Upas Tree

‘Mr. Wilkie assures us, that, like the mountain-ash, the yew is a very upas tree to the witches, possibly because of its constant proximity to churches. They hate the holly, too, and with good reason: its name is but another form of the word holy, and its thorny foliage and blood-red berries are suggestive of the most sacred Christian associations. The bracken also they detest, because it bears on its root the letter C, the initial of the holy name Christ, which (says Mr. Wilkie) may plainly be seen on cutting the root horizontally. A friend suggests, however, that the letter intended is not the English C, but the Greek Χ, the initial letter of the word Χριστός, which really resembles very closely the marks in the root of the bracken, or Pteris aquilina. These marks have, however, been interpreted in many ways. Some say they resemble the Austrian double-headed eagle, and derive from hence the Latin name for the plant : others see in them Adam and Eve standing on either side of the tree of knowledge, or King Charles in the oak ; or, again, they try to discover the initials of their future husband or wife.’

Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders by Henderson, William, 1813-1891

Witches and Fairies

Ingratitude is worse than witchcraft.

Never talk of witches on a Friday.

Friday is the witches’ sabbath.

Witches are most apt to confess on a Friday.

Fairies comb goats’ beards every Friday.

To hug one as the devil hugs a witch.

A favourite cry of the fairies, waters locked! waters locked!!

Wednesday is the fairies’ sabbath.

A witch is afraid of her own blood.

A witch cannot weep.

To be fairy struck (paralysis).

A hairy man’s a geary man, but a hairy wife’s a witch.

You’re like a witch, you say your prayers backwards.

You’re half a witch (cunning).

Turn your cloaks for fairy folks are in old oaks.

A Charm

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An ancient charm to counter witchcraft as told by Joseph Ford of Castleton. The charm was undertaken at the Old Bleach Mill in the Esk Valley. The owner believed that a witch had cast a spell upon his cattle.

The Charm

The heart must be taken out of one of the cursed beasts and brought into the house. It was then pierced with nine new pins and the same number of new nails and new needles. These were all embedded in the heart which was then to be over a slow fire made of elder, rowan or ash wood. Great care had to be taken to ensure that the doors were all securely bolted and barred and the windows covered up with thick bed quilts to ensure that no light could be seen from the outside. Extra care had to be taken that no one witnessed the mysterious proceedings.

The heart, hanging from a hook over the fire would then be left to slowly shrivel and contract until the dead hour of night drew near. The lighting and tending of the fire had to be gauged so that the burnt and blackened heart would be shrivelled up and ready to burst into flames and fall to ashes just as the clock struck the midnight hour. At this crucial moment the leader of the weird proceedings had to begin the the final act by reading aloud two verses of a particular psalm from the scriptures. That was the deed done, if undertaken correctly, the curse would be lifted and the cattle would return to health.

Ford also tells us that if you are passing the house of a reputed witch, To shield yourself from her evil spells you should hold your thumb in the palm of your right hand.

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Source – Some Reminiscences and Folk Lore of Danby Parish & District. 1953

Map Image – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Jeannie Biggersdale

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This is the story of Jeannie who lived in a cave called Hob’s Cave in a small valley called Biggersdale in Mulgrave woods near Sandsend.

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The folktales of Jeannie call her a fairy with a notoriously bad temper, given the name of her cave and her intense dislike of being disturbed I’d suggest that she was probably a hob or a witch. Misfortunes suffered by the local farmers were blamed on Jeannie, so who can blame her for her desire to lead a solitary life. The locals were quite happy to let Jeannie live in seclusion, fearing the consequences of angering her.

That was until one local lad, John Roe, convinced himself that Jeannie was a beautiful fairy and a good person who just needed someone to love and marry to cure her foul temper. One evening, after working on the farm, John mounted his horse and rode into Mulgrave woods to try and find Jeannie.

No one knew the exact location of Jeannie’s cave so John began to search the woods. Not far from the old ruined castle John came across the narrow ravine of Biggersdale, he dismounted from his horse and started to scramble his way along it.

He eventually came across a large cave with the remnants of a fire and other signs of habitation outside of it. John approached the cave mouth when all of a sudden a hairy, fearsome, shrieking creature with a long wand in her hand bolted out from the cave. John, scared out his wits, ran for his life with the Jeannie in swift pursuit. He climbed out of the ravine, onto his horse and bolted through the woods with Jeannie hot on his heels.

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As John galloped through the woods, Jeannie began gaining on him. John remembered that his Grandmother had told him that evil spirits couldn’t cross running water so John headed for a low cliff, which would allow his horse to leap across the ravine of the Mickleby Beck to safety. As they approached the beck, Jeannie was upon them, scratching and clawing the horse’s hindquarters trying to dismount John. John spurred his horse on and as they leapt across the ravine, Jeannie stuck the horse with her wand killing the poor animal instantly. The horse fell into the beck and John was thrown to the safety of the opposite bank.

John picked himself up and saw Jeannie was shrieking at him from the opposite bank of the beck. He ran and ran until he reached the safety of his farm. Out of breath and traumatised he was unable to speak until the next day. Since that time no one else has ever dared to look for Jeannie or her cave, deep in Mulgrave woods.

Map Image – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Illustration – John Faed’s illustration for the poem Tam o’Shanter. Copyright Ayrshire Museums and Galleries

Sluttish Whitby, the Devil & the Old Witch

John Ray (1627-1705) was one of the pioneers of modern botany. A parson naturalist, he was the first to classify plants by species. He undertook a number of tours of Britain and Europe where he collected and described the local flora and topography.

