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Terrible times and tall tales

Everyone loves a good story, don’t they?

Those who know me, and readers of this blog, will know that throughout the current pandemic, I’ve been shielding because my underlying health conditions put me in a vulnerable group. I find it hard to sit still at the best of times and so being locked-down has been very frustrating.  I’ve been drawing (of course) and listening to podcasts and, my favourite occupation, drawing while listening to podcasts.

Duncan Grant: Cheesy bug lino print
To me this is a ‘cheesy bug’

I’ve always been interested in the way that stories, and particularly words, are passed from place to place and down the generations through oral transmission.

Those of you that have been following me on Facebook for a while will know that I’m fascinated by how the names for ‘woodlouse’ vary from place to place, even within a few miles, so much so that what you call this prehistoric creature is a pretty good indicator of where you come from.

If you’re from a few miles down the road from me in Medway, you might call them ‘pea bugs’, or if you come from Canterbury, maybe, ‘monkey peas’.  Other names are ‘slaters’ (Scotland, Australia and New Zealand), ‘chucky pigs’ (Dorset), ‘cheesy bobs’ (Guildford), ‘sandies’ (Portsmouth), ‘gramfers’ (Cornwall), ‘pill bugs’ (US) and so on…..

Now that language has become so much more standardised, this is one of the few words that has kept its regional identity. Also, I like it because it’s one of those childhood words – like ‘fay nights’ of ‘Fein Knights’ – that never really makes the dictionaries but is still in common use.

Legends, Myths and Folklore
One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to  is Tales of the British Isles which ‘tells some of the famous and not-so-famous myths, legends and folklore from the British Isles in a haphazard order’. I knew some of the stories already through listening to the music of bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, and I’ve included links to some of their musical retellings in the stories below.

So, just to explain a few things – what’s the difference between a legend, a myth and folklore?  According to this education website

  • Legends are semi-true stories, passed from person-to-person, which have important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which they originate. A legend usually contains elements of the truth or is based in historical fact, but it has ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate
  • A myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has deep symbolic meaning. A myth conveys a truth rather than necessarily recording a true event. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings . The great power of the meaning of these stories to the culture in which they developed is the main reason that they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years
  • Folklore or folktales are popular stories passed on in spoken form from one generation to the next. Usually, the author is unknown and there are many different versions of the story. Folktales fit into many categories – fables, fairy tales,  old legends and even urban legends.

So there is a lot of overlap, but the website offers this diagram to help clarify the relationship between the three:

The creation of a modern legend?
It’s been interesting watching the news with all this stuff going on in my head.  Following the politics (and the science) has become a bit of an obsession.

Of course, politicians have always spun stories and told tall tales, but the development of The Legend of Dominic Cummings has been fascinating.  And it is indeed a legend. Based in historical fact, it contains elements of the truth but also elements of fantasy. There is a voyaging ‘hero’ – a concerned father, who is a genius and a prophet. There are fantastic places – a remote estate and a historic castle. And, the whole tale so clearly shining a light on the political culture in which the story originated.

But, I guess, there is a fundamental difference. Those communicating this particular modern legend are politicians, not storytellers.

Well before all this kicked off, Wayne Macauley wrote in the Guardian in 2014, reflecting on the difference between politicians and novelists – they both make things up, right?

In their desperation to control the narrative, politicians….may have stolen our [novelists’] kitbag of trickery and artifice but they left behind the fundamental principle: storytellers are the liars who admit they are – the rest are just, well, liars.

So perhaps we need to add a fourth bullet to the list above, or extend the fact to meaning continuum on the diagram above, to include barefaced lies.

Anyway,  here are some of the traditional stories from around the British Isles, along with the drawings I made as I listened to them.  I recommend it. Much better for the underlying health conditions than watching the news!

All the drawings featured are available from the Gallery on this website: 

Great Britain
Albina and her sisters
Duncan Grant: Albina and her sistersAccording to a 14th century British medieval legend and myth, Great Britain was once known as Albion – it sometimes still is – after an exiled queen called Albina.  She was the eldest of a family of sisters who had been exiled from their homeland in Greece. One version of the story tells how a king of Greece married his thirty daughters into royalty. But the brides colluded to murder their husbands because they didn’t want to be subservient to anyone. However, the youngest daughter wanted no part in this and revealed the plot. As a punishment, the murderous princesses were set adrift in a rudderless ship.  After three days they reached land, in England. The eldest daughter Albina was the first to step ashore. She laid claim to the land, naming it after herself. At first, the sisters gathered acorns and fruits. Then they learnt to hunt. Having meat in their diet aroused their desires. As there were no other humans in England at that time, the sisters mated with evil spirits, which resulted in a race of giants. You can read the legend of Albion here:

Duncan Grant: John BarleycornJohn Barleycorn
John Barleycorn features in a British folk song. But he is not a person, he is a personification of the important cereal crop barley, which is used in making beer. The song describes how John Barleycorn suffers indignities, attacks and death, corresponding to the various stages of cultivation and brewing.  Here are folk rock band Steeleye Span singing the song.

