Lancashire's fairy folklore
As spooks and spectres gear up for their biggest night of the year, a new book reveals Lancashire's rich folklore of fairy and boggart tales
For centuries there was hardly a country lane or remote farm that didn’t have its tale of boggarts or fairies. They weren’t the dainty fairies of Disney films; these were often grumpy and sometimes malicious. You didn’t cross them. Take fairy funerals, for example. It was bad luck if you upset a fairy funeral.
In Penwortham two men saw a funeral of tiny people dressed in black. Robin, one of the men, saw that the body in the coffin looked like him. He cried out in alarm and the fairies vanished. A month later he fell off a haystack and died. At Extwistle Hall in 1715 Captain Robert Parker also disturbed a funeral. Soon after he was drying gunpowder which exploded, killing him and damaging the hall.
Boggarts could be nuisances. To calm them you laid saucers of milk or planted holly, well known for scaring away evil spirits. The 1655 Written Stone near Longridge has holly planted next to it to this day. Boggart Hole Clough, at Blackley, near Manchester, had a troublesome boggart who tormented a family. They decided to leave but, as their cart left the farm, a neighbour heard the squealing boggart on the cart coming with them so resignedly the family returned to their home.
Some boggarts and spirits were horrid. The Bee Hole boggart of Brunshaw snatched a woman called ‘Old Bet’ and left only bits of her skin on a thorn bush. The headless boggart of Longridge appeared as a hooded young woman to a lad going to the White Bull in Longridge. She was carrying a market basket. He offered to carry it but, as he took it from her, he dropped the basket to reveal a head with staring eyes inside. It was hers! He ran away terrified and she laughed at his fear. The White Dobbie of Bardsea in Furness was a gaunt, feverish-eyed pilgrim, preceded by a white hare with bloodshot eyes, who hurried to Bardsea church at funerals.
Why did our ancestors take these tales so seriously? Some researchers say that folklore explains misfortune. Changelings - stunted wizened creatures replacing babies by fairies - may be an old way to deal with congenitally disabled babies. Changelings were voracious and spoke with squeaky voices.
At High Halstead near Burnley a woman had her baby swapped for a changeling. How could she determine the truth? Changelings are very curious so she boiled water in an egg cup. The creature asked her what she was doing and she said she was brewing up. It replied “I’m three score and ten (70) and I’ve never seen anything like that”. Instantly she knew it wasn’t her baby. She snatched it up and found her real baby in a nearby field with an old crone. They swapped their babies in silence.
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Lancashire has many fairy sites: a chapel at Healey Dell, a bridge near Bashall Eaves and a cave at Little Bolland. Aidan Turner-Bishop, author of the fairies chapter in Lancashire’s Sacred Landscapes, believes that some fairy tales may date from Lancashire’s distant Celtic past. The book also looks at sacred beliefs in ancient times - prehistoric circles, Roman Mithras worship at Ribchester, sacred place names, Anglo Saxon pagan stones and Norse crosses, such as Urswick cross, when Lancashire was part of the sea-borne culture of Norse and Celtic kings, before England was dreamed of.
Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, edited by Linda Sever, is published by the History Press, priced �14.99.