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Category Archives: Earth Mysteries

My Folkloric Influences

So to satisfy my insatiable craving to make lists, I decided to compile ten non-fiction books which have most influenced my work in the realm of folklore and what I like to call cryptotopography. It’s a very personal list: many of these tomes do not represent the most important work in their field, but the one which has had the greatest impact on my imagination and intellectual development; it also means that I will list books which have been superseded by updated editions or which have fallen out of academic fashion. A work’s success at invoking the genius loci may be considered more important than sound reasoning. It was also impossible to rank the entries in anything resembling order of preference—quantifying qualitative impact is a futile endeavour—so I have iterated them in order of publication instead, which has inadvertently demonstrated what a bounteous year 1976 must have been for folklore junkies!

1. “Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England & the Borders” (2nd Edition; 1879) by William Henderson

19th Century county folklore collections represent an invaluable source of primary material and Henderson’s seminal work was one of the very first to devote itself to the various shires which form the unified territory of northern England. Many famous traditions associated with these areas were originally recorded here and despite the hundred-and-fifty years since its publication, it remains a compelling read—unblemished by the literary embellishment or philological theorising which compromise so many texts of a similar vintage.

2. “The Minor Traditions of British Mythology” (1948) by Lewis Spence

Lewis Spence has something of a reputation as a romanticist whose work is hidebound by the discredited “myth-ritual” school of folkloristics which dominated in the early-20th Century; however, whilst his theories are indeed somewhat dated, the sheer volume of primary data he marshals ensures that it remains relevant. And the romantic spirit which shines through Spence’s work should not too readily be sneered at; although some such assertions may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, their capacity to inspire the imagination is vast.

3. “The Fairies in Tradition & Literature” (1967) by Katharine Briggs

Arguably the greatest British folklorist of the 20th Century, Briggs’ work strikes the perfect balance between the speculative meta-myths of her predecessors and the more positivist approach adopted by later scholars. Although she wrote numerous books on fairy-lore (including the comprehensive Dictionary of Fairies), this remains her best introduction to the subject, covering its manifold facets in a lively, accessible style. It’s a shame that folklorists of her talent (other than perhaps Jacqueline Simpson) are so rare in British academia today.

4. “Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography & Tradition” (1967) by Anne Ross

Dr. Anne Ross was surely one of the foremost “Celtic” scholars of the 20th Century, yet as an avowed believer in the “otherworld” she perhaps found herself more accepted by counter-cultural visionaries than fellow academics, despite her formidable talents as both an archaeologist and folklorist. This exhaustive tome is her magnum opus; the first major study of the “Celtic” religion in Britain and although so much more has been discovered since its composition, it remains definitive—the vagaries of academic fashion be damned.

5. “The Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain” (1976) by Leslie Grinsell

The author of this book was a veteran field archaeologist and a noted authority on prehistoric barrows and his seminal study shines with a passion for prehistoric monuments as cultural loci onto which countless generations have projected their cosmogonies. Grinsell offers both a taxonomy and gazetteer of legends connected with such locations, and whilst it represents his life’s work, the survey is far from comprehensive—a fact which merely contributes to its appeal, inspiring readers to continue the project themselves.

6. “North Country Folklore” (1976) by Jessica Lofthouse

Although they flourished in the mid-20th Century, topographic writers of the sort exemplified by Jessica Lofthouse do not seem to exist anymore. This is a great shame, for in her travels around the northern counties of England, she collected a wealth of folklore, much of which came first-hand from oral sources and preserved variant traditions which are to be found nowhere else. The material is all lovingly recorded in a conversational style, which made it the perfect introduction to the subject when I was a mere ten years old.

7. “Brigantia: A Mysteriography” (1976) by Guy Ragland Phillips

Written by a regular contributor to that topographic institution, The Dalesman, this is a visionary survey of the archaeology, history, toponymy and folklore of the northern counties of England, once a unified Celtic kingdom inhabited by a tribe known as the Brigantes, after their tutelary deity, Brigantia. Philips’ mission is to uncover traces of the region’s pre-Christian heritage. Although modern folkloric scholarship may question its guiding principle of “pagan survivals”, Philips’ mythopoeia ably invokes the potent genius loci of the territory.

