Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Mystery of MacKinnon's Cave

On the west coast of the Isle of Mull, tucked away on the coast next to a beautiful waterfall, can be found a mysterious sea cave known as MacKinnon's Cave. According to local legend the cave is a dark and foreboding place, and although versions of the story vary, all seem to end with those who enter the cave meeting an unfortunate and gruesome death. The most detailed account can be found in Maclean's History of the Island of Mull, Volume 1 (1923):
"There is a story that twelve men of Clan Fingan set out to explore Mackinnon's Cave, headed by a piper. Another party walked on the surface, keeping pace with the music. When the party in the cave reached the extreme limit, the fact was to be signalled by a bar of music, and the party above was to mark the spot. After travelling some distance the explorers encountered a fairy woman, who made an attack and slew the party one by one, save the piper, whose music so charmed her that she offered to spare him so long as he did not cease to play on the pipes. The piper retraced his steps to the entrance of the cave, closely followed by the fairy. She agreed that when he saw the light, he could go in peace. He staggered along in the dark, almost overcome by exhaustion, but bravely pouring out his breath, in hopes of reaching his haven. The notes became harsh and discordant, the drones began to groan and the chantes to screech. In spite of the struggle, the contest was too great. The music ceased, and then the fairy attacked and slew him. The harsh notes of the pipe warned the party over the cave that some calamity had befallen the explorers, and unsheathing their swords they rushed to the rescue. Just as they gained the entrance the piper finished his last bar. They found the mangled body of the piper beyond which were the bodies of his companions."

An earlier mention of MacKinnon's Cave can be found in Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1898) where the cave is described as "a narrow passage about six feet wide, obstructed by large stones, over which, having passed, there is a second cave of about twenty-five feet in breadth ; and here is a square stone called Fingal's Table." This 'table' can still be seen today, a massive flat stone in the deepest part of the cave. When we visited the table was looking particularly eerie, with a large circle of burnt out tealight candles...

Boswell tells that "The cave derives its same from a tradition that a gentleman of the name of Mackinnon was lost in seeking to explore the cave", but no mention is made of a piper or of Mackinnon's unfortunate fate.

Curiously, Boswell's later published The Life of Samuel Johnson: Including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Volume 1 (1932) gives a slightly different account and tells that "a piper and twelve men once advanced into this cave, nobody can tell how far, and never returned." He also adds that "A great number of the McKinnons, escaping from some powerful enemy, hid themselves in this cave till they could get over to the isle of Sky."

More recent versions found of the tale on various websites tell of a piper trying to defeat the fairies in a piping competition, and he walked into the cave accompanied by his dog. Only the terrified dog returned alive, but with his fur burnt off. In some versions of the tale he emerged on the other side of the headland, near Loch Scridain.

I haven't managed to find an earlier written source to back up this version of the tale in relation to MacKinnon's Cave, but there are similiar tales on the Isle of Skye and elsewhere. Swire's Skye: The Island and its Legends (1961) tells of a piper called MacCrimmon who entered a cave with his little terrier dog, whilst his sons and friends followed the sound of his pipes above ground. Near Fairy Bridge the pipes suddenly ceased but barking could still be heard and they followed it to Dhubaig where out of a cave ran the little terrier, with every hair singed off his body. Perhaps MacKinnon and MacCrimmon have become confused over the years.

According to the Calmac website, the piper met a female ogre in MacKinnon's cave, who killed him after he failed to please her with a tune from his pipes.

So the true story of what happened in this cave remains cloaked in mystery, but the stories certainly seem to suggest that something unpleasant lurks deep within this cave. Not one to be scared easily, I decided to find out for myself, accompanied by my husband for moral support (and to help me climb over the rocks, he's part mountain goat I swear). A great detailed description of how to find the cave can be found on the Walk Highlands website, though be warned the walk does involve a lot of scrambling over large boulders and slippery rockpools, and the cave can only be reached at low tide. Here's a few photos from our visit to the cave:

Perhaps there's still something living in the cave after all, when I zoomed in on the above photo I spotted a face in the rocks, a trick of the light or something more mysterious?

