The Written Stone of Dilworth

In Lancashire’s verdant Ribble Valley, below the gentle ridge of Longridge Fell, an ancient lane winds through the scattered farms which comprise the hamlet known as Dilworth. The track is said to follow the route of a private Roman road, one of many such relics in the area, testifying to a heavy Roman presence almost two thousand years ago. Indeed, the remains of an extensive First Century settlement known as Bremetonacum can be seen at Ribchester nearby.

Some way along this lane, however, lies a less venerable but far more curious antiquity. A huge slab, some eight feet long, two feet wide and one foot thick, is prominently set into a low wall beside the highway. The legend “RAUFFE RADCLIFFE LAID THIS STONE TO LYE FOREVER A.D. 1655” is deeply inscribed upon it. This strange monument is known as the Written Stone of Dilworth and its origins have long been a source of great speculation, breeding all manner of folklore well into the present age.

The Stone received an early mention in Volume Three of Edward Baine’s exhaustive survey, The History of the County Palatine of Lancaster, published in 1836. Baines, however, does not dwell greatly on it’s mystery. Perhaps he saw none in it, prosaically suggesting that Rauffe Radcliffe had once been the owner of the estate and that it represented nothing more sinister than a boundary marker.

A far more picturesque tale concerning the Written Stone appears in John Harland and Thomas Wilkinson’s 1874 tome, Lancashire Legends, attributed to an older, anonymously-authored pamphlet, Curious Corners Round Preston: “Tradition declares this spot to have been the scene of a cruel and barbarous murder, and it is stated that this stone was put down in order to appease the restless spirit of the deceased, which played its nightly gambols long after the body had been hearsed in the earth.”

It goes on to say that a later occupant of the adjacent Written Stone Farm, ignorant or sceptical with regard to the Stone’s alleged purpose, thought it would make an excellent dairy stone for his kitchen and so moved it there accordingly. The farmer soon came to regret his decision, however, for released from its bondage, the spectre set about causing mischief once more.

“Whatever pots, pans, kettles or article of crockery were place on the stone, were titled over, their contents spilled and the vessels themselves kept up a clattering dance the live-long night at the beck of the unseen spirit.” With his family unable to secure a night’s rest for the commotion, the farmer was forced to return the Stone to its original position, where it has remained undisturbed ever since.

A decade or so after Harland and Wilkinson’s publication, the Written Stone was visited by a writer for the Stonyhurst Magazine, journal of the illustrious public school, Stonyhurst College. He tells several more stories about the Stone, the first of which concerns the experience of an old man who inhabited a farm further up the lane: “Wending his way homeward late one evening – close to the stone he saw a female figure which moved along in front of him; he mended his pace to see who it was, but in spite of every effort he never gained on it… Finally his pursuit ended by the disappearance of its object.”

This story has led some writers to speculate that the haunting experienced in the vicinity of the Written Stone may the same as one reported in 1878 by James Bowker in Goblin Tales of Lancashire. Although Bowker does not refer to the Written Stone, the narrative he recounts also took place in the lanes around Longridge Fell. Whilst the topography of the tale suggests it relates to a quite different point in the locality, there is no reason to suppose the spectre could not have ranged far and wide.

Bowker’s story refers to a man named Gabriel Fisher, who having spent the evening drinking at the White Bull in Longridge village, set off home to Kemple End around midnight with only his dog Trotty for company. Descending from the highest point of the road, in the region known as Tootle Height, he drew close upon a woman walking ahead of him, carrying a basket and attired in a “long light cloak and hood, and a large coalscuttle bonnet.” Fisher greeted her but whilst she reciprocated, she did not turn to look at him.

They were now walking abreast, but still the woman did not turn towards him and Fisher couldn’t make out her face beneath the bloom of her bonnet. He tried to engage her in conversation but to no avail, until finally he offered to take her basket. At this, the mysterious woman passed him her burden but as she did so, let out a peal of laughter. Shocked, Fisher lost his grip on the basket and as it tumbled to the ground, the cloth covering slipped away and a human head rolled out onto the road. As the woman turned to pick up the head, Fisher finally glimpsed beneath the bonnet, only to discover that nothing was there at all.

Seeing this macabre spectacle unfold before him, Fisher immediately fled down the hill as fast as he possible could. In an attempt to ensnare her quarry, the revenant hurled her head in pursuit, which flew past Fisher’s ear and landed in the lane before him. With another terrible laugh, the head rolled towards him and as he was forced to leap over it, the thing sprang up from the ground and gnashed at his feet. Finally, however, Fisher was able to cross a stream, providing him with safety from supernatural pursuit.

Returning to the Written Stone itself, the Stonyhurst writer goes on to relate the experience of a local doctor, said to have taken place many years previously. “Passing the Stone, his horse shied and plunged in a state of extreme terror. It then, in spite of bit and rein, galloped forward at a headlong pace, nor was the doctor able to restrain it until he was a mile or two away from the spot. As soon as he had succeeded in stopping, he got down to see if it had anything the matter with it. It was covered in blood!”

