A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
This episode we’ve got a tale that draws strongly form the theme of Folk-horror, the strange world of the Lincolnshire Carrs (marshlands), a fairly unnecessary second person framing narrative and a lesson about the real power of a firm handshake. Sources and musical credits can be found on the Episode Page on the website: https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-36-the-dead-hand #myth #mythology #folklore #legends
The Carrs were a fearsome place in those days….
This episode we’ve got a folk-horror type tale set in the eerie marshlands of the Lincolnshire Carrs. Also featuring a fairly unnecessary second person framing narrative and a lesson about the real power of a firm handshake.
It’s the second podcast with a tale from M.C. Balfour featuring her weird weird world of intermixed paganism, Christianity and supernatural horrors that forever threaten the lives of the people of the Carrs.
“The old and simple heathendom still lay untouched, though hidden, below successive varnishes of superstition, religion, and civilisation”— M.C. Balfour, Introduction to the Dead Hand
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript. I’ve completely excluded the framing narrative here which is a fair bit of the episode.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
The Dead Hand
In the old times, before the Carrlands were drained, they were a very different place from that of today. A terrible, awful wild place.
Most of the land was taken up with the marshes with only small pockets of land for the occasional villages, with the small paths between them snaking through the marsh on either side.
In the words of MC Balfour:
“The Carrlands were full of strange tales and stranger memories of a day and a life that is but just travelled into the past; of a day when people lived tremblingly in the midst of the unseen, more real and infinitely more terrible than the mere mortal world about them
The priests were always at them about their souls and the good folk were always at their shoulders with the chance to do them a bad turn, so what with hell and the boggarts they were never out of the fear of death and judgment.
In that day that has only just become yesterday, in that narrowness of church and paganism, which shut them so closely into strange beliefs that they were never alone, never safe and sure in the clean world of God and under his regard.
They were surrounded with terrible things, unseen, but certain, that whispered in their ears and felt about them with fleshless hands, and waited for their unwise words; strange, wayward things, whimsical at best, and hideously revengeful; the ‘good people’ the ‘strangers,’ the ‘tiddy folk; the green–coats, the earth kin – a world of tiny powerful creatures, strong to do ill and ready to punish them interminably for a light or thoughtless word.
And these were the least of their terrors.
Here in the Carrs there were worse that walked at large in the darkness of the night – shapes of abomination and horror, unspeakable, unknowable, that came up out of the crevices of the earth, or out of the further corners of the sky in its blackness, huge, dreadful, tyrannous; things without name, infinitely strong, immeasurably wicked, only to be kept off by spells and strange prayers and stranger marks and offerings made upon doorstep and window.
And in their tiny cottages the people huddled, trembling and afraid, all the long winter nights, while the wind swung about the house filled with whispering voices and cold laughter, and the latch moved under the plucking fingers of those that waited without in the darkness for it was only in daylight and sunshine that god was, and the darkness was given over to every evil.
The great black snags that worked up out of the oil, black, glistening, moldering, came from the forests below that once were green and tall in the free air, in the times when strange men hunted and fought and launched their boats where now are peat=lands and cornfields laid above their heads.
And they, and all the came after them, buried their gods and their legends beside themselves in the under-world of the marshes – their gods and their legends, that did not lie quiet beside them, but rose again with the memories of blood and slaughter and lawlessness into haunting horrors that walked in the night, into the ancient company of death.
All that the changing peoples conceived of ill or dread had a home here in the wavering mists; the valley inherited the fears of the ages and in the eyes it was said of those who were born and lived within it there was a strange and terrible wisdom and understanding ‘Ah, and for sure, he were born in the Carrs.
Tom Pattison was one who was born in the Carrs. He never knew his father and lives with his widowed mother. and as our story starts he is a young man in his prime. And a man filled with the arrogance with youth.
Now night in the Carrs generally meant either staying safe at home, or wandering between the inn and home.
These wanderings were done in large groups, all the men leaving the inn together and going there together. And as they walked in the dark they took lanterns and they took safe-keeps.
The safe-keeps varied – written words were a good one, verses from the bible all scrunched up and put in a nut shell, or the wise woman would write something down and you’d use that.
More powerful things too – three straws and a clover leaf all tied up with the hair from a dead man, or maybe the clippings of a dead woman’s nails, reputedly a very powerful keep-safe.
It was these that would stop the creatures that were always waiting to snatch the unwary.
