Northern Britain is a strange place. England’s northernmost counties, Northumberland and Cumbria, sit along the border with Scotland. Land in both counties has been both Scottish and English throughout the years. Hadrian’s Wall once marked the boundary with Scotland. It now cuts through Newcastle upon Tyne to end in Wallsend.
Such places nudge up against boundaries. As occasionally disputed territories, they become liminal spaces. And in these border spaces, all kinds of folklore shenanigans might happen…
That’s precisely the focus of this marvellous exhibition at Durham’s Palace Green Library. It’s based on research conducted at nearby Durham University. Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain aims to explore the character of the fairy, and the relationship between folklore/fairy stories and real places.
The exhibition centres around four stories and four places from northern Britain.
To give a little context, many of the stories date back as far as the 1200s. Over time, the stories expand or contract according to the society telling them. The Folklore Society came along in the 19th century, committing the stories to paper. While doing so preserves them for future generations, it also ‘fixes’ the stories. Putting something into print makes it far less flexible.
One of the stories concerns the myth of Middridge, a fairy hill near Shildon. The story is actually unique to Durham.
Another of the four stories focuses on Thomas the Rhymer. His story finds a basis in the tale of a real poet who made prophecies. It falls into the ‘mortal meeting a fairy’ category, exploring a trade between the realms. After working for the Queen of Elfland as her servant, he gains the gift of prophecy.
It also raises interesting questions about gender and fairy stories. Much of Thomas’s experience reappears in later testimonies from witch trials. Many lauded Thomas as a prophet, yet authorities punished women who reported similar experiences as witches. I’ll cover Thomas in a future blog post.
Witchcraft in northern Britain
Witchcraft makes a few appearances in the exhibition. Note the interesting opposition between Mother Shipton, loved by her community in Knaresborough, and the Malleus Maleficarum (they even have a copy in the exhibition). What makes one woman a beloved prophetess and another a witch?
The story of Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire demonstrates such a dichotomy. She claimed the Queen of Elfland taught her how to make charms and heal people. On the surface, the claim is little different from Thomas the Rhymer. Yet Dunlop was executed as a witch in 1576.
Elsewhere, you can see original witch balls. I thought they were Christmas baubles at first! Assistant curator David Wright explained that people hung witch balls in their home to deter witches. Over time, they evolved into gaudy decorations for the tree.
If you’re interested in the history of witchcraft in Britain, then I highly recommend Willow Winsham’s Accused: British Witches Throughout History.
Robert Kirk and the Fairies
Another story focus lies with Robert Kirk. He wanted to square the existence of fairies with his belief in God. As the seventh son in his family, you have to wonder if he possessed the mythical Second Sight.
He wrote The Secret Common-Wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies: A Study in Folk-Lore & Psychical Research to explain the world of the fairies to mortal humans. It appears they disliked his decision to publicly expose them. After he died, he allegedly appeared to a friend to explain he hadn’t passed away. The fairies took him as punishment!
The Minister’s Pine on Doon Hill, also known as a clootie tree, stands on the spot where he was taken. It didn’t stop The Secret Common-Wealth from being published in 1815.
Folklore in the region
The exhibition also explores the links between fairy stories and anthropology, including the fascinating work of Jamie Tehrani. There’s a secondary focus on the forest, a dark, primaeval place subject to different laws. The tale of Sir Gawain and Dame Raynelle illustrates the sort of tales told of the forest.
I asked David about the current revival of folklore, particularly the successful #FolkloreThursday community on Twitter. For him, it’s a reconnection with the past in a hectic, modern world. Yet the decision to focus solely on northern Britain was a canny one. The relative isolation of the north east in past centuries (though some might argue much hasn’t changed) meant that it was inaccessible to many people.
Many folktales, no matter where they’re from, bear similarities to tales from other parts of the country. Travellers took the tales with them, and storytellers incorporated new elements; a local twist colours common tales. Yet in the north east, we see local stories that aren’t replicated elsewhere. Some stories tie in with local families, grounding them further in the history of the region.
I’ve collected some of my favourite Northumberland folklore on my blog over the past two years because it’s just so fascinating.
Be warned – these are not the cute fairies of bedtime stories. The fairies you’ll encounter in Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain can be vicious, contrary, and vindictive.
While the exhibition is small, it’s perfectly formed. Plenty of examples of local folklore weave between the four main stories. It’s interactive too. Collect cards of superstitions, tie a wish to the indoor ‘clootie tree’, and leave your own snippets of folklore.
If you love art, old books, and folklore, then you’ll enjoy this exhibition. And if you have children, ask for a free Fairy Investigator Pack at the front desk.
Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain runs from 14 October 2017 until 25 February 2018 at Palace Green Library in Durham. Click here for more information.
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