript Title Page

Andrew Lang published a second edition of the book in 1893, under the title The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies,[21] followed by a 1933 version with an introduction by Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. Both of these editions were copies of Scott's 1815 edition. Multiple editions of The Secret Commonwealth have since been published, with notable scholarly analysis by Sanderson, Mario M. Rossi, and Michael Hunter. Stewart Sanderson edited a new edition for the Folklore Society in 1976 followed by a contemporary version published by Robert John Stewart in 1990, with an extensive commentary exploring many of the esoteric themes contained in the text. 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.

Manuscript La.III.551 at the University of Edinburgh was written in 1692 by Robert Campbell, and is the oldest of the known and accounted for manuscript versions. It is presumably a copy of Kirk's original, and Hunter and Sanderson both relied primarily on it for their scholarly editions of The Secret Commonwealth.[22] There are also two 18th century manuscript copies of unknown origin, MS. 5022 at the National Library of Scotland, and MS Gen 308D at the University of Edinburgh.


Robert Kirk's Grave stone in Aberfoyle, Scotland

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.[5] Scottish studies and folklore scholar Stewart Sanderson (1924–2016) reported 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.[1]

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.[13] After his death, folktales arose saying that his body had been taken away by fairies to become the "Chaplain to the Fairy Queen".[23] 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.[24]


  1. ^ a b Sanderson 1964, p. 4.
  2. ^ a b Sanderson 1964, p. 1; Warner 2007, p. viii.
  3. ^ "The Secret Commonwealth". First Things. 20 October 2009. Retrieved 10 January 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ Löffler 2006, p. 207; Goodare 2003, p. 180.
  5. ^ a b 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 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."
  6. ^ Hunter 2001a, p. 48.
  7. ^ a b Hunter 2001b, p. 12.
  8. ^ Or possibly as late as 1669. Narváez 1997, pp. 98–99.
  9. ^ Smith (1921) gives the date as 1677. Needs verification.
  10. ^ Smith 1921, p. 240.
  11. ^ Kirk (1976) p. 6
  12. ^ a b Hadden 1892.
  13. ^ a b Lang 1893
  14. ^ Smith 1921, p. 238.
  15. ^ Henderson & Cowan 2001, pp. 172–175.
  16. ^ Ross 1998
  17. ^ Hunter 2001a, pp. 48–53.
  18. ^ Marina Warner in Kirk 2006, p. viii; Henderson 2003, p. 278.
  19. ^ Kirk & Lang 2007, p. 39
  20. ^ Mérindol 2009, p. 400
  21. ^ Hunter 2001a, p. 41.
  22. ^ "Secret Commonwealth, 1692 | University of Edinburgh Archive and Manuscript Collections". Retrieved 5 November 2022.
  23. ^ Smith 1921, p. 237.
  24. ^ Sayce 1934, p. 136.

Attribution  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHadden, James Cuthbert (1892). "Kirk, Robert". In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 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.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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

External links[edit]