Forgotten Arfderydd and the Hearsay of Corvids

Last Saturday I set out north to the site of the Battle of Arfderydd. At the forefront of my mind was the matter of forgetting.

If Arfderydd was significant enough to be recognised as one of Three Futile Battles of Britain, if it was where Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king of the Old North, made his final stand and one hundred and sixty men lost their lives before he died and three hundred after and where Myrddin Wyllt went mad, why no marker of the site? Why no songs? Why has Arfderydd been forgotten?

Considering Gwyn ap Nudd stated his presence at Gwenddolau’s death and at the deaths of other northern warriors and the episode where he abducts Creiddylad, Gwythyr and his (mainly northern) supporters takes place in the Old North why has his memory faded from the minds of the people of northern Britain?

In search of clues, a friend and I travelled north to Longtown and set off on foot up Netherby Road, consciously following in the footsteps of William Skene and Nikolai Tolstoy. The first place we visited was Netherby Hall, the mansion of the Graham family built on the site of the Roman fort Castra Exploratum. An altar dedicated to a god called Vitris and ram-horned head carved from local red sandstone found nearby suggest it was the location of a Romano-British cult.

Netherby HallAs we approached from the south Netherby Hall’s sandstone walls came into view atop a prominent ridge with polygonal towers, parapets and scaffolding. An encircling wire fence said strictly out of bounds. Following the path round the mansion we passed a woodland carpeted with snowdrops and trees stacked with rooks’ nests filled with noisy, vocal, raucous birds

Never before had I seen many rooks or heard such a racket. Their croaking and cawing see-sawed in my mind like something trying to break through. Unfortunately I don’t speak very good rook. Yet the rooks seemed important. More important than the blank face of the mansion and its ‘Private’ sign.

We rejoined the main road and headed north for Carwinley. When Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) told St Kentigern of his guilt at the deaths of the combatants and vision of a host of warriors (who I believe to be Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn) he stated the battle took place ‘in the field between Liddel and Carnwanolow.’ Skene identified Liddel with Liddel Water and Carnwanolow as Caer Gwenddolau and connected this with Carwinley.

Passing Carwinley cottage, farm and water mill we looked down into the sandstone gulley of the burn, steep banks green with ferns, onto shining reddish water. I recalled Andrew Breeze’s interpretation of Arfderydd as ‘burning weapon’ relating to this bloody stream forming the parish of Arthuret’s boundary. Breeze said ‘Car’ need not mark a fort but a defensive stockade. It certainly seemed possible the burn was named after Gwenddolau’s fall.

Carwinley BurnThe Triads of Ancient Britain also mention ‘the retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd.’ Dreon ap Nudd is the son of Nudd Hael. If this etymological link to Gwyn ap Nudd (and his father Nudd or Nodens) suggests an ancient connection between a northern family and their ancestral deities it is no surprise Gwyn and his host appeared at the battle where Dreon and his retinue met their end.

As I pondered whether the ‘Dyke’ they fought on was above Carwinley Burn I saw crows over the trees who shouted and cawed then pitched their games across a sky of constant silver-grey cloud. A sky of concealing. A sky of protection. A sky of no openings onto crashing visions of warriors.

Fields of Arfderydd

 

As we passed the green and well-tilled-over crow-haunted fields the dead did not rise. There were no whispers, no warnings, only the hearsay of corvids.

 

Upper Moat

 

At Upper Moat where reputedly the three hundred men who fought after Gwenddolau’s death were buried there was no sign of the orchard Skene mentioned but crows filled the trees in the background.

Our final destination was Liddel Strength, a motte and bailey which might have been the location of Gwenddolau’s fort and where his ‘Faithful War Band’ could have made their last stand, fighting for a month and a fortnight after the death of their leader. Unable to find our way we were directed by a local farmer (coincidentally Skene was directed by a farmer from Upper Moat too!) onto a shooter’s path which climbed steeply beside Liddel Water.

On the way we encountered a line of not-dead reeds hauntingly reminiscent of flags or ribboned spears blowing in the wind on an abandoned battlefield. Or of forlorn warriors.

Reeds of ArfderyddThe site of Liddel Strength was badly eroded by the river and appallingly overgrown. Breaching the defensive ditch we scrambled through hat-snatching hawthorns and ankle-snagging brambles up the motte which didn’t feel overly welcoming in its firm return to nature. There were no crows but a bird of prey screeched somewhere out of sight reminding me of Gwenddolau’s birds who fed on the corpses of the Britons.

