Trollers Gill – Appletreewick

Wide mouthed troll
Into the Valley of the Trolls

 Trollers Gill (also known as Trollerdale) is a narrow limestone gorge and stream valley located to the north of Appletreewick village, seven miles to north-east of Skipton.

 Beneath the hills to the north of Trollers Gill there is a large subterranean cave system known as Stump Cross Caverns. A stream emerges from those caves and flows down to Trollers Gill. When the stream (called Dry Gill) enters the north end of the ravine it once again sinks underground, leaving the stream bed dry below that point. This dry section continues down through the gorge to emerge at its southern end, where the waters then reappear amongst the rocks in the stream bed. From this point on the stream winds its way down the valley, passing Trollers Gill cave, and flowing on to eventually join the River Wharfe, a mile or so to the south. For most of the year the dry stream bed through the ravine is just a jumble of rocks and boulders, but after heavy rains the underground channel cannot carry all the water, so the stream forms a fast flowing torrent down the whole length of the gorge. This unusual phenomena, occurring within the atmospheric setting of the narrow gorge, is perhaps one reason why Trollers Gill has long been regarded as an ‘uncanny’ place.

Black dog
The Black Dog by Jaime Sidor (artist)

 In the past, Trollers Gill was believed to be haunted by a Barghest – a huge spectral dog with glowing eyes. To see the dog was an omen of death, and those who encountered it were usually torn to pieces or crushed to death. Other mischievous spirits or Trolls were also said to dwell in the valley, and they would push stones down onto unwary passers-by.

 The Trollers Gill name is thought to mean ‘Troll’s Valley’ (or the valley of troll), coming from the old language of the Scandinavian’s who settled in this region. In their folklore the word troll was used to refer to different types of supernatural beings, from the large lumbering giants, to the small ‘troll under the bridge’ type goblin. The troll word also seems to have been used more generally to describe anything supernatural or magical, with ‘trolldom’ meaning sorcery, witchcraft, spells and enchantments etc. So the name could refer directly to the troll like goblins, or perhaps more likely the haunted, bewitched or otherworldly valley.

 There seems to have been a number of versions of the Trollers Gill Barghest story. One version has a John Lambert of Skirethorns boasting in the ale house that he would give the Barghest a good thrashing if it ever crossed his path. Unfortunately his wish came true when he met the dog on his way home, he took a swing at it with his cudgel, but to no effect, and he was fatally crushed by the beast.
Another version has a cobbler travelling home late one night from Fountains Abbey, when he took a wrong turn and found himself in Trollers Gill. Dark clouds obscured the full moon, and to his terror he heard in the sky above the sound of the Wild Hunt – those ghostly hunters who search out and pursue the souls of the un-baptised. To his great relief the hunt passed on, but their presence had awakened something more terrible, as there came an unearthly howl from further up the Gill. shrinking back into his hiding place, the cobbler peered out into the gloom just as the clouds parted and the moonlight revealed the form of the Barghest padding along the path towards him. With a trembling hand he crossed himself once more and closed his eyes, fearing that his end had truly come, but the beast passed by without noticing him – “praise all the saints that ever were”. (Halliwell Sutcliffe, 1929)

The entrance to the ravine and the dry stream bed

 John Henry Dixon of Grassington seems to have been the first to note down the local Barghest folklore when he contributed a ballad version called ‘The legend of Trollers Gill’ to William Hone’s Table Book, published in 1827. The same ballad appeared later in his Chronicles And Stories Of The Craven Dales (Dixon, 1881) along with the John Lambert version. In the balled, the brave but foolish man sets out one night to visit Trollers Gill with the intention of summoning the Barghest. As he entered the gill he heard the spirit of the stream telling him to turn back, but he pressed on regardless. Beneath an old Yew tree at the entrance to the gorge he drew a protective magic circle around himself -“with charms unblest”.

 Then thrice did he turn where the streamers burn
And thrice did he kiss the ground.
And with solemn tone, in that gill so lone.
He called on the Spectre Hound !

And a burning brand he clasped in his hand.
And he named a potent spell.
That, for Christian ear it were sin to hear.
And a sin for a bard to tell.

 A silence descended on the vale, then the stream began to surge and roar as a great wind rushed down the valley. Flames flickered and flashed, lighting up the sides of the gorge, and looking up he saw the huge shadowy form of a snarling dog descending from the crags, its eyes glowing like coals. For a moment it stared at the man, and then with a great leap it launched itself at him….. The following day his lifeless body was found in the valley, and so another victim of the Barghest was solemnly interred in Burnsall Churchyard.

