Words and pictures: Ian Humberstone
Troller’s Gill lies in Skyreholme pastures, northeast of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. Half a mile in length and with sheer walls that are in places sixty feet high, it is an uncanny spot: grand and gloomy, weird and wild. All that lives here is in some way bewildered by its surroundings: the wildflowers that bloom among carrion, the wizened trees that crawl out from clefts in the limestone rock, the solitary rook that caws menaces from a slit of sky above. The landmarks too are weighed heavy with enchantment. Prehistoric cup-marked rocks lie scattered about the gill’s depths. Caves and derelict mineshafts discomfit the surrounding hills — black portals into endless night. Lurking among them is the Hell Hole, a natural fissure of an unfathomable nadir that has claimed the life of more than one waylaid adventurer. Between it all there washes a burn, but even this gibbering companion is intent on trickery. In places its waters drop from sight into subterranean caves, leaving one’s footsteps to beat the scree amid a sudden silence — a game of hide-and-seek that is concluded downstream, where the gushing sprite returns, leaping from its warren with mockery in its murmur. In spate I’ve heard tell that this same stream rips the narrow channel, roaring about the gorge like a lion trapped in an echo-chamber.
The gill is liminal space, where life and death mingle, and where the imagined world bleeds freely into that of the real. To tread the moonlit paths here is a transgressive act, a journey from the known into the unknown world. Let us wander a while in the unknown, with a spell draped around us like a cloak.
Many strange stories and legends cling to these landmarks. Most notably, the gill is hallowed ground for a raft of supernatural creatures — imps, fairies, goblins, and other animations of the witching-hour. The most frequent visitor of them all, however, is the barguest, as Rev. Thomas Parkinson, writing in 1888, explains:
In the whole of this neighbourhood, belief in the bargest, or spectre hound, has held a prominent place in popular superstition and folklore. The usual form assumed by this apparition was (is?) that of a large dog, with long hair, immense eyes, large as saucers and bright as fire. Often he dragged with him, fixed to his feet, or round his neck, a chain, whose clanking, in the stillness and darkness of night, added much to the terror which he inspired. Many are the places he ‘haunted,’ and many are the legends of his appearance; but one of his favourite spots was the dark Troller’s Gill […]*
There are several accounts of the barguest’s activities at the gill, though by far the most established relates the story of the wizard who sought out the creature there one dark, windswept night.
The story tells how, as the church bells tolled the midnight hour, a man stepped out along the lonely path that leads to Troller’s Gill. His aim was not to catch himself any mortal supper there, nor fritter away the moonlit hours in the closeted embrace of some buxom young maid — no, this fellow, a dabbler in spells and magic, was determined to steal a glimpse of the fey folk that resided at the gill, be they sprite, fairy, or barguest. It was perhaps on account of his magical gifts that he little feared the ancient forces at play in the gill, and sang raucously to the night as he went, treading down into the ravine’s depths with footfall firm and steady. The great jaws of the gorge crept up around him like the maw of some hideous beast, but his will remained unbent. Down, down and deeper he went. Until distinctly, through the moaning wind, he heard a clear voice ring out from the river in warning: ‘Forbear!’ At this the slightest shudder stole over his frame, though he shook it away and crept onward, his steps now echoing about him like death-clatter. Upon reaching an old yew he rested. Then, clasping a burning branch in his hand, he began to cast a magic circle on the ground around him, to protect himself from misfortune. To seal the charm he turned three times on the spot and bestowed three kisses upon the ground. His sorcery complete, the wizard bade all sprites reveal themselves to him. Instantly, a clamouring whirlwind arose in the dark gill and out burst the barguest, leaping down from the cliff above in a flash of hellfire, barking wildly, its eyes aglow. It would seem the man’s magic was insufficient, for, at the breaking of the next dawn, a shepherd discovered a corpse at the gill’s mouth, strangely rent by marks that were not of any mortal’s making.
