The Yorkshire Moors can be a dangerous place. On a summer’s day, tourist-friendly areas such as Brontë Country or the North Yorkshire National Park might seem like tamed landscapes, but the weather can change in an instant, bright sun replaced by driving rain, hail or fog. Lose your way and you might find yourself in trouble. Today we worry about accidents, injuries and the ill effects of exposure, but in the past people were concerned with more than just the elements. The moors were seen as ungodly places, the dwelling of devilish creatures and the blanket bog considered a path straight down to Hell.
In my latest novel, The Coffin Path, a ghost story set in the 17th century, my protagonist describes the landscape thus:
'The moor is a wild and lonely place, a refuge for the broken and the tainted, a Bethel for the damned. The Devil hides in peat bogs and speaks in the tongue of curlew and nightjar. I see witch-brew in the storm clouds and hellfire in the sunsets. It is a place for those who have fallen from grace.'
At that time, the threat of the Devil and his minions was real and belief in witchcraft was common in isolated, rural communities. There were other dangers too: sprites, fairies and imps were believed to populate the countryside, causing all manner of mischief and misdeeds. There are legends of dragons asleep in their lairs beneath the hills and abundant tales of ghostly apparitions, both human and otherwise. The northern landscape was busy with the supernatural.
According to some, every dale in North Yorkshire had its own hobgoblin. These small, furry creatures of semi-human form were thought to attach themselves to a particular location, or particular family. Sometimes they could be helpful, carrying out household tasks or farm work in return for a daily jug of fresh cream.
A well-known story from Hart Hall Farm in Glaisdale tells how one such creature worked through the night to complete a task that had defeated the farm workers earlier in the day. It unloaded an entire hay cart that had become wedged between stone flags and was too heavy to move. When the creature was spied working naked at midnight, the workers left clothing out for it. But the clothing was refused and, offended, the hob disappeared forever. Hobs had to be placated but could easily become malicious if slighted. If that happened they could transform into a boggart.
A boggart was not to be trifled with. Always malevolent, these entities lived either within a household, where they would cause chaos by stealing or moving things about, or out on the moors, in marshland, under bridges or holes in the ground. They were associated with all kinds of unusual events, considered the cause of minor injuries and mishaps, stricken livestock, unexplained deaths and even snatched children. Some accounts describe boggarts as fearsome, shape-shifting creatures, occasionally resembling the archetypal devil, with horns, cloven hooves and glowing red eyes, but most were simply ugly, squat and recognisably human. These creatures struck real fear into communities and it was common for people to use charms or symbols of protection to keep them away – it’s thought that today’s good luck symbol of the upturned horseshoe originated as protection against boggarts.
Most people have heard of will-o-the-wisps or jack-o-lanterns, the strange unearthly lights that appear by night over marshland. Often said to be bluish in hue, these lights can be stationery or can flit about erratically, but always move or disappear completely when approached. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, they were known as peg-o-lanterns or Peg’s Lantern.
For centuries they were interpreted as fairies or evil spirits aiming to lure unsuspecting travellers to a watery grave. In some places, they were known as corpse candles, thought to be the souls of those who had drowned in the marshes who craved the company of the living.
Scientists have long tried to explain the phenomenon, with various hypotheses including escaping marsh gasses and luminescent fungi, but no one has yet come up with a definitive answer. Sightings are much less rare today, which can be explained by the draining of much of our wetlands, but they do still occur, though even in this age of smartphones, none has yet been convincingly caught on camera.
As the name suggests, the caves of the deep ravine known as Troller’s Gill in the Yorkshire Dales are reputed to be the haunt of trolls and sprites, but the most dangerous creature to call it home is a fearsome black dog called the Barguest. Mythical black dogs appear frequently in British folklore and are generally seen as an omen of death. They are known by several names; in Yorkshire they are Skriker, Gytrash, Gabriel’s Hounds, or the Barguest.
The story of Troller's Gill concerns a local man who, tired of the barguest’s reign of terror, went to face down the monster himself. Choosing a wild, moonlit night, he planned to venture into Troller’s Gill alone, draw the monster out by performing ritual magic, and attempt to banish or slay it. The man’s mauled body was found the next day, marked with wounds that were not made by human hand.
Another black dog is said to haunt the coffin path in Swaledale, at Ivelet Bridge where those carrying their dead to burial would rest their burden on a coffin stone before crossing the river. It’s said the barguest would appear silently, cross the bridge and plunge into the river – if seen by one of the coffin bearers, then they would likely be travelling the same way before the year was out.
Over the centuries, such beliefs have stayed alive through literature and film. From Conan Doyle and the Brontës, to Tolkien and JK Rowling, our folkloric past continues to inspire, as much a part of our cultural heritage as it is part of the landscape that inspired it. Even today, off the beaten track it’s still possible to experience a sense of isolation and menace in the vast inhospitable landscape of the moors. Next time you go for a ramble, spare a thought for the travellers of the past and their journeys fraught with supernatural peril.
3. Troller's Gill, North Yorkshire © Andrew via Flickr