Another story records that a doctor, perhaps the very same one, boasted one night in some local public house that he was unafraid of the whatever lurked at the Written Stone and would ride to the stone that very night. He came galloping back a little while later in a state of extreme shock and was unable to recount his experience for some time. At last, he described approaching the Stone “when suddenly a shapeless mass appeared, and he was dragged from his saddle and then so tightly embraced by the monster that he nearly died.”

When the writer Jessica Lofthouse visited the site in 1954, she managed to glean further details from the locals. She was told that before the stone was laid, travellers along the lane “reported bumps and bruises from attacks by an unseen assailant, hats and cloaks whipped away, horses lamed and maddened by fear”. Finally, when Rauffe Radcliffe was moved to subdue the restless spirit, he was joined by a local priest who conducted a full exorcism.

Lofthouse also provides some additions to the story of the Stone’s subsequent removal for a dairy slab, claiming that “bowls of milk turned to blood” when put on the Stone and that a “young maid-servant was witched and died soon after”. Perhaps most significantly, she was told that moving the Stone to the dairy took “a team of six horses… and in doing so every man had a wrench, crushed fingers or bruised toes.” Conversely, it only took one horse to return the Stone to its original position. Finally, Lofthouse asserts that following its restoration, a holly tree – often credited with apotropaic powers – was planted above the Stone to bolster its efficacy.

Whether these features had always been part of the legend or had accrued through retelling since the story was first written down is not clear and now impossible to ascertain. But whilst the former possibility may be true, it is important to bear the alternative in mind. It is sadly all too common for popular writers on folkloric topics to fail to identify the stages in the development of a legend and accept that some may not always have existed in the oral tradition. This oversight has all too often led to erroneous conclusions.

For instance, in their 1976 work, The Secret Country, seminal earth mysterians, Janet and Colin Bord suggest that “the Written Stone was originally a standing stone, or… it was, intentionally or accidentally, placed on the site of a standing stone”. They base this hypothesis largely on the fact that several of the legends attached to the Written Stone bear similarities to legends associated with ancient standing stones and other prehistoric monuments, scattered throughout the British Isles.

From this, the Bords work the site into their system of “earth energies” channelled by a vast network of “leys”, whose power had been recognised and tapped by prehistoric man. They conclude that the Written Stone “took over the older stone’s energy current” and explain the various paranormal activity experienced in its vicinity as the result of unexpected discharges of this energy current, or as coded stories which had preserved this lost knowledge over thousands of years.

In the Bords’ own words, “The earth currents were manipulated by the men who raised the standing stones, the routes of the currents being guides and marked by these standing stones and other structure, and at these points the currents could also be released and controlled at certain times… Any interference with the sites on this ‘grid’ caused an imbalance, or a leaking of current… When the nodal points of the system were disturbed, the result was the general disruption of the current and so humans and cattle died, and in other stranger ways the tenor of people’s lives was adversely affected”.

It is certainly true that the various traditions concerning the Written Stone echo megalith-lore across the country. In Folklore of Prehistoric Sites In Britain, the veteran archaeologist, Leslie V. Grinsell, recorded numerous occurrences of such motifs under the titles “Immovability” and “Fear of Retribution for Disturbing an Antiquity”. Indeed, these two tropes often appear together: a local farmer decides the stone could be put to use elsewhere, finds it almost impossible to shift and even when he finally does so, suffers a plague of misfortune so great that it necessitates the stone’s return. This task proves to be much more easily accomplished.

This basic story is famously told of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and many other lesser-known sites around Britain. As such, it represents a “migratory legend”; an archetypal narrative which recurs in similar forms at countless different locations. The deflationary folklorist would argue, therefore, that such a legend cannot provide us with any information about those individual sites. Rather, it becomes told about such places simply because it is told about other, similar places.

This certainly may have been the case with the Written Stone. As we have observed, the report of the difficulty encountered in moving the stone does not appear until many decades after the story of the ensuing paranormal disturbances was first written down. It may be that this was never part of the Written Stone’s native tradition, but became attached to it because it features in corresponding stories elsewhere.

Nonetheless, it may be prudent to observe a distinction made by Paul Screeton, a writer of a similar vintage to the Bords: “Folklorists talk of ‘migratory anecdotes’ and see the larger the number and greater the distribution as evidence of falsity and narrative repetition, whereas forteans assume correlating data over space and time as indicative of genuine phenomena occurring”. In this respect, whilst the Bords take folklore as their evidence, they interpret it as forteans. Ultimately, this choice of perspective may be primarily a matter of inclination.

Regrettably, however, the odds that the Written Stone was originally itself, or replaced, a more ancient standing stone are not good. The evidence of folklore is hardly sufficient, as such stories have been told not only about prehistoric constructions, but of anomalous monoliths of any nature. For instance, an identical narrative is associated with the slab of Robin Hood’s grave at Kirklees in West Yorkshire. It could similarly be argued that this replaced an earlier standing stone but in the absence of supporting evidence, such an argument would be unavoidably circular.

For what reason, then, was the Written Stone originally inscribed and positioned? It is certainly possible that it was intended to lay a troublesome spirit. Whilst a sceptic may dismiss the reality of the phenomena attributed to the location, it is far from improbable that a Seventeenth Century farmer in rural Lancashire would have credited its existence himself. 1655 was, lest we forget, only twenty years after the last substantial witch trial had taken place in the county.

