Supernatural stories: 9 unusual British folktales
From dragons to devil dogs, fairies to vampires, history is full of tales of mysterious creatures that haunt the British Isles. Carolyne Larrington explores how such folktales are deeply embedded in the British landscape, and reveals how through history they have helped people to deal with ubiquitous concerns about life and death...
The British Isles are a treasure chest of folklore and traditional tales. Successive waves of immigrants – the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans – brought to Britain their culture and their stories.
The great folktale collectors of the 19th century would ask older people from different social classes about the tales, songs and customs they remembered from their youth. These oral tales were often scrappy and poorly remembered, but some were vivid and dramatically told. The collectors would write them down, often regularising the story structure, and moralising or sentimentalising them to appeal to Victorian tastes. Once collected, the tales were published in stout three-volume sets, and tended – until recently – to be locked away in libraries.
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Many of the tales could be reworked as entertaining stories intended for children: huge story collections such as Andrew Lang’s 12-volume series of ‘coloured’ Fairy Books (published between 1889 and 1910) were the childhood reading of writers such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.
These traditional tales powerfully shaped the imaginations of the first generation of fantasy writers; they were followed by younger authors such as Alan Garner (his debut The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published in 1960), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising series), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling.
To these writers it was clear that there is still much that is important and relevant in our traditional stories: they explore some crucial, and somewhat timeless, questions about how human beings live in the world. Now, many of these 19th-century collections are freely available online for anyone to explore and retell. And if you travel around Britain – as I did making the BBC Radio 4 series The Lore of the Land – and you ask people about local legends, you find that they’re still surprisingly alive in modern folk’s imaginations.
Here are nine of the most unusual folktales of magical beings haunting the British countryside that I came across...
Ursilla from Stronsay, in Orkney
The tale: A strong-willed girl, Ursilla wouldn’t marry any of the local well-born men. When she inherited her father’s estate, she married the man she’d always fancied, a lowborn barn-man. He turned out be rather unsatisfactory as a husband and there were no children on the horizon.
A sad Ursilla went down to the seashore and let seven tears fall at spring-tide. This summoned a large male ‘selkie’, one of the seal-folk, who offered to become her lover, for at the spring tide he could take human form. After that, Ursilla indeed had a good number of children, each born with strange webbing between their fingers and toes. The midwives would cut off the webbing in order to keep Ursilla’s secret.
The history: This story was collected by the great Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison (1825–94). He was a farmer who was born and lived most of his life on Sanday in Orkney – and thus had insider knowledge of local traditions. He published a good number of stories in Orcadian dialect locally, and his versions of the Orkney tales are among the best known. There are lots of other Orcadian tales, some in their original dialect, to be found at orkneyjar.com.
The witch-hare of Cleveland
The tale: Having had a disappointing day, some farmers out hunting hares ran into Nanny X, a well-known local witch. “I can tell you where you’ll find a hare to chase,” she said, “but mind you don’t set a black dog on it.” And sure enough, under the hedge Nanny X indicated, there lay a huge hare.
It set off, zigzagging for miles across the countryside with the hounds and hunters in hot pursuit. Just as the hare, doubling back, reached the hedge around Nanny X’s little cottage, a random black dog appeared from nowhere and snapped at its haunches, tearing the skin and biting a lump out of its leg. When the hunters stepped into the cottage to apologise to Nanny X for not preventing the black dog’s attack, they found her groaning in her bed, with a lump out of her thigh, just where the black dog’s jaws had caught the hare.
The history: The Reverend JC Atkinson was the vicar of the parish of Danby in Cleveland for more than 40 years in the 19th century, and published his ‘reminiscences’ (Forty Years in a Moorland Parish) in 1891. It includes a good number of other local folktales and traditions.
Black Shuck of East Anglia
The tale: There are many tales of this creature: a huge, rough-coated black hound with fiery red eyes and slavering jaws. One eyewitness tells how, in 1960, he was cycling along a lonely road between Tolleshunt D’Arcy and Maldon in Essex on a sultry summer night when he heard a panting sound behind him.
Looking back he saw two red lights – like taillights, except that they were coming closer and closer. He pedalled as fast as he could, but the panting grew louder and soon he could feel the beast’s hot breath at his heels. The cyclist got off his bike and waited for his fate. But the Shuck, having caught up with him, turned sharply left through the bike’s front wheel – and vanished!
The shaken cyclist stopped at the nearest pub and told his tale. “Only a fool would ride that road after dark,” said the oldest drinker, and the others nodded in agreement.
