Bronte Ghosts and Legends

In the days of yesteryear it was a very serious matter to undertake a journey in Yorkshire (some might say nothing has changed). The moors offered a dangerous journey from one town to the next. The weather could cause you to be up to your saddle bags in mud and the next, neck up in snow! But it wasn’t just the weather that bothered the Yorkshire folks’ neither was it the bad roads, it was the worry that if you was to wander the moors past the time of dusk that the other-worldly denizens of the moors would strike!

Many people would often see Peg’s Lantern, a Yorkshire Will-o’the Wisp flitting around the moors and even the Bronte’s were aware of their local ghost stories.

On nearby Blood Lane, wandered the spirit of Captain Batt walking to his home of Oakwell Hall. The Captain had returned unexpectedly to his home on December 9th 1684, it was dusk. The Captain entered his home walked up the stairs and vanished leaving a bloody footprint. The servants were shocked to hear the next day that the Captain had been killed the previous afternoon in a duel in London.

If we stay in Haworth another ghost, that of the Scots Pedlar was equally well known. Sandy McLaren in the closing years of the 18th Century supplied the inhabitants of the remote valleys and hills around Ripon with their household wants.

His customers knew almost to the day when they might expect him. Then one Martinmas, Sandy disappeared off the face of the moors. It was a misty afternoon when he disappeared and Sandy told his last customer of the day that something troubled him. As he wandered the Gill he had seen a harbinger of death, his wraith walking to meet him. The customer tried to keep Sandy in the house telling him to stay the night since he had such a terrible fright, but Sandy moved on.

It was not long after Sandy’s disappearance that a young farmer began to show prosperity, his sickly livestock were replaced with newly bought beasts and his buildings repaired. One night the farmer decided to give a play – about a peddler who had his pack stolen. In the middle of the play as the farmer was about to commit the dastardly deed, Sandy appeared in all his glory in front of all and sundry. The guests ran away screaming from the farmhouse and from that day shunned the host who died in extreme poverty.

The boggart was a strange old character and the Bronte’s father was one involved in such as case. A boggart was somewhere in between a fairy and hobgoblin, it liked to play pranks but was not always liked by the people suffering from them.

One classic encounter with a Boggart comes from “English Fairy and Other Folk Tales” by Edwin Sidney Hartland (1890)

“In the house of an honest farmer in Yorkshire, named George Gilbertson, a Boggart had taken up his abode. He here caused a good deal of annoyance, especially by tormenting the children in various ways. Sometimes their bread and butter would be snatched away, or their pot-ringers of bread and milk be capsized by an invisible hand; for the Boggart never let himself be seen; at other times the curtains of their beds would be shaken backwards and forwards, or a heavy weight would press on and nearly suffocate them. The parents had often, on hearing their cries, to fly to their aid. There was a kind of closet, formed by a wooden partition on the kitchen stairs, and a large knot having been driven out of one of the deal-boards of which it was made, there remained a hole. Into this one day the farmer’s youngest boy stuck the shoe-horn with which he was amusing himself, when immediately it was thrown out again, and struck the boy on the head. The agent was of course the Boggart, and it soon became their sport (which they called laking with Boggart) to put the shoe-born into the hole and have it shot back at them.

The Boggart at length proved such a torment that the farmer and his wife resolved to quit the house and let him have it all to himself. This was put into execution, and the farmer and his family were following the last loads of furniture, when a neighbour named John Marshall came up: “Well, Georgey,” said he, “and sca you’re leaving t’ould hoose at last?”–”Heigh, Johnny, my lad, I’m forced tull it; for that villain Boggart torments us soa, we can neither rest fleet nor day for’t. It seems bike to have such a malice again t’poor bairns, it ommost kills my poor dame here at thoughts on’t, and soa, ye see, we’re forced to flitt loike.” He scarce had uttered the words when a voice from a deep upright churn cried out: “Aye, aye, Georgey, we’re flitting, ye see.”–”Od bang thee,” cried the poor farmer, “if I’d known thou’d been there, I wadn’t ha’ stirred a peg. Nay, nay, it’s no use, Mally,” turning to his wife, “we may as weel turn back again to t’ould hoose as be tormented in another’ that’s not so convenient”

The caves of the deep ravine called Troller’s Gill are the haunt of trolls and sprites. Within the Gill is also associated with the black dog legend “The Barguest”. The story undoubtedly influenced the appearances of the Black Dog and “Gytrash” in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”

Parkinson in his Yorkshire Legends and Traditions (1888-9) tells how the ravine is haunted by a fearsome barguest: a huge long-haired dog with eyes the size of saucers and razor sharp saliva flecked maw. The story runs that a man who lived in the area decided to spend a night in the Gill to witness the barguest for himself. One windy moonlit night he set off down the winding ravine, as he crept into the dark depths of the ravine he heard the shout” Forbear”. This did not daunt him and he walked on until he came to a huge Yew tree, where no light penetrated. Under the tree he drew a circle on the ground, chanted charms of protection and kissed the damp ground three times. He then called on the fearsome beast to appear.

At once a howling wind blew up and fire flashed from the rocks as the barguest appeared and attacked the unfortunate man – his protective circle having no power to repel the creature. His body was discovered later by Shepherd with mysterious marks on his breast that had not come from the hand of man.

And now back to the Bronte’s nurse “Old Tabby”. She often complained of the change that had come over Yorkshire, just in her lifetime. She had known folk who had seen the fairies sporting by the beck on moonlit nights and blamed the industrial revolution for their disappearance. “It wur the factories,” she told the Brontes’ “as had driven them away!”

Folk beliefs are continuing to vanish; we are now in the twilight of folk tales and the belief of supernatural creatures that roam the hills. And luckily these tales live on for future generations alike through the books of the Brontes’ and the work of the folklore society and local researchers. Life without these stories would be a whole lot duller.

Photo: Bronte Parsonage (Alan James) / CC BY-SA 2.0