The history of Britain’s relations with its
“waterworld”.Why did it inspire the emergence of the rich English folklore ?
The water world in the English folklore : tales,
stories fears, prejudices, poems connected with seas, rivers, lakes and their
The English nation’s attempt at trying to preserve its
precious “waterworld” both as the natural resource and the cultural inheritance.
The British are a most curious nation in many aspects.
When a tourist from whatever continent comes to visit Britain the first
conclusion he arrives at is how bizarre the people living there are. The main
reason to their uniqueness will certainly lie on the surface: Great Britain is
an island populated by the nation that had to grow up and go all the long way
of its history alone being separated from the rest of the world by great
amounts of water. This very characteristics turned them into not only a curious
nation, but also an interesting and special one, whose history and culture are
one of the richest in the world. And the water surrounding the island played
not a minor part in its forming. So the British people respect and cherish
their “watery” neighbour who from the earliest stages of their history up to
now gave them food, drink, work, power, respect of other nations, wealth and
after all entertainment. It inspired a huge number of stories, tales, poems,
superstitions and prejudicies and it has always been worshipped by the people.
The studies of the British culture and therefore
understanding of the national character of the English cannot stand apart from
the research of its important product – folklore. By culture we mean the result
of the social activity of people. Every new generation historically brings its
piece into the whole process of the development of culture of this or that
nation; so culture collects the values expressed through different means:
literature, architecture, music, sculpture, traditions, cuisine, etc. Cultural
development of the nation is essential for the development of every person
belonging to it, because his understanding and percepting of the world is
formed according to the society he grows up in and is influenced by the norms and
values of this society.
Arts in general are always meant to bring beauty into
the life of people and educate them through it, make them better, kinder and
wiser. National folklore is no exception in this sense. Even if it very often does not have a human being as the
central figure it still bring forward ethical questions, studies human soul,
its moral qualities. Accepting this aspect presupposes that we realize the
educational side of the folkloric characters and understand what their creators
wanted to tell us, or warn about, or what kind of an ideal they meant to form
up. However, each folkloric hero or character is a mixture of a number of
different qualities and its nature is not always clear and easy to interpreter.
Therefore the aim and the meaning of a character should be searched for in just
one side of its complicated semantics.
So the aim of this work is to make a research in the
part of a rich field of the British folklore concerning British water world
through the means of songs, poems, stories, legends, fears, superstitions,
tales. With the help of this material we shall study the changes and
development of the English character, language, history and culture.
The field of the country’s economy connected with
water was always a great concern for those who ruled it for they naturally
attached much importance to it. From the times when the English society was
being born and only beginning to take shape kings already would interest
themselves in the conditions of trading across the sea. In the eleventh century
Cnut on a pilgrimage to Rome took the opportunity of obtaining from the Emperor
and other rulers he met there greater security and reduction of talls for his
subjects, traders and others, travelling in their lands. Already in the eighth
century an English merchant called Botta was settled at Marceilles, perhaps as
an agent for collecting goods to be sold in England. The Viking rades of the
late eighth and ninth centuries
disrupted trade on the Continent, but Englishmen may well have taken part in
the Baltic trade opened up by this time. At least, there is no reason to deny
English nationality to a certain Wulfstan who described to King Alfred a
journey taken to the Frisches Haff; he has an English name.
On the other hand, we hear of foreign traders in
England from early times. Bede speaks of London as the “mart of many nations,
resorting to it by sea and land”, and mentions the purchase of a captive by a
Frisian merchant in London. But the strongest evidence for the amount of sea traffic
in Frisian hands is the assumption of an Anglo-Saxon poet that a seaman is
likely to have a Frisian wife:
Dear is the welcome guest to the Frisian woman when
the ship comes to land. His ship is come and her husband, her own bread –
winner, is at home, and she invites him in, washes his stained raiment and
gives him new clothes, grants him on land what his love demands.
Men from other lands came also. At the end of the
tenth century a document dealing with trade in London speaks of men from Rouen,
Flanders, Ponthieu, Normandy, France; from about the same date comes a
description of York as the resort of merchants from all quarters, especially
The merchants and seamen plied an honoured trade. The
poets speak with appreciation of the seaman “who can boldly drive the ship
across the salt sea” or “can steer the stem on the dark wave, knows the
currents, (being) the pilot of the company over the wide ocean”, and it was at
least a current opinion in the early eleventh century that the merchant who had
crossed the sea three times at his own cost should be entitled to a thane’s
rank. The merchant in Aelfric’s “Colloquy” stresses the dangers of his lot:
I go on board
my ship with my freight and row over the regions of the sea, and sell my goods
and buy precious things which are not produced in this land, and I bring it
hither to you with great danger over the sea, and sometimes I suffer shipwreck
with the loss of all my goods, barely escaping with my life.
As we see people working in the sea or over the seas
gained much respect in the society and were loved by others. But so much for the economical aspect. The water, as we
already mentioned earlier, was one of the greatest attractions as a source of
Fishing, like hunting, was highly popular in England,
but these were pleasures reserved for the nobility. In the twelfth century,
when the kings had normally been so strong, they had claimed such oppressive
fishing – rights that all the classes had united in protest. One of the demands
of the rebels in 1381 was that hunting and fishing should be common to all; not
only was this refused, but in 1390 Parliament enacted a penalty for one year’s
imprisonment for everyone who should presume to keep hunting – dogs or use
ferrets or snares to catch deer, rabbits, or any other game. Fishing and
hunting, said the statute, was the sport for gentlefolk.
