More Tales of the Ridings
More Tales of the Ridings
F.W.Moorman, 1872 - 1919Late Professor ofEnglish Language, Leeds University.
Editor of "YorkshireDialect Poems"
London, Elkin Mathews, Cork Street 1920
Melsh Dick is the last survivor of our woodland divinities.His pedigreereaches back to the satyrs and dryads of Greek mythology; he claimskinship with the fauns that haunted the groves of leafy Tibur, and helorded it in the green woods of merry England whenThe woodweele sang andwold not cease,
Sitting upon the spraye,
Soe lowde he wakenedRobin Hood
In the greenwood where helay.
But he has long since fallen upon evil days, and it is only inthe mostsecluded regions of the Pennines, where vestiges of primeval foreststill remain and where modern civilisation has scarcely penetrated,thathe is to be met with to-day. Melsh is a dialect word for unripe, andthepopular belief is that Melsh Dick keeps guard over unripe nuts; while"Melsh Dick'll catch thee, lad" was formerly a threat used to frightenchildren when they went a-nutting in the hazel-shaws. But we may,perhaps, take a somewhat wider view of this woodland deity and lookuponhim as the tutelary genius of all the young life of theforest—thecallow broods of birds, the litters of foxes and squirrels, and thesapling oaks, hazels, and birches. There was a time when he was lookedupon as a genial fairy, who would bring Yule-logs to the farmers onChristmas Eve and direct the woodmen in their tasks of planting andfelling; latterly, however, he is said to have grown churlish andmalignant. The reckless felling of young trees for fencing andpit-propsis supposed to have roused his ill-will, and sinister stories have beentold of children who have gone into the woods for acorns or hazel-nutsand have never been seen again.
It was in the Bowland Forest district, which is watered by theRibbleand its tributary becks, that I heard the fullest account of MelshDick;and the following story was communicated to me by an old peasant whoseforefathers had for generations been woodmen in Bowland Forest. Theregion where he lived is rich in legend, and not far away is the oldmarket town of Gisburn, where Guy of that ilk fought with Robin Hood,and where, until the middle of the nineteenth century, a herd of thewild cattle of England roamed through the park.
"Fowks tell a mak o' tales about witches, barguests, an'sike-like," OwdDont began, "but I tak no count o' all their clash; I reckon nowt o'tales without they belang my awn family. But what I's gannin to tellyouis what I've heerd my mother say, aye scores o' times; so you'll knowit's true. A gradely lass were my mother, an' noan gien to leein', likesome fowks I could name. There's owd lasses nowadays, gie 'em a sup o'chatter-watter an' a butter-shive, an' they'll tell you tales thatwouldfotch t' devil out o' his den to hark tul 'em."
After this attack upon the licence of the tea-table, Owd Dontneeded along draught of March ale to regain his composure. I knew that it wasworse than useless to attempt to hurry him in his narrative. Leisurelyat the start, the pace of his stories quickened considerably as hewarmed to his work, and it was not without reason that he had acquiredareputation of being the best story-teller on the long settle of theRingo' Bells.
"'Twere back-end o' t' yeer," he continued at last, "an' t'lads hadgone into t' woods to gether hesel-nuts an' accorns. There were atwo-three big lads amang 'em, but most on 'em were lile uns, an' yanwere lame i' t' leg. They called him Doed o' Billy's o' Claypit Lane.Well, t' lads had gotten a seet o' nuts, an' then they set off home asfast as they could gan, for 'twere gettin' a bit dosky i' t' wood. Butlile Doed couldn't keep up wi' t' other lads on account o' his gam leg.So t' lads kept hollain' out to him to look sharp an' skift hissen, orhe'd get left behind. So Doed lowped alang as fast as he were able, buthe couldn't catch up t' other lads, choose what he did, an' all t' timet' leet were fadin' out o' t' sky. At lang length he thowt he saw yano't' lads waitin' for him under an oak, but when he'd gotten alangside o'him, he fan' it were a lad that he'd niver clapped een on afore. Hewereno bigger nor Doed, but 'twere gey hard to tell how owd he were; andhe'd a fearful queer smell about him; 'twere just as though he'd taent'juices out o' all t' trees o' t' wood an' smeared 'em ower his body.Butwhat capped all were t' clothes he was donned in; they were covered wi'green moss, an' on his heead was a cap o' red fur.