The history: The man who claimed to have seen Shuck on that summer night in 1960 wrote about it 20 years later in the East Anglian Magazine. Shuck’s earliest recorded appearance is at Bungay in Suffolk in 1577, where he is said to have burst into a church and killed two people; today his claw marks can supposedly be seen on the church door in nearby Blythburgh.
The Dragon of Knucker Hole, Lyminster in Sussex
The tale: There was a huge dragon living in a pool near Lyminster, eating people’s cows – and maidens, if he could get them. Brave Jim Puttock knew how to deal with the dragon: he made an enormous suet pudding and took it by horse and cart to the pond. “What you got there?” asks the dragon. “Pudden,” says Jim. And the dragon swallows up the pudding – horse and cart and all – and demands more.
Jim brings another enormous pudding, and this is enough to give the dragon the collywobbles, and he feels poorly. Jim pretends to lean in to offer the dragon some medicine, but actually hits the stricken dragon’s head with an axe and kills him.
There are quite a few greedy dragon stories through history. In a Yorkshire version, the sticky ginger treat, parkin, is the dragon’s undoing. The Yorkshire tale was in fact collected from a stablehand in Somerset, so the story contains a good deal of Somerset dialect.
The history: This version of the Knucker Hole story was recorded in the Sussex County Magazine in 1929. British dragon tales, about saints and knights who vanquish them with the help of God or sharp swords; about clever peasants who eliminate dragons through cunning; and the many dragons who still live hidden in our hills, have been collected by the well-known folklorist Jacqueline Simpson in her book British Dragons.
The dandy devil dogs of Devon
The tale: Dando was a parson, but he cared more about hunting than his parishioners’ souls. One Sunday he was out hunting with his friends when they ran out of drink in their hip flasks. The estate upon which they were hunting was called ‘Earth’, and so Dando joked, “Go to hell for it if you can’t find any on ‘Earth’!”
At that moment a dark stranger appeared and offered Dando a swig from his flask – and very tasty it was. “Do the gods drink this excellent stuff?”, Dando asked. “Devils do,” said the stranger. He then began to help himself to some of Dando’s game and made to ride off with it. “I’ll go to hell if I have to, but I’ll get them back!” shouted the drunken priest, and he ran at the stranger. The fiend scooped him up onto his big black horse and galloped away; fiery sparks leapt up from the horse’s heels and all the hounds followed him.
Dando was never seen on Earth again, but his dogs are often heard – and seen. And if you’re down in Devon, and surrounded by a pack of black dogs with red eyes, howling unspeakably, your best hope is to pray.
The history: Robert Hunt collected this story in Popular Romances of Western England, published in 1881. In his introduction, Hunt tells how he had been collecting odd tales from his Cornish childhood and remarks that now the railways are making mass tourism in the West Country popular, his guide to its folklore will allow visitors to repopulate the countryside with the vanished legendary figures of the past.
The fairies of Wales, or the Tylwyth Teg
The tale: Welsh fairies, like their counterparts elsewhere in Britain, often feature in stories in which they steal people away. Supposedly having difficulty in reproducing themselves, fairies often steal human children and leave ugly changelings in their place; they frequently summon human midwives to help with the birth.
One such tale centres on a skilled Welsh midwife who had a servant named Eilian, whose mind was never on her work. “Away with the fairies,” some folk would say, and indeed, one day she vanished.
Shortly after Eilian’s disappearance, a late-night knock at the door summoned the midwife to assist a woman in labour. She helped the mother deliver the child in a richly furnished room with carpets, tapestries, and handsomely carved furniture. The mother asked her to rub some ointment on the newborn’s eyes, and so the midwife tried a little of it on her own eyes.
Immediately, she saw that the splendid room was only a cave with straw on the floor and moss on the walls, and that the mother lying on the bare bed frame was the missing Eilian. Eilian begged her to say nothing and to go; there was no helping her, and so the midwife accepted her reward – a bag of fairy gold – and made her way home.
The history: The tale of Eilian is recorded by scholar John Rhys (1840–1915), who in the 1870s began to research Celtic tales from Wales and the Isle of Man. Rhys particularly highlighted the problems of translating the tales he heard out of their original Welsh into an English that did not properly reflect “their subtle non-Aryan syntax”. Rhys had been inspired by another great collector, John Gregorson Campbell (1836–91), minister on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides.
The vampires of Burton-on-Trent
The tale: According to a late Anglo-Saxon chronicle, two peasants who had recently died were seen wandering down the village’s main street with their coffins on their backs. They would hammer on the doors of the living, calling on them by name, and those whose names were called soon sickened – and some of them died.