So this is a scetch or an outline of reasons
explaining why our ancestors valued so much the rivers, lakes, seas of their
land – and it is worth mentioning that their land abounds in all that – and why
they respected the work of sailors, merchants or travellers. All this is
important for the understanding of how it was becoming an inseparable part of
their culture and how it is reflected in their culture.
What is folklore?
Funk and Wagnall’s “Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and
Legend” (1972) offers a staggering 22 definitions, running to half a dozen
pages. In recent years definitions have tended to be all – embracing in their
simplicity: folklore is made up of “the traditional stories, customs and habits
of a particular community or nation” says the “Collins Cobuild Dictionary” of
More specific definitions also abound; perhaps,
folklore should be identified as the community’s commitment to maintaining
stories, customs and habits purely for their own sake. ( A perfect example of
this would be the famous horse race at Siena in Italy: the p a l i o
attracts many thousands of tourists, yet if not a single outsider
attend, the people of the community would still support the event year after
But what about those events or beliefs which have been
recently initiated or which are sustained for reasons of commercial gain or
tourism? Many customs are not as ancient as their participants may claim but it
would be foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. Some apparently ancient customs
are, in fact, relatively modern, but does this mean they cannot be termed as
folklore? The spectacular fire festival at Allendale, for instance, feels utterly
authentic despite the fact that there is no record of the event prior to 1853.
There are many other cases of new events or stories which have rapidly assumed
organic growth and therefore deserve the status of being recognised as
Any work covering the question of folklore must be
selective, but here we shall attempt to explore and celebrate the variety and
vigour of Britain’s folklore concerning “waterworld” traditions, beliefs and
superstitions. A wide geographical area is covered: England, Scotland and Wales
with some reference to Ireland and other territories.
Entire books – indeed, whole libraries of books – have
been written on every aspect of folklore: on epitaphs and weather lore, folk
medicine and calendar customs, traditional drama and sports and pastimes,
superstitions, ghosts and witchcraft, fairs, sea monsters and many others.
While trying to cram much into little work I have avoided generalisation.
Precise details such as names, dates and localities are given wherever possible
and there are some references to features that still can be seen - a mountain, a bridge, a standing stone or a
carving in a church.
Classic folklore belongs within the country to the
basic unit of the parish. Most parishes could produce at least a booklet and in
some cases a substantial volume on their own folklore, past and present . It
would be a mistake, however, to think that rural customs, dance and tale were
the whole picture, because there is a rich picture of urban and industrial
folklore as well – from the office girl’s prewedding ceremonies to urban tales
of phantom hitchhickers and stolen corpses.
In this age of fragmentation, speed and stress, people
often seem to thirst for something in which they can take an active part. There
is a need to rediscover something which is more permanent and part of a
continuing tradition. By tapping into our heritage of song and story, ritual
and celebration, our lives are given shape and meaning.
In some cases all we have to do is join in with an
activity which is already happening; in others it will perhaps mean reviving a
dance or a traditional play. But however we choose to participate, as long as
we continue to use, adapt and develop the elements of our folklore heritage it
So this work may be regarded as an attempt to
encourage us all to seek out the stories and customs of country, county, town,
village, to understand and enjoy them and to pass them on.
Not a single town or village in England is situated
more than a hundred miles from the sea, except for a few places in the
Midlands, and most of those in Wales and Scotland are nearer still. The
coastline lies for thousands of miles, with a host of off-shore islands ranging
from Scilly to Shetland and Wight to Lewis. It is hardly surprising then that
our long and eventful maritime history is complemented by a rich heritage of
nautical stories and superstitions, beliefs and customs, many of which continue
to affect our daily lives – even oil rigs, very much a twentieth – century
phenomenon, have tales of their own. Inland water, too, are the subjects of
stories which echoes the folklore of the coasts and seas.
Beneath the waves
Many tales are told of submerged lands, and of church
bells ringing ominously from beneath the waves. Between Land’s End and the
Scilly Islands lies a group of rocks called The Seven Stones, known to
fishermen as “The City” and near to which the land of Lyoness is believed to
lie, lost under the sea. There is a rhyme
Land’s End and Scilly Rocks
Sunk lies a town that ocean
Lyoness was said to have had 140 churches. These and
most of its people were reputed to have been engulfed during the great storrn
of 11 November 1099. One man called Trevilian
foresaw the deluge, and moved his family and stock inland – he was
making a last journey when the waters rose, but managed to outrun the advancing
waves thanks to the fleetness of his horse. Since then the arms of the grateful
Trevilian have carried the likeness of a horse issuing from the sea. A second
man who avoided the catastrophe erected a chapel in thanksgiving which stood
for centuries near Sennen Cove.
Another area lost under water is Cantre’r Gwaelod,
which lies in Cardigan Bay somewhere between the river Teifi and Bardsey
Island. Sixteen towns and most of their inhabitants were apparently overwhelmed
by the sea when the sluice gates in the protective dyke were left open. There
are two versions of the story as to who was responsible: in one it is a drunken
watchman called Seithenin; in another, Seithenin was a king who preferred to
spend his revenue in dissipation rather than in paying for the upkeep of the
A moral of one kind or another will often be the basis
of tales about inland settlements lost beneath water. For example Bomere Lake
in Shropshire – now visited as a beauty spot was created one Easter Eve when
the town which stood there was submerged as a punishment for reverting to
paganism. One Roman soldier was spared because he had attempted to bring the
people backto Christianity, but he then lost his life while trying to save the
woman he loved. It is said that his ghost can sometimes be seen rowing across
the lake at Easter, and that the town,s bells can be heard ringing. There is
another version of the same story in the same place, but set in Saxon times:
the people turn to Thor and Woden at a time when the priest is warning that the
barrier which holds back the meter needs strengthening. He is ignored, but as
the townsfolk are carousing at Yuletide the water bursts in and destroys them.