However, the 1650s were troubled times in their own right. Lancashire had been riven by the Civil Wars of the previous decade and following the establishment of the Commonwealth countless Royalist landowners in the area found their estates confiscated. Meanwhile, one local writer complained “In this county hath plague and pestilence been raging for three years and upwards, occasioned chiefly by the wars. There is very great scarcity and dearth of all provisions… All trade, by which they have been much supported, is utterly decayed, it would melt the heart to see the numerous swarms of begging poor”.

Discussing the Written Stone in his History of Longbridge of 1888, Tom C. Smith noted that the Ribchester Parish Registers show a succession of deaths (at least four) in the Radcliffe family in the period 1654-5. In the face of such personal tragedy and wider upheaval, it would hardly be surprising if Rauffe Radcliffe had attempted to secure a degree of immortality for himself by inscribing his name on such a monolith and situating it for eternity.

Alternatively, as Smith suggests, “A feeling of superstitious awe may have been awakened in the breasts of the survivors of the bereaved family and cause them to lay this stone in order to appease the evil spirit that has caused so much trouble”. If this is indeed the case, then we may conclude that the legend purporting to explain the origin of the Written Stone does at least come close to preserving the memory of its initial purpose. But ultimately we may never know and through its ostentatious ambiguity, the Written Stone will continue to serve as a canvas for the myths of each age for generations to come.

Bibliography

The Holy Face of Halifax

Whether it represents a case of unconscious cultural transmission or merely a pleasing synchronicity, there can be no doubt that the image of the disembodied human head has exerted a curious influence over the municipal psyche of Halifax through the ages. Its most infamous and familiar expression can be seen in the once widely-feared Gibbet Law, whereby the town would behead criminals by the guillotine for the infraction of stealing goods worth more than the relatively trivial sum of 13½d, a custom which persisted until 1650, long after the rest of country had forsaken such a grisly mode of execution.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and folklorists have commented on the prevalence of uniquely stylised stone carvings of the human head in the vernacular architecture of the region. Often located at liminal positions such as gateways, gables, boundary walls and bridges, these images seem to have performed a tutelary or apotropaic function for the pre-modern mind, guarding against incursion by otherworldly forces and acting as the “luck” of the building.

Some scholars have suggested they may represent a folk memory of the Celtic “head cult,” a hypothesis supported by Halifax’s situation at the heart of Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom in England (enduring until the 7th Century AD), and the town’s subsequent isolation from outside influences until the Industrial Revolution. However, this identification has increasingly been questioned and currently the preferred term is “archaic stone head,” for even if the iconography does signify the continuity of a Celtic tradition, the majority of individual examples seem to date from around the 17th Century.

A further instance of the disembodied head motif can be discerned in the town’s “foundation myth”, of which there are two variants. In early works studying topography and local history of the region, these legends were understood literally and often cited as the historical origin of the town. As such, the stories are well-known to local antiquarians and seem to persist healthily in the popular consciousness of the town today. Yet whilst they are now easily recognisable as examples of myth (and their significance often dismissed on that account), little effort seems to have been expended examining the origin of these beliefs.

The first tradition is recorded by the scholar William Camden in his seminal and monumental chorographical work, “Britannia”, first published in 1586. He tells how the town had not long enjoyed the name of Halifax and was formerly known as Horton, wherein dwelled a certain clergyman who found himself consumed by lust for a local maid. The girl spurned his advances and as affection turned to anger, he cut her head from her body and cast it away. However, it was caught in the fork of a nearby yew tree and there, its hair grew so entangled in the branches, it was stuck fast and could not be removed.

As both the head and tree decayed, local superstition transformed the fibres which characterise the yew’s bark into surviving strands of the virgin’s hair, miraculously become one with the tree and preserved. Camden goes on to relate that the tree became an object of veneration for the local populace, who would make pilgrimages to the place and reverently carry away sprigs for good fortune. Such was the influx of pilgrims to see this hallowed relic Horton grew from a village into a substantial town and was renamed Halig-fax, a corruption of the Old English for “holy hair”.

It should be noted that the tale only appears in Camden’s earliest editions of Britannia, which suggests that even the antiquarian himself grew suspicious of its provenance. Many subsequent commentaries have expressed the opinion that the story had no genuine local tradition and was an invention of the 16th Century, possibly on the part of the Savile family, with whom Camden is thought to have stayed in 1580. Nonetheless, the story remained in currency throughout the 1600s, appearing in John Drayton’s poetic work of 1616, Poly-Olbion, and Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662.

Almost a century after the publication of Camden’s chronicle, in his diary entry for 26th April 1679 historian Ralph Thoresby mentions being taken to see the yew tree, a visit which must have made an impression upon him as he mentions the incident again in an autobiographical “review” of his life. This suggests a venerated tree must have actually existed in Halifax, although it does not eliminate the possibility that it was only designated as such after Camden’s description. Doubtless the town burghers would’ve been eager to identify the locus of such a picturesque tale and yew trees are not an unfamiliar sight in the vicinity of churchyards in Britain.

