In 1903, The Folk-Lore Society published its fourth volume in the County Folk-Lore series, collected by M.C. Balfour of Belford, Northumberland. In it, Balfour very aptly named a section ‘Goblindom’, which collated the folk-tales of Northumberland specifically referring to the ‘Little Folk’ that for centuries were a supernatural staple in northern English popular belief and lore. Many of the supernatural entities in this article originate in the sixteenth century – long before the rise of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century, and in these earlier entities many of the facets often now regarded as ghostly can be seen (in particular poltergeist activity). When it came to the ‘Little Folk’, Northern England had no room for ‘Tinkerbell’ – even the fairest of fairies had their dark side in our region’s folklore.
Of interest is how in many cases Goblin or Faerie lore morphed in time into ghostlore or what some now somewhat dramatically class as ‘demon’-lore. This is a question posed many times, but again is worth repeating: Many folk often take ghost tales at their word, but when a ghost story has developed out of a goblin story, are the believers in the tale really believing in goblins and faeries? Moving that argument on a little – if investigators in the field or eye witnesses to ghostly events claim to have encountered one of these morphed ‘sprites’ can it be seen as proof that the experience isn’t real, or conversely that the ‘goblin’ still holds sway? Perhaps, looking from the opposite viewpoint, the culture of goblins was simply used back in the sixteenth century to explain what our own popular culture now regards as ghosts? Whether cultural, psychological or even supernatural, it is a fascinating process.
So who, or rather what were the creatures said to torment us? Bogies (otherwise known as Bogles, Bug-a-Boos, Bogey-Beasts, Brags, Bullbeggars) were one of the most common form of ‘goblin’ reported in the North East of England, and unfortunately also classed as one of the most dangerous. Their sole purpose of existence appears to have been the misery of humankind, to which they applied themselves with great vigour both alone and in packs. Bogies were said to be members of the Unseelie Court, the race of faerie-folk whose aim it was to kill, hurt and destroy anything human. Bogies were often thought of as shapeshifters, so not one of the creatures would look the same as another, and in some cases were said to be creatures of no form, so no weapon known to man could harm them. In some legends though, fire was a sure way to kill a Bogie, but the creature would have to be held in the flames by pitchforks until the moment of death. Brags were also a form of Bogie. According to the folklorist Balfour, Brags were found in many places throughout Northumberland and Durham. One account of such a creature was the Picktree Brag, which terrorised the Picktree area, often changing its shape to that of a calf or a naked man with no head, or simply to a horse where he tricked the local populace into riding him, whereupon the Brag would throw them into ponds or over hedges. Like most Bogies, Bullbeggars were shapeshifters that excelled in tormenting travellers. Bullbeggars tended to take human form, pretending to be sick or injured on the road, and when approached by a concerned person, would leap to their feet and give chase, increasing in size to massive proportions and roaring as they came. If the Bullbeggar didn’t fancy that particular torment, it could become invisible, terrorising an unwary traveller with its phantom footfalls following the poor soul on their journey. A Barguest (or Padfoot) was also said to be a shapeshifter, similar in nature to a Bogie and was reported across counties north of Leeds. The creature in its natural form was said to resemble a huge black dog, with flaming eyes and horns, and acted as a death omen for those that saw the creature.
The Capethwaite Bogie
This bogie was said to haunt the lands by Milnthorpe in Northumberland. Unlike many of his brethren, Capelthwaite was often kind and useful to the local farm-folk, taking on the shape of a huge black dog and aiding in the region’s sheep herding. However, as helpful as he was to the locals, his true bogie nature came out to play with strangers to the area, who he would terrorise and chase without remorse. Finally, a priest was called in to force the bogie out of the area, and he trapped Capelthwaite beneath the River Bela in an exorcism.
Stories of Dwarfs aren’t as common in the British Isles as they are in the Continent, especially in Germany, but we do have our share of them. Generally, Dwarfs are described as short, stocky and very hairy, often dressed in animal skins, and like the rest of Goblindom, possessing a short temper with humankind.