Sources & Further Information
History of the Island of Mull, Volume 1, Maclean (1923)
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, Boswell (1898)
The Life of Samuel Johnson: including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Volume 1, Boswell (1932)
Skye: The Island and its Legends, Swire (1961)

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Shellycoat

(Shellycoat by Alan Lee, from Faeries)

The Shellycoat is a curious fae creature, rarely spoken of and even more rarely sighted. He has been sighted in two areas of Scotland, the Ettrick area in the Scottish borders, and Leith near Edinburgh. I've yet to hear of sightings elsewhere, but please do let me know if you've heard of any local Shellycoat sightings.

Walter Scott describes the Shellycoat in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Volume 1 (1802) as a spirit who resides in the waters, belonging to the class of bogles, who has given his name to many a rock and stone upon the Scottish coast. He appeared decked with marine productions, in particular shells, whose clattering announced his approach. One of his pranks was as follows:

"Two men, in a very dark night, approaching the banks of the Ettrick, heard a doleful voice from its waves repeatedly exclaim - "Lost! Lost!"- They followed the sound, which seemed to be the voice of a drowning person, and, to their infinite astonishment, they found that it ascended the river. Still they continued, during a long and tempestuous night, to follow the cry of the malicious sprite; and arriving, before morning's dawn, at the very source of the river, the voice was now heard descending the opposite side of the mountain in which they arise. The fatigued and deluded travellers now relinquished the pursuit; and had no sooner done so, than they heard shellycoat applauding, in loud bursts of laughter, his successful roguery. This spirit was supposed particularly to haunt the old house of Gorrinberry, situated on the river Hermitage in Liddesdale".

Meanwhile Leith was having its own Shellycoat problem. Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh Vol 3 (1880s) by Grant goes as far as claiming he was "long the bugbear of the urchins of Leith". Campbell's The History of Leith (1827) claims that Shellycoat resorted at a large rock on the site of the present wet docks below the Citadel, and to run around his stone three times repeating a certain rhyme was considered in latter days an act of temerity which none who valued their lives would dare to perform.

Hutchison gives a fuller account in his Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith (1865), describing Shellycoat as "a sort of monster fiend, gigantic but undefinable, who possessed powers almost infinite, who never undertook anything, no matter how great, which he failed to accomplish; his swiftness was that of a spirit, and he delighted in deeds of blood and devastation. He was clothed in a coat covered with shells, the rattling of which was so unnatural and unexpected, that it appalled the hearts of all who heard it, and his usual haunts were near rivers or lakes, and by the sea-shore." When Shellycoat stripped off his coat and left it on a rock the coat defied mortal strength and no man could remove the coat, but while unclothed Shellycoat was perfectly helpless and harmless. His dwelling is said to be the Shellycoat Stane of North Leith, not far from the citadel. Hutchison again mentions circling the stone three times, but this time gives the all-important rhyme:
"Shelly-coat! Shelly-coat! gang awa' hame,
I cry na' yer mercy, I fear na' yer name."
Unfortunately the rock was apparently blown to pieces on the formation of the docks according to Hutchison, though the Georgian Edinburgh website tells that the rock was moved to the entrance of the local sewage plant and became known as the Penny Bap. However Russell's The Story of Leith (1922) claims the Shellycoat rock, which was destroyed when the docks were built, was bigger than the Penny Bap at Seafield, suggesting this was a different rock. Perhaps a Leith resident can leave a comment on this?