The Green ManDuncan Grant: The Green Man
The Green Man is a legendary being representing rebirth and the cycle of new growth that begins every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in paintings,  sculptures, or on pub signs as a face made of, or completely surrounded by, leaves.


Duncan Grant: ReynardineReynardine is a traditional English ballad. The subject, Reynardine, is a werefox who attracts beautiful women to him so that he can take them away to his castle. The fate  that awaits them once they get there is usually left to the imagination.
Here a rendition of Reynardine by Fairport Convention.  Any excuse to hear Sandy Denny.

Duncan Grant: The Witch and the HareThe Witch and the Hare
Many British folk tales feature witches that transform themselves into hares, usually to lure an unsuspecting huntsman into some sort of trouble.

County Durham
The Lambton Worm
Duncan Grant: The Lambton Worm
The story of the Lambton Worm tells of a rebellious lad called John Lambton who skips church to go fishing in the River Wear. The boy catches a small wormlike creature with nine holes on each side of its head and throws it down a well. Eventually the worm grows extremely large and the well becomes poisonous. The villagers start to notice that farm animals are going missing. They discover that the gigantic worm has emerged from the well and coiled itself around a local hill. The worm terrorises the nearby villages, eating sheep, preventing cows from producing milk and snatching small children. It then heads towards Lambton Castle. John Lambton’s father (Lord Lambton) manages to placate the worm by feeding it twenty gallons of milk a day.  Eventually, Lord Lambton manages to kill the worm but since that day, the Lambton family were said to be cursed. Here is Bryan Ferry, who was born in County Durham, re-telling the tale:

Duncan Grant: Spring-Heeled JackBlack Country, London and other places
Spring-Heeled Jack
In Victorian England, the scariest bogeyman was Spring Heeled Jack – a fire-breathing devil, with a goatee beard, pointed beard and fiery eyes,  who could leap across rooftops.  Sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack are recorded across England, but they were especially prevalent in the Black Country. His agility allowed him to terrify his victims and then escape his pursuers. Older Black Country residents still recall being threatened by their parents with an appearance by Jack if they failed to go to bed on time. My picture shows Jack against a collage of  cut up maps of London.

East Anglia
Black Shuck

Duncan Grant: Black ShuckBlack Shuck is the name given to a ghostly black dog that is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia. It is one of many ghostly black dogs recorded in folklore across the British Isles. The appearance of Black Shuck is sometimes thought to be an omen of death. One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck occurred at Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4th August 1577, during a storm, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of the church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past the congregation, killing two people and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog departed, he left scorch marks on the north door. These, it is said, can still be seen at the church to this day.

Duncan Grant: The Ghost Ship of Goodwin SandsKent
The Ghost Ship of Goodwin Sands
Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile long sandbank off the Deal coast in Kent. The Lady Lovibond  was a schooner that is alleged to have been wrecked on Goodwin Sands on 13 February 1748. It is said that it reappears there, as a ghost ship, every fifty years. The first sighting of the phantom Lady Lovibond on 13 February 1798 was reported by at least two ships. Apparently, the ghostly ship’s appearance in 1848 was so convincing  that lifeboats were sent out from Deal in the hope of rescuing survivors. The last report was filed in 1948 by Captain Bull Preswick, who was convinced he saw the Lady Lovibond  surrounded by a green glow as she entered the Sands. The story of the ghost ship created so much attention that a crowd of  curious onlookers made their way to the Sands on 13th February 1998, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary ship. But they left disappointed, as no ship appeared.

Duncan Grant: The Lincoln ImpLincolnshire
The Lincoln Imp
If you visit Lincoln Cathedral, look up. Hidden between two arches on the north side of the Choir, sitting cross-legged, is a small, grotesque carved figure – half human and half animal.  Legend has it that one day the devil let two of his naughty young demons out to play. After stopping at Chesterfield, where they twisted the spire of St Mary and All Saints Church,  they went to Lincoln and began wrecking the cathedral. They knocked over the Dean, smashed the stained glass windows and destroyed the lights. To put a stop to any further chaos, an angel appeared from the bible on the altar. One imp ran away but the other carried on hurling insults and stones at the angel.  So the angel turned the imp to stone where it sat and where it can still be seen today.

NottinghamDuncan Grant: Robin Hood and his Merry Men
Hood and his Merry Men

Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are now an established part of popular culture. The story is set in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. The adventures follow the principled thief as he woos the beautiful Maid Marian and thwarts the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

Duncan Grant: The Wantley DragonThe Wantley Dragon
The Wantley dragon is a legend about a knight who slew a terrifying dragon that lived on Wharncliffe Crags in South Yorkshire.  The story is recounted in a comic ballad of 1685 which, although not well-known today, was quite popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The dragon, which was as big as a Trojan Horse, devoured everything in its path, even trees and houses until  the knight, More of More Hall, suitably fortified with strong ale and dressed in a suit of extremely spiky Sheffield steel armour, landed a fatal kick to the dragon’s ‘arse-gut’ its only weak spot, as the dragon explains with its dying breath.

