Guest post: Martyn Hudson, Newcastle University
The North York Moors of North East Yorkshire are well known for their witch folklore and for lore around hybrid human and animal beings including the witch-hares of Danby Dale, Westerdale and Farndale, mermen and women of the coast at places such as Skinningrove, and for fairy legends and the stories of the hobs. As an intensive Mesolithic and Neolithic landscape there are thousands of burial howes on the moors often on the escarpments and watersheds. Among the roman roads and villa’s prehistoric rock art abounds as do the burial places of Quakers and Anglo-Saxon settlers. The Viking burial ground at Lythe was full of hogsback graves including that of what is known locally as the ‘Gingerbread man’ – a man being eaten by dogs. It is actually probably a representation of the Norse god Tyr (a god of the hanged, of dead places, of war) being torn apart by the wolf Fenrir. Tyr is otherwise known as the ‘leavings of the wolf’. This is perhaps the first emergent visualisation of the Black Dog lore of the moors and the relationship of the dog to death, witches, and burial grounds.
Marx Alexander in his populist book on the exorcist Reverend Donald Omand recounts a story of Omand visiting Kettleness just north of Lythe church and burial ground in the 1950s.i Omand had received letter from a local schoolmaster who with some acquaintances had been terrified as a black dog came out of the air from the sea at Kettleness. Omand himself accompanied the master, and himself apparently encountered the black dog which he exorcised with holy water. The master was hospitalised with mental illness afterwards as a consequence of these events. Simon Isherwood has noted that Omand had previously been to Kettleness and heard stories from a fisherman of the black dog. He states that Omand had also noted that perhaps Stoker had based the black dog incarnation of Dracula on the Kettleness stories and thought that Stoker may have visited there.
Whatever the unlikely provenance of this recent tale the Black Dog of the moors has been ubiquitous in local folklore often in the guise of the ‘Bargest’ or ‘Bier-Ghost’ – a black dog who haunts burial grounds and warns of impending death. Although in local lore witches (of which there were many in the northernmost dales like Commondale and Westerdale) were most likely to take the form of hares to bewitch cattle or to avoid pursuit they also often took the form of black dogs. Peter N. Walker notes that as late as the 1930s a local Yorkshire farm labourer had asked for a ‘damaged’ sixpence to shoot a witch who had taken the form of a dog and was bothering sheep. Only silver could kill the witch.ii Similarly Marion Atkinson in her book on North York Moors lore recounts the landscape legends of Hart’s Leap on Glaisdale Rigg. Here the dogs are called the Gaabrel Ratchet (literally dialect for ‘corpse-hounds’) and hearing them presaged one’s death.iii Geographically this is only a few miles distant from the location of the hybrid monster ‘Gytrash’ at Goathland and Julian Park although the Gytrash is more goat than dog. Further, Nicholas Rhea (a pseudonym also for Peter N.Walker our foremost writer on the northern moors) notes the stories of the Bargest at the Egton church of St Hilda, long associated with the local mass house and the executed Catholic Martyr Nicholas Postgate. The Bargest here haunts the land around the church, foretelling death to the people of the dale.iv
Perhaps the most important work on the lore of the northern moors is Forty Years in a Moorland Parish by Canon Atkinson, first published in 1891. Not only does this testify to the recent, living memory of the witch population of the moor and dales it also points to the very thin, Christian veneer in what were once Danish Norse farmsteads which still bear the name of their Viking ancestors and gods. As an old women said to Atkinson of the witches and warlocks – ‘They wur a vast mair powerful conjurers than you Church-priests’.v Atkinson’s work is full of the folklore of the black dogs but these are black dogs which are both the form that witches take against other humans and also that taunt and bite witches – perhaps because they are incarnate witches from another dale as in the case of the Westerdale witch ‘Old Nanny’. Westerdale hunters were told not to let slip a black dog of theirs when this witch was in hare form like the ‘Auld Nanny’ of Danby dale. But a black dog came out of nowhere and took a bite form her haunch.vi What Atkinson calls the ‘quasi-forms’ of witch/black dog may be related again to wolves as only a mile from what may have been the garth of ‘Auld Nanny’ we have Wolf-Pit slack, where the wolves of the moor were cornered and killed for bounty. The Fenrir mythology may be here very clearly expressed in the memories of wolves on the high moors above Glaisdale and Danby and the black dog motif may be a coded version of wolf stories. Atkinson also recounts a story of the black dog in Farndale over the moor from his parsonage to the south west. A witch here in the form of a female black dog was taking and killing calves. It was shot and for the purposes of detection the hunters went to the house of the witch the next day only to find she has shot wounds in her ‘hinder part’.vii Atkinson himself wrote a specific piece on the Bargest as the ‘true haunt’ of the churchyard which gives a warning of death or calamity in Volume 9 of Notes and Queries.viii
Perhaps the most ubiquitous lore of the moorland of North East Yorkshire and the coast is the lore around graves and the dead. The dead arise as physical, sentient beings here, the very opposite of insubstantial. Like the black dog and the hare they are material entities not wispy spirits. This harks back again to stories of the grave – that much of the lore of burial centres around specific pathways of the dead across the moor. In order to keep the dead in their graves charcoal and burning cinders were thrown into the grave, as in the Lyke Wake dirge, but also teeth were thrown into the fire as proxy sacrifices. This was to ensure that the dead no longer afflicted the living but is also an archaic survival of the Norse burning of bodies. Little wonder that the myths of Fenrir the wolf found such resonance in the landscape of the moors or that the myth was intimately related to rebellion against one’s ancestors. Black dog sightings continue today on the moorlands and they are the staple stories of those caught out on lonely moorland roads in the heart of winter.
i Marc Alexander (1978) To Anger the Devil, London:Neville Spearman.
ii Peter N. Walker (1988) Murders and Mysteries from the North York Moors, London:Robert Hale, p.96.
iii Marion Atkinson (1981) Legends of the North York Moors: Traditions, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, Lancaster:Dalesman, p.41.
iv Nicholas Rhea (1985) Portrait of the North York Moors, London:Robert Hale, p.139.
v J.C. Atkinson (1891/1987) Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, Guiseley:MTD Rigg publications, p.59.
vi Ibid, p.83.
vii Ibid, pp.92-93.
viii Tom Scott Burns (1986) Canon Atkinson and his Country, Guiseley:MTD Rigg publications, p.112.