Category Archives: Nature folklore

Taboos about wild birds

In her classic account of English rural life, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson records attitudes to wild birds towards the end of the 19th century.   At a time when egg collecting was a respectable hobby, country boys would engage in wholesale nest robbing and hunting of small birds. The families were chronically poor, and casting a net over a hedge of roosting sparrows would secure a meal:

One boy would often bring home as many as twenty sparrows, which his mother would pluck and make into a pudding.  A small number of birds, or a single bird, would be toasted in front of the fire.

But Thompson notes that the birds in this popular rhyme were left alone: Continue reading Taboos about wild birds

Whitby snakestones

Ammonites are easy to find on Whitby Beach, so fossil and curiosity dealers would try to attract customers by carving snake heads on the stones. It was a particularly tempting ploy in the Victorian age, when fossil collections and curiosity cabinets were all the rage.

The carvers were inspired by the legend of St Hilda, an abbess who lived in Whitby in the 7th century. The area was infested with snakes until she turned them all into “coils of stone”. Her work was completed by St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne, whose curse left the snakes headless. Continue reading Whitby snakestones

The Northern Lights in Britain

photo taken near Dundee by John Gilmour as featured in AuroraWatch

Of course the best viewing place is in the Arctic Circle, but the Northern Lights are occasionally visible from Britain. On rare occasions they are visible as far south as the Mediterranean.

Lancaster University’s AuroraWatch has a gallery of images that testify to the visibility of the Aurora in places like Folkestone and Staffordshire. The photographs show awe-inspiring displays of green and red light rampaging above the roof tops and television aerials. Continue reading The Northern Lights in Britain

Selchies – shape-shifting seals

selchie

The Selchie (or Selkie) is a seal that can shed its skin and take the form of a human on land.  These legendary creatures belong to the Hebrides and Shetland and Orkney isles, where seals have been hunted for their pelt, meat and oil.  The large soulful eyes of seals must have disturbed even hardened folk subsisting in these remote Scottish islands, and the tales of the selchies capture this ambivalence.  Feelings of loss and longing are all pervasive. Continue reading Selchies – shape-shifting seals

Folklore about adders

The Herpetological Conservation Trust has this excellent page on the etymology and folklore of adders, including:

“Old natural history books often tell how female Adders swallow their young to protect them from danger. This myth is even perpetuated by some countrymen who have spent their lives amongst Adders. This story suggests a degree of parental care which is sadly lacking in Adders. If she did attempt to swallow her own young the strong stomach acids would digest them. In all probability, this story originated when a gravid female Adder was killed with well developed young inside her.”  Read

Also I’ve added some statistics on adder bites here. Read

A history of pike

File:Pike caught frog.jpg

Pike were sometimes in the back of my mind when I swam in rivers and lakes as a child, my imagination fed by terrible tales told by other children and myself of their bite. Britain and Ireland, the latter where it was probably introduced by the English in the 17c, are home to one species of pike: the northern pike (Esox lucius).

The English common name “pike” is an apparent shortening of “pike-fish”, in reference to its pointed head, Old English píc originally referring to a pickaxe. The generic name Esox derives from the Greek for a kind of fish, itself a word of Celtic origin related to the Welsh eog and Irish Gaelic iach (salmon) Wikipedia

Izzac Walton, who published the famous The Compleat Angler in 1653, said of the pike

” The mighty luce or pike is taken to be the tyrant, as the salmon is the king of the fresh waters” from here.

Pike will aggressively strike at any animal in the vicinity, even at other pike. Young pike have been found dead from choking on a pike of a similar size, an observation referred to by the renowned English poet Ted Hughes in his poem ‘Pike’. The poem begins:

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold
Killers from the egg, the malevolent aged grin
They dance on the surface among the flies
Read and listen to introduction and complete poem here read by Ted Huges

Although generally known as a “sporting” quarry, most anglers release pike they have caught because the flesh is considered bony, especially due to the substantial (epipleural) “Y-bones”. However, the larger fish are more easily filleted, and pike have a long and distinguished history in cuisine and are popular fare in Europe. Historical references to cooking pike go as far back as the Romans. The flesh is white and mild-tasting. Fishing for pike is said to be very exciting with their aggressive hits and aerial acrobatics. Wikiepdia

Danger of being bitten by a pike

  • River Swimming Water Safety mentions Pike attack as a risk of open water swimming “You can get a good bite from a pike. This seems to happen when people simulate the movements of a fish.”
  • Why nobody is safe when the pike are biting (The Times) Lots of tales of the amazing exploits of pike “In 1922, The Field carried a report about a 14lb pike caught at Newbury on February 19 that year. The fish had an entire newborn pig in its stomach.”

Bluebells and folklore

File:BluebellWood.jpg

A new page added to the landscape glossary “Bluebell woods” including

  • In Elizabethan times bluebell bulbs were crushed to provide starch for the ruffs of collars and sleeves.”
  • The sticky sap from the bluebell leaves was used for attaching feathers to arrows.
  • If you are unlucky enough to hear the bluebells ringing then you will die within a year.

Read bluebell woods

The Stronsay Beast

While reading about basking sharks, I came across the story of the Stronsay beast, a large, dead sea-creature that washed ashore on the island of Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, after a storm in 1808. The decomposed carcass was said to measure 55 feet in length, without the tail. The terrible beast was reported in the local press athe time:

“Its flesh was described as being like ‘coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish’. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts.”
Account of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper. From The Stronsay Beast

The Natural History Society of Edinburgh was unable to identify the carcass and decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent. Later the anatomist Sir Everard Home dismissed the measurement, declaring it must have been around 36 feet, and deemed it to be a decayed basking shark as basking sharks can take on a ‘pseudo plesiosaur’ appearance when they decompose. “First the shark’s jaws – which are attached only by a small piece of flesh – drop off leaving what looks like the remains of a long neck and a small skull.” More here

References

Folklore about shearwaters

Shearwaters are associated in folklore with death. This undoubtedly comes from their eeirie cooing nocturnal cry like a cackling witch from the underworld.

This Isle of Man web on the Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) notes:

“A description of their voice on The Isle of Man, in 1731 says this: “The spirit which haunted the coasts have originated in this noise. , described as infernal. The disturbed spirit of a person shipwrecked on a rock adjacent to this coast wanders about it still, and sometimes makes so terrible a yelling that it is heard at an incredible distance. They tell you that houses even shake with it; and that, not only mankind, but all the brute creation within hearing, tremble at the sound. But what serves very much to increase the shock is that, whenever it makes this extraordinary noise, it is a sure prediction of an approaching storm. . . . At other times the spirit cries out only, ” Hoa, hoa, hoa !” with a voice little, if anything, louder than a human one.”

Richard Dawkins cites the Manx Shearwater on page 87 of his book The God Delusion.

One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil, Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by this story, and recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. ‘Manx Shearwater!’ they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname ‘Devil Bird’.

Around the web

Folklore about shearwaters elsewhere in the world

  • In Turkey it was believed that the Dusky Shearwaters which daily travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus were animated by condemned human souls. Read here
  • Aboard French ships in the nineteenth century both storm petrels and shearwaters were known as âmes damnées (“souls of the damned”), the subtext being that, like some ghosts, part of their punishment after death was to continue to haunt the earth. Muslim seafarers in the nineteenth century similarly said that the Manx and Mediterranean shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus and Puffinus yelkouan) of the eastern Mediterranean were inhabited by damned souls, a belief possibly suggested by their dark plumage. Read here