Now for the exciting part! Just this week I came across a story of the Shellycoat I had never read before, found purely by luck whilst researching something completely unrelated. The story comes from the above mentioned Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith (1865) and tells of a terrifying encounter between English Dick, a descendant of Cromwell's troopers, and the Shellycoat. English Dick was drinking in a Leith hostelry when mention was made of the mysterious shelly-coat. Now Dick was not a believer and wagered a gallon of wine that he would, at that very hour, proceed alone to the Shelly-coat Stane and in defiance of its guardian, repeat the famous rhyme. The local folk considered this proposal so reckless that they wanted no part of the mischief which they believed would follow such a mad adventure, but eventually after much taunting and drinking, two or three of them accepted his challenge. They accompanied Dick a portion of the way towards the stane but parted at the north end of the old bridge, refusing to venture any further. Dick shook hands with his friends, full of confidence, and it was arranged that in half an hour, after completing his mission, he would rejoin his friends. The men retraced their steps to the Foul Anchor to pass the time until Dick returned. An hour passed, then another, and midnight arrived without English Dick making his appearance. One man proposed they go and search for him immediately but no one volunteered to go with him, and after much discussion they all agreed to proceed to the rock at dawn, most of the men too terrified to return home alone. At dawn they proceeded to North Leith in search of their missing comrade, and there at the Shelly-coat Stane they found English Dick, lying insensible with two broken legs and his body covered in bruises. He was carefully carried to the Foul Anchor for medical attention, and he eventually recovered but it was a long time before he was ready to speak of that night.

When he eventually agreed to speak he summoned his friends to the Foul Anchor and there told them the tale of his encounter with Shellycoat. He told them how he had begun to have doubts but proceeded to the stane and repeated the rhyme. "For an instant I thought I had triumphed - not a sound, save the rippling of the tide, disturbed the perfect stillness of the night. Suddenly, and
without any premonition, I was startled by a most appalling noise which seemed to approach from the direction of Newhaven. It cannot easily be described, but it seemed as if all the shells in the universe had been collected together, and then carried up into the air by a fierce tempest, and dashed against each other with uncontrollable fury". He saw the outline of a giant figure, towering between him and the sea, and it made one tremendous stride towards him, with an infernal clatter. "In a voice of singular softness, considering the appearance of the spirit, he demanded why I had summoned and defied him?" The Shelly-coat seized him by the shoulders and lifted him above his head, and they traversed the air in the direction of Inchkeith in a clatter of shells. Dick was set down on the highest point of the island and Shelly-coat let out a prolonged laugh as Dick was hurled from his perch by a mass of earth that struck his breast, sending him flying down to the ground. He was lifted back to the spot and driven from it again and again six or seven times. "I was utterly unable to offer the slightest resistance. Human nature could not bear up against this, and the demonic laugh of the exulting fiend rang on my ears as I lapsed into insensibility". He was also tossed into the sea he believes, as he found he was dripping wet when he regained consciousness. He then found himself being transported back to Leith just as streaks of light were appearing in the east. Shelly-coat dropped him and he struck the rock as he fell, and the fiend gave a ferocious yell before fading away in the same direction he had arrived. Then next event that Dick remembered was waking up in the Foul Anchor with his friends.

An old smuggler gave a different account and instead claimed that Dick had left his friends and joined another public house where he partook of more drink before attempting to climb the Shellycoat stane. He fell off several times before eventually reaching the top and shouted and gesticulated wildly before falling off and breaking both legs. The smuggler said he was running cargo at the time but returned in daylight, only to find Dick had vanished. Who do you believe?

This story also seems to have inspired an Inspector James McLevy mystery titled A Child is Born by David Ashton, published 2008, which can be read here on the Scotsman Website:  In this tale English Dick is found dead by the Shellycoat Stone and the Shellycoat is revealed to be a local man he made a bet with, a smuggler named Prester Nesbit wearing a coat of shells.

I decided to dig a bit deeper and the Dictionary of the Scots Language Website led me to some very early mentions of Shellycoat. A collection of Scots poems on several occasions by Alexander Pennecuik (1769) contains a poem titled The Marriage betwixt Scrape, Monarch of the Maunders, & Blubberlips, Queen of the Gypsies, written about 1720. Here we find the lines "No shellicoat-goblin, or elf on the green, E'er tripp'd more nimbly than the beggars queen".

The Dictionary of the Scots Language also mentions a reference to Shellycoat in Cramond Sess. Rec. MS (1700), "James Walker called him a shellie coat, and he answered him, not to liken him to ane ill spirit." Unfortunately I've yet to find a copy of the manuscript to confirm this.

The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Jan-Jun 1823 contains an article titled Reminiscences of Auld Langsyne No V where the author recollects the stories told by an old widow named Lizzie, who spoke of fairies and imps. "Then came Shelly-coat, a mysterious being. If I recollect rightly, this monster was represented as a human being under a spell, by which he was transformed into a ferocious demon, whose cruelty was insatiable, and his power irresistible".

