Tuesday 18 October 2022

Robert Kirk Revisited

Doon Hill, from Aberfoyle Kirkyard gates

I first blogged about Robert Kirk and Aberfoyle in 2010 and I have been hoping to return ever since. My original plans were unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic, but nothing could keep me away this time! I only planned to reread my notebooks before my visit, but quickly fell down the research rabbit hole, and now I present to you a new updated blog post, Robert Kirk revisited. It's a rather long post, but I hope it will be of use to anyone researching Robert Kirk, or anyone who is curious to know more about this most intriguing man.


"If it be true that Mr. Robert Kirk was chosen as her chaplain by the Fairy Queen, Her Majesty is to be congratulated on her good taste." - David Baird Smith (1921)

Drawing of Robert Kirk at Balquhidder, by Watson Wood 1907 

It is believed that Robert Kirk was born around 1644, 9th December 1644 according to Donald Maclean, who gave a talk to the Gaelic Society of Inverness titled The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk, of Aberfoyle in 1924, and quoted a diary entry by Kirk that reads "Decr. 9, 1689, Age 45". Though Rossi in his Text-Criticism of Robert Kirk's Secret Commonwealth believed it was probably 6th August. He was the youngest son of James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, and according to Maclean, Robert was the seventh son. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and studied theology at St Andrews and after his studies became the minister of Balquhidder on 9th November 1664, aged just 19 years old. Interestingly, Maclean said that Robert himself spelt his surname as 'Kirke' in his Bible and letters, but in his psalms spelt it 'Kirk'. Here I will be using the latter, as it is most often used today.

According to Scott's Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Volume IV (1923) Kirk married Isabel Campbell January 1670, and they had 2 sons, Colin and William. Sadly, Isabel passed away on 25th December 1680 aged 25. David Smith's article titled Mr. Robert Kirk's Note-Book, which appeared in The Scottish Historical Review July 1921, tells that Robert recorded his wife's death in his notebook, together with an elegy, and he writes she "was married to her husband near 3 years, and left alive one son, Colin." This would put their date of marriage nearer 1677 and suggests that if they did have a second son, William, sadly he did not survive. Perhaps poor Isabel died in childbirth.

The Old Church, Balqhidder

On the 9th June 1685, according to Maclean, he became minister of Aberfoyle, and it was here he married his second wife Margaret Campbell (daughter of John Campbell of Glendaruel, and his previous wife's cousin according to Rossi). Together they had a son called Robert, who became minister of Dornoch, as well as a daughter called Marjorie, according to Scott's Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae. 

I have often wondered where in Aberfoyle Kirk lived. Canmore records for the Manse of Aberfoyle mention an "Incomplete and unsigned discharge by Robert Kirk, Minister at Aberfoyle, to William Earl of Menteith, for money for rebuilding the Manse of Aberfoyle. 1687 GD220/6/1835/33, as well as a "Discharge, written and signed by Mr Robert Kirk, Minister at Aberfoyle, to William, Earl of Menteith for 300 merks Scots for rebuilding the manse. 1687 GD 220/6/1835/35". However, whether or not this rebuilding took place I do not know, as there are also record of a proposed Manse to be built in Aberfoyle in 1734. Maclean's The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk, contains two letters written by Kirk in September 1691 which are addressed from 'Inch-Allodine'. Was this the name of the Manse, or did he live elsewhere, I wonder?

Antique postcard of Aberfoyle Kirkyard and Doon Hill, from Strathard Heritage Website

Kirk remained the minister of Aberfoyle until his mysterious death on 14th May 1692. His gravestone can still be seen today in Aberfoyle church yard, though Lizanne Henderson points out in her paper The Guid Neighbours: Fairy Belief in Early Modern Scotland 1500-1800 (1997), that the lettering style suggests that the stone was carved at the end of the eighteenth century, if not later, so is unlikely to have been placed there at the time of his death. 

Robert Kirk's Gravestone, September 2010


Although famous for his mysterious death, he is perhaps most well-known today for his writings on fairies, more commonly known as "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies". During his own lifetime he was better known for his religious work, including his first complete translation of the Scottish metrical psalms into Gaelic. According to Reid's Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica (1832), during the time Kirk was writing his Psalter he found out the Synod of Argyle was intending to publish their own translation, and "such was his anxiety to have his finished first, that he sat up the greater part of the night for many months; and, during this time, the method he took to chase away sleep was rather singular,- he put a piece of lead into his mouth, and placed a basin of water in position, into which the lead dropped as soon as he fell asleep." Maclean writes of Kirk, "his name will be honourably associated for ever with the first Gaelic Bible that was put freely in the hands of Highlanders.", and he reminds us that for over 100 years Kirk's Bible was the only Gaelic Bible available to the Highlanders of Scotland. 

As well as writing religious texts, Kirk also recorded some of his thoughts and learning in a series of notebooks and diaries. Some of these books have survived and are now held at the University of Edinburgh. When I saw a couple of his manuscripts a few years ago at the Between Worlds exhibition in Durham, I was surprised to see that he seemed to enjoy drawing and doodling in his notebooks. Below are a couple of pages from Kirk's Summa Doctrine Posterior (Dc.8.114) thought to date from around 1660, before he took his minister post at Balquhidder. You can see more images from his notebooks here on the University of Edinburgh Collections website.      

Used with kind permission of The University of Edinburgh. 

An interesting article titled Mr. Robert Kirk's Note-Book was included in The Scottish Historical Review 18 in 1921. It was written by David Baird Smith, who purchased a notebook written by Robert Kirk at a sale in London of the library of Professor John Ferguson of Glasgow University. He gives the title as: first Manuscript | A | miscelany of occuring | thoughts on various | occasions | Ro: Kirk | Love and live | August i. at Balquhidder | 1678. Smith also tells it has the signature of C. Kirk inside, probably the writer's son Colin he believes, and the name Thomas Rutherford 1698. The article includes some fantastic extracts from the notebook, including an interesting early mention of fairies:

"lykewise the story of the human-shaped incubi, and stealing of children and nurses, give probable surmises that there are divers clans and kynds of spirits who make their vehicles seen to us when they please, though they are not so gross as terrestrial bodies, but most part aerial needing to be soakt and fed some way as well as ourselves. Such may be the fauns, fayries, satyrs and haunters of hillocks, wells, etc. (for no thing nor place but is inhabited within of some creatures) and since many of these disappear at mentioning the name of God, and that thy foresee evil rather than good, why may they not have a polity among themselves, some of them not so miserable as others, some of them reasoning and learning, others as yet obstinate, blinded atheists (for they but see the works of God to prove a duty as we do; yet are there atheists among us)."

Interestingly, it also contains an example of Robert Kirk having his own unusual experience that perhaps predicted a future event:

"Though I use not to notice dreams much, yet March 25, 1679, I viyels perceived and thought I felt a great tooth in my head break into two halves part by part and com off; on the morrow (my father being removed twenty years before) my mother took bed and on Monday thereafter about 2 a clock, gave up the ghost. Who knows if some courteous angel gives us a warning by our imaginations or senses, of extraordinary accidents. I am sure at several slips, I have susteand immediately loss of goods or hurts of my body, vexing reports of fama. Though God does observe and may manage every particular in this world by himself; yet he may use the medial ministry of angels towards men, as of man towards beasts."

It appears Kirk was perhaps not fully appreciated by his parish, and he writes "When I hear of evil tales concerning myself in the country (endeavouring intirely to keep the commandment) only reply that I thank God they have not worse news to occupy them with." I wonder what 'evil tales' people were telling of him?

