If you venture north into the hills and moors of Northumberland, you’ll soon notice just how bleak the scenery is. It’s stunningly beautiful no matter the time of year. But you won’t be surprised to hear the legends of the Simonside dwarfs in such a windswept, desolate place.
Yet banish all thoughts of Tolkien’s jolly dwarfs, singing with gusto as they traverse Middle Earth. Their Simonside cousins apparently lure lost travellers to their doom on the moors near Rothbury…
We’re going to meet the Simonside dwarfs in the safest way possible. That’s through the veil of history and at a very large distance!
Let’s travel to the Simonside Hills
There’s a stretch of lonely moorland near Rothbury known as the Simonside Hills. And, in common with other wild places like Dartmoor, the Hills are apparently home to a race of dangerous beings.
They’re sometimes called ‘fairy folk’ or the ‘little people’, and they’re also known as the Brown Men o’ the Moors or Bogles. An article in the Western Morning News likened the figures to “kobolds” in Germany and “pixies” in the west of England (1923: 4). More commonly, they’re the Simonside dwarfs.
But these are not the familiar dwarfs of Middle Earth. There’s no drinking, joking and singing for these creatures. (That said, TheFairyTaleTraveler.com has a good post on the link between the Simonside dwarfs and Tolkien!)
Carrying lights and scampering across the Hills, the dwarfs act much like Will O’ The Wisp. Their lights lead solitary travellers to their doom. In the tales, the lights, and the dwarfs, always disappear at dawn. Bear in mind this is moorland, and bogs are an ever-present danger if you leave the trail. The Hills are popular with walkers and climbers, and more people than ever must find their way into the dwarfs’ territory.
They’re also known as duergar, which many think comes from the Old Norse word for dwarfs – dvergar. Alternatively, it might refer to the regional dialect since the words duerch and duergh both mean dwarf. Sources note them for their strength and magical powers, but also for their links to the earth and nature.
Writing in the Newcastle Chronicle, Rd. Oliver Heslop referred the duergar as “a goblin race of beings”, and categorised them alongside brownies instead of fairies (1889: 5). According to Heslop, the duergar also “set the huge wheel of Tosson water-mill agoing at night”, as well as luring travellers into the bogs (1889: 5).
The Newcastle Courant also referred to the Simonside dwarfs, noting that “it was dangerous for the solitary wanderer to venture” among the “tribe of ugly elves and dwarfs”(1888: 2).
Beware the offer of shelter
One of the commonly told tales involves a man travelling to Rothbury. The journey took longer than he expected. When he stumbled across a little hut on the moor, he gladly took advantage of shelter for the night.
Inside the hut, he found a dying fire, two stones, and two gateposts. He sat on one of the stones and added some wood to the fire.
Soon, a small figure waddled into the hut and sat on the other stone. He completely ignored the bewildered traveller, who wisely decided to keep quiet. The fire began to die down so the traveller snapped a piece of wood and added it to the embers.
The dwarf glared at him and took up one of the gate posts. He broke it over his knee and threw it on the fire. The traveller realised he’d angered his host. He remained silent and let the fire die out. Somehow, he managed to fall asleep sitting up.
When dawn broke the following day, the man found himself sitting on a stone on the moor.
The dwarf, his hut and the fire had all vanished.
To his horror, he realised that the stone he sat on was right at the edge of a tall cliff. If he’d moved at any point during the night, he would have fallen to his death.
Don’t go looking for the Simonside dwarfs
Another tale describes a man who deliberately went looking for the dwarfs to prove they didn’t exist. He called out a local word meaning light, and a light suddenly appeared on the moor. The man moved some way towards it, and then threw a clod of earth into a bog. The light went out.
Realising he’d fooled the dwarfs, the man tried again. He cried out “Tint! Tint!” This time, he found himself surrounded by the Simonside dwarfs.
Each of them held a lit torch and a club.
The man finally realised the danger and actually charged at the crowd of dwarfs. He apparently knocked one down, but his staff didn’t appear to touch anything solid. It passed straight through the figure.
