Thursday, 25 June 2015

A Lowland Witch: The Legend of Gyre Carline

Gyre Carline – a Scots term, from the Norse for Old Woman – was a force to be reckoned with. In some accounts a giantess, others a witch or hag, she inspired terror in the hearts of those who heard tales of her exploits, and perhaps with good reason.   

One such story involves the smiting of Lochar Moss. During a gathering of fellow witches, several of Gyre Carline's horses were swept away by a high tide as they went for a ride during a gathering on Locharbrigg Hill. The area below, Lochar Moss, was then open sea, but, after a wave of Gyre Carline's staff, it turned at once into a vast, boggy mass.   

Lochar Moss

Locharbrigg Hill, about four miles from Dumfries, Scotland, had a long association with witches. It was especially known for the meetings held there on Walpurgis Night, 30th April, where witches and warlocks gathered for dancing and revels. On these occasions, Gyre Carline was second in importance only to Satan himself, presiding over the initiation of new members and the following elaborate celebrations.  

Parallels can be drawn between Gyre Carline's rides with her followers and the Hallowmass Ride or Wild Hunt. Faeries, witches or the dead were said to ride through the sky, the accompanying wind often drawing up those who got in its path. 

A rhyme supposedly sung by the followers of Gyre Carline during their rides is translated as follows:

When the grey owl has three times hooted,
When the grinning cat has three times mewed,
When the fox has yowled three times in the wood,
At the red moon cowering behind the cloud;

When the stars have crept deep in the mist,
Lest spells had picked them out of the air,
Up horses all, without more ado,
Ride, ride, for Locherbrigg hill!

The Wild Hunt - by Peter Nicolai Arbo

There are many references to Gyre Carline. According to Sir Walter Scot, the Gyre Carline was identified also with the Fairy Queen or Mother Witch:

A gigantic and malignant female, the Hecate of this mythology, who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under her grim banner. This hag (in all respects the reverse of the Mab or Titania of the Celtic creed) was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject."

In Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, R. Cromek describes Gyre Carline thus:

... reckoned the mother of glamour, and near a-kin to Satan himself. She is believed to preside over the 'Hallowmass Rades;' and mothers frequently frighten their children by threatening to give them to M'Neven, or the Gyre Carline. She is described as wearing a long grey mantle, and carrying a wand, which, like the miraculous rod of Moses, could convert water into rocks, and sea into solid land.

Between two and three miles wide, the area of land that Gyre Carline supposedly struck is still known as Lochar Moss today. For centuries it fulfilled the role of a natural moat, serving as protection for Dumfries. The peat there was also cut and dried and used to provide fuel. There were plans to drain the area as early as 1754, when the engineer John Smeaton's suggestions were drawn up but not carried out, and it was finally drained in the 19th century. The transformation of the land by Gyre Carline may also have at least a little basis in fact: archaeological finds, including the remains of boats, were discovered during the draining, suggesting that the area had once indeed been open water. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Richard Deacon and the Tendring Witchcraft Revelations

“Don't believe everything you read,” is sound advice for the historian or casual reader alike. It was particularly appropriate when, during my recent research into Mary Lakeland, burnt at Ipswich in 1645 for the crime of murdering her husband through witchcraft, I came across a book that seemed to offer some intriguing answers to the question of why she went to the flames. 

Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, by Richard Deacon was published in 1976, purporting to be the first proper biography of this elusive figure. After finding it for a steal on Amazon Marketplace, I eagerly awaited its arrival, marvelling as, by chance, it opened at the exact page I needed.  

As I read, I was made aware for the first time of a document known as The Tendring Witchcraft Revelations. According to Deacon, this was an unpublished manuscript, dated 1725 and authored by C. S. Perryman. It consisted of information that had been “compiled by divers informers” between 1645 and 1650, and covered a wealth of information about Hopkins and the witch hunts of Essex and Suffolk.  Throughout the book, much of which is based on the information contained in these “Revelations”, Deacon spins a tale of intrigue and espionage, magic and mystery. Hopkins is portrayed as a sinister, shadowy figure, swapping political secrets in exchange for the assistance of astrologer William Lilly and John Thurloe, a vital link to the government in London, in his witch hunt.  

Most intriguing in view of my research however, Deacon states that based on the “firm evidence” from this source, it is possible to say with certainty that Hopkins visited Ipswich in connection with Mary Lakeland's case.  

There are numerous suggestions for why Mary Lakeland was executed whilst several others accused of witchcraft at the same time were not, but the one put forward by Deacon is perhaps the most sensationalist, and according to The Tendring Revelations:

Hopkins, who had travelled into Hollande purposefully to be instructed in astrology... went to Ipswiche especially to examine this suspected Informer of the Royalist Lady Whorwood.”