8. “Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain” (1977) by Readers’ Digest

My passion for this volume is not unique and it is almost a standard text in many folklore libraries. Perhaps that is because it feels like a folkloric artefact in its own right, with its spooky map keys, atmospheric illustrations and iconic cover depicting the Dorset Ooser, debossed in gold on a black background. It is also that rare thing: a masterpiece created by committee—and despite its comparative age, no publisher has succeeded in publishing a general guide to British folklore which can compare to its breadth and beauty.

9. “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature & Legacy” (1993) by Ronald Hutton

An academic historian who’d formerly confined his work to the early-modern period, Hutton was regarded as something of an enfant terrible when he first burst onto the pagan scene with this demolition of the romantic ideas which had previously defined prehistoric religion in the popular imagination. Now that the dust has settled, and the counter-culture has had chance to assimilate his influence, this tome stands undiminished as a seminal statement on the mysteries of our pagan ancestors, despite having been recently revised itself.

10. “Twilight of the Celtic Gods: An Exploration of Britain’s Hidden Pagan Traditions” (1994) by David Clarke & Andy Roberts

Whilst the “Celtic” component of the title is an unwelcome modifier insisted upon by the publisher, this is a compelling and convincing study of various animistic beliefs which survived in Britain, especially the Pennine regions of northern England, well into the 20th Century. My dad co-authored the book and I spent much of my childhood visiting many of the sites to which it refers and hearing their stories; as such there is no more powerful influence on my imagination and it is a work whose spirit I proudly endeavour to continue.

11. “Stony Gaze: Investigating Celtic and Other Heads” (1998) by John Billingsley

When Sidney Jackson first drew attention to the abundance of Celtic-style carved stone-heads found across northern England, Anne Ross declared them evidence of an indigenous Celtic tradition which had survived over two thousand years. Billingsley takes a more cautious approach, arguing that whilst they represent a significant and persistent theme in local folk-art, they cannot be declared “Celtic” in the truest sense. Nonetheless, he is not blind to their mythic aspect and this is a comprehensive study of a curious phenomenon.

12. “Aliens, Ghosts & Cults: Legends We Live” (2001) by Bill Ellis

I confess to a preference for folklore as social history, as opposed to cultural anthropology, but when I turn to study contemporary legend, this is the first book for which I reach. Ellis offers one of the most sustained scholarly discussions of the symbiotic processes known as “ostension” and “legend-tripping”, which drive so much folkloric transmission today. He also has a wealth of valuable tips concerning the methodology and ethics of oral collecting which are essential reading for any would-be folklorist in the modern field.

13. “Explore Folklore” (2002) by Bob Trubshaw

Written in a laudable attempt to introduce concepts current in scholarly folkloristics to a wider audience and rescue the subject from its academic decline in Britain, this is the book which revived my formative love of folklore in adulthood and inspired me to write on the topic. It emphasises the discipline’s relevance and its value as social history and contemporary ethnography, offering countless avenues for research, whilst tackling some of the misleading shibboleths which have for too long infested popular understanding of the subject.

14. “The Old Stones of Elmet” (2003) by Paul Bennett

The area known today as West Yorkshire positively bristles with prehistoric monuments and there are few people who know them better than Paul Bennett. His guide to standing-stones, stone-circles and cup-and-rings in the county is not merely an exhaustive gazetteer of regional archaeology; it is full of snippets of local folklore and antiquarian fancy, alongside informed speculation concerning the geomantic significance of these rocks and their place in the wider ritual landscape.

15. “The Gaelic Otherworld: Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland” (2003) by John Gregorson Campbell

An omnibus edition which contains several volumes of folklore collected by the 19th Century Gaelic scholar, John Gregorson Campbell, across the western highlands and islands of Scotland. Unlike his friend and namesake, J.F. Campbell, Gregorson Campbell was more interested in sagen than märchen—which nicely corresponds with my own concerns. This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive collection of such material from Scotland and offers an inexhaustible source of interest for the folklore scholar.

