Witch, the word is over a thousand years old: Old English formed the compound wiccecræft from wicce (witch) and cræft (craft). The word witch was also spelled wicca or wycca in Old English, and was originally masculine. Folk etymologies link witchcraft to the English words wit, wise – so craft of the wise.
Prior to the late 1500s, the English term witch was not exclusively negative in meaning. There were a number of interchangeable terms for these practitioners – witches, wizards, sorcerers, however cunning-man and wise-man were the most frequent. Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563 although it was deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe, healers practicing traditional folk medicine.
Meg of Meldon
According to folklore, Long Meg was a witch named Meg of Meldon, who, along with her daughters, was turned to stone by a local wizard named Michael Scot, for profaning the Sabbath as they danced wildly on the moor. Long Meg and Her Daughters consists of 59 megalithic stones arranged in an oval shape measuring 100 meters on its long axis. Written records from the early 17th century suggest that there were as many as 77 megaliths at that time. It is said that the stone circle is imbued with magic and that it is impossible to count the same number of stones twice. If this is achieved, the wizard’s spell will finally be broken.
Michael Scot, the Wizard
Scot was born somewhere in the border regions of Scotland and northern England in 1175, was a mathematician and scholar who also studied theology and become an ordained priest. His writings dealt with astrology, alchemy, and the occult sciences. Within Cumbrian folklore, he is credited with turning to stone, a coven of witches, which have become the stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters.
Mary Baines, the Tebay Witch
Mary was born in 1721, lived in Old Tebay and remained a spinster to her death in 1811. She is said to have had magical powers, being able to cast spells, turn herself into a hare, and foresee the future. Mary famously said that “horseless carriages would come over Loupsfell”, which predicted the coming of the railway.
Dr. Linkbarrow of Murthwaite
In the 1750s, Dr. Linkbarrow had a reputation as a practitioner of magic. Many years after his death, the Kendal Mercury (1856) recounted several of his exploits, including his ability to recover stolen goods. As he lay on his deathbed, a black and a white pigeon engaged in mortal combat on the roof of his house, and on learning that the black pigeon had killed the white one, he sighed “It’s all over with me, then!”, and expired.
William Fairer of Redgill
Known as a wizard, he wrote a number of books on magic, including the Book of Black Art described as having “the motions of the heavenly bodies and shows some knowledge of astronomy”. He died July 31st, 1756, aged 75 years. After his death his legend grew, and he was said to have been able to cast love spells, find lost cattle and cleanse bewitched houses.
Died 1777, aged 98 years and buried in Over Denton churchyard, the gruesome relics found in her home after her death, led many to believe in Margaret Teasdale’s practice of Black Magic. A cupboard which opened into a secret stairway, contained the skeleton of a child, a human heart stuck with pins, and the bones of a hand.
Lizie Batty, the Brampton Witch
In 1817 a mysterious old woman known as the Brampton Witch gifted a set of china to a local friend on her death bed. Builder John Parker was summoned to 88-year-old Lizzie Baty’s cottage at Craw Hall in her dying hours. He was given the tea set but, according to legend, the gift was bound by a spell. Any member of the family who drank from the cups would be visited by good luck. But if the china ever left the family it would be the harbinger of disaster for the new owner. Lizzie had a knack of finding lost objects and was said to have “acted in a peculiar manner, dressed curiously and generally acted the part (of a witch)”.
Eleanor “Ray” Bone
Eleanor Bone (1911-2001) who also went under the craft name Artemis, was an influential figure in Wicca. She claimed to have been initiated in 1941 by a couple of hereditary witches in Cumbria. She later met and became friends with Gerald Gardner, and was initiated into Wicca, becoming the High Priestess in one of his covens. She was regarded by some as the “Matriarch of British Witchcraft”. On her death, she was buried alongside her husband Bill in unconsecrated ground at Garigill Cemetery, just a few miles from her home in Alston, Cumbria.
The Janet Tree
Near the village of Shap, there stood a venerable old ash tree. How old it was is not recorded, but for many a long year it harboured a sinister reputation, and acquired the name of the Janet Tree (or the Jennet Tree) for it was said to serve as a home to a witch of that name, or, more accurately, to her ghost of said witch. Janet, you see, was but one of many local miscreants who had met their end hanging from the branches of the tree. Janet was reputed to terrify passers-by as she sat above in the branches, knitting. Local children were told not to linger by the tree so that Janet might not harm them, but those brave enough to wish her a “good evening” would discover that Janet would vanish before their eyes.
Great Urswick Tarn
Contained within the Tarn is the village of Lile Ooston. Legend has it that either a priest was forced by the local population to conjure up fresh water at a time of drought and the resulting storm inundated the community; or that a resident witch turned men into pigs and an earthquake buried the community under water as divine punishment.
Hagg Stones (or Dobby Stones) are stones with naturally occurring holes in them. They can be worn around the neck as protection against evil spirits and witchcraft. There is also the custom of them being worn around the necks of farm livestock to guard against interference. The common belief is that magik cannot work on moving water, and since the holes in hag stones are made by the force of the water element, the stones retain the beneficial influence. (see article on Boggarts)
Harper, D. 2013 Witchcraft Online Etymology Dictionary
Dilts, M. Power in the Name: The Origin and Meaning of the Word Witch
Macfarlane, A. 1999 Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study Psychology Press
Holloway, A. 2014 The Legend of the Stone Circle ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’
Scott, T. C. Marketos, P. 2014 Michael Scot University of St Andrews
Maggi, A. 2001 Satan’s Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology University of Chicago Press
Cumberland & Westmorland Herald 2011 Mary Baines the Tebay witch
Cleaver, A. Dr. Farrar (Fairer) Orton and Tebay Local History Society
Rowling, M. 1976 The Folklore of the Lake District
Topham, I. 2011 The Tea Set Of Lizzie Baty, Brampton Witch Mysterious Britain
Banks, G. 1964 As a Matron and as a Witch, interview with Ray Bone
Holder, G. 2009 The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District
Bulstrode, H.E. 2019 The Jennet Tree The Ghostlore and Stange Lore of Britain and Ireland
Henderson, W. 1879 Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England
Robertson, D. Koronka, P. 1992 Secrets and Legends of Old Westmorland
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