Some Obscure British Faeries

The Chichevache

About eighteen months ago, I examined the long list of faeries and other sprites that had been assembled during the early nineteenth century in the so-called Denham TractsAs I remarked then, one aspect of this list is that it reminds us how many faery names have become utterly unfamiliar and mysterious to us. 

In this posting, I want to go back to the Denham list to have a look of some of the more obscure and puzzling of these words.

caddies: A term from Yorkshire, the diminutive of the rare cad(d)- a spirit. In John Hutton’s A Tour to the Caves, in the Environs of Ingleborough and Settle (1781), caddy is given as a word for a ghost or bugbear.  It is very clearly a sort of supernatural being, as two examples will show.  “One of these cadds or familiars still knocking over their pillow,” was used by Francis Osborne in his Advice to a Son, (1656) page 36, whilst “Rebellion wants no cad nor elfe/ But is a perfect witchcraft of itself,” appears in ‘Elegies,’ by Henry King, Poems (1657).

calcars: mentioned by both Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Denham, the word appears to derive from the verb calculare.  Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words defines ‘calcar’ as an astrologer, ‘to calke’ being to calculate or to cast a figure or nativity.  In John Bale’s 1538 play Kynge Johan “calking” is mentioned along with conjuring, coining and other frauds (1838 edition, page 71).  Nevertheless, it has also been connected to caucher and related to the French noun ‘cauchemare,’ a nightmare. Overall, though, it seems to be more to do with sorcery and magic than with Faery.

chittifaces:  Skeat’s Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words and Wright’s Dialect Dictionary define this as someone with a thin and pinched face, a freckled visage or a small baby face.  It also is defined as a puellulus improbulus– a bad little girl. It might be used contemptuously: Thomas Otway’s 1683 play, The Souldiers Fortune, includes the line “Now, now, you little Witch, now you Chitsface” (Act 3, scene 1).

Possibly related is Chaucer’s term ‘chichevache’ which is used in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales, line 1188Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” [swallow you in her insides]. John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century poem Bycorne & Chychevache reaffirms that “Chichevache eteþe wymmen goode.”  This a monster that devours obedient wives (and therefore is very hungry, according to Chaucer’s joke).  In Lydgate’s verse, the creature is contrasted satirically with the bicorn, part panther and part cow, which eats devoted husbands and is, apparently, very well fed and plump.  Denham mentions bygorns in his list as well.

We might also note that in French chevaucher means simply ‘to ride a horse,’ so that a connotation of nightmare may have been incorporated into this name as well.

clabbernappers:  Some topographical and historical research reveals that in Southfleet parish in Kent there once was a large cave known that was called the Clabber Napper’s Hole. The related legend, as transcribed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1803 and reprinted in vol.26 for December 1846, was that the occupier of the cave was a kidnapper or freebooter. The article proposed that clabber derived from “caer l’abre,” the dwelling in the woods, though there is no attempt to explain why a Welsh word and a French word would be combined- as is frequent in old and dodgy etymologies where words with suitable meanings are randomly put together with no thought for historical likelihood.  

A more literal interpretation of the name might suggest that it was simply an onomatopoeic word, the meaning of which was a sort of noisy abductor (of children).  The Clabber Napper might, therefore, have been a sort of nursery sprite used to scare children.  If so, it might have been adopted by the putative smugglers to keep people away from their lair, or it might have been used by parents to discourage their children from playing there.

gringes: in some old dialects, to gringe or grange means to grind the teeth (Dickinson’s 1878 Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland). On that basis we might imagine another nursery sprite- a monster that grinds its teeth a lot and is used to keep children in their beds at night.

Probably the wrong sort of Miffy…

Miffies: Miffy is a nickname for the devil in Gloucestershire according to Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English vol.2. Presumably it is related to Old French maufé meaning the devil. In addition, ‘miff’ means displeasure or ill humour, hence the modern meaning of being or feeling miffed over something.

Mock-beggars: There are numerous places known as Mockbeggar, Mock Beggar, or some variant thereon. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894, defines Mock-Beggar Hall as an ostentatious dwelling whose mean spirited and stingy owners will turn away the poor from their door.  