Looking down from the summit Liddel Water flowed far below at the foot of a slope impossible to ascend. Fields and woodland stretched out before us. The land seemed as determined in swallowing time as it was in absorbing the abandoned railway track Skene arrived on two hundred years ago. On our return journey only the bridge and fragments of the embankment remained.

The dereliction of Liddel Strength contrasted sharply with Caer Laverock Castle (the ‘Lark’s Nest’ Arfderydd was supposedly fought over) which we visited the next day. This splendid medieval stronghold belonging to the Maxwell family was well preserved by the National Trust. Its siege by the English immortalised in the ‘Song of Caerlaverock’ was reconstructed on a video in the display rooms.

Caer Laverock CastleCrows flocked in the trees and played over its terraces. South was an earlier fort closer to the Solway Firth, an artist’s representation showed the higher sea levels and its importance as a strategic location.

Heading north again we climbed Ward Law, a lookout point where the Maxwell Clan gathered shouting their battle cry: “Wardlaw! I bid ye bide Wardlaw!” Beyond was another Roman camp invisible from the ground.

Ward LawLooking south from Ward Law to Solway Firth for the first time the all-encompassing silver-grey clouds broke. Seeing clear light and waters ablaze with cold fire I was reminded of the unendurable brightness Myrddin saw as Gwyn approached with the hosts of Annwn. The otherworld opening only just beyond the sands and tides of this-world.

Solway FirthI left with intuitions but no answers about Gwyn and his kindred, battles, forgetting, clouds and corvids… another part of this story waits to be told about the estuary of the river Nith and I shall be sharing this in my next post…

SOURCES

Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain (Cardinal, 1974)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North

Rivington Moor with Winter HillI’ve recently started researching Gwyn ap Nudd’s neglected connections with the Old North. In the final verses of ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at the deaths of northern warriors. In How Culhwch won Olwen Gwyn’s rival for the love of Creiddylad, Gwythyr, and his allies (who Gwyn takes captive) are of northern descent. There is consensus amongst scholars that this episode and ‘The Very Black Witch’ originate from the Old North.

As somebody who venerates Gwyn in Lancashire I find it strange, perplexing and quite sad that, whilst in medieval texts equal precedence is given to Gwyn’s roles in Wales and the north, in later literature his northern links disappear entirely. I’m in the process of developing some ideas about how this happened.

Before I started reading Welsh mythology I thought it was solely about the area of land we now know as Wales. When I discovered William Skene’s translation of The Four Books of Ancient Wales I realised that the earliest heroic poetry attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin originates from and is about the fall of the Old North to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Whilst the focus of The Mabinogion is Wales many adventures lead beyond. Welsh mythology contains the lore of all of ancient Britain.

This body of ancient British lore was absorbed into ‘Welsh’ mythology because when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came to rule, many Britons were forced west, taking their stories with them. The tantalising fragments of Gwyn’s earliest myths in the medieval texts result from the mixing of northern and Welsh oral tales, which were later penned by Christian scribes.

Memories of Gwyn were kept alive by the reminiscences of Welsh saints, soothsayers and poets and later revived by nineteenth century scholars and folklorists. During this process his name became synonymous with areas where his stories were still told; Wales and Somerset. This is evidenced by Shakespeare’s ‘Heavens defend me from that Welsh Fairy’ and John Cowper Powys’ reference to Glastonbury Tor as ‘the great haunted hill, the hill of Gwyn-ap-Nud, the Welsh Fairy-Demon’.

His northern connections sank into the background. As far as I know there have been no literary references to Gwyn ap Nudd in the north since the medieval period.

***

Last year, when I was giving a talk on ‘Voicing Place’ in Ipswich, I mentioned my relationship with Gwyn and how some of my journeys under his guidance had led not only to Annwn but to memories in the dreamscape of my locality. Afterward, I got questioned about the legitimacy of my work with a ‘non-local’ god; shouldn’t it be ‘local gods for local people’?

I disagreed, both on the principle that only relationships with local gods are valid and that Gwyn isn’t a local god. Gwyn revealed his presence to me (quite unexpectedly!) at a local fairy site. His imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’ referred to my locality. Throughout my relationship with him he’s demonstrated a concern for the north and its history.