Another entry suggests that perhaps someone stole from him at the church or manse, and he writes that "robbing and stealing from ministers is a visibl token of atheism and total decay of the sense of God and religion". In another entry he writes "How true is it, homo homini lupus? No creatures prey on their own kind but man. Look through tame and ravenous, none make it their own profit or glory to kill or steal from those of their own feather or keel." He writes of the difficulties of being a minister, and how his preaching appeared to have little effect at times and "many thousand good discourses are spent among deaf stones and men and timber every day. Great therfor must be the pains in kindling som sparks of knowledge by catechising and rooting the youth in the principls of religion e'er they can attean to be attentive to a sermon, and not only gaze (but not understand) like bruits." The notebook entries included in Smith's article give the impression that Kirk was a very pious man, a deep thinker with strong opinions, but also with a feeling of isolation from those in his parish. Maclean's The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk mentions a letter written from his friend Rev. James Kirkwood to Robert Boyle, where Kirk is described as "a learned, pious and zealous man".


At some point it appears Kirk decided to collect his notes and thoughts on fairies and the second sight and similar subjects together and write a manuscript, now known as The Secret Commonwealth, a shortened form of its much longer title. No one knows exactly what prompted this, but some believe it all began during a visit to London to oversee the printing of Bedel's Bible into Gaelic, where he spent 10 months before returning to Aberfoyle in March 1690. 

Rossi tells us that during this time in London Kirk visited many churches, of all denominations from Anglican to Roman, and also Quaker meetings, and wrote down comments on them in his notebooks. Maclean writes that Kirk "did not attend religious services to satisfy a craving for curiosity, or to pay a formal respect to his conscience and vocation, but in the spirit of a devout and receptive hearer who was willing to be a debtor to any religious instructor irrespective of his religious or ecclesiastical communion." In his diary he wrote a summary of each sermon together with his opinion of the preacher and their sermons, the size and "quality" of the audience, the features of the church or meeting house, and any other notes including a Quaker who irritated him with misquotations, and a country minister who made tedious repetitions. Kirk gives a fair assessment of each but concludes that the preachers of the Church of England surpass all others in pulpit effectiveness.

One of these services that Kirk made note of was a sermon by the Bishop Stillingfleet at St Andrew's in Holborn on 6th October 1689, where he spoke against miracles and apparitions, and at the end of the sermon he invited Kirk to his home for dinner. Kirk wrote in his diary that Stillingfleet "came to enquire of the Second Sight, only heard to be in the Highlands of Scotland. When I told him some had it innocently by their predecessors, he said original sin came from ancestors, yet not innocently, and so sins of ignorance. When I said some acquired it by contact with evil men or spirits, he replied that, it being a voluntary act, and having no natural dependence of cause and effect, it was sinful. I said yawning was voluntary, yet it affected others by imitation, and that innocently, and there was no more dependence of the effect from the cause naturally, and understood by us, than of the loadstone drawing steel." Kirk continues later in the diary entry for that night, "When I urged to the Doctor that as lynxes and cats see in the night beyond men, and as telescopes aid the natural sight by art, so may not some men have, or attain complexionally to such a habit or faculty. He answered that by many subtle, unthought of insinuations the devil interposed in such cases, and sought no other invitation than the eager curiosity of the enquirer as of him that caught a fly and put it in the box." Maclean's The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk contains these and more fascinating diary entries, and of that night Maclean writes of Kirk, "One cannot help, even at this distance of time, applauding the brave mountaineer.". 

At this dinner Kirk also met Lady Stillingfleet, the Bishop's wife, who was interested in learning of the seventh child's gift of touching for the King's evil. Some say she had recently given birth to a seventh child herself. Rossi tells us that among the many biblical quotations on the title-page of MS 5022 of the Secret Commonwealth there is a note, 'Sent by the writer to the right Reverend... Bishop of Worcester, His Lady'. Rossi believes that "Kirk had somehow tacitly or expressly promised to send to Lady Stillingfleet (not to the Bishop for understandable reasons of bienséance) a full account of stories referring to fairies, charms, second sight, etc." Hunter's The Occult Laboratory shows that some parts of the manuscript seem to match entries written in his London diaries, which also suggests he started writing his manuscript whilst in London. Kirk's time spent in London was probably quite a contrast to his isolated years spent at Balquhidder, and I imagine he relished the opportunity to share his thoughts with others who shared his interests. Perhaps it was that dinner with the Stillingfleets that further stirred his interests in the second sight and fairies and encouraged him to put pen to paper and write a manuscript.

Trans. Manuscript / Adv.MS.34.6.9

After Robert Kirk's death his manuscript appears to have been left unpublished until a copy of his manuscript (Rossi names this manuscript Trans.) was rediscovered in the Advocate's Library and 100 copies were published in 1815, possibly by Sir Walter Scott. However, John Ferguson's Bibliographical notes on the Witchcraft Literature of Scotland (1897) mentions that he enquired about the manuscript at the library and "so far as can be judged from catalogs, there never was one". Though Ferguson does mention finding another copy at the University Library in Edinburgh, complete with extra pages not included in the 1815 edition, which was probably La.III.551. Rossi also looked for the Trans MS but found no trace and believed it lost. However, I believe it has not been lost after all, and is held by the National Library of Scotland, and is now known as Adv.MS.34.6.9. 

The webpage for MS.5022 here mentions in the bibliography that "The work was printed in 1815 from Adv.MS.34.6.9, folios 413 verso-433.". The page for Adv.MS.34.6.9 does indeed include a copy of Kirk's Secret Commonwealth, and the source of acquisition is "Presented, 1925, by the Faculty of Advocates to the nation on the foundation of the National Library of Scotland." I have not been able to visit in person to see the manuscript for myself, but Kevan Manwaring's Performing Kirk webpage mentions that he also came across this manuscript and viewed it in person. I contacted the library, and they confirmed that they do hold this copy of the manuscript, and from their description I believe it most likely is the manuscript that was used for the 1815 edition. However, the catalogue places the manuscript as early 18th century and it does not appear to have been written by Kirk himself unfortunately, so is most likely another later copy. Both Trans and Adv.MS.34.6.9 are incomplete, and end in the middle of the fifth objection, with a note to 'See the Rest in a little Manuscript belonging to Coline Kirk'.


La.III.551 was acquired by David Laing in 1823 and bequeathed to the university in 1878, according to Sharp in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 126, Part 2 (1959). Page 126 ends 'Finis coronat opus. Writen be Robert Campbell at Insh-Alladine in the paroch of Aberfoyl in Monteith 1691 - Love and Live Robert Campbell' and on p129 'This book belongs to R. C. Pryce 12 sh.'. The full title of this volume is 'The Secret Commonwealth or a treatise displaying the chief curiosities among the people of Scotland as they are in use to this day being for the most part singular to that nation a subject not heir to fore discoursed of by anie of our writers. Done for the satisfaction of his friends by a modest inquirer, living among the Scotish-Irish 1692.' The final sentence suggests that perhaps it was written for the benefit of another, perhaps Robert Campbell or the Stillingfleets? We have no way of knowing, and we do not know who Robert Campbell was unfortunately, though Sharp in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 126, Part 2 (1959) believes it was possibly Kirk's brother-in-law. Maclean's The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk, contains two letters written by Kirk in September 1691 which are addressed from 'Inch-Allodine', suggesting that Robert Campbell was writing the manuscript whilst in Kirk's house.

Rossi describes the handwriting as "decidedly different from that of Kirk, clumsier, badly formed" and writes that Professor Kenneth II. Jackson examined the manuscript and judged it to have been written by someone who could not spell in Gaelic, strongly suggesting that Kirk himself did not write it. Rossi suggests that perhaps Kirk dictated the words to Campbell on his sick bed, but Sharp suggests from the omissions and "several instances of visual anticipation of words lower down the page" that it was copied, though perhaps revised by Kirk himself. Hunter's The Occult Laboratory tells that some amendments to La.III.551 appear to be in Kirk's own handwriting, and that the handwriting of the manuscript changes slightly at intervals, suggesting that it was written in stages. 