"Well, when Doed saw him, he was a bit flaid, but t' ladlooked at himfriendly-like and says:
"'Now then, Doed, wheer ista boun'?'
"'I's boun' home,' says Doed, an' his teeth started ditherin'wi' freet.
"'Well, I's gannin thy ways,' says t' lad, 'so, if thou likes,thou cancoom alang wi' me. Thou'll happen not have seen me afore, but I cantellwho thou is by t' way thou favvours thy mother. Thou'll have heerd tello' thy uncle, Ned Bowker, that lives ower by Sally Abbey; he's myfather, so I reckon thou an' me's cousins.'
"Now Doed had heerd his mother tell about his Uncle Ned, an'when t' ladsaid that Ned Bowker were his father, he gat a bit aisier in his mind;but for all that he didn't altogether like t' looks o' him. Howiver,they gat agate o' talkin', and Doed let on that he were fearful fain o'squirrels. You see, he kept all nations o' wild birds an' wild animalsdown at his house; he'd linnets an' nanpies i' cages, and an ark fullo'pricky-back urchins. But he'd niver catched a squirrel; they were owerwick for him, an' he wanted a squirrel more nor owt else i' t' world.
"When Melsh Dick heard that—for o' course t' lad wasMelsh Dickhissen—he said that if Doed would coom wi' him, he'd sooingie him whathe wanted. He'd bin climmin' t' trees an' had catched a squirrel an'putten it i' t' basket he'd browt his dinner in.
"Well, lile Doed hardlins knew what to do. 'Twere gettin' lat,an' therewere summat about t' lad that set him agin him. But then he bethowt himo' t' squirrel, an' t' squirrel were ower mich for him. So he said toMelsh Dick that he'd gan wi' him an' fotch t' squirrel, but he munnotstop lang, or fowks would consate that he'd lossen his way i' t' woodan' would coom seekin' him. When Melsh Dick heerd him say that he'dcoomwi' him, his een fair glistened, an' he set off through t' wood wi'lileDoed followin' efter him. T' wood was full of gert oak-trees, wi' birksset amang 'em that had just begun to turn colour. Efter a while theygatto a dub i' t' middle o' t' wood; 'twere no bigger nor a duck-pond, butt' watter was deep, an' all around t' dub was a ring o' espin-trees wi'their boughs hingin' ower t' watter. Eh! 'twas a grand seet, sure enif,an' Doed had niver seen owt like it afore. T' sky had bin owercussenwi'hen-scrattins an' filly-tails, but when they gat to t' dub t' wind hadskifted 'em, an' t' mooin were shinin' ower Pendle Hill way an' leetin'up t' trees and makkin' t' watter glisten like silver. Lile Doed werethat fain he started clappin' his hands an' well-nigh forgat all aboutMelsh Dick an' t' squirrel. Then all on a sudden he gat agate o'laughin', for when he saw t' mooin' i' t' watter he bethowt him o' atale his mother had telled him o' soom daft fowks that had seen t'mooini' t' watter an' thowt it were a cheese an' started to rake it out wi'ahay-rake.
"When Melsh Dick heerd him laughin', he were fair mad. Hethowt Doedwere laughin' at him, an' what maddens fairies more nor owt else is tothink that fowks is girnin' at 'em. Howiver, he said nowt, but sethissen down anent t' dub an' Doed did t' same. Then they gat agate o'talkin', an' Doed axed Melsh Dick what for he was covered wi' greenmoss.
