Churn Milk Peg

From “Tales of Craven”, Churn Milk Peg seems to be Craven’s version of Melch Dick? She does the same job of guarding unripe nuts from being eaten by children…

The Short Lea Lane is linked with fairy lore, being a favourite haunt of Churn-milk Peg, a being, perhaps, peculiar to Craven.

Peg is represented as an old and very ugly hag, with a pipe in her mouth. Her job is to protect the nuts, when in the pulpy state called churn-milk, from being gathered by naughty children. All she says is:

‘Smoke! Smoke a wooden pipe!

Getting nuts before they’re ripe!’

If this rhyme does not succeed in scaring the children, then churn-milk Peg ‘tacks em!’ This creature is known in Malhamdale, where fruit-pilfering children are told to ‘tak care, or Churn-milk Peg will tak ye to t’owd lad!’ i.e., to a certain ‘old gentleman!’

The Child in the Wood, or the Cruel Uncle

A woodcut showing a child inside a tree, with 3 people on horses nearby, dogs, and other trees.

This is from the “Yorkshire Folklore Journal” (Vol I, 1888, p.115) which states it came from “a very old chapbook”. The image above is stated to be from a woodcut in that chapbook! I’ve rephrased it slightly, but not by a massive amount…

In the town on Beverley, in Yorkshire, about 2 years ago (1703). there lived a squire called Somers, who was a very honest gentleman with a good income. He lived with his wife and two year old daughter. Unfortunately, after a short illness, his wife died, leaving him heartbroken. He found he couldn’t enjoy life at all after his loss, and soon fell ill, took to his bed and died after just a fortnight of illness himself.

While ill, he sent for his brother, who lived about 14 miles away, and begged him to take care of his daughter in case he didn’t recover. “Brother”, he said, “I leave with you the dearest thing that I have in the world, my little daughter. Together with her, I entrust my whole estate. Manage it for her use, and take care of her education and upbringing. Look after her as if she was your own, and for my sake, see her married to an honest country gentleman.” His brother faithfully promised to do this should he not recover, so when the gentleman died, the brother takes the little girl home and looked after her kindly for some time.

But it didn’t take long before he became jealous of the fortune that he was looking after for her. He plotted many different ways in which he could take the estate for himself, and eventually decided to abandon her in the woods. He couldn’t bring himself to murder her outright, so took her to a hollow tree, gagged her mouth so she couldn’t be heard crying, and left her inside the hollow. To conceal the crime, he had commissioned a wax model of a child to be made. Once the child was abandoned in the hollow tree, he dressed the wax effigy in a shroud, laid it in a coffin, and held a great funeral for the girl. The wax model was buried, and no one suspected anything but an illness and a sad, young death, all too common in young children.

At the same time this was happening, a neighbouring gentleman dreamed that the following day he would see something that would astonish him. He told it to his wife, who tried to persuade him to stay at home, but he took no notice and went out hunting instead. As he rode through the woods that morning, his horse was startled and nearly knocked him from his saddle. He turned around, looking for what had disturbed his horse, and saw something move in a dark hole. Worried now that his dream was coming true, he told one of his servants to check the hole – it was the same hollow in a tree that the little girl had been abandoned in, and they pulled her out, barely still alive.

He took her home, looking after her as her strength returned, but she was too young to be able to tell them where she had come from. This remained a mystery until Christmas, and they held a feast and a singing at his house. One of his guests recognised the little girl and told them she was supposedly dead and buried. Shocked, the gentleman went to the parish minister and persuaded him to have the grave dug up, discovering the wax model inside the coffin.

The cruel Uncle was arrested and convicted of abandoning the child and attempting to steal her inheritance, and the court decided that the gentleman who found her should be allowed to look after her as if she was his own. This pleased him and his wife greatly, as they had no other children, and had already grown fond of the little girl, looking after her from then onwards as if she was their own.

Janet’s Cove

Adapted slightly (mainly cutting out dialect words!) from Moorman, “More tales from the Ridings”, a story based in a gorgeous bit of countryside near Malham.

A limestone cliff with a beck flowing beneath it, Malham Cove.

Well, I reckon I’ve told this story before, Grannie began, but when I was a lass I lived up Malham way. My father had a farm close by Gordale Scar, and it’s a strange country around there. Great rocks on all sides where only goats can climb, becks flowing underground and then bubbling up in the fields.

