A Pardon for the Witches

The Guardian newspaper for December 20th 2021 carried a report to the effect that it was likely that the 3837 people tried (and often executed) for witchcraft in Scotland between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were likely to be pardoned.

This is the result of a two year campaign by the Witches of Scotland group, which has led to a bill being introduced in the Scottish Parliament. The relevant Scottish statute, under which the individuals were charged, tortured and (in two thirds of cases) executed- usually by strangling and burning- was repealed in 1736. The victims of the Witchcraft Act 1563 nevertheless have remained classed as convicted criminals. Hopefully, this is soon set to change- some twenty years after a similar pardon was granted by Massachusetts to the victims of Salem.

Our interest in witches is, of course, that the accused, in England as well as in Scotland, often disclosed links with faeries. It appears that this was often confessed as there was an outdated and mistaken belief on the part of many that faeries were not to be equated with demons and that, as a result, confessing to contacts was not so bad. This was wrong: 89% of those who mentioned faery aid were executed according to research. The fundamental problem was that, under the Catholic church, although faeries were hardly ‘approved’ of, they were not explicitly evil or demoniacal. However, when Protestantism prevailed across most of Britain, it brought with it a far more literal approach to the Bible and its applications. Faeries are not mentioned in the Bible; demons are; therefore, faeries have to be demons if they’re anything. The Catholic church had tolerated a notion that the faes might be fallen angels, but there was no textual sanction for this and so the view prevailed that contact with faeries could only be regarded as liaison with the devil.

Scottish faery expert Lizanne Henderson has suggested that the language barrier between Lowland Scots speakers and Highland Gaelic speakers may have meant that many of the latter (who were often also still Catholic) may have failed to realise the sea-change that took place in the law and social attitudes during the sixteenth century. This may very well be true, but it was coupled with a belief on the part of many witch suspects that there was no contradiction between Christianity and faeries. Their cures might be applied, for example, whilst invoking the holy trinity. For most ordinary people, the faeries did not stand outside the created world and the Christian universe. They were part of it and subject to the same divine powers.

As I have often described on this blog and in my various books, what the accused ‘witches’ disclosed was seldom negative or destructive behaviour. The faeries provided them with cures for human and animal diseases; they helped find lost items; they sometimes provided glimpses of the future and- as I have frequently described- they entered into sexual and emotional relationships with individual humans and raised families with them.

The confessions extorted from victims such as Bessie Dunlop, Alison Pearson, Andro Man and Stein Maltman give us a fascinating glimpse of how ordinary people understood and interacted with Faery five hundred years ago. Their testimonies are very valuable and I have very frequently quoted from the records of their interrogations and trials. These texts can seem like mines of precious faerylore, but we should never forget their origin. Harmless people who provided valuable services to their communities (healing and comfort especially) were subjected to physical and mental torture in prison- having weights piled on their legs, for example- in order to make them confess to what their accusers wanted to hear. They were then publicly killed in a cruel and gruesome manner. Families and friends lost loved ones and communities lost helpful members. A pardon is long overdue, but we can also honour their memories by acknowledging the insights they bequeathed to us- however unwillingly.

Don’t Go Near the Water! Some Scots Faery Ballads

Herbert James Draper, A Water Nixie

The Maid and the Fairy

“O, open the door, my honey, my heart,

O, open the door my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, gi’e me my ca’stick [cabbage stalk], my dow, my dow, [dove]

O, gi’e me my castick, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae weary?

O, gi’e me my brose [oatmeal broth], my dow, my dow,

O gi’e me my brose, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae weary?

O, gi’e me my kail, my dow, my dow,

O, gi’e me my kail, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, lay me down, my dow, my dow,

O, lay me down, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, woe to you now, my dow, my dow,

O woe to you now, my wile fause [wicked false] dearie;

And Oh! for the time I had you again,

Plunging the dubs at the well sae wearie!”

This song is sung my some form of water sprite, probably imagined to be male, although this is rare for this kind of fresh water being, as creatures such as Jenny Greenteeth and Nelly Longarms testify. The spirit may have seduced the girl, but certainly now has followed her home and intends to pursue the connection- an encounter which is very likely to be fatal, or at least very perilous, for the mortal. Wearie’s Well is a spot known from another Scots ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elfin Knight (also called ‘As the gowans grow gay‘) in which the faery Knight tries to drown the lady in it.  In this ballad it seems that a young woman previously met with a fairy man when doing her washing at the well.  Now he pleads to be allowed into the house, first for food, then to lie on the bed beside her.  When she refuses to open the door, he warns her to watch out the next time she’s washing her clothes.  This brief and menacing verse reminds us that fairies could be dangerous sexual predators, quite at odds with many modern conceptions of their character and conduct.