There is a cautionary tale told of Semerwater, another
lake with a lost village in its depth. Semerwater lies in north Yorkshire not
far from Askrigg, which is perhaps better known as the centre of “Herriot
country”, from the veterinary stories of James Herriot. The story goes that a traveller – variously
given as an angel, St Paul, Joseph of Arimathea, a witch, and Christ in the
guise of a poor old man – visited house after house seeking food and drink ,
but at each one was turned away, until he reached a Quaker’s home, just beyond
the village: htis was the only building spared in the avenging flood that
One lost land off the Kent coast can be partially seen
at high tide: originally, the Goodwin Sands were in fact an island, the island
of Lomea which according to one version
disappeared under the waves in the eleventh century when funds for its sea
defences were diverted to pay for the building of a church tower at Tenterden.
The blame for that is laid at the door of a n abbot of St Augustine’s at
Canterbury who was both owner of Lomea and rector of Tenterden. However,
sceptics say that Tenterden had no tower before the sixteenth century, nor can
archeologists find any trace of habitation or cultivation of the sands. Even
so, the tales continue to be told; one of these blame Earl Godwin, father of
King Harold, for the loss of the island. He earl promised to build a steeple at
Tenterden in return for safe delivery from a battle, but having survived the
battle, he forgot the vow and in retribution Lomea, which he owned, was flooded
during a great storm. The Sands still bear his name.
Yet worse was to follow, for scores of ships and the
lives of some 50 000 sea farers have been lost on the Goodwins, and ill-fortune
seems to dog the area. For example, in 1748 the “Lady Lovibond” was deliberatly
steered to her destruction on the Sands by the mate of the vessel, John Rivers.
Rivers was insanely jealeous because his intended bride, Anetta, had foresaken
him to marry his captain, Simon Reed. The entire wedding party perished with
the ship in the midst of the celebrations, but the remarkable thing is that the
scene made a phantom reappearance once every fifty years – until 1948, when the
“Lady Lovibond” at last failed to re-enact the drama.
Another fifty -
year reappearance concerns the
Nothumberland; she was lost on the Goodwind sands in 1703 in a storm, along
with twelve other men – of - war,
but in 1753 seen again by the crew of
an East Indiaman – sailors were leaping in to the water from the stricken
vessel though their shouts and screams could not be heard.
The Nothumberland was under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, to whom is attached
a further tale. Three years afterwards, the admiral’s flagship, the
Association, was wrecked on the Gilstone Rock near the Scilly Isles. The fleet
was homeward bound after a triumphant campaign against the French and some
maintain that the crews were drunk. But the story which Scillonians believe to
this day is that a sailor aboard the flagship warned that the fleet was
dangerously near the islands, and that for this he was hanged at the yardarm
for unsubordination, on the admiral’s orders. The man was granted a last
request to read from the Bible, and turned to the 109 psalm: “ Let his days be
few and another take his place. Let his children be fatherless and his wife a
widow”. As he read the ship began to strike the rocks.
The admiral was a very stout man and his buoyancy was
sufficient to carry him ashore alive, though very weak. However, official
searches found him dead, stripped off his clothing and valuables, including a
fine emerald ring. The body was taken to Westminster Abbey for interment, and
his widow appealed in vain for the return of the ring. Many years later a St
Mary’s islander confessed on the deathbed that she had found Sir Cloudesley and
had “squeezed the life out of him” before taking his belongongs. The hue and
cry had forced her to abandon the idea of selling the emerald, but she had felt
unable to die in peace before revealing her crime.
A commemorative stone marks the place where the
admiral’s body was temporarily buried in the shingle of Porth Hellick, on St
Mary’s Island. No grass grows over the grave.
The wreck of the ramilies
Many hundreds of shipwrecks have their own songs and
stories. Although the Ramilies, for example, was wrecked well over 200 years
ago, tradition perpetuates the event as clearly as if it had happened only
yesterday. In February 1760 the majestic, ninety – gun, triple decked ship was
outward bound from Plymouth to Quiberon Bay when hurricane – force winds blew
up in the Channel and forced the captain to turn back and run for shelter.
Sailing East , the master thought he had passed Looe Island, and had only to
round Rame Head to reach the safety of Plymouth Sound. In fact the ship was a
bay further on and the land sighted was Burgh Island, in Bigbury Bay. The
Promontory was Bolt Tail with its four hundred foot cliffs, and beyond lay no
safe harbour at all, but several miles of precipitous rocks. As soon as the
sailing master realised his mistake the ship was hove to, but the wind was so
violent that the masts immediately snapped and went overboard. The two anchores
that were dropped held fast, but their cables fouled each other, and after
hours of fierce friction, they parted and the ship was driven to destruction on
Of more than seven hundred men on board only about two
dozen reached safety. Led by Midshipman John Harrold, they scrambled up the
cliffs, by pure luck choosing the one place where this was possible. Next day a
certain William Locker travelled to the scene to try to find the body of his
friend, one of the officers. Locker himself would have been aboard the
“Ramillies” but his lieutenant’s commission had come from the admiralty too
late, arriving just a few hours after she had sailed. He found the shores of
Bigbury Bay strewn with hundreds of corpses, their clothing torn away by the
sea’s pounding, their features
unrecognisable. The village nearest to the scene of the wreck was Inner Hope,
and some there still maintain that a Bigbury man aboard the “Ramillies” pleaded
with the captain to alter course; but he was clapped in irons, and went down
with the ship. They say that only one officer survived because others were prevented from leaving
the stricken vessel.