 

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The Folklore of Shipley Glen & Baildon Moor

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a hunting
For fear of little men.

When I was a child, Shipley Glen was one of my favourite places in which to pass a summer afternoon: many happy hours were spent in the woods, clambering over rocks and splashing through the stream; or else browsing in Brackenhall Countryside Centre, before taking the funicular tramway down to Saltaire and back. This much I had in common with generations of Bradfordians, for whom Shipley Glen had been a popular local recreation spot since the late 19th Century, when its attractions also numbered a wooden toboggan run and Japanese-styled pleasure-gardens. A fairground was still there when I was young and I recall I often haunted the dodgems—much to my grandmother’s discomfort! Sadly, the attractions were shut down about a decade ago and left to decay; as a result, to visit Shipley Glen today is a strangely dismal experience.

However, my interest in Shipley Glen now is rooted in more than childhood nostalgia. The enchanting wooded valley carved out by Loadpit Beck fringes Baildon Moor—a spur of the much larger Rombalds Moor massif. This great tract of upland heath was extensively tenanted during British prehistory—especially the late-Neolithic and early-Bronze Age—when the valleys were too poorly drained to be fruitfully occupied. As such, material remnants of their culture litter than moors hereabouts; especially their religious and funerary relics. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Rombalds Moor was a vast ritual landscape, in which the eschatological concerns of our earliest settled ancestors were made manifest. Doubtless far more has been lost than survives, but even on Baildon Moor—amidst the thronging tourists—an array of antiquarian interest bristles beneath your feet.

PREHISTORIC MONUMENTS

The most celebrated monument in the area is the Brackenhall stone-circle, which lies almost hidden amongst tussocks of moor-grass, barely a hundred yards from the eponymous visitor centre. In 1891, the Yorkshire antiquary, Harry Speight, described it as “a portion of earthwork raised between two concentric circles, whose greater circumference is 137 yards; and diameter 50 yards north-to-south and 39 yards east-to-west”. The circle was once known as Soldier’s Trench in local tradition, supposedly because soldiers once camped there before battle many centuries ago. It was also connected with May Day festivities in the folk memory and Speight observed evidence of “immense fires” having once taken place within the circle. Another tradition claims there was a third stone-circle known as Cat Stones Ring a short distance to the south, which has sadly fallen victim to depredation by stonemasons over the years.

Various other lost circles scatter the vicinity, including examples at Windy Hill and Pennythorn Hill—along with cairn-circles and various tumuli. Somewhat more spectacularly, the Shipley Glen edge of Baildon Moor is also known for several fine examples of that inscrutable prehistoric rock-art dubbed “cup-and-ring markings”. Some have been protected at Brackenhall Countryside Centre, but others remain in situ on farmland or the golf-course nearby. The Dobrudden Stone is a particularly impressive example of the form, and unlike many such rocks, it is relatively easy to find—propped up against the north side of the wall encircling Dobrudden Farm, which is now a conspicuous caravan and camp site. Dobrudden is the highest point on Baildon Moor and this prominent spot in the landscape was almost certainly once a prehistoric burial ground, as the denuded remains of cairns are everywhere visible.

HOUSEHOLD AND ANCESTRAL SPIRITS

The purpose of cup-and-rings stones—which mostly date to the late-Neolithic period—is hotly contested and no single interpretation is satisfactory. One theory is that where only one or two cup-marks exist on a rock, without the accompanying rings, they may have served as a receptacle for libations to the spirits which inhabit each site. Certainly as late as the early-modern period, many Yorkshire farmers’ wives used to leave milk in the hollow of a stone beside the kitchen door to be consumed by the household spirit overnight. These household spirits had a variety of names across the north of England—including boggarts, brownies, bogles, hobthrusts and dobbies—whilst such stones were sometimes called “dobby-stones”, and were said to have been worn smooth by such spirits as the sat awaiting an opportunity to re-enter the house.