Isobel Gloag, The Kiss of the Enchantress

The Mermaid

“To yon fause stream that near the sea

Hides mony a shelve and plum, [deep pool]

And rives wi’ fearful din the stanes,

A witless knicht did come.

The day shines clear- far in he’s gane

Whar shells are silver bright.

Fishes war loupin’ a’ around

And sparklin’ to the light:

Whan as he laved [bathed], sounds cam sae sweet

Frae ilka rock an’ tree,

The brief [word] was out, ’twas him it doomed

The Mermaid’s face to see.

Frae ‘neath a rock, sune, sune she rose,

And stately on she swam,

Stopped in the midst an’ becked [beckoned] and sang

To him to stretch his han’.

Gowden glist the yellow links [her golden hair shone],

That round her neck she’d twine,

Her een war o’ the skyie blue,

Her lips did mock the wine;

The smile upon her bonnie cheek

Was sweeter than the bee;

Her voice excelled the birdies sang

Upon the birchen tree.

Sae couthie, couthie [kindly] did she look,

And meikle had she fleeched [flattered];

Out shot his hand, alas, alas!

Fast in the swirl she screeched.

The Mermaid leuch [laughed], her brief was gane,

And Kelpie’s blast was blawin’,

Fu’ low she duked, ne’er raise again,

For deep, deep was she fawin’ [sinking into].

Aboon the stream his wraith was seen.

Warlocks tirled lang at gloamin’;

That e’en was coarse [rough], the blast blew hoarse.

Ere lang the waves war foamin’.”

This song was collected in Ayrshire and is a splendid account of the deadly freshwater beast called the kelpie.  They are to be found lurking at fords and in deep pools and their mission is to drag down the unwary.  Often, they appear as stray horses which the incautious may mount; sometimes they are met with in female human form, what we might loosely call mermaids. It is in this alluring but deadly form that most artists have chosen to depict them over the last few centuries.

There is a related version of this song in Pinkerton’s Select Scottish Ballads.  It is only a fragment and does not end with the swimmer’s death, although you cannot but suspect that the mermaid’s blandishments are all a stratagem to lure the swimmer to his doom:

“Whar yon clear burn, frae down the loch,

Rins saftlie to the sea,

There latelie bathed, in hete o’ nune,

A squire of valour hie,

He kend nae that the fause Mermaid

There used to beik [bask] and play,

Or he had neir gane to the bathe,

I trow, that dreirie day.

Nae suner had he deft [doffed/ took off] his claiths,

Nae suner ‘gan to swim,

Than up she raised her bonnie face

Aboon the glittering stream.

O comely youth, gin ye will cum

And be my leman deir [loving sweetheart],

Ye sail hae pleasance o’ ilk sort,

Bot any end or feir.

‘I’ll tak’ you to my emrand ha’, [emerald hall]

Wi’ perles lighted round,

Whar ye sail live wi’ luve and me,

And neir by bale be found.’”

The heartless violence of this creature may come as a shock to some readers, but the kelpie’s character is entirely consonant with the overall impression painted by the ballads and by most of our folklore. I have discussed these inland mermaids at length elsewhere, especially in my 2020 book, Beyond Faery.

Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky, Water Nymph

Bogles & Buggaboos

I’ve discussed the list of British faery types compiled by Michael Aislabie Denham in two previous posts. It’s notable how many terms his catalogue contains that denote various sorts of bogles and bogies. Here’s a heavily very edited version of the list:

“the whole earth was [once] so overrun with… boggles, bugbears, barguests, boggy-boes, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, bugs, bull-beggars, flay-boggarts, boguests, gally-beggars, buggaboes, buckies, boggleboes, bogies…and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker.”

What’s clear to us, if we weren’t already vaguely aware of it before, is that there are numerous closely related terms for different sorts of ‘goblins.’  Furthermore, as I’ve described before, bogies and bogles are very broad categories that tend to incorporate a variety of more precisely labelled creatures, such as the shocks, shugs and galley trots. What I want to do in this posting is to try to distinguish the many types- if possible- and to survey the key features of the family as a whole.