Most of the bodies were washed ashore at Thurlestone,
a few miles to the west. There used to be a depression in the village green which
marked the place where many of the seamen had been buried in a mass grave; this has now been asphalted to
make a carpark. Then in the mid – 1960s a child digging in a sand dune found a
bone. He showed it to a man on the beach who happened to be a doctor and
identified it as human. Further digging revealed the skeletons of ten men,
small in stature and buried in five – foot intervals -- perhaps these had been washed up after the mass burial. No
scrap of clothing or equipment was found, and finally the bones were thrown
into a lorry and consigned to a rubbish tip. Even though two centuries have
elapsed since their deaths, one feels that the men of the “Ramillies” deserved
better. The ship still lies six fathoms down in the cove which which has borne
her name since 1760, and Wise’s Spring on the cliffs is called after one of the
seamen who scrambled ashore with the tiny band of survivors.
Portents of disaster
Great pains are taken when first launching a vessel so
as to ensure good fortune, and one of the most important portents is the ritual
bottle of champagne which must break first time ( the liquid may be a
substitute for the blood of a sacrifice ). It is interesting that the various
ships to bear the name “Ark Royal” have always been lucky; for example when the
World War 11 vessel sunk there was minimal loss of life. The original ship
dated from Elizabethan times and had a crucifix placed beneath the mainmast by
the captain’s mistress; this apparently secured the good fortune for all her
successors. On the other hand there are vessels which seem perpetually unlucky,
some even jinxed and quite incapable of escaping misfortune.
Brunel’s fine ship the “Great Eastern” was launched in
1858 after several ominously unsuccessful attempts. She ruined the man in whose
yard she was built, and caused a breakdown in Brunel’s health – he died even
before her maiden voyage. And despite her immense technical advantages, she was
never successful as the passenger -
In 1895 she was in port in Holyhead. When the “Royal
Charter” sailed by, homeward bound from Australia, the passengers expressed a
desire to see her and their captain was only too pleased to oblige. However,
the ship strayed off course and a wild storm blew up. The ship was wrecked,
with great loss of life. Some of the trouble was attributed to the story of a
riveter and his boy who were said to have been accidentally sealed to the
famous double hull. Unexplained knockings were heard at various times but
although searches were made, nothing was found. When the vessel was broken up
at New Ferry, Cheshire, in 1888 it was
rumoured that two sceletons were discovered, their bony fingers still clenched
round the worn – down hammers which had beaten in vain for rescue.
The “Victoria” was commissioned on Good Friday, the
thirteenth of the month – and if this were not ill-luck enough, the fact that
her name ended in ‘a’ was considered another bad sign. In 1893 she sank with
heavy losses after a collision during the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean off
Beirut, and interestingly, various things happened which indicated calamity:
two hours earlier a fakir had actually predicted disaster, and at the time of
the collision crowds had gathered at the dockyards gates in Malta, drawn by an instinctive
apprehension of impending doom. At the same time during lunch at a Weymouth
torpedo works the stem of a wine glass had suddenly cracked with a loud retort;
and in London’s Eaton Square the ship’s Admiral Tryon was seen coming down the
stairs at his home. He was in fact aboard the “Victoria”, where he survived the
impact but made no effort to save himself. As he sank beneath the waves he is
said to have lamented: “It was all my fault” – and so it was, for he had given
the incorrect order which led to the collision.
Generations after her loss the “Titanic” is still a byword for hubris. In 1912 the “unsinkable ship” struck
an iceberg on her maiden voyage and went down with 1 500 passengers and
crew. Again, a variety if omens anticipated the disaster: a steward’s badge
came to pieces as his wife stitched it to his cap, and a picture fell from the
wall in a stoker’s home; then aboard the ship a signal halliard parted as it
was used to acknowledge the ‘bon voyage’ signal from the Head of Old Kinsale
lighthouse – and the day before the collision rats were seen scurrying aft,
away from the point of impact. After the calamity Captain Smith, who went down
with the ship, is rumoured to have been seen ashore.
One cause of the “Titanic” disaster is said to have
been an unlucky Egyptian mummy case. This is the lid of an inner coffin with
the representation of the head and upper body of an unknown lady of about 1000
bc. Ill-fortune certainly seemed to travel with the lid – first of all the man
who bought it from the finder had an arm shattered by an accidental gun shot.
He sold, but the purchaser was soon afterwards the recipient of the bad news,
learning that he was bankrupt and that he had a fatal disease. The new owner,
an English lady, placed the coffin lid in her drawing – room: next morning she
found everything there smashed. She moved it upstairs and the same thing
happened, so she also sold it. When this purchaser had the lid photographed, a
leering, diabolical face was seen in the print. And when it was eventually
presented to the British Museum, members of staff began to contract mysterious
ailments – one even died. It was sold yet again to an American, who arranged to
take it home with him on the “Titanic”. After the catastrophe he managed to
bribe the sailors to allow him to take it into a lifeboat, and it did reach
America. Later he sold it to a Canadian, who in 1941 decided to ship it back to
England; the vessel taking it, “Empress of Ireland” , sank in the river St
Lawrence. So runs the story, but in reality the coffin lid did not leave the
British Museum after being presented in 1889.
