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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greatest impact on my imagination and intellectual development; it also means that I will list books which have been superseded by updated editions or which have fallen out of academic fashion.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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The Hallas Bridge Witch & the Psychogeography of the West Bradford Moors

The triangle of upland between the mill-towns of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley has no particular name of its own and is often overlooked in topographies of the area; yet this tract of the Pennines possesses a distinct identity, a palpable sense of place that over the centuries has bred a glut of remarkable lore and legend. The region is not excessively remote: it is criss-crossed by arterial roads and farmers have reclaimed much of the desolate moorland for pasture. These hills are also home to small towns such as Denholme and Queensbury—two of the highest municipalities in England—whilst the sprawl of the West Yorkshire conurbation is often visible in the valleys below.

The district borders Brontë Country and there is certainly no doubt that the literary sisters were familiar with this territory: they were born in the village of Thornton on its eastern edge and lived there for the earliest years of their childhood before moving to Haworth—itself barely a few miles away. Nonetheless, it feels discrete from the more characteristically “wuthering” landscape of the Worth Valley—which must be considered the Brontë heartland—and for the sake of convenience, I have come to refer to this area as the West Bradford Moors, although it is a shame that a more poetic and evocative name cannot be found.

One of the many hidden treasures of the West Bradford Moors is the wooded dell carved out by the Harden Beck as it flows from the watershed on Thornton Moor towards Bingley where it joins the River Aire. In the upper reaches of this valley, the stream tumbles down a series of charming cascades on its course through Goitstock Wood creating a veritable fairy glen. We know that Charlotte Brontë herself once strolled through this valley in the company of an old Chartist from whom she hoped to extract raw material for the literary endeavour that was ultimately published as “Shirley” in 1849 (although by all accounts he advised her against reopening old wounds).

The Harden Valley is so picturesque that it is difficult to conceive it might once have been a source of dread; yet so it was. Discussing the area at the end of the 19th Century, that indefatigable Yorkshire antiquary, Harry Speight, refers to a “sorceress or witch, who is believed to haunt the lane which descends to Hallas Bridge on the Cullingworth side of the beck. She is traditionally said to be coming down the hill at the cautious pace of seven straw breadths in the year, and when at last she reaches the bridge, woe betide any person or house that may then be upon the hill, for by one magic wave of her hand the hill will vanish, and of course everything upon it”.

The legend is corroborated in 1923 by Elizabeth Southwart, in her excellent book, “Brontë Moors from Haworth to Thornton”. As if to demonstrate the unique quality of the West Bradford Moors, she also notes the persistence of supernatural traditions in the area: “The ghost tale left Thornton, Wilsden and Cullingworth very reluctantly, whilst at Oxenhope and Haworth the only trace is to be found in books; the oldest inhabitants not only deny that they ever believed in ghosts, but that their forefathers ever did. On the other hand, the Thornton, Cullingworth and Wilsden folk, though obviously incredulous, half wish that the tales were true: in fact there are people still left who believe they are”.

The most curious facet of the tale of the Hallas Bridge witch is that whilst the legend is apparently unique in Yorkshire, the motif is more familiar in the extreme south-west of the country—albeit attached to ghosts rather than witches. Such apparitions are known as “cockstride ghosts”: spirits that have been only partially laid at some remote location and now advance homewards at no more than a “cockstride” every year (“cockstride” being an archaic term synonymous with any tiny increment). Examples of cockstride ghosts are familiar in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall but there are no obvious northern analogues and it is unclear how an isolated example the motif has migrated so far.

Similarly opaque are the means by which the “cockstride” motif has become syncretised with the figure of a witch and how the tradition became quite so apocalyptic. The threat that if the witch ever reached Hallas Bridge she would make the whole hillside disappear—Cullingworth included—is considerably more dire than the consequences should a cockstride ghost make it back to the house it used to haunt. However, as the surrounding hills are replete with toponyms such as Egypt, World’s End and the Walls of Jericho, we can surmise that the folk of the West Bradford Moors took their apocalypses very seriously indeed.