Despite Thoresby’s credulity, the idea of “holy hair” story as a reliable historical account seems to have very quickly fallen out of fashion. Fuller expressed his doubts, writing that “the judicious behold the whole contrivance devoid of historical truth.” Its survival as a romantic fable was assured, however, and a most picturesque retelling appeared in Frederick Ross’s 1892 collection, Legendary Yorkshire, featuring numerous embellishments seemingly of the author’s own invention.

The first dedicated histories of Halifax were compiled at the end of 17th Century, although they did not appear immediately in print. Halifax and It’s Gibbet Law and The History of the Town and Parish of Halifax were written during a period of incarceration for debt by Luddenden physician, Dr. Samuel Midgley, probably around 1685. However, they were not published until 1708, thirteen years after Midgley’s death, by printer William Bentley who passed the work off as his own. As Bentley added his own notes it is difficult to ascertain just what should be attributed to whom but as the bulk undoubtedly belongs to Midgley, he shall be credited.

It is with these volumes that the second, marginally more sober version of the foundation myth enters the public consciousness, for Midgley conclusively rejects Camden’s story. He cites evidence that a church at Halifax is explicitly mentioned in documentary evidence dating from almost five hundred years prior to Camden’s visit, disproving his assertion that the name of Halifax was of no great antiquity and was originally called Horton. However, he acknowledges the strength of the tradition in the town itself.

Midgley wonders if the story of the holy hair may not have derived from a grove a yew trees surrounding the Well of St. John the Baptist, a hallowed spring which once stood some two hundred yards to the north of the parish church. Even by Midgley’s time this well had long since disappeared and its exact traditions been forgotten, but a remembrance of it existed in the name of the street beside which it stood, called Cripplegate in reference to the influx of infirm pilgrims who would visit it. In the 19th Century, the well trough was rediscovered in the grounds of Mulcture Hall, but was lost again with the building’s demolition and the spot is now thought to lie beneath the end of Mulcture Hall Road, adjacent to the Wool Merchant Hotel.

The alternative version of the foundation myth Midgley goes on to provide has proved a more prevalent and enduring formulation, for reasons which will become clear. On this account, Halifax was originally the site of a secluded hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist (a figure known as the Prince of Hermits by the church fathers) which became a place of pilgrimage owing to a popular belief that the head of the Baptist itself was kept there. The beneficence of the pilgrims funded the construction of the parish church, which is still dedicated to St. John today.

Christian theology regards John the Baptist as the “Forerunner” who both proclaimed by the Messiah’s coming and baptised the infant Christ, whilst he is mentioned as a Prophet of Islam in the Qur’an. The Synoptic Gospels recount how the Baptist was decapitated by King Herod and his head presented to the monarch’s step-daughter Salome, whose mother John had slighted by calling Herod’s remarriage impious. As a result of his significance for both faiths, his head is a relic claimed by many places, Christian and Muslim, across Europe and the Middle East. However, Halifax is easily the most incongruous suggestion and undoubtedly wholly apocryphal, as no Roman Catholic source mentions the town in such a context.

Not only does Midgley prefers the suggestion that popular rumour may once have held that the relics of St. John the Baptist were kept at an early hermitage in Halifax, he seeks to strength the argument with an equally tenuous revision of Camden’s original etymological speculation. Where Camden believed the name to derive from a corruption of an Old English dialect for “holy hair”, Midgley suggest that it may rather have stemmed from “holy face,” citing the use of “fax” for “face” in certain Scottish dialects which he imagines best preserve the Anglo Saxon language.

A few more published histories of the town appear as the 18th Century progresses. The Antiquities of the Town of Halifax was published in 1737 by Thomas Wright, which only discusses the story of the “holy hair”, with a note that he does not have much faith in its authenticity. He is joined in this opinion by Dr. John Watson, a curate of Halifax and Ripponden, whose History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax appeared in 1775. However, Watson’s more comprehensive tome follows Midgley in proposing the head of St. John the Baptist hypothesis.

Today, the supposition that Halifax may once have possessed the head of St. John the Baptist seems no more credible than the legend of the holy hair. However, to Midgley and Watson’s credit they do not say that the hermitage on which the church was founded actually did possess the head, only that people believed it to be so. This is not quite so absurd, as religious houses in the Middle Ages often exhibited relics of very dubious authenticity in expectation of the economic benefits such a superstition would bring.

Nonetheless, there is no contemporary documentary evidence to suggest even a popular belief of this nature and it seems to be little more than speculation on the part of Midgley and Watson. If Halifax had been such a famous centre of pilgrimage it seems unlikely that this would have escaped mention in medieval sources. However, no such record is to be found, even amongst local wills where you would expect to find remembrances referring to any relics or shrine of St. John the Baptist. After all, it was customary for local worthies to bequeath money to such institutions to guarantee the priests would pray for their immortal souls.