The Duergar are your football hooligans of the Dwarf Class in Goblindom. These creatures, often described as ‘dark dwarfs’ were malicious and evil, and liked nothing more than to hurt, maim or kill humans. The tale of the Simonside Dwarfs tells of a traveller’s close encounter with the Duergar when he got himself lost in the Simonside Hills on his way to Rothbury on a winter’s evening. Groping blindly through the dark and freezing cold, the traveller noticed with some relief a small stone hut a short distance ahead with a blazing fire in the hearth. Entering the hut he found it to be empty, so sat on one of the stone seats by the fire and fed it some kindling. Shortly, a dwarf entered wearing lambskins and moleskins and scowled at the startled (and now rather worried) man, but said nothing and sat on a stone seat opposite him across the fire. Luckily, the traveller was well versed in the regions tales of the dark dwarfs and decided rather that running for it an probably dying from the cold or a Duergar knife in the back, he would sit in silence by the fire. As the night wore on, the traveller again fed the fire with some kindling, much to the obvious annoyance of the dwarf, who suggested that instead he put a large log on the fire, which was next to the dwarf. The man shook his head in silence, ignored the cold seeping into him from his stone seat and waited out the dawn without moving.
As the first rays of light hit the windows of the hut, the dwarf suddenly vanished, along with the fire and the hut. More worryingly for the traveller, he found himself perched on the very edge of a precipice – if he’d moved to pick up the dwarf’s log then the next thing he felt would have been the sharp jagged stone of the ravine floor…
Another Dwarf in Northumbrian folklore was the Brown Man, said to haunt the moors around Elsdon in Northumberland. He was a forest dwarf who claimed guardianship over the area’s birds and animals. It was said that the Brown Man was as fierce in appearance as he was short, with red hair and blazing mad eyes, and was also said to be twice as strong as a mortal man. If you were unlucky enough to meet the Brown Man (especially if you were hunting his birds and animals), apparently only running water such as a river or stream could stop him catching you and ripping you limb from limb. His influence was far-reaching though, and tales were whispered that he could kill a man with a simple curse without even touching him – a rather unfair advantage one could say!
Another extremely ‘popular’ sprite was the Brownie (also known as Dobies or Broonies). Distinguished from other fairy-folk by their brown skin (hence the name Broonie or Brownie), these mischievous creatures were from the less malevolent walk of life within Goblindom, which is probably just as well due to the number of tales surrounding them. Household Brownies were described as very short hairy men with no noses (just nostrils), who wore either nothing at all or simple sackcloths, and helped around the house at night when the human household had retired to their beds. Brownies asked for nothing in return for their services, barring a good wholesome ration of food. Like the rest of Goblindom, even these helpful folk seemed to have been short on the temper gene, and would take offence if their work was criticised or the food left for them was of poor quality: do that enough, and it was said that the friendly helpful Brownie may end up turning into a Boggart, the description of which can be found below. If you truly wished to get rid of your Household Brownie, then rather than anger the creature and risk a Boggart incident, the only way to rid the household of the creature was to give it a gift of clothing: the clothing given, the creature would depart the house never to be seen or heard from again. In some parts of the Northumbrian Borders, Brownies were called Dobies: no doubt the inspiration behind the house elves in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series.
The Cauld Lad of Hylton
The Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle (Sunderland) is perhaps the region’s most famous Brownie, and it is a story that is often intermingled with a ghost story to boot. Dealing with the case purely from a Brownie point of view, the Cauld Lad was said to be a standard Brownie who would help out with the day-to-day chores around the castle, clearing up messes left during the night and so on. However, he took the Brownie temper issues a little too far and took to messing up rooms and areas that had been tidied by the human castle staff before sundown. Naturally, the castle staff soon tired of their own efforts being destroyed by the little Brownie, and one night laid out a new cloak and hood for their unwanted guest alongside his supper. The Cauld Lad (who presumably had received the nickname due to the Brownie standard of clothing) pulled on the hood and cloak, and before vanishing never to be seen again shouted:
“Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood,
The Cauld Lad of Hylton will do nae mair good!”
… Presumably waking the entire household as his final mischievous act!
As previously mentioned, distressing a Brownie was said to be a bad idea. Boggarts were said to be the result of Brownies that had uttered the phrase “Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” and had been ignored. The normally innocuous Brownie, angered or abused, would grow a long ugly sharp nose, his teeth would grow to points, and his fingernails would lengthen to talons – and suddenly what was a helpful Brownie would turn into a mischievous Boggart whose games and jokes had a habit of becoming a little more sinister. Unlike Brownies, Boggarts were also very difficult to get rid of – some would say impossible – until the creature grew bored of his tormenting antics and left of his own accord.
There was also said to be another form of Brownie, known as Blue Bonnets (otherwise known as Blue Caps). Blue Caps were a form of Brownie said to work and live in the coal mines of Northern England. Blue Caps were said to work as putters, those in the mines whose task it was to move mine tubs after they had been filled, and the Blue Caps were paid the standard wage of a normal putter. Like their housebound kin, the Blue Caps were fickle, and if they were paid more than their human counterparts would refuse to push the tubs, annoyed at the slight to his human brethren, and if they were not paid enough then they just refused to work at all, and could be seen to leave the mine. In appearance, the Blue Cap was a simple blue light (hence its name), and was said to be able to do the work of a dozen human putters.