Perhaps they needed to in such a stark and windswept landscape; it is often remarked that pitiless places breed pitiless eschatology. Like most of the South Pennines, austere Non-Conformist denominations such as Primitive Methodism flourished on these moors—as did abstinence societies such as Independent Order of Rechabites. Meanwhile, in the late-18th and early-19th Century the area was a fertile breeding for millenarian sects who envisaged that the spiritual transformation of society foretold in the Book of Revelation was close at hand. Followers of self-proclaimed prophets such as Joanna Southcott, George Turner and John Wroe were drawn extensively from these townships.

There is also something about the West Bradford Moors that seems fundamentally liminal; i.e. pertaining to boundaries, borders and thresholds. As mentioned earlier, settlements such as Queensbury and Denholme are amongst the highest towns in Britain and hilltops have long been perceived as a threshold between the earth and the heavens. Liminality is expressed too in the area’s relationship with the surrounding centres of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. It partakes in the character of all three, but is not wholly identifiable with any one and functions as an effective frontier between them.

Liminal locations are boundaries spiritually as much as geographically; places at which the veil between this world and the other is worn thin. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that the West Bradford Moors were once home to so many uncanny entities: phantom black hounds stalked every lane and rumours of a shadowy horned figure once gripped the neighbourhood. There was also a rich tradition cunning-folk, who were rarely wholly benign: one raised the Devil to recover a client’s lost property; others set out on a disastrous quest to recover a hoard of demon-guarded treasure—after getting lost in the fog, they were reported to ecclesiastic authorities and excommunicated.

The Witch of Hallas Bridge is just one panel in the region’s rich tapestry of curious lore, and the apocalyptic tone of the legend is easy to understand in the context of this environment. Survival here was tenuous; the end always near. Disaster and hardship hove over the horizon like the witch slowly advancing towards that ill-fated crossing whereupon she would whisk the hill away. In such elemental landscapes it is easy to conceive of these malign entities and we must face the prospect that our anthropological interpretations are merely rationalist fancies to sooth our eschatological angst. If I lived in Cullingworth, I’d certainly be worried: after all, the witch must have almost reached that bridge by now.

 

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Robin Hood – The Best Books

My first and most personal book was “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” for CFZ Press in 2011, and although that work is a study of how certain locations breed legends as much as a study of the medieval outlaw, I read extensively on the history and evolution of the Robin Hood canon whilst I was writing it. With so many books available on the subject it can be difficult to decide exactly which ones are worth your time, so I’ve come up with a list of the sources I found the most comprehensive and reliable. A couple of entries are out-of-date and discredited, but they remain important in understanding the historiography of the legend. I also found a number of journal articles equally useful, but that list will have to wait for another time. Clicking on the hyperlinks in each title will direct you to purchasing information (which I’ve added from shamelessly mercenary motives).

1. “Robin Hood: 3rd Edition” by J.C. Holt (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Undoubtedly the definitive survey of historical evidence concerning the figure known as Robin Hood and the evolution of his legend. It was first published in the 1970s and has now reached its third edition; each revised version adds new material crucial to our understand of the mythos.

2. “Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography” by Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2009)

A more recent work than Holt’s study but now tied for the title of best book on the subject. Knight is a Professor of English Literature and he views the Robin Hood legend as a literary canon rather than a historical or folkloric topic. His background also ensures that the book is highly readable.

3. “Robin Hood & Other Outlaw Tales” by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Eds.) (Medieval Institute Publications, 2000)

A comprehensive and up-to-date collection of all the medieval and post-medieval ballads and plays with line analysis of each by two of the most respected scholars working on the academic study of Robin Hood. As such, it is an essential reference resource for all students of the legend.