I’ve been pondering this for a while and reached the following conclusion: Gwyn is a king of Annwn and is said to ‘contain’ (literally to hold within and to hold back) the fury of the spirits of Annwn. These are chthonic spirits, referred to today as ‘fairies, who play a role in mediating between this-world and the otherworld, the living and dead. Because of this intermediary role they have a deep concern for the land and the way we maintain our heritage. Their concerns are Gwyn’s.

Gwyn’s concern with history (and some of his fury) also stems from the fact he and the spirits of Annwn have been all but erased by the processes of Anglicisation and Christianisation. Gwyn and his kindred spirits also seem bound up with other voices written out of history by the victors. Thus, he calls me to step outside history to listen to those voices and bring his myths back to life on the land from which they have been erased.

This marks a new direction in my research and writing. Since my dedication to Gwyn, my path as an Awenydd has focused on what Heron refers to as ‘imaginative recall’; working with historical fragments and maps and listening to the land and its deities in order to gather memories in poems and stories.

In Enchanting the Shadowlands my focus was my local area. I am now experiencing the impulse to revisit some of Britain’s most ancient myths at a deeper level and visit the places they are set with the purpose of reweaving Gwyn’s neglected connections with the Old North into the present day.

In this respect, I share aims with Charlotte Hussey who in her collection of medieval glosa Glossing the Spoils set out through active imagining to ‘mend a break in tradition and time.’ Charlotte mentions that P. K. Page ‘defined ‘religion (re-legere)’ as ‘to read again.’’ Re-reading and re-imagining our ancient myths is a religious duty, an act of devotion to land, gods and ancestors.

Hence as an Awenydd to Gwyn and his spirits and all the voices between the lines of known history and myth, I embark on this new project. I am aware at this point it is not only memories I must quest, but an appropriate form to fit them.

Spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

Spurned birds circle
fields weeping
for all that is good
in the world
gone

dry harvest
all the legions of the dead
strewn fallen scattered
let them seed
this world in the arms of their loved ones

the circles begin again
hearts cut in twain

by the reapers’ blades
hear them come
softly sweeping bare-footed
with the silence of a love song

pile straw onto carts

the hallowed dead
ascending in a cloud of wings

spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

then down and under
circling circling

Choosing a Path

Fairy LaneThe metaphor of choosing a path appears frequently within Paganism but can be applied to the journey of life, which in many religious traditions is seen as the journey of the soul.

I’ve walked many paths; riding instructor and groom, philosophy student, fantasy writer. Over the past three years I have been writing and performing poetry and exploring Druidry. The binding core is that in each I’ve been seeking magic and I’ve pursued all these paths with religious commitment.

Looking back, it appears I have walked one path with many names. This week I have come to question the suitability of the name ‘Druid.’

I have never felt any commonality with, or desire to join any of the systematic orders of Druidry where one can complete courses and achieve grades in exchange for coins. It’s my firm belief that the living landscape, the gods and ancestors are the greatest teachers. Their guidance, trust and respect are not bought but earned, and thus utterly priceless.

However, one place I have felt at home is The Druid Network. Hearing a talk by its chair, Phil Ryder formed a huge turning point in my life that led me to recognise and honour the divine in my local landscape. The Druid Network is the only organisation I know of that promotes Druidry as a religion. There are no set courses or hierarchies. Each member is encouraged to find and explore their relationship with whatever they hold sacred in their own way, and the social forum provides a safe area for discussing issues and experiences. However, there are guiding principles (1).

I’m in agreement with most of these principles, except that the native religion of the British Isles must nominally be called Druidry. I imagine Heathens, Witches, Shamans and many other Pagan groups would make similar claims.

This winter’s solstice I was gifted a name for my path- Awenydd. For Kristoffer Hughes becoming Awenydd forms the core of Druidry. For Elen Sentier it is a form of native British Shamanism. My path currently seems to sit somewhere in an unknown hinterland between two names I am equally uncomfortable with, ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman.’

For me ‘Awenydd’ works a similar magic to that which others describe in relation to ‘Druid’ and ‘Shaman’. It opens the doors of perception and initiates connection with the Awen, divine inspiration. It is as Awenydd I truly serve my land, gods and communities.

I can see a future for myself as Awenydd; continuing to learn the stories and songs of my local landscape and its spirits; journeying more deeply the immensities of the otherworlds with Gwyn and learning his mysteries; bringing my insights back to my communities and thus learning to weave a magic between the worlds.