A more sober proposal, first mooted by John Stansfield writing in Volume 2 of the Thoresby Society Miscellanea, is that the church at Halifax once possessed not the head of John the Baptist but a portrait of the saint. T.W. Hanson would later revise this hypothesis and suggested that the visage might have been sculpted from alabaster, as several such representations of the Baptist have been recorded in Yorkshire in the Middle Ages. An elaborate icon of this type would have impressed pilgrims during the medieval period but could certainly have been lost during the Reformation, when in 1547, Edward IV issued an injunction against images in churches and a vast majority were defaced or destroyed.

Midgley and Watson’s original conjecture very quickly fell out of fashion, however. In his 1816 History of Leeds and Elmet, Doctor Thomas Whittaker tacitly dismisses the idea of any relic, but seems to take it for granted that there was once a hermitage on the site of the parish church and that this was a great centre of pilgrimage. Furthermore, observing that four highways had long converged at that place, he muddies the etymological waters further by arguing that the name of the town was in fact an Anglo-Saxon/Norman French compound meaning “holy ways”, as “fax” was a Norman French plural meaning highways.

In 1836’s A Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax In the Country of York, John Crabtree follows Whittaker in rejecting both formulations of the foundation myth. Nonetheless, the legends were evidently still pervasive through the 19th Century. When the borough was incorporated in 1848, local antiquary Francis Alexander Leyland was commissioned to design a coat-of-arms for the town. He chose to embellish the shield of the Earls de Warenne, Norman lords-of-the manor, with a representation of the severed head of St. John the Baptist, on the grounds not only of the parish church’s dedication, but also the myth of the town’s origin.

The College of Arms, however, refused to register the design, indicating that the head of St. John the Baptist was too holy an icon to adorn the seal of an industrial town. This decision, compounded by the expense incurred, led the Halifax Corporation to abandon the idea of enrolment altogether. Initially, they used the seal without official armorial bearings, but by 1859 these had crept back in and the Corporation continued to use the coat-of-arms illegally until the centenary of its design in 1948, when the Herald’s College was finally persuaded to accept a modified version, albeit one that retained the Baptist motif.

Whilst it should now be clear that Halifax never pretended to possess the head of St. John the Baptist, it is interesting to speculate on how the town’s association with that personage and his legend arose. One possible source is the etymological root suggested by Midgley. However, this appears to be little more than post-hoc justification for Watson’s conjecture. The current favoured origin for the name of Halifax is the Middle English “halh-gefeaxe”, meaning “an area of coarse grass in a nook of land amongst rocks”. Extensive reasoning for this is set out by A.H. Smith in Volume 3 of his definitive study, The Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

It is scarcely surprising that Watson et al should have posited such a dramatic origin, for there can be no doubt that the rise of Halifax is both shrouded in mystery and somewhat meteoric. Despite apparently being of insufficient stature to warrant a mention in the Domesday Book, by the late Middle Ages the town had grown to become the most substantial in the valley, supplanting older, better situated rivals such as Elland, and was the site of a major parish church. Inevitably, early antiquarians would’ve sought an explanation befitting such a scenario.

It is certain that Halifax Parish Church was founded at some during the lifetime of the Second Earl de Warenne, which would date it to the late 11th or early 12th Century. The Earl owned much land in the region and a charter drawn up around the time of his death in 1138 is the first record of the church, mentioning it as a gift to the Priory of Lewes. However, this is only a confirmation of an earlier bequest, suggesting that the Earl had donated land for the purposes of a religious house and the church had been established by Cluniac Benedictine monks from Lewes Priory some years prior to the Earl’s death.

The dedication of the church to St. John the Baptist has led some commentators to surmise a connection with that infamous Crusading order, the Knights Templar. In the furore which followed their dissolution in 1307, a number of charges of apostasy were levelled against the Templars, including that they worshipped the image of a disembodied head. Even though it has been shown that the accusations were fabricated and the order was actually suppressed because the Vatican was jealous of its wealth and influence, this has not stopped speculation that they were adherents of the Johannite Heresy and were in possession of the Baptist’s head.

Amongst the evidence brought against the Templars during their trials for heresy in 1311 was the testimony of a Minorite friar by the name of Brother John de Donyngton, the sixty-seventh witness deposed. Donyngton swore that some years previously in London a Templar veteran, whose name he conveniently could not recall, had assured him that “the order had four principal idols”; one at London in the Sacristy of the Temple; another at Bristelham; a third at Bruern in Lincolnshire; and a fourth “beyond the Humber”, the exact location of which he could not remember. However, “beyond the Humber” clearly indicates somewhere in the north of England and could conceivably be imagined as Halifax.

The Knights Templar certainly owned a great deal of land in Yorkshire, more than in any other county in England, including some in the vicinity of Halifax. A whimsical narrative could doubtless be constructed whereby the order brought the head of St. John the Baptist to the town to keep it safe from the wiles of Rome and a church founded to commemorate its presence. However, quite aside from the sheer fancifulness of such a story, the chronology cannot be made to fit. The order was not founded until 1128 and did not arrive in Yorkshire until 1142, by which time the church at Halifax had already been established.

A more sensible suggestion in a similar vein is that the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist to reflect the connections of the de Warennes with another Crusading order, the Knights Hospitaller, whose patron saint was the Baptist and who had similarly been granted land in the Halifax region, including at Coley. Yet whilst the de Warennes undoubtedly did have sympathies with the Hospitallers, this relationship seems not have arisen until the time of the third Earl, who fought in the Second Crusade between 1146 and 1148. Again, the church had already been founded and bequeathed to the Priory of Lewes some time prior to this date.

