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.


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


‘T’Hunt o’ Yatton Brigg

‘T’ Hunt o’ Yatton Brigg is a dialect poem by Richard Blakeborough which was published in 1896. The poem is too long to reproduce here but it tells the tale of the Old Witch and John Simpson.

John Simpson was in love with a girl from Great Ayton called Mary Mudd, unfortunately Mary loved a man named Tom Smith. John Simpson’s love soon turned to hate of the pair and he asked the local witch, Old Nanny, to work an evil spell on Tom and Mary.

After some arguing Old Nanny agreed , telling him to go to the churchyard and gather certain things, these are not specified in the tale. Once this was done she gave him instruction what to do with the things that he had collected. She then instructed him to wash in the old well and leave her besom (broom) by its side.


John carried out Old Nanny’s instructions but broke faith and ignored Nanny’s final injunctions, thinking that the Old Hag would not know. He then set out for home.  He soon discovered that he was mistaken and was visited by a number of demons followed by three hags who knocked him down and flew him to the top of Roseberry Topping.


Once on the top of the peak the hags bound the besom to John’s legs and told him to hurry away as fast as he could because they were going to hunt him with all the unearthly things suchlike could call to their aid.


After a terrifying chase John remembered that the witch had told him that he would be safe from harm as long as he had a foothold on Ayton Bridge (Yatton Brigg). John ran for the bridge but with just a few yards to go was tripped by the besom and fell into the beck. The hags dragged him out of the water and bit and scratched him until he was half dead. The hags finally left him as dawn broke and the tale ends.


The Cleveland Dyke

The Cleveland Dyke is a band of igneous rock that was injected, whilst molten, into the local rocks during the Tertiary period of geological time (approx 60 million years ago). The dyke originated in a large magma chamber beneath the Island of Mull on the west coast of Scotland and has been estimated to have taken between 1-5 days to travel to North Yorkshire.


Looking from Cliff Rigg Quarry to the Langbaurgh Ridge. The old quarry sites along the ridge can be seen between the trees. I have often wondered whether the people who lived in this area during prehistory used the Langbaurgh Ridge as a routeway from the River Tees to the moorlands. Bronze Age burials have been found in Ingleby Barwick close to the outcrop of the dyke. There are many prehistoric sites around the outcroppings on the North York Moors, particularly on Fylingdales Moor.


The dyke is mainly buried beneath glacial deposits but  outcrops at a number of locations across Cleveland and the North York Moors. Where ever the dyke outcrops it has generally been quarried away. The rock, a basaltic andesite  but popularly known as whinstone, it is a very hard rock and was ideal for road building both as a hardcore and to make setts and blocks for surfacing.


During the late 1800’s Leeds Corporation operated the quarries at Cliff Rigg just outside Great Ayton. The Middlesbrough to Whitby railway runs just beneath the quarry so it was possible to extract the stone and ship it by rail to Leeds.

Ironstone was also mined at Cliff Rigg and the surrounding area.