Contrastingly, I perceive ‘Druid’ as closing doors, leading to pointless arguments, in-fighting, and attempting to define myself against systems and practices with which I share little commonality.

If the journey of life is the journey of the soul, I want to choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder. I want to live a life true to my heart, in devotion to the land and gods who call to me. I want to sing their songs. I want to share their inspiration. I want to die knowing I have done everything I can to respond to their call.

I don’t want to remain a prisoner in the maze of arguments and contradictions which, for me, constitutes contemporary Druidry, and which will only lead me into greater negativity.

It is on this basis I give up the name of Druid and choose Awenydd.

And the consequences?

The biggest consequence is that the path of Awenydd is not classed as a religion. If I am no longer a Druid I no longer belong to a religion.

To anyone on the outside this might look like a massive change. However on the inside this does not change my relationship with my land and deities, nor with family and friends.

It has, and I think will continue to have some impact on my Pagan, Druid and other religious communities. I’ve already talked my decision through with some of the members of TDN who, for the most part, are happy for me to remain a part of the organisation on the basis of shared principles, and I’m hoping to discuss it with my grove at the solstice.

My local Pagan Society is inclusive of open-minded people of any faith or none, so no problems there. As for Preston Faith Forum and the further questions, if I’m not a Druid, then am I Pagan? And can I be an Interfaith Representative if I don’t belong to a faith? That’s another kettle of fish entirely and not one I’m ready to address right now!

I want to live a life that fills my soul with awe and wonder

I choose a path that fills my soul with awe and wonder, in devotion to the magic this land, its deities and spirits, my patron Gwyn ap Nudd and the ancestors. This path is Awenydd. Let their songs be sung!

(1) http://druidnetwork.org/files/about/constitutionrevnov2009.pdf

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke

Fish House Brook

Fish House BrookFish House Brook is a stream in Penwortham, which runs from behind my street, Bank Parade, through Greencroft Valley to the river Ribble. Since I started litter picking in the valley three years ago I have been clearing the brook, walking it regularly and researching its history. This article traces its course from source to mouth and provides snap shots of the ways people have related to it over the last few centuries.

~

The source of Fish House Brook and its earliest stretch have been culverted underground. Its course is indicated by the street names Bank Parade and an adjacent cul-de-sac called Burnside Way. It runs underneath the gardens on the eastern side of Bank Parade.

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

A few months ago Gordon at number 14 kindly invited me into his garden to see the site of its steep banking, which is now occupied by a pond.

FHB tributary's old valley BP no. 14 - CopyHe also lifted the grille to let me take a peek at the swiftly flowing underground stream.

FHB culverted tributary - CopyThe brook now emerges from a concrete pipeline behind Malt Kiln Cottage.

Fish House Brook, sourceThe following maps show Fish House Brook running from behind Malt Kiln Cottage into Greencroft Valley in the 1840’s and today.

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kilm Cottage and Greencroft Valley 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kiln Cottage and Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage originally housed a water mill used to mill grain for beer. A picture of the pool behind the mill leat can be found on the Tithe Map (1838). Elizabeth Basquill provides a detailed account of how the malsters in residence used water from the stream and adjacent well to soak barley in a malster’s trough before it was dried and delivered by horse and cart round the corner to the Black Bull pub (2).

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

During this period Fish House Brook must have been much larger and more powerful to turn a water wheel. Its diminishment shows the effect of building 300 houses and their accompanying pipelines for clean water, drainage and sewage during the Central New Towns Project in the 1980’s.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley is the largest surviving green space between the new estates. The old field lines remain intact, indicated by rows of trees. The wooded areas provide living space and nesting places for hedgehogs, squirrels and birds including magpies, wrens, a variety of tits, nut hatches and a woodpecker.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley playing field

The brook has had its share of pollution problems, mainly from grey water out of faulty washing machines. Since reporting this, it has been less frequent. Frog spawn and frogs have been seen, and a few smaller insects. However, there is no sign of any fish. This is disappointing as the 1840’s map shows a fish pond, which according to the Tithe Map was in Fish Pan Field, suggesting local people used to pan in the brook for fish.

Fish Pan Field

Fish Pond and Greencroft Valley 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish Pan Field

Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The brook is culverted from Greencroft Valley beneath Hill Road South.