The most likely cause of Halifax’s associated with St. John the Baptist is also probably the most prosaic. He is, amongst other things, the patron saint of lambs and in that capacity was adopted by the Wool Weavers’ Guilds across Europe in the Middle Ages. Whilst Halifax had no such guild itself , even long before its reputation in the Industrial Revolution, the town was closely associated with the wool trade. A gravestone at the parish church dating from 1150, featuring a carved representation of a pair of cropping shears, attests to this fact. It is not improbable that a town at the centre of a district so dependent on hill-farming should find the patron saint of lambs a resonant figure.

However, it is the legend and not mundane reality which has endured in the folk-memory of the town, doubtless much to the chagrin of the joyless positivists who too often dominate the study of local history. In one of the few learned discussions of the foundation myth, the venerable early 20th Century Halifax scholar H.P. Kendall opines, “We, as antiquarians, freely acknowledge the necessity of preserving the traditions of the past, if those traditions have a root in the dim mists of antiquity. But here the case is different, there is no remote antiquity about it as it appears to have been an invention of the latter end of the 16th Century with not even the halo of romance to give it support and hallow it.”

Yet it is by no means clear that simply because the legend has its roots in modernity rather than antiquity, it is therefore beneath our attention. Many Halifax residents are familiar with the rumours concerning the head of St. John the Baptist and even if the various incarnations of the foundation myth arose purely from the speculation of historians between the 16th and 18th Century, this does not alter the fact that their musings have grown into a genuine local tradition which persists today. Indeed, it gives folklorists and social historians a rare opportunity to study exactly how such beliefs arise and establish themselves in the public consciousness.

Moreover, when considered in the wider context of the town’s historical fascination with the motif of the disembodied human head, the foundation myths acquire a whole new relevance. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain whether such correspondences are evidence of any sustained cultural transmission. The history of thought can only be reconstructed through its artefacts; we cannot excavate the underlying processes. As such we can only observe the existence of a correlation and speculate on what it might tell us.

It is vaguely possible that when the parish church was founded in the 11thCentury, having observed the belief invested in images of the disembodied human head by the local populace, the Benedictine monks cannily chose to dedicate it to a saint whose narrative might have some resonance far greater than the perceived patronage he offered to hill farmers. It would not be the first time the Christian church had co-opted pre-existent local folk beliefs in the interest of securing a relatively harmonious transition. However, it is by no means certain that any importance was attached to the head image as early as the 11th Century, the Celtic attribution remaining controversial.

The original dedication may have been as commonplace as suggested and it was Midgley and Watson who imbued it with significance by projecting the prevalence of the image of the head in their own time backwards through history. The period between the 16th and the 18th Century when these two venerable antiquaries were writing appears to have been a fertile time for head carving in the region. Customs such as placing human skulls in the walls during the construction of a building to provide protection against witchcraft were still rife in that era and even if they did not believe in such superstitions himself, the symbolism would not be unfamiliar.

Alternatively, the chance does exist that there is no connection at all between these various traditions, and that we are looking at a cultural and historical simulacrum. Like all simulacra, it is aesthetically satisfying but its objective existence is a matter of perspective, nothing more than the sum of its unrelated parts. Nonetheless, it seems instructive that both versions of the foundation myth involve a decapitated human head. Even as inventions of incautious antiquarians, you have to wonder why they might have chosen that particularly image. Ultimately, the correspondences are too numerous to be ignored.

Bibliography

The Black Walker of the Ford, Rannoch Moor

“Rather more than a century ago, there lived at Amhulaich, in Rannoch, a miller, much addicted to the use of tobacco, and when unable to get it, was like most smokers, very short and quick in the temper. On one occasion, he ran out of tobacco, and sent for a supply by some Lochaber men, who were passing through Rannoch on their way to Perth. The mill-stream ran close to his house, and he had to cross it on stepping-stones in going to and from the mill.

As he was returning home one evening in the dusk, and was about to enter the house, he heard the sound of footsteps coming to the ford.He called out, who is there? But received no answer. Being crusty for want of tobacco, and thinking it might be the Lochaber men returning, he called out a second time, very peremptorily and impatiently. He still received no answer. He called out a third time, turning down to the ford, and saying aloud, that, whether it was man or devil, he would make it answer. The thing then spoke, and said it (or he) was the Black Walker of the Ford.

What further passed between the two never transpired, but every evening after that, for a year or more, the miller left home at dusk, crossed the stream, and went to a small clump of trees about half a mile away, whence loud cries and yells were heard during the night. Before daybreak he came home, with his knife or dirk covered with blood. When examined by the light, the blood proved to be merely earth.

An attempt was made on one occasion by some young men to follow him to the rendezvous, but he became aware in some mysterious way of the attempt, and turning back warned them not to follow. It was enough, he said, for himself to go, without their periling their souls.

