Laying boggarts

There is a procedure for ‘laying’ (or exorcising) fairies, just like ghosts.  This seems to apply particularly to the boggarts of North West England and, it has to be said, the difference between boggarts and ghosts is not always clear-cut in the stories that are told.  I’ve discussed before the uncertain relationship between fairies and the dead.

hothersall

Laying the Lancashire boggarts

There are still quite a few spots identified where boggarts have been laid- for instance under a laurel tree at Hothersall Hall near Ribchester.  Milk is poured on the tree roots, both for the benefit of the tree and to prolong the spell that imprisons the spirit.  A stone head excavated locally now sits in a fork of the laurel’s trunk and is widely regarded as being ‘the boggart.’

At Towneley, Lancs, a deal was done with the boggart to banish him.  He haunted a bridge over a small stream and demanded gifts from terrified travellers.  In return for a promise that he would stay away as long as the trees were green, he was given the soul of the next living being to cross the bridge.  The bargain was sealed by the locals by sending an old hen across the bridge; true to his word the boggart vanished and (of course) evergreen shrubs were quickly planted in the vicinity.  There are two other locations in the same county where the terms of banishment were the same: the boggart agreed to stay away so long as certain evergreen plants might be found in leaf (holly and ivy).  This doesn’t, perhaps, say much for the wits of the average boggart but it’s of a piece with the story of the farmer who agreed with a boggart who claimed rights over his field that they would take the above and below ground crops from the disputed land in alternate years.  The farmer promptly planted potatoes followed by wheat- and the boggart received wheat roots and potato tops for his pains.

boggart bridge

Boggart Bridge in Towneley Park

In Written Stone Lane, Dilworth, Lancashire, lies a slab of stone measuring nine by two by one feet, upon which is inscribed ‘Rauffe Radcliffe laid this stone to lye for ever, AD 1633.’  It’s believed that this was done to lay a boggart who had haunted the lane and scared travellers.  A local farmer later decided to ignore Radcliffe’s wishes (and warning) and took the slab to use as a counter in his buttery.  It took six horses several laborious hours to drag the rock to his farm and, after the stone was installed, nothing but misfortune followed.  No pan or pot would ever stay upright upon it, eventually persuading the avaricious man to return the slab whence it came.  It took only one horse a short while to pull the rock back and once it was restored the disturbances promptly ceased.  In County Durham there’s another stone under which a boggart is said to be laid- and on which no weary traveller can ever sit and rest easily.

written stone

Sometimes prayers are used, underlining the uncertain position of boggarts and faeries in our theology.  Are they some sort of evil spirit or simply antithetical to the Christian faith?  Whatever the answer, some boggarts were harder to banish than others.  Some might disappear through the ministrations of just one priest; others might need several praying as a team and, in a couple of instances, the fervent supplications of an entire village were needed to lay the sprite.

At Grislehurst in the same county of Lancashire a boggart was laid in spectacular manner, in a grave under an ash and a rowan tree and along with a staked cockerel.  Despite the presence of the two fairy trees and the use of the stake, which we all know from vampire hunting, the method didn’t work, though, as in 1857 the creature was still reported to be terrifying locals at night.

We have no information as to how you trap your boggart in the first place.  It’s been quite widely reported that in the town records for Yeadon, West Yorkshire, payments are shown being made to boggart catchers.  The report of this is late Victorian but I’m not clear if the records themselves come from earlier in the nineteenth century or refer to an even earlier period.  Either way, it seems that this expertise has now been lost, which is regrettable, given the fact that most fairy captures are entirely accidental.

The Cauld Lad

The layings described so far were ways of getting rid of nuisance boggarts and were brought about by humans.  We should recall, however, the mournful song of the brownie called the ‘Cauld lad of Hilton.’  He wandered the Northumbrian hall crying:

Wae’s me, wae’s me/ The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree/ That’s to grow the wood/ That’s to make the cradle/ That’s to rock the bairnThat’s to grow to the man/ That’s to lay me!”

For the Cauld Lad, evidently, laying was a condition to be desired, to release him from his earthly bondage, and it was eventually achieved by that classic means of the gift of clothes.

It seems then that spirits might be laid to rest consensually and without violence.  On this point I recommend the story Hobberdy Dick by pre-eminent fairy lore expert Katherine Briggs.  This is an intelligent and well written fairy story- as much for adults as children- which makes good use of Brigg’s vast folklore knowledge and which concludes with an interesting speculation that laying with the gift of clothes was a form of salvation and redemption for the domestic spirit.

 

“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

ar-rowan

In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

Protecting against fairies

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of EnglandRobert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall 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 form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in my earlier post on offerings to fairies, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that 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 (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic folklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent (although the evidence on the actual nature of fairy religion is unclear).  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).