Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore. In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham. He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published. After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’
Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material. One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits. He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.
“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”
This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar. It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.
Names We Know
In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list. It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom. I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney. All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.
Words I’ll Ignore
I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns. There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches. Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).
There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins. These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers. Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries. Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too. The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582. Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.
Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches. With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle. The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.
Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies. There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes. Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.
A few final odds and ends remain. Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin. ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps. A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included. A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite. From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.
This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains. Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides. In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.
Boggarts and Bogles
There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations. Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.” They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs. One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well. What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain. Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.
Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise. For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin. They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours. Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.
Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches. Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.
The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.
Wills of the Wisp
The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names. Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.
Nursery and Cautionary Sprites
As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks. They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries. Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.
Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools. These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks. In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:
“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy waters.”
The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.
There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin. Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers). This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.
There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:
- Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
- Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear. The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
- Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
- Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature. See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
- Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
- Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.
Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits. Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is. One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.” Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.
I explore all of these further in my books Faery and (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags. I have also returned to these issues in an amended and expanded version of this post which now forms a chapter in my Faery Mysteries (Green Magic Publishing, 2022).