This is the literal interpretation of the phrase; however, John Florio’s 1611 dictionary of English and Italian, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, defines ‘beffana’ as a bugbear or scarecrow, which might explain how it got into Denham’s list.

Nickies & Nacks: these are water sprites- Denham also mentions the related nixies (but this is just an adaptation of the German name nixe and first seems to have been used about 1816 by Sir Walter Scott) and nisses, which might be another pronunciation of the word, but is much more likely to be taken from Swedish and Danish, a nisse being a sort of domestic goblin or brownie.  Keightley seems to have been one of the first to use it in print in the Fairy Mythology (1828), so it is again a late borrowing and not an authentic British sprite; the nisse’s role had already been long filled by our own brownies and hobs. 

Nicks, necks and nickies all can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon nicer or nicor, becoming nekir and nyker in Middle English.  All the Germanic languages of the continent have related words with a similar meaning. The nickie, neck or nack is a supernatural being found living in the sea or in inland waters- other familiar terms might be water-demon or kelpie.   In Middle English the word was also used to denote a siren or mermaid.  The creature first appeared in the poem Beowulf as a dreadful creature of the night; it continued to be deadly and terrible in subsequent centuries.

In Layamon’s Brut of about 1200 (lines 10851-2) we are told about a lake in Scotland “Þat water is unimete brade; nikeres þer baðieð inne; þer is ælvene ploȝe in atteliche pole” (The water is immeasurably broad; nikers bathe there; there too is the play of elves in the hideous pool).

The Ayenbite of Inwite (Prick of Conscience) of 1340 (line 61) describes to us the how sea creatures called “nykeren… habbeþ bodyes of wyfman and tayl of visse” (have the bodies of women and the tails of fish).  Like sirens, according to Robert Mannyng in 1338, the nikers will sing to sailors a “mery song þat drecched þam ferly long [tormented them for a long time].”  The Treatise of Ghostly Battle (1500) also describes their tricks to lure men: “The nykare or meremaydene, that cast opone the water syde dyverse thyngis whyche semene fayre to mane, but anone as he taketh hit, she taketh hyme ande devoureth hym.”  This image persisted into Victorian times: in 1853 in Hypatia Charles Kingsley had a character ask “’What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ ‘A sea-devil who eats sailors.’”

The word nick or neck has almost completely faded from English, except for the river spirit known as Nicky Nicky Nye on the Welsh-English border. Its loss is a shame, as it would overcome the confusion between inland and marine mermaids that we now have- and which made me suggest the coinage ‘meremaid‘ as a substitute.

A secondary meaning (but one that is now the common understanding of the word), is demon or devil. So, in 1481, William Caxton’s translation of the History of Reynard Fox contains a reference to “fowle nyckers, Come they out of helle?”  This meaning was preserved in the poem, ‘Nickar the Soulless,’ published by Sebastian Evans in Macmillan’s Magazine for 1863 (and later in Brother Fabian’s Manuscript and Other Poems, 1865).  Nickar, the devil, makes a deal for a man’s soul so that he may see again and marry the naked fairy girl he once saw bathing in a river.  Today, of course, we still refer to ‘Old Nick.’

Spoorns & spurns: ‘Spurn’ generally denoted a fight or a spur but in the Dorset dialect it meant an evil spirit.  Keightley speculated that both “Calcar and Sporn (spurs?) may be the same, from the idea of riding” and hence some kind of nightmare, an evil spirit that rode people in their sleep and caused frightening dreams and paralysis (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, note to page 334).

Tantarrabobs: ‘Tantara’ and ‘tantaran’ was a noise or distubance (as in a tantrum). Tantarabobus, Tantarabobs, or Tankerabogus were variants upon a South Western dialect name for the Devil; it also denoted a noisy playful child. Thus, tantara-bogus was a noisy bogle (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary).

Thrummy-caps: According to Henry Farnie in his Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness (1860, 112-113) Thrummy-cap was the vindictive ghost of a drowned carpenter who haunted the harbour where he died. James Halliwell-Phillips meanwhile reported that thrummy-caps were faeries from Northumberland and were “Queer looking little old men” who lived in the vaults and cellars of castles (Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, 1848).

