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Mysteries of the Moor

12 Jun

Occupying the main part of the county of Devon between Exeter and Plymouth, Dartmoor is southern England’s greatest expanse of wilderness, some 365 square miles of raw granite, barren bogland, sparse grass and heather-grown moor. It was not always so desolate, as testified by the remnants of scattered Stone Age settlements and the ruined relics of the area’s 19th century tin-mining industry. Today, desultory flocks of sheep and groups of ponies are virtually the only living creatures to be seen wandering over the central vastnesses of the National Park, with solitary birds – buzzards, kestrels, pipits, stonechats and wagtails – wheeling and hovering high above. But even more than its natural beauty, Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of spectral hounds, and a large black dog, among others. Many landmarks have ancient legends and ghost stories associated with them, such as the allegedly haunted Jay’s Grave, the ancient burial site of Childe’s Tomb, the rock pile called Bowerman’s Nose, and the stone crosses that mark former mediaeval routes across the moor. Dartmoor has also inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. D. Blackmore, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie, Rosamunde Pilcher, and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fictional Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria was even hosted on the moor!

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Oranges and Lemons

20 Mar

Oranges and Lemons is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game which refers to the bells of several churches, all within or close to the City of London. The lyrics go as so:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

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The Bay of the Departed

21 Feb

The westernmost tip of the Brittany coast, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is alive with legends of the sea. Mythical creatures, giants, imps, naiads and sages – each associated with a detail of the sea that explains the violence and the beauty of the coastline. The stories are often harsh and, to modern ears, cruel. Men and women destined to live out the same sacrifices for all of time, retribution for crimes committed by earlier generations or as an attempt to appease the angry sea. One part of Brittany that is today more famous for its surfing and its seafood is the Baie de Trepasses – the Bay of the Departed – but in ancient times it was said to have always been a portal into death. Here, the way of life still follows the steady tread of the century before and the century before that, a timelessness that recalls the telling and retelling of old folk tales. One of the more famous stories inspired by Breton folklore is that of the Ankou: a fisherman called by name in the deep of the night by God or the Devil to transport dead souls to the portal of the beyond on the shore of a distant land.

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Manannan, Son of the Sea

22 Nov

The Isle of Man, almost equidistant from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, is one of the most beautiful spots in Britain, a mountainous, cliff-fringed island just thirty-one miles by thirteen, into which are shoehorned austere moorlands and wooded glens, sandy beaches, fine castles, beguiling narrow-gauge railways and scores of standing stones and Celtic crosses. Although it takes some effort to reach and the weather is hardly reliable, this also means that the Isle of Man has been spared the worst excesses of the British tourist trade: there’s peace and quiet in abundance and an entire yesteryear ensemble of picket fences and picnic spots, rural villages straight out of a 1950s picture book, steam trains and cream teas. This is also the island whose name comes from Manannan mac Lir, who in some tales was the son of the Irish sea god and others the brother of the Welsh Bran, known as the Blessed, and his doomed sister Branwen.

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Morag, the Monster of Loch Morar

19 Sep

It is notable how many of Scotland’s lochs have monster traditions and sightings: Loch Ness, Loch Lhinne, Loch Lochy, and Loch Arkaig to name just a few. Morar is a freshwater lake in the highlands of Scotland, in relation to which – in common with the neighbouring Loch Ness – occasional reports of a large unidentified creature (dubbed Morag, the monster of Loch Morar) in its waters have been made. The loch, although not as large a mass of water as Loch Ness, is a thousand feet deep in places, and is much more remote and inaccessible to eyewitnesses. Its resident monster, who in general appearance resembles the classic pictures of Nessie as a prehistoric plesiosaur, has allegedly been spotted just as often as Scotland’s most famous loch-based monster. While, up until a couple of years ago, Morag had been quiet for more than two decades without even the hint of a recorded sighting, there are now signs that Scotland’s second most famous Loch monster is making something of a comeback.