The dwarfs all vanished, and the man thought he’d won.
Nothing is that simple. They reappeared, this time with reinforcements, and the man fainted from shock.
When he woke at dawn, the dwarfs had disappeared and he could finally head home.
Whatever you do, don’t accept their food
A third tale actually takes place during the day – and sees two men encounter a dwarf.
Two young men travelled up to Rothbury from Newcastle to enjoy the shooting in the area. After a morning of hunting, they stopped to eat their lunch in a clearing among the heather.
A short man dressed in clothes the same shade as the bracken suddenly walked into the clearing. This seems to be a distinction between the Duergar and fairies. In Northumbrian lore, the fairies wear green and have flaxen hair. This little chap wore brown. He asked the two young men if they knew who he was.
The younger man replied “the Lord of the Manor”, and offered to hand over the birds they’d shot.
The dwarf declined, claiming a vegetarian diet, but invited the two men to join him for a meal. The younger man wanted to accept but the older man refused (politely, of course) and hauled his friend back towards Rothbury.
Then they got back, they recounted the story to the landlord. The locals praised their decision to return. After all, the Simonside dwarfs enjoyed luring humans into their lair – before feasting on them! At least they managed to escape.
There’s an obvious moral to all three of these tales. Don’t go wandering on the moors! On one hand, that’s “their” space. On the other hand, it’s dangerous and unforgiving terrain. What better way to keep people on safer routes than telling tales of goblins lurking in the dark?
The traveller who accepts the ‘offer’ of shelter finds himself almost lured over the side of a cliff. Our man who tries to disprove the Duergar’s existence does quite the opposite. And our hunters almost end up on the menu themselves.
The third story is unusual since it happens during the day, where other dwarf stories focus on their disappearance during daylight hours. But it still involves the men needing to get back to civilisation to reach safety.
The idea of being in the dwarfs’ territory seems a common one. The fairies hide in plain sight, often obscured by glamours or just simply hidden away in underground lairs.
But the dwarfs actively go looking for travellers. They’re not punishing trespassing.
They’re looking for their dinner.
Dwarven Capital of the World
Weirdly, in December 2016, Rothbury was named Dwarven Capital of the World because of the stories. This totally unofficial title came from THQ Nordic, a video game developer. The Northumberland Gazette claims the idea of dwarves came from the Simonside story, evolving over the centuries into the ale-drinking miners, blacksmiths, and warriors familiar from the works of JRR Tolkien or even Disney.
Now, we do have to be a little wary of this claim. Disney borrowed Snow White from a fairy tale collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They published it in 1812 as part of their Nursery and Household Tales collection.
Given the Brothers Grimm collected their original stories in what is now Germany, it’s hard to know how old the dwarves in their tale might be. The fact their name, duergar, is so similar to the Old Norse word, dvergar, could perhaps indicate a shared Germanic origin. An article on the dwarfs in the Newcastle Chronicle certainly makes this link, calling the “dwarfish elves or demons” close relations of the Norse Duergar (1894: 7).
Or perhaps they’re a distant branch of the family, more keen to help a lost child in the forest than lure men to their deaths on a moor.
Either way, it’s just another reminder of how sanitised many tales, including fairy tales, have become over the years. I’m not sure Disney would have made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if he thought for one minute that Happy might suddenly decide to have Snow White for lunch…
Has their cautionary aspect been lost?
Over to you! Do you think they may have existed, or are they just a warning to lone travellers?
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Heslop, Oliver (1889), ‘Northumberland Words’, Newcastle Chronicle, 17 August.
Newcastle Chronicle (1894), ‘The Simonside Dwarfs, Newcastle Chronicle, 21 April.
Newcastle Courant (1888), ‘Rothbury Parish Ghosts’, Newcastle Courant, 6 July.
T. H. R. (1923), ‘Story of the Pixies: West Country Belief and its Origin’, Western Morning News, 3 March.
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