Friday 13 and the magic of Whitby tales

Fairies haunted the woods around Mulgrave

Fairies haunted the woods around Mulgrave

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Magic was once a powerful force in these parts, where giants, fairies and witches played a role in the lives of everyday folk.

Where rural isolation and custom prevails, myths and legend follow, and such it was in Whitby and the surrounding area up until recent times.

A two metre high stone in the North York Moors National Park is standing tall again thanks to help from Tees Archaeology. Centuries of cultivation around the scheduled monument had reduced the level of the surrounding ground, causing it to topple over. The standing stone is known as Wade's Stone after the giant that, according to local legend, lived in the area.

A two metre high stone in the North York Moors National Park is standing tall again thanks to help from Tees Archaeology. Centuries of cultivation around the scheduled monument had reduced the level of the surrounding ground, causing it to topple over. The standing stone is known as Wade's Stone after the giant that, according to local legend, lived in the area.

So on this Friday 13th, what supernatural spirits might one encounter while walking down Whitby’s winding ways?

For as long as these stories have been told, such as that of the giant Wade and his wife Bel, there have been those willing to record them. The Rev Atkinson of Danby documented various stories, while Kai Roberts, author of Folklore of Yorkshire, continues the tradition today.

Fairies and other mischievous spirits were popular among Whitby’s folklorists, whether they were throwing butter at homes in Egton Grange or washing their laundry at Claymore Well, near Kettleness.

One farmer is said to have accepted a wager to enter Mulgrave Woods to call out an infamously ill-tempered fairy named Jeanie Biggersdale. He called out her name and the enraged fairy gave chase. He managed to escape by crossing a stream, but the fairy managed to snatch at his horse, splitting the animal in two.

While fairies are largely seen as malevolent, the hob was a helpful creature - so long as certain rules were adhered to. A common occurrence around the district, householders left jobs unfinished in the expectation they would be completed by the morning, usually in exchange for a vat of cream.

A hob lived at Glaisdale’s Hart Hall for many years and the Rev Atkinson noted that whenever work was to be done that was too time-consuming for the human occupants, Hob would complete the task.

Yet, as in most tales of this kind, Hob left the hall in acrimonious circumstances when the master of the house caught sight of the sprite at work in the barn and noticed it was naked. By way of thanks, the master gave Hob a servant’s smock. However, in a recurring theme among such creatures, the hob rejected the offer of clothing and said: “Gin Hob mun hae nowght but a Hardin’ hamp, he’ll come nae mair nowther to berry nor stamp”, before leaving Hart Hall for good.

The reaction of this goblin was fairly tame compared to the potential mischief he could have caused. Around 1828 one hob became annoyed when the farmer’s wife cut back on expenses by replacing the cream she left out for him with skimmed milk. The sprite stopped completing household chores, instead making strange noises, tearing sheets off the bed and even killing poultry.

The prevelence of these myths continues and a large sea cave at Runswick Bay is still named Hob Hole. In the past the cave would be visited by mothers to beg for a cure for their child’s whooping cough. They would call out: “Hob Hole hob, my bairn’s gotten t’kin cough, Tak ‘t off, tak ‘t off.” However, this hob was not all good, as it would spend evenings luring travellers to the cave, where they would then fall victim to the incoming tide.

Other creatures that could choose to be good or bad, depending on how they were treated, were witches - of which the area has many reported.

Molly Milburn of Danby was famous for her love charms, but was also severely whipped for reportedly infecting cattle.

In these rural areas, witches made a habit of targeting livestock - or farmers had a habit of blaming their misfortune on lonely old crones. An Aislaby butcher named Richard Warne was in dispute with two local women and accused them of cursing his cattle.

But witches could also cause harm to humans and in 1678 Dorothy Cooke of Whitby was accused of bewitching a child to death, one of the few cases to come to the church courts.

Unsurprisingly, ghosts make a frequent appearance in Whitby folklore, and Bagdale Old Hall became so famous as a haunted house that crowds gathered to watch the nightly supernatural occurrences.

But perhaps most unusual is the phantom donkey that haunts the vicinity of St Hilda’s Church in Egton. Seeking to cross the cemetery on his route home one night a drunken man was followed and harassed by the equine ghoul, until he stumbled into an open grave and broke his neck.

Each time a seaman is buried at St Mary’s Church it is said that a ghostly procession makes its way up Green Lane, collects the man’s soul, then thunders down the Church steps and plunges headlong over the cliff.

With all these stories of evil and the supernatural, it is no surprise that the Devil himself makes an appearance.

The cloven-hoofed Devil had visited Saltersgate Inn to escape a storm. However a landlord identified his evil guest and trapped him in the smoke of a peat fire. To ensure the monster could not escape, this fire was never extinguished - until tough economic times forced the closure of the pub, releasing the Devil to continue wreaking havoc on Whitby and the surrounding countryside.

So while you are out and about this evening beware of the creatures who may be watching you from the darkness, waiting to pounce.