Sunday, 7 May 2017

'Fake Folklore' = False Tradition?

If I can borrow (and alter) a trope from a famous half-Scottish current leader of the free world:  is there any such thing as ‘Fake Folklore’?

Put it another way:  how can you classify a superstition/tradition as genuine/real/legitimate?  And, are ‘made up’ traditions actually better than ‘real’ ones. Who would want to invent these things anyway – haven’t they got better things to waste their time with?  False trails in folkore are as disappointing as those in other area of study, I suppose, and certainly leave you feeling hard done by.  It is worse to be hoodwinked on purpose than to be the victim of your own or someone else’s error.  It you ever come across Alexander Lowson’s book called Tales, Legends and Traditions of Forfarshire (1891), do not bother to delve inside or (God forbid) buy it.  Among a decent amount of standard, recycled stories readily found in other sources, there are a fair few inclusions which Lowson had blatantly made up.  One of these I included, with caution, in a blog post dated 28 November 2015:  Lost Houses of Angus:  Redcastle (
 A fairly implausible folk legend set down in Victorian times states that Sir Walter wanted to acquire a giant to be his servant, but he could not find anyone large enough in Scotland.  Someone told him that there were many men of enormous height in Sweden, so he set sail for that country immediately.  On his way to Stockholm the Scottish knight slaughtered a gang of pirates who tried to board his ship.  But Sweden was a disappointment to him, full of men no bigger than they were back home.  Just before he departed he attended a tournament and there he happily encountered a ten-foot man named Daniel Cajanus who was entertaining the crowd by wrestling with two normal sized men. The Scot swiftly acquired the giant's services and also employed his friend, Linicus Calvus, a three-foot Danish dwarf whose father had been a Greek orator.    The Swedish giant made an immediate impact in Scotland and won his master a prize of £1000 by beating a Norman knight in a joust at Leith.  At home at Red Castle, Daniel always stood guard behind Sir Walter's chair.  One evening there was a banquet and the knight noticed that his little servant was missing.  He was distracted from asking about the dwarf when his cook brought in a great pie.  After Berkeley cut open the crust, Linicus jumped out and made a graceful bow, much to his master's delight.   The following November, Vikings made a surprise attack on the coast.  They tried to storm Red Castle many times, but the giant Daniel always repulsed them.  But finally the huge man was overpowered and killed.  The broken hearted dwarf died the next day.

    This story later found its way into a respected, if non-scholarly compilation of lore pubished in the 1970’s (Reader’s Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain (1973)).  Other ‘fake tales’ from Lowson are occasionally recyclyed elsewhere, but their artistic quality is even less marked than the story above.

  More frustrating than outright falsehood are slip ups which also get repeated down the years. Much wonderful material is contained in Eve Blantyre Simpson’s Folk Lore of Lowland Scotland (1908), but she also included the following passage when talking about the fairies (p. 93):

The invisible and alert fairies...were always mentioned with a honeyed tongue.  The wily, knowing not where they might be lurking, were careful to call them “the good neighbours,” “the honest folk,” “the little folk,” “the gentry,” “the hill folk,” and “the forgetful people,” “the men of peace.”  Klippe is the Forfarshire name for a fairy.  A well-known minister of the church of Scotland related, this century, at a dinner in Edinburgh, how his father had met a klippe in a bare moor-land in Forfarshire, a little brown-faced elf who started up on the path before him, walked before him awhile and then vanished.

   Now either Simpson or her informant was wrong, or she misheard him.  The term Klippe occurs nowhere else, except in references that ultimately derive from her work.  There is no such thing as a Klippe (though of course fairies do exist).  The Scottish National Dictionary includes the word, with the wise warning that it may in fact be a mistake for Kelpie.

  Some traditions are not so much false as out of place. The quote below comes from The Folk-lore Journal, 1(1883 p. 30), concerning something which happened in the Lochee area of Dundee:

Curious Superstition in Lochee.—Hooping-cough being rather prevalent in Lochee at the present time, various cures are resorted to with the view of allaying the distress. Amongst these the old "fret" of passing a child beneath the belly of a donkey has come in for a share of patronage. A few days ago, two children, living with their parents in Camperdown Street, were infected with the malady. A hawker's cart with a donkey yoked to it happening to pass, the mothers thought this an excellent opportunity to have their little ones relieved of their hacking cough. The donkey was accordingly stopped, the children were brought forth, and the ceremony began. The mothers, stationed at either side of the donkey, passed and repassed the little creatures underneath the animal's belly, and with evident satisfaction appeared to think that a cure would in all probability be effected. Nor was this all, a piece of bread was next given to the donkey to eat, one of the women holding her apron beneath its mouth to catch the crumbs which might fall. These were given to the children to eat so as to make the cure more effectual. Whether these strange proceedings have resulted in banishing the dreaded cough or not has not been ascertained, and probably never will be. A few years ago the custom was quite common in this quarter, but with the spread of education the people generally know better than to attempt to cure hooping-cough through the agency of a donkey.—Aberdeen Evening Gazette, 24th August, 1882.

   Superstitious cures for whooping cough are common everywhere and often involve contact with animals (ferrets, for instance, in the north of England).  The idea behind the act seems to be directly transferring the cough from the child to the animal involved.

   But was this tradition above native in fact to Lochee?  By the late Victorian era the area had swollen in population from a mere hamlet in the parish of Liff to a substantial village before it was submerged within the conurbation of Dundee.   Camperdown Street runs parallel behind the High Street and is adjacent to the now defunct Camperdown Works, at one time reputedly the largest jute factory in Europe.  A Workers at the mill came from the surrounding Angus countryside, wider parts of Scotland, but there was a very substantial immigration of people from Ireland attracted to work in the area.

   Apart from an instance recorded in Neilston, there are sparse records of superstitious cures for whooping cough involving donkeys or the like recorded in Scotland.  But the superstition did indeed linger in parts of Ireland right until the end of the 19th century.  Its resilience is interesting, especially in Dundee, in the very shadow of a huge factory representative of the modern age. The journal Pediatrics (vol 61, February 1978) reports on a cure for the whooping cough (also called the chin cough) from 1898:  
Some donkeys are believed to be possessed of curative virtues in a much higher degree than are others. A man living in County Cork owned an animal which could boast of more than a local reputation. This man used to lead his donkey through the streets of the City of Cork, crying out: "Will any one come under my ass for the chin-cough?"
The occurrence in Camperdown Street seemed undoubtedly to have been imported by mill workers from Ireland.  Whether, in the current climate we will be forced to hand back all non-native customs and associations to their non-British places of origin, is another matter.

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