30 January 2024


Mark Norman. The Folklore of Devon. Exeter University Press, 2023.

There is a certain journalist/commentator who delights in informing us every April 23rd that St George, the Patron Saint of England, "is ackcherly Turkish". I wonder what he would make of the possibility that the old Devonian folk song character Uncle Tom Cobley is ackcherly German?
Maybe this isn't as implausible as it sounds, as one of the lessons we have learned from studying the background to traditional tales and ancient rituals is that they are seldom as straightforward as we thought.

The suggestion is that the Widdicombe Fair song was brought to Devon by German tin workers who came to work in the mines on Dartmoor, The folklorist Theo Brown, whose influence of the study of Devonshire folklore is discussed in the first chapter of this book, proposes that the 'Old Grey Mare' may be a representation of the schimmelreiter, a ghostly psychopomp, leading the dead to the after-world.

In mourning the horse, old Uncle Tom is "weeping for the souls who will now end up in Purgatory, because they cannot be transported to the Otherworld". Deep stuff, but fortunately we do not get led so deeply into rabbit holes in the rest of this fascinating volume.

The first chapter not only discusses Theo Brown (née Jean Marion Pryce), but a number of other figures who have written and recorded Devonshire folklore. These are included to show that it is important for the understanding of the folklore of any nation or region to be aware of the cultural background of the people who have presented it to us and the sources they have used in compiling it and the era in which they have done so.. 

Mark Norman is careful to preserve a distinction between 'lore' and 'legend'. Much folklore is based on real people and events, and the chapter 'Stories from the Moors' relates stories which have been attached to characters and families from the moorlands which make up almost a fifth of the county's area. The story of the Doone family is now best known to us fictionally from the novel Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore, but they were a real family which lived as outlaws on Exmoor in the troubled years during and after the Civil War. Over time so many stories have been attached to the historical account, both before and after the publication of Blackmore's book, that it is now difficult to distinguish between fact and the legend.

Norman calls this mixing of fact, legend and imaginative interpretation 'guidebook folklore', and rather than dismissing it he sees it as a part of the development of folk belief. In the final chapter, 'Modern Folklore' the author looks at the manner in which the public perception of folkloric 'visions and beliefs' have been and are being modified through the media, and in particular social media. He takes as examples a number of historical and contemporary accounts of anomalous phenomena and how they had been reported and misreported. Of particular interest is his necessarily brief account of a haunting in a private house which he and his wife investigated, the narrative of which seemed to have been entirely derived from watching the Most Haunted TV shows.

One aspect of Devon folklore which has been greatly influenced by popular media is the Black Dog. Although this is an apparition which is reported under various names across Britain, the Devonian version has extra resonance through the story of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which is probably how most people were introduced to this folkloric meme. Norman looks at the background to Doyle's version of the Black Dog legend, pointing out its similarity to, and differences from, traditional phantom hound stories.

The traditional legend most closely matching Doyle's story relates to a Richard Cabell, who, according to whichever version you hear was either hunted to his death by demonic Black Dogs for the wickedness of his soul, or who was torn to pieces by his wife's favourite hound after Cabell had murdered her for her alleged unfaithfulness. It is not certain to which of three generations of local landowners called Richard Cabell either of these stories are connected to, and by now Doyle's story has more or less taken over from any version of the original.

Like most other counties, Devon has plenty of stories of the devil, but of course this is the easily-outwitted folklore devil, not the rather more uncompromising Biblical character. Although many of these tales do have a genuine folk heritage, others are example of 'guidebook folklore', creating a historical background that often overwhelms the original story. Norman cites the example of the Dewerstone, The tradition surrounding this rocky outcrop on Dartmoor tells that the devil would lure men to their deaths from then stones. This belief was based on the story that after a heavy snowfall two tracks of footprints were found leading up the stones, one human and one of a hoofed creature. 

Of course the story of a much later 'Devil's Hoofprints' will be familiar to all Forteans - the trail of footprints in freshly fallen snow, discovered in February 1855 and reportedly stretching for many miles, continuing uninterrupted over roofs and walls. In the 1850s the expanding rail network made it possible to travel quite easily to places like Dartmoor which had previously been inaccessible to most people, and there was a growth in the publication of local guides for these new visitors. In 1856 the folklore collector Richard King was commissioned to write a Handbook for Travellers to Devon and Cornwall, in which he seems to have conflated the Devil's Footprints story with legends about the Wild Hunt and the 'Wisht Hounds' to provide a perfect example of 'guidebook folklore'.

Throughout this book, with its chapters discussing themes such as farming folklore, fairies, witchcraft and ghosts, the author demonstrates that that folklore is a process rather than a static record. It is full of stories that interest and entertain, there is humour and excitement, fear and comfort, a great deal of history and quite a lot of imagination. We even get a dispatch from the front line of the Cream Tea Wars.

Although this is a scholarly book, it is not a tough academic tome. It is a lively, easily readable, often humorous account of a living world of story and belief. The blurb on the back of the book says that it will "remain the standard work for may years to come", but I think the author would be the first person to say that there can be no such thing as a 'standard work' on folklore, as it constantly changes and evolves. This book is a fascinating account of Devonshire folklore's origins, growth and evolution, and even a glimpse into its future. Hugely recommended to every Fortean!
  • Richard Samuels.

Mark and Tracey Norman are the authors of Dark Folklore, reviewed in Magonia HERE.
Mark Norman spoke about 'Dark Folklore' at the London Fortean Society's 'Haunted Landscape' conference, November 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqE0oz38-30

No comments: