5 Great Yorkshire Myths and Legends

There’s a lot of mysterious going’s on in this great county of ours. From giants throwing rocks to werewolves near the seaside and fairies down the bottom of the garden. By ‘eck, Yorkshire has had it all.

1. Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton witch or prophetess? Picture credit: chris wikipedia creative commons.
Mother Shipton witch or prophetess? Picture credit: chris wikipedia creative commons.

The story of Mother Shipton is one of the best known Yorkshire legends and is at the centre of the country’s oldest tourist attraction. It revolves around the mysterious birth of Ursula Southeil in a cave by the banks of the River Nidd at Knaresborough. Her mother, Agatha, was only fifteen when she gave birth, but did not declare who the father was, leading to her being shunned by the local community. Two years later, an abbot from Beverley intervened and a local family looked after Ursula, while her mother was sent away to a convent, where she would never see her daughter again.

The girl grew up in Knaresborough, but was teased about her unusual appearance, which led her to return to the cave where she was born. There, she studied nature and learnt how to make potions with the flowers which grew nearby.

At the age of twenty four, she married a carpenter from York, Tobias Shipton and changed her name, but he died a few years later.


Ursula discovered that she could also predict the future and her prophecies were to make her famous around the town and on a national scale. She made a living by telling people’s fortunes and adopted the name, “Mother Shipton,” in older age.  She died in 1561, aged 73. The cave and adjacent petrifying well, which can turn objects to stone due to high mineral content in its water, became England’s oldest tourist attraction in 1630. Some critics say that in order to attract tourists to the site, they invented and embellished the story of Mother Shipton’s prophecies. There is strong evidence to suggest that she was definitely real and that elements of her predictions came true. One famous prediction was that Cardinal Wolsey would never see the city of York. On his way there, the Archbishop was summoned back to London to face trial for high treason, but died in transit. Another was a prophecy of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and even the internet, “Around the world, thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye.” Some have argued that many of her predictions were invented long after she had died and the truth has been stretched about her life story and prophecies. It seems as though this Yorkshire legend is still open to interpretation.

2. Semerwater

There once was a town here until an angel put a spell on it..apparently.. Picture credit: Peter McDermott wikipedia creative commons.

At the bottom of Yorkshire’s second largest lake lies the remains of a mysterious town.  On this occasion however, how it got there has nothing to do with a regionally named water company! Legend has it that an angel, dressed as a beggar, visited the town to seek food and shelter. None of the townsfolk would help the stranger, except for a poor couple who lived on the edge of the town. They gave him some oatcake and some milk. The grateful man left the house and stood to face the town. He morphed from a beggar into an angel and cursed the town below, chanting,

“Semer water rise, Semer water sink

And swallow the town all,

Save this house,

Where they gave me food and drink.”

With that, the town was flooded, never to be seen again, except for the house where the couple had been so kind to him. The desperate villagers had no time to escape and were left ringing the church bells for help. On stormy nights in this isolated part of Wensleydale, muffled bells can still be heard from the lake.

3. The Wold Newton Triangle

The seemingly normal village of Wold Newton has a much darker side. Picture credit; Stephen Horncastle
The seemingly normal village of Wold Newton has a much darker side. Picture credit; Stephen Horncastle

The Wold Newton triangle stretches along the coast from Bridlington in the South, to the outskirts of Scarborough in the North and as far west as Ganton. It is an area of special paranormal interest. This part of Yorkshire was once a haven for wolves, which roamed the Wolds countryside, right up until the 18th Century. Reportedly, wolves would dig up bodies from graves, which according to local legend would turn them into werewolves. There have also been sightings of zombies recorded here since the 12th Century.

One of its most fearsome inhabitants is the werewolf, known as “Old Stinker,” due to his bad breath. One night in the 1960’s, a lorry driver was travelling down the remote road between Bridlington and Flixton, when a pair of red eyes appeared before him. At first he thought it was another vehicle – that is until a werewolf type creature crashed through his windscreen…

Another reason for mystical happenings in the triangle are “ley lines,” which are the special alignment, geographically of ancient monuments. They are believed by some to be lines of hidden energy which is connected to the paranormal and other ancient monuments around the country, such as Stonehenge.

In the Wold Newton triangle lies the village of Rudston, which claims to be the oldest settlement in England. The monolith at its centre dates back to the early Bronze Age and was a place of worship for the Beaker people in around 2000BC. At 25m, it is the highest standing stone in Britain and located near the church. According to legend, the stone was thrown there by the devil and was worshipped by the tribe people in the area.

Another source of mystery is the Gypsey Race river, which flows through the triangle on its way to Bridlington harbour. This underground water course only occasionally rises above the surface, at the Great Wold Valley, located in the triangle , regardless of the weather. It is said that the Gypsey race flows the year before a major historical event and has done so prior to the English Civil War, The Black Death plagues and both world wars. Locals call this river “The Waters of Woe”, as it is seen as a sign of impending doom.

Another strange event to hit the Wold Newton area was the great meteor which fell out of the sky during a thunderstorm in December 1795. Among the frightened villagers was local journalist and playwright, Major Topham, who also witnessed the dramatic event. He reported it to the wider press of the time. Legend has it that at the time of the meteor falling out of the sky, a couple were in a stagecoach. They were strangely hypnotised so they could not remember when the rock flew past them and afterwards the lives of their families thereafter took mysterious paths.

