Myth, Legend and the Spiritual

Peatlands have powerful, even psychic resonances. The wide upland moor where sky meets earth, or the bogs and marshes where land becomes liquid, are liminal spaces, that traditionally evoke the otherworldly. In Yorkshire folklore, we thus meet Giant Wade, whose angry tantrum gouged the Hole of Horcum from the moors;[1] in the Lincolnshire fens we find ‘the Quicks and Bogles’ and ‘Crawling Horrors’;[2] and in Ireland, the ‘mankeepers’ and ‘mosschee’, lying in wait for the unsuspecting, and recalled by the poet Seamus Heaney from childhood.[3] Artists, writers and poets have imaginatively conjured up this world of ‘beyond’, whether found in bog-sprites and faeries, or the mysterious ‘matter in transition’ of wetlands.[4]

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This section focuses especially on the period since 1800, when interest in the material evidence of the past gained scientific rigour, and time was first recognised as ‘deep’ (extending over millennia) – yet the folk and spiritual associations of nature were still very much alive. Even as church historians were documenting the dawn of Christianity in Scotland from ancient Gaelic texts, for example,[5] George Henry was painting his atmospheric Head of the Holy Loch of 1884, with its halo of morning light above the wetlands where Saint Munn had arrived from Ireland in the 6th century. His image imbues this place of transitions, where land, sea and freshwater meet, with a palpable sense of the spiritual. A similar sense, this time of moorland as mutable and mystical, is evident in the nineteenth-century antiquarian Alexander Carmichael’s retelling from medieval sources of how, in Orkney, ‘the place where St. Magnus was slain had been a rough sterile moor of heath and moss, but immediately Magnus was put to death the moor became a smiling grassy plain, and there issued a heavenly light and sweet odour from the holy ground’.[6]

Both Henry and Carmichael were associated with the late nineteenth-century ‘Celtic Revival’, that sought to rediscover the perceived closeness to nature of the ancient, pre-Christian Celts as a model for a better modern society, but looked, nonetheless, to modern archaeology for inspiration.[7] Henry’s striking image of The Druids, for example, created jointly with Edward A. Hornel, re-imagines the winter solstice of pagan times, when mistletoe was cut from a sacred oak, but it also features interlace patterns and serpent motifs carefully studied from original Celtic artefacts. Many Celtic objects, like the Torrs pony cap,[8] were discovered at this time in the peat-bogs of Henry and Hornel’s own native Galloway, and Hornel had indeed drawn and photographed the prehistoric cup and ring markings on a rocky outcrop at High Banks farm on the Galloway moorlands, that a Galloway sage, in a state of ‘trance’, had told him were linked to Druid ceremony.[9]  Hornel later gave a cast of these markings to the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright,[10] and sang a ‘wild…Druid chant’ with Henry as they worked on the picture.[11]

Antiquarians and historians had begun in the late eighteenth century to collect the oral legacy of peatlands. The Brothers Grimm retold stories of moors and bogs possessed or frequented by evil spirits, whilst the German Romantic composer Franz Schubert’s Will o’the Wisp song (part of his Winterreise cycle) set a poem by his friend Wilhelm Müller that compares impossible goals to ignis fatui. This is the dancing light, sparked by gas from rotting vegetation, that traditionally lures unsuspecting travellers into bogs – towards the impossible (on a more prosaic level, this gas is also extracted for gas production). In Scotland, the poet James Thomson had described it as ‘Struck from the root of slimy marshes, blue….a length of flame deceitful o’er the moss’, whilst his English colleague John Gay had noted ‘How Will o’ Wisp misleads night-fearing clowns/O’er hills, and sinking bogs, and pathless downs’[12]. Gustav Klimt, who much admired Schubert’s music, would surely have known his Irrlicht song when he painted his own version of this motif in 1900. By this date, however, Klimt’s erotic, eerie imagery belongs as much to the world of Sigmund Freud’s ‘excavation’ of the unconscious, as to the Romantic vision of Thompson, Grimm, and Schubert. Implicitly, the mind is now like the bog, its thoughts and dreams the evocative artefacts retrieved by archaeologists.