But Tom Pattison, Tom didn’t believe in such – he dismissed their effects, laughed at those using them, most of all the old folks.
He was always butting heads with the old folks in some way or another – thinking he was cooler or better than them and that they needed to know it.
There was one night it came to a head. It was down the inn and drinking was involved.. Tom been taunting the old guys as usual and all the young folks laughed along with him when he mocked.
Finally the old fellas reckoned they’d had quite enough of this cocky young lad and a whole lot of them turned on him telling him not to be so stupid and that the things in the swamplands were as real as the back of his own hand and he was a fool if he didn’t think so.
But he just continued with his jibes and his prodding at their honour, till eventually someone pointed that he weren’t no better than them: that if he weren’t scared, why did he wait till closing time, come home with them all in a group with their keep-safes all keeping him safe. He weren’t crossing in the Carrs in the dark neither, was always home to his mammy before sun down.
This was enough to provoke Tom and he stood up and through a cloud of ale said that he was no coward, and he’d happily go into the swamp at night with no keep sakes – nothing but the clothes he stood up in and a lantern.
And given that, coincidentally, tomorrow night was due to be the darkest of the year, then he’d do it then.
The old guys rose to it and in short order it was agreed that Tom would go out into the swamp along the path to the old Willow Snag – the remains of the old tree that made a convenient waymarker. And then he’d return back home, if he could. See how he liked that.
“I take that path every day to go to my work.. Why should I fear that? I’ll do it in double quick time and all ya see, you pack o’ fools” and he turned to his chorus of young folk and they cheered him on.
Now the next evening after work was done the men arrived outside the cottage where Tom and his mother lived, just as they always did, to go to the inn together.
The older folk – they were a bit contrite from last nights words.. They knew they shouldn’t got him all riled up so… but they thought it twrent like he was gonna do it but they were already just not to mention, pretend that it was forgotten like, smooth it over with the lad.
But Tom, Tom was having none of it. When they arrived he was arguing with his mother ““I’ve told ya mother, I ain’t taking your bobberies, or your spells, stop your whimpering, I’ll be back safe and sound.. I can’t be having me own mother being as fools as the rest of them…”
And off he went out of their cottage carrying just a lantern. He acknowledged the men with a curt “right, I’m off then” and set off for the path to the Willow Snag.
They tried to talk him out of it but he was having none of that. He really wasn’t a coward.
Now the other young lads had a bit of a dilemma – if Tom went in alone and did it, well think how foolish they’d all look in front of the lasses the next morning if not one of them had. They’d never live it down.
So a good number of them followed him in. Though without Tom’s boldness and brashness, and rather ladening themselves with keep-safes, all in a big group, and scared half out of their wits even then.
The night was a dark one, but the lantern led the way. By turns Tom whistled and sang himself a song, just to show his nonchalance. Things seemed to go very smoothly indeed. The marsh was silent still and really a very unthreatening place.
In a time as quick as he’d promise Tom made it to the Willow snag. He was about 30 foot ahead of the rest of the lads and he turned to them, held his lantern aloft.
He gave a triumphant “See lads – what nonsense they believe – lotta silly old person talk – bogles and darklings and what have ya…” and he laughed. So caught up was he in this little speech that at first he didn’t hear the sound.
A long sighing moan that came up from the sea, filling the air – carrying chills and damp with it. The wailing seemed to come up behind Tom. The light from Tom’s lantern went out.
And at that his words died in his mouth.
Then with a terrible cacophony they were here: All the things he was so disbelieving of – the horrors of the air, of the water, the slimy creeping things, the crying wailing things, ghastly misshapen beasts, the gruesome terrors.
The lads who had followed him in froze in place, grabbed hold of their keep-safes. Some of them sunk to their knees muttering prayers to God and the Virgin Mary.
They could just catch glimpses of what was happening up ahead at the snag – caught a snatched image of Tom’s horrified, angry face as the shadows thronged between them.
He was shouting and swearing at them at the top of his lungs. He disappeared from view behind them and they could only hear the chitters, groans and shrieks of the creatures.
After a few moments they throng parted and now they could see Tom clearly, all lit up by some eerie yellowing light.
He stood at the snag, face pale as death, one hand gripped tightly to the dead willow and the other arm stretched out taught, and in turn grasping Tom’s other hand with supernatural power – was a hand.