Fish House Brook, Culvert under Hill Rd SouthIt emerges close to Rosefold house and cottages.

Rose Fold Cottages

Rose Fold Cottages

According to Elizabeth Basquill the cottages and yard were part of a tannery. During the late 19th century Fish House Brook was used to wash hides. ‘The hides were soaked in slaked lime first, then washed, and the hair and flesh scraped off.’ This process would have caused considerable pollution to the stream. Two adjacent fish ponds, which Elizabeth believes may have existed from the medieval period were ‘later used as tan pits for washing the skins’ (3).

Rosefold

Rose Fold 1840, Courtesy of Mario Maps

Rosefold

Rose Fold now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The first stretch of the brook, heading northeast, cannot be followed behind the houses. Where it makes a rightangle and heads northwest, a footpath runs alongside it. This follows the line of a much older route that led from Middleforth Green to St Mary’s Well (4).

Fish House BrookIt then bends right and passes through Campbell’s Park Homes following its old course round the back of the mobile houses.

Fish House Brook, Campbell's Park Homes

Fish House Brook, Campbell’s Park Homes

Campbells Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Campbell's Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook, the Meadows and Campbells Park Homes now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The residential park nestles within the triangle of Penwortham Junction. The train lines pictured closed in 1965 and are now covered by beech, birch, sycamore, bramble and an array of wildflowers, forming important wildlife corridors.

Campbell's Park Homes

Campbell’s Park Homes

Another tributary enters Fish House Brook, running from the back of Far Field across the meadows. The pathway to St Mary’s Well crosses it, and there is a newer footbridge further south. At this time of year the meadows are thriving with mayflowers, buttercups, plantain, wild carrot, orange tipped and cabbage white butterflies and an abundance of bees.

The Meadows

The Meadows

The brook runs through Penwortham Allotments (unfortunately out of bounds) then is finally culverted beneath Leyland Road under Fish House Bridge.

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Brook culverted under Fish House Bridge

The 1840’s map shows a lodge beside Fish House Bridge. Alan Crosby says the bridge took its name from a timber building which ‘served as the quarters of the manorial river bailiff.’ This dwelling was adjacent to the fish garths, which were mainly used for catching salmon between December and August. It was the bailiff’s task to make sure the fishermen from different townships abided by the rules of the fisheries (5).

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge now, courtesy of Mario Maps

It is clear Fish House Brook derives its name from the Fish House, and as far as I know, no trace of an earlier name remains.

~

Each of these locations holds a story and discloses a relationship between the brook and the people who have depended on it. Since water started being piped in the 19th century, we’ve had no need to fetch it from wells or streams for drinking or bathing. Due to modern farming and production methods few of us rely on local waterways for fish, mill our own grain or tan our own skins.

This has a distancing effect. Due to continuing building work, I cannot imagine a time when the water from Fish House Brook will be safe to drink. It is uncertain whether fish will return, although some small fish were sighted by mum in nearby Penwortham Brook.

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Whilst it’s impossible to turn back the clocks, I think there is time to get to know and understand our watercourses, and the lives and motivations of the people who have worked with and changed them. This article is an early marker stone on the journey through this process for me.

(1) Courtesy of Mario Maps
(2) Elizabeth Basquill, More Hidden Histories of Penwortham Houses (2011), p6-11, 42-44
(3) Ibid, p34-36
(4) St Mary’s Well was famous for being the cleanest source of water in the area and was attributed healing properties. Local people used to walk a mile to access their favoured water source, and it was also a site of pilgrimage.
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, (1988), p48

Lancashire Boggarts

Boggart, Faery Ring TarotBoggarts are a type of spirit found in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In The Lancashire Dictionary Alan Crosby defines a boggart as a ‘ghost, sprite, evil spirit or feeorin.’ He says ‘there was scarcely an old house or a lonely valley which did not have its terrifying tales of creatures which roamed, shrieked and caused havoc – though most do not appear to have been especially malevolent, and some were just a nuisance.’ (1)

There are numerous boggart sites and tales in Lancashire. An old farmhouse in Boggart’s Hole Clough in Blackley was haunted by a creature with ‘a small shrill voice’ ‘like a baby’s penny trumpet’ who played tricks on the residents and their children. Having decided to leave, as they made their departure they heard the shrill voice say “ay, ay neighbour, we’re flitting you see.” Realising wherever they went the boggart would follow they turned back. (2)