It’s not wholly clear how or why this relates to the above, but ‘thrum’ means a weaver’s ends, the extremity of the warp on the loom that can’t be woven.  It is a piece of material about nine inches in width.  Thrum therefore meant a frayed fringe or tuft, so that a thrummy-cap would be a ragged or shaggy looking hat knitted from these off-cuts of coarse woven woollen cloth.  Perhaps, rather like the Redcaps of the same area, the Northumbrian thrummy-caps were associated with the distinctive headgear.

Tints:  As a noun, the word is defined as being an obscure northern term for goblin. Another sense of the word ‘tint’ is a tiny touch, scrap or taste whilst ‘tinte’ means lost (coming from a Middle English verb of that meaning, tine, to lose (J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary). Tinted was therefore ‘lost’ or ‘neglected.’ As well as to lose or to be lost, tine/ tyne could also mean to trouble or to be troubled or distressed.

There is a story in which an Eskdale goblin named Gilpin Horner was heard two men crying out “Tint, tint, tint,” the word in this context apparently meaning ‘lost.’   They responded to his cry, “What de’il’s tint you?” (Who the devil’s lost- or even taken- you) and the goblin then appeared to them, “something like a human form, but surprisingly little, distorted in features and misshapen in limbs.”  The men fled and Horner pursued them and took up residence in the home of one of the pair.  It was “undoubtedly flesh and blood” as it ate and drank with the family and had a taste for cream.  This treat it stole to eat whenever it could; it was also cruel to the children if they provoked it.  One day, though, a voice was heard calling the goblin’s name and it leapt up and left for ever. (George Allan, Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet: With Critical Notices of His Writings, 1834, 247-248). 

In another legend from the Borders area, a man tried to taunt the duergars of the Simonside Hills in Northumberland by going out one night calling “Tint! tint!” The duergars at first appeared with little lights near a bog, trying to lure him in- much like a will of the wisp– but the story concludes with an “innumerable multitude” of them with “hideous visages” and clubs in their hands, surrounding the man.  He tried to fight them off with his staff but they had no physical forms and, every time he struck out, he only seemed to multiply the number assailing him, until he collapsed in a faint until morning (Charles Tibbits, Folk-lore and Legends: English, 1890,182-183).

Wirrikows: the Scottish wirry-cowe, worricow, and variations thereon, was a bugbear or goblin; the name might also be used for a scarecrow or for the devil himself. The name probably comes from a combination of the words ‘worry’ (in the sense of harassment) and ‘cowe’ or hobgoblin.  Denham mentions “kows or cowes” separately in his list.  An example is the Hedley Kowe of Hedley near Ebchester, which was a mischievous bogie that could take a variety of forms in order to play tricks on its hapless victims (see my Beyond Faery, 2020). 

Examples of the Scottish word’s usage are found in Thomas Donaldson’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1809: “Where harpie, imp, an’ warricoe/ An’ goblins dwell” and in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Black Dwarf– “They do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbed things about the land” (ii, in Tales of my Landlord, 1st Series, I, 51).  

The wirrikow was, apparently, a dreadful thing to meet: James Hogg refers in The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) to “the waefu’ [woeful] wirricowe.”  In James Lumsden’s play, Doun I’ Th’ Loudons (1908, page 276) the sprite is described as “Hump-backit an’ bow’d- a wirricow- And scrimply [barely] fowre feet three!”  He had a red face, according to Hogg (“haffats in a lowe”) and would make people scream with fear and alarm.  For example, she “Scream’d at ilk clough, an’ skrech’d at ilka how, As sair as she had seen the wirry-cow” (A. Ross Helenore, 1768, 77).

A Nixie, by Arthur B Davies

As I said at the start, much has been lost from British folklore, with only tantalising scraps remaining. However, with some digging in etymological and dialect dictionaries, we can start to restore some idea of what our ancestors knew (and feared).

Beyond Faery IV- Bogies, boggarts and bugganes

Postcard_000271 (2)

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

Types of boggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boggart

Boggarts

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

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

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

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

Manx Monsters

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

Bugganes

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

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

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

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

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

Fynoderees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glashtins

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Gnomes and gardens

tomte

‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

froud gnome

Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

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