What’s in a name?
 Some have suggested that the Barghest name means the ‘bier ghost’ – a bier being a stand or cart on which a coffin is carried. Others point to ‘berg ghost’, with berg being the Scandinavian word for a hill or mountain, and this would perhaps fit more with the locations traditionally haunted by the Barghest. Haunting spirits were believed to sometimes take animal form, but the spectral black dog is common to many parts of the British Isles, so this might point to some wider belief or practice that has now been forgotten.

A saint uses his stole to exorcise spirits
16th century wood cut.

 A clue to this may lie in folklore stories found across the channel in Brittany, which include tales about the ‘old priests’ of the Roman Catholic church (Le Braz, 1893). These stories refer to the priests being called upon to perform exorcisms when an evil spirit had possessed a person or a location. To do this they obtained a black dog, and by using the power of holy ritual they commanded the spirit into the body of the dog. This procedure turned the dog into a savage beast, but with the aid of the priest’s stole around its neck, the priest was able to control the dog and lead it away. The animal was taken to a remote location up in the hills, and at the edge of some deep bog, the dog (and the evil spirit within it) were plunged into the watery depths. These hill locations were believed to be entrances to hell, and the priest had to take great care that the dog did not escape at the last moment, or it would return to terrorise people. (See also The Black Dogs of Brittany).

 The Breton folk stories are historical in style, and so it is quite possible that they were based on real exorcism practices that took place in the past. The idea of a priest casting a possessed black dog into a watery subterranean realm may be relevant to the spectral Black dog at Trollers Gill, where the stream waters disappear into the deep caverns below. In addition, the belief that the evil spirit must be taken to one of the entrances to hell, which are located up in the hills and mountains (bergs) would support the suggestion that these were ‘berg ghosts’ – spirits ritually confined to the hills.

 It is interesting to note that on the path leading down to Trollers Gill there is a sunken cave entrance called the Hell Hole, where a stream runs down into a large fissure, which apparently drops vertically for over 100 feet. The Hell Hole name suggests a local belief that this was regarded as an entrance to hell. When visiting this site there was a noticeable and eerie silence when dropping down into this cave entrance, and after peering down into the dark fissure for a few moments, there was a strong urge to leave that place.

  There are several caves in the Trollers Gill area, and the Barghest was believed to dwell in one of them (or perhaps more than one?). The Hell Hole cave must be a strong contender for the Barghest’s lair, but there is also an actual “Trollers Gill Cave” located in the wider stream valley section of the gill (SE 06735 61400). A low opening at the rear of this cave leads to a series of passages running into the hillside. A more spooky looking cave can be found at the north end of the ravine (SE 06883 62007). This is actually the entrance to a short mining tunnel leading into the hillside, complete with the echoing drip-drip of water from the tunnel roof. Most of the caves in the area have been explored in the past by miners searching for the valuable minerals Galena and fluorspar. These miners apparently broke through into other natural passages and caverns during their work, and there is a report of a huge underground lake being found. From this it would seem that there has been a local awareness of the caves and passages leading to a ‘watery underworld’.

 Today, Trollers Gill is a popular route for people walking in the area, but who knows what may prowl along this isolated valley when darkness falls?

 Trollers Gill is located in the ‘Barden Triangle’ – the name given to the area around the village of Barden in Upper Wharfedale, which contains a number of supernatural locations. These include the haunted tower at Barden itself, along with the Barghest at Trollers Gill to the north east, and, the fairies at Elbolton Hill to the north west. The triangle can probably be extended to take in the ghostly water horse at the Bolton Abbey Strid, the Devil at Dibbles Bridge near Hebden, and the mischievous Pam and his imps at Threshfield.

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After Thoughts
A high rock outcrop on the east side of Trollers Gill is called the Old Man’s Scar. Possibly a reference to the devil, or the ‘aud lad’?
A cluster of prehistoric carved rocks are located on the higher ground to the east of Trollers Gill.

Dixon J.H. (1881) Chronicles and Stories of the Craven Dales.
Le Braz, A. (1893) Celtic legend of the Beyond. Bryce translation 1986.
Sutcliffe, H. (1929) The Striding Dales.
The Black Dogs of Brittany

The Lay of the Land


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