Beyond Faery IV- Bogies, boggarts and bugganes

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Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures.  They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott.  The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.

Types of boggle

Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names.  For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound.  This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.

James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:

  • The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
  • The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
  • Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.

Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.

Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world.  On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings.  This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.

Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow.  The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid.  It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.

In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings.  The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm.  It was awful to experience, but harmless.  The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing.  Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.

As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like.  A Welsh example is the bwgan.  The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species.  It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms.  These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwn and a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.

boggart

Boggarts

The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters.  Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form.  “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.” 

Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts.  The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders.  The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet.  A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm.  Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone.  This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced.  However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.

These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them.  Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them.  More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.

I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts.  Here are two more examples.  A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river.  The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs.  This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm.  As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.

Manx Monsters

The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings.  There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:

Bugganes

This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious.   The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs.  He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes.  Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten.  They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures.  The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball.  Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.

The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl.  It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England).  However, this particular spirit had another quality.  If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.

Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.

Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success.  Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat.  The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.

There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly.  They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit.  Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.

Fynoderees

The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream.  He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong  and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.

In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival.  The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him.  As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.

The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees.  He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms.  The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”

Then you must cross yourself three times.  Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.

Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan.  They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.

Glashtins

This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse.  In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisgebut his intentions are not romantic but fatal.  His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.

Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel.  In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood.  He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.

There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee.  They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks.  The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey.  These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.

Further Reading

My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.

Beyond Faery III- Black dogs and other faery animals

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This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.

The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands.  They have been reported since the Middle Ages.  

The black dog phenomenon

These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.

For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common.  Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers.  Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford.  This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.

Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker.  I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.

On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour.  It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind.  These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground.  La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling.  Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.

Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs.  A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55).   A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.

The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound.  The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling.  To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked.  Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals.  As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly.  Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded.  Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home.  Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.

Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs.  However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.

Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds.   The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner.  A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired.  A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby.  As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds.  If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.

Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick.  It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering.  The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit.  The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.

Hell Hounds

The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs.  In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country.  If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries). 

Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots.  Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting.  The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air.  They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.

Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain.  On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night.  Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth.  In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.

Other faery beasts

There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form.  There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro.  It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm.  White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death.  For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows.  He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).

At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along.  At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen.  The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.

In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it.  However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.  

Faery Felines

From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat.  One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside.  He went to shoo it away, but it would not move.  He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky.  Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…

This is by no means an isolated account.  Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647.  She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.”  Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town.  They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.

A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds.  It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard.  They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)

Faery Pets and Livestock

It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting).  These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here.  The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.

I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds.  There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears.  The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two.  This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance.  This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.

In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound.  It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went.  Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks.  In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby.  Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees.  Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.

Conclusions

I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.

Beyond Faery II: Faery water beasts

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This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faeryexamines some of the water beasts of Britain.

There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles.  They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.

Each uisge

These ‘water horses’ live in lakes.  Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses.  Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.

Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane.  It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty.  Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately.  The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course.  Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.

Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one.  The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient.  Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing.  One night he forgot.  The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch.  All that was ever recovered was his liver.  The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).

There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse.  A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’

Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr.  Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them.  From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge.  Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount.  Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.  

Fairy Horses

The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours).  From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world.  A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes.  He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney. 

There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed.  From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond.  Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’  The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting).  These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.

The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.

As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.

Kelpie

Kelpies

Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea.  They are just as unpleasant as the each.  One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.

Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’  Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches.  If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe.  If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river.  If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter.  Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent.  For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:

“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,

O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…” 

So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”

Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces.  The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like.  It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated.  Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.  

Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events.  They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea.  Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people).   At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church.  Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century.  The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.

Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity.  This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature.  In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast.  They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster.  Neither succeeded.

tarbh

Other monsters

In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony.  It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby.  If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame.  Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar.  A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy.  It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.

In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known.  Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles.  Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name.  Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work.  Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition.  They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them:  “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.”  Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.

Water Bulls

As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands.  The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow.  A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her.  The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.  

On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey.  They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears.   They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull.  They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.

In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times.  The result, though, was that blights struck his crops.  A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did.  Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market.  He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal.  Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved.  Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch.  This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river.  He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.

Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers.  Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals.  However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.

If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts.  Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain.  The book is due for release in early November.

Beyond Faery I: Mermaids and Selkies

 

hermann-moest-the-fishermans-dream
Hermann Moest, The Fisherman’s Dream

My next book, Beyond Faerywill be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November.  It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous.  For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed.  This week, we start in the ocean.

Jasmine_Becket_Griffith

A Mermaid by Jasmine Beckett-Griffith (with a nod to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead)

Strange Fish

“Faith, I do grant,

This is the strangest Fish… some

Say ‘tis an o’er-grown Porpoise, others say,

‘Tis the fish caught in Cheshire; one, to whom

The rest agree, said that ‘twas a Mermaid.”

(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)

The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind.   They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.

There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas.  We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:

  • Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves.  She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
  • Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.

“Yee mermaids faire,

That on the shores do plaine,

Your sea-greene haire

As yee in trammels knit your locks

Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks

In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”

(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)

bowerley merboy

Mermaid beauty

The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability.  In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings.  One story from Shetland typifies the standard views.  Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach.  He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair.  He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea). 

Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity.  She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes.  Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.  

A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:

  • Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours.  She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide.  The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin.  The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
  • Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks.  She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child.  Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
  • Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range.  She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
  • Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months.  She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body.  She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
  • lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair.  The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.

The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”

All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks.  They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone).  They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.

The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses.  As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men.  However, the traffic is not all one way.  Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch.  Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands.  This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore.  It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her.  The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.

The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions.  To do this he needed help- and the right preparations.  Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder.  The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood.  As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:

“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,

  Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,

Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,

In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”

As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.

bowerley merkids

Merfolk habits

The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans.  They have an independent and separate life.  They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.” 

The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall.  A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal.  Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her.  She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her.  She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour.  Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea.   It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.

Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them.  In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks.  So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”

The merfolk can foresee bad weather.  At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching.  On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop.  It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather.  Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks.  This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.

It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect.  Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.

bowerley mermum and babe

Mermaid gifts

Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers.  As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.

Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans.  The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this.  In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide.  He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him.  Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth.  The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.

As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us.  The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water.  Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.

eichler see-rosen

Freshwater folk

As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater.  I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature.  For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain.  She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.

Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire.  Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:

“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”

Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins.  A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon.  Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so.  Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman.  He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first.  She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”).  She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option.  He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood.  This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.

I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery. 

Jasmine Beckett-Griffith, Mermaid with Roses