This is the most complete manuscript found so far, and it includes all of the Secret Commonwealth, the objections and replies, a section on charms, and a dictionary of difficult expressions. Rossi suggests that this last section was composed for the use of 'someone somewhat uneducated' and suggests perhaps it was for Robert Campbell, who did not understand certain terms used by Kirk.

Used with kind permission of The University of Edinburgh

MS. 5022

The National Library of Scotland also holds an incomplete copy known as MS. 5022, acquired in 1949 from an Edinburgh bookseller who vaguely recollected purchasing it in Angus. According to the NLS website, the remains of the binding show it was once part of a larger volume. Rossi believes the handwriting to be more recent than La.III.551 and suggests the beginning of the 18th century. Rossi tells us that among the many biblical quotations on the title page there is a note, 'Sent by the writer to the right Reverend... Bishop of Worcester, His Lady', which is "inserted with no special marks, as if it were another quotation", suggesting that the writer was copying from another text. He writes that the text is complete up to the end of the exorcisms on p50, and this corresponds to p110 of La.III.551, which then continues with further exorcisms and the vocabulary.


The University of Edinburgh Archive describes Gen.308.D as an 18th century copy, bound by William Henderson in 1814 according to a note on the end paper, and purchased from Storey, Accession E61/18. Walsh says in his The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex (2002) that it was acquired in 1964, so unfortunately it is not included in Rossi's Text-Criticism that was published in 1957. Walsh also compared the manuscripts and believes that Gen.308.D and MS. 5022 are similar enough to suggest they were copied from the same source. 

The Reay Manuscript

Hunter's The Occult Laboratory, as well as containing a wonderful reliable version of La.III.551, also contains some very fascinating letters written to Pepys regarding the second sight. In a letter dated 24th October 1699 Lord Reay writes to Pepys:

"I have Gote a mannu-script since I came to Scoteland Called Ane Essay of the Nature and actiones of the Subterrenians (And for the most parte) Invisible people, heirtofor goeing under the names of Elves faunes and faries, or the like among the low Countrey Scots & tearmed hubhrisgedh, caiben, lusbartan 7 siotbrudh Amongst the Tramontans or Scotish Irish as they are now Descrybed By those that have the second sight And Now to occassione furder enquerie Collected and compared by M: R K. /p.4/"

He tells the writer was a parson and he received a letter this day from a friend promising him his acquaintance. Kirk passed away 7 years ago in 1692, but the manuscript title and R K initials strongly suggest that this was Robert Kirk's manuscript, and that his friend was unaware of Kirk's death. Reay tells Pepys that "when ever I have occasione I shall send you a Coppie of the booke", suggesting that the Secret Commonwealth was in circulation in the 1690s, and had perhaps been published after all, though no printed copies have been found.


It is believed that none of the existing copies are in Kirk's own handwriting, and all are copies of another manuscript, apart from possibly La.III.551 which may have been written down by Campbell on behalf of Kirk, if he was indeed too ill to write it himself. Though, it may also be a copy of a currently undiscovered manuscript or have been copied from Kirk's own notes or diaries that have not been found. Rossi raises the possibility that Kirk may have made a fair copy as best he could to send to Mrs Stillingfleet, perhaps whilst in ill health, and that this was later copied and became M.S. 5022, with the original being lost. Then perhaps, in declining health, he had Campbell make another copy with the final extra additions, which became La.III.551. Unfortunately, it is unlikely we will ever know, but we can hope that more manuscripts of the Secret Commonwealth will yet come to light.

For anyone wishing to read The Secret Commonwealth, there are a variety of editions available, some more reliable than others. After the 1815 edition, it was published again in 1893 with an introduction by Andrew Lang, and in 1933 with an introduction by R. B. Cunninghame Graham. The 1893 edition is available online to read for free on the Internet Archive website, here. Rossi warns that the 1893 and 1933 editions were published with the same spelling mistakes as the 1815 edition and are unreliable, and incomplete. Hunter's The Occult Laboratory (2001) contains a reliable and complete copy of manuscript La.III.551, and Stewart Sanderson’s edition for the Folklore Society in 1976 is supposed to be superb, but I have been unable to find a copy so far. Rossi's Italian version of The Secret Commonwealth, Il Regno Segreto, is also a reliable copy and is available to borrow here on the Internet Archive Website. 

I would also thoroughly recommend Rossi's Text-Criticism of Robert Kirk's Secret Commonwealth. Translated by M.I. Johnston. Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Transactions Vol III Part 4 (sessions 1953-54, 1954-55) published 1957, for anyone interested in learning more about the various manuscripts and the differences between them.

For anyone wanting to learn more about the life of Robert Kirk I recommend the Rev. Professor D. Maclean's The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle. Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol XXXI 1922-24 (1927).

Painting of Robert Kirk in Balquhidder Church, 
used with kind permission of the artist, Gill Waugh


Kirk was not the only minister of Aberfoyle with a keen interest in folklore. In the 2nd edition of Rob Roy (1828) Sir Walter Scott writes "It is remarkable, that two successive clergymen of this parish of Aberfoil have employed themselves in writing about this fairy superstition" and gives mention of Patrick Graham. It is Graham we have to thank for telling us of the mysterious death of Robert Kirk, and in his Sketches of Perthshire (1812) he tells of that fateful night:

"He was walking, it is said, one evening in his night-gown, upon the little eminence to the west of the present manse, which is still reckoned a Dun shi'. He fell down dead, as was believed ; but this was not his fate:

"It was between the night and day,

When the fairy king has power,

That he sunk down (but not) in sinful fray,

and, 'twixt life and death, was snatched away,

To the joyless Elfin bower."

Mr Kirk was the near relation of Graham of Duchray, the ancestor of the present General Graham Stirling. Shortly after his funeral, he appeared in the dress in which he had sunk down, to a mutual relation of his own and of Duchray. "Go," said he to him, to my cousin Duchray, and tell him that I am not dead ; I fell down in a swoon, and was carried into Fairy-land, where I now am. Tell him, that when he and my friends are assembled at the baptism of my child, (for he had left his wife pregnant) I will appear in the room, and that if he throws the knife which he holds in his hand over my head, I will be released, and restored to human society." The man, it seems, neglected, for some time, to deliver the message. Mr Kirk appeared to him a second time, threatening to haunt him night and day till he executed his commission, which, at length, he did. The time of the baptism arrived. They were seated at table; Mr Kirk entered, but the laird of Duchray, by some unaccountable fatality, neglected to perform the prescribed ceremony. Mr Kirk returned by another door and was seen no more. It is firmly believed that he is, at this day, in Fairy-land."  

Image from The Minister of Fairyland by Archie McKerracher, Fate Magazine January 1990


In the 2nd edition of Rob Roy (1828) Sir Walter Scott refers to Patrick Graham as the 'late' Dr. Patrick Grahame, which seems to have come as quite the surprise to Graham, who was very much alive and well! He wrote a rather amusing letter to Scott in December 1829 to say he was indeed alive. "Though till now unconscious of this very material change in the scene and mode of my existence, I am far from questioning a fact stated on such high authority." He makes reference to Robert Kirk, and jokes "Perhaps, indeed, like a well-known predecessor of my own, I have been only carried off by the Daonine Shie, in which case the unearthly being who now addresses you may be no more than a Fairy changeling, left for a time to occupy the place of the departed Minister of Aberfoyle. The whole letter can be found in The Private Letter-Books of Sir Walter Scott, edited by Wilfred Partington (1930).

