Folk lore

Records show that ancient folk lore, superstitions, ghost stories, or whatever term is preferred, existed in abundance in Swaledale up to about the end of the 1800s. By then it would appear that the establishment of new, more-evangelistic, independent churches combined with the growth of formal education through church schools promoted a more enlightened understanding. This finally overthrew a set of essentially pagan beliefs that had previously stubbornly survived for centuries in an otherwise Christian culture.

The idea of following the Christian creed while at the same time taking precautions to guard against troublesome elves, hobgoblins and the like can be found commonly today in rural areas of developing countries around the world. So it should be no surprise that such a duality of beliefs existed in England too, especially in areas like the dales where it might be said that the isolation, the sometimes harsh and inhospitable terrain, the severe climate, and general poverty exposed the population and their livestock to more frequent mishap and disaster than generally befell the lowland folk. When things went wrong, something had to be blamed.

Folk lore is an important area of academic study, partly because some of the tales might give clues to actual events, but more usefully because of what they tell us about the beliefs of the people at particular times in history, and how this influenced their actions and their social and cultural development.

Evidence of folk-lore beliefs in Swaledale can be found in several of the field-names that were recorded in 1844. Spirit names such of Bogle, Nick, and Puck indicate pastures that were probably not used by the farmers but instead were set aside so that the spirits could dwell there and not trouble the rest of the farm.

The folk-lore tales that will slowly accumulate on these pages are mainly from previously published sources, which are all cited within each page. It’s hoped to gather some stories that may, until now, have existed only in the oral tradition of the dale. The stories so far:

Snapper John’s daughter, by Thomas Parsons Cooper
The headless lady of Muker, by Arthur Harwood Brierley
Muker schoolmaster’s ghostly adventure, by Arthur Harwood Brierley
‘Holy river’