Land Lines


With the kind permission of Jennifer Westwood, from her book "Albion - a Guide to Legendary Britain" (Paladin, 1987)

The cover (left) shows a painting entitled 'The Laidley Worm of Spindleton Heugh', 1881 by Walter Crane.

In Hutchinson's View of Northumberland (1778) was printed a ballad called 'The Laidley Worm of Spindlestone Heugh', purporting to be 'A Song 500 years old, made by the old Mountain Bard, Duncan Frasier, living on Cheviot AD 1270'. The ballad came from the Rev. Robert Lambert of Norham, who claimed to have got it from 'an ancient manuscript', but this is certainly moonshine. The ballad is evidently his own work, although parts of it seem to be based on genuine traditional ballads and perhaps local folklore.

It tells how a king brings home to Bamburgh a new wife who is jealous of her stepdaughter Margaret and turns her into a 'Laidley Worm', a loathly serpent or dragon. The milk of seven cows is served to her daily in a trough at the foot of Spindlestone Heugh where she makes her lair, but though her diet is mild, the countryside is blasted by her venomous breath. News of the devastation reaches 'Childy Wynd', the heir of Bamburgh, far beyond the sea, and he and his men set sail for Northumbria. Despite the wicked queen's attempts to keep them from landing, they come safely ashore at 'Budle-sands' (NU 1536) and the Childe, drawn sword in hand, advances on the Worm. She cries out to him to disenchant her by giving her kisses three, which he does and discovers his sister. They confront the wicked queen and by turning her own spell back on her, change her into a hideous toad.

And there she still is, in a cave under Bamburgh - or at least there she still was in the 1 870s when the local girls were afraid she would vent her malice by spitting at them. The tradition was that she would sit there as big as a 'clockin hen' until someone passed the invisible door that only opened once in seven years and released her from the spell with three kisses - a garbling of 'The Laidley Worm' with the 'sleeping hero' tale as told at Sewingshields (NY 8090) and at Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire (see under Eildon Hills, p.452). 'The Laidley Worm' itself is a localized version of the ballad 'Kemp Owyne', telling of a girl whose stepmother throws her over a crag into the sea, at the same time turning her into a monster. She can only be 'borrowed' (disenchanted) by kisses three from the hero Kemp Owyne, Knight Owain, who gave his name to Childy Wynd.

This story in turn reminds us of a tale in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (fourteenth century) in which 'the Lady of the Land', the daughter of the physician Hippocrates living on the island of Cos, is transformed by Diana into a dragon, an enchantment from which she cannot escape until kissed by a knight. A champion of Rhodes flees on seeing her and the spell is only broken by a shepherd knighted for the task.

Bamburgh Castle, restored 1894-1905, is open to the public. A painting by R. J. S. Bertram illustrating the legend of the Laidley Worm is displayed on an easel in the Museum. Also in the Museum are Bamburgh's other 'monsters' - the ferocious little beast found in other Anglo-Saxon works of art of the seventh century and at Bamburgh engraved on a small gold plaque discovered during excavations in 1971, and intertwined 'gripping' beasts on a pair of ninth-century bronze and silver strap-ends whose decoration is so minute that it is best viewed on the enlarged X-ray photograph displayed alongside. Coincidentally, no doubt, these creatures are not unlike the twining monster, her hair wound thrice about the tree, who was disenchanted by Kemp Owyne, and was the forerunner of the Laidley Worm. Spindlestone Heughs (NZ 1533) are marked on the OS 1:25 000 map, as is 'Laidley Worm's Trough' (NZ 156339), but the Laidley Worm's Cave is gone - it had been quarried away already by the end of the nineteenth century.

Read The Laidley Worm of Spindleton Heugh ...

Laidley Worm