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Painting of a gnome under a toadstool

5 magical creatures from British folklore

Image: Painting by Heinrich Schlitt | Public Domain

Whether it’s the variety of nursery sprites, designed to keep children suitably terrified into good behaviour, or close encounters of the drunken kind, the British Isles has a folkloric history bursting at the seams with all manner of cryptids, creatures, fairies, and fiends. The origins of these tales often pre-date written records and therefore have changed over the centuries due to being spread by word of mouth. Although some are benevolent most have a creepy cautionary tale up their sleeve.

1. Knockers

The most helpful of the bunch and friend to both the Cornish and Welsh mining communities, Knockers are described as around two feet tall with a disproportionately large head, white whiskers, and miniature mining gear. Near the Scottish border, they’re known as Bluecaps and usually took the form of blue flames. Ultimately their purpose was the same. In return for wages in Wales, or the last delicious bite of a pasty in Cornwall, these mine shaft sprites would guide the miners towards the richest veins by, you guessed it, knocking.

This coal-ition (sorry!) continued through the industrialisation of mining. Large companies took over family businesses making safety an increasing concern. Knockers changed with the ages and began knocking to warn miners of an impending cave-in, perhaps eager to spare others their own fate. It's widely rumoured these creatures were once the spirits of dead miners.

2. Jenny Greenteeth

Here we have hags of renown! They’ve featured as the first line of attack from the fairy queen in Terry Pratchett novels and even made it into Ridley Scott’s Legend under the pseudonym Meg Mucklebone. Jenny (or Ginny) Greenteeth is a name closely linked to Lancashire, whereas in Cheshire, she goes by Wicked Jenny.

19th-century folklorist William Henderson described these malicious freshwater hags as having an ‘insatiable desire for human life’. While variations from 1924 had Jenny appearing amongst fog as a beautiful woman luring men into the water, her roots are in children's cautionary tales. Jenny Greenteeth is also a name for duckweed, which matts itself across water appearing treacherously like dry land. What better way to keep children away than threats of a wiry-limbed cannibal, with mottled greenish skin, lank hair, sharp claws, and crooked green teeth, lurking in the depths?

3. Redcaps

Far from the Bluecaps' kindness, these vicious goblin-like creatures are found exclusively in castles on the Scotland-England border, their caps dyed red with human blood. These small fiends are described as being thickset elves drawn to tyranny and bloodshed, who hurl large rocks at any travellers seeking refuge.

Robin Redcap earned infamy by supposedly wreaking havoc for William de Soulis at Hermitage during the 14th century. Although he conveniently vanished when his master died - imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle not boiled alive as rumours suggested - it’s said that he still guards treasure beneath Hermitage Castle and allows de Soulis’ ghost to return every seven years. Don’t panic though, revealing a crucifix will send a Redcap up in smoke leaving behind nothing more than an old tooth.

4. Black Shucks

The British Isles are awash with folklore based around ghostly black dogs. Thanks to Harry Potter, perhaps the best known is the Grim. The name ‘Shuck’ is specific to East Anglia and, like the Grim, is widely regarded as an omen of impending death.

Mentioned in 1850 as having ‘fiery eyes’ and being ‘immense in size’, this creature is said to have stalked churchyards around Norfolk and Cambridge at midnight. But this is by no means the earliest account. In 1577, incidents are mentioned involving a sinister black dog, roughly the size of a calf, whose howls could be heard for miles around, but whose footfall was silent.

Perhaps the earliest record is at Peterborough Abbey’s Lent sermon in 1127, during which the Devil let loose his hounds. Another suggestion for the beast's origin is that the Vikings brought Odin's black hound across to Britain, leaving him to roam the coastline.

5. Rawhead and Bloodybone

Finally, we come to this gruesome twosome guaranteed to curb any child's curiosity for open mine shafts and dark spaces, or simply traumatise them into a quietly compliant state of shock. Originating in Staffordshire, they were described as incredibly dangerous half-human half-animal beings that resided in mine shafts, emerging only to beg for food at nearby cottages.

The legends spread to Yorkshire and down through the Midlands where they also became guardians of marl pits. Rawhead, or Tommy Rawhead, was a skull head atop a flayed body. While Bloodybones, or Old Bloodybones, was described in Somerset as a dreadful crouching creature with blood running down his face as he devoured fresh bones. Naturally, the bones of children who told lies were their favourite.