The Devil’s Stride – Roulston Scar

The Devil's Stride
The Devil’s Stride – Roulston Scar to Hood Hill

  A previous post peered into the Devil’s Parlour Cave near Sutton Bank, 5 miles east of Thirsk. The cave is located in the rock face below Roulston Scar – an exposed section of high cliffs on the western edge of the Hambleton Hills. A wooded valley below the cliffs separates Roulston Scar from an outlying ridge called Hood Hill, with the gap between the cliff tops and Hood Hill being known as the Devil’s Leap or the Devil’s Stride.

  Writing in the mid 1800’s, Thomas Gill noted that the Devil’s Leap name came from a local story about the Devil flying from Roulston Scar and dropping a large rock on top of Hood Hill (see the Hood Hill Altar Stone page) (Gill, 1852). An alternative explanation for the name is said to be that the Devil once leapt or strode across the gap to show off his strength and abilities. These are not uncommon folklore themes, however there are hints that the legends may not have originally been about the Devil.

The Devil's Stride map
Roulston Scar Cave and Hood Hill (Map Credit NLS)


  Such stories raise the question as to how big was the Devil if he could carry huge blocks of stone, or stride the half mile gap from Roulston to Hood Hill? This has been noted elsewhere on this site, where the Devil is said to have carried a small hill in his apron (see the Devils Apronful page), and when exactly did the Devil start wearing an apron? These feats suggest a figure of more ‘gigantic’ proportions rather than the regular horned and winged image of the Devil. And there are in fact stories of apron wearing giants carrying large stones, or jumping from hill top to hill top, which seem to come from an older strand of British folklore.

  Elsewhere in the country there are legends where the Devil is known to have replaced an earlier character – usually a giant or giantess. This may have been done to update the story with ideas or beliefs current at the time. It could also have been the result of more hardline religious views when all superstitions were seen as the work of the Devil, and all supernatural figures were regarded as the Devil in disguise. There are hints that this process may have taken place at Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar, with the folklore being updated with the addition of druids, and the Devil replacing a local giant.

  Thomas Gill’s book also describes his exploration of the Fairies Parlour Cave in the cliffs below Sutton Bank, but curiously he makes no mention of the fairies. Instead he notes that …….“The mythology of the district declares it to have been the retreat of the giants.”

  At first glance this seems a rather odd statement, suggesting that the Fairies’ Parlour Cave was actually connected with giants in the local folklore. In a later chapter he also describes the Devil’s Parlour Cave further south, and relates the story of Devil flying from Roulston Scar to Hood Hill. Again he adds an interesting note ……..

” …. a farmer in the neighbourhood expressing himself upon the subject, said: “Ye see, as our foore olders hev alous sed, the giants yance wer maisters of all this hill country, and they had great forrests and set up their cairns and their great staines.” Such appears to have been the traditions handed down from their fathers. “

  A giant throwing a large rock from Roulston Scar to Hood Hill, or striding across the gap and leaving a footprint on the rock would seem to be a better folklore ‘fit’ for the “mythology of the district” than the Devil flying away from a Christian missionary. Gill states that the Devil’s Leap name comes from that story, and yet the Devil does not actually leap to the hill, but instead flies over it. Maybe it should have been called the devils flight?

  At Over Silton, 8 miles to the north of Hood Hill, there is a story of a Hob-Thrush leaping from one hill top to another. This might be a clue to the original version of the Hood Hill story, as the Thrush part of the Hob-thrush name can be traced back to the Norse word ‘thurs’, meaning a giant or demon. So both stories may have originally involved a giant leaping the gap between two hills. At Over Silton, the passage of time has shrunk the giant down to a Hob sized being (although the name still suggests a larger character), while the Hood Hill giant was replaced altogether by the Devil, so that the Christians could drive him away. It is possible that this story had some connection with the monks of Byland Abbey who originally settled at Hood Grange on the north side of Hood Hill.

  Another example of the ‘moors giants’ comes from the Victorian vicar of Danby, the Rev. J.C. Atkinson, who wrote a children’s story based on a piece of local folklore. This involved two giants standing on a hill top, to see who could throw a rock across the valley to land on top of the prominent hill called Danby Rigg. These two giants may have been the North York Moors resident giants – Wade, and his wife Bell (also known as the Old Wife), as there are two Old Wife’s stones on the side of Danby Rigg. (Atkinson, 1891).

  The Roulston Scar Devil story perhaps illustrates how local folklore can change over time. It is likely that Thomas Gill ‘polished’ a more rustic version of the tale that he heard from the villagers. That story itself may have been updated in the late 1700’s when there was a renewed interest in all things Druidic. Regardless of who was involved, a giant, the Devil or the Druids, the folklore’s main purpose was to explain how a large and prominent rock with a foot mark on top came to be on the summit of Hood hill.

After thoughts
The Giant’s Lapstone story
in Baysdale may have originally been another example of a giant throwing a large rock from a hill top, as there is a suspicion that the story was later  reworked into a more elaborate and moral tale.

  The question of how tall these folklore giants were, has also been asked about the Jotun or giants who appear in Norse mythology. In one tale, Thor takes shelter in a giants glove thinking it is a cave, and yet in other tales the Norse gods marry giants daughters, and Odin’s grandfather was also Jotun. The answers seems to be that the giants of legend could be as big as required for the story! Supernatural beings often had the ability to change shape and size so this variation may not have been questioned in the past.

Atkinson J.C. (1891) The Last of the Giant Killers.
Gill, T. (1852) Vallis Eboracensis.

The Lay of the Land


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