In Poems by Allan Ramsay (1720) there is a brief mention of Shellycoat: "But yesterday I met her yont a know, She fled as frae a shelly-coated kow." In some areas 'kow' is another word for a goblin or mischievous spirit. In a later edition titled Poems by Allan Ramsay. With new additions and notes (1733) Shelly coat is explained as "one of those frightful spectres the ignorant people are terrified at, and tell us strange Stories of; that they are clothed with a coat of shells, which make a horrid rattling; that they'll be sure to destroy one, if he gets not a running Water between him and it; it dares not meddle with a Woman with child." Strangely, this quote is also given in Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813)  but here he is referred to as 'Spelly coat', though perhaps this is a printing error by Brand or in an earlier edition of Ramsay's poems.

So there we have it, a guide to the Shellycoat. I hope you'll think twice before reciting the Shellycoat rhyme near any large rocks, and if you hear a mysterious clattering of shells following you as you wander along a deserted beach, you'd better start running towards running water, and don't look back!

Sources & Further Information
Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith, Hutchison (1865)
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Volume 1, Walter Scott (1802)
Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh Vol 3, Grant (1880s)
The History of Leith, Campbell (1827)
The Story of Leith, Russell (1922)
Poems, Allan Ramsay (1720)
Observations on Popular Antiquities, Brand (1813)
The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Jan-Jun 1823
A collection of Scots poems on several occasions, Pennecuik (1769)
The Leith Shellycoat, Georgian Edinburgh Website
Dictionary of the Scots Language Website

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Fairies and Pixies of Exmoor

I think it’s about time more attention was paid to the extraordinary fairy folk and pixies of Exmoor! These wonderful little characters are often sadly overlooked and overshadowed by their more famous relatives, the Piskies of Cornwall and Pixies of Dartmoor. Below you will find a beginners guide to the fairies and pixies of Exmoor, including their habits and habitations, and an insight into their curious behaviour.
Although not strictly inside the Exmoor National Park, I’ve also included a couple of stories from nearby locations too including Washford and Minehead. All of the below photos were taken by myself on my trip to Exmoor, I didn't spot any pixies but I'd love to hear of any Exmoor sightings from readers! 
What is a Pixy?
Tongue (1965) describes pixies as ”red-headed, with pointed ears, short faces and turned up noses, often cross-eyed”. She describes pixies as wearing green, while the fairies of Somerset wear red. Katharine Briggs (1967) describes the fairies of Somerset as seen in “the twinkling of an eye, they were smaller, about the size of a partridge and of a reddish brown colour”.
Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) advises that “the Piscy or Pixy of East Devon and Somersetshire is a different creature from his cousin of a similar name in Cornwall. The former is a mischievous, but in all respects a very harmless creature, who appears to live a rollicking life amidst the luxuriant scenes of those beautiful counties”. Don’t let this quote lull you into a false sense of security though, the pixies of Exmoor aren’t entirely harmless and do seem rather fond of punishing those they consider deserving.  
The West Somerset Word Book (1886) describes the belief in pixies as still prevalent, but admits there is great confusion between the ideas of pixies, fairies, witches, bogies, goblins, hags, and other uncanny things. This account in The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897) could be describing either pixies or perhaps ghosts. A lady was driving home from dinner in an old fashioned gig one clear summer night and as the carriage approached an open part of the road the lady saw a group of children, prettily dressed, dancing across the road. She cried to her driver to take care, fearing he would drive into them, and he saw them too and slackened his speed, but the figures became indistinct and disappeared as the gig drew near.
Johnson’s Seeing Fairies includes a sighting by a Miss Voss-Bark who saw two pixies whilst exercising her dogs in the woods near Minehead. She saw the pixies rushing away at her approach, and they ran into a hole leading to a hollow oak. “They are really very human. They forgot to duck their heads, and so off flew their hats and went rolling in the pathway.” She was lucky and managed to find the two small hats, which she described as being perfect little cones of wood.
Page’s An Exploration of Exmoor (1895) describes the pixies as once dwelling in Pixy Rocks, a wild combe near Challacombe, and Snell (1903) mentions a Pixy copse not far from Dulverton Station, and near an old British camp.
If HW Kille is to be believed, then the fairies of Exmoor are no more, and only the pixies live there now. Kille told Ruth Tongue in 1961 that the fairies of Somerset were last seen in Buckland St Mary, and they no longer inhabit Somerset. They were defeated in a pitched battle with the Pixies, and now everywhere west of the River Parrett is Pixyland.
Snell suggests in his Book of Exmoor (1903) that the tales of fairies and pixies on Exmoor may be linked to smuggling: “It has been suggested to the writer that in the days when “fair trade” was carried on over Exmoor, smugglers, for their own ends, deliberately fostered, if they did not originate, such stories.”