Bogey, bogy or bogy-beast– these words can mean both a devil and an evil goblin (something we’ll see several times as we work our way through Denham’s list)).  Elizabeth Wright, recording English ‘rustic speech’ in Edwardian times, recorded the Northern saying to a child that, “If tha doesna leave off skrikin’, I’ll fetch a black bogy to thee.”  Bogies may be solitary or may go about in troops; their mission, whether alone or collectively, is to cause mischief, terror- or even greater harm- to humans.

Bogles, likewise, are predominantly evil goblins, verging into demons, that instil fear in people.  For instance, Hector Boece’s Chronicle of Scotland (1535, III, 134) mentions “ane bogill all of ratland banis [rattling bones].”  Robert Bailie’s Anabaptism of 1646 assures its readers that “Devils are nothing but only boggles in the night to terrifie men” and in 1696 John Aubrey recorded that the second sight was “assigned… to Bugles or Ghosts.” In this case, he may mean the power of prophecy. (Miscellanies 192).

A closely related word is boggle-bo.  It can- again- denote an image (mental or physical) used to scare children or it can refer to an actual, vicious being.  Coles English Dictionary of 1678 defines ‘boggle-bo’ as an “ugly wide-mouthed picture carried about with May games” and Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730 gives the meaning “a bugbear to fright children.”  However, a Berwickshire rhyme recorded in about 1800 mentioned the threat of a real and predatory monster- “The bogle bo’ of Billy Mire/ Wha kills our bairns a’.”

Another version of the same word is ‘bugaboo;’ its meaning will be familiar by now- it’s a kind of nursery spriteThe True Description of the Mint (1710, vi, 18) explains how for debtors pursued by creditors, “As other People terrify their Children with the tremendous Names of Bugaboo, and Raw-Head and Bloody Bones, so they use theirs with the hideous Word Bailiff.”  Long’s History of Jamaica (1774, vol.2, 416) tells us that the “spectres of deceased friends are duppies; others, like our raw-head-and-bloody-bones, are called bugaboos.”  In William Lisle’s 1625 translation of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’ Noe he describes a character who “hath his moods/ And, like a Buggle boo, straies ever through the woods.”

The change of the first vowel in the last few words leads us to another very important term, ‘bug.’ This is a very old word indeed, although today we only apply it (strictly) to a class of beetles.  Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in 1395 describes a bug as “a man of raggis in a place where gourdis wexen”- in other words, a scarecrow (hence the ‘scar-bug’ in Denham’s list).  Thomas More’s Dialoge of Comfort (1535, vol.1, xviii, D, vii) takes us back to familiar ground: “Leste there happe to be such blacke bugges in dede as folke cal devilles,” as does Coverdale’s version of the Bible in the same year: “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (Psalm 91).  Fairly quickly, it seems the supernatural being was demoted from demon to a means of keeping children and livestock in check: see, for example, Jewel’s Defence of the Apolostolic Churche (1567,ii, xvi) “A bugge meete onely to frate Children,” Glanvill’s Blow at Modern Sadducism (1668,149) “Timerous Fools, that are afraid of Buggs,” or dialect terms recorded in Victorian times in the English Midlands- ‘bug’ and ‘boog,’ meaning something that scares a horse.

We might also encounter the compound word ‘bug-boy’ as in Deacon and Walker’s Summarie Answere to Darel (page 222) “They will be deemed no better in effect than Hobgoblings, Bugboies, Night-sprites, or Fairies, to make the yoong children afraid with their supposed shadowes.” More familiar is the word ‘bugbear,’ which is still in occasional use today and which has a very similar meaning: Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penilesse (1592) referred disparagingly to “Meere bugge-beares to scare boyes,” Edward Topsell, in his History of Foure-footed Beastes (1658, 453) described “Certaine Lamiæ which, like Bug-beares, would eat up crying boies,” Hobbes in Leviathan (Book 1, xii, 55) dismissed superstitious belief in “Ghosts of men deceased, and a whole kingdome of Fayries and Bugbears” and, lastly, in 1758, Samuel Johnson noted in the Idler for June 24th how grown-ups “tell children of Bugbears and Goblings.”

In my previous posting on the Denham list, I discussed yet another ‘nursery sprite’ from Somerset called Tankerabogus; it seems highly probable that the final element of this name is derived from ‘bug.’

