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David MacRitchie

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David MacRitchie

David MacRitchie (16 April 1851 – 14 January 1925) was a Scottish folklorist and antiquarian.


  • Background 1
    • Career as folklorist 1.1
  • MacRitchie's Theories 2
    • Fairies as Picts 2.1
      • Reception 2.1.1
  • British origin of Gypsies 3
  • References 4
  • Works 5
  • Sources 6
  • External links 7


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.[1][2]

Career as folklorist

In 1888 MacRitchie founded the Gypsy Lore Society to study the history and lore of Gypsies.[3] 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.[4]

MacRitchie's Theories

Fairies as Picts

David MacRitchie was an outspoken proponent of the euhemeristic origin of fairies, goblins, brownies and other beings and creatures of British folklore.[5][6] He argued they were rooted in a real diminutive or pygmy-statured indigenous population that lived during the late Stone Age across the British Isles, especially Scotland:

"Postulations based on the premise that fairies constitute a folk memory of former races, conquered peoples who were pushed out beyond the periphery of settled areas, have fuelled the imagination of many scholars on this subject. Of particular significance was a theory advanced by David MacRitchie that fairies were an actual race of small or 'little' people, the original Pict[ish] peoples of Scotland."[7]

MacRitchie developed what became known as the "Pygmy-Pict theory" in his The Testimony of Tradition (1890) and Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) regarding fairies to have been folk memories of the aboriginal Picts who in his view were of very small size, pointing to findings of short doors (3 – 4 ft in height) of chambers, underground dwellings, long barrows, as well as quoting old literature such as Adam of Bremen's Historia Norwegiæ which describe the Picts of Orkney as "only a little exceeding pygmies in stature". The folklorist John Francis Campbell, who MacRitchie cited, had also written in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860–62):

"I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies [...] the fairy was probably a Pict."[8]
Illustration of a short-statured Ainu from David MacRitchie's The Testimony of Tradition (1890). MacRitchie believed the native inhabitants of Britain looked similar.

Different ideas in the late 19th century surfaced concerning the racial origin of the dwarf-sized Pict aborigines of Britain and these theories ranged from proposing that they were real African Pygmies, or Lapps. MacRitchie argued in his Testimony of Tradition, under a chapter subheading entitled "A Hairy Race" that they were somewhat Lappish, but were distinctive, 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" . Turning to Norse mythology Walter Scott had earlier 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".[9] Sven Nilsson's The primitive inhabitants of Scandinavia (1868) also identified the dwarves of Norse and Germanic myths with Lapps. In The Northern Trolls (1898) and The Aborigines of Shetland and Orkney (1924) MacRitchie further attempted to rationalize the finfolk, selkies and mermaids of Orkney, Faroese and Scottish folklore:

"Macritchie agreed that the idea of fairy brides originated in folk memories of actual and forceful women. He was most interested in the seal maidens or selkies of Scotland and the Shetland Islands. MacRitchie argued that these figures were probably Finnish or Lappish females, who because of their sealskin clothing and kayaks, had been misidentified as selkies or as mermaids. Captured by Shetlanders and coastal Scots and intermarried with them, making excellent housekeeper and mothers, these women had given rise to numerous regional tales of fairy brides."[10]


Fairy euhemerism once appealed to many folklorists who used it to justify colonialism and a racial hierarchy of "lower" and "higher" races:

"That fairies and their lore resulted from the clash of cultures or races - had been earlier and more explicitly stated by others, including John Stuart Stuart-Glennie. It became a particularly useful concept in an era of imperial expansion [...] The racial composition of the fairies, their inferior or superior status, and their place in British history became major issues, especially to those who took the historical-realist or euhemerist position. The euhemerists believed that fairies were derived from an early group of invaders of the British Isles or from the British aborigines themselves".[11]

MacRitchie's "Pygmy-Pict theory" was notably criticized by T. Rice Holmes who wrote: "The fact remains that no evidence has been produced tat a race of pre-Neolithic or even prehistoric pygmies existed in this country." Skeptical folklorists such as Wentz also noted that the various beings MacRitchie considered to be diminutive, are sometimes described as giants. MacRitchie acknowledged this criticism, but provided a solution:

Ancient authors such as Macrobius shared MacRitchie's beliefs that the "giants" of mythology were not always giants in size, but huge in impiety (or their primitiveness).[13]

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.


  1. ^ Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 1925, p. 49.
  2. ^ "Review of Scottish culture", Issue 10, National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, 1997, p. 131.
  3. ^ "The English Gypsy Lore Society", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 34, No. 134, Oct. – Dec. 1921, p. 399.
  4. ^ Records of The Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society
  5. ^ Macculloch, 1932: "The origin of fairies in a small race of men [though it should be remembered that all fairies are not small] was strongly advocated in more recent times by Mr. David MacRitchie."
  6. ^ Silver, 1986; 1998: 47-48.
  7. ^ Henderson & Cowan, 2001: 20f.
  8. ^ Henderson & Cowan, 2001: 21.
  9. ^ Silver, 1998: 47; the quote originally appeared in Scott's Letters on demonology and witchcraft.
  10. ^ Silver, 1998: 97.
  11. ^ Silver, 1998: 45-46; 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."
  12. ^ Fians, Fairies and Picts
  13. ^ 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.


Accounts of the Gypsies of India (1886)

Books 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


  • A New Solution of the Fairy Problem. (1909). The Celtic Review. 6(22): 160-176.
  • "The House of the Dwarfs". (1913). The Celtic Review. 8(32): 289-295.


  • Allen, Grant. (1881). "Who Were the Fairies". Cornhill Magazine. 43: 335-348.
  • Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1911). The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. "Anthropological Examination of the Evidence" [Chapter]. H. Frowde.
  • Macculloch, C. J. A. (1932). "Were Fairies an Earlier Race of Men?". Folklore. 43(4): 362-375.
  • Silver, C. (1986). "On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romantics, and Folk Belief". Browning Institute Studies. 14: 141-156.
  • Silver, C. (1987). "East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Victorians and Fairy Brides". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. 6(2): 283-298.
  • Silver, C. (1998). Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford University Press.
  • Hendersen, L., Cowan, E. J. (2001). Scottish Fairy Belief: A History. Tuckwell Press.
  • Grydehøj, A. (2013). "Ethnicity and the origins of local identity in Shetland, UK-Part I: Picts, Vikings, Fairies, Finns, and Aryans". J. Mar. Is. Cult. 2(1): 39-48.
  • Grydehøj, A. (2013). "Ethnicity and the origins of local identity in Shetland, UK-Part II: Picts, Vikings, Fairies, Finns, and Aryans". J. Mar. Is. Cult. 2(2), 107-114.

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