The former prime minister, Edward Heath, in his book
“Sailing” (1975) revealed that he too had experienced the warnings of ill omen.
At the launch of the “Morning Cloud 1” the bottle twice refused to break, and
at the same ceremony for the “Morning Cloud 111” the wife of a crew member fell and suffered severe concussion.
This yacht was later wrecked off the South coast with the loss of two lives,
and in the very same gale the “Morning Cloud 1” was blown from the moorings on
the island of Jersey, and also wrecked. Meanwhile, the Morning Cloud 11” had
been launched without incident and was leading a trouble free life with the
Australian to whom she had been sold.
As recently as December 1987 a strange case came to
light as a result of a Department of
Health and Social Security enquiry into why members of a Bridlington trawler
crew were spending so much time unemployed. In explanation, Derek Gates, skipper of the “Pickering”, said that
putting to sea had become impossible: on board lights would flicker on and off;
cabins stayed freezing cold even when the heating was on maximum; a coastguard
confirmed that the ship’s steering repeatedly turned her in erratic circles and
in addition, the radar kept failing and the engine broke down regularly. One of
the crewmen reported seeing a spectral, cloth-capped figure roaming the deck,
and a former skipper, Michael Laws, told how he repeatedly sensed someone in
the bunk above his, though it was always empty. He added: “ My three months on
the Pickering” were the worst in seventeen years at sea. I didn’t earn a penny
because things were always going wrong”.
The DHSS decided that the men’s fears were a genuine
reason for claiming unemployment benefit, and the vicar of Bridlington, the
Rev. Tom Wilis, was called in to conduct a ceremony of exorcism. He checked the
ship’s history, and concluded that the disturbances might be connected with the
ghost of a deckhand who had been washed overboard when the trawler, then
registered as the “Family Crest”, was fishing off Ireland. He sprinkled water
from stem to stern, led prayers, and called on the spirit of the dead to
depart. His intervention proved effective because the problems ceased, and furthermore
the crew began to earn bonuses for good catches.
Sailors used to be very superstitious – maybe they
still are – and greatly concerned to
avoid ill-luck, both ashore and afloat. Wives must remember that “Wash upon sailing day, and you will wash
your man away”, and must also be careful to smash any eggshells before they
dispose of them, to prevent their being used by evil spirits as craft in which
to put to sea and cause storms.
Luck was brought by:
a gold ear-ring worn in the left ear
a piece of coal carried
a coin thrown over the ship’s bow when leaving port
a feather from a wren killed on St. Stephen’s Day
a hot cross bun or a piece of bread baked on a Good
The last three all preserved from drowning. David
Copperfield’s caul was advertised for sale in the newspapers “for the low price
of fifteen guineas”, and the woman from the port of Lymington in Hampshire
offered one in “The Daily Express” as recently as 23 August 1904. One Grimsby
man born with the caul has kept it to this day. When he joined the Royal Navy
during World War 11 his mother insisted that he take the caul with him. Various
other sailors offered him up to L20 – a large sum for those days – if he would
part with it, but he declined.
For over two hundred years now a bun has been added
every Good Friday to a collection preserved at the Widow’s Son Tavern, Bromley
– by –Bow, London. The name and the custom derive from an eighteenth – century
widow who hoped that her missing sailor son would eventually come home safely
if she continued to save a bun every Easter. Some seamen had their own version
of this, and would touch their sweetheart’s bun (pudenda) for luck before
Other things had to be avoided because they brought
a pig, a priest or a woman on the way to one’s ship
having a priest or a woman aboard
saying the words: pig, priest, rabbit, fox, weasel,
dropping a bucket overboard
leaving a hatch cover upside down
leaving a broom, a mop or a squeegee with the head
spitting in the sea
handing anything down a companionway
sailing on a Friday
finding a drowned body in the trawl (in the case of
Although many of these beliefs are obscure in origin,
others can be explained.
For example, the pig had the devil’s mark on his feet
– cloven hoofs – and was a bringer of storms; furthermore the drowning of the
Gadarene swine was a dangerous precedent. Then the priest was associated with
funerals, and so taking him aboard was perhaps too blatant a challenge to the
malign powers – if he were to be designated in conversation he was always “The
gentleman in black”. The pig was curly tail, or in Scotland “cauld iron
beastie” since if it were inadvertently mentioned the speaker and hearers had
to touch cold iron to avoid evil consequences; if no cold iron were available,
the studs to one’s boots would do. The other four animals were taboo because
they were thought to be the shapes assumed by witches who were notorious for
Perhaps women were also shunned because they were
considered potential witches, although a good way to make a storm abate was for
a woman to expose her naked body to the elements. Bare - breasted figure – heads were designed to achieve the
same result. Nevertheless, during HMS “Durban” ’s South American tour in the
1930s the captain allowed his wife to take passage on the ship. Before the tour
was halfway through there were two accidental deaths on board, besides a series
of mishaps, and feeling amongst the crew began to run high. At one port of call
a group of men returning to the ship on a liberty boat were freely discussing
the run of bad luck, attributing it to “having that bloody woman on board”. They did not realize that the captain was
separated from them by only a thin bulkhead and had overheard the whole
conversation. But instead of taking disciplinary action, he put his wife ashore
the next day; she travelled by land to
other ports, and the ship’s luck immediately changed for the better.