Of all the ‘Little Folk’, fairies are the entities that have been transformed the most by popular culture. The beings that have been transformed into tiny winged pixies by Hollywood and numerous fiction writers were often described in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as being small and slight in stature, with beautiful features and golden hair, hanging to their shoulders. According to these folklorists, the fairy-folk generally wore green clothing and enjoyed song, music and good cheer. And there, pretty much, the link to the sparkling folk of our childhoods ends.
At night, the fairy folk would mount pale horses decked with bells as a warning of their approach, and would head into the countryside to raid and pillage. Legend has it that nothing could prevent their ride, and they left no trails to follow. They were rarely seen by humankind, save in the gray light of the early dawn where they could sometimes be seen revelling in woodland glades.
According to Balfour, Wednesdays were the Sabbath for fairies, and it was unwise to disturb them during this time, much as it was to disturb them during their dinner.
Rothley in Northumberland is home to a number of fairy tales, with perhaps the one demonstrating fairy vengeance most clearly being the tale of Rothley Mill. The Mill it was said was the Great Hall of the Fairy Court, with the mill’s kiln being their kitchen. To avoid strife with his supernatural guests, the miller left oats for their pottage, and in turn they left him alone and occasionally cleaned up the mill for him. However, after a while the miller grew tired of their presence and decided to try and move them on. Waiting until dark when they were making their supper, he threw a sod of earth down the chimney sending burning embers and boiling pottage flying. However, he instantly regretted that decision as the cry of “Burnt and scalded! Burnt and scalded! The sell of the mill has done it” went up from the fairies and he fled with the fairies in quite literally hot pursuit. They caught up with him at the style before Rothley and merely touched him with their angry hands, whereupon his body bent double and he remained a cripple for the rest of his life… A life lesson, perhaps, not to disturb a fairy’s supper?
A number of substances and items became known as being associated with fairies. For example, in the nineteenth century, old fragments of clay tobacco pipes that turned up in the soils of folks’ land were often referred to as fairy pipes, mistaking their short lengths as pipes belonging to a small fairy, rather than having been broken in antiquity. Also, Fairy Butter was a fungus excretion, that was considered lucky when found in someone’s home.
Moving from fairies back to something a little more goblinish, with the number of ruined castles, towers, bastles and farmhouses in the North East, it comes as little surprise that these impressive ruins developed their own goblins, the tales probably created to help prevent squatters, and possibly inspired by travellers meeting an untimely demise at the hands of thieves and brigands holed up in the ruinous fortifications. The North East developed two different types of ‘tower goblin’, the thoroughly evil Redcaps and their lesser cousins, the Dunters or Powries.
Out of all the goblin races feared in the North East of England, it was perhaps Redcaps that took the crown. Redcaps were described as old men, immensely strong, with sharp pointed teeth and hooked talons for fingernails. The creatures armed themselves with a pike staff and always wore a red cap, hence their name. Redcaps were said to haunt the deserted ruins of castles, bastles and towers, preying on unwary travellers and dowsing their caps in the blood of their victims. To make things even more awkward for those seeking shelter in their haunts, Redcaps were said to be immune to all human weapons, and the strength of ten men could not prevail against one Redcap. The only way to repel a Redcap was to advance forward against him with a cross or crucifix whilst quoting the Bible, whereupon he’d scream and vanish, but not for long…
Dunters were the milder cousins of the Redcaps, said again to haunt Border castles and towers. Rather than murderous like their counterparts, the Dunters were more just plain annoying, said to make a constant noise akin to grinding barley with a stone quern. The Dunters were also thought to be doom-bringers, and that if their grinding sound ever got louder then it heralded misfortune or death for the listener or his family.
As can be seen in this brief summary of some of the North East’s goblin lore – these goblins often possessed many of the traits modern popular culture now ascribes to ghosts or, more particularly, poltergeists and the recent obsession in my quarters by demons. From the Brownies’ abilities for disruption and noise, to the Redcaps’ weakness being a crucifix and Bible reading. What this means for our (a general collective term) belief in ghosts and spirits is perhaps up to us as individuals to decide… is the belief just a development of an idea to explain our fear of the dark, or does it show that perhaps these entities are very much real, and we simply label them differently now?
As the old saying goes… now discuss!
- Tony is the founder of Otherworld North East. He is an archaeologist by trade and classes himself as a sceptic.