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

Clap-Cans and Nut Nans- and other cautionary sprites


Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief.   Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’

Orchard Spirits

Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England.  There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting.  Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites.  We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers.  Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking  a pipe.  Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is  “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths.  Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children.   These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.

It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets.  Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes.  Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.

alan lee_faeries_jenny greenteeth
by Alan Lee, from Faeries

Jenny Greenteeth

The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell).  Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children.  Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose.  They may also be tortured horribly first.

For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks.  They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface.  The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place.  In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit.   She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.

As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west .  This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features.  This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside.  It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries.  We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water.  Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).

Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs.  Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond.  She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing.  It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth.  Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.

In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale.  All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more.  To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.

Eichler schlinggewachse
Reinhold Max Eichler, Schlinggewachse (Creepers)

Jenny and the Meremaids

Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before.  The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.

Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids.  These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.

Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag.  Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.

eichler, ein buchsenschuss
Eichler, Ein buchsenschuss (A gunshot)


The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study.  I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faery and give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.

“From uncleannesse kept”- the cautionary function of fairy tales

shui-rhys-and-the-tylwyth-tegIn his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).

There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives.  The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments.  One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.

Protecting children

Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them.  A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents.  A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution.  The perils given terrifying character included:

  • rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
  • ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known.  There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
  • unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
  • domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.

Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.

Supervising adults

Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too.  The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children.  A range of chores were policed by supernatural means.  This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:

“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”

Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured.  Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2).  Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.

In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).