In Scott's Letters on demonology and witchcraft (1887) he writes of Robert Kirk and includes a version of Graham's story of Kirk at the christening, with Kirk appearing to a relation and commanding him to tell Grahame of Duchray "that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland, and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost for ever." When Kirk appeared, Grahame of Duchray "in his astonishment, failed to perform the ceremony enjoined, and it is to be feared that Mr Kirke still "drees his weird in Fairyland,"". It appears that Patrick Graham and Scott were good friends, with Scott recommending his Sketches of Perthshire, and calling him "an excellent man and good antiquary". Scott was also said to have visited Graham at the Manse in Aberfoyle.

Antique postcard of The Manse, Aberfoyle. From Strathard Heritage Website


The Reverend Robert Kirk has been fascinating folklorists for over 100 years, and many have visited Aberfoyle to find out more.

Evans-Wentz writes in his The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) of making a visit to Aberfoyle, where he spoke to Mrs J. MacGregor who kept the key to the old Churchyard containing Kirk's tomb. She pointed to the Fairy Knoll and told him "the hill is full of caverns, and in them the 'good people' have their homes". He also visited Rev. William M. Taylor, the present minister of Aberfoyle, who was familiar with the story and said he searched the presbytery books but could unfortunately find no record of Kirk's death. He acknowledged that folk believed "he was taken because the fairies were displeased with him for prying into their secrets", but he thought it more likely that Kirk was taken ill suddenly with "something like apoplexy" while on the Fairy Knoll and died there. Rev. Taylor was sure Kirk's body was buried, but others in the town Evans-Wentz spoke to were less convinced, with some believing that both his body and soul were taken, and others that only his spirit was taken, and his body buried. 

MacGregor's The Peat-fire Flame (1937) tells that "The old folks crossing the River Forth at Aberfoyle, just by the "Dun Shi'" or faery knoll, used to say that, ever since the translation of the Rev. Robert Kirk to the Secret Commonwealth of Faeries, they felt as though someone were riding on their backs. And they sincerely believed this to be none other than the minister who, about the year 1692, had been "spirited away" to faeryland."

Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies (1976), tells a slightly different story of Kirk's death, with Kirk only being found unconscious on the hill rather than dead, "he was accustomed to wander round the fairy hills by night, and one morning he was found unconscious on the Fairy Knowe of the Sith Bruach at Aberfoyle. He was carried to bed, and died without fully regaining consciousness." Briggs also writes that in 1944 "an officer's young wife was a tenant of Aberfoyle Manse and was expecting a child. She had been told that if a christening was held at the manse, Kirk could still be disenchanted. The chair that was traditionally his still stood in the dining-room, and if anyone stuck a dirk into the seat of it, Kirk would be freed. The young wife hoped that they would not be posted before her baby is born." Unfortunately, I can find no record of whether she was still in Aberfoyle at the time of giving birth, and whether a christening was held at the manse.

According to Scott's Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Volume IV (1923) Kirk "was walking on a 'fairy knowe' when he sank down and disappeared". Some say that Kirk is still inside the fairy hill today, and a poster in Balquhidder church tells that "his parishioners believed that he had been spirited away by the Little People to live with them inside the Fairy Hill."

A Robert Kirk display at The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, run by Forestry and Land Scotland, tells "The Fairies did not like being listened to and stole the Reverend Kirk's spirit and trapped it in a pine tree. The villagers found his lifeless body on the hill with his ear to the ground."

Robert Kirk display at The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, October 2022

The Minister's Pine, as it is called on a sign by the gates to the kirkyard, can be found on the top of Doon Hill. I have yet to find any older sources that mention the tree's connection to Robert Kirk, but it features heavily in current folklore in the Aberfoyle area, including in the name of a local bar and restaurant, The Faerie Tree. Hendrie's The Trossachs: History & Guide (2004) tells "At the top of Fairy Hill, as it is often known, the exact spot where the minister was spirited away by the fairies is said to be marked by the tallest tree, a solitary Scots pine which soars skyward amongst the surrounding oaks." Other stories take this further and claim that Robert Kirk's soul is trapped inside the tree. A Forestry Commission Scotland sign at the base of Doon Hill, tells "The old Scots pine tree on top of Doon Hill is said by some to house the soul of Robert Kirk.". A Queen Elizabeth Forest Park leaflet by Forest and Land Scotland contains a Doon Hill walk and tells that the solitary scots pine at the top is "thought to mark the entrance to a Fairy Queen's underground palace". 

The Minister's Pine on Doon Hill, October 2022

According to issue 85 of Strathard News (2014) St Mary's Episcopal Church column, over the summer months they delved into the archives and script of the BBC Home Service programme about the Trossachs, broadcast in 1939. The article tells "The programme's producers were anxious to find out more about the Fairy Knowe outside Aberfoyle so brought the then Minister of Aberfoyle Kirk the Revd W.G. Strachan to the microphone. Mr Strachan opened his talk by advising his listeners who might visit the hill to walk around it nine times anti-clockwise. Only then might they be admitted to the community of the 'Little People'." I have not come across this piece of folklore before in connection with Doon Hill, but it is a well-known method of entering a fairy hill, so it appears that this Minister of Aberfoyle was also familiar with the folklore of the Good People! 

Issue 7 of Strathard News (July 2003) tells that BBC Scotland commissioned a drama documentary on Robert Kirk, titled 'Kirk Away with the Fairies' that was due to be shown later that year, but I have been unable to find a copy unfortunately.


In the twelve years since I last visited Aberfoyle, the fairies have certainly become a lot more noticeable! When I last visited in 2010 Kirk's gravestone was bare, but today I found it absolutely covered in coins. I was told by a local lady that people leave offerings to the fairies there. 

Robert Kirk's Gravestone, October 2022

There are fairy houses carved into tree stumps along the path up the hill, covered in colourful ribbons and offerings, and the Minister's Pine is also covered with a wide variety of messages and wishes. A wooden mushroom along the path has coins hammered into it too. A sign at the base of the hill from Forestry Commission Scotland asks that people only leave non-biodegradable items behind and says that biodegradable "clouties" are available from local businesses in Aberfoyle.

But there is far more to Doon Hill than bright garlands and shiny coins, it also has a certain wildness...

...especially at twilight...

Sources and Further Information

Briggs, Katharine. Dictionary of Fairies (1976)

Edinburgh University Library, Images from Robert Kirk related manuscripts

Evans-Wentz, Walter. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911)

Ferguson, John. Bibliographical notes on the Witchcraft Literature of Scotland (1897)

Graham, Patrick. Sketches of Perthshire (1812) 

Henderson, Lizanne. The Guid Neighbours: Fairy Belief in Early Modern Scotland 1500-1800 (1997)

Hendrie, William. The Trossachs: History & Guide (2004)

Hunter, Michael. The Occult Laboratory (2001)

Macgregor, Alasdair Alpin. The Peat-fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands & Islands (1937)

Maclean, Donald. The Life and Literary Labours of the Rev. Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle. Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol XXXI 1922-24 (1927) p328-366

Manwaring, Performing Kirk: A search for authenticity in the dramatisation of the life of the 'Fairy Minister', Reverend Robert Kirk

McKerracher, Archie. The Minister of Fairyland, Fate Magazine January 1990

Partington, Wilfred. The Private Letter Books of Sir Walter Scott (1930)

Reid, John. Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica (1832)

Rossi, Mario. Text-Criticism of Robert Kirk's Secret Commonwealth. Translated by M.I. Johnston. Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Transactions Vol III Part 4 (sessions 1953-54, 1954-55) published 1957

Sanderson, Stewart. A Prospect of Fairyland, Folklore, Volume 75 (1964)

Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Volume IV (1923)

Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1887)

Sharp, L.W. The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 126, Part 2 (1959)

Smith, David Baird. Mr. Robert Kirk's Note-Book, The Scottish Historical Review 18, volume XVIII No 72 July 1921 https://archive.org/details/ScottishHistoricalReview18

Strathard Heritage Website

Walsh, Brian. The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex (2002)

Wednesday 6 October 2021

The Fairy Doctor of Carue

My post today tells of a curious tale I came across completely by chance whilst holidaying near the Cairngorms in Scotland. I would say it's not often I book holiday accommodation only to discover there's a fairy site a 5 minute walk away... but this seems to be happening surprisingly often!