The boggart of Barcroft Hall in Burnley was reputedly ‘a helpful little fellow’ until given a pair of clogs. After this he caused trouble, breaking pots and pans, making animals sick and lame, preventing the cows from milking and in a grand finale putting the farmer’s prize bull on the roof. Fed up of his tricks the farmer decided to leave. Crossing a small bridge he heard a voice call from beneath “stop while I’ve tied my clogs, and I’ll go with you!” The farmer resigned to go back.’ (3)

A story called ‘Hanging t’Boggart’ is set at the Boggart Houses in Hindley Green. A boggart with ‘aw mi mosses dreighed up’ appears as a man to Sammy. The man tells Sammy he can hang him, if he can hang Sammy afterward. Presuming the man will die, Sammy garrottes him. Leaving the body he finds the man sitting comfortably at his table ready to complete his part of the bargain. After Sammy’s corpse is found his acquaintances see ‘a big, black shape, mauling about the houses after dark.’ After a ‘terrible struggle’ accompanied by ‘spitting, hissing and other noises which sounded like curses in a foreign language’ they think they have hung the boggart to discover a big black cat in its place the following day. (4)

Other sites include Boggart’s Hole in Bolton and Boggart Bridge in Burnley, where the cost of crossing is a living thing or one’s soul. Clegg Hall hosts a boggart chamber and is haunted by a phantom boy, who was killed by his wicked uncle. Boggarts have been laid at Towneley Hall and Hothersall Hall. In Joseph Delaney’s recent series of Lancashire based children’s books The Wardstone Chronicles boggarts travel down leys wreaking havoc and the Spook’s household boggart manifests as a gigantic ginger cat.

In contemporary poetry boggarts appear as grander more primal elemental beings. In Seamus Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ a female boggart lies between turf and demesne wearing a black glacier for a sash, her breasts moraines, her diadem of gemstones dropping ‘in the peat floe / like the bearings of history.’ ‘Barbered / and stripped / by a turfcutter’s spade’ she rises ‘from the dark, / hacked bone, skull-ware, / frayed stitches, tufts, / small gleams on the bank.’ (5)

In ‘Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan’ Ted Hughes describes his intimations of what might have been ‘a Gruagach of the Sligachan! / Some boggart up from a crack in the granite!’

‘Eerie how you know when it’s coming –
So I felt it now, my blood
Prickling and thickening, altering
With an ushering-in of chills, a weird onset
As if mountains were pushing mountains higher
Behind me, to crowd over my shoulder-

Then the pool lifted a travelling bulge
And grabbed the tip of my heart nerve and crashed.’ (6)

These stories and poems show boggarts are intimately connected with ancient mosslands and ravines, farmhouses and their residents. They are spirits of place old as the lowland raised level peat bogs which once covered the majority of Lancashire, of which less than one percent remains. As the mosslands have been drained, cut for turves and enclosed for farming their spirits have been displaced into houses, attaching themselves to the families who farm the land.

Some are benign until treated in the wrong way whilst others are more sinister, instigating pacts based on exchanges of life for life. Bog bodies found in peat such as the Lindow Man as well as offerings such as axes, palstaves and spearheads (7) suggest the mosslands and / or their spirits were treated as deities with whom sacrificial exchanges once took place. What the stories continue to show is that when reciprocal relationships between families and the land, and perhaps within families themselves are damaged boggarts become troublesome.

In the urban mythology of today boggarts have been replaced by poltergeists, which fit better with contemporary theories about the paranormal. However I believe that throughout the landscape they remain, dried out forms stretching through the earth beneath our dwellings, appearing as helpful house sprites, stalking shadows or cats without names. And I believe it is possible, with due care, to form relationships with them.

(1) Alan Crosby, The Lancashire Dictionary, (Smith Settle, 2000), p26. Feeorin is a Lancashire word for fairy.
(2) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (The History Press, 2010), p101
(3) http://www.ormerod.uk.net/History/Barcroft/barcroft_boggart.htm
(4) http://www.hindleygreenra.com/oldfacts.htm
(5) http://inwardboundpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2006/08/198-bog-queen-seamus-heaney.html
(6) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, (Faber and Faber, 2003), p655. The creature turns out to be a salmon.
(7) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008), p159

The picture of the boggart is from The Faery Ring Tarot.