Fridays were anathema – “Friday sail, Friday fail” was
the saying – since the temtation of Adam, the banishment from the Garden of
Eden, and the crucifixion of Christ had
all taken place on a Friday. One old story, probably apocryphal, tells of a
royal navy ship called HMS “Friday” which was launched, first sailed and then
lost on a Friday; moreover her captain was also called Friday. Oddly enough, a
ship of this name does appear in the admiralty records in 1919, but the story
was in circulation some fifty years earlier. This fear of Friday dies hard. A
certain Paul Sibellas, seaman, was aboard the “Port Invercargill” in the 1960s
when on one occasion she was ready to sail for home from New Zealand at 10pm on
Friday the thirteenth. The skipper, however, delayed his departure until
midnight had passed and Saturday the fourteenth had arrived.
Whistling is preferably avoided because it can conjure
up a wind, which might be acceptable aboard a becalmed sailing ship, but not otherwise.
Another way of getting a wind was to stick a knife in the mast with its handle
pointing in the direction from which a blow was required – this was done on the
“Dreadnaught” in 1869, in jury rig after being dismasted off Cape Horn.
In 1588 Francis Drake is said to have met the
devil and various wizards to whistle up
tempests to disrupt the Spanish Armada. The spot near Plymouth were they
gathered is now called Devil’s Point. He is also said to have whittled a stick,
of which the pieces became fireships as they fell into the sea; and his house
at Buckland Abbey was apparently built with unaccountable speed, thanks to the
devil’s help. Drake’s drum is preserved in the house and is believed to beat of
its own accord when the country faces danger.
Denizens of the deep
With the mirror and comb, her ling hair, bare breasts
and fish tail, the mermaid is instantly recognisable, but nowadays only as an
amusing convention. However, she once inspired real fear as well as fascination
and sailors firmly believed she gave warning of tempest of calamity.
As recently as seventy years ago, Sandy Gunn, a Cape
Wrath shepherd, claimed he saw a mermaid on a spur of rock at Sandwood Bay.
Other coastal dwellers also recall such encounters, even naming various
landmarks. In Corwall there are several tales involving mermaids: at Patstow
the harbour entrance is all but blocked by the Doom Bar, a sandbank put there
by mermaid, we are told, in relation for being fired at by a man of the town.
And the southern Cornish coast between the villages of Down Derry and Looe, the
former town of Seaton was overwhelmed by sand because it was cursed by a
mermaid injured by a sailor from the port.
Mermaid’s Rock near Lamorna Cove was the haunt of a
mermaid who would sing before a storm and then swim out to sea – her beauty was
such that young men would follow, never to reappear. At Zennor a mermaid was so
entranced by the singing of Matthew Trewella, the squire’s son, that she
persuaded him to follow her; he, too failed to to return, but his voice could
be heard from time to time, coming from beneath the waves. The little church in
which he sang on land has a fifteenth – century bench – end carved with a mermaid and her looking – glass and
On the other hand, mermaids could sometimes be
helpful. Mermaid’s Rock at Saundersfoot in Wales is so called because a mermaid
was once stranded there by the ebbing of the tide. She was returned to the sea
by a passing mussel – gatherer, and later came back to present him with a bag
of gold and silver as a reward. In the Mull of Kintyre a Mackenzie lad helped
another stranded mermaid who in return granted him his wish, that he cpuld
build unsinkable boats from which no man would ever be lost.
Sexual unions between humans and both sea people and
seals are the subject of many stories, and various families claim strange sea –
borne ancestry: for example the Mc Veagh clan of Sutherland traces its descent
from the alliance between a fisherman and a mermaid; on the Western island of
North Uist the McCodums have an
ancestor who married a seal maiden; and the familiar Welsh name of Morgan is
sometimes held to mean “born of the sea”, again pointing to the family tree
which includes a mermaid or a merman. Human wives dwelling at sea with mermen
were allowed occasional visits to the land, but they had to take care not to
overstay – and if they chanced to hear the benediction said in church they were
never able to rejoin their husbands.
Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Forsaken Merman” relates
how one human wife decides to desert her sea husband and children. There is
also a Shetland tale, this time concerning a sea wife married to a land
On the island of Unst a man walking by the shore sees
mermaids and mermen dancing naked in the moonlight, the seal skins which they
have discarded lying on the sand. When they see the man, the dancers snatch up
the skins, become sea creatures again, and all plunge into the waves – except
one, for the man has taken hold of the skin. Its owner is a mermaid of
outstanding beauty. And she has to stay on the shore. The man asks her to
become his wife, and she accepts. He keeps the skin and carefully hides it.
marriage is successful, and the couple has several children. Yet the woman is
often drawn in the night to the seashore, where she is heard conversing with a
large seal in an unknown tongue. Years pass. During the course of a game one of
the children finds a seal skin hidden in the cornstack. He mentions it to his
mother, and she takes it and returns to the sea. Her husband hears the news and
runs after her, arriving by the shore to be told by his wife: “ Farewell, and
may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I lived on earth, but I always loved my first husband more.”
As we know from David Thomson’s fine book “The People
of the Sea” (1984), such stories are still widely told in parts of Ireland and
in Scotland and may explain why sailors were reluctant to kill seals. There was
also a belief that seals embodied the souls of drowned mariners.
The friendly dolphin invariably brings good luck to
seafarers, and has even been known to guide them to the right direction. As
recently as January 1989 the newspapers reported that an Australian swimmer who
had been attacked and wounded by a shark was saved from death only by the
intervention of a group of dolphins which drove off the predator.
Also worthy of mention here is another benevolent
helper of seamen lost in open boats: a kindly ghost known as the pilot of the
“Pinta”. When all seems lost he will appear in the bows of the boat and
insistently point the way to safety.
Other denizens of the deep inspired fear and terror.