The villagers opened up the graves of the two revenants to see what was going on, and found the corpses there strangely undecayed, and the cloths over their faces stained with fresh blood. The folk knew just what to do: they cut off the corpses’ heads and laid them between their legs, and cut out their hearts and burned them. Two black birds were seen flying up from the fire; after that there was no more walking again, and those who had fallen ill sick recovered.
Medieval chronicles featured many tales of the undead; in one such tale, an undead man tries to get into bed with his widow and nearly crushes her to death; in another a zombie priest gouges out his mistress’s eye. Meanwhile, in another tale a vampire at Alnwick in Northumberland is found in his grave all “bloated with blood”.
Writing in the 1190s, William of Newburgh, the chronicler who recorded the other cases mentioned above, observed that the walking dead were so commonplace that they were almost too tedious to catalogue.
The history: The Anglo-Saxon historian John Blair has investigated these early tales of English vampires as recorded in various chronicles: he suggests that the huge upheaval in English society brought about by the Norman Conquest and its aftermath led people to feel that nothing was certain anymore: that the very boundaries between life and death were no longer as rigid as they once were. Certainly, fewer stories of the undead are recorded after 1200, by which time the changes wrought by the Normans had become the new status quo.
The mermaid of Galloway, Scotland
The tale: Today, we are familiar with tales of mermaids singing at sea, combing their golden hair and trying to attract sailors to be their lovers down below the waves. But fresh water has its mermaids too.
In one such folklore tale, the mermaid of Galloway lived in a beautiful burn, or watercourse, and every evening she would perch on a seat-shaped rock and give medical advice to the people who gathered to ask for her help. But a highly religious woman thought that this was the devil’s work, and, clutching her Bible for protection, pushed the mermaid’s seat into the pond.
The next evening when the mermaid appeared, she was distressed by the loss of her seat, and cried out, “You may look to your toom (empty) cradle / And I’ll look to my stane. And meikle [a lot] we’ll think, and meikle we’ll look / But words we’ll ne’er hae nane!” The next morning the religious woman’s baby was found dead in its cradle. In retaliation, the local folk filled in the Dalbeattie Burn with stones and dirt, and the mermaid was never seen again.
Fresh water is perceived to be life giving and healing; the many sacred wells associated with saints speak to older traditions of kindly female spirits dwelling in watery places.
The history: This story was first told in 1810; later in the 19th century it was shared in Knockdolian in Ayrshire to explain why no male heirs to the Knockdolian estate ever survived. The story was still being retold in 1962; the teller reported he’d heard it as a child, around 45 years previously, from the skipper of a ship who was then aged more than 80. “And in his lifetime, and mine,” said the teller, “there was never a male heir. Never.”
Sophia Kingshill and the late Jennifer Westwood trace the history of this tale in The Fabled Coast (2014), which recounts legends from Britain’s seas and shores.
The Kelpie and the nine children from the Highlands
The tale: A group of children was roaming around one Sunday near Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands when they saw a very large and friendly horse. There was room enough for all of them on its back, so they climbed up. When the horse took off at a gallop the frightened children tried to jump off, but they were all stuck fast. Only one, who happened to have a Bible in his pocket, survived to tell the tale, and only because he was smart enough to cut off one of his fingers, glued to the horse’s mane, with his pocket-knife.
This boy supposedly saw the horse dive into a loch with his shrieking cargo. None of the children were ever seen again, but the next day searchers found some pieces of liver and guts floating on the surface of the pond.
It transpires in the tale that the horse had been a water horse, or a kelpie: a creature that likes to fool humans into thinking it is an ordinary horse – or an ordinary man (often with tell-tale sand and weed in his hair) – who will drag you underwater to your doom.
The history: The Reverend John Gregorson Campbell of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides who recounts this story in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900), suspects that it served as a cautionary tale, made up to stop children from molesting other people’s horses when they are unsupervised on the Sabbath. Campbell recounted many other kelpie or water horse stories. A good number of them end with entrails floating on the water surface, or else with the protagonist’s realisation in the nick of time that it’s a kelpie they’re dealing with.
So, are folk-tales quaint survivals of a bygone age? Perhaps. But the folk legends so deeply rooted in the British landscape also ask (and answer) profound questions: about marriage, about our relation to the natural world, about our anxieties about childbirth and child-rearing – and even about our greed for sweet and sticky puddings.
Professor Carolyne Larrington is a tutorial fellow in English Literature at St John's Colege, the University of Oxford, and author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles (I.B.Tauris, 2015)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016