The Trolls Aws and Devils Elbow – Saltergate

  Saltergate is located to the north of the Hole of Horcum on the North York Moors, 7 miles to the north of Pickering.

  While recently sorting through some old photocopied articles, i came across a reference to a placename called the ‘Trolls Aws’, near Saltergate on the North York Moors. The article dated from 1937, and was written by Frank Dowson who lived in the village of Goathland, 4 miles to the north of Saltergate. Dowson wrote several articles about the Goathland Plough Stots for the Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, including one about the Scandinavian influence in North Yorkshire. In this he mentions several placenames in the Goathland area, which he suggested were evidence of these early settlers, and among this list he notes the ‘Trolls Aws’ ……

“The name Trolls Aws is given to a deep ravine, leading from the famous Newton Dale gorge towards Saltersgate, and seems to be a silent reminder of the old belief in the Norsemen’s trolls, a belief prevalent too., in the far away Shetlands until quite recently.” (Dowson, 1937)

Looking up the Trolls Aws (sorry)

  The ‘Trolls Aws’ name does not appear on OS maps (perhaps for obvious reasons), and i have not seen a reference to it anywhere else. As Frank Dowson grew up in Goathland this would appear to have been an old name used locally for the ravine. Dowson does not explain the name, but it quite likely meant ‘the Troll’s Arse’ ( or perhaps Trolls house?). The Peak Cavern in Derbyshire was originally called the Devil’s Arse, but it was renamed in Victorian times so as not to cause offence to visitors. This perhaps explains why the OS map surveyors in the 1850’s did not mark the Trolls Aws on the map. At that time the railway line through Newtondale was being promoted for tourism, so the Trolls Aws would not really be a place to highlight on the map. The ravine is still un-named on current maps, although the stream running down it is marked as Havern Beck.

  Trolls have already made an appearance on this website in a post about Trollers Gill in the Yorkshire Dales, which is said to have been a Troll haunted place. Troll can also mean ‘to hunt or wander about’, however the Wikipedia page for Trollers Gill derives the name from ‘Troll – ears’ – meaning trolls arse. This would be comparable with Frank Dowson’s ‘Trolls Aws’ near Newtondale – both names being applied to rocky ravines with a stream running down them. Following the trolls ears/arse meaning led to another reference which seems to confirm Dowson’s place name. In the book ‘Place names of the North Riding of Yorkshire‘, A.H. Smith noted …

“ers, ears (n), as in Trollesers (1335) in Lockton (ON troll ‘a troll’); …”

The parish of Lockton includes Saltergate, and the ravine, so this reference to ‘Trolles-ers’ in 1335 would take the name back nearly 700 years.

Time to take a closer look at the Trolls Aws!

  From Dowson’s description of the ravine i realised that i had walked past it several times over the years. The location is memorable because you look down into the ravine from a path cut into the valley side, with the path descending the whole length of the ravine. From the path, the sound of running water can also be heard from the stream in the ravine below. A return visit in April 2024 walked up the ravine from its north end, following the stream, which was in full flow due to recent wet weather.

Havern Beck flowing down the ravine

  There is no actual path, so the route is through vegetation and around bushes, and is probably impenetrable when the bracken is high. I particularly kept a lookout for any natural features which might explain the Trolls Aws name, but there was nothing obvious. In some Scandinavian countries the troll name is attached to isolated boulders and cliffs, some of which resemble faces, with the folklore being that Trolls are turned to stone if sunlight falls upon them. On the bank of the stream, mid way along the ravine, there is a large isolated boulder, which is composed of an unusual rock type, but there were no troll like features on it.

Large boulder by the stream

  A little beyond the large rock there is a quite impressive waterfall, and on the rock face around the waterfall there are petrified Tufa deposits built up from the dissolved minerals in the water as it flows over the waterfall. Above the waterfall the ravine bends to the east and becomes shallower with another smaller waterfall, and above this the stream is pretty much at ground level towards the Bridge at Saltergate.

The Trolls Aws Waterfall

  Again, in Scandinavian countries, waterfalls are particularly associated with trolls, and it is worth comparing the belief that Trolls can be turned to stone if caught out in the sunlight, with the petrified minerals found at the Trolls Aws waterfall. Although unlikely, it is worth noting here that the Gaelic word ‘Eas’ means waterfall, but how such a Norse/Gaelic name would come to be on the North York Moors is hard to imagine.

Looking back down the ravine
What exactly is a Troll?

  Today, trolls are usually depicted as large, lumbering, and dim witted beings, but originally the troll word seems to have been connected with enchantments or magic, and was applied to a wide range of beings with supernatural powers, such as giants, hobgoblins, elves, and demons. In later times these ‘troll-beings’ fell into two groups – either larger giant figures or smaller dwarf, hobgoblin types. Both were believed to live in mountainous or rocky places, and were not normally friendly towards humans.