The water horse of Wales and the Isle of Man – the kelpie of Scotland – grazes
by the side of the sea or loch. If anyone is rash enough to get on him, he rushes into the water and drowns the
rider; furthermore his back can conveniently lengthen to accommodate any number
of people. There are several tales believed of the water horse, for example, if
he is harnessed to a plough he drags it into the sea. If he falls in love with
a woman he may take the form of a man to court her – only if she recognises his
true nature from the tell-tale sand in his hair will she have a chance of
escaping, and then she must steal away while he sleeps. Legnd says that the water horse also takes
the shape of an old woman; in this guise he is put to bed with a bevy of
beautiful maidens, but kills them all by sucking their blood, save for one who
manages to run away. He pursues her but she jumps a running brook which, water
horse though he is, he dare not cross.
Still more terrible are the many sea monsters of which
stories are told. One played havoc with the fish of the Solway Firth until the
people planted a row of sharpened stakes on which it impaled itself. Another
serpent – like creature, the Stoor Worm, was so huge that its body curled about
the earth. It took up residence off northern Scotland and made it known that a
weekly delivery of seven virgins was required, otherwise the towns and villages
would be devastated. Soon it was the turn of the king’s daughter to be
sacrificed, but her father announced that he would give her in anyone who would
rid him of the worm. Assipattle, the dreamy seventh son of a farmer, took up
the challenge and put to sea in a small boat with an iron pot containing a
glowing peat; he sailed into the monster’s mouth, then down into its inside –
after searching for some time he found the liver, cut a hole in it, and
inserted the peat . The liver soon began to burn fiercely, and the worm retched
out Assipattle and his boat. Its death throes shook the world: one of its teeth
became the Orkney Islands, the other Shetland; the falling tongue scooped out
the Baltic Sea, and the burning liver turned into the volcanosof Iceland. The
king kept his promise, and the triumphant Assipattle married his daughter.
Perhaps, the most famous of all water monsters is that
of Loch Ness, first mentioned in a life of St Columba written in 700 AD.
Some 150 years earlier one of the saint’s followers
was apparently swimming in the loch when the monster “suddenly swam up to the
surface, and with gaping mouth and with great roaring rushed towards the man”.
Fortunately, Columba was watching and ordered the monster to turnback: it
obeyed. The creature (or its successor) then lay dormant for some 1 300
years, for the next recorded sighting was in 1871.
However, during the last fifty years there have been
frequent reports and controversies. In1987 a painstaking and and expencive
sonar scan of the loch revealed a moving object of some 400 lb in weight which
scientists were unable to identify. Sir Peter Scott dubbed the monster
“Nessiterras Rhombopteryx”, after the diamond – shaped fin shown on a
photograph taken by some American visitors; the Monster Exhibition Centre at
Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness describes it
as “The World’s Greatest Mystery”. Tourists from all over the world flock to
visit Loch Ness, monster and centre.
The seas will always be potentially dangerous for
those who choose to sail them and most seafarers tried hard to avoid incurring
the wrath of Davy Jones – they once were sometimes reluctant even to save
drowning comrades lest they deprive the deep of a victim which would serve as a
propitiatory sacrifice though the dilemma could be resolved by throwing the
drowning man a rope or spar. This was a much less personal intervention than
actually landing a hand or diving in to help and therefore less risky.
Various shipboard ceremonies were observed and
maintained religiously: at Christmas a tree would be lashed to the top of the
mast (the custom is still followed, and on ships lacking a mast the tree is
tied to the railings on the highest deck). At midnight as New Year’s Eve
becomes New Year’s Day the ship’s bell is rung eight times for the old year and
eight times for the new – midnight on a ship is normally eight bells – the
oldest member of the crew giving the first eight rings, the youngest the
“Burying the Dead Horse” was a ceremony which was continued in merchant ships until late in
the nineteenth century, and kept up most recently in vessels on the Australian
run. The horse was a symbol for the month’s pay advanced on shore (and usually
spent before sailing); after twenty-eight days at sea the advance was worked
out. The horse’s body was made from a barrel, its legs from hay, straw or
shavings covered with canvas, and the main and tail of hemp. The animal was
hoisted to the main yardarm and set on fire. It was allowed to blase for a
short time and was then cut loose and dropped into the sea. Musical
accompaniment was provided by the shanty
“Poor Old Horse”:
Now he is dead and will die no more,
And we say so, for we know so.
It makes his ribs feel very sore,
Oh, poor old man.
He is gone and will go no more,
And we say so,
for we know so.
So goodbye, old horse,
We say goodbye.
On sailing ships collective work at the capstan,
windlass, pumps and halliards was often accompanied by particular songs known
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
big, full-rigged vessels were bringing cargoes of nitrate, guano and saltpetre
to Britain to South America ports. When a ship was loaded and ready to sail
round Cape Horn and home, the carpenter would make a large wooden cross to
which red and white lights were fixed in the shape of the constellation known
as the Southern Cross. As this was hoisted to the head of the mainmast, the
crew would sing the shanty “Hurrah, my boys, we’re homeward bound”, and then
the crew of every ship in harbour took turns to cheer the departing vessel.
Seafarers crossing the equator for the first time –
and sometimes the tropics of the polar circles – are often put through a sort
of baptism or initiation ceremony. The earliest recorded reference to such a
ritual dates back to 1529 on a French ship, but by the end of the following
century English vessels were involved in the same custom, which continues to
this day in both Royal Navy and merchant service.