4. “Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw” by R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Eds.) (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1989)

An earlier critical edition of the ballads—now out-of-print—but as essential as Knight & Ohlgren’s volume. It is particularly notable for the linguistic analysis which firmly placed the origin of the ballads (and therefore the legend) in Barnsdale—a former region of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

5. “Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context” by A.J. Pollard (Routledge, 2007)

As both literary works and historical artefacts, the Robin Hood ballads and plays that circulated in the late Middle Ages form a fascinating record of the concerns of medieval England. Pollard’s study explores what the legend has to say about issues such as yeomanry, forest law and popular religion.

6. “The Outlaws of Medieval Legend” by Maurice Keen (Routledge, 2000)

Although Robin Hood is the only medieval outlaw whose legend has survived into the present day, he was not unique and the likes of Eustace the Monk or Fulk FitzWaryn were equally popular folk heroes in the Middle Ages. Keen’s study examines Robin Hood in the context of this wider corpus.

7. “Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-medieval” by Helen Phillips (Ed.) (Four Courts Press Ltd, 2005)

An excellent collection of essays relating to historical aspects of the Robin Hood myth. It is particularly interesting for those studying the legend of his death as it contains a number of papers on this subject, including the first academic scrutiny of the history of Robin Hood’s Grave at Kirklees.

8. “Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism” by Stephen Knight (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 1999)

Published by an academic press, this mammoth anthology is almost prohibitively expensive; which is a shame because it is a rigorous and diverse resource, including studies of everything from Robin Hood’s role in the May Games to a study of the character’s role in the Romantic poetry of John Keats.

9. “Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression & Justice” by Thomas Hahn (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 2000)

Another absurdly expensive critical anthology, but once again its contents are multifarious and compelling. The book includes essays on Robin Hood and the Nottingham tourist industry; Robin Hood musicals in the 18th Century; Robin Hood and swashbuckling cinema; and many more just as diverting.

10. “Robin Hood: Outlaw or Greenwood Myth” by Fran and Geoff Doel (DPI Media Group, 2000)

Although the mythological interpretation of the legends of Robin Hood has fallen out of fashion in academia, it was highly influential from around 1850 – 1950 and survives in the popular imagination thanks to the 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood. This is a good overview of the evidence.

11. “Robin Hood: The Green Lord of the Wildwood” by John Matthews (Gothic Press, 1993)

The mythological interpretation of Robin Hood survives most strongly in Neo-Pagan and other New Age circles, where it is almost an article of faith. Matthews is a veteran writer on such topics and whilst his book lacks academic rigour it nicely shows how the legend influences the Neo-Pagan imagination.

12. “The Haunts of Robin Hood” by Jill Armitage (The History Press, 2008)

In late medieval and early modern England, the ballads of Robin Hood were so popular that nearly every region claimed the outlaw for their own and sites bearing his name proliferated—from Robin Hood’s Arbour to Robin Hood’s Well. This book provides a useful gazetteer of the most famous.

13. “Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads” by Joseph Ritson (James Clarke & Co, 1826)

Long out-of-date, of course, but this was the seminal study of the Robin Hood legend: the first attempt to collect together all material relating to the outlaw and place it in a historical context. As a radical, Ritson’s work strongly influenced the image of Robin “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”.

14. “The True History of Robin Hood” by John William Walker (E.P. Publishing, 1952)

The theory that Robin Hood was based on a 14th Century resident of Wakefield has been conclusively disproved by new evidence found by J.C. Holt. However, the argument was once very convincing and this is its definitive expression, based on preliminary work by Rev. Joseph Hunter in the 19th Century.

 

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Thoughts on the Black Walker of the Ford

“Rather more than a century ago, there lived at Amhulaich, in Rannoch, a miller, much addicted to the use of tobacco, and when unable to get it, was like most smokers, very short and quick in the temper. On one occasion, he ran out of tobacco, and sent for a supply by some Lochaber men, who were passing through Rannoch on their way to Perth. The mill-stream ran close to his house, and he had to cross it on stepping-stones in going to and from the mill. As he was returning home one evening in the dusk, and was about to enter the house, he heard the sound of footsteps coming to the ford.He called out, who is there? But received no answer. Being crusty for want of tobacco, and thinking it might be the Lochaber men returning, he called out a second time, very peremptorily and impatiently. He still received no answer. He called out a third time, turning down to the ford, and saying aloud, that, whether it was man or devil, he would make it answer. The thing then spoke, and said it (or he) was the Black Walker of the Ford.