This tale takes us to a beautiful forested area east of the Cairngorms, near the village of Logie Coldstone. According to Epitaphs & inscriptions from burial grounds & old buildings in the north-east of Scotland, by Jervise (1875) the fairies once lived in the Seely Howe, a hollow in the Carue Hillock upon the laird of Blelack's land. Before leaving for the 1745 wars he became determined to dislodge them from his land, and called upon the services of "a reputed magician, named John Farquharson, tacksman in Parks". However, the fairies refused to obey his command to leave until they were assigned a new place to live. Farquharson agreed, and sent them to the Hill of Fare near Banchory, but they deeply disliked their new abode and announced to Gordon, the laird of Blelack:

"Dool, dool to Blelack, 

And dool to Blelack's heir, 

For drivin' us frae the Seely Howe, 

To the cauld Hill o' Fare!" 

Whilst to Farquharson himself they told:

"While corn and girs grows to the air, 

John Farquharson and his seed shall thrive nae mair!". 

Jervise adds that Farquharson's luck went bad from that day onwards and he left his native country and was never heard of again. The laird died without lawful issue and his estate passed to his sister's son. 

However, according to Tales and memories of Cromar and Canada by Donald Robert Farquharson (1930s?), John Farquharson's fate was not so terrible after all, and the plot thickens! According to the author, John Farquharson was also known as "The Fairy Doctor" and the author's father told him that he lived at the farm of Carue, though his father may have been in error as another family of the same name believed that he lived at "The Parks of Coldstone", the farm on which the author's father was born. However, the fairies lived on the farm of Carue, in a knoll known as "The Fairy Seely Howe".  He tells:

"In this hollow the lingering fairies were supposed to have their abode or place of meeting, and the most friendly relations seem for some time to have existed between them and The Fairy Doctor. Their visits to his home were frequent, and there were times when, in words betokening the most tender attachment, they deigned to serenade their friend. To this latter fact witnesses the one refrain of their songs which has come through my father to my knowledge: 

"Johnny, I lo'e ye, Johnny, I lo'e ye, 

"Nine times in ae nicht will I come and see thee." 

At last, for some reason not disclosed there was a breach in the harmony. Probably the little people in green became a nuisance either to Johnny himself, or to the laird of Blelach whose residence was near Carue. Whatever the cause, Johnny, the "Witch" or "Fairy" Doctor, was constrained to summon them out of The Seely Howe. On the ground that the summons was defective inasmuch as it had failed to indicate an assigned destination, the fairies refused to move. Johnny thereupon peremptorily ordered them to remove to the "Hill of Fare," about seventeen miles distant, and near the town of Banchory. Reluctantly the little people obeyed the behest, but first left with their quondam friend a permanent reminder of their opposition and malice, in words which my father rendered, 

"As lang as corn and girse grow to the air, 

"The Farquharsons will be rich nae mair."" 

The author then mentions the story also appearing in Rev. J. G. Michie's History of Logic Coldstone (1896), and tells that the copy he was gifted in Feb 1897 included a manuscript sheet in the handwriting of Mr Michie with some further information, probably received from his friend the minister of Selkirk.

 "The full imprecation on Farquharson ran thus : 

"Now we maun awa' to the cauld hill o' Fare, 

"Or it will be mornin' e'er we get there ; 

"But though girs and corn should grow in the air 

"John Farquharson and his folk shall thrive nae mair."

However it appears that John Farquharson and his descendants did thrive, and the following record was received by Mr. Michie from one of John's descendants, but too late for insertion in his book. 

"John Farquharson, born about the year 1700 A.D., became tacksman of The Parks of Coldstone which he left soon after the Rebellion of 1745, migrating to Moray where he took a farm near Forres, in the churchyard of which he was interred, and his son after him and where there is a tomb-stone to his memory. The legend about the fairies was preserved in the family, in consequence of which he was known as "The Fairy Doctor."

The book continues with further information about the successful lives of his descendants. It appears in this instance at least, the fairies did not follow through with their threats to him, a narrow escape compared to the fate of the poor laird of Blelack.

As I was staying in a holiday lodge a short walk from Blelack I couldn't resist going for a wander to see Carrue for myself. Issue 59 of Ballater & Crathie Eagle magazine, Autumn 2010, contains an article titled The Fairy Doctor of Carrue by Ken Glennie and confirms that "Carrue, a former farm, is now a wooded area south of Blelack House, Logie Coldstone". Unfortunately it's difficult to know exactly which knoll the stories speak of, and the ground is so densely forested that it's hard to spot hollows and knowes. I hope the maps and photos below will give an idea of this beautiful location though. No wonder the fairies were reluctant to leave!

Sources and Further Information
Epitaphs & inscriptions from burial grounds & old buildings in the north-east of Scotland, Jervise (1875)
History of Logie-Coldstone and Braes of Cromar by John Grant Michie (1896)
Tales and memories of Cromar and Canada by Donald Robert Farquharson (Book is undated, some library catalogues say 1930s)
Issue 59 of Ballater & Crathie Eagle magazine, Autumn 2010, The Fairy Doctor of Carrue by Ken Glennie

A big thank you to Cairngorm Lodges, it was on their website I first discovered the story, after I'd booked a week away in one of their beautiful lodges! If anyone is thinking of taking a quiet forest break, I thoroughly recommend them.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

The Skinningrove Merman

Many many years ago in the North Yorkshire village of Skinningrove, or Skenegrave as it was once known, a most unusual and newsworthy event took place. A sea man, or merman, was captured by the fishermen of the village and kept for many weeks before escaping back into the sea!

I first read of the sea man of Skinningrove in Graves' The History of Cleveland (1808) and Ord's The History and Antiquities of Cleveland (1845), and they both give the source of the tale as the Cotton manuscripts, a collection once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631), and now held in the British Library. With the kind help of Jeff Kattenhorn at the British Library we discovered the mention of the sea man is found in the Cotton MS Julius F VI 1529-1640 collection, in a letter from one H. Tr[…], possibly to Sir Thomas Chaloner. Concerning antiquities in the north of England, particularly around Gisborough. ff. 453r-462r.   

