37. Happy Halloween! The Tale of the McQueen Candles

Readers of this blog know that my ancestral McQueens, of Pollochaig, co. Inverness, Scotland, had a reputation of the supernatural. Two Halloweens ago I related the story of the McQueen witch (“18. Witches, Wizards, Ghosts, and Things That Go Bump in the Night”). This year I’d like to relay the tale of the McQueen candles, complete with an abducted wife, fairy enchantments, and otherworldly revenge — and for my ancestors, the loss of their magical candles.

The story was recorded in 1835. I know it from its reproduction 60 years later. I have only lightly edited that telling, deleting a few words and splitting long paragraphs into shorter ones for ease of reading. Enjoy!

Reproduced nearly verbatim from Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. 20, pp. 35-7, 1894-6.

About the beginning of the 18th century the wife of one of the tenants in Druim-a-ghadha, upon the estate of Dunmaglass, had been carried away by the fairies, and was said to have been taken by them into a small hillock in that neighbourhood called ‘Tomnashangan,’ or the Ants Hill, and had been absent from her family for nearly a year.

No person, however, could tell exactly where she was, although their suspicion fell upon the fairies, and that she must be with them in the hill now mentioned. Several attempts were made to discover her, and none were bold enough to encounter the residence of the fairies.

At last Captain William Macgillivray, alias the Captain Baan, i.e, ‘White,’ son of Farquhar Macgillivray of Dunmaglass, who was resident at the spot, volunteered his services to endeavour to get the woman released from her long captivity in the ‘Fairy Hill’ if it was possible that she could be there.

The Captain being informed that John Dhu (M’Chuile) Macqueen of Pollachaik was familiar and on good terms with the fairies, and that he had wax candles in which there was a particular virtue, he despatched a messenger to the far-famed Pollachaik for one of his candles in order to assist him in discovering the lost female.


The candle was given by Pollachaik to the messenger, who got particular instructions never to look behind him until he reached home, otherwise something might happen to him, and he would lose the candle. This person heard so much noise like that of horses and carriages, accompanied with music and loud cries of ‘Catch him, catch him’ at Craiganuan, near Moyhall, that he was so frightened that he could not help looking behind him, and although he saw nothing, he lost the candle, then he made the best of his way home.

A second courier was despatched, who received another candle, and the same injunctions. In coming through the same place as the former, he withstood all the noise he heard there, but at a place near Farr it was ten times worse, and, not being able to withstand taking a peep over his shoulder, he lost the object of his message.

In this predicament it became necessary to send a third bearer to Pollachaik for another candle, which he also got, but on coming to the River Findhorn, it was so large that he could not cross, so that he was obliged to go back to the Laird [John Macqueen] for his advice, who, upon coming down to the bank of the river, desired the man to throw a stone upon the opposite side of the river, and no sooner was this done than much to his astonishment he found himself also there.

The River Findhorn at Pollochaig

He then proceeded upon his journey, and having taken a different route across the hills, even here he occasionally heard considerable noise, but he had the courage never to look behind him, and accordingly he put the virtued candle into the hands of the Captain Baan.

The Captain being now possessed of Pollochaik’s wax candle, he one evening approached the hillock, and having discovered where the entry was, he entered the passage to the fairy habitation, and passing a press [tight place] in the entrance, it is said that the candle immediately lighted of its own accord, and he discovered that the good lady, the object of his mission, was busily engaged in a reel, and the whole party singing and dancing, and dressed in neat green jackets, bedgowns, &c.

The Fairy Dance.cropped
The Fairy Dance, by Robert Alexander Hillingford

The Captain took her out of one of the reels, and upon obtaining the open air, he told her how very unhappy her husband and friends were at the length of time she had been absent from them, but the woman had been so enchanted and enraptured with the society she had been in, that she seemed to think she had been only absent one night, instead of a year, from her own house.

When the Captain brought her off with him, the fairies were so enraged that they said ‘they would keep him in view.’ The woman was brought to her disconsolate husband, and the candle was faithfully preserved in the family for successive generations in order to keep off all fairies, witches, brownies and water kelpies in all time to come.

Some time afterwards, as the Captain was riding home at night by the west end of Lochduntelchaig, he was attacked and severely beaten by some people he could not recognise. He got home to his own house, but never recovered, and it is said that the mare he rode was worse to him than even those that attacked him; so he ordered her to be shot the following day…

The third and successful bearer of the candle was Archibald Macgillivray alias ‘Gillespie Luath,’ i.e., Swift or fast Archibald…. Pollochaik said to him that he would have preferred the Captain to have sent for his fold of cattle than for the candle.

The ancestry of John McQueen, of Pollochaig, and of his wife Anne and son Dugal, is extensively traced and referenced in The Omnibus Ancestry (available for download at Lulu).

Picture credits:

Candles — Public domain.

The River Findhorn — Personal photo.

The Fairy Dance — Public domain.



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