On the last night of his going to meet the Black Walker, such terrific outcries were heard from the clump of trees that the people of the neighbouring villages, Amhulaich and Cragganour, came to the doors to listen. It was a winter night, and next morning marks of a foot or knee were found in the snow, along with the miller’s own footsteps, as if something had been engaged in a struggle with him.

Some years after this, a man who had been away in America, entered Amhulaich Mill. The miller at the time was dressing the mill-stone, and whenever he observed the American, threw at him the pick he had in his hand, and nearly killed another, who was standing near. He told him never to appear in his presence again, that he had had enough of him. Many surmised it was this man who had troubled him before, but whether it was or not he never appeared.”

The above story appears in John Gregorson Campbell’s peerless collection of Scottish folklore Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands, published posthumously in 1902 from material gathered in the 1850s and 1860s. I would argue that it’s one of the most unusual and unnerving tales I’ve encountered in a folkloric context and for many years now, it has exercised a powerful hold on my imagination. Yet despite its unique character, not to mention its concrete location in the typically Scottish moorland landscape of Rannoch, I have not seen it referenced in any other study of Highland folklore.

Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to know quite what to make of it. Later in the article I hope to demonstrate that this ambiguity is precisely the story’s strength. However, it certainly makes it hard to categorise for writers trying to produce neat anthologies for popular consumption. Although I believe it exhibits many typically folkloric tropes, the narrative does not fit comfortably into the familiar taxonomies of bodachs, fachans, urisks or the each-uisge.

Campbell himself includes the story in a chapter titled “Hobgoblins”, which he seems to use as a catch-all term for a variety of unclassifiable otherworldly manifestations, admitting in his introduction to the section: “The term bòcan is a general name for terrifying objects seen at night and taken to be supernatural”. The designation seems to have much in common with that favourite term from Yorkshire and Lancashire – boggart – which was once applied by local folk to myriad strange phenomena, from what we might now describe as poltergeist activity to degraded faerie lore.

One particularly curious facet of the narrative is the degree of verisimilitude it strives for with its introduction and coda. I’m undecided as to whether these digressions strengthen the basic narrative or are irrelevant to it. However, by offering such context, it certainly grounds the story in a familiar and concrete milieu which seems to elevate the reader’s response to more than just the “friend-of-a-friend story” impression these hoary old tales so often leave. It doesn’t come across as a story unanchored in time or place. Rather it suggests the story could be the folk memory of an actual historical occurrence.

This particularity produces a narrative tension with the details of the strange and unexplained occurrences themselves, undercutting their perceived reality whilst simultaneously reinforcing its credibility. It is a device often employed by literary ghost story writers, who so often impress upon the reader the veracity of their tale by placing it in the mouth of a hardened sceptic and introducing certain qualifiers. As M.R. James once remarked, “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable”.

The technique is so classically employed here that I would not rule out its addition being poetic license on Campbell’s part. Firstly, it presents the miller as a man addicted to nicotine and suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal, which suggests the whole episode may be some fevered hallucinatory experience. Admittedly the vicissitudes of nicotine withdrawal are rarely so dramatic but nonetheless, it insinuates the idea of the miller as an unreliable perceiver. Yet at the same time it fails to convince, for although it may account for the first meeting, that still leaves the subsequent nocturnal activity unexplained.

Secondly there is the coda in which many years later the miller assaults a man lately returned from America. Again, this prosaic explanation for such peculiar events fails to satisfy the reader but this otherwise unnecessary appendage to the story reinforces the authenticity of the tale by providing a veneer of historical realism. A good storyteller would not conclude a yarn with such a deflationary explanation, yet it is precisely the sort of speculation which would arise in the local gossip pertaining to an actual event.

Such realism is unusual as otherwise the story seems to have all the hallmarks of what we might refer to as a “folkloric haunting”, by which I mean those instances in which an apparition is well-established in the folk-memory of a community but which rarely have specific sightings ascribed to them. Examples in this category include headless horsemen, white ladies and phantom black dogs. Often in these cases everybody knows that a particular locale is supposed to be thus haunted but firsthand witness reports of an encounter with the wraith are conspicuously lacking.

Folkloric hauntings tend to be symbolic rather than literal and often they are corrupted remembrances of older traditions, some of which may be pre-Christian in origin. For example, in an article for Folklore entitled The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland, Jane C. Beck opines that this figure has “been degraded from a form of mother goddess to a kind of fairy and finally to a ghost”. White ladies are often associated with pools or rivers and it does not stretch credulity to suggest that they may represent the vestiges of an earlier belief in the tutelary spirit of sacred waters.

This is relevant because the basic narrative of the Black Walker of the Ford displays traits which we may recognise as typically folkloric. In particular, it invokes the concept of liminality which is so often an attribute of ancient folk traditions. The liminal zone exists at thresholds and boundaries, a “betwixt and between” state detached from the demarcations of our everyday reality. To the pre-modern modes of thinking such regions were the point at which the “other world” intersected most tightly with our own and where its was possible to cross from to the other, hence why so many folkloric hauntings are found at liminal sites.