Mischievous Pixies
So what do we know about the habits and interests of pixies? Tongue (1965) tells of pixies riding colts round and round fields, leaving circles in the grass known as Gallitraps. If you put both feet inside a Gallitrap you are in the power of the pixies, but if you place only one foot inside then you can see the pixies but still escape.  Elworthy (1886) warns that if a person guilty of a crime steps into one of these circles then he is sure to be delivered up to justice and the gallows, possibly hence the name of Gallitraps.
Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) warns that pixies are said to content themselves with practical jokes and love frolic more than mischief and “will merely make sport by blowing out the candles on a sudden, or kissing the maids with a smack as they shriek out ‘who’s this?’”.  Snell gives further tales of their exploits, taken from Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire, commenting that “essentially the same ideas obtain about the little people on Exmoor as in the country around Tavistock”.
Snell also mentions that Pixies used to sit on Comer’s Gate, at the north extremity of Winsford Hill. “Some of the country people ‘tis said, fear to pass this spot after dark, having no desire to make the acquaintance of a race noted for its caprice, and wielding, as they suppose, supernatural power.”
Comer’s Gate as it appears today

The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897) gives an unusual account of pixies showing haunting behaviour:  the pixies light fires and dress their children; and in the same meadow there is a post, which none can pass at night, because a shapeless thing with rattling chains springs out against the passer-by. “
Many tales of pixies also suggest them to be moral creatures, punishing those who behave badly and teaching them a lesson.  In 1941 John Ash told Ruth Tongue a pixy tale as they drove home to Lucott from Porlock: “There was a old farmer, a terrible near old toad as lived over Ley Hill, and he cheated at market something fearful. So the pixies took him and led’n home round by Horner Valley and Pool Bridge and left him up to the knees in the middle of the girt mudzog by Bucket Hole Gate”.
Horner’s Wood

