Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet

                  The wonderful John Webster of Clitheroe, describing the credulity of the country people of Lancashire in the seventeenth century, writes thus: - 
“These will take a bush to be a Boggard, and a black sheep to be a Demon; the noise of the wild Swans flying high upon the nights, to be Spirits, they call them here (in the North) Gabriel Ratchets, the calling of a Daker-hen in the Meadow to be the Whistlers, the howling of the female Fox in a Gill, or a Clough for the male, when they are for copulation, to be the cry of young Children, or such Creatures, as the common people call Fayries, and many such like fancies and mistakes.” 
The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft 1677. 

John Webster - Extract from The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft 1677

After day-light gate, when the night comes, come also ghoulies, ghosties and long-leggity beasties. Gabriel Ratchets were phantom hounds, devil-dogs that flew in the night sky hunting for lost souls or preying on the spirits of the living. In some tellings, they accompany the Wild Hunt, they are the hounds of Herne the Hunter, running and howling before his horse’s hooves. The Wild Hunt boded ill, to see it was to risk death, simply hearing it might bring madness in its wake. 

The Wild Hunt
At the dead of the night the Wild Huntsman awakes,
In the deepest recess of the dark forest's brakes;
He lists to the storm, and arises in scorn,
He summons his hounds with his far-sounding horn.”
Ludwig Tieck The Wild Huntsman  1798

Ratchet derives from Anglo-Saxon ræcc and cognate with Old Norse rakki – a dog that hunts by scent, sometimes called a rach, rache or ratch, (the female, a bitch-rache, was called a brache or brachet). Shakespeare uses it in King Lear
“Mastiff, Grey-hound, Mongrel grim,
Hound or Spaniel, Brach or Lym.” 
(Act 3, Sc. 6) 

and in Henry IV Part 1

Hotspur: - I had rather hear Lady, my brach, howl in Irish. 
(Act 3, Sc. 1)
Entry for Rache - Nicholas Cox The Gentleman's Recreation 1686

Webster says they are the sound of wild Swans; other writers have said they are migrating geese: - 
“We can scarcely be surprised that lonely walks among the wild hills and cheerless moors of the North should be attended by superstitious fears, or that the strange un-earthly cries, so like the yelping of dogs, uttered by wild fowl on their passage southwards, should engender a belief in a pack of spectral hounds.” 
William Henderson Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders 1879 

Bean Goose

William Yarrell, the ornithologist, identifies the species producing the sounds as the Bean Goose Anser segetum, (Notes and Queries, Series 1, No 5 p. 596), adding 
“… they are frequently very noisy when on the wing during the night, and the sound has been compared to that of a pack of hounds in full cry.”
In Welsh mythology there are the Cŵm Annwn or Cron Annwn, the Dogs of Annwn, which also hunt for souls in the night, and guide the dead to Annwfn, the bottomless pit. Sometimes black with glowing eyes, sometimes white with red ears, we find these hell-hounds too in the Yesk of Devon or the Maisne Hellequin of Brittany. 

 In addition to the packs of hounds, there were also individual dogs haunting the moors. Foremost among them was the Barguist, a monstrous black dog with glowing eyes, whose jaws dripped fire. In literature, the best-known incarnation is The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, eventually bested by Sherlock Holmes. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles

In Lancashire, the dog is also known as the Skriker, from the dialect word ‘skrike’, meaning to howl or cry, (a variant, maybe, of shriek), and one tale tells of how a man was returning home on winter’s night, from the ale-house in Chipping to his cottage on the bank of the river Hodder. As he walked, he became aware of something following him. He quickened his pace, when the Skriker began to scream. He ran but waiting for him, in the middle of the bridge over Thornley brook, was the Skriker, staring and gliding towards him. Again he ran, through the woods and down to Hodder Bridge, where the Skriker was waiting once more. In panic, he bolted for his cottage, and collapsed in through the door. But he knew what was to come. Within three days, his infant son was brought home, drowned in the river, and in three weeks his young wife had pined away, and was buried in Mitton churchyard. He lost his reason, and spent the rest of his life wandering the lanes, with outstretched arms and staring eyes, in grim imitation of the Skriker.

William Wordsworth, the Lakeland Poet, knew the legend of the Gabriel Ratchets: -
 He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start —
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel's Hounds
Doomed, with their impious Lord, the flying Hart
To chase for ever, on aërial grounds!

Though Narrow Be That Old Man's Cares 1807
Like Webster, Wordsworth here mentions the Whistlers. These were also birds of ill omen. An old report tells, 
“One evening a few years ago, when crossing one of our Lancashire moors in company with an intelligent old man, he was suddenly startled by the whistling overhead of a covey of plovers. My companion remarked that when a boy the old people considered such a circumstance a bad omen,” 
Popular Science Monthly, June 1883, p. 256 

Green Plover, Peewit, Wype of Lapwing

The Green Plover (also called the Peewit, Wype or Lapwing) is almost universally a creature of bad esteem, cursed by God for disobedience or mockery, said to be a thieving servant girl forever damned to admit her crime in the cry of the bird. Coal miners reported hearing the Whistlers prior to the terrible Hartley Colliery Disaster of 1862, and soldiers who heard them before battle expected great slaughter to follow shortly. Spenser writes in his Faerie Queen (Book ii, Canto xii, Stanza 36) 
"The whistler shrill, that whoso hears doth die." 
When I was much younger, the lower slopes of Pendle were home to countless Lapwings, dozens upon dozens nesting in the fields. I cannot remember the last time I have seen one there in recent years. They are in decline nationwide – some estimates calculate the population has fallen by 80% in the past fifty years. Cursed or not, I miss seeing them.


  1. 7 birds like 7 trumpets in song...

  2. "And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll"