Boggarts 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
(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.