What further passed between the two never transpired, but every evening after that, for a year or more, the miller left home at dusk, crossed the stream, and went to a small clump of trees about half a mile away, whence loud cries and yells were heard during the night. Before daybreak he came home, with his knife or dirk covered with blood. When examined by the light, the blood proved to be merely earth.

An attempt was made on one occasion by some young men to follow him to the rendezvous, but he became aware in some mysterious way of the attempt, and turning back warned them not to follow. It was enough, he said, for himself to go, without their periling their souls.

On the last night of his going to meet the Black Walker, such terrific outcries were heard from the clump of trees that the people of the neighbouring villages, Amhulaich and Cragganour, came to the doors to listen. It was a winter night, and next morning marks of a foot or knee were found in the snow, along with the miller’s own footsteps, as if something had been engaged in a struggle with him.

Some years after this, a man who had been away in America, entered Amhulaich Mill. The miller at the time was dressing the mill-stone, and whenever he observed the American, threw at him the pick he had in his hand, and nearly killed another, who was standing near. He told him never to appear in his presence again, that he had had enough of him. Many surmised it was this man who had troubled him before, but whether it was or not he never appeared.”

The above story appears in John Gregorson Campbell’s peerless collection of Scottish folklore Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands, published posthumously in 1902 from material gathered in the 1850s and 1860s. I would argue that it’s one of the most unusual and unnerving tales I’ve encountered in a folkloric context and for many years now, it has exercised a powerful hold on my imagination. Yet despite its unique character, not to mention its concrete location in the typically Scottish moorland landscape of Rannoch, I have not seen it referenced in any other study of Highland folklore.Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to know quite what to make of it. Later in the article I hope to demonstrate that this ambiguity is precisely the story’s strength. However, it certainly makes it hard to categorise for writers trying to produce neat anthologies for popular consumption. Although I believe it exhibits many typically folkloric tropes, the narrative does not fit comfortably into the familiar taxonomies of bodachs, fachans, urisks or the each-uisge.

Campbell himself includes the story in a chapter titled “Hobgoblins”, which he seems to use as a catch-all term for a variety of unclassifiable otherworldly manifestations, admitting in his introduction to the section: “The term bòcan is a general name for terrifying objects seen at night and taken to be supernatural”. The designation seems to have much in common with that favourite term from Yorkshire and Lancashire – boggart – which was once applied by local folk to myriad strange phenomena, from what we might now describe as poltergeist activity to degraded faerie lore.

One particularly curious facet of the narrative is the degree of verisimilitude it strives for with its introduction and coda. I’m undecided as to whether these digressions strengthen the basic narrative or are irrelevant to it. However, by offering such context, it certainly grounds the story in a familiar and concrete milieu which seems to elevate the reader’s response to more than just the “friend-of-a-friend story” impression these hoary old tales so often leave. It doesn’t come across as a story unanchored in time or place. Rather it suggests the story could be the folk memory of an actual historical occurrence.

This particularity produces a narrative tension with the details of the strange and unexplained occurrences themselves, undercutting their perceived reality whilst simultaneously reinforcing its credibility. It is a device often employed by literary ghost story writers, who so often impress upon the reader the veracity of their tale by placing it in the mouth of a hardened sceptic and introducing certain qualifiers. As M.R. James once remarked, “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable”.

The technique is so classically employed here that I would not rule out its addition being poetic license on Campbell’s part. Firstly, it presents the miller as a man addicted to nicotine and suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal, which suggests the whole episode may be some fevered hallucinatory experience. Admittedly the vicissitudes of nicotine withdrawal are rarely so dramatic but nonetheless, it insinuates the idea of the miller as an unreliable perceiver. Yet at the same time it fails to convince, for although it may account for the first meeting, that still leaves the subsequent nocturnal activity unexplained.