It goes to show the Bridlington area is not just about sun, sea, sand, and fish n chips – it has a much darker side too.

4. Giants shaping the landscape

There are many theories surrounding the unusual cow and calf rocks and a giant treading on it is one of them… Picture credit: Hugh Chappell wikipedia creative commons.

There have been plenty of stories about the origins of the Cow and Calf Rocks on Ilkley Moor, but the most common is that of Rombald the giant, who lived there. Local legend has it that he accidentally trod on a rock and broke it in two, as he was running away from his wife. She dropped the stones in her skirt to apparently form the “Skirt full of stones” rock formation. If you look closely, it seems as if the cow and calf rocks have been separated by a giant foot. The moorland between Ilkley and Keighley is known as Rombald’s moor, named after the giant.

The Hole of Horcum in the Yorkshire Moors is an impressive sight, but could it too be the work of a giant? It is 400m deep, ¾ mile across and locally known as “the Devil’s Punchbowl.” Local legend has it that a giant, known as “Wade” scooped a handful of earth to throw at his wife during an argument and created what is now the “Hole of Horcum.”

5. The Cottingley Fairies

Elsie Wright and her cousin created one fo the biggest hoaxes in the world. Picture credit: wikipedia public domain.
Frances Griffith and her cousin, Elsie Wright created one of the biggest legends in the world right here in Yorkshire. Picture credit: wikipedia public domain.

One of the most famous Yorkshire myths is that of the Cottingley fairies. In 1917, the Griffith family, with their nine year old daughter, Frances travelled from South Africa to stay with their relations, the Wright family and their sixteen year old daughter, Elsie.

The two cousins would often play together in a stream near the house in Cottingley near Bradford. To the annoyance of their parents they used to come home muddy and wet.

When asked why they went there, they replied, “to see the fairies.” None of the adults would believe them, until they borrowed Elsie’s father, Arthur’s camera and took the famous pictures which showed them what seemed like fairies.

While Arthur, who had developed the photos in his dark room, refused to believe the two girls, his wife, Polly thought they were real. She took the photos to a meeting of the Bradford Theosophical Society, which studied the supernatural.

The lecture that evening was about “fairy life.” She showed the pictures at the meeting, much to the amazement of the audience. A prominent member of the society, Edward Gardner sent the prints to a photography expert, Harold Snelling to check their authenticity. His analysis confirmed his opinion that the photographs were real and showed no sign of any photography studio work, or the use of cardboard cut outs in the picture. He concluded the camera lens had only taken what was in front of it, including the fairies.

On receiving this news, Gardner decided to make some copies of these prints to take around with him to show people on the theosophical lecture circuit. He also sent some to Kodak, to gain a second opinion. While the technicians authenticated the picture as genuine, they doubted the existence of fairies and declared that they must have been faked somehow. Undeterred, Gardner continued to exhibit and sell copies of the Cottingley fairies on his lecture tour.

The author and spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame learnt of these pictures of fairies and became intrigued. He had been asked by “Strand” magazine to write an article about fairies and the occult and saw these pictures as the perfect accompaniment to his piece. Conan-Doyle sent Gardner up to Cottingley in 1920, to meet the Wright family. Frances, who now lived in Scarborough, was invited back and the two girls were asked to take more photos of these fairies, who lived at Cottingley beck.  Arthur, Elsie’s father had already searched her bedroom for cardboard cut outs and was still convinced that they were fake.

The two girls insisted that only they could go to the stream and take more pictures, as they claimed the fairies would not come out if too many people were watching. One day when nobody was watching the girls came back with more photographs to the delight of Gardner and Conan-Doyle, who received a telegram immediately after the visit.

In December 1920, Conan-Doyle’s article was published in Strand magazine, along with the fairy pictures. The response from the public and other press was mixed, with some believing them entirely and others dismissing them as fakes.

Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, an extremely well-travelled and learned man remained convinced by their authenticity, so much so that he wrote a book about them, named, “The Coming of the fairies,” in 1922.

After this time, the pictures of the Cottingley fairies were forgotten. Both girls grew up, left the UK, married, and had children.

The story was dug up again by The Daily Express in 1966, who traced Elsie. Although she did not comment on their authenticity, she did admit that the pictures may have been “figments of her imagination.” This is also what she told a BBC documentary, “Nationwide,” in 1971. In September 1976, the now ageing cousins were interviewed by Yorkshire Television’s chief attack dog, Austin Mitchell. With more advanced technology the photographs were re-analysed and found to be fakes. Still the cousins kept to their story, but did admit that it was not normal to see fairies. Two years later an observer noticed how similar the fairies looked to those who featured in a book published in 1915, called, “Princess Mary’s giftbook.” something which the girls may have had in their possession at the time.

Finally in 1983, just a few years before their deaths, Elsie and Frances finally admitted that the Cottingley fairy pictures were indeed a hoax. They had drawn and cut out pictures of fairies, inspired by “Princess Mary’s gift book,” and attached them to string and used a hatpin to keep them upright. The cardboard cut outs they had used were thrown into the stream afterwards. The pictures of the Cottingley fairies had for over sixty years been a joke which had got out of hand, convinced a world famous author and many other leading academics of the time into believing in the existence of fairies.

Cover picture credit: Kristian Nordestgaard flickr creative commons.