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Sawney Bean

16 Aug

Sawney Bean, the cave-dwelling cannibal, is one of Scotland’s most shocking and gruesome legends. Sawney Bean was – legend tells – the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 14th century. There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. Little is known for certain about his early life, however Sawney Bean is believed to have been born in East Lothian in the late 13th century, and was a tanner by trade. Yet, while the story itself was gory enough, it has often been thought to have an even more sinister subtext. Despite being set in Scotland, the gruesome deeds of Sawney Bean were popularised in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots. At the time of the Jacobite risings in the 18th Century, the English press regularly portrayed Scots in a negative way, either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature (the name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot). But just how much truth was there to this sinister legend?

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Scarborough Fair

19 Jul

Scarborough Fair is a traditional English ballad about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history: in the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a popular holiday resort. Long before this, however, it hosted the ‘Scarborough Fair’ – a popular gathering in Medieval times, which attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the Medieval period, this fair gave its name to a popular folk song that became widely known as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the original song is unknown, and today many different versions exist, the best known of which is probably the one by Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon learned about this song when he was on tour in England, where he heard a version by a popular folk singer named Martin Carthy. The traditional version has many more lyrics, some of which are quite sinister and replete with mythological associations.

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The Mistletoe Bride

17 May

The Mistletoe Bride is a haunting short story by one of Britain’s finest living authors, Kate Mosse, who was inspired by a traditional English folk tale. Mosse describes how as a little girl she first came across the story of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’ in a book that her parents had – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. In the book several places in Britain claimed to be the historical setting for the story – Skelton in Yorkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Marwell Old Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset. While the time and place is uncertain, the story, concerning a young bride who suffocates in an oaken chest, is always the same and is generally regarded as being founded on fact. However, its popularity can be laid at the door of the 19th century songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayley, who set the story to music and published it as The Mistletoe Bough in 1844. It was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Victorian and Edwardian Christmas music hall songs. The enduring nature of this particular story has led many to wonder how much truth there actually is to it or whether it instead taps into something more primal – fear of change, loss of innocence or awareness of the fragility of life?

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The Man in the Moss

21 Mar

A rich body of geographical lore, much of it related to real or imaginary hazards, characterises perceptions of bog landscapes. Bog bursts, will-o’-the-wisps, carnivorous plants, weird creatures, and perceptions of the ‘bottomless’ bog all play a part in the folklore of the landscapes. For example, there is Lindow Man, the preserved body of a man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire, North West England on 1 August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. The find, which is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980s, caused a media sensation and helped invigorate study of ‘bog men’ in Britain. Ambiguity about the features of bog landscapes is further heightened by the descriptive terminology employed by tale tellers, who present to us a world inhabited by meanings that go beyond the physical environment and touch on the primordial inner landscape. Not long after its discovery, Lindow Man inspired Phil Rickman’s horror novel The Man in the Moss, in which a man’s body is found perfectly preserved in peat, despite the fact that it has been there for over two millennia. For the isolated Pennine community of Bridelow in the novel, his removal is a sinister sign. In the weeks approaching Samhain – the Celtic feast of the dead – tragedy strikes in Bridelow. Soon, firm believers of both the Christian and pagan persuasion are at each other’s throats, while the village prepares to face a natural disaster unknown since the time of King Henry VIII.

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The White Horse of Uffington

18 Jan

Although chalk figures appear in many places throughout the world, there is one region in particular that has a wealth of them. Mighty figures of men with clubs, ogres and rampant steeds, acres in extent, and visible across great counties, decorate the hillsides in Southern England. Horses are especially abundant, with the finest of them to be found in Berkshire. This is the Uffington White Horse, located just two miles south of the tiny village of Uffington in the Berkshire Downs. It lies at the centre of a cluster of well-known landmarks thick with folkloric and literary associations, including the Neolithic barrow Wayland’s Smithy, of which much is told in Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, the pre-Roman Ridgeway, a hill fort called Uffington Castle, and the naturally flat-topped Dragon Hill, where Saint George is said to have slain the dragon. While the Uffington White Horse is a majestic creature measuring approximately 360 by 130 feet, it is not just size that makes it unique. It possesses two other traits that none of the other existing white horses have – antiquity and unique artistry. Indeed, this particular chalk figure may have served as the inspiration for all those that followed it.

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