Secondly there is the coda in which many years later the miller assaults a man lately returned from America. Again, this prosaic explanation for such peculiar events fails to satisfy the reader but this otherwise unnecessary appendage to the story reinforces the authenticity of the tale by providing a veneer of historical realism. A good storyteller would not conclude a yarn with such a deflationary explanation, yet it is precisely the sort of speculation which would arise in the local gossip pertaining to an actual event.

Such realism is unusual as otherwise the story seems to have all the hallmarks of what we might refer to as a “folkloric haunting”, by which I mean those instances in which an apparition is well-established in the folk-memory of a community but which rarely have specific sightings ascribed to them. Examples in this category include headless horsemen, white ladies and phantom black dogs. Often in these cases everybody knows that a particular locale is supposed to be thus haunted but firsthand witness reports of an encounter with the wraith are conspicuously lacking.

Folkloric hauntings tend to be symbolic rather than literal and often they are corrupted remembrances of older traditions, some of which may be pre-Christian in origin. For example, in an article for Folklore entitled The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland, Jane C. Beck opines that this figure has “been degraded from a form of mother goddess to a kind of fairy and finally to a ghost”. White ladies are often associated with pools or rivers and it does not stretch credulity to suggest that they may represent the vestiges of an earlier belief in the tutelary spirit of sacred waters.

This is relevant because the basic narrative of the Black Walker of the Ford displays traits which we may recognise as typically folkloric. In particular, it invokes the concept of liminality which is so often an attribute of ancient folk traditions. The liminal zone exists at thresholds and boundaries, a “betwixt and between” state detached from the demarcations of our everyday reality. To the pre-modern modes of thinking such regions were the point at which the “other world” intersected most tightly with our own and where its was possible to cross from to the other, hence why so many folkloric hauntings are found at liminal sites.

The story of the Black Walker at the Ford embodies liminality in at least three distinct senses. To start with the least obvious or integral example, at the first encounter the miller himself is arguably in a liminal state of consciousness. His experience of nicotine withdrawal places him in a intermediary state, neither one of intoxication nor one of sobriety. Again the altered state of consciousness produced by nicotine or its withdrawal is far from pronounced, but such attention is drawn to the miller’s predicament that the reader cannot help but draw some implication from it.

Secondly, all the principle events in the drama occur at twilight – the miller first meets the Black Walker at dusk (technically defined as the later stages of twilight) whilst subsequently it is the hour at which he embarks on his nocturnal peregrinations – and that transition period between sunset and night has long been recognised as an important liminal phase in time. Whilst darkness is symbolically considered the proper time for devilish powers, the association between the supernatural and the twilight in particular is firmly established and phrases such as the “twilight zone” remain familiar idioms.

However, the most apparent and important manifestation of liminality is geographical. Water-crossings such as fords are the classic liminal region; an explicit representation of the “no-mans land” of the threshold. Indeed, the water-crossing motif signifies a kind of double liminality for not only does it connect two discrete areas of land but it traverses a space which is part of neither and which is always impermanent, always uncertain. Running water is the very embodiment of the ambiguity and flux at the heart of concept of liminality.

Water also held an especial fascination for the pre-modern mind beyond its perceived liminality. There is no doubt that animistic cultures regard water as profoundly sacred, an unpredictable force which can both nurture and destroy life on a whim. British folklore abounds with water spirits, especially as the personification of treacherous stretches. Across northern Britain, the kelpie or dobbie was always ready to drag the unwary riverside traveller to a watery grave, whilst more localised examples include Crooker, the malevolent genius loci of the River Derwent in the Peak District, or Peg O’ Nell who claimed a sacrifice every seven years for the River Ribble in Lancashire.

