Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?
We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions. I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household. In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted. The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’
Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans. Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts. These arrangements can take a number of forms.
At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you. On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it. There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.
Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work. On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals. If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty. However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead. (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203). On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too. (Folklore vol.25, 245) On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same. Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco. (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).
Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire. Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.
Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night. The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning. If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out. Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.
None of this was done for him out of kindness, though. When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.” The explanation of this account rests on two points. One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property. Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm. They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this. (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187).
Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.
It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.
An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.
The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.
Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling. In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.
Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.
Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…
An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk. When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.
These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool. Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some. Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn. When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding. Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.
As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.
There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there. Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them. This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year. Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.
Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.
Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.
I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a new book, to be titled Who’s Who In Faeryland. As you’ll see, the inspiration for the idea came from a series of postcards designed for the Salmon Company in the early 1950s by the British artist Lorna R. Steele. This appears to have been a typical six card set, which was possibly retailed together in a special envelope (for collectors) as well as being sold separately at newsagents and such like for people to use for messages and greetings.
As I describe in my Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century, Lorna Steele (1902-90) was born in North London and was encouraged to become an artist by her uncle, Frank Jenners, who was himself an illustrator and author. She attended art school and then set up her own studio. She received early commissions for book illustrations from the University of London Press during the 1940s, providing illustrations for a variety of titles. After the war, she was associated with J. Salmond of Sevenoaks for whom she wrote and illustrated several books and designed a number of series of postcards, such as Peeps at Pixies in 1947.
Steele’s fairies are bright and almost cartoonish and her vision of faery is, perhaps, one of the most prosaic of all the British fairy artists. In humanising the beings, she often stripped them of all their magic and mystery, as might be seen in her postcard images of fairies at school, attending the market or posting their letters. Steele gave emphasis to the interaction between fairies and children, making them safe and approachable.
However, the Famous Fairies series is perhaps one of her most charming. It features several of the Famous Fairies that I have dealt with in my new book. Titania and Oberon are an obvious choice, as are Puck, the Cornish Pixie and (perhaps) the Will of the Wisp.
The borders of the cards are especially attractive, with their mushrooms, horse shoes and Halloween imagery. Steele’s fairies, with their whimsical eared caps, are firmly within the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant.
The final two cards in the series are surprising choices, as they are both figures from classical mythology- who arguably aren’t fairies at all. Admittedly, parallels have often been seen between Pan and Puck, and- in the absence of a clear conception of what Puck/ Robin Goodfellow looked like- Victorian painters especially resorted to the classical iconography of Pan- goat legs and horns (plus, perhaps, some wings)- to represent the most English of all supernatural personalities.
As for Neptune, well- little can be said. There are of course mermen in our folklore records, but very little trace of a king of the merfolk, such as this illustration depicts.
Famous British Fairies
Turning now to my forthcoming book, Who’s Who will bea collection of short ‘biographies’ of the best known individuals in Faery. The text describes the careers and characters of nine of the most famous fairies to arise out of British faery-lore: Titania, Oberon, Ariel, Mab, Puck, King Arthur, Nimue, Tinker Bell and the native British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin. Also included are shorter descriptions of a range of other named faery folk and a discussion of the whole issue of faery names.
The history of each famous fairy is traced back to its origins and then their stories are followed through poetry, plays and paintings from late medieval times up to the present. Their lives and their deeds are examined in detail, with illustrations from literature and art.
The book describes exactly how and why these fairies became famous in the first place- and why they remain well-known and relevant even into the twenty-first century. As an essential guide to the key figures of faeryland, this book will help readers understand just why it is that these names are so familiar- and what it is about these faery personalities that made them renowned- across the world.
This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.
Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’
In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.
The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.
All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.
Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.
Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.
Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.
I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faerywhich they released in April this year.
As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.
The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.
Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.
These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.
I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.
I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!
As I have already described, phantom black dogs are encountered across Britain. However, there seems to be a particular concentration of these faery beasts in Northern England, from Yorkshire and Lancashire up to the border with Scotland.
Being myself from The North, and seeing as there are so many separate (albeit closely related) species or breeds of spectral hound, I thought they deserved a separate examination.