The tale survives due to its commemoration in a ballad, ‘The Legend of the ‘Troller’s Gill’, which first appears in Hone’s Table Book, published in 1828. It was included there by a T.Q.M. of nearby Grassington, who appears to have obtained it orally from a local source. In his commentary, T.Q.M. identifies the spectre hound referred to in the poem as a barguest, and tells us the ballad is founded on a well-known local tradition.** The wizard is referred to throughout as the ‘Troller’ — an early English word for a ‘stroller’ or ‘walker’ (and from which ‘Troller’s Gill’ itself is likely derived). Abbreviated versions of the poem appear in later anthologies of Yorkshire lore, but the 1828 edition is the original textual source, quoted here verbatim:
On the steep fell’s height shone the fair moonlight,
And its beams illum’d the dale,
And a silvery sheen cloth’d the forest green,
Which sigh’d to the moaning gale.
From Burnsal’s tower the midnight hour
Had toll’d, and its echo was still,
And the elfin band, from faerie land,
Was upon Elboton hill.
‘Twas silent all, save the water’s fall,
That with never ceasing din,
Roar and rush, and foam and gush,
In Loupscar’s troubled linn.
From his cot he stept, while the household slept,
And he caroll’d with boist’rous glee,
But he ne hied to the green hill’s side,
The faeire train to see.
He went not to roam with his own dear maid
Along by a pine-clad scar,
Nor sing a lay to his laydee love,
‘Neath the light of the polar star.
The Troller, I ween, was a fearless wight,
And, as legends tell, could hear
The night winds rave, in the Knave Knoll cave,
Withouten a sign of fear.
And whither now are his footsteps bent?
And where is the Troller bound?
To the horrid gill of the limestone hill,
To call on the Spectre Hound!
And on did he pass, o’er the dew bent grass,
While the sweetest perfumes fell,
From the blossoming of the trees which spring
In the depths of that lonely dell.
Now before his eyes did the dark gill rise,
No moon-ray pierced its gloom,
And his steps around did the waters sound
Like a voice from a haunted tomb.
And there as he stept, a shuddering crept
O’er his frame, scarce known to fear,
For he once did dream, that the sprite of the stream
Had loudly called—Forbear!
An aged yew in the rough cliffs grew,
And under its sombre shade
Did the Troller rest, and with charms unblest,
He a magic circle made.
Then thrice did he turn where the streamers burn,
And thrice did he kiss the ground,
And with solemn tone, in that gill so lone,
He call’d on the Spectre Hound
And a burning brand he clasp’d in his hand,
And he nam’d a potent spell,
That for Christian ear it were a sin to hear,
And a sin for a bard to tell.
And whirlwind swept by, and stormy grew the sky,
And the torrent louder roar’d,
While a hellish flame, o’er the Troller’s stalwart frame,
From each cleft of the gill was pour’d.
And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring,
And its wild bark thill’d around—
Its eyes had the glow of the fires below—
‘Twas the form of the Spectre Hound!
When on Rylstonne’s height glow’d the morning light,
And, borne on the mountain air,
The Priorie bell did the peasants tell
‘Twas the chanting of the matin prayer,
By peasant men, where the horrid glen
Doth its rugged jaws expand,
A corpse was found, where a dark yew frown’d,
And marks were imprest on the dead man’s breast—
But they seem’d not by mortal hand.
In the evening calm a funeral psalm
Slowly stole o’er the woodland scene—
The harebells wave on a new-made grave
In “Burnsall’s church-yard green.”
That funeral psalm in the evening calm,
Which echo’d the dell around,
Was his, o’er whose grave blue harebells wave,
Who call’d on the Spectre Hound!
*Thomas Parkinson, Yorkshire Legends and Traditions: as Told by Her Ancient Chroniclers, Her Poets, and Journalists, First Series (Elliot Stock, London: 1888), 127.
** William Hone (ed.), The Table Book (London: 1828), 655.
This essay, amongst others, will accompany the upcoming Folklore Tapes project ‘Black Dog Traditions of England’, due to be released in 2016.