On the other side of our steading, was a cove that folks called Janet’s Cove. They told all sorts of tales about it and reckoned it was plagued by boggarts. But they couldn’t keep me away from it, it was the prettiest spot in the dale, and I never got bored wandering around by the water and among the rowans. There was a waterfall in the cove, with a dark cave behind it, and it was overhung with ash and hazel trees.

One night I was sitting up for my father until 4 o’clock in the morning. It was the day before Easter Sunday and my father was desperately busy with lambing. He hadn’t taken his shoes and socks off for a week! He’d doze a little by the fire, and then wake up, light the lantern, and go out to check on the sheep. He let me wait up for him, so I could warm him a spot of tea over the fire. But when the clock struck 4, he said I must go to bed. He’d take a turn around the croft, then set off to the barn, to milk the cows.

But I didn’t want to go to bed, I’d been dozing off and on all night, and I wasn’t feeling a little bit tired. So when my father had set off, I went to the door and looked outside. My, it was a grand night! The moon had just turned full, and was lighting up the stones in the meadow, the becks were like sliver, and the old yew-trees that grow on the face of the scar had long shadows as black as pitch. I stood there on the threshold for maybe five minutes, and then said to myself, “I’ll just run down as far as Janet’s Cove before I go to bed.”

It was only two or three minutes walk, and before long I was sat amongst the rocks, and the moon was glistening through the ash trees and onto the water. I must have dropped off to sleep for best part of an hour, because before I knew it the moon was setting, and I could see that dawn wasn’t far off. I reckoned I’d better get back to my bed, but just then I saw something moving on the far side of the beck. At first, I thought it was just a sheep, but when I looked closer I saw I was wrong, it was a lass about the same size as myself.

Strangest thing about the lass was that she was naked, as naked as a hens egg, and that at five o’clock on a frosty April morning! It made me shiver to see her standing there with not even a shawl to warm her back. Well, I crept close to a large stone and kept my eye on her. First of all, she moved down to the water and stood in it, then started splashing water all over herself, like a bird washing itself in the beck. The she climbed to the waterfall and let the water flow all over her face and shoulders. I could see her body shining through the water and her yellow hair streaming out on both sides of her head. After a while she climbed onto a rock in the middle of the beck and grabbed hold of the branch of an ash. She broke off a stick, shaped it into a sort of wand, and started waving it in the air.

Now, up to that point, everything in the cove was a silent as the grave. I could hear the cockerels crowing up at our house, but all the wild birds were still roosting and asleep. But no sooner did this lass start waving her wand, than the larks started singing. The fields had been full of sleeping larks, and they’d all taken flight above our heads, singing their hearts out. She then pointed her wand at the moors, and the curlews started singing. When she heard them, she started laughing, and splashing the water with her foot.

All the while, she kept beating time to the bird song with her wand. Sometimes she pointed it to the curlews on the moor, sometimes to fields, and then, suddenly, to the hazels and rowan bushes by the beck-side. Before I knew what was happening, the blackbirds woke up and started whistling like mad. It sounded like there must be a blackbird for every bush along the beck. The birds kept at it for several minutes, then the lass made a fresh movement with her wand, and the robins began to try and drown out the songs of the blackbirds.

She always seemed to know whose turn was next, and where every type of bird was roosting. One minute she pointed her wand to the top of the trees and I heard “caw, caw”, the next she pointed towards the mossy roots of the trees near the beck and a Jenny wren hopped out and sang as though it was fit to burst.

All the while, it was getting lighter, and lighter, and I could see that the sun was shining on the cliffs above Malham, even though the cove was still in shade. I knew my mother would soon by looking for me in bed, and I started wondering what she’d say when she found it empty. I was a tad afraid when I thought that, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the lass with the wand. I was fair bewitched by her, and I reckon that if she pointed at me, I would have started singing!

However, she never clapped eyes on me sat behind the stone, she was far too busy with the birds, and getting more excited every minute. By now the birdsong was deafening, I’d never heard anything like it before or since.

The sun cleared the top of the fell, and shone down into the cove. Janet saw it, and when it was shining like a great golden ball at the top of the hill, she pointed her wand at it. I looked at her, and looked at the sun too, and was amazed to see the sun was dancing too! I rubbed my eyes to see if I’d made a mistake, but sure enough, there was the little naked lass making the sun dance with her like mad. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered that it was Easter Sunday, and I’d heard tell that the sun always dances on Easter morning.

When she’d danced with the sun a while, she seemed to forget about the birds. She let her wand drop and climbed down the waterfall. Then she sat herself on a rock behind the fall, and clapped her hands together and laughed. I looked at her and I saw the prettiest sight I’d ever set eyes on.