There can be no doubt that water crossings in particular have been a focus for supernatural belief over the ages and in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts Owen Davies opines, “The bridge acted not only as a practical, physical crossing point but also as a spirit access point”. This idea of the bridge or ford as a common gateway is supported by a survey of hauntings connected to water by Janet and Colin Bord in their seminal study of British water lore “Sacred Waters”, over a quarter of which occurred near bridges.

That our ancestors regarded water-crossings as places where one required protection from supernatural forces is evident in the discovery of the archaic stone carved head motif on many bridges. The image of the head possessed an apotropaic function in many pre-modern cultures, especially Celtic and descendant traditions. The symbol persisted in the South Pennines for many centuries and notable 18th Century examples can be found at Agden Bridge in South Yorkshire or on the aqueduct over the River Calder at Hebden Bridge.

The ubiquity of such belief suggests that not only were water crossings perceived as liminal zones – threshold locations which pressed close against the Otherworld and could be used as a portal to it – but also that the potency of water itself was frequently anthropomorphised into elemental figures. The bridge or ford was not just a boundary in space in the same manner as gateways or crossroads; water itself was fundamentally supernatural. The traveller on the crossing would be beset by the Otherworld on all sides and hence such places presented profound spiritual as well as physical danger.

With these themes in mind, it is not difficult to recognise the Black Walker as a manifestation of the tutelary spirit of the ford, both a guardian at the threshold and the personification of the constant threat represented by the river itself, demanding obeisance from those bold enough to cross. What the Black Walker demands of the miller is never revealed but in the image of his return from nightly visits to that copse with a knife covered in something that appears to be blood but is revealed as earth, there is a hint of strange rites and transubstantiations to appease Otherworldly powers.

Yet whilst it is possible to make sense of the narrative by identifying such folkloric tropes, much of the story’s hold over the imagination derives from precisely its enigma and ambiguity. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet Sacheverell Sitwell and used by the writer Robert Aickman to preface a collection of his own frequently impenetrable weird tales, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.

By failing to reveal what passes between the Black Walker and the miller at their first meeting, or exactly what transpired during those nocturnal visits to the wood, the story allows our imagination to rove freely over the possibilities. It demands of us a cognitive state which John Keats described as “negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

But ultimately by refusing to provide any explanation the story forces us to confront the terrible insinuation of things that cannot be imagined, a final irresolvable uncertainty which is more unnerving than anything we can conceive. As Aickman himself comments “The ghost story draws on the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; it need offer neither logic nor moral… (it) does not close a door and leave inside it another definition, a still further solution. On the contrary, it must open a door… and at the end leave it open, or possibly ajar”.

Tales which achieve this are not just disposable bedtime stories to scare the credulous. By confronting us with the prospect that final explanations might always elude us, they undermine the comfortable categories and structures of our cosmology and emerge as a fundamentally existential form; an invocation of the angst we feel when comprehension forsakes us and we’re forced to grapple with the infinite, clamouring possibilities exposed in its absence, a time when Keats’ negative capability is most essential to our psychic survival.

In preserving its essential mystery, a narrative such as the Black Walker of the Ford forces us to cross the boundaries of understanding and reveals the liminal spaces of our own being, beyond truth and fiction, cause and effect, right and wrong, beyond all the codes and systems of thought that confine us. And once there we begin to recognise that our existence is full of liminal zones, territories where ambiguity and uncertainty forever reign, which we cannot help but traverse and traffic with whatever strange entities might also have found access there.

 

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In defense of Hallowe’en

In recent years there has been a disturbing new development in that popular pastime amongst the terminally joyless, the criticism of Hallowe’en. Once such wittering was largely the province of fundamentalist Christians who objected to the festival on the grounds of its oh-so-shameless paganism. (Of course, as we shall see Hallowe’en is as much a Christian invention as a heathen one but such people have probably only read one book in their entire lives and thus remain blissfully ignorant of those persistent annoyances known as facts. Even if they were aware, said origins are Catholic and so would be regarded as equally tantamount to Satanism amongst those of an Evangelical persuasion.)

