Marie Clothilde Balfour

Legends of the Cars

I can find no picture of Balfour so with apologies this is the image from the Buried moon

Born in 1862 Marie Clothilde Balfour, or MC Balfour published what is simultaneously one of the smallest collections of folktales of any of the folklorists covered on the podcast and one of my absolute favourites.

Her weird atmospheric stories set in the Lincolnshire Carrs are some of the strangest and best I know.

At time of writing two of her stories, “The Buried Moon” which remains one of my absolute favourite episodes and The Dead Hand feature on the podcast. There’s another story of hers: The Green Mist, available for Patreon members.

Podcast episodes featuring Balfour
Tales of Britain and Ireland
Tales of Britain and Ireland

A storytelling and folklore podcast.

Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.

Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.

Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com

36: The Dead Hand
byTales of Britain and Ireland.

Biography

St. Andrew’s Church, Redbourne, the village where Balfour lived while collecting her folklore

Biographical details of Balfour are… sketchy at best.

Unlike most write ups where I try to get multiple sources here I am very much relying on the outstanding work of Maureen James at https://tellinghistory.co.uk/.

Her website has a far more detailed version of Balfour’s biography and if you are still hungry to learn more about Balfour I suggest you check it out.

Born in 1862 Balfour spent her very early years in New Zealand before moving to Edinburgh after her father’s early death when she was still under ten. At this time she lived with her much older cousin Robert Louis Stephenson, (him of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island fame, amongst others).

In 1885 she got married to her cousin, James Craig Balfour, which was pretty common at the time as odd as it sounds now. That’s not the first time I’ve had to write that for this website!

And for just two years the couple lived in Redbourne, a village in Lincolnshire, where James worked as a surgeon. After that they moved to Northumberland.

But it’s in that short space of time that M.C. Balfour recorded the stories for which she would become remembered, though never famed.

The Legends of the Lincolnshire Carrs

Ten stories of the Lincolnshire Carrs were published in the journal Folk-lore in 1891 across three articles in three volumes. At no point were they compiled together into a book by Baflour, but some of the stories were later included in various anthologies- by Joseph Jacobs in the first instance, and then others throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

Balfour also wrote a couple of non-Car stories in the Folklore journal, and one for a later Joseph Jacobs folklore collection, and she would go on to publish a book of Northumberland folktales in 1894 (a little bit more below). But it’s the ten Lincolnshire stories that are particularly unique.

So turning back to those stories, I don’t want to go into too much detail here because, spoilers, though the links are all at the bottom of the page if you do want to read them. But there’s quite a lot of general points that can be discussed.

The representation of the Carrs

I’m on record as saying this before but I’ll say it again, Balfour’s description of the Lincolshire Carrlands in the introduction to these tales, even a historic Carlands, is just absolutely wild. 

It really makes it sound like the place is some throw back to a primeval world inhabited by primitive man.

From “The Buried Moon” – a usual day in the swamp

It’s the kind of language that might be used to describe the remotest, exotic far flung corners of the world. And it’d be wrong then as well, but perhaps at least a little more understandable, but when used to describe places a short travel away from major cities in the most prosperous urbanised country on the planet?

It is proper Wickerman, folk horror stuff, but seemingly delivered completely poker faced, so that it suckers you in to it its compelling atmosphere. I can’t do better than quoting Marie herself here:

“It is not easy, in so short a notice, to present vividly the curious mixture of rusticity and savagery, of superstition and indifference, of ignorance and shrewdness, which is found in these parts”

She makes a small nod to the modern times she is living in but swiftly declares it to be but a veneer:

“During the comparatively short time I spent amongst them, close observance of their ways of life and thought assured me that the old and simple heathendom still lay untouched, though hidden, below successive varnishes of superstition, religion, and civilisation”

The river Ancholme more recently (David Wright, CC BY-SA 2.0)

While in some place she acknowledges change is happening she continues her decidedly anthropological, outsider, approach to the area with this description:

“Here, in this bleak and lonely tract, scarcely yet won over to civilization, has dwelt for ages a people, ignorant, poverty-stricken, weakened by malaria, and strongly affected by their wild home; and here still, amongst a few elders, who remember the traditions of their youth, and the beliefs of their fathers, linger tales that tell of the old pagan customs, that have perhaps existed in these parts since the very dawn of history.”

And I should state very clear that I absolutely love this – this is an absolute masterclass in scene setting, a dreary picture for all the senses, forming a exquisitely perfect backdrop for the stories that are to follow.

As an accurate description of Lincolnshire at the time I am extremely sceptical. But as the introduction to a story… *chef’s kiss*. I could go on with this intro but I’d just end up quoting the whole thing. The introduction only is here if you want a read: Introduction to the Legends of the Cars.

The form of the stories

But after this the stories begin, and that’s when it gets a bit… difficult. And I say that because the stories are written in Balfour’s unique rendition of the local dialect. And while it may be accurate it is a real struggle to read. Not impossible by any means. Just difficult.

Here’s an example of what I mean from the Dead Moon:

So tha left un, an’ fled; an’ a could see whur a wor, and whur tha pad wor, an’ hoo a’d hev to gaw fur to get oot o’ tha ma’ash.

Not completely unintelligible – but tricky.

But the contents of the stories is fascinating. Taken as a whole they are notable as they:
1) Are by and large much totally unique – only a few of them can be found elsewhere.

2) Make reference to explicitly pagan magics, practices and beliefs. This is unusual in folktales where, while “cunning folk” might appear as magical practioners it is rare for them to be described as pagan and even more unusual for the rest of the community to worship non-Christian gods/spirits

3) Contain narratives, that while bearing some familiar hallmarks, often go places that are totally different than other folktales. They don’t follow well worn paths, and thus defy the classifications that can be made of many folk tales.