Perhaps the first component of the toponym “Dobrudden” refers to these hobgoblins and they were once considered to be ubiquitous in the area. This would be consistent with existence of the Dobrudden “necropolis” or “cairn-field”, as household spirits—such as dobbies—may represent a corrupted remembrance of pre-Christian ancestor worship and were often associated with the remains of our prehistoric ancestors in early-modern folklore. As such, perhaps the more elaborate cup-and-ring markings—for instance, the Dobrudden Stone itself—were not merely hollows in which to place libations for the spirits, but represent the lineage of ancestors. The similarity of many cup-and-ring markings to the layout of a family tree has often been observed and whilst this may not be their only function it would certainly make sense of those incorporated in a funerary landscape such as Dobrudden.

THE HILL OF BAAL?

However, such tidy explanations are often deceiving and the unreliability of such toponymic analysis has led astray many antiquarian over the years. Too often linguistic roots of separate origins are conflated in order to satisfy some romantic fancy: for example, the name of the village of Baildon was once thought to mean “Hill of Baal” by Victorian topographers. Baal was not a native word, but a Semitic title used as an honorific for the pre-Abrahamic deities of the Levant. It was later used as a derogatory term to demonise the “heathen” and “pagan” gods which were superseded by the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition. The root “Baal” is preserved in the term “Beelzebub”—from “Ba’al Zebûb”, literally meaning “Lord of the Flies”—a name cited in Scripture as a synonym for the Devil, which became a common slur used to associate non-Judeo-Christian deities with the Great Deceiver.

As such, in 19th Century, many pious historians believed our pagan ancestors to have worshipped Baal; and when the name “Baildon” was combined with conspicuous evidence of prehistoric ritual in the vicinity, it became obvious to such scholars that this hill must have been a centre of idolatrous worship. Even the usually reliable Harry Speight wrote, “The very name of Baildon would seem to denote a scriptural origin in the place being chosen by the High Priests for propitiating sacrifices to their god Baal, when in honour of the all-giving Sun, baal fires were kindled on the hill tops, just as the festal fires are in Ireland”. Fortunately, standards of scholarship are more rigorous today and we now know that “Baildon” means something more prosaic—perhaps “hill of the berries”—in Old English. If fires were ever lit on the hills hereabouts, they were probably beacon-fires rather than evidence of some “Druidical” hearth-cult.

THE DEVIL IN BAILDON

Although Baildon may not have been the centre of primitive idol worship that Victorian scholars believed it to have been, local folklore has populated it with demons nonetheless. In “Baildon and the Baildons: History of a Yorkshire Manor and Family”—a mammoth work compiled between 1913 and 1926—W. Paley-Baildon refers to an outcrop known as the Cloven Stone, one of the shattered gritstone crags which fringe Baildon Bank. The name may have arisen simply because it is split down the middle—i.e. literally cloven; or it may have arisen from a local tradition which claims the Devil once leapt across the Aire valley from this rock, leaving a cloven-hoof print in his wake. This is a very common migratory motif and can be found attached to numerous rocks in the vicinity: including the Cloven Stone on Rivock Edge; Almscliffe Crag in Wharfedale; Nursery Knott above Appletreewick; and once perhaps many others.

In many instance, stories of the Devil’s impact on the landscape have been transposed onto earlier legends concerning giants. For instance, Almscliffe Crag was variously said to have been thrown from Ilkley Moor by the Devil, or by the wife of the giant, Rombald. Rombald himself was supposed to have left his footprint on the Cow and Calf Rocks, and one wonders if the Cloven Stone at Rivock Edge—the south-western margin of Rombalds Moor overlooking Keighley—may also originally have been associated with the giant. Similarly, as Baildon Moor is an extension of Rombalds Moor, could the Cloven Stone on Baildon Bank also have been connected with the giant—with the Devil a later syncretic addition imposed by some hellfire preachers on an older folk-tradition to provide recognisable exempla demonstrating the Old Enemy’s reality on earth?