However, this ubiquitous and shrill minority has seemingly relinquished its position to a new species of carper, the habitual chauvinist. Amidst the increasing hysteria and paranoia of the British populace, Hallowe’en is now regarded as something of a charter for that most dreaded of imagined bugbears, “anti-social behaviour” and in the dreary diatribes which so often accompany these fears, the same canard is repeated time and time again. Namely that Hallowe’en is an American import and as proud upholders of national tedium, we must reject this vulgar infiltration forthwith.

Take these words from Times columnist Bryan Appleyard: “Does anybody, in this country, actually want Halloween? Last night I saw grim-faced mothers marching along the road with brats wrapped in sheets crudely marked with felt-tips. This is an American show. We don’t like it, we never used to do it and we don’t have to now.” Quite aside from the fact that the answer to his initial question amongst anybody less nakedly misanthropic would be a resounding ‘Yes,’ you have to wonder how the writer for a national newspaper can justify such complete obliviousness to historical fact, even in a mere blog post.

Fortunately, like their predecessors in the sport of Hallowe’en censure, the complaint of Appleyard and his ilk bears scant relation to the truth of the matter. However, the actual lineage of Hallowe’en is something of a tangled skein and demands our further attention. Modern orthodoxy amongst neo-pagans and popular historians holds that Hallowe’en derives from the ancient Celtic quarter-day of Samhain, an acknowledgment of the turning of the seasons and thus a liminal time at which the boundaries between the Otherworld and our own lose their definition. Equally, as decay creeps over the world with the onset of winter, the timing of Samhain is said to have represented a natural point for the remembrance of the dead.

Yet this foundation myth is not quite true. Whilst medieval sources undoubtedly confirm the celebration of Samhain over many centuries in Ireland and amongst early Irish immigrants to Scotland, there is less evidence for such observance in other late bastions of Celtic culture such as the Isle of Man and Wales. Hence describing Samhain as a major pan-Celtic festival is somewhat disingenuous. Moreover, the overt association of Samhain with the dead in the pre-Christian period is somewhat suspect and whilst all the quarter-days were regarded as times when the veil wore thin, there is little evidence that Samhain was any more significant in this respect.

We owe the assumption that it was to that notorious Victorian mythologiser, Sir James Frazer, who argued that because the Catholic feast of remembrance All Souls Day took place at the same time as Samhain, the former was probably a Christianisation of the latter. Whilst it is certainly true that Christianity subsumed many older traditions in the interests of continuity, there is no actual account of Samhain being celebrated as anything more than pastoral juncture, when the harvest had been stored and the livestock moved to winter pasture, a rare period of rest when merry-making was at its most convenient. Frazer’s assertion may indeed be true, but it is more of a hypothesis than an established fact.

Just as instructive yet overly neglected in tracing the antecedents of Hallowe’en is the Christian festival of Hallowtide, an event which encompassed both All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. The latter was specifically for the remembrance of the departed and was linked to the former by the uniquely Catholic conviction that saints could act as intercessors for deceased relatives whose souls were yet confined to Purgatory awaiting judgment for their earthly sins. During the Middle Ages it was a substantial festival throughout Christendom and Britain was no exception, only rejecting the feast with the Reformation and Protestantism’s denial of Purgatory and saintly intercession.

However, whilst Hallowtide ceased to be an official observance, many folk customs associated with it endured, especially in the rural north and west of Britain where Catholicism covertly survived to a greater extent and where the whims of authority were taken less seriously or were harder to enforce. Two strands of such tradition are especially illuminating with regard to modern practices associated with Hallowe’en and which amply demonstrate the authenticity of this celebration in the British Isles, long before its undoubted growth in popularity in the United States.

The first of these is the tradition of soul cakes, noted as early as the late 17th Century by John Aubrey in Shropshire, and subsequently recorded in many nearby counties until the late Victorian period. The children of the poor would tour local households on All Souls Day where they would receive a ‘soul cake’, upon their recitation of the rhyme “A soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.” In vernacular Catholic lore, every cake thus donated represented a soul freed from Purgatory. The religious significance of the act was later largely forgotten and it simply became an opportunity for the poor to legitimately beg charity from their wealthier neighbours.