A bugaboo by JenL on DeviantArt

Bull-beggars are variants upon bugbears.  The name seems to derive from bull-bear or, even bull-boggart.  The being has two forms or aspects.  It can be the typical bogeyman- as may be seen in preacher Arthur Dent’s Plaine Man’s Path-way to Heaven (1601, 123)- “A mother, when her childe is waywarde, scareth it with some pokar, or bull-beggar” (‘Mum poker’ and ‘Tom poker’ are other nursery pristes found in Denham’s list). Secondly, bull-beggars may be a more malign presence.  In Sylvester Judd’s novel Margaret (1851, chapter 5) he described woods as being “The haunt of bul-beggars, witches, spirits, urchins, elves, hags, dwarves, giants, the spoorn, the puckle, the man in the oak, the will of the wisp…”  Readers may recognise many of these terms from Denham.

Bull-beggars seem to have haunted highways in particular, as was the case at Creech Hill, near Bruton in the east of Somerset.  Excavations in 1880 uncovered two burials and- after this- apparitions plagued travellers.  In one reported encounter, a farmer returning home at night saw what seemed to be a body lying in the roadway; approaching it, the shape leapt, swelled to abnormal height- and chased him all the way home. The dividing line between many bogles and ghosts can be uncertain.

Denham’s list also includes ‘buckies,’ a word now unfamiliar to us but which was once found in Devon in a children’s rhyme:

“Bucky, Bucky, biddy Bene,

Is the way now fair and clean?

Is the goose ygone to rest;

And the fox ygone to rest?
Shall I come away?”

This charm was recited before passing through dark places, the ‘biddy Bene’ being a sort of prayer to the bogie.  The shift in sounds in the word suggest that we are not far at all from ‘puck’ or from ‘pixie,’ and that all these supernatural beings are part of a larger family.  In Scotland, a buckie was a naughty boy- a ‘little devil.’

What can we conclude about bugs, bogles and their relatives?  They seem to inhabit a spectrum of entities, running from the reasonably friendly and brownie-like boggarts, who live in close proximity to humans, onwards through a range of increasingly alarming or malign beings, creatures that may haunt humans or may actively hunt them.  Many are only frightening to the young and impressionable; as Katherine Briggs observed, they denote “imaginary fears along the lines of ‘How easy is a bush supposed a bear.’”  However, the bugs shade into a menagerie of faery beasts- black dogs and such like- (as I’ve documented) and they are also synonymous or identical with demons and devils.  Just as their temperaments can vary, so may their appearance, shape and size.  Some of the more terrible shapes- hounds, headless men and suchlike monsters- even seem to be connected to the dead, especially murdered individuals, and so have some link to ghosts.  We’ve already seen the Creech Hill bull-beggar, another example was the Lumb Boggart of Bradwell in Derbyshire, which was associated with a young girl murdered in the vicinity.

Lewis Spence recorded that March 29th used to be known as ‘Bogle Day’ in Scotland.  By 1948, when he noted this in his Minor Traditions of British Mythology, all the details and reasons for this tradition had been forgotten but he suspected that it reflected the need to show bogies proper respect- if not reverence.  In their guise as hobgoblins and brownies, they shared our homes and required propitiation; in their more terrifying forms we needed to appease and defend against them.

Members of ‘the hobgoblin society’
(membership details to follow?)

As Jennifer Westwood commented in The Lore of the Land, “the distinction between bogey beasts and hobgoblins is blurred.”  This uncertainty is made worse by the shape-shifting ability of most bogies, making it hard for us to determine what the ‘natural’ shape of any particular type ought to be.  They can appear as humans, as a range of animals or, in fact, as almost any object they choose (the Glassensikes bogie found near Darlington is a good example of this, being seen as a white rabbit and a black dog and many points in between).  Alternatively, the creature may simply grow in size, as the Frandley Boggart in Cheshire was wont to do, silently swelling from a small man of just four feet in height to a giant.  Another quality the bogles have in common may be the fact that they make noises as part of their strategy to scare us.  An example of this was the boggle of Lowther Castle in Westmorland, which prevented people and beasts sleeping.  One interpretation of the name Tankerabogus/ Tantarabogus is, simply, the ‘noisy bogie.’ What’s more, the boggle of Lowther Castle was never actually seen- perhaps adding to the terror it engendered. 

