|Issue 1 - December 1971|
|Down The Rushy Glen|
In our age of coal, steel, electricity and technology, the 'experts' believe that the mysteries of life can be explained in scientific terms. This idea of life is completely new in the history of man. Before industrialisation people explained what they saw and felt in very different ways. They believed in fairies, giants, ghosts and monsters.
But today, because good and evil, happiness and suffering can't be measured, listed, logged or fed into a computer, the answers no longer seem to matter. But they do matter and it's useful to see what people said about them and how they said it. North Eastern legends provide good examples.
When things got lost in the house or when people didn't act as they usually did, fairies were said to be behind it. The fairies had strange names like Hazelrigg Dunnie, Pictree Brag and Cutty Soames and were said to cause trouble to the maids in big houses by hiding things and untidying their work. Fairies put the bacon in the boot rack and the boots on the bacon hook.
Christian parents explained sudden naughtiness in their children by saying that the fairies swapped their own wicked children for good Christian ones. People were scared of actually seeing a fairy as they believed they would immediately become fairy property.
The only way to get free of fairy spells was to give them strange presents. The fairies asked for things by riddles like "Bring us a light that doesn't burn" (a glow worm) and "Give us a part of an animal's body without shedding a single drop of blood" (a lizard's tail).
Huge features in the landscape were often explained by giants. At least five of them lived in Weardale. They strode over the fells and as they stamped their feet every steeple shook. Three of the giants were brothers and ran a blacksmith's business on the hilltops near Consett.
They only had one hammer between them and would throw it to whichever brother needed it. From Lanchester to Consett the great hammer swung through the skies and was skilfully caught. But they were under a curse that if ever they dropped the hammer they would disappear forever.
One day, just as one of the giant brothers stretched out his strong arms to catch the hammer, he suddenly went blind and the hammer thudded to the ground. All three of the brother-giants disappeared and where the hammer fell a great pit was made which people nowadays call the Howden Valley.
The two remaining giants killed each other in a fight over hunting grounds. Where their bodies fell is a cairn of huge boulders which to this day is called the Long Man of Bollihope.
Very sinister happenings were said to be caused by witchcraft. Witches were accused of causing nightmares. The witch turned the sleeper into a horse and rode into the sky to meet Satan. Witches symbolised the evil that was constantly threatening Christian ideals. Many aspects of Christianity were ritualised just to deal with witchcraft. The sign of the cross was believed to give certain protection.
Witches were always women and their victims were often women too. Despite the general repression of women they were regarded as having strange powers, probably because of their roles as the bearers of the biggest mystery of all - life.
During the seventeenth century mothers in County Durham became obsessed with the idea that their children's illnesses were caused by witchcraft. They were quick to accuse any of their friends or relatives of being witches.
A remedy to cure a child under a witch's spell was to get the heart of a black hen, stick pins in it and roast it. Many cases of women friends experiencing great pain while this cure was being carried out have been reported. If the mother comforted the woman (whose pains proved they were a witch) the child would be cured.
This cure was very widely tried and as late as 1870 a woman was brought before Durham Magistrates Court accused of stealing a chicken to work a charm on her sick daughter. She was acquitted by the court and they judged her to be in a state where she was not responsible for her actions.
Violence was considered to be so unnatural that terrible things would happen as a result. The victim of a murder was believed to become a ghost that would continue to haunt people until the killer of its physical body was revealed.
Such a case happened in Monkwearmouth in 1632. A servant (Anne Walker) was seduced by her master. Scared that his influential friends would find out, the man persuaded a pitman to murder Anne.
Not long after her death her ghost appeared to the local miller and told him that her body lay in a coal pit with five pickaxe wounds in the head. She warned the miller that if he didn't tell somebody about this then he would be haunted for ever. The miller was terrified and quickly went to tell the local magistrate all that the ghost had said.
A search found the body just as the ghost had described. Both the pitman and the master were executed.
Many legends tell of how people are punished if they don't carry out their duties. This particularly applied to the aristocracy who were felt to be very irresponsible. The story of Durham's most famous monster, the Lambton Worm, is an example of this sort of legend.
The young heir of Lambton Castle was very uninterested in taking over his father's estate and the people who worked on it. He preferred to spend his time fishing in the River Wear.
One day he sat until late evening without a single bite at his line. Feeling very bad tempered, he was about to go home when his rod bent with the weight of what he thought must be a huge salmon. But as he pulled the line out of the water he saw a strange thing on the hook. It was a small but monstrous worm that looked half like a newt and half like an eel. The young heir felt so revolted that he flung it into a nearby well.
Years passed and the lord's son left the estate to travel round the world. Meanwhile the monster grew and grew until it became too big to live in the well. It eventually crawled out and spent its days coiled around a huge boulder in the middle of the Wear. At night it would creep and slide around the countryside terrifying the farmworkers and eating the sheep.
The old Lord of Lambton was desperate to get rid of the great slimy serpent and offered a reward to anyone who would kill it. But all attempts failed because no matter how many times the serpent's body was cut to pieces it would just grow together again.
Eventually the lord's son came back. He saw all the fear and destruction the serpent had caused and realised that it was all his fault for not caring about his duties. He was so ashamed of himself that he vowed to get rid of the monster.
An old woman told him that the only way he could get rid of the monster was to attack it as it lay in the Wear. This was because the pieces of its body would be swept downstream before they could grow together again.
He had to wear a costume with razor sharp swords sticking out of it so that when the serpent coiled its body round him it would be cut to pieces. But one condition had to be obeyed. The lord's son must kill the first living creature he saw afterwards or else the next nine Lords of Lambton would die horrible deaths. He warned his father of the catch and told him to keep away but to send one of his hunting dogs so that he could kill that.
The plan worked perfectly and the monster was cut into pieces which floated away never to be seen again. The Lord of Lambton was so overjoyed at his son's success that he rushed down to meet him. The son saw him but quickly turned away and killed the dog. But the condition had not been properly carried out and the next nine Lords of Lambton died horrible and unnatural deaths.
The use of legends and magic to explain the mysteries of life is rapidly dying out if it has not done so already. However, because we no longer believe in them, it does not mean we cannot learn from them. We must explore and rediscover the source of the imagination. Only in this way can we place our real human nature over the machine and not allow ourselves to be crushed underneath the product of part of our imagination. Long live IMAGINATION. Sally.