In England, meanwhile, Joseph Jacobs wrote downthe story of the ‘Buried Moon’ or ‘Dead Moon’ he heard from a Lincolnshire Fen-woman. This told of ‘long ago’ – before the Dutch helped drain the area – when ‘the Carland was all in bogs, great pools of black water, and creeping trickles of green water, and squishy mools which squirted when you stepped on them’. The kind moon falls into one of these ‘greedy gurgling water-holes’, but is eventually rescued by a search-party that takes its orientation from ‘a coffin, a candle, and a cross’.[13] In this legend, the bog involves both danger and good. In Scotland, Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels) recorded many Gaelic songs (albeit with probable embellishment) and folk customs that he collected from the 1860s in the West Highlands; in these, the dense, dark character of peat links with the ambiguity of bogs to speak of risk, loss, and evil, but also of rituals to banish these. Prayers or incantations were thus uttered whilst ‘smooring the fire’ (smothering the embers, for use the next day), whilst the songs that Carmichael heard from crofters such as Hector Macisaac, seated in his turf-roofed hut ‘in a peat-moss’ on South Uist, were implicitly imbued with the fragrant smoke of the burning peat, the anchor of crofting life.[14] Here is the ultimate union of place and being, perhaps, that stands at the heart of so much peat lore. Even the taste of peat was integral to the struan (bannock), baked on a turf on a peat fire, that was traditionally made and blessed – in a fusion of pagan and Christian traditions – in West Highland communities to celebrate St. Michael’s Day on 29th September.[15] At Beltane (1st May), a handful of peat representing the evil serpent of Genesis or Celtic lore was put in a stocking and pounded to ‘death’; crofters then migrated ‘from townland to moorland, from the winter homestead to the summer sheiling’.[16] In this seasonal transition, the women would ‘kilt’ their dresses up, to walk the moors more easily.[17]

If these examples, interweaving sound, taste, and scent with sight and texture, emphasise the sensory dimension of peatland myths and legends, this is perhaps no coincidence. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were when Impressionism, ‘based on sensations’,[18] was becoming an international phenomenon in art. Henry and Hornel, as well as Klimt, thus use tactile, impressionistic brushstrokes in the pictures discussed here, combined with reflective gold leaf in The Druids, and effects of golden light in Head of the Holy Loch. The French artist Odilon Redon even made his Marsh Flower of 1884 – a strange, imagined being, part plant, part human – seem actually to radiate light amidst its dark, primeval swamp. Redon believed that black was ‘the agent of the spirit much more than the splendid colour of the palette or prism’.[19] With his image, as well as with Klimt’s, Impressionism crosses in turn into European Symbolism, the movement to which Frances Macdonald’s enigmatic Pond of 1894 belongs. The interweaving forms of the bog-plants and dragonfly nymphs in her picture, like the sinuous curves of Henry’s Head of the Holy Loch, again seem to echo the ‘endless’ line of Celtic interlace, emblem of the infinite.

Charles Darwin had shown how the insectivorous plants found in boggy habitats blurred the boundaries of plant and animal form,[20] and Redon’s botanist friend Armand Clavaud found animal-like algae in the Landes wetlands near Bordeaux. Such discoveries suggested that plants themselves might contain the origins of human life.[21] In this sense, Redon, Macdonald and Klimt construct modern ‘mother myths’, where the bog is generative and nurturing. ‘Bog bodies’, preserved by peat’s acidity, and enabling modern eyes to view the past in uncanny sensory ‘reality’, provide a suggestive backdrop for this. Remains found near Drumkeeragh Mountain in Ireland had been published in 1785 by Elizabeth Rawdon, Countess of Moira – one of the first scientific accounts of a bog body – [22] and further examples were uncovered through the nineteenth century in Denmark, Germany, and other European countries. A recent re-evaluation of evidence from Amcotts woman, a bog body found in Lincolnshire, indicates that the fascination of its discovery, together with items of clothing, led to discussion in the Society of Antiquaries, London, following a letter about its discovery by George Stovin to the Society of Antiquaries in 1747, together with illustrations shown below. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, carbon dating, pollen and fossil insect records such as the one below have further enriched our understanding of bog burials.