A farmer near Hangley Cleave did not escape so lightly. Described as a drunken old toad who gave his poor wife and children a shocking life, he never returned home from market until his pockets were empty and his belly full of cider. He’d sit on his pony singing and swearing, until he rolled into a ditch and slept the night there. But the pixies minded and decided to mend his terrible ways. One foggy night as the drunken farmer was coming home on his horse he saw a light in the mist, which he thought to be his home. But the pony wouldn’t stop, he could see the pixy holding the light, and he could see the light was right over the blackest deepest bog. The farmer tried to force the pony straight towards it but the pony dug his feet in so off the farmer hopped and in he walked, straight into the bog, which swallowed him up. The old pony trotted home, and how the wife and children danced! After that the wife left a pail of clean water out every night for the pixy babies to wash in, and she swept the hearth for the pixies to dance on, and she prospered greatly and the old pony grew as fat as a pig. This version comes from Tongue’s Somerset Folklore (1965) but she comments that there are many various versions of this tale.
Pixies also take great delight in confusing travellers and misleading them until lost, known as being ‘Pixy-led’. Tongue (1965) tells a story from Halloween 1943: “I was sent by an old farmer’s wife on Exmoor to fetch her husband from the sheep lawn close to the house. She gave me a wicken cross to carry. I found him quite bewildered in the middle of his own field, though the gate was plain to see in the moonshine. I heard nothing, but he was plagued by the sound of pixy laughter. After I had given him the cross he recovered himself and came back quite readily.”
At Great Gate one luckless person saw twenty four pixies. They discovered her watching them and in revenge they led her about the moor all night, and about the woods, until the break of day when they left her. Another time a farmer returning from Minehead market was led about the fields and moors until morning.
What should you do if you find yourself Pixy-led on Exmoor? Hancock’s Parish of Selworthy (1897) advises of the sure remedy in such cases, to take off your coat and turn it. Turning your gloves inside out is also said to break the enchantment.
Pixy face spotted in a tree
Some pixies who lead travellers astray are known as Will-o’-the-wisp, or Spunkies, though their origins are debateable and some believe them to be a separate race entirely, or the souls of unbaptised children.  Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) describes the false lights the pixies carry as being will-o’-the-wisp, used to guide poor travellers in a fine dance through bogs and quagmires.
Elworthy’s West Somerset Word-Book (1886) instead uses the name Jack-a-lantern to describe this phenomenon, and tells of a farmer who whilst crossing Dunkery from Porlock to Cutcombe with a leg of mutton was benighted. He saw a Jack-a-lantern and cried out whilst following the light “Man a lost! Man a lost! Half-a-crown and a leg o mutton to show un the way to Cutcombe!”. He doesn’t mention what the Jack-a-lantern thought of this strange behaviour!
Palmer’s Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex (1973) advises that Stoke Pero Church in Exmoor is a place where the Spunkies are supposed to come, showing a watcher there on Hallowe’en who this year’s ghosts will be.
Helpful Pixies
The pixies in The Parish of Selworthy, by Hancock (1897) were helpful creatures, and quite similar to Brownies in their behaviour: “The pixies were active in our district in days gone by. If some favoured houses were left ever so dirty, they were found cleaned up in the morning. Even the unfinished operations of brewing have been found completed. The little people came through the keyhole, and expected to be paid by a basin of bread and milk being set for them in a corner. In some houses it was the custom to put a pail of clean water, towels, and soap ready for the use of the pixies.”
The pixies of Withypool in Tongue’s Somerset Folklore (1965) also show similarities to Brownies, vanishing when presented with new clothing: “The farmer of Knighton was very friendly with the pixies. He used to leave a floorful of corn when he was short-handed, and the pixies would thresh it for him. They did an immense amount of work for him until one night his wife peeped through the keyhole and saw them hard at it. She wasn’t afraid of their squinny eyes and hairy bodies but she thought it a crying shame they should go naked and cold. She set to work and made some warm clothes for them and left them on the threshing floor, and after that there was no more help from the pixies.
Withypool Church

They did not forget the farmer, however, for one day, after Withypool church bells were hung, the pixy father met him on an upland field. ‘Wilt gie us the lend of thy plough and tackle?’ he said. The farmer was cautious – he’d heard now the pixies used horses. ‘What vor do ‘ee want ‘n?’ he asked. ‘I d’want to take my good wife and littlings out of the noise of they ding-dongs’. The farmer trusted the pixies and they moved lock, stock and barrel over to Winsford Hill, and when the old pack horses trotted home they looked like beautiful two-year olds.”
Winsford Hill, where the pixies live now
Snell’s Book of Exmoor (1903) describes the pixies as being helpful to farmers too. “It was a common saying amongst the farmers that if you wanted a field of corn reaped properly, it was best to get it done by the pixies. Accordingly, a bounteous supper both of meat and drink was taken out to the field, and left there. The next morning it would be found, sure enough, that the work had been done, and done thoroughly. A day or so later, however, a deputation would call at the farmhouse, and a local labourer, touching his cap, would explain that he was the chief of the pixy-men who had partaken of the supper and reaped the field of corn. The farmer thereupon bestowed a gratuity on the party, who were, generally speaking, well rewarded for their pains.” Whether this really was the work of the pixies, or of a group of enterprising local farm lads, I do wonder.
The Pixy Market
Although not strictly in Exmoor, I think the infamous pixy market of Minehead deserves a mention, and it serves as a good warning never to look at pixies unless they want you to see them. Versions vary, but the story generally goes that a Minehead woman was one day at market when she sees a pixy-child, or a relative she recognises who she knows to have dealings with the pixies, thieving from the market. She confronts him and asks what he’s doing, and he asks her which eye she can see him with. She tells him and he blows into her eye, leaving her blind. Similar stories of pixy markets can be found all over Somerset including Taunton, Chard, and Pitminster.
Pixies at War
Ever so long ago, according to The North-Devon Scenery Book by Tugwell (1863), the pixies were at war with the mine-spirits who live underground, all about the forest and wild hill-country. The mine-spirits forged all kinds of fearful weapons in their underground armouries and used unfair tactics, and the good natured pixies weren’t at all a fair match for them. The Pixie Queen was a resourceful woman, and how she longed to escape the tyranny of the evil earth-demons, so she came up with a plan. Running water, the numbers three and seven, and the mysteries of the circle, she knew to be sure protection against evil, and so she applied them. She assembled her subjects and bade them to build on the summit of a central Exmoor peak the strange circle that can still be seen today at Cow Castle, Simonsbath. It was no common building they erected, every stone and turf was buried with the memory of some kindly dead which the good pixies had done to the race of men, and so when the magic ring was completed, the baffled demons could not enter the sacred enclosure.
When morning broke on the summit of the fairy ring, ring after ring of amber-tinted vapour rose up and floated away in the brightening sky, each on a mission of safety and peace. They wandered hither and thither over Exmoor, leaving rings of the greenest grass where these magical rings sunk down softly on the ground. Here the pixies dance on moonlit nights, unharmed by the mine demons, who were never seen above ground again.
Cow Castle