But why the Trolls Arse?

The name suggests somewhere unpleasant or somewhere you would not want to go. The same would apply to the Devils Arse (Peak Cavern) in Derbyshire, where it has been suggested that the water flowing through the cave system made a farting noise. This would seem to be a modern explanation, as much older folklore records that the cave provided access to the underworld. At Trollers Gill, the stream is unusual because it emerges from an underground cave system, and disappears back underground half way down the ravine. The Trolls Aws ravine does not appear to have anything quite so unusual, with the most obvious features being the waterfall and large isolated boulder by the stream.

A Fossegrim spirit (T. Kittlesen, 1887)

  In Scandinavian folklore, one type of troll was called a Fossegrim – a water spirit who lived in streams and waterfalls. Offerings were made to the Fossegrim at waterfalls where the water flowed towards the north. Again, it is worth noting that the Havern beck flows north ward over the waterfall in the Trolls Aws ravine, so something like the Fossegrim may lay behind the Troll name. Early Scandinavian settlers in this area would have brought their pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, but in later Christian times this may have led to the derogatory name being given to a ravine connected with the old religion, and as an attempt to dissuade people from still using the site. A similar situation seems to have existed at another Waterfall in a narrow ravine called Biggarsdale, near Whitby. Here the waterfall was the dwelling place of a spirit called Jenny, and again the water flows northward over this waterfall. Local folklore records that the Jenny spirit would violently attack anyone who approached her dwelling, which in the past was probably enough to keep most people away. The stream running over the waterfall and down Biggarsdale joins another beck once called Thordisa – a name which may also relate to pre Christian beliefs.
The flat topped boulder next to the stream in the Trolls Aws ravine also recalls the ‘Giant’s Lapstone’ boulder which once stood alongside the stream at Hob Hole in Basedale. Women stood on top of this boulder to perform a ritual which involved throwing a shoe into the stream below.

A Saami offering site in the 1700’s (Chatelain, 1714)
Devil’s Elbow – Devil’s Aws?

  In later versions of some legends and folklore, the Devil replaced the original main character such as a giant or fairy etc. This was likely a result of church teachings that all supernatural beings were delusions created by the Devil to lead people astray. In this way the Trolls Aws might easily have become another Devil’s Arse placename, which is interesting given that there is a ‘Devil’s Elbow’ half a mile away. The origin of the name is unclear, but today the Devil’s Elbow is a sharp hair pin bend in the road going up the side of Saltergate Bank. On the south side of the Devil’s Elbow there is the Hole of Horcum, which legend has it was scooped out by a giant called Wade, who left his finger marks in the valley sides. It may be that the Devil’s Elbow was originally Wade’s Elbow. As Wade was a supernatural giant he was also technically a ‘troll being’ so there is a cluster of features connected with a Troll/ giant/ devil in the Saltergate area.

The ‘Devil’s Elbow’

End notes
  In the Trollesers name recorded back in 1335 the ‘ers’ would normally be translated as ‘arse’, but it can also mean rump or tail. Again, in Scandinavian folklore the belief is that trolls have tails, and when they took on human form it was the tail that gave them away.

  The 13th century bishop Gudmundur travelled around Iceland blessing the land to expel all the demons from the country. At one place a voice came from the rocks asking the bishop to leave them in peace as even evil needed a place to live. The bishop considered this a fair request and left that place unblessed. In Britain there was a tradition of farmers leaving part of a field uncultivated, and calling it the Guidman’s Croft or the Devils Holt. This plot of land was left for the Devil as his share, in order to avert bad luck on the farm. Could the Trolls Aws ravine be one of these unblessed locations?

Although the A169 Pickering to Whitby road passes through Saltergate, it is still a relatively isolated part of the moors. In spite of this isolation, this area seems to have been a focus of folklore in the past. The old Saltersgate Inn was said to have kept its fire burning for 200 years to keep the Devil away, or keep the spirit of an excise man trapped below the hearth in the pub. The hairpin bend on the road winding up Saltergate Bank was known as the Devil’s Elbow, while the Hole of Horcum to the south of the hill was said to have been scooped out by a local giant called Wade. A trackway along the top of the Saltergate Bank is also known as The Old Wife’s Trod, connecting it with another folklore figure of the moors.

Dowson, F.W. (1937) Word-lore, Practices and Beliefs in Blackamore – Yorkshire Dialect Society v6 1937
Smith, A.H. (1928) Place names of the North Riding of Yorkshire
Thorpe, B. (1852) Northern Mythology (Internet Archive)

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