Yallery Brown – one of Balfour’s depressing nihilistic tales

A minority of them have a very stream of consciousness type feel to them, which Balfour refers to as “Drolls” and these are somewhat ‘incoherent’ tales. But even the ones with more definite plots resolve in ways that defy some of the more usual story tropes: on multiple occasions ending in true tragedy and punishments that seems out of kilter with the transgressions of the characters, and for which no simple moral reading is obvious.

Because of all this they are very interesting stories indeed.

Sources and Controvesy

Balfour says that the tales were all told to her orally from a number of different sources: some children repeating stories their grandparents had told them, some “men” on whom no more detail is given.

Now as demonstrated by my lyrical waxings I am a big fan of these weird, eerie stories and find it easy to see why they would have met with much interest and a favourable reception from readers of the Folk-Lore journal, doubly so as they represented completely new material collected very recently indeed: an example of living orally transmitted folklore, decades after the collection of it had begun in earnest.

Now collecting new tales is not unknown or particularly impossible, many of the folklorists did this.

However, the very unique form of the stories has suggested to quite a few folklorists and other experts in the field, that these were the invention of Marie’s to some extent or another. She gets her denials in for this pre-emptively by denying such a charge in the introduction to the very first article:

“I tell these stories of the Cars of the Ancholme Valley exactly as told to me, lest in altering I might spoil them.”

M.C. Balfour

Now the subject is highly debated, and for the most recent scholarship on the subject I must refer yet again to Maureen James here. And she comes down strongly on the side of these stories having being told to Balfour exactly as she said they were.

James has done a huge amount of work on this and her detailed research can be found here: Investigating the Legends of the Carrs – Maureen James, and is really worth a read, as it covers a whole host of interesting areas, particularly if you happen to want to understand the politics of the Folklore society at the Fin de siècle, the history of drainage in Lincolnshire or opium addiction. And all the tales it’s well.

It’s a seriously impressive book length piece of scholarship with a tremendous scope that you could spend a couple of days pouring over.

Therefore I really have to take her lead that the evidence is that these tales were collected, and were not perhaps quite as unique as has sometimes been stated. 

While her arguments are many it’s worth quoting much of her conclusion in full: 

“These critics have also failed to look logically at the collection. If Balfour had created such a body of tales, she would have needed to devise nine —unique stories. She would then have had to write them up in different styles, in a complex, though inconsistent semi-phonetic system, that when analysed reveals a number of different Lincolnshire/Yorkshire voices. She would also have had to divide one of the tales into two, and give different names to the main characters within these tales. Another skill she would have required was to recognise the signatures of oral storytelling, namely the use of narrative phrases; the use of vocal emphasis; simple rather than compound sentences; repetition, similes and onomatopoeic words; the inclusion of validating statements relating to the truth of the tale, or knowledge of the teller” – Investigating the Legends of the Carrs – Maureen James

I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the last word on this subject – but it’s a substantial piece of work and it’s certainly the most significant contribution made to the debate.

To put all this aside for a moment – regardless of the ‘authenticity’ of the tales as oral folklore a number of things are undeniable: that these tales have now made themselves into a great many folklore collections, that they are now regarded as Lincolnshire legends and been told as much many times, and that they are spine chillingly wonderful folk horror stories, that are excellent to tell.

And that I think is a good place to conclude this section on the Lincolnshire Car tales.

(See the article on John Roby for another discussion of potential “fakelore” becoming folklore)

Later life

The 1894 work, part of a uncompleted series of County-Folklore by different folklorists.

Life did not stop there for Balfour of course, and she continued to keep collecting folklore on her move to Northumberland.

A work was published in 1894, though this differed substantially from the tales she had (probably) collected from oral tellers in Lincolnshire, being more of a list of references to previously printed folklore from various sources, e.g. newspaper clippings and the like, and lacking much of the truly fascinating style of her other tales.

She was in touch with noted folk tale compiler Joseph Jacobs, who used some of her stories in his work, including some not previously published.

It seems that it was Jacobs’s inclusion of three of Balfour’s stories in his “More English Fairy Tales” collection that has really helped give them longevity, given the huge popularity of that collection.

For the rest of her life Balfour continued to write, moving on next to novels, but she clearly still valued her ties with the folk-lore society, for her 1896 work “Maris Stella”, was dedicated to Alfred Nutt (President of the folklore society) and Joseph Jacobs.

Her 1897 novel “The fall of a sparrow” was set in Lincolnshire and Balfour used similarly colourful descriptions of the Carrs in the novel as she had in her publications in Folk-lore, and also included some of the stories as part of the setting.

“They were surrounded with terrible things, unseen, but certain…. strange, wayward things, whimsical at best, and hideously revengeful”

M.C. Balfour describing the Carrlands in “The Fall of a Sparrow”


She moved around with her family, living in Scotland, and for a time in France, though she had moved back to England at the start of the twentieth century.

A later work of hers

There she wrote and published some collections of letters of her aunts to each other (probably of interest to the public because of the women’s relationship to Robert Louis Stevenson?), and a couple more works besides.

She had one child, Marie Margaret, born in France in 1898, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps and go on to be a writer of Cornish folklore.

Her husband James Balfour died in 1907 but Balfour would outlive him by over two decades. She continued to write on and off until the end of her life in 1931, mostly short stories which were published in some journals.

She never seemed to see great success as a writer, though clearly was not altogether too shabby at it given the number of stories she did managed to get published, but it is for the Legend of the Cars she remains known to this day.

And I am truly delighted she is, as it is my immense pleasure to both read these stories, and then to tell them to you. I really do hope you enjoy their horrible strangeness just as much as I have.

Episode pages featuring Balfour

Sources

Works by Balfour

If you can’t access any of them above they’re also available here.

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