Defining the exact nature of the Black Dogs has challenged folklorists for well over a century. They are variously described as ghosts, boggarts and goblins (although the dividing line between boggart and ghost is very hazy). One writer, describing ‘Dog Fiends’ for the Northern Echo in August 1892, suggested that there were two types of spectre hounds. There are those that are fiends (or demons), that have taken on dog form to harass humans, and there are those that are the spirits of the dead that return to earth as hounds in punishment for their mortal sins. He cited, for example, a Hertfordshire woman who was hung at Tring as a suspected witch in 1751. Thereafter, a black dog haunted the site of the gibbet. Some of these hounds seem to be simply the ghosts of dogs, that come back to haunt their former master.
Whatever their exact nature, spectral hounds are ubiquitous and, almost always, alarming to those who meet them. They share a number of common features, although there are minor differences between the varieties.
The barguest, or bargheist, or bar-hest is one of the commonest types. It has been suggested that the name derives from the dialect word ‘bar,’ meaning a gate or stile, although there is no particular evidence that these hounds only lurk around such spots. In truth, what the Black Dog apparition might be called was dependent as much on location as behaviour and looks. What was classed as a barguest at Tadcaster and east towards York and Selby might be termed a ‘padfoot’ further west, around Wakefield, Brighouse and Halifax and to the south of Leeds.
The barguest is regarded as a sign of imminent death. If it’s heard outside the window of an invalid, there imminent demise is assured. Apparently, death through sickness is not all that the barguest can foretell. At Arncliffe, in Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales, a sighting of the hound predicted the death by suicide of a friend of the witness (he jumped from the bridge into the River Skirfare).
In an extension of this, it was said in the area around Leeds that the barguest would appear after a local dignitary had died. It would then prowl through the vicinity and all the dogs kept there would emerge and follow it, barking and howling. If an unlucky person crossed its path (on these occasions at least) the barguest would lash out with its paw, inflicting a wound that never healed.
The other function of the barguest seems to be to alarm those walking alone late at night. It will follow the victim, often invisibly, although it may be felt brushing past and the sound of its chain may be heard. When seen, the creature has been described as being as big as a sheep, with glowing eyes. Another eye-witness compared it to a wolf or bear. Some are alleged to have tusks as well as fearsome fangs and claws. It appears that, unlike many of the faery kind, the barguest is able to cross running water, making it that much harder to escape.
Oddly, the barguest known to haunt the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne was regarded as friendly and was even described by one reporter as performing “all the offices of a public brownie.” He did servants’ work and would swim the River Tyne to fetch a midwife to a woman in labour. The barguest would then howl depending upon whether or not the new-born child is likely to survive. Perhaps it is this association with childbirth that explains why, in the Craven district of Yorkshire, it’s said that a barguest will never harm a pregnant woman.
The usual form of the barguest is a large hound-like creature with heavy feet and saucer-like burning eyes, but it has also been seen as a white cow, a horse, ass, sheep or swine.
The padfoot is so-called because of the ‘pit-pat’ of his paws on the ground, often the first (and sometimes only) sign that he has joined you. Although regarded as a kind of supernatural dog, the padfoot is said to roar rather than howl.
When he is seen, he looks like a large, smooth haired animal dragging a chain. Anomalously, the padfoot at Horbury is seen as a white dog with blazing eyes. The padfoot at Horbury can range in size from a small dog to something ‘as big as a mule.’ At Upton near Wakefield it was described as being between the size of a bear and a donkey, shaggy and very dark and with very heavy footsteps, ‘clomping’ along as if it wore shoes.
It is impossible to strike the animal- your blows will pass straight through it- and its presence alone can scare a witness to death. The Upton padfoot was reported to be solid and physically violent: it crashed through a gate into a garden and then stampeded about, trying to uproot trees. Comparably, a foolhardy Leeds man once tried to kick a padfoot he met- it seized him in its jaws and dragged him all the way home, through hedges and ditches.
The padfoot can rear up and walk on its two hind legs, or it may be seen apparently running on three. The explanation of this is that its forefeet may be chained together, hence the sound of trailing links frequently described.
Like the barguest, the padfoot will appear before a death. It will prowl up and down outside the house of a mortally ill person, or will waylay those going to visit the invalid. In some places, the beast also seems to have a regular ‘beat’ that it prowls at night. At Rothwell near Leeds there was a flight of steps that had been worn down by its pacing. If you should meet a padfoot, you should always allow it plenty of space to pass you by. A man in Craven who failed to ‘give him the wall’ was mauled by the hound, and died within a few days. Luckily, however, they are said not to be able to cross flowing water.