It was fantastic to finally see photos of the letter mentioning the sea man, and with the help of Jarvis Transcriptions I include below a transcript of the part of the letter that mentions the sea man:

"For when all wyndes are whise and the sea restes unmoved as a standinge poole, sometymes there is such a horrible groninge heard from that creeke at the leaste six miles in to the mayne Lande that the fishermen dare not put forth, though thirste of gayne drive them on houdlinge an opynion that the Ocean as a greedy beaste rageinge for hunger desyres to be sattisfyed with mens carkases. At  Skenegrave the olde proverbe is verifyed that abundance makes them poore; for albeyt that they take such abundance of fishe, that often they are forced to throwe greate part of ther purchase over boarde, or make their greater sorte of fishe for lighter carriadge shorter by the heade, neverthelesse for the moste part what they have they drinke and howsoever they reckon with god yt is a familar maner to them to make even with the world at night that pennilesse and carelesse they may goe lightly to labour on the morrowe morninge. It was my fortune to see the cominge in of a five man Coble which in one night had taken above 21 score of greate fishe a yearde or an ell in length, happie were that contry if a generall fishinge were enterteyned by buildinge Busses and store of fishboates. Ould men that would be loath to have their credytes crackt by a tale of a stale date reporte confydentlye that 60 yeares since or perhaps 80 or more a sea man was taken by the fishers of that towne whome duringe many weekes they kepte in an oulde house givinge him rawe fishe to eate for all other foode he refused in steede of voyce he skreeked and shewed  a curteous acceptance of such as flocked farre and neere to visyte him. Fayre maydes were welcomest  guestes to his harbour, whome he woulde behould with a very earneste countenaynce, as if his phlegmaticke breaste had bin touched with a sparke of love. One daye when the good demeanure of this newe gueste had made his hoastes secure of his aboade with them he privily stoale out of doores, and ere he coulde be overtaken recovered the sea wherunto he plonged himself, yet as one that woulde not unmanerly depart without takinge of his leave, from the mydle upwardes he raysed his shoulders often above the waves and makinge signes of acknowledging his good entertainment to such as beheld him on the shoare as they interpreted yt, after a pretty while he dived downe and apeared noe more." 

Below is the actual letter, held in the British Library, and included below with their permission:   

© British Library Board (Cotton MS Julius F VI ff. 456r-457r)  

The oldest published mention I have managed to find so far of the Skinningrove sea man is in William Camden's Britannia. First published in Latin in 1586, it was later published in English in 1610.  

"Upon the shore, Sken grave a little village is much benefited by taking great store of fish: where also, by report, was caught a Sea-man about 70. yeeres since, that for certaine daies together fed of raw fishes: but espying his opportunity escaped away unto his proper element againe."

Below you can see the text as it appears in the 1637 edition: 

Google books contains a copy of the 1600 Latin edition that includes Kilton Castle but does not seem to mention the sea man. A translation of the 1607 edition by Philemon Holland can also be found online here and does mention the sea man, where he is described in Latin as a "hominem marinum". This 1607 edition tells the sea man was caught about 70 years ago, which would place the capture date at around 1537. However the undated Cotton MS letter tells he was caught 60, 80 or more years ago, suggesting the tales of the sea man's capture may have been passed down orally with the exact date unknown, and could be much older. 

Another author to mention a "hominem marinum" was Pliny, a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher who lived during the 1st century. He wrote in his Natural History of a sea man with a human body in the Gulf of Cadiz who would climb on board ships at night and the side of the vessel where he sat was weighed down and if he stayed there longer then it could go below the water. This does rather remind me of Wally the Walrus, who spent this summer months causing trouble on the Isle of Wight and sinking boats! Indeed, some old tales of sea men and mermen may have been a case of mistaken identity and were actually walruses or other exotic sea creatures rarely seen in English waters.   

The Merman of Skinningrove has certainly not been forgotten! There is a beautiful merman wall ceramic in the town as part of the Skinningrove art trail and the village's beautiful beaches are well worth a visit.

Curiously, there are also rumours of mermaids at nearby Staithes too, but the oldest version of that tale I've managed to find is Peter Walker's Folk Tales from the North York Moors (1990), it's a fantastic tale but perhaps an original story by Peter himself? I'd love to be wrong though so please do leave a comment below if you know of an older mention of the Mermaid of Staithes!

Sources and Further Information

Britannia, or, A chorographical description of Great Britain and Ireland, together with the adjacent islands, Camden

The History of Cleveland, Graves (1808) 

The History and Antiquities of Cleveland, Ord (1845) 

Skinningrove Art Trail

A big thank you again to Jeff Kattenhorn at the British Library and Claire Jarvis of Jarvis Transcriptions for their help with this research, without them this blog post would not have been possible.

Friday 30 July 2021

Fairies of the Whitby Area

Bridge at Beck Meetings

After a year and a half of hiding in the house avoiding Covid, and not reading nearly as many books as I had intended to, I've had my covid vaccines and the world is finally starting to feel like a safer place again. Last week I ventured out to the Whitby area on a careful and cautious socially distanced holiday that involved a lot of early morning wanderings before the car parks filled up, and a lot of Yorkshire banoffee ice cream in Runswick Bay! 

This post will focus on fairy sites and sightings of the Whitby area, for lack of a better geographical description! Some sites are further north and south along the coast, and others further inland, but all are within reasonable proximity to Whitby. There are many more sites further west into the North York Moors and beyond but I will save those for a future visit and blog post!    

Thanks to Percy Shaw Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923) we know that fairies were sighted in the Whitby area as far back as 1650. Jeffrey was assisted in his research by folklorist Major Fairfax-Blakeborough, who gave him access to his father's research and his great-great-grandfather's diary, as mentioned below. He writes, "There is a very circumstantial and interesting account of some Whitby fairies in Major Fairfax-Blakeborough's old diary under the date ye 7, 1650, as follows:- 

"Very earlie in ye morning Ralph Blackburn, George Pickersgill, Anthony Thompson and Mary his wife, having to goe to Whitby when they came nigh unto Anthony Barker's small close they one and all espied many fairies disporting themselves righte merrilie in their splightlie midnight revels. They watched yem for some time, until one dancing a little space from ye ringe discovered yem when, giving a signal, they departed on the instant, and not one of them kennd wither. Alle ye witnesses are of good report. Thys pleaseth ye Townsfolk mightly, none been seen syn Dan Outhwaite war murdered eight year cum next Candlemas.

Ye fairies were oft seen after thys, even by mysen as late as a week ago, T.R. (Thomas Rogers, who transcribed the notes from the original MS in 1695)."

A note has been added to this: "Me Thos. Dodd seed Fairies in our close mony a time at Beck Meetings. T.D." 

Beck Meetings

 Jeffrey notes that Beck Meetings is a small village near Staithes, and elsewhere in the book writes "even so late as 1870, when any Staithes fishing coble was driven into Whitby by stress of weather, the thirteen members of the crew would walk home to Staithes through the dark winter evenings hand in hand, in order to give them other confidence against the various terrors that fly by night." Gutch's Folklore of Yorkshire (1901) also mentions Staithes folk and tells that "fearless as are the fishers in their daily juggling with the dangers of the sea, yet so fearful are they of nameless spirits and bogies, that I am assured I should be unable to find a volunteer who for a couple of sovereigns would walk by night to a neighbouring village of Hinderwell, a couple of miles distant." Folks certainly seemed to be scared of something lurking in the nearby area after dark.


The Hob-Hole Hob of Runswick Bay

In Runswick Bay are a series of arched caves and holes reaching deep into the cliffs along the shoreline. The most famous of these was known as Hob-Hole, and according to Young's A History of Whitby volume 2 (1817) it was 70 feet long and 20 feet wide at the entrance, with a double pillar that has since disappeared. Leyland's Yorkshire Coast and the Cleveland Hills (1892) tells that the caves were excavated by the action of the sea, but the jet-diggers have now destroyed the "cavernous features of the haunt of the Hob, whereto he was want to beguile the unwary that there they might be destroyed by the incoming sea." Most sources describe the Hob as a benevolent character, and according to Young "his powers were exercised in curing young children of the hooping-cough. When any child in Runswick or the vicinity was under that disease, one of its parents carried it into the cave, and with loud voice thus invoked the demi-god of the place: 

"Hob-hole Hob! My bairn's got kink-cough:

Take't off; take't off!"

 Illustration of Hob-Hole from Young's A History of Whitby vol  2 (1817)

The caves as they stand today are still extremely dangerous and should not be entered as the rocks are unstable and can fall down at any time, you can safely view them from a distance at low tide though.

