Collecting Folklore

By David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


This is our first post since Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain closed at Palace Green Library, giving the team here a chance to look back on all of the fantastic feedback we have received from visitors. One section of the exhibition gave people the chance to take home a playing card printed with a quote from William Henderson’s Notes on the folklore of the Northern counties of England, an 1866 book brimming with popular traditions, local proverbial sayings, superstitions and old customs.

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The one condition for taking a card was that visitors must first leave behind a saying or custom of their own for others to read, giving us a treasure trove of sayings currently in use today. Reading these has been both entertaining and enlightening; we hope it encouraged people to think more about the origin of some of these sayings which slip off the tongue so easily.

Particular sayings appeared in the exhibition many times, including well known pieces of folklore about stepping on cracks in the pavement, placing shoes on the table and crossing on the stairs. Another favourite was something I remember hearing many times growing up: “Shy bairns get nowt”.

It was particularly noticeable how many of the customs left by visitors revolved around magpies. These birds clearly have some mythic power to control our fortunes, but people can’t quite seem to agree on the correct way to interact with them.

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One of the exciting things for me is how this gallery activity has given me so many new pieces of folklore to investigate. Each of the below sayings appeared multiple times; I’m particularly intrigued by the link between rabbits and the first day of the month…

Although the majority of the sayings we collected have a timeless feel to them, it was interesting to see responses from a younger generation, revealing some of the contemporary sayings, slogans and mottos that are becoming mantras to live by. Perhaps it is because of our location within a university library, but the Harry Potter series of books seems to be particularly rich in providing these.

One of the really pleasing things was seeing cards filled out in different languages from all over the world, many requiring Google Translate to make any sense of! Thoughtfully, one German visitor provided a translation, introducing me to one of my favourite new sayings: “Everything has an end, only the sausage has two”.

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Food was a recurring theme in the sayings left behind by visitors, including the particularly inspiring “Eat cake because it’s someone’s birthday somewhere” and, a local favourite, “Winner winner chicken dinner!”

Just because the exhibition is closed, it isn’t too late for you to contribute to our growing collection of sayings, customs and folklore. Leave us some of your favourites in the comments section below.

Visit Palace Green Library’s website for more information on our future exhibition programme: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/.

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2 thoughts on “Collecting Folklore

  1. I was surprised to see the “rabbits” chant mentioned. My mum, who was English of Scottish descent, instructed me to say “white rabbits” three times on the first day of the month. She never said why, but in her case, it was probably a fertility rite, and I’ve always avoided the practice.

    Liked by 1 person

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