The Green Lady
There are mentions made of a Green Lady in Exmoor, perhaps ghost or perhaps fairy in origin. Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex, Palmer (1971) tells that the Green Lady of Crowcombe warns of coming illness, and she is considered a very unlucky ghost to see. The author describes her as an “other world fairy creature that has passed into oral tradition as a ghost”. Tongue also mentions three white ladies in other areas of Somerset who seem to be more fairy than ghost, including the white lady of St Julian’s Well and the White Rider of Corfe.

The Woman of the Mist
Tongue (1965 & 1967) mentions the Woman of the Mist, seen in the autumn and winter on Bicknoller Hill near Watchet. She describes her as herding the red deer, like the Scottish Blue Hag, and as being sometimes reported as an old trail crone gathering sticks, and sometimes as a great misty figure who becomes part of the mist. She was seen face to face in 1920, and again in the 1950s. A darker more sinister mist like creature has been reported by Hancock (1897) in the Parish of Selworthy, described as an indefinable black object that grows larger and larger until it shuts out the moonlight.

Protection from Pixies
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Ruth Tongue includes many hints and tips on how to protect yourself and your property from the pixies and fairies. A piece of advice from Exmoor in 1907 advises to tie a piece of wicken (quicken or quick beam) to the tails of your cows with a red thread to protect cattle from fairies and pixies. On St Thomas Day (December 21st) hang up wicken crosses in all the stables and cowsheds (1903).
Old Billy of Washford met a hurd-yed (red haired) someone in a lane, and then he spotted another and another as he continued his journey. “So old Billy he did do what he should ha’ done fust go. Hed’ shut his eyes, n’ cross his two fingers, ‘n go on sebem steps.”
Other pixy protection methods from Somerset but not specific to Exmoor include turning your coat inside out, a rusty horseshoe on the inside of the lintel to keep out pixies, a flint with a natural hole through it, making the figure of two hearts and a criss cross on the malt when brewing to keep the pixies off, never picnicking under an oak tree on a Thursday, stirring jam with a hazel or rowan twig so the fae folk can’t steal it, leaving a pin in a baby’s frock until it’s christened, never wearing green in May, and burning Christmas evergreens to prevent them turning into pixies else they’ll plague you for a year.