By now the sun was high in the sky, and was shining straight up the beck onto the waterfall. Water was spraying up as it fell onto the rocks, and a rainbow formed across the fall. There, plain as life, was Janet sat on a rock right in the middle of the rainbow, with all the colours shining on her hair.

I fair lost track of time, sat there, wrapped in my shawl, staring at Janet, at the sun, at the waterfall, until I heard someone calling me. It was my father, and then I knew that folks had missed me up at the farm and were looking for me. When I realised that, I shot off like a rabbit, straight to my father who was stood between the cove and our house, shouting for me as loud as he could.

Melch (or Melsh) Dick

Squirrel with a hazelnut
Picture by Peter Trimming, under cc-by licence on

Melch (or Melsh) Dick is new to me, I only came across this one recently, though the name appears in some old lists of fairy folk. He’s a creature that lives in (often ancient) woodland and guards against people picking unripe hazelnuts. The phrase that keeps coming up is “Melch Dick’ll catch thee lad!” as a warning against picking unripe nuts. Churn-milk Peg seems much the same character. Melch or Melsh is a word that means unripe, and churn-milk represents the mushy pale interior of an unripe nut too. The story was full of dialect, which I’ve largely removed while keeping most of the story intact. This is (lightly tweaked) from “More Tales of the Ridings”, by F.W. Moorman.

What I’m going to tell you now is what I’ve heard my mother say, scores of times, so you’ll know it’s true. It was the back end of the year, and the lads had gone into the woods to gather hazelnuts and acorns. There were two or three big lads amongst them, but most were little ‘uns, and one was lame in the leg. They called him Doed of Billy’s of Claypit Lane.

Well, the lads had gotten a load of the nuts, and the they set off home as fast as they could go, as it were getting a bit dusky in the wood. But little Doed couldn’t keep up with the other lads on account of his dodgy leg. So the lads kept hollering back to him to look sharp and get a shift on, or he’d get left behind.

So Doed loped along as fast as he was able, but he couldn’t keep up with the other lads, try as he might, and all the time the light was slowly fading. At long length he thought he saw one of the lads waiting for him under an oak tree, but when he drew closer he realised it was someone that he’d never clapped eyes on before. He was no bigger than Doed, but it was hard to tell how old he was, and he had a weird smell about him – as though he’d taken the essence of all the trees from the wood and smeared them over his body. But what capped it all off were the clothes he was dressed in, covered in green moss, and on his head was a cap of red fur.

Well, when Doed saw him he was a bit afraid, but the lad looked a him in a friendly way and said, “Now then Doed, where are you going?”

“I’m off home”, says Doed, and his teeth started to chatter with fright.

“Well, I’m going your way”, says the lad, “so if you like you can come along with me. You’ll not recognise me, but I can tell who you are by the way you favour your mother. You’ll have heard tell of your uncle, Ned Bowker, that lives over by Sally Abbey? He’s my father, so I reckon we’re cousins.”

Now, Doed had heard his mother tell him about his Uncle Ned, so he calmed down a little, but still wasn’t keen on the look of this lad. However, they carried on talking and Doed let on that he was keen on squirrels. You see, he loved to collect animals and kept linnets, and magpies, in cages, and a box full of hedgehogs. But he’d never caught a squirrel, they were too quick for him, and he wanted one more than anything in the world.

When Melch Dick heard that – for of course the lad was Melch Dick himself – he said that if Doed came with him, he’d soon give him what he wanted. He’d been climbing trees and caught a squirrel, putting it in the basket he’d carried his dinner in.

Well, little Doed hardly knew what to do. It was getting late, and there was something about this lad that worried him. But then he thought of the squirrel and how much he wanted him. So he said to Melch Dick that he’d go with to fetch the squirrel, but he musn’t stop long or folks would know that he’d lost his way and would come looking for him.

When Melch Dick heard him say he’d come with him, his eyes glistened, and he set off through the wood with Doed following him. The wood was full of great oak trees, with birch set amongst them that there just beginning to change colour.

After a while they got to a pool in the middle of the wood. It was no bigger than a duck pond, but the water was deep, and all around the pond was a ring of Aspen trees with their boughs hanging over the water. The sky had been overcast earlier, but the wind had cleared the clouds, and the moon was shining in a way that lit up the trees and made the water glisten like silver.

Melch Dick settled down by the water and Doed did the same, as they started talking again, with Doed asking him why he was covered in green moss.