ROBIN HOOD

Two sites in the vicinity of Baildon and Shipley Glen are associated with the legendary outlaw. The first is located on Baildon Bank and is known as Robin Hood’s House, the name of which suggests a vague local tradition that Robin once hid here, although no more explicit legend survives. In the 18th Century, a local writer noted, “The country people here attribute everything of the marvellous kind to Robin Hood”. The site was described by William Paley-Baildon as “unquestionably a cromlech… formed of a huge mass of stone, lying apparently just as it fell from the cliff above; the other stones, some of considerable size, have evidently been placed in position by man”. However, the assertion that it was “unquestionably a cromlech” is contentious; early antiquarians often misinterpreted natural features for artificial ones and there is no other evidence to suggest it was once a burial chamber besides its apparent structural similarities.

The second site connected with the folk-hero is Robin Hood’s Chair or Seat, which stands in Trench Wood about halfway down Shipley Glen. It is an earthfast boulder in which water has worn a natural cavity resembling a seat and where Victorian antiquarians suggested some local shaman or chief once sat. Again, this is probably as fanciful as the notion that Robin Hood sat in the chair and there is no reason to believe that humans were remotely concerned with the stone until the late Middle Ages, which is the period when Robin Hood toponyms proliferated as a consequence of the legend’s popularity. Although recent research has shown that the Robin Hood legend probably originated in the West Riding of Yorkshire—namely an area between Pontefract and Doncaster known as Barnsdale—there is no direct connection to Airedale in the earliest ballads.

MURDER MOST FOUL

Not all the folklore connected with Shipley Glen is antiquarian or supernatural. In 2012, the Dalesman Magazine published a letter in which the writer recalls his grandfather telling him that sometime during the 19th Century, a man, his wife and their two children suddenly disappeared from their cottage in Bradford. They were an impoverished family and the police eventually traced the man to Liverpool, where he intended to sail for the New World to look for work. However, there was no sign of his wife or children. One constable considered this suspicious and went to the trouble of following the man across the ocean to keep him under surveillance. Finally, on New Year’s Eve—in a bar full of English immigrants—the man raised a toast “to the ewe and lambs who sleep this night in Shipley Glen”. The constable subsequently arrested his quarry and took him back to Bradford for trial and execution.

Although this story deals with natural facts, it is a folkloric narrative nonetheless and it is doubtful that any such murder ever occurred. The detail that the constable followed his game all the way to the United States should give it away—whenever did the police have sufficient resources to squander in such a fashion?—but even more damningly, an identical story is told about Sawley near Ripon in North Yorkshire. It is said that the body of the Sawley murderer was later hung from a gibbet overlooking the scene of his crime; however, the stone pointed out as the base of the gibbet is actually Lacon Cross—a medieval boundary-stone and way-marker erected by the monks of Fountains Abbey. According to local folklore, “when the moon is full in the winter months a ewe and two lambs may be seen on or near the bridge down Sawley Lane”. One wonders if a similarly spectral tradition was ever attached to Shipley Glen?

Bibliography
Baildon, William Paley (1913-26) “Baildon and the Baildons”
Bennett, Paul (2001) “The Old Stones of Elmet”
Cudworth, William (1900) “Baildon Moor & Its Antiquities” in “Bradford Antiquary” Vol. 3
Glossop, William (1882) “Ancient British Remains on Baildon Moor” in “Bradford Antiquary” Vol. 1
Jackson, Sidney (1954) “Soldiers’ Trench Circle” in “Cartwright Hall Archaeology Group Bulletin” Vol. 1.1
Lambert, Cliff (2012) “Truth or Fiction?” in “Dalesman Magazine: May 2012”
Ross, Ray (2012) “A Gruesome Tale” in “Dalesman Magazine: September 2012”
Smith, A.H. (1961-63) “Place Names of the West Riding”
Speight, Harry (1898) “Chronicles & Stories of Bingley & District”
Turner, Joseph Horsfall (1888) “Yorkshire Notes & Queries” Vol. 1
Turner, Joseph Horsfall (1897) “Ancient Bingley”

 

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