Sources and Further Information
The North-Devon Scenery Book, Tugwell (1863)
Popular Romances of the West of England, Robert Hunt (1865)
West Somerset Word-Book, Elworthy (1886)
An Exploration of Exmoor, Paige (1895)
The Parish of Selworthy, Hancock (1897)
Book of Exmoor, Snell (1903)
Somerset Folklore, Tongue (1965)
Folktales of England, Katharine Briggs & Ruth Tongue (1965)
The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, Katharine Briggs (1967)
Palmer’s Oral Folk-Tales of Wessex (1973)


“They’ll tell ‘ee three things ‘bout an Exmoor Pony ‘can climb a cleeve, carry a drunky, and zee a pixy.”
– Briggs (1965)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Water-Horses of Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag

 Many a Scottish loch lays claim to a water-horse, but how many can say they have a whole herd living beneath the still dark surface? Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag in the North West Highlands is said to be home to not one Each Uisge, but a whole herd! If you've not heard of the infamous water-horse, you can read more about them here in a previous blog. Unusually, this particular story has a reasonably happy ending with no deaths or gore, which does make a change from the usual ending of the water-horse dragging it's victim into the deep murky waters to their doom. This tale comes from Selected Highland Folk-Tales, by Ronald Macdonald Robertson (1961):

"One afternoon in the autumn of 1938, Mary Falconer, a woman of Achlyness in West Sutherland, was taking a shortcut with a companion through the hills to Ardchullin with some venison in a sack slung over her shoulder.

On nearing Loch Garget Beag, she noticed a number of ponies grazing by the lochside. Thinking that one of the beasts - a white one - was her next-door-neighbour's sheltie, and that she would make use of it for carrying her heavy load on it's back the rest of the journey to Rhiconish, she walked towards the animal.

As she came within  a few feet on it, however, she discovered that it was a much larger pony than her neighbour's and to her astonishment, she saw round its neck, entangled with its mane, a cluster of water weeds. The eyes of the animal and the woman met; and in that instant she sensed that she was looking on an "each uisge" and on no ordinary beast.

To her amazement, there and then the whole group of about thirteen ponies, on noticing her, galloped to the edge of the water, and plunging into the loch, sank below the surface in front of her eyes.

Her companion corroborated her story in every particular. The people of Kinlochbervie and district are firmly convinced that Loch Garbet Beag houses in its depths not one water-horse, but a whole herd."

A more typical ending can be found in a tale in Helen Drever's beautifully titled 'The Lure of the Kelpie' (1937) said to have taken place in a loch on the west of Sutherland. The kelpie of the loch was particularly fond of children and when the children came out of school one day he appeared there as a fine horse, and of course the children couldn't resist fussing over such a beautiful beast and child after child climbed up upon it's back, all in a neat row. Only one boy refused, a boy named Dougal, something warned him to keep away. But boys will be boys, and he couldn't resist entirely and gently stroked the horse's coat with one finger. He felt an uncanny power drawing him nearer and he knew that something was very very wrong. He whipped his knife out from his pocket and gave a great slash at his finger, releasing himself from the powers of the Kelpie. His finger remained stuck fast to it's coat! The kelpie gave a snort and then "to the horror of the teacher, who had just appeared at the door of the school, he soared up into the air in the direction of the loch. He poised himself above it for a second and then with a great splash kelpie and children all disappeared below its surface."

Drever uses the names of 'Water-horse' and 'Kelpie' interchangeably, as does Stewart in his 'Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland' (1823), but they are sometimes described as different creatures, with Water-Horses dwelling in the still waters of lochs, and Kelpies in the running water of streams and rivers. Stewart gives Water-horses a very bad name indeed, describing them as infernal agents, retained in the service and pay of Satan. "His commission consisted in the destruction of human beings, without affording them time to prepare for their immortal interests, and thus endeavour to send their souls to his master, while he, the kelpie, enjoyed the body." However, the Kelpie "had no authority to touch a human being of his own free accord, unless the latter was the aggressor", hence why he would appear as a fine steed to tempt a passerby into mounting his back.

If you'd like to take your chances and visit Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag, it can be reached by parking in Rhiconich and following the beautiful riverside path along the Rhiconich River heading South-East. Eventually the river widens into a beautiful still loch with a dilapidated boathouse. No signs of water-horses when we visited though!

Sources & Further Information
Selected Highland Folk Tales, Ronald Macdonald Robertson
Travellers' Tales of Caithness and Sutherland, Helen Drever & Ronald Macdonald Robertson
The Lure of the Kelpie, Drever
Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, Stewart