Since Harry Potter introduced us to the sorting hat, we’ve been quite familiar with the idea of hats with magic powers, but the idea goes back much further than J K Rowling’s stories- as far, I’d suggest as Perseus, who wore Hermes’ helmet of invisibility so that he could kill Medusa the Gorgon. In Britain, the history of magic headwear involves both faeries and mermaids.
I’ll start with the mermaid cases, which, in a way, are the most surprising. A folk tale from Sutherlandshire, recorded in Folk Lore Journal in 1888, tells how a man caught a mermaid at Lochinver by taking her pouch and belt, in which she kept her glass, comb and “some sort of life preserver that helps her swim.” It may be surprising enough to hear that mermaids have any clothes or accessories at all- our general conception is that they’re entirely naked- but, at the same time, we’re familiar with the idea that they are vain creatures who admire themselves in mirrors and comb their long (green or blue) hair. That the mermaid might need help to swim seems even more remarkable. However, it’s not an isolated report. The Sutherland case seems a bit uncertain about what the item actually was; another from Cape Wrath tells us much more clearly. In an interview recorded in July 1960 a witness recalled the story of a local man who captured a mermaid for a wife- by taking “her red cap, without which she could not go under the waves” (see the tobar an duilcheas website).
Caps with magical properties are- in fact- rather common in Faery. As a small initial example, Henry Irwin Jenkinson reported from the Isle of Man in 1874 that a man had seen some faery dogs at East Baldwin; they were running about in a gill there, wearing red caps.
The faeries themselves wear headgear, which bestow glamour upon them. This idea goes back a very long way. It’s mentioned in one of the oldest English faery accounts, that of the spirit called Malekin who haunted the manor of Dagworth in Suffolk some time during the 1190s. Malekin seems to have been a human child who was kidnapped by the faeries from her mother when they were out in the fields one day. At the time of her apperance, she had already spent seven years in Faery and expected to spend another seven there before she could return to the human world. She was given food by the household and regularly spoke with them. One thing she told the family was that “she and others made use of a certain hat, because it restored them to invisibility.” As we shall see, this function echoed down the ages.
In the north of Yorkshire, it’s said that faeries can’t be seen dancing in rings, unless they take their caps off. As is so often the case with faery glamour, this magic rubs off. A man in Annandale invited to a faery wedding was given a cap to wear during the celebrations. At some point he made the mistake of taking it off- and immediately found himself back in his own barn on his farm. Folklorist Ella Leather recounted the Herefordshire folk story of a boy who got lost in woods and was taken in at night by two old women. They woke at midnight, put on two caps and said “here’s off,” which took them to a faery ring. The boy copied what they did and joined them in the dance and then flew with them to a lord’s cellar where he drank too much wine. Facing execution for this theft, he is saved by a woman appearing on the scaffold with another magic cap.
Lastly, there is the story of a woman from Arisaig, near Lochaber in Inverness-shire, who was given a cap by the local faery folk. It had the power to cure the illness of any who wore it. Evidently (as I’ve said before) faery magic is not innate. It can be bestowed by anointing with the special green faery salve, it may come from books of spells and special spoken charms- and it might come from items of clothing.