"'If thou'd to clim' trees same as I have,' answered MelshDick, 'thou'dbe covered wi' moss too, I'll uphod.'
"'An' what for doesta wear yon cap o' red fur**??'
"'Why sudn't I wear a fur cap, I'd like to know. My mothermaks 'em o'squirrel skins, an' they're fearful warm i' winter-time.'
"When lile Doed heerd him tell o' squirrels, he bethowt him o't'squirrel i' t' basket an' wanted to set forrard.
"'Bide a bit,' says Melsh Dick, 'an' I'll show thee moresquirrels noriver thou's seen i' all thy life.'
"With that he taks a whistle out of his pocket; 'twere Justlike a pennytin whistle, but 'twere made o' t' rind o' a wandy esh, an' Melsh Dickhad shapped it hissen wi' his whittle. Then he put t' whistle to hismouth an' started to blow. He blew a two-three notes, an' sure enif,there was a scufflin' i' t' trees an' i' less nor hauf-a-minute therewere fower or five squirrels sittin' on t' boughs o' t' espins. WhenDoed saw t' squirrels i' t' mooinleet, he were fair gloppened. Heglowered at 'em, an' they glowered back at him, an' their een were asbreet as glow-worms.
"All t' while Melsh Dick kept tootlin' wi' his whistle an' t'squirrelscom lowpin' through t' trees, while t' espins round t' dub were fairwick wi' 'em. You could hardlins see t' boughs for t' squirrels. 'Tweresame as if all t' squirrels i' Bowland Forest had heerd t' whistle an'bin foorced to follow t' sound. They didn't mak no babblement, but justset theirsens down on their huggans, pricked up their lugs, cockedtheirtails ower their rigs, and kept their een fixed on Melsh Dick.
"Well, when Melsh Dick thowt he'd gethered squirrels enew, hestarted toplay a tune, an' 'twere an uncouth tune an' all. Soomtimes 'twere liket' yowlin' o' t' wind i' t' chimley, an' soomtimes 'twere like t'yammerin' o' tewits an' curlews on t' moor. But when t' squirrels heerdt' tune, they gat theirsens into line alang t' boughs, an' there werehappen twelve squirrels on ivery bough. Then they gat agate o' lowpin';they lowped frae tree to tree, reet round t' dub, wi' their tails setstraight out behind 'em. They were that close togither, 'twere justlikea gert coil o' red rope twinin' round t' watter; and all t' time theykept their faces turned to Melsh Dick, an' their een were blazin' likecoals o' fire. Round an' round they went, as lish as could be, an' lileDoed just hoddled his breeath an' glowered at 'em. He'd seen horseslowpin' in a ring at Slaidburn Fair, but 'twere nowt anent squirrelslowpin' i' t' espins round t' dub.
"Efter a while Doed thowt that Melsh Dick would sooin giveower playin'tunes on t' whistle, but he did nowt o' t' sort. He just played fasternor iver, an' all t' time he kept yan eye fixed on squirrels an' yaneyefixed on lile Doed, to see if owt would happen him. An' t' faster heplayed t' faster lowped t' squirrels. You see, they were foorced tokeeptime wi' t' whistle. At lang length t' tune gat to be nobbut a shrikean' a skreel. Doed had niver heerd sike-like afore; 'twere as thoughallt' devils i' hell had gotten lowse an' were yammerin' through t' skywi'a strang wind drivin' 'em forrard. Eh! 'twere an uncouth sound, and anuncouth seet, too, an' lile Doed's teeth started ditherin' an' everylimb in his body was tremmlin' like t' espin leaves on t' trees roundt'dub. An' nows an' thens a gert white ullet would coom fleein' throught'boughs, an' all t' time there were lile bats flutterin' about ower t'watter an' coomin' so close agean Doed they ommost brushed his face wi'their wings.
"Doed was wellnigh flaid to deeath, but for all that hecouldn't tak hiseen off o' t' squirrels; they'd bewitched him, had t' squirrels.