“If you were to climb trees the same as I have”, answered Melch Dick, “then you’d be covered with moss too, I’d say.”

“And why do you wear a cap of red fur?”

“Why shouldn’t I wear a fur cap, I’d like to know? My mother makes them from squirrel skins, and they’re fearful warm in winter time.”

When little Doed heard mention of squirrels again, it reminded him to ask for the squirrel in the basket.

“Wait a while”, said Melch Dick, “and I’ll show you more squirrels than you’ve ever seen in all your life.”

With that, he takes a penny whistle out of his pocket, obviously made by Melch Dick himself, whittled from a slim ash branch. He put it to his mouth, and blew two or three notes, and sure enough, there was some noise from nearby and in no time at all, half a dozen squirrels were sat on the branches of the aspens. When Doed saw the squirrels in the moonlight, he was beside himself with excitement. He looked at them, they looked at him, and their eyes were as bright as glow-worms.

All the while Melch Dick playing his whistle, and the squirrels kept coming through the trees. You could hardly see the branches for the squirrels now. It was as though all the squirrels in the forest had heard the tune and been forced to follow the sound. They mad no noise or fuss, but sat down on the branches, pricked up their ears, cocked their tails over their backs, and kept their eyes fixed on Melch Dick.

Well, when Melch Dick decided he’d gathered enough squirrels, he changed his tune, and it was a rough tune too. Sometimes it was like the howling of the wind down a chimney, sometimes like the curlews and lapwings up on the moors. But when the squirrels heard the tune, they lined up twelve to a branch. They jumped from tree to tree, right around the pool, with their tails set straight out behind them. They were that close together, it was like a great coil of rope spinning around the water, all the time their faces turned to Melch Dick, and their eyes were blazing like burning coals. Round and round they went, with little Doed just holding his breath and watching them. He’d seen horses riding around a ring at a fair, but that was nothing compared to the squirrels spinning around the pool.

After a while, Doed thought that Melch Dick would stop playing, but he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he played ever faster keeping one eye on the squirrels and one on little Doed. The faster he played, the faster the squirrels jumped, and before long the tune was more like a shriek than a dance tune. Doed had heard nothing like it before, it was as though all the devils in hell and had loose and were being blown through the sky above. It was a strange sound, and a strange sight too, and little Doed’s teeth started chattering and every limb on his body was shaking like the aspen leaves on the trees around the pool.

Doed was scared half to death, but for all that, he couldn’t take his eyes off the squirrels, they’d bewitched him, had the squirrels. He put his hand to his head, and it felt as though he was spinning around and around himself. Now, that was what Melch Dick wanted, and why he’d set the squirrels going. He couldn’t do anything to Doed while he was master of his own senses, but if he was to get giddy enough to drift off into a daydream, then sure enough, Melch Dick would have him in his power and be able to turn him into a squirrel, as he had done to so many lads and lasses before.

As Doed felt his head getting wooly, thinking he was falling asleep and unsure where he was any more, he decided he must be lying in bed at home, drifting off to sleep without saying his prayers. You see, his mother had taught him a prayer to say every night before going to bed. Well, Doed tried to say his prayer, but couldn’t remember the words! That made him uneasy, as he was a good lad and it worried him that he forgotten the words. All that he could call to mind was something that he’d heard the lads and lasses say on their way home from school. He reckoned it was more a bit of fun than a prayer, but he started to say it anyway, as loud as he could:

“Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.”

He’d no sooner said the words than all of a sudden, Melch Dick stopped playing, the squirrels stopped jumping, the bats stopped flying over the poolm,, the moon hid behind a great thunder clound, and the wood and the water were as black as a boot. Then there came a scuffling and a shrieking all over the wood. The squirrels started spitting and swearing like mad, the wind yowled, and there were all sorts of strange noises overhead. Then, after a minute of chaos, the moon came clear of the cloud, and Doed looked around. But there was nothing to see. Melch Dick was no longer next to him, and there was not a squirrel left in the trees. All that he could see what the aspen leaves blowing in the wind, and tiny waves in the pond lapping against the bank.

Doed was well-nigh starved to death with cold and hunger, and the poor lad started crying as though his heart would break. But then he had enough sense to start shouting for help, and before long there came an answer. His father and the lads from the village had been looking for him all over the wood, and as soon as they found him, they took him home and put him to bed. It was a long while before he was better, and he never set foot in the wood again without a bit of witchwood in his pocket, cut from a rowan-tree on St Helen’s day.