I was delighted, during my research, to discover that the padfoot was known in my home town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Apparently, it was seen there as being harmless- as long as it wasn’t interfered with. If it felt obstructed or threatened, though, it might savage a man or throw him over a wall. Just as with the Newcastle barguest, the Barnsley padfoot has an association with childbirth. The sight of it predicts a good delivery. Nevertheless, the look and sound of the animal were so alarming that most midwives refused to travel alone to and from a patient’s home, and always insisted upon the husband of the woman fetching and accompanying them.
Lastly, the creature is only encountered at night and, certainly, one late Victorian writer claimed that the introduction of street lighting had unintentionally banished it from many of its former haunts.
The guytrash, the name of the phenomenon west of Leeds, is another omen of death. Its name comes from the sound its feet make splashing through puddles in the road. Unlike the barguest, the guytrash reportedly cannot cross running water. The example at Ilkley has been described as being like a large black dog or ass.
The guytrash, like other hounds, can be seen in particular by those who possess the second sight through being born at midnight or on a Sunday. It is possible for the person with the gift to transmit it to another person by touching them (if they really, truly want to be able to see a giant hound with huge, blazing eyes).
Trash and Skriker
Over the Pennine Hills into Lancashire, the phantom hound is called the ‘trash’ or ‘skriker.’The beast has been seen as a white horse or cow as well as in the form of a huge mastiff with broad feet, drooping ears, shaggy hair and the usual glowing eyes. Besides the sound of its feet splashing through puddles, it’s known for its blood-curdling shrieks (hence ‘skriker’).
Hundreds of these beasts are known around Lancashire, frequently haunting graveyards. As always, they forewarn of a death, either in the family of the witness or one of that person’s friends. The more clearly the skriker is visible, the sooner the death will occur.
Seemingly, too, in some cases the skriker can inflict death. That known at Colne lurked around the churchyard and the old Roman pavement there. In one case it met a man and put its paws up on his shoulders so that it could look him full in the face. The meeting was so shattering for him that he was stupefied and afterwards dwindled away until he died. If you meet a skriker and you’re brave enough to try to follow it, the hound will retreat backwards before you, vanishing the instant your attention is distracted.
Some of the Lancashire hounds were known to be headless- just to add to their terrible aspect. One such was known to haunt the vicinity of the Collegiate Church in Manchester. On one occasion in 1825, it put its paws on a man’s shoulders and then drove him home at a furious speed. This nuisance was laid for 999 years under the bridge over the River Irwell to Salford.
This is a Westmorland hound whose appearances do not presage death- unlike the barguest.
In the extreme east of Yorkshire, near the North Sea coast, the same phantom entity is known as the ‘tatterfoal’ because of its shaggy coat. At Easington, for example, its prowls between the very oldest houses in the district, trying to jump on the backs of people travelling at night so that it can hug them to death.
In Beyond Faery I describe how some faery beasts appear in shapeless or amorphous manifestations. Several of these are barguests.
For example, the generally benign barguest of Newcastle upon Tyne would now and again scare a drunk wandering home late at night by appearing before him like a ball of fire. A woman called Sally Dransfield, who worked as a carrier between Leeds and Swillington in the mid-nineteenth century, often saw a barguest on the highway that rolled along before her like a woolpack, before it vanished suddenly into the hedge. At Appletreewick in the Craven district of North Yorkshire, the guytrash was also seen as a woolpack that rolled and tumbled in front of a witness. This was no insubstantial apparition: in this case it stopped suddenly and he fell over the thing.
This posting complements the chapter on black dogs included in my new book, Beyond Faery. As of November 8th, this is available on all formats through Amazon.com and as a Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk, with the print version being released in the UK on December 1st
The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths. Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain. They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas. For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery. The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.
Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland. He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff. He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller. He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered. This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”
Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812. A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that. This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.
In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost. If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing. In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known. He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses. Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height. It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again. Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed. In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.
The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively. It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well. When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.
A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire. Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high. They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound. The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway. Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition. At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.
Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined. The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches. It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure. This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes.
Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined. The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure. Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins. However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty. In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole. Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred. He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins. This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away. If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.
The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too. Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses. There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could. Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century. Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it. Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.
Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’ This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider. This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.
In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia. The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd. He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended. He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance. Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.
In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice. The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.
The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences. The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.
The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will. Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:
“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour
Like a hell,
Into a still bogmire,
Where in every hollow lurks
A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”
Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”
More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).