Nursa Knott and the Devil’s Apronful

Nursa Knott Hill

 Nursa Knott (Nursery Knot) is a prominent limestone hill located two miles to the west of Greenhow village, near Pateley Bridge in the Yorkshire Dales.

  Nursa Knott features in a local legend about the Devil, and the story seems to have first been recorded by Bailey Harker in his Rambles in Upper Wharfedale (Harker, 1869). Harker’s visit to Stump Cross Caverns required a change of cloths at the nearby Grouse Inn, where he noted ….

 “After we have dressed ourselves again in our own costume, we take the highway for Barden. To our right is Nursa Knott, and a little beyond it The Apron Full of Stones. Of these stones there is a curious legend, to the effect that the Devil being anxious to fill up Dibb Gill was carrying these ponderous crags in his apron when he stumbled over Nursa Knott, and the strings broke, the crags falling to the ground. It is said that if any of them were to be removed at night they would be carried back to their original place before morning.”

 Some have mistakenly identified the ‘Apron Full of Stones’ with the Devil’s Apronful cairn located near Simon’s Seat on the moorland two miles to the south, even though this does not match Harker’s description. He described the stones as ‘ponderous crags,’ a little way beyond Nursa Knott as he was travelling west ward along the road from Stump Cross Caverns. Nursery Knot hill is marked on the OS maps, but the original 1850’s map surveyors did not record the Apron full of Stones name in the area described by Harker.

The Apronful of Stones crag

 However, following in Harker’s footsteps today, a drive along the road still passes Nursa Knott hill on the right, and then after 800m there is actually a large heap shaped crag in Croft Gill, on the hillside behind Nussey House. This must surely be the “Apron Full of Stones” as described by Harker, and it is the only ‘ponderous crag’ between Nursa Knott and Dibb Gill – the Devil’s intended destination for the heap.

 Although Bailey Harker only briefly mentions the legend, it does raise some questions – such as how big was the Devil if he could carry the crags in his apron? and when did the Devil actually start wearing an apron? The answer to this may be explained by other old legends which originally featured a giant character who in later versions of the story was replaced by the Devil. Further south in Wharfedale we still have the stone carrying wife of the giant Rombald, while on the North York Moors to the east, the giantess Bell (wife of the giant Wade) also carried stones in her apron. In another story about Blakey Topping hill, the giant Wade was also replaced by the Devil. This may have been the case with the Nursa Knott legend, with the Devil at some point replacing a giantess carry stones in her apron.

 Why the Devil wanted to fill up the Dibb Gill stream valley is not explained. Another local story has the Devil building a bridge over the river Dibb to thank a cobbler for sharing his food and drink. A similar ‘cobbler and the Devil’ story in Wales has the devil carrying a shovelful of earth to dam up a river in order to drown a village which had annoyed him. The cobbler tricked the Devil into thinking the village was many miles away, and so the Devil gave up, dropping the soil, which created the large hill called Coed y Foel. Again, this story suggests the Devil was more giant-like, if his shovel could carry a hill sized heap.

Grimwith Reservoir

 If the Nursa Knot Devil also intended to drown some local village by damming up the river Dibb, then the object of his wrath would be the hamlet of Grimwith further up stream. Curiously enough Grimwith did actually suffer this fate, as it now lies beneath the waters of Grimwith reservoir, which was built in the late 1800’s. The location of the village in a valley may have suggested such a fate if the river was ever blocked, or perhaps a landslip or similar, did actually cause some flooding in the past, and this inspired the story about the Devil’s attempt to drown Grimwith. There is also some speculation about the Grimwith name, which means ‘the ford of Grim’, as the Norse god Odin was also known as Grim. It is also worth noting that Odin seems to have been transformed into a giant or the Devil in later folklore.

The view west from the top of Nursa Knott

 From the top of Nursa knot hill the Apronful of Stones crag can be seen in a dip to the west. On the horizon beyond the crag, the peak of Stebden hill stands out prominently, and alongside it Elbolton Hill, famous for its Bronze Age cave burials and fairy folklore. In the opposite direction, looking eastward from Nursa Knott, Greenhow Hill also stands out prominently on the horizon, like some ‘giant sized’ burial mound.

 Nursa Knott hill is around 1.5 miles east of Dibb Gill, and it is worth noting that a similar distance to the west there is the Thruskell spring at Hebden. This spring flows up through the Craven Fault line, and is by far the most powerful spring in the area, producing well over 1 million gallons of water a day. The water is now used by a fish farm, but the outflow from the spring is still visually impressive, and forms a strong gushing stream. The ‘Thrus’ part of the well name is thought to be derived from the Old Norse word ‘Thurs’, meaning a giant or demon. So Thruskell may have been the ‘Giant’s well’ – a suitable name for such a large outflow of water. This might also suggest that there once existed a series of sites connected with a giant or giantess in this area.

 Bailey Harker also mentions the belief that any stones removed from the Apronful crags would be magically returned there overnight. This is a common folklore theme, which usually involves the presence of fairies or similar beings at the location, who use their powers to return the stones. With this in mind it might be worth noting the Nursa or Nussey name, and the Nissar – the dwarf like beings of Scandinavian folklore. The actual meaning of the Nussay name is unclear, but it may relate to the Germanic word Nuss, meaning nut. There is also the Old Norse word Knusa, meaning to strike, crush, or crash against, which might have some relevance to the story of the Devil/giantess tripping over Nursa Knot hill. The Old Norse Knotr means ‘craggy hill’, so Nursa Knot could mean the crushed crag hill.

  One final curiosity connected with Nursa Knott is the underground stream called Dry Gill, which flows from a small cave on the southern slopes of the hill. This intermittent stream carries water from the caverns and cave systems beneath the hills in this area, so it may have also had some folklore significance in the past. After it emerges from the cave, the stream flows down a valley to Trollers Gill – home to a spectral black dog and troll / fairy folk.

  Bailey Harker’s brief mention of Nursa Knott appears to be just a fragment of a once rich legendary landscape. Stories of the supernatural were connected with prominent hills, rivers, stream valleys, caves, and the subterranean world underlying the area which forms the ‘Barden Triangle’.

Doing the Devil’s work? – Yorkshire Waters dam across Dibb Gill

After thoughts
The road passing Nursa Knott is an old route into the ancient kingdom of Craven.
A Roman-British lead ingot weighing 88lb was found near Nursa knott in the1860’s.
Nursa Knott and The Apronful of Stones could be included in the ‘Barden Triangle’ list of folklore sites.

Harker, B. (1869) Rambles in Upper Wharfedale.

The Lay of the Land


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