Hallowtide was also always a time associated with the practice of mumming or guising, when locals would dress up in outlandish clothing and don masks or paint their faces to rove the local neighbourhood causing mischief. Such a practice wasn’t unique to the festival but occurred on any significant occasion throughout the year, including Christmas, May Day, Midsummer and various saints’ days. However, mumming has long been associated with licentious behaviour, owing to the high spirits of those involved and the relative degree of anonymity provided by the outfits. Thus, a selection of complaints from various corners of the British Isles can be found from the 17th Century onwards.

On the Isle of Skye, boys would tour the neighbourhood with their faces painted black and at each place they visited, the host would be expected to provide them with victuals whilst the guests were permitted to overrun the house, sitting where they pleased, generally cavorting and ignoring the owners. Meanwhile, in Montgomeryshire, the ‘lowest order of working men’ were known for adorning themselves in sheepskin and masks and parading through the streets, frightening children and being ‘impertinent to adults’ for which trespass they were often ‘put down to a great extent by the police.’

According to the estimable Ronald Hutton, “in nineteenth century Cromarty youths worked exactly the same trick and sought for a lone woman to seize so that they could drag her in a cart over the rough stones, amid screams and roars of laughter… On the east coast of Sutherland children at the end of the century had a varied repertoire of tricks, including burning cabbage stalks through key-holes, stopping up the tops of chimneys with turves, letting horses out of stables, and pretending to break windows by smashing bottles against adjacent walls.” From these examples it is clear that those who today bemoan the anti-social behaviour associated with trick-or-treating should in fact consider themselves extremely fortunate.

A fine example of the union of soul-caking with mumming to create an obvious precursor of the modern practice of trick-or-treat is found in the High Peak of Derbyshire, where the festival was known locally as “Cakin Neet” and celebrated on November 1. Here it was the custom for children to disguise themselves in masks and go round the neighbourhood, stopping at each house to chant ‘Copper, copper, cake, cake.” It was then the duty of the occupant to correctly identify each child. If they failed, they were expected to offer pennies, whilst if they succeeded, they provided parkin. According to local historians, the tradition dates back several centuries.

Thus, whilst Hallowe’en might be a composite tradition which only fully cohered as we know it in the Twentieth Century, derived from vestigial remembrances of the numinous Celtic quarter-days, a Christian feast of the dead and the folk custom of mumming, what is abundantly clear is that its heritage lies firmly within the British Isles and that to dismiss it as an American import is the grossest kind of ignorance, stemming entirely from a predictable species of knee-jerk jingoism and affected piety. All that Hallowe’en owes to our cousins across the Atlantic is the standardisation of the date to October 31, the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’ and the use of pumpkins rather than turnips for jack-o-lanterns.

However, given that British antecedents tended to occur in rural areas and in the north and west of the country, what I suspect Bryan Appleyard really means when he says “we never used to do it” is that London never used to do it, which once again proves that our capital is located in the least interesting region of the isle. Of course, the metropolitan elite have long sneered at what they perceive as coarse country traditions and like those complaining about anti-social behaviour at this time of year, he merely proves that there is nothing new under the sun. The disapproval of such people is apparently as integral to Hallowe’en as bobbing for apples or the dreaded trick-or-treat.

Bibliography:
Clarke, David – “Britain’s Pagan Heritage” (1995)
Clarke, David – “Supernatural Peak District” (2000)
Clarke, David & Roberts, Andy – “Twilight of the Celtic Gods” (1996)
Hutton, Ronald – “The Pagan Religions of the British Isles” (1993)
Hutton, Ronald – “Stations of the Sun” (1996)
Ross, Anne – “Folklore of the Scottish Highlands” (2000)
Whitlock, Ralph – “In Search of Lost Gods” (1979)

 

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