As a general statement, bogles and their ilk didn’t tend to be very bright, so that they could be tricked and out-witted and- if the worst came to the worst- they might be destroyed by violence or exorcised- as happened with the Lumb Boggart and the Lowther boggle.

As Denham said, almost every ancient building in Britain seemed to have its boggle.  The reason for this appears to be that they had multitudinous forms and habits, meaning that they could be found in almost any location.  However, since these creatures first came to haunt and to terrorise these spots, their reputation has (by and large) tended to decline, so that many are reduced to little more than ‘bogey-men,’ “things that go bump in the night,” and pose no real threat to human safety and sanity.  Not all, though, so beware…

For further reading, follow the links in this article or see my 2020 book, Beyond Faery, published by Llewellyn.

Vision & Visibility in faery lore

Le Lavoir des Dames, Jersey

British faeries have a curious and contradictory relationship to humans’ ability to see them.

On the one hand, the faes are not infrequently associated with springs and wells that have the power of curing defects and diseases in human eyes. La Fontaine des Mittes on Jersey was one such: it cured both dumbness and sore eyes. This fountain is inhabited by two faeries (or nymphs), called Arna and Aiuna, whose presence perhaps is related to its curative properties. Compare, though, another Jersey site, Le Lavoir des Dames (fairies’ bathing place) off Sorrel Point. If you spied on the faes bathing there, they’d blind you. Readers may well be familiar with the fact that blinding (or striking dumb) are common punishments for violating faery privacy or glamour. The commonest victims are midwives who acquire- by accident- the ability to see through faery concealment whilst attending at a confinement. The midwives later see the faery father or some such person at a market- frequently stealing- and they are deprived of their (second) sight more or less violently. This may involve a breath or dust in the eye, a light touch or it may require physically and violently putting the eye out. A Guernsey woman who assisted at a fairy birth at the mound called Le Creux es Faies got baby spit in her eyes; fairy spit also subsequently stopped her seeing les p’tits gens ever again.

The Fairy Well, at Poulton le Fylde, Blackpool

Other faery sites with healing powers include a well at Bugley in Wiltshire which relieved sore eyes, whilst the water of the Faeries’ Well near Blackpool treated weak eyes. Note that a mother who took some of this water to help her daughter’s failing vision tried it first on her own eyes before applying it to her child- for the entirely understandable maternal reason that she didn’t want to harm her child further. This accidentally and unintentionally bestowed the second sight upon her and for this abuse of the waters’ healing properties she was duly blinded by a fairy man at a market. In passing, we may speculate as to whether the daughter too gained the second sight- and why the faes seem not to have been so concerned about that risk. Perhaps where the water is applied as a cure, it has no ‘side-effects,’ perhaps (as is often said) children naturally have the second sight and can see the faeries anyway.

Lastly, elf arrows are said to be a good treatment for sore eyes and for this reason (as well as to protect themselves against elf assaults and to be able to cure their livestock) people would collect them.

In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a poor girl finds employment as servant to a faery woman. One of her chores is fetching water from a well and the fish in that well warn her to neither eat the lady’s food nor to spy upon her. The girl ignores the second injunction and sees the woman dancing with a bogie. She’s found out and is blinded as a punishment, but the fairy well water restores her sight.

On the Isle of Man, a man who accidentally saw the fairies one night in a pea field near Jurby, witnessing a great crowd of little people dancing in red cloaks, was blinded for life by an old fairy woman who spotted him. Another, who spied on them when they were dancing by looking through the keyhole of a deserted cottage, was blinded with a poke from the bow of the fiddle for his impertinence. The Manx Little People will often expand their flocks by stealing sheep from humans.  To do this, they use their glamour to make it impossible for a shepherd to accurately count the sheep he’s tending.  The only remedy is for him to wash his eyes in running water first. 

Scottish witch suspect John Stewart was rendered dumb- and blind in one eye- after the fairy king struck him with a white rod. This seems to have been a preliminary to teaching him some of the faeries’ secrets and magical knowledge. Perhaps we might say that some of his human senses were deliberately restricted before they were expanded by the acquisition of faery powers. Stewart’s sight and speech were restored in due course.

Our Good Neighbours can be highly touchy, though. A Victorian report from Wrexham tells of a fairy that blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. There is no mention of midwifery being involved, which may imply that her mere association with the fairies gave her the second sight.

Les Creux es faies, Guernsey