One of the crew appears as Neptune, complete with
crown, trident and luxuriant beard; others represent Queen Amphitrite, a
barber, a surgeon and various nymphs and bears. Neptune holds court by the side
of a large canvas bath full of sea -
water, and any on board who have not previously crossed “the Line” are
ceremonially shaved with huge wooden razors, then thoroughly ducked. Finally,
the victim is given a certificate which protects him from the same ordeal on
ane future occasion. Even passengers are put through a modified form of the
proceedings, though women are given a still softer version of the treatment.
When a naval captain leaves his ship he can expect a
ritual farewell. Even Prince Charles was unable to escape when in 1976 he
relinquished command of the minesweeper, HMS “Bronington”; he was seized by
white – coated doctors (his officers), placed in a wheelchair and “invalided
out” to the cheers of his crew members who held up a banner inscribed: “Command
has aged me”.
Other marines departed in a less jovial manner. When a
man died at sea his body would be sewn into canvas, weighted, and committed to
the deep. The sailmaker was responsible for making the shroud, and would always
put the last stitch through the corpse’s nose, ensuring that there was no sign
of life and that the body remained attached to the weighted canvas. This
practise was followed at least until the 1960s, the sailmaker receiving a
bottle of rum for his work. Nowadays the bodies are seldom buried at sea but
are refrigerated and brought back to land.
However, those consigning a body in this way still receive the
traditional bottle of rum for their trouble.
We have had a look at some samples of well and
carefully preserved British folklore
that relates about the British “waterworld”. But the question of our time no
less important is whether the people with such an affection for their land try
to preserve it from the harm that may cause our age of highly developed
machines, ships, tunkers, etc.
Britain’s marine, coastal and inland waters are
generally clean: some 95% of rivers, streams and canals are of good or fair
quality, a much higher figure than in most other European countries. However
their cleanliness cannot be taken for granted, and so continuing steps are
being taken to deal with remaining threats. Discharges to water from the most
potentially harmful processes are progressively becoming subject to
authorisation under IPC.
Government regulations for a new system of classifying
water in England and Wales came into force in May 1994. This system will
provide the basis for setting statutory water quality objectives (SWQO),
initially on a trial basis in a small number of catchment areas where their
effectiveness can be assessed. The objectives, which will be phased in
gradually, will specify for each individual stretch of water the standards that
should be reached and the target date for achieving them. The system of SWQOs
will provide the framework to set discharge consents. Once objectives are set,
the enterprises will be under a duty to ensure that they are met.
There have been important developments in controlling
the sea disposal of wastes in recent years. The incineration of wastes at sea
was halted in 1990 and the dumping of industrial waste ended in 1992. In
February 1994 the Government announced British acceptance of an internationally
agreed ban on the dumping of low- and
intermediate – level wastes was already banned. Britain had not in fact dumped
any radioactive waste at sea for some years preveously. Britain is committed to
phasing out the dumping of sewage sludge at sea by the end of 1998. Thereafter
only dredged material from ports, harbours and the like will routinely be
approved for sea disposal.
Proposals for decommissioning Britain’s 200 offshore
installations are decided on a case – by – case basis, looking for the best
practicable environmental option and observing very rigorous international
agreements and guidelines.
Although not a major source of water pollution
incidents, farms can represent a problem. Many pollution incidents result from
silage effluent or slurry leaking and entering watercourses; undiluted farm
slurry can be up to 100 times, more polluting than raw domestic sewage.
Regulations set minimum construction standards for new or substantially altered
farm waste handling facilities. Farmers are required to improve existing
installations where there is a significant risk of pollution. The Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes a “Code of Good Agricultural Practice
for the Protection of Water”. This gives farmers guidance on, among other
things, the planning and management of the disposal of their farm wastes. The Ministry also has L2 million research
and development programme to examine problems of farm waste and to minimise
Britain is a signatory to the 1992 North East Atlantic
Convention, which tackles pollution from land – based sources, offshore
installations and dumping. It also provides for monitoring and assessment of
the quality of water in the convention’s area. In order to minimise the
environmental effects of offshore oil and gas operations, special conditions
designed to protect the environment -–set in consultation with environmental
interests – are included in licences for oil and gas exploration.
Pollution from ships is controlled under international
agreements, which cover matters such as oil discharges and disposal of garbage.
British laws implementing such agreements are binding not only on all ships in
British waters, but also on British ships all over the world. The Marine
Pollution Control Unit (MPCU), part of the Coastguard Agency, is responsible
for dealing with spillage of oil or other substances from ships in sea.
So great care is being taken to manage to preserve all
that precious that Britain has. Keeping the waters in a good conditions would
help to keep the traditions connected with it as well, and to pass them on to
There is no other way to understanding people, their
character, past and present but through its linguistic and cultural
inheritance. If a person is determined to get a closer acquaintance with the
inner world of the French, Italian or English, he should study their language and
culture, because only through this he can really get in touch with a strange
nation. Finding out some facts, materials on this or that country he would no
more than get informed, develop his intellectual abilities and that of the
rational memory. But linguistic and cultural education inspires imaginative
thinking, influences his emotions and forms his taste. Linguistic materials,
and the national folklore is certainly an important part of it, are inseparable
from the language: the language itself plays the part of the informational
source of the national history and culture.
So in this work we showed the essential role of the
English folklore relating about the water world of the country in the
development of the English language, forming of the national identity and
character and its close connection with the British history.
“The Beginnings of English Society”,
Roy Palmer “Britain’s Living Folklore”, Oxford 1986
A.R.Myers “England in the Late Middle Ages”, Penguin 1980
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