The Fairy Butter Tree – Scugdale

Looking down Scugdale

 Scugdale is a long valley cutting into the Cleveland Hills just to the South of Swainby village, ten miles to the south of Middlesbrough.

 The first edition OS map (1857) marks a ‘Fairy Butter Tree’ alongside Rank Crags at the head of the Scugdale valley. This curious name does not appear on later edition maps, so in order to get a grid reference for its location, the old map was overlaid as accurately as possible onto the newer OS map. This, combined with the Google Earth images, seemed to suggest that a tree still exists at that location (SE 52801 99357). Could it possibly be the same tree all these years later?

OS map1
OS map (1857)  Map credit NLS

 Visiting the site in 2021 found several gnarled and stunted trees clinging to the top of the crags. The southern most tree in the group (a Rowan  – picture above) was found to be located within a few metres of the grid reference calculated for the Fairy Butter Tree. Although this tree is certainly old, it is hard to imagine that it is the same tree marked on the OS map 150 years ago?

  According to a Woodland Trust fact sheet, the Mountain Ash can actually live for up to 200 years, but it is difficult to say how old this particular tree is, given its location. Growing in the thin soil amongst the rocks, in a harsh and exposed environment, must have restricted its growth, so it may be older than it looks. The twisted and distorted trunk also suggests that the tree toppled over at some point, forcing it to send up another trunk and branches to form the tree that is visible today. The other trees in the group include Hawthorn and Silver Birch, all similarly dwarfed and stunted by a hard life clinging to these moorland crags.

 The Fairy Butter name is connected with a widespread piece of folklore where the fairy folk were said to sneak into the dairy room on a farm during the night and use the equipment to make their own butter. On their way home they dropped or threw pieces of the butter on the ground, or on trees and gateposts etc. where it was noticed by people the following day. It is now suggested that the fairy butter of folklore was actually a type of yellow fungi called Tremella mesenterica, although others point to Fuligo Septica as more fitting the folklore description of the fairy butter.

 In Danby Dale, across the moors to the east of Scugdale, the Reverend J.C. Atkinson (vicar of Danby from the mid 1800’s) recalled a conversation he had with an old lady who said that in her younger days she had heard the fairies making butter during the night on a farm where she worked. The reverend noted that what she reported hearing…….

 …….. were the sounds indicative of the act of butter-making ; sounds familiar enough to those acquainted with the old forms of making up the butter in a good-sized Dales dairy. These sounds, she said, she had very often heard when she lived as a servant at such and such a farm. Moreover, although she had never set eyes on the butter-makers themselves, she had frequently seen the produce of their labour, that is to say, the “fairy -butter”; and she proceeded to give me the most precise details as to its appearance, and the place where she found it. There was a certain gate, on which she had good reason to be sure, on one occasion, there was none overnight ; but she had heard the fairies at their work “as plain as plain, and in the morning the butter was clamed (smeared) all over main part o’t’ gate.”. (Atkinson, 1891 )

Out buildings at High house Farm

 The Fairy Butter Tree seems to have been of enough local significance that it was pointed out to the original OS map surveyors in the 1850’s. The name also suggests that at one time there was a tradition of the faerie folk living at the head of Scugdale, and perhaps a lost story explaining how they left the Fairy Butter on that particular tree. Such a story may have involved the isolated High House Farm located just below the crags, and possibly the scene of the nocturnal butter making. If the Fairy Butter Tree was on the route between High House farm and the fairies own dwelling place, where might they have being heading back too? Interestingly, on the moorland above the crags there is a burial mound called ‘Green Howe’, and there are reasons to suspect that these ‘green hill’ type place names may have been regarded as fairy dwellings.

The Green Howe burial mound (recently burnt off)

 Sadly, on the visit to the site there were no signs of any Fairy Butter, either of the supernatural or the fungi type. What was noticeable however was how wet the location was. Several springs and a pool on the slopes above the crags meant that the surrounding ground was saturated, with a steady flow of water running down the rock face in places. This might be one reason why this cluster of trees has managed to survive and grow in this exposed location, and such damp conditions would perhaps be perfect for fungi and moulds.

Devil butter churn
A devil at the butter churn Tingsted Church (Denmark)

 Although the yellow fungi provides a good explanation for the Fairy Butter folklore, in some versions it does actually appear to have been real butter. Such stories are part of a much wider set of beliefs connected with milk animals, and the sometimes unpredictable process of butter making. As well as the fairies interfering, witches were also believed to milk cows dry, or to magically steal milk, or prevent the butter from being churned etc. There are also references to the ‘witch’s carrier’ (called the Snakkur in Iceland) – a weird creature made by the witch, and sent out to suck milk from cows and sheep. It would then return to the witch with its ‘full belly’ and puke out the milk into her churns. All these stories, along with the folklore charms and protective devices used in butter making, reflect the importance of the dairy in the past.

 Scugdale also holds another mystery – The Hob of Scugdale. Unfortunately, all we have is the name, which appeared in a list made in the early 1800’s by George Calvert of Pickering (Home, 1905). In this list he noted all the Hobs that he had heard about on the North York Moors, simply noting the “Scugdale Hob” in his list. As the Hobs seem to be connected with crags, hills, and burial mounds, it may be that the Scugdale Hob and the Scugdale fairy butter maker were actually the same ‘person’.

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Atkinson, J.C. (1891). Forty Years in a Moorland Parish.
Home, G. (1905). The Evolution of an English Town.

The Lay of the Land


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