Andrew Michael Hurley on the Legend of the Fylde Witch
Starve Acre, our November Fiction Book of the Month, continues Andrew Michael Hurley's evocative exploration of the eerie and uncanny with a tale of grief and superstition set in rural England. In this exclusive piece, Hurley relates the legend of Meg Shelton, the mysterious Fylde Witch, who inspired Starve Acre's unique brand of folk horror.
Meg Shelton: Shapeshifter
Among the headstones in the burial ground of Saint Anne’s church near Preston is an erratic granite boulder, three feet by two. The small plaque beside it reads: “The Witch’s Grave. Beneath this stone lie the remains of Meg Shelton, alleged witch of Woodplumpton, buried 1705”. However, given that three centuries have passed since, the solidity of the rock is at odds with the flimsy details we have of the woman entombed here.
She was born Margery or Margaret Hilton but, by some corruption of that name perhaps, became known as Meg Shelton or Mag Shelton. And while the inscription by her grave links her to the rural hamlet of Woodplumpton, she is also known as the “Singleton Witch” or the “Fylde Witch” and local stories have her practising her dark arts in several parishes of west Lancashire. That she cannot be pinned down to one name or one location seems entirely fitting when by all accounts her chief piece of cunning was to change one thing into another, herself included.
With slight variations, the same stories appear again and again. In one, she robs a neighbouring farmer by transforming her jug of stolen milk into a goose which waddles home behind her. Spotting the milk dribbling from the goose’s beak, the farmer gives it a kick, exposing the illusion and smashing the flagon to pieces. In another instance of attempted theft, Meg creeps into a grain store and disguises herself as a sack of corn when she hears the farmer coming. Realising that he now has one sack too many, and suspecting foul play, the farmer stabs each with a pitchfork to root out the imposter. Meg is duly discovered and sent away screaming.
Folk allegories about honest, God-fearing types outwitting the evil witch are common across the country, if not the world (think Hansel and Gretel for example) and so it’s likely that the tales about Meg Shelton have been absorbed into a more universal story tradition over the years. In fact, the descriptions of her sorcery tie in with ideas that were long-standing even in her lifetime. Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s Dictionary of Superstitions illustrates a fifteenth-century solution for determining (and punishing) the witch responsible for the killing of a cow – an elaborate process which culminates in the roasting of the innards of the said animal over a fire until “the intestines of the witch [are also] afflicted with burning pains.”
But it was the story of how Meg acquired her limp that provided the most direct inspiration for Starve Acre. Again, the narratives vary, but the most frequently told version explains how Meg laid down a wager with her landlord, claiming that if she changed into a hare, she would be able to beat his dogs in a race back to her hovel. The bet is accepted, but the landlord unleashes his most ferocious dog which eventually catches Meg and bites her ankle as she crosses the threshold.
That she metamorphosises into a hare is not coincidental. It means that she is more likely to win the contest, of course, but the association of the witch with the hare and the hare with the supernatural is ancient and universal. In their seminal work of 1972, The Leaping Hare, George Ewart Evans and David Thompson identify examples of veneration and superstition concerning the animal occurring in cultures as distinct as those of the Egyptians and the Inuit. The coupling of the witch and the hare, they suggest, has its origins in prehistory when – as a means of understanding the natural world – the shaman would apparently transmute into the creatures that inhabited it so as to imbibe their particular power. Thus, the witch enjoyed the hare’s pace, secrecy and enigma.
Unlike other so-called witches, Meg died in what all reports deem to have been an accident – though it is impossible to say whether the barrel that supposedly crushed her to death in her cottage fell or was pushed. Like that and so many other details, how old she was at the time is unknown, and yet the stone over her resting place insists that she did once exist.
It serves, too, as a relic of a most unsettling postscript. Seemingly, even in death Meg proved a menace. Twice they buried her and twice she crawled out of the earth. The third time they interred her vertically, head down, so that if she tried to escape again she’d dig herself to Hell.
As well as having a practical use in helping to keep in the ground what ought to be dead, the boulder no doubt stood as an emblem for the village of their triumph over wickedness. But it is not simply some historical curio; it still has meaning today. Although this year people are staying away because of the pandemic, the stone is usually decorated around Halloween time with flowers and herbs and sometimes a pumpkin or two arranged at the base. Who leaves these offerings, I’m not sure. Local practitioners of witchcraft, maybe, or just those who find themselves sympathetic to Meg Shelton’s dehumanisation. Either way, there is affection and solidarity for her; a recognition that contemporary misogyny and injustice has, in part, some roots in the history of “the witch”. The commemoration next to the stone makes clear the fact that witchcraft was nearly always “alleged”, and therefore an inflicted appellation. So we see now what women like Meg Shelton always were: victims of prejudice, convenient scapegoats, and like all figures of folklore, they personified the unpredictable forces of nature that lay beyond understanding at the time; forces that we know all too well in 2020, and which remain mysterious to us even now.
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