Duncan Grant: Finn MacCool and the Salmon of KnowledgeFinn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge
When Finn MacCool was a boy he went to live with his tutor, an old man named Finegas,  who had lived by the River Boyne. Finegas had fished in the river for many years because it was rumoured that a fish called ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ swam in the nearby river. And it was said that the first person to taste this salmon would become the wisest person in all Ireland. Fineagas went fishing every day, hoping that one day he would catch the Salmon of Knowledge. One day, as Fineagas was teaching Finn by the river bank,  he noticed a huge, pink salmon swimming towards them and he rushed to get his net. Once Finegas eventually caught the enormous salmon, he was exhausted and needed to sleep. So he asked Finn to cook the salmon for him but he warned the boy not to taste even the smallest bite of it. But while the fish was cooking, a small drop of hot fish oil splashed onto Finn’s thumb. Finn put his thumb in his mouth to stop it burning but it was too late. Even though Finn had not eaten the salmon, the special knowledge had been given to him and he grew up to become the most able and celebrated of the Fianna warriors.

The Giant’s Causeway
Duncan Grant: The Giant's CausewayThe story of the Giant’s Causeway is another chapter from the legend of FinnMcCool. Finn McCool was the biggest and strongest giant in Ireland – 54 foot tall and with the strength of 500 men. At the same time there was another giant called Benandonner who lived on the Scottish coast. Benandonner believed that he was the strongest of all the giants and this made Finn McCool mad. So he picked up a huge lump of earth and threw it at Benandonner. It missed but it landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man. The hole left by Finn became Lough Neagh. Eventually Finn Mc Cool got so fed up of being taunted by Benandonner that he decided to fight him to decide, once and for all, who was the strongest. Finn started to build a path to Scotland, laying down thousands of rocks with his bare hands. When Benandonner heard what Finn was doing he decided to build his own path from Scotland to meet up with Finn’s path. But when Finn saw Benandonner he was shocked – Benandonner was twice his size and looked twice as strong! He ran back to his house, with  Benandonner hot on his heels, and asked his wife, Oonagh, to hide him. She came up with a cunning plan. She disguised Finn as a baby.
When Benandonner knocked on the door Finn, dressed up as a baby, pretended to cry. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby he was terrified. If the baby was that big, his father must be enormous! Benandonner turned as fast as he could and ran, ripping up the causeway behind him so that Finn could not follow him. You can take a virtual tour of the Giant’s Causeway here

Duncan Grant: The Ballad of Tam LinThe Ballad of Tam Lin
Tam Lin is  a pre- sixteenth century ballad that has inspired many stories and novels.
You might be more familiar with Fairport  Convention’s  1969 cover version The story of Tam Lin tells how he was kidnapped or ‘taken’ by the queen of the fairies when he fell off a horse while hunting.  He is destined to be sacrificed by the fairies on Hallowe’en but he is rescued, at midnight, by his pregnant lover, Janet.

Duncan Grant: The Mermaid of GallowayThe Mermaid of Galloway
There are many tales of encounters between humans and mermaids and none of them ends well. The Mermaid of Galloway is a famous Scottish tale of a man who captures a mermaid and makes her his wife. But, of course, the ending is far from happy for the young crofter.  In another variation, the mermaid of Galloway lived in a beautiful burn and every evening she would perch on a seat-shaped rock and give medical advice to the people who gathered to ask for her help. But a local religious woman thought that this was the devil’s work, and, clutching her bible for protection, pushed the mermaid’s seat into the pond. The next evening when the mermaid appeared, she was upset to find that her seat had been destroyed, and cried out, “You may look to your empty cradle’. The next morning the religious woman’s baby was found dead.

Duncan Grant: The Story of Da Kunal Trow KingShetland

The Story of Da Kunal Trow King
I can’t tell this story of about a union between a witch and one of Shetland’s most famous, magical creatures, a trow, any better than this version by Shetland comedian, Marjolein Robertson!

Duncan Grant: Y Tylwyth Teg

Y Tylwyth Teg
Y Tylwyth Teg, which means ‘fair family’, is the name for the ‘fairy folk’ who live underground or near water. They are said to have fair hair, to dance and to make fairy rings. But there is a more sinister side. Y Tywylth Teg kidnap golden-haired human children and leaving changelings in their place. They give gifts to those they like, but take these gifts away if the recipient tells anyone about them. Fairy maidens can marry human men but they must be careful never to touch iron or they will vanish back to fairyland never to be seen by their husbands again.