A known Royalist supporter who smuggled both gold and information to the beleaguered Charles I, Lady Jane Whorwood was wife of Brome Whorwood of Holton Park, Oxford. She was devoted to helping the King, taking part in two, unsuccessful, escape attempts, and it is believed that she was also his mistress for a time. In a stroke of Deacon's pen, Mary Lakeland passes from poor, Ipswich widow to dangerous Royalist informer, silenced for her crimes against the state.  

 The plot thickened, as it turned out that Hopkins himself had a deeper connection with the renowned Royalist, having several meetings with the woman in which he fabricated stories regarding his history in order to conceal his Puritan leanings and win her trust. Quite what Hopkins could want with Lady Whorwood is hard to determine, but Deacon speculate that she was in fact paying Hopkins for information, and that it was this role as a double-agent that ultimately led to Hopkins' own downfall. 

Often mis-identified as Lady Jane Whorwood; 
it is in fact a portrait of her sister. 

Hopkins was, according to Deacon, finally swum as a witch himself, the Tendring Witchcraft Revelations asserting that:

He was soe treated by his owne methodes of establishing Witches in parte by objections to his methodes by a few of his neighbours but farrre more soe by reason of the facte that he was discovered to be in league with the Lady Whorewood, an error of judgemente which seems strangelie out of character.” 

This leads rapidly to the conclusion Deacon has evidently been building to; allowing that the Tendring Revelations accept that there is a record of burial for Hopkins in the Mistley parish church, the document goes on to say that:

"nobodie in the localitie was present at hys burial and if buried he was at Mistley it may have beene outside the precinctes of the Churche in the dark of night when noone else was about his business."

His final suggestion based on this evidence is that Hopkins left the country in 1647 and fled to America, where he continued his witchfinding enterprises until the end of his days. tThe burial record, he posits, was faked by Hopkins' own mother, an easy thing to do if she was, as Deacon suggests, the second wife of Thomas Witham, the parson at Mistley at the time. 

Intriguing, thought provoking, and a definite page turner, unfortunately things are not as they seem. Richard Deacon was the pen name of Donald McCormick, journalist, historian, and former naval intelligence officer.  With a penchant for writing about sensational topics such as Jack the Ripper, Hellfire Clubs and The Cambridge Apostles, McCormick specialised in "revealing" previously unknown "facts" to a fascinated readership. Utilising to the full the maxim that a lie is most convincingly hidden between two truths, McCormick slotted his inventions almost seamlessly into historical lore, a series of what can only be seen as hoaxes.

So what of the Tendring Witchcraft Revelations and the theories Deacon/McCormick created around the supposed contents of the document? While still referenced by the unwary writer today, it is generally accepted that the "document" was in fact a product of the author's imagination. It has never been seen, and it is safe to say that it never existed outside of the fabricated quotes scattered through his book on Hopkins. 

There is also  no evidence outside of this that Mary Lakeland had anything to do with either Matthew Hopkins or Lady Jane Whorwood. 

Donald McCormick, 1959

McCormick never publicly admitted to the various hoaxes he perpetuated during his writing career, and died in 1998 at the age of eighty-seven. There are, however, clues if you choose to look; in Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General he makes the ironic observation that:

Not only are many records missing, but some of them have been tampered with, others are false, and some blatant forgeries.” 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Haunting Hounds: The Black Dog of Bouley

Bouley Bay, a picturesque harbour on the north coast of Jersey, is well-reputed for being the perfect place for a day-time stroll. As night draws in, however, if local legend is to be believed, you would do best to be as far away as possible...

A ghostly hound is said to haunt the area: large and black, with huge saucer-shaped eyes, in some versions of the tale, he has the addition of terror-inducing long, sharp teeth. There have been many reports of the Dog of Bouley, or Le Tchan du Bouole as it is locally known, throughout the centuries, and he is often said to be a warning of an approaching storm. Dragging his chain behind him, he prowls through the bay at night, the noise so terrifying that those hearing it are frozen where they stand. Closing in on his prey, the spectre then proceeds to run round his victim, increasing in speed as he goes. What happened next is unrecorded, but the petrified person is discovered huddled on the ground, frozen and speechless with shock.  

Although there is no record of the dog doing any harm to its victims, it is safe to say that it is not an experience someone would want to repeat!   

Bouley Bay has a long history, and a port has been in evidence there since at least 1274. One explanation for the legend of the dog is that it was invented by smugglers using the bay, in an attempt to keep curious locals from inadvertently stumbling across their business. 

Another more improbable yet fascinating theory regarding the dog's origin was put forward by the Jersery folklorist, John L'Amy. L'Amy suggested a connection between the Tchan and the French emigres that came to Jersey to escape the Revolution. They were apparently well known for playing tricks, and he posits that one might have dressed up as a dog in order to scare the locals; with “Tchan” being a corruption of “Chouan” as the emigres were known, so a legend was born.  

Whatever the origin of the tale, today, visitors can enjoy a walk around the bay, followed by a meal at the Black Dog Pub. Don't tarry too late however, as it is still said that a sighting of the Dog of Bouley will come before a storm...