The story of the Black Walker at the Ford embodies liminality in at least three distinct senses. To start with the least obvious or integral example, at the first encounter the miller himself is arguably in a liminal state of consciousness. His experience of nicotine withdrawal places him in a intermediary state, neither one of intoxication nor one of sobriety. Again the altered state of consciousness produced by nicotine or its withdrawal is far from pronounced, but such attention is drawn to the miller’s predicament that the reader cannot help but draw some implication from it.

Secondly, all the principle events in the drama occur at twilight – the miller first meets the Black Walker at dusk (technically defined as the later stages of twilight) whilst subsequently it is the hour at which he embarks on his nocturnal peregrinations – and that transition period between sunset and night has long been recognised as an important liminal phase in time. Whilst darkness is symbolically considered the proper time for devilish powers, the association between the supernatural and the twilight in particular is firmly established and phrases such as the “twilight zone” remain familiar idioms.

However, the most apparent and important manifestation of liminality is geographical. Water-crossings such as fords are the classic liminal region; an explicit representation of the “no-mans land” of the threshold. Indeed, the water-crossing motif signifies a kind of double liminality for not only does it connect two discrete areas of land but it traverses a space which is part of neither and which is always impermanent, always uncertain. Running water is the very embodiment of the ambiguity and flux at the heart of concept of liminality.

Water also held an especial fascination for the pre-modern mind beyond its perceived liminality. There is no doubt that animistic cultures regard water as profoundly sacred, an unpredictable force which can both nurture and destroy life on a whim. British folklore abounds with water spirits, especially as the personification of treacherous stretches. Across northern Britain, the kelpie or dobbie was always ready to drag the unwary riverside traveller to a watery grave, whilst more localised examples include Crooker, the malevolent genius loci of the River Derwent in the Peak District, or Peg O’ Nell who claimed a sacrifice every seven years for the River Ribble in Lancashire.

There can be no doubt that water crossings in particular have been a focus for supernatural belief over the ages and in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts Owen Davies opines, “The bridge acted not only as a practical, physical crossing point but also as a spirit access point”. This idea of the bridge or ford as a common gateway is supported by a survey of hauntings connected to water by Janet and Colin Bord in their seminal study of British water lore “Sacred Waters”, over a quarter of which occurred near bridges.

That our ancestors regarded water-crossings as places where one required protection from supernatural forces is evident in the discovery of the archaic stone carved head motif on many bridges. The image of the head possessed an apotropaic function in many pre-modern cultures, especially Celtic and descendant traditions. The symbol persisted in the South Pennines for many centuries and notable 18th Century examples can be found at Agden Bridge in South Yorkshire or on the aqueduct over the River Calder at Hebden Bridge.

The ubiquity of such belief suggests that not only were water crossings perceived as liminal zones – threshold locations which pressed close against the Otherworld and could be used as a portal to it – but also that the potency of water itself was frequently anthropomorphised into elemental figures. The bridge or ford was not just a boundary in space in the same manner as gateways or crossroads; water itself was fundamentally supernatural. The traveller on the crossing would be beset by the Otherworld on all sides and hence such places presented profound spiritual as well as physical danger.

With these themes in mind, it is not difficult to recognise the Black Walker as a manifestation of the tutelary spirit of the ford, both a guardian at the threshold and the personification of the constant threat represented by the river itself, demanding obeisance from those bold enough to cross. What the Black Walker demands of the miller is never revealed but in the image of his return from nightly visits to that copse with a knife covered in something that appears to be blood but is revealed as earth, there is a hint of strange rites and transubstantiations to appease Otherworldly powers.

Yet whilst it is possible to make sense of the narrative by identifying such folkloric tropes, much of the story’s hold over the imagination derives from precisely its enigma and ambiguity. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet Sacheverell Sitwell and used by the writer Robert Aickman to preface a collection of his own frequently impenetrable weird tales, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.

By failing to reveal what passes between the Black Walker and the miller at their first meeting, or exactly what transpired during those nocturnal visits to the wood, the story allows our imagination to rove freely over the possibilities. It demands of us a cognitive state which John Keats described as “negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

But ultimately by refusing to provide any explanation the story forces us to confront the terrible insinuation of things that cannot be imagined, a final irresolvable uncertainty which is more unnerving than anything we can conceive. As Aickman himself comments “The ghost story draws on the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; it need offer neither logic nor moral… (it) does not close a door and leave inside it another definition, a still further solution. On the contrary, it must open a door… and at the end leave it open, or possibly ajar”.

Tales which achieve this are not just disposable bedtime stories to scare the credulous. By confronting us with the prospect that final explanations might always elude us, they undermine the comfortable categories and structures of our cosmology and emerge as a fundamentally existential form; an invocation of the angst we feel when comprehension forsakes us and we’re forced to grapple with the infinite, clamouring possibilities exposed in its absence, a time when Keats’ negative capability is most essential to our psychic survival.

In preserving its essential mystery, a narrative such as the Black Walker of the Ford forces us to cross the boundaries of understanding and reveals the liminal spaces of our own being, beyond truth and fiction, cause and effect, right and wrong, beyond all the codes and systems of thought that confine us. And once there we begin to recognise that our existence is full of liminal zones, territories where ambiguity and uncertainty forever reign, which we cannot help but traverse and traffic with whatever strange entities might also have found access there.

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