With Victor Pasmore’s use by the 1960s of peat as his actual painting medium, art itself embodied the bog. Yet pictures like Pasmore’s Brown Development, that helped introduce abstraction into British art,essentially continue the themes of transformation and shape-shifting that are central to so many peatland myths. Once again, the artist’s creative, integrativevision reminds us of the larger harmony of humankind and nature, that we disrupt at our peril. Just as Heaney’s image of the ‘bridge edge deep’ uses the turning of the spade to highlight his father’s emotional bond with the peat of his native land, so we might recall the story of Tiddy Mun in the Lincolnshire fens, the mythical creature with an old man’s beard, who restored the nurturing fen when the Dutch had drained it away  – ‘Tiddy Mun wi-out a name, white heed, walkin’ lame; while the watter teems the fen, Tiddy Mun ‘ll harm nane’[23]. In Ireland today, Annemarie Ni Churreàn‘s poem ‘Bog Medicine’ finds healing powers in the memories conjured by the ancient Irish peatlands, whose substance unites people, plants and place, and mind and body. The ancient myths, legends, and spiritual associations of peatlands still resonate today in this example, and remind us of the critical role of these landscapes in the natural environment.

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

[1] A natural amphitheatre in the landscape.

[2] ‘The Buried Moon’, traditional Lincolnshire legend as retold by Joseph Jacobs, More English Fairy Tales,  1894 at (accessed 5.9.21).

[3] For Heaney’s recollection, see Diane Meredith, ‘Hazards of the Bog: real and imagined’, Geographical Review, Jul., 2002, Vol. 92, No. 3, pp. 320.

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

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[4] Stuart McLean, ‘Black Goo: Forceful Encounters with Matter in Europe’s Muddy Margins’, Cultural Anthropology, 2011, Vol. 26, Issue 4, p. 592.

[5] E.g. the Life of St. Munn had been retold in John Lanigan’s 1829 Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, and also in Michael John Brenan’s Ecclesiastical History of Ireland of 1840.

[6] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Edinburgh 1900, Vol. 1, p. 179.

[7] Led by the work of Augustus Henry Lane-Fox (Pitt-Rivers) and others aware of Charles Darwin’s work in science, archaeology began to adopt more systematic methods of fieldwork and investigation from the mid nineteenth century.

[8] The Iron Age Torrs pony cap was shown in The Celts exhibition, British Museum, London, 2015; see (accessed 5.9.21).

[9] A.S. Hartrick, A Painter’s Pilgrimage through Fifty Years, Cambridge, 1939, p. 61. Henry was a member of the Kirkcudbright Antiquarian Society, and later a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. See also Frances Fowle, ‘Celticism, Internationalism and Scottish Identity: Three Key Images in Focus’ in European Revivals: From Dreams of a Nation to Places of Transnational Exchange’, FNG Research, 1/2020, pp. 49-58, and John Morrison, Painting the Nation, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 199. The High Banks cup and ring markings were published in 1894 by Fred R. Coles (‘A Record of the Cup and Ring Markings in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 29, 1894–95, pp. 67–91).

[10] See Fowle, op. cit., p. 57. Hornel’s drawings are in George Hamilton, ‘Notices of Rock Sculpturings of Cups and Circles in Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proceedings of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 21, 10 Jan 1887, pp. 151–60, and his photographs are in George Hamilton, ‘Notice of Additional Groups of Carvings of Cups and Circles on Rock Surfaces at High Banks, Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proceedings of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland, 23, 1888–89 (11 February 1889), p. 126.

