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