Claymore Well Fairies

At Claymore Well near Kettleness, according to Young's A History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) "the fairies in days of yore were wont to wash their clothes, and to bleach and beat them; and, on their washing nights, the strokes of the battle-door were heard as far as Runswick!". Atkinson's Forty Years a Moorland Parish (1891) explains that the Battledore was an old-fashioned implement used to smooth newly washed linen, now replaced with the mangle! 

The Black Dog of Kettleness

Although possibly not one of the fairy folk, I feel a quick mention should be made of the curious exorcism of the black dog of Kettleness. Yorkshire boggles and boggarts were known for their shape shifting and could appear in many forms including cats and dogs. 

The Reverend Dr Donald Omand recieved a letter in the 50s from a schoolmaster who claimed that himself and two friends had experienced a wave of terror when looking over the shore at Kettleness and had seen a huge hound, "so large it could not be mortal", that appeared from thin air and disappeared as silently as it had appeared. They were left with a strong sense of evil and believed an exorcism should be performed. Omand agreed to their request and as they set off at night to the shore at Kettleness they saw "what looked like a huge black hound, but bigger than any member of the canine species, known to man. It was moving straight in our direction". The schoolmaster fled back to the car and Omand performed an exorcism, splashing holy water in the dog's direction, and it disappeared. A more in depth account and further information can be found on Simon J. Sherwood and Wendy E. Cousins paper, The Black Dog of Whitby and Kettleness

In a curious twist to the story, at nearby Goldsborough once stood a Roman signal station and when excavated it was found to contain the skeletons of 2 men and a large dog who had met with a violent end. Some say the dog's jaws were clamped around the neck of one of the men. Further details can be found in the Yorkshire Journal issue 3 Autumn 2014. 

Kettle Ness, as viewed from the cliffs above

Mulgrave Woods, Sandsend

Young's History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) tells that a mischievous fairy named Jeanie of Biggersdale lives in the woods "at a place so called at the head of Mulgrave woods". Presumably this is referring to Biggersdale Hole Waterfall, marked on present day ordinance survey maps. 

"A bold young farmer, perhaps under the influence of John Barleycorn, undertook one night, on a wager, to approach the habitation of the sprite, and call to her: but his rashness nearly cost him his life; Jeanie angrily replied that she was coming, and while he was escaping across the running stream, he fared worse than Burn's Tam O'Shanter, when pursued by Nanny the witch; for Jeanie overtaking him just as his horse was half across, cut it into two parts, though fortunately he was on the half that had got beyond the stream!"

Atkinson's Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868) tells that a hobthrush lives in the woods in a certain cave, and that when addressed replies:

"Hob-trush Hob! where is thou?

Ah's tying on mah left-fuit shoe;

An' Ah'll be wiv thee - Noo!" 

Katherine Simpson's Jeanie o' Biggerdale and Other Yorkshire Stories (1893) gives the same rhyme but with the first line being "Biggersdale Jeanie! where is thoo?", in this book Jeanie is described as "the wicked sprite, or bogle, that haunted the mill and glen. Was it not well known that her mocking laugh was never heard but as the forerunner, or accompaniment, of accident or calamity". She was said to bring misfortune on those who inhabited Biggersdale Mill, and resented it being constructed. 

I do wonder how much is fiction or whether many many years ago a woman named Jeanie lived in these woods. Or perhaps she is a nursery bogie character, and children dared each other to call to her inside the cave and then run away before she could catch them? I would love to hear from any locals who have their own stories to share.

The Sandsend Bogey

The infamous Sandsend Bogey, according to Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923), was supposed to live in a cupboard in Mr Snowden's Cottage, and "it used to accompany the fishing boats when they put out to sea, sitting quietly in the bows, and its presence was welcomed by the fishermen as it foreboded a good catch. But after a while, it became more enterprising and, as it took to frightening the village children, the inhabitants of Sandsend petitioned the priest of Lythe, who came to their rescue and exorcised the Bogey with bell, book, and candle, so that thereafter it appeared no more."

The Fairies of Pannett's Park, Whitby

Johnson's Seeing Fairies (2014) includes a Whitby fairy sighting from July 1956 in Pannett's Park. "We were peacefully on a seat after an enjoyable but rather strenous walk when I noticed some considerable movement in a tree that grew at the foot of a wooded slope facing us. It was swarming with elves, and when I drew my sister's attention to it, she could see them too, but neither of us had any idea what they were doing so busily." She describes the elves as brown, and they seemed to be moving quite easily above, below, and between the branches.

Old postcard of Pannett Park

Roxby and Mickleby Fairy Mounds

In the Roxby and Mickleby areas the fairies were said to live in houes, or grave mounds, but the mounds had been dug into and ploughed over so "the former denziens had clearly been evicted and forced to retire", tells Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, Atkinson (1891). 

Fairy Cross Plains

The Reverend John Atkinson was a keen writer and collector of local Yorkshire folklore and customs, and he collected some wonderful tales of the fairies. In his Forty Years in a Moorland Parish book (1891) he tells of visiting an elderly parishioner and her husband who tells him of the fairies of nearby Fairy Cross Plains, she said they used to come down the hill by her door and go into a large culvert which conveyed the water of a small beck underneath the road about a stone's throw from the cottage. "A further question elicited the reply that it was a little green man, with a queer sort of a cap on him, that had been seen in the act of disappearing in this culvert." She said they lived under the ground, "why t'mouldiwarps (moles) dis, an' wheea not t'fairies?". 

Reverend Atkinson also spoke to a parish clerk who told him that his childhood had been spent near the Fairy Cross Plains, and that the fairy-rings just above the inn were the largest and most regular and distinct he had ever seen. He and the other children had amused themselves by running round and round in the rings, but never nine times, "you see if we had run the full number of nine times, that would have given the fairies power over us, and they would have come and taken us away for good, to go and live where they lived." The Reverend asked if he really believed that and he replied that he did, "for the mothers used to threaten us, if we wer'n't good, that they would turn us to the door (out of doors) at night, and then the fairies would get us." 

An interesting article on the Darlington and Stockton Times website by Nicholas Rhea titled Fryup - a dale of horses and fairy rings includes more recent fairy beliefs. Rhea tells he used to play there as a child but never found any fairies, though that is where they were thought to live and "some thought the fairy rings indicated the whereabouts of an underground fairy village". He says that it was not considered sensible to dance around the circles on the Eve of May Day or at Halloween as those nights were given over to the fairies, and that it was believed that sheep and cattle would never graze near the fairy rings and that locals believed it risky to try and remove the circles.  

Fairy Cross Plains, as seen on Google Maps

The Hob of Hart Hall

Hobs are said to be a type of domestic house spirit, similar to a Brownie, and most often found in very old farm houses. Atkinson's Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) tells of a Hob at Hart Hall near Glaisdale:

"Hob would come unasked, unwarned, to the rescye, and the corn would be threshed, dressed, and sacked, nobody knew how, expect that it was done by the Hob. Unaccountable strength seemed to be the chief attribute ascribed to him". When the farm workers of Hart Hall were carting hay to save it from approaching bad weather a wheel slipped and the cart became stuck. They tried to pull it loose with both horses and men but efforts were in vain and as darkness approached they had to abandon it for the night. After they had retired to bed, "Hob went forth in his mysterious might, made no difficulty about extricating the locked-in wheel, and trailing the cumbersome load up the steep, broken road to the homestead, putting the hay in beautiful order on the stack, and setting the wain ready for the leading that would of course be renewed early in the morning".