[11] Neil Munro, The Brave Days: A Chronicle from the North, Edinburgh, 1931, p. 268, though Fowle notes that the ‘chant’ this mentions, The Black Whale Inn of Askelon, was actually a German student drinking song (Fowle, op. cit., p. 56).

[12] Quoted in Anon., ‘Will o’ the Wisp and his Relations’, All the Year Round, 1871, pp. 356, 354.

[13] Joseph Jacobs, ‘Buried Moon’, at (accessed 5.9.21).

[14] Carmichael, op. cit., p. xix; pp. 236-7; p. xx.

[15] Ibid., pp. 200-205. The bannock was traditionally set on a ‘struan flag’ (turf from the moor) whilst baking; see .

[16] See ibid., p. 170; p. 190.

[17] Ibid., p. 190.

[18] Camille Pissarro, letter to Lucien Pissarro, 13 May, 1891, in J. Bailly-Herzberg, Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, Vol. III, Paris 1988, p. 82.

[19] Quoted in M. Van Zuylen, ‘The Secret Life of Monsters’, in Jodi Hauptman (ed.), Beyond the Invisible: the Art of Odilon Redon, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, p. 67. 

[20] Notably in his Insectivorous Plants, London, 1875.

[21] See Heather Lemonedes, ‘Bits of Rainbows’, Cleveland Museum of Art Magazine, 2016, at (accessed 5.9.21)

[22] Elizabeth Rawdon, ‘Particulars Relative to a Human Skeleton…’, Archaeologia, London, 1785, Vol. 7, pp. 90–110.

[23] (accessed 5.9.21).

Brown Development (Peat) oil, peat (?) & wood on board, no date
Victor Pasmore (1908–1998)
Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool.
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Achnabreck cup and ring marks. These swirls echo those shown in Pasmore’s art shown to the left. Photo: Phil Barratt.

Gustav Klimt, Will o’ the Wisps, 1903, oil on board laid down on canvas, 52.1 x 59.7 cm, Private Collection. Photo: Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.
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George Henry (1858–1943), Head of the Holy Loch, 1882 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The sinuous lines echo those of Celtic art revival forms, themselves inspired by archaeological artefacts such as those seen below.
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Frances Macdonald MacNair, November A Pond, c.1894, Pencil and watercolour on grey paper, 32 x 24cm, The Glasgow School of Art.
The Drosera eating the nymphs echo the insects feeding on an Iron age body body shown to the right.
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Fossil beetles associated with Iron age Bog Body, Old Croghan Man, Co. Offaly. The beetles remains date to the 3rd century BC are and were likely attracted by the bog body, laying their young on the remains of the corpse. Photo: N. Whitehouse

Bog Medicine by Annemarie Ní Chuirreáin

Edercloon staff, Co. Longford. The staff is made of hazel around which honeysuckle has grown and then modified, trimmed and dressed at the end. From the Late Bronze Age trackway EDC 5, dated 1260-970 cal BC. Image courtesy of Catriona Moore, with permission.
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Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower, a Sad Human Head, 1885, printed by Lemercier & Cie. Lithograph on China paper laid on wove paper; image: 27.5 x 20.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland 1927.344.2.
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The marsh flower in the picture by Odilon Redon is likely to have been inspired by Caltha palustris, a typical flower of wet, marshy places.
Photo by tj.blackwell, licensed under CC BY-NC 2

Sound: A poem, ‘Ruin’, by Mel Giles.
The poem highlights the use of Sphagnum as a dressing for the ‘ruined’ in the First World War.
Image: Sphagnum Moss. “Red sphagnum” by wanderflechten is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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The hand of Amcotts woman by George Vertue © The Society of Antiquaries of London. Image supplied by Mel Giles.
The shoe of the ‘Amcotts woman’ by George Vertue: © The Society of Antiquaries of London. Image supplied by Mel Giles.

 ‘Amcotts woman’ is a bog body that was found in a bog at Amcotts, Lincolnshire, Isle of Axholme, during peat cutting, in 1747. Click on the images above for more information.