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The following passage, describing his visit to North East Yorkshire, is taken from Selected Remains of the Learned John Ray with his life. By William Derham published 1760.

We ascended the top of that noted hill, called Roseberry or Ounsberry Topping, the top whereof is like a sugar loaf and serves for a sea-mark. It may be seen at a great distance, viz. from Stanmore, which is in a right line above 20 Miles off. From hence we had a prospect of that pleasant and fruitful vale, part whereof is called Cleveland a country noted for a good breed of horses.

The ways here in winter time are very bad, and almost impassable, according to that proverbial Rhyme,

Cleveland in the Clay

Bring in two Soles, carry one away.

Near this hill we went to see a well celebrated for the cure of sore or dim eyes, and other diseases. Every one that washes in it, or receives benefit by it, ties a rag of linen or woollen on a shrub or bush near it, as an offering or acknowledgement.

The People of Gisburgh are civil, cleanly, and well-bred, contrary to the temper of the inhabitants of Whitby who, to us, seemed rude in behavior and sluttish.

In the way from Whitby to Gisburgh we passed by Freeburgh Hill which they told us was cast up by the Devil, at the entreaty of an old Witch, who desired it, that from thence she might espy her cow in the moor.

Image – National Portrait Gallery / Public domain

 

Nanny & the Sexhow Hoard

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An old woman of Sexhow called Nanny, appeared after her death in a dream to a local farmer. She informed the farmer that, beneath a certain tree in his apple orchard, he would find a hoard of gold and silver which she had buried there. He was to take a spade and dig it up, she told him that he could keep the silver for his trouble but was to give the gold to a niece of hers who was then living in great poverty.

At daybreak, after his dream, the farmer went to the spot that the old woman had described where dug and found the treasure. Now, despite his share being more than enough to look after him for the rest of his days, he decided to keep the whole hoard for himself. This was an act of greed that he would live to regret, as from that day forward he never knew rest or happiness again.

Every night, whether at home or abroad, old Nanny’s ghost visited him, reproaching him for his greed and his failure to help Nanny’s niece.Though previously a sober man, the farmer took to drinking, but all in vain as his conscience and Nanny’s ghost would give him no rest.

At last, late one Saturday evening, the farmers neighbours heard him returning home from Stokesley Market; his horse was galloping furiously, and as he left the high road to go into the lane which led to his farm he never stopped to open the gate but cleared it with a single bound.  As he passed a neighbour’s house, they heard him screaming out, ” I will I will I will ! ” and when they looked out they saw a little old woman in black, with a large straw hat on her head, whom they recognised as old Nannie, she was seated behind the terrified man on the runaway horse, clinging to him closely. The farmer’s hat was off, his hair stood on end, as he fled past them, uttering his fearful cry, ” I will I will I will ! ” But when the horse reached the farm all was still, and the rider… a corpse!

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Image Albert Edward Sterner [Public domain]

Wise Men

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My friend Graeme Chappell sent me this photo that he took in the York Castle Museum.  The photo is of a Cunning or Wiseman’s rattle, another example from the Whitby Museum can be seen here

The rattles are constructed of pine spills and decorated with charms and mottoes. Rattles were often used by shamanic healers. The rattle is often thought to represent the cosmos, the seeds or pebbles inside are spirits and souls of ancestors. Shaking the rattle activates these spirits who will then assist the shaman. (The Shaman. Voyages of the Soul. Piers Vitebsky. DBP 1995)

Below, a short piece that I wrote for the Bob Fischer show on BBC Tees

Wise Men

In past times when ordinary people were poorly educated, many held a strong belief in magic and witchcraft. If someone had problems they would often consult the local Wise Man.  According to the late Edna Whelan, the last wise man of the moors died in the 1930’s. His name was Charlie Brocket and he lived in Ellers Cottage in Goathland. Charlie had a good reputation for producing Amulets and talismans against witchcraft, many of which were found when clearing out his house

The most famous wise man in our area was John Wrightson of Stokesley, he was the seventh son of a seventh daughter. Wrightson travelled around the district dressed in a long black cloak bedecked with bottles, jars, herbs and a human skull. He had a powerful reputation as a seer, healer and vet, people would travel from far and wide to consult him.

Blakeborough describes him as ‘a man endowed with marvellous psychic power and with the smallest amount of fakery possible’. However local writer and historian George Markham Tweddle considered Wrightson to be little better than a huge swindler.

In his book Yorkshire Wit, Blakeborough tells the tale of Nathan Agar. Nathan was a sixty year old man who wanted to marry an eighteen year old woman. Wrightson had advised against the marriage and foretold an unhappy future for Nathan, but Nathan was besotted with the woman and the marriage went ahead. Later, Nathan called to see the wise man telling him that his savings, five golden guineas kept in a sock, had vanished from its hiding place in the eaves of his house. Wrightson told him to go home and place a leaf of the bible beneath the front doorstep to his house and then carefully watch to see who stumbled as they entered . Nathan did this, the first person to enter the house was his young lodger, who stumbled, he was followed by Nathan’s wife who also stumbled. Nathan returned to the Wise man to inform him of what had happened. Wrightson told Nathan that he would find his property hidden in the pig-sty along with an old watch that Nathan had not missed. The wise man advised that Nathan should return home, keep his watch, give the five guineas to the couple and send them packing.

Wrightson occasionally fell foul of the law, in 1799 he was hauled before an enquiry in Bedale into the poisoning of Thomas Hodgson of Theakston and in 1808 he managed to get himself outlawed from the town of Malton. Ten years later he was re-arrested and en-route to Northallerton jail took some of his own medicine and died.