Mind yer head…

A leaf through some of Cumbria’s many annals of folklore could give the impression that Cumbrians have a problem hanging on to their heads.

The Headless Horseman by John Quidor (1858)

The Headless Horseman by John Quidor (1858)

The most famous story is the skulls of Calgarth. The tale isn’t ancient, although it was widely known as early as the mid-1700s. The baddie of the tale is usually said to be Myles Philipson these days, but earlier records point the finger at another Philipson, ‘Robin the Devil’.1 Myles and Robin were both on the king’s side during the 17th-century English Civil Wars; Myles was a JP known to throw his weight about; Robin was a bully best-remembered otherwise for riding his horse into Kendal church in pursuit of a Puritan enemy.

Myles, or Robin, was keen to extend his estates and wanted to buy some land owned by Dorothy and Kraster Cook. The Cooks refused. Myles, or Robin, then invited the Cooks to dinner and afterwards alleged that they had stolen a piece of silver from him that night. They were hanged at Appleby for theft, but not before Dorothy cursed the Philipsons:

‘…that teenie lump o’ land is t’dearest grund a Philipson has ever bowte. For ye shall prosper niver maur, yersel, nor yan o’t breed. And while Calgarth’s strong woes shall stand, we’ll haunt it day and neet.’2

The morning after the execution, the Philipsons found two skulls in a niche on their staircase at Calgarth Hall. They were thrown out, but mysteriously re-appeared. They were thrown into Windermere. They were buried, burned, powdered and limed, interred up mountains and thrown in the sea, all to no avail. The skulls were always there on the stairwell by the time they returned home. In 1788, one of the skulls was supposedly taken to London and did not return. In 1819, one was still there, ‘nearly mouldered away’.3

Over three hundred years, a number of alternative theories have been proposed. My favourite two – for differing reasons! – are, firstly, that the house once had a ‘lady doctress’ as a tenant, and the skulls are the remnants of her dissections.4 The second, and perhaps most plausible, is that the area thereabouts had an ancient burial ground5 from which bones emerged all the time.

The story of the Calgarth skulls was regarded with a mixture of alarm and humour for years. The skulls were said to party annually at Thirlmere’s uber-haunted house, Armboth Hall. A tongue-in-cheek poem, written by Alexander Craig Gibson in the later 19th century perhaps sums it up:

‘To Calgarth Hall in the midnight cold

Two headless skeletons crossed the fold,

Undid the bars, unlatched the door,

And over the step passed down the floor

Where the jolly round porter lay sleeping.

With a patter their feet on the pavement fall,

And they traverse the stairs to that window’d wall,

Where out of the niche at the witch hour dark

Each lifts a skull, all grinning and stark,

And fits it on with a creaking.’6

North Pennines
North Pennines

But Calgarth isn’t the only Cumbrian house to have a persistent skull problem. Threlkeld Place was a tenanted farm, just outside this ancient village near Keswick. A new tenant, entering a small, dark room that clearly hadn’t been used by the previous occupier, was alarmed to find a human skull. He took it outside for a decent burial, only to find it had re-appeared in the room by the time he returned home. The tenant then took the skull to St Bees Head, and threw it into the ocean. On his return to Threlkeld… you’ve guessed it. He bricked the skull up in the room, and looked for a new tenancy.

Brougham Hall, near Penrith, also had a skull; this one created ‘diabolic disturbances’7 when removed. As at Calgarth and Threlkeld, the residents tried to dispose of it, but every time it left the house, poltergeist-like phenomena erupted to the extent that the skull was retrieved and replaced in its position in the hall. The solution, as at Threlkeld, was to brick it up in a wall.

Cumbria also has some headless horsewomen. My favourite is located on Stainmore, the old northern route into Cumbria. It’s a wild and isolated place even now, and this tale happened a long time ago. A nobleman’s daughter was kidnapped by a rival, who wanted to marry the girl. She resisted, and eventually her father sent some men to rescue her. In the ensuing melée, the kidnapper hacked off the girl’s head rather than release her. The account I have suggests that the girl was a Norman daughter of Barnard Castle and the kidnapper a Saxon. This seems very un-Cumbrian; it seems more likely that the men were a Viking from the northeast and a Cumbrian of British descent. Regardless, the headless horsewoman has been spotted tearing across the moors as recently as the 20th century.8

Perhaps the best-known headless horsewoman is the medieval lady driving her carriage from the gates of Hutton-in-the-Forest, a castle north of Penrith. Sadly, after quite a bit of research, I conclude that all accounts go back no further than a lurid 1930s popcorn novel, The Ghost of Hutton by I Davidson. I hear that a lot of people still say that they’ve seen ghosts there, and recently, too; but no sign of the headless horsewoman.