Just a hand. No trace of a body attached to it…just a stump where the wrist should join the arm. Rottting flesh hung from its mouldy bones
It kind of hung in the air, and yet it was clearly pulling Tom with force. Pulling him down towards the mud and the inky black waters of the swamp.
The luminescence that let them make out Tom’s terrified expression so clearly came from the hand itself – it glowed evilly.
With an inexorable strength it pulled and pulled and Tom’s grip on the snag started to slide, but he held resolute.
For a brief moment the battle between man and disembodied hand seemed almost evenly matched. Until in one quick instant it wasn’t. Tom’s hand slipped from the snag and he was pulled off the path with tremendous speed.
He gave a terrible scream which was swiftly cut off as his body plunged face first into the mud and water with a mighty splash, and he was swallowed up by the swamp.
It was only then that the horrors turned their attention to the other lads – the rushed at them, and swirled around them, snapping and growling and screeching.
The lads fair went out of their minds with terror… as they cowered.. But as long as they held on to their little talismans they were technically safe. But the bogles howled and they picked at them with boney fingers and blooded talons and gnashed great teeth and beat wings all around them.
Eventually a few managed to crawl back along the path on hands and knees cutting themselves raw on stones and roots.
They got back to the village, where the old men waited. And when the men there saw the state of them. Well they weren’t cowards at all, whatever Tom said, just wise with age. Out into the swamp they went with lanterns and keep-safes and one by one they found the lads who hadn’t made it back – some lying insensible in water holes, others gripping great snags and muttering verses over and over, their voices harsh and raspy like they’d been smoking tobacco for sixty years.
All that is except Tom.
They found his broken lantern by the willow snag but that was all. Even in the morning, when the light had banished the creatures to their dark abodes, there was no sign of him. The whole village searched that day, and the next, but nothing.
Poor Tom’s mother was affected worst of all – no husband and no son she took to roaming the Carrs during the day crying out to nothing, begging him to come home and telling everyone that there was no way her boy would abandon her. That he’d be back.
Each night she’d leave a candle burning in the window so he could find the house.
They began to become concerned for her, but there was little they could do. They knew he was not coming back.
And yet a week or so later, just before dusk, the villagers’ expectations were defied when Tom’s mother came rushing into the village to tell them all that he was back – he was there by the Willow!
A somewhat disbelieving party took off in to the swamp, and there indeed was Tom. Sitting with his back against the willow snag, feet in the water.
But what a changed man he was You’d never have taken him for the same person, a strapping young fellow who’d turn a lass’s head. This Tom his back was all bent funny, he was terrible thing and his limbs were kind of shaking.
His face was all wrinkled up and white.. And his previously brown hair was white and grey and kind of hanging around him.
It was like all the colour had been frightened out of him.
With one hand he kept pointing at something, and he had his eyes locked on whatever it was, staring at it. But there wasn’t anything there. He didn’t seem able to speak
But his other hand – where the dead hand had gripped his. Well it wasn’t there at all. His arm just lay limply from his side with this ragged bleeding stump on the end of it.
The dead hand had torn it right off.
Two images I used in finding inspiration for the cottage scene – neither exactly match what I had in my mind though, as they are not specific to the Lincolnshire area and both are slightly grander than the building I’d imagined. And a bit less swampy. But hopefully they give some impression
Featured Folklorist: MC Balfour
Other disembodied hands
In the discussion section I mention a few other disembodied hand stories (though taking care to point out the uniqueness of this one.
Here are some links to those mentioned:
The Dead Hand – Lady Jane Francesca Wilde – A dead hand is used to stir milk giving the witch far too much milk and crashing the local market (honestly that is the key concern). This story is somewhat worrying in that the hand is never actually found and the witch punished on a girls say so!
The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor – A road haunted by hairy hands that appear at the wheel of cars to cause them to crash – spoiler: it’s a hard road to drive at the best of times!
La Mano Paluda – A blog post all about this Mexican creature – often the hand of a man that was cut off after a wrongful conviction for committing a crime that is now hunting down those who did him wrong
And of course there’s always the previous podcast episode on The Hand of Glory:
- Legends of the Cars Part 2
- The fall of the sparrow – this contains the descriptions of the Carrs I quoted from at length
Musical credits for Episode 36: The Dead Hand
Intro music from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Outro music by Josh Keely and Mitch Newman
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
The Encouragement Stick
The Crime Scene
Roads that burned our boots
Rise of the evil