Border Tales

The Anglo-Scottish border, or Scottish Marches existed during the late medieval and early modern era, it was characterised by violence and cross-border raids. The Scottish Marches came to an end during the first decade of the 17th century following the union of the crowns of Scotland and England, and we now recognise this area as Cumberland, Northumberland, Dumfriesshire, and the Scottish Borders. For centuries the Marches on either side were lawless, areas of mixed allegiances, where families or clans switched sides as suited their interests.

The Anglo-Scottish border has some unique folklore: magical creatures that do not generally appear elsewhere in British folktales.

Redcap

The Redcap (or Red Comb, or Bloody Cap) is a type of malevolent, murderous ‘goblin’ found in borders folklore. He is said to inhabit ruined castles along the Anglo-Scottish border, especially those that were the scenes of murder and evil deeds, and is known for soaking his cap in the blood of his victims. He is depicted as “a short, thickset old man with long prominent teeth, skinny fingers armed with talons like eagles, large eyes of a fiery red colour, grisly hair streaming down his shoulders, iron boots, a pikestaff in his left hand, and a red cap on his head”. If travellers take refuge in his lair, he throws huge rocks at them and if he kills them, he soaks his cap in their blood, giving it that distinctive crimson hue. He can be driven away by the brandishing of a crucifix. The origin of vampire myth?

mummified Robin Redcap made by Jacob Petersson

Bluecap

A Bluecap is a benevolant spirit that inhabits mines and appears as a small blue flame. If miners treat them with respect, the bluecaps lead them to rich deposits of minerals, or forewarn of cave-ins. They are mostly associated with the Anglo-Scottish Borders. They are hard workers and expect to be paid the same as a miner’s wages. This payment left at a specific corner of the mine.

Brownie

A Broonie (Scots) or Brownie is a household spirit that is said to come out at night while the owners of the house are asleep and perform various chores. The human owners must leave a bowl of milk or cream for them. They are easily offended and will leave their homes forever if they feel they have been insulted or in any way taken advantage of. They are characteristically mischievous and will pull pranks on lazy human hosts. If angered, they may turn malicious, like Boggarts.

Whilst Brownies are virtually always male, there are a few tales of female brownies, such as Meg Mullach (Hairy Meg). They have been described as “a personage of small stature, wrinkled face, covered with short curly brown hair, and wearing a brown mantle and hood”.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham of a Brownie

A Brownie named Billy Blind appears in ballads of the Anglo-Scottish border. Unlike most Brownies, who usually perform domestic duties, Billy Blind only provides advice. He appears in the ballad of Young Bekie, in which he warns Burd Isbel, the woman Bekie is pledged to marry, that Bekie is about to marry another. He also appears in the ballad of Willie’s Lady in which he also again provides advice.

Hobthrust

The Hobthrust (or hob) was lost from the memory of the people of this world due to our kindness towards it, not our fear of it. Similar to a Brownie, they were generally helpful and worked in farmyards. However, if offended could become somewhat of a nuisance. When the help of a Hobthrust was no longer required, one would give them a new set of clothing.

Dunnie

A Dunnie is Brownie-like in appearance, though smaller in stature. It is known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into attempting to mount it, but will also take the disguise of a plough-horse and help farmers cultivate their fields.

A Dunnie is said to wander more moutainous areas, crying: “Cockenheugh there’s gear enough, Collierheugh there’s mair, For I’ve lost the key o’ the Bounders, An’ I’m ruined for evermair”

Brag

A brag (or braag) is a mischievous shapeshifting ‘goblin’ that occurs generally in the folklore of Northumberland and often takes the form of a horse, ass or donkey. It will let unsuspecting humans ride on its back before bucking them off into a pond or swampy ground before running away laughing.

One notable example is the Picktree Brag that was is to take other unusual forms such as a calf with a white handkerchief around its neck, a naked headless man, or even four men holding a white sheet.

The Hedley Kow

The Hedley Kow is an English fairy tale, particular to the village of Hedley on the Hill in Northumberland. The story concerns a shapeshifting trickster, similar to a Brag, known as the Hedley Kow.

Illustration by John Batten, 1894

A woman finds a pot on the road. She thinks it must be broken for it to be discarded, but optimistically decides she might find a use for it as a flowerpot. Looking inside she discovers it is full of gold pieces, and decides to drag it home in her shawl. After a little while she looks back, and the pot has become a lump of silver. After some time she turns back again, to find the silver has turned into iron. She continues, and when she turns back a third time, the iron has become a rock. She decides that this rock caould be used as a doorstop, so happily drags the rock home. When she reaches her home, the rock transforms again, revealing itself to be Hedley Kow, a mischievous shapeshifter.

Shellycoat

A Shellycoat is a type of Brag or Brownie that inhabits rivers and streams of the border counties. The name comes from the coat of shells these creatures are said to wear. They are considered to be relatively harmless, but may mislead humans they think are trespassing upon their territory. A common tactic would be to cry out as if drowning and then laugh at the concerned observer.

Silkies

Silkies are female spirits that are clothed in silk. Although usually helpful performing chores and guarding houses against harmful intruders, they can also be mischievous, and will leave houses they inhabit in disarray if they feel offended.

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