According to Atkinson's Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868), he was "a farm-spirit 'of all work', thrashing, winnowing, stamping, the bigg, leading, &c. Like the rest of the tribe who ever came under mortal eye, he was without clothes - nak't - and having had a harding-smock made and placed for him, after a few moments of - it would seem, ill-pleased - inspection, he was heard to say- Gin Hob mun hae nowght but a hardin' hamp, He'll coom nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp". Atkinson explains in his Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) that stamp was the action of knocking off the awns of the barley previous to threshing it, and berry meant to thesh. Hamp was one of the English peasant's only garments, a "smockfrock-like article of raiment, gathered in somewhat about the middle, and coming some little way below the knee". 

Atkinson asked an elderly woman about the Hart Hall Hob and she gave a more detailed story, claiming that one moonlight night one of the lads of the farm had heard him working and peeked through a little hole in the boards and say "a lahtle brown man, a' covered wi' hair" working hard and striking the sheaves with the flail. The lad crept away unseen and related what he had seen to the other workers. They knew the winter nights were cold and were worried about "t' lahtle hairy man, amaist as nakt as when he wur boorn", "wiv nobbut thae au'd rags". They decided to make something to help him, and made a new outfit, as near as the boy had described him as wearing, "a sort of a coorse sark, or shirt, with a belt or girdle to confine it around his middle". They laid it in the barn before nightfall, ready for the Hob to find, and as in the previous tale he was not pleased with his new clothing!  

Hart Hall is now a Bed and Breakfast, but whether the Hob is still a guest or not I cannot say!

The Hob of Hog Garth

Another Hob dwelled at Hob Garth, south west of Glaisdale. Jeffrey's Whitby Lore and Legend (1923) includes a very early mention of the Hob from the diary borrowed from Major Fairfax-Blakeborough.

 "May ye 13, 1669. Nathan Warner of Castleton, thys daye had speech of the Hobman that hanteth ye Hob Garth from beyond whither he had been. Thys he sweare to an oath, and he is a man of good report and not given to vaine talk. Methought I once had sighte of hym mysen but not been ower certayne out (of it) I helde my peace, but after what warner declareth on oath, I hav smalle doubt that yt was hym I spied mysen, but I do not declare yt, the Lord knoweth." 

A more detailed account of the Hob's antics can be found in Richard Blakeborough's Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire (1898). The author was told of the hob by an old man who worked on the Mulgrave Estate, whose grandfather Thomas Stonehouse lived at Hob Garth for many years and kept sheep. A misunderstanding arose between him and a neighbour Matthew Bland of Great Fryup. Matthew was said to have broken Thomas' hedge one night allowing the sheep to escape, and Thomas only managed to gather up five out of the forty missing before retiring to bed with a severe cold. The next morning much to his surprise he found not only the lost sheep returned to their field, but the hedge had been repaired too with new posts and rails. The next night every head of his enemy's cattle had been turned loose, but not by Thomas as he was still very ill in bed. Matthew recovered his cattle and Thomas' sheep were once again turned lose, and the neighbours did all they could to gather them again but few were found. Sure enough, the next morning all but four had been returned to the field again and further repairs had been made to the fence. The missing four were later found dead, having fallen into a disused quarry. The villagers began to talk, and they decided that it must be the hobman who was gathering up the sheep and repairing fences. "When this conclusion was come to, heads were shaken in an ominous manner, for evidently if Tommy was befriended by the hobman, Matthew would have to mind what he did."  

As soon as he had recovered, Tommy set off to see his sheep. It was late at night and a neighbour offered to drop him at the field and pick him up later when he returned. Tommy counted his sheep and cut some hay for them, and then sat by the gate waiting for his lift home....

"Presently an old man accosted him, and begged him not to fret about the lost sheep, as they would be more than compensated for when lambing time came. The old chap told him that Bland had on both occasions been guilty, but that he had not to mind. Just then his friend drove up. Tommy bade his new acquaintance good-night, thanked him, and got into the cart. No sooner was he seated, than the good neighbour asked him what he meant by saying good-night and thanking nobody at all. It transpired that the owner of the cart had not noticed any one speaking to Tommy. In the end he thought the old chap ’war a bit waak an rafflin.’ Anyway, when lambing time came, though the weather was very severe, and every one else, and more particularly Bland, lost many lambs, Stonehouse never lost one. Ewes, during Tommy’s absence, were found safely delivered of their lambs, and mostly had two, and never a black one amongst them. ‘An’ noo that war a larl bit sing’lar, warn’t it? Bud then, ya knaw, i’ them daays when t’ hobman did tak ti yan, ya war yal reet i’ t’ lang-run; an’ ivvery wo’d ’at Ah’ve tell’d ya’s trew, ’coz Ah’ve heeard mah gran’father tell t’ taal ower an’ up agaan; bud it’s a gay bit sen noo,’ wound up my informant. The hobman was described as a little old fellow, with very long hair, large feet, eyes, mouth, and hands, stooping much as he walked, and carrying a long holly stick. The date of the story would be about 1760."

Egton Grange Fairy Butter

Atkinson's A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect (1868) tells that "Egton Grange has (as alleged) been famous within the memory of living persons for the nocturnal proceedings of the said elves; one of their pranks being to fling their butter so as to make it adhere to the gates and doors of the premises". An Elderly lady near Fryup told Rev Atkinson that she had never seen a fairy but had frequently heard them making butter whilst servant at a farm. She said there was a certain gate and she had heard the fairies at their work "as plain as plain, and in the morning the butter was clamed (smeared) all over main part o' t' gate." A History of Whitby vol 2 (1817) explains that fairy butter is a type of yellow soft fungus that grows on dead wood, and that "when found in houses it is reckoned very lucky!" 

The Fairy Child

Atkinson's Forty years in a Moorland Parish (1891) tells a most curious tale of a fairy bairn, told to the author by an elderly lady near Fryup. "She had known a lass quite well, who one day, when raking in the hayfield, had raked over a fairy bairn. "It was liggin' in a swathe of the halfmade hay, as bonny a lahtle thing as ever you seen. But it was a fairy-bairn, it was quite good to tell. But it did not stay lang wi' t' lass at fun' (found) it. It a soart o' dwinied away, and she aimed (supposed) the fairy-mother couldn't deea wivout it any langer".


What do fairies smell like?

I will leave you with my favourite snippet of folklore from Yorkshire, concerning the important question, what does a fairy smell like? Morris writes in Yorkshire Folk Talk (1892) of a lady who had never seen the fairies (though her relatives often had) but she had smelt them! 

"On his asking what sort of odour he was to expect so that he might be similarly favoured, she went on to enquire if he had ever been in a very crowded 'place of worship' wherein the people had been congregated for a length of time. Such was the description; a very different one had been looked for; but it is the unexpected which happen. It was supposed that the young woman who was such an adept at scenting out the fairies was in reality trying to give an idea of the gushes of hot air one sometimes comes across on broken ground during summer time."

Sources and Further Information

A History of Whitby volume 2, Young (1817)

Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect, Atkinson (1868) 

Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, Atkinson (1891)

Yorkshire Folk Talk, Morris (1892)

Yorkshire Coast and the Cleveland Hills, Leyland (1892) 

Jeanie o' Biggerdale and Other Yorkshire Stories, Katherine Simpson (1893)

Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire, Blakeborough (1898)

Folklore of Yorkshire, Gutch (1901)

Whitby Lore and Legend, Jeffrey (1923) 

Seeing Fairies, Johnson (2014)

The Black Dog of Whitby and Kettleness, Simon J. Sherwood and Wendy E. Cousins

Fryup - a Dale of Horses and Fairy Rings, Nicholas Rhea, Darlington and Stockton Times 

Yorkshire Journal issue 3, Autumn 2014