The Fairy Folk of Northumberland

By Laura Coulson, fairy and folklore blogger


Foreword

Folklore and landscape are very much intertwined. There are numerous locations that bear witness to the acts of fairies, some even being the home of fairy folk. Like many places in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, Northumberland also has its own magical locations. If you fancy taking a trip, then why not take your pick from one of the suggestions fairy folklore enthusiast Laura Coulson has to offer.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


Northumberland is home to a wide variety of fairy folk, from the sweet and benign to the downright deadly. We have singing and dancing fairies at the Hurl Stane and Dancing Green Hill, a wish granting fairy at Wooler Well, pottage cooking fairies of Rothley Mill, and the infamous mine goblins Cutty Soams and  Shilbottle Bluecap. We have fairy royalty at Old Fawdon Hill where Queen Mab herself is said to dwell, and a fairy graveyard at Brinkburn. I’ve visited all of these Fairy Sites and more in my Fairy Folklorist Blog, and when I heard about the Between Worlds exhibition, I was understandably a little excited!

For this blog post, I’ve written about my top 5 favourite fairy sites of Northumberland. All of these sites are easy to visit and open to the public, but do so at your peril; the fairy folk do not always take kindly to visitors…

The Duergars of Simonside

In the shadows of the Simonside Hills dwell the Duergars, a race of dark dwarves who appear mostly at night, preying on lost travellers and tricking them into bogs or luring them to their death over the edge of a rocky precipice.

One traveller on the moors found a little hut containing the embers of a fire, two rough grey stones, and two old gate-posts. He sat down on one of the grey stones and was adding some brush wood to the fire when a small human-shaped figure, no higher than his knee, came waddling in through the door and sat down on the other grey stone. The traveller remained silent so not to anger the creature, but he began to feel the cold so snapped a piece of wood over his knee and laid the pieces upon the dying embers. The strange intruder seemed angered by this and picked up one of the gate posts, likewise breaking it over his knee, and added it to the fire. The traveller, not wishing to anger his host further, permitted the fire to die away and remained silent. It was not until the dawn of the following day, when the dwarf and his house had disappeared, that the traveller realised the true extent of the danger he had been in. He found himself still sat upon the grey stone, but on the edge of a deep rugged precipice, where he could have easily fallen to his death with a single movement.

Simonside

Simonside Hills © Laura Coulson

The Fairy Music of Hen Hole

Hidden away in a deep chasm in the Cheviot Hills lives a group of Northumbrian fairies who play the sweetest music known to man. They run and dance through the valley, with all the grace that fairies do, but it is said these fairies have a sinister side too and once lured in a hunting party, who remain trapped there to this day.

“On the north-west side of Cheviot there is a deep chasm called the Hen Hole, in which there is frequently to be seen a snow egg at midsummer. There is a tradition, that a party of hunters, when chasing a roe upon cheviot, were wiled by the fairies into the Hen Hole, and could never again find their way out.”

Rambles in Northumberland, Chatto (1835).

Hen Hole

Hen Hole, Cheviot Hills © Laura Coulson

Brinkburn Fairy Graveyard

Brinkburn is said to be the burial place of the Northumberland Fairies. Little more is known about the fairies of Brinkburn and why they left this mortal realm, but I have a feeling perhaps the bells of the nearby priory were to blame!

“In the sweet precincts of the solitude of Brinkburn, the villagers point out a shady green spot as covering the graves of the tiny people, and truly a more suitable place could not have been devised as the scene of so purely poetic a belief.”

The Local Historian’s Table Book: Legendary Divison Volume 3, Richardson (1846).

Brinkburn

Brinkburn Fairy Graveyard © Laura Coulson

The Elf Hills of Cambo

In a little village called Cambo, curious signposts can be found pointing to the Elf Hills. It is said to be a popular haunt of the Northumbrian moorland Elves, who dressed in the brown and gold of the heather and bracken among which they made their home.

“The Elf-Hills near Cambo – that is, Cambo Hill, where Sir John de Cambo kept watch and ward – had, as permanent tenants, a gregarious band of “the little people” who did not in the least resent that their stronghold was often invaded and used again and again as a signal tower on which the wisp of tow mounted on a spear-point was set on fire when a raid was imminent.”

Northumberland painted by A .Heaten Cooper, described by Agnes Herbert (1923).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Elf Hills at Cambo © Laura Coulson

The Brown Man of the Muirs

On the wild moors surrounding the village of Elsdon lives the Brown Man, guardian of the moors and protector of the wild beasts who live there. Many years ago two young men from Newcastle were hunting on the high moors above Elsdon, and when the youngest lad went to fetch water he met the Brown Man of the Muirs:

“This extraordinary personage did not appear to be above half the stature of a common man; but was uncommonly stout and broad-built, having the appearance of vast strength; his dress was entirely brown, the colour of the brackens, and his head covered with frizzled red hair; his countenance was expressive of the most savage ferocity, and his eyes glared like a bull.”

The Lady of the Lake, Walter Scott (1812).

The Brown Man spoke to the lad and threatened him for trespassing on his land, and thinking him to be the lord of the moors the lad offered him the game he had killed. The brown man was deeply offended as he considered the wild creatures of the moors to be his subjects, but he invited the young lad to accompany him home to partake of his hospitality. The young lad was just about to accept and cross the brook to follow him, when his companion arrived, wondering what had delayed him so long. When the youngest lad looked across the brook again, the Brown Man had fled. A fortunate interruption, as if he had crossed the water the Brown Man would have torn him to pieces!

Brown Man

The Moors Surrounding the Village of Elsdon © Laura Coulson

For those who would like to see a Northumbrian fairy for themselves, carrying a four leaf clover is said to grant the wearer the power of seeing fairies. It certainly worked for a young milk maid in Netherwitton who accidentally carried one in the grass pad on which she carried the milk pail on her head, and saw a host of fairies gambolling in the fields.

Further Reading

  • The Denham Tracts, Michael Denham.
  • County Folk-Lore Vol IV Northumberland, M. C. Balfour.
  • Legends and Folklore of Northumbria, Margaret Tyndale.
  • Folk Tales of the North Country, F. Grice.
  • The Local Historian’s Table Book series, M. A. Richardson.
  • Folklore of Northumbria, Fran & Geoff Doel.

For further information and photos of the above Fairy sites and many more throughout England and Scotland, please take a look at The Fairy Folklorist Blog: http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk.

 

Although Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is now closed, you can still view and contribute to our collection of favourite sayings, customs and folklore in the comments section. 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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