Boggarts: Lancashire’s Malign Trickster Spirits

The term boggart, as well as similar names for the same entities such as bugbear, bogle and bogun, are common across much of the United Kingdom but the meaning varies significantly depending on locale. While in some places the phrase appears to be interchangeable with ghost or spirit, elsewhere they are described as malicious household spirits, to blame for all manner of misfortune. Boggarts are particularly frequently cited in the folklore of Lancashire, and it is likely that the concept originated in the red rose county. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tales of boggarts across Lancashire, with what seems like the majority of old halls and lonely places alike have a resident boggart associated with them. Unlike the household tricksters found elsewhere, boggarts in Lancashire were more likely to inhabit lonely bogs or valleys, sometimes visiting nearby homes at night to wreak havoc.

Many are similar to the stories found elsewhere across the country, mischievous troublemakers that plague humans with misfortune or simple pranks, escalating to more serious acts of violence only when ignored or offended. However, many Lancashire boggarts, particularly living away from civilization in remote hills or valleys, or under bridges or at sharp turns in roads, are far more malicious, existing to lure travelers to their deaths. A line of salt across the threshold of a house or a horseshoe hung on the door are both said to be methods of deterring boggarts, and horseshoes at least can still be seen on the doors of some older houses and farms across Lancashire.

Many common misfortunes were blamed on the malevolent activities of a boggart, including milk turning sour, sick or lame dogs and livestock, illness and missing possessions. It is likely no coincidence that many of the most common ‘pranks’ performed by boggarts are remarkably similar to the activities commonly attributed to witches, another common aspect of Lancashire folklore. Even when a family was driven from their home after being harassed by a boggart, it would often pursue them, continuing to plague them with misfortune. One example of this is the story of a boggart associated with Barcroft Hall in Burnley.

Barcroft Hall, Burnley. Photo: Barcroft Family/Ormerod

The resident boggart here was initially an unusually helpful specimen, assisting the farmer with everyday tasks and appearing to be eager to please. While it would on occasion speak out from the darkness to the farmer, the boggart would never be seen. One night, the farmer’s son waited up one evening in hiding to watch the boggart. He saw a creature that appeared to be a small, wrinkled old man, dressed in tattered clothing. In an attempt to reward the boggart for its assistant, the son left out a pair of suitably-sized wooden clogs for him to wear. However, the plan backfired, and on receipt of the shoes the boggart became cruel and vindictive, hiding or breaking the family’s possessions or disrupting the farm. After waking one morning to find his prize bull stood on the roof of his home the farmer resolved to leave. However, after packing up his wagon he heard the boggart call out, asking him to wait while it retrieved its clogs before it came with him. Resigned to the fact that the creature would follow him even if he left, the farmer reluctantly returned to his home.

Presenting the boggart with shoes appears to trigger a drastic change in personality, at least in the case of Barcroft Hall. Many other stories state that giving the boggart a name would induce a similar change, preventing any attempts to reason with or calm the creature and revealing a cruel, destructive true nature. One particularly well-known account of this warning comes from an account first published in 1861, known as the Grizlehurst Boggart (the name survives as Gristlehurst Lane, now a quiet back lane off the main road between Bury and Rochdale). Written by Edwin Waugh, a poet from Rochdale, the account tells of a conversation with an elderly local couple regarding their experience with a boggart.

Both maintained that the boggart had a physical form, and indeed had been caught and killed recently, buried at a bend in the road beneath an ash tree alongside a cockerel with a stake driven through it. This ritual appears to have failed, as despite its death, the boggart’s spirit continued to cause mischief, banging on doors and cackling late at night as well as unhitching horses or even overturning carts. Looking out for the source of the noise one night, the wife had seen a creature with burning red eyes capering around outside. Cloven footprints were found in the yard the following morning. The couple warned the author of the dangers of naming the creature, as well as the husband stating that he would never dig in the area near to where it is buried. While no ash tree stands at the site, the supposed location of the boggart’s grave is well-known to local people. 

The bend in Gristlehurst Lane where the boggart was said to be buried. Photo: Google

The term boggart survives today in a number of place names across historic Lancashire, most prominently the country park of Boggart Hole Clough in the suburb of Blackley, Manchester. Made up steep, wooded valleys, the area is home to an unusual number of boggart tales. A rock formation known as the Boggart Stones sits on Saddleworth moor, while Boggart Bridge in Burnley was said to be plagued by a boggart that would claim the soul of anyone crossing the bridge that did not first offer a living tribute to the entity. The name also appears in a number of locations across West Yorkshire.

Those boggarts that lived in remote places, particularly the bleak moors and fells of East Lancashire, were considered especially dangerous. Similar to will-o-wisps, they were often said to lure lost travelers to their deaths in deep bogs or over precarious rock faces using floating lights, usually described as resembling pale blue candles. They were also frequently blamed for the abduction of children. Lancashire was once littered with deep peat bogs, of which less than 1% remains today. Particularly treacherous given that they can appear like solid ground until a person begins to sink, these bogs were likely responsible for many travelers over the years failing to reach their destination. Around 15% of the world’s surviving peat bogs are found in the UK, and every year many walkers get into difficulty after underestimating the danger they pose. Boggarts in this context are likely yet another attempt by people to explain misfortunes that they otherwise didn’t understand. 

Boggy land found in Lancashire, giving the appearance of solid ground. Photo: Forest of Bowland AONB

Some accounts suggest that the particularly malignant nature of boggarts in Lancashire is a result of their unusually organised structure, serving a particularly powerful boggart known as ‘Old Hob’. Described as possessing horns and cloven hooves, old hob appears as an alternative name for the devil in many publications, most prominently in the journal article The Devil and his Imps: A Etymological Inquisition by philologist Charles PG Scott.

As with many of the malicious creations of old Lancashire folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth and the Rawhead, the concept of boggarts is largely forgotten in modern times. What stories remain are poorly recorded and little known outside of their immediate areas, and for most readers boggarts will be far more associated with the world of Harry Potter than traditional folklore. Even if the creatures known as boggarts exist and continue to cause mischief in the present day, their activities are far more likely to be attributed to entities that are better established in the current cultural zeitgeist, most prominently poltergeists. 

Feature Image: Ivan Jakovlevich

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