So, what is it about Cumbrians and their heads? Is the whole country littered with headless stories and poltergeistic skulls? Is there a little remnant of the Celtic veneration of the head leaking though into modern times? Who knows.

© Diane McIlmoyle 18.07.11 

  1. Highways and Byways of the Lake District by Arthur G Bradley (1919)
  2. Mrs Brunskill, quoted in Legends of the Lake Counties by Gerald Findler (1967)
  3. The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976)
  4. Tales & Legends of the English Lakes by Wilson Armistead (1891)
  5. JP White (1873) quoted in The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976)
  6. As quoted in Lore of the Lake County by FJ Carruthers (1975)
  7. Ditto. Alliteration is hard to resist (!).
  8. Legends of the Lake Counties by Gerald Findler (1967)
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12 thoughts on “Mind yer head…

  1. Can I pass this skull story on from my friend Heather Ballantyne at Orton Local History Society: “I found this while looking through a booklet called The History of Country Village written by Harold Sawrey who was the vicar of Orton. It contains extracts from various local documents and was written to raise funds for the Church Restoration Fund in 1967.

    ‘Marian was another spirit which caused consternation in a certain quarter, but it is now stated that having lived her time she is now at rest. It was reported that in a farmstead there was a human skull which for a long time had been used as a nail box. A new tenant coming to the farm, whose wife was nervous, removed the skull to Water Millock, but experienced a succession of bad luck, where upon he brought the skull back to the farm and returning it in its original place had the local joiner encase it in a wooden box under the stairs; incidently terminating the spell of bad luck’.”

    • Gosh, that’s a weird one! You’d think she’d object to being the Black & Decker toolmate’s toolmate…but clearly not! I wonder if those nails were iron, and there was another side to this story, which has been lost?

      Thank you Alan 🙂

  2. Great post! I do love folklore. I don’t know of any screaming skulls in Staffordshire (although there is a headless RAF pilot at Fradley near Lichfield supposedly). I just did a quick search & found a skull & tumuli related story from Whittlesford, Cambridge that you might like 😉
    Apparently, a farm labourer stole a skull from a ancient grave that had been uncovered. That night, the rest of the skeleton came knocking at his door asking for his head back….http://www.rheesearch.org.uk/images/Camb%20Cronicle%201818.pdf

    Might be sleeping with the light on tonight….

    • Blimey! The things that 18th-century people did… I wonder how much archaeology was lost along with that stolen skull? I’ve read so many times that people always wanted stuff to be Roman, but it still looks funny – in the ha-ha sense! – when you read that they thought it might be a Roman tomb. Presumably as late as iron age, to state the obvious, though.

      And funnily enough, this story seems to be giving a lot of people the creeps, going by twitter!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  3. When we lived in the Hudson River Valley of New York State, there was a local story about a Fiddler’s Bridge and how on each Halloween a decapitated fiddler (hence the name of the bridge) would play a mournful tune to lament his fate. We love our gruesome tales don’t we? Thanks for sharing yours. Interesting as always.

  4. I love your blog. This gave me a great idea for a historical Halloween party! I’ll get some skulls and display them along with their history, kind of like this. It would be so much fun.

    • You know, there are loads of headless stories in Cumbria. I came across another couple of skulls-that-refused-to-move just yesterday! A great Halloween party would be Armboth Hall, which was drowned when Thirlmere became a reservoir, and the water levels were raised by 50ft. An 18th-century account says that all Cumbria’s ghosts gather there for a party every Halloween, in memory of the bride who once drowned there! I believe the Calgarth skulls are a some of the invitees 🙂

  5. skulls do often pop up in stories surrounding Welsh Holy Wells. There are a number of wells at which, to be fully efficacious, the water had to be drunk from a skull. I believe some churches actually kept a skull for the purpose

    According to Francis Jones The Holy Wells of Wales (1954) “At Ffynon Deilo in Pembrokeshire a family were the hereditary keepers of a cranium handed to visitors to drink from, a practice that persisted into the 20th century.”

    Certainly the Celts revered skulls and heads in general and probably well customs were a remembrance of this

    • That’s very interesting – thank you for that. Of course, Cumbria’s wasn’t just part of the Celtic fringe – it was a Welsh-speaking (until c. 10th century) part of the Celtic fringe. I shall go looking to see if we have any skulls connected to our many holy wells!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  6. Pingback: Armboth: Cumbria’s Most Haunted | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  7. Pingback: The Cumbrian Halloween round-up! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

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