The destination for history

Capturing native animal folk tales of the British Isles


What animal stories are uniquely British? What mythological beasts call Britain home? And what counts as ‘the British Isles?’

Questions such as these arose when I began compiling traditional stories about animals from all over Britain. Before I could start writing I had to answer these questions and make a lot of difficult choices.

First of all, what counts as the British Isles?

How is that different to the UK or GB? Should I include Ireland? How about the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, Orkney, Shetland? I thought about this for a bit and decided to exclude Eire because it is a whole different culture and deserves a book to itself. You could argue that Welsh and Scottish stories are equally as foreign but I did decide to include both, although the ones I used were probably from the English language tradition rather than Welsh or Gaelic.

Once I had decided on geographical parameters I let the stories choose themselves. I’m pleased with the area I managed to cover: all parts of England and quite a few stories from Wales and Scotland. In addition, several stories from the Isle of Man, which is often overlooked entirely, found their way in.

This is a collection of British folk tales but how long they’ve been British, or whether they’ve always been British, is a matter for scholarship and debate. At the end of the last Ice Age Britain was empty, so we, and our stories, are all immigrants. We gradually moved here at different times from different places and brought our stories with us. It’s impossible to draw a line and say the stories that came to Britain before that date are British and those that came after are imports, nor can we limit ourselves to stories that were invented on these shores because almost all stories are based on an older idea.

Whose stories should I include?

I’m sure there’s no argument against stories from the Ancient Britons or Welsh, the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings. Even the Normans seem long enough ago for theirs to count as ‘British’ stories… or do they? Are some of them still identifiably Scandinavian or French? And what about tales brought by even more recent immigrants? Where do we draw the line? It comes down to a gut feeling of what fits rather than a scientific definition. I allowed in a couple of much more recent ‘immigrant’ stories because they fit so well and cast a new light on older themes.

What animals best represent the British Isles?

As well as a wide geographical range I was also aiming for as wide a range of creatures as possible. At first I thought there must be hundreds of animal stories native to Britain. But once I started researching I became more cautious. Yes, there are hundreds of well-known folk tales about animals but how many of them could truly be called ‘British?’ There are many folk tales which we all know and which have been a staple part of children’s literature for generations. However, these popular stories are not British in origin: German tales from Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson’s Danish stories, France’s fairies of Perrault, American tales like Brer Rabbit, and African tales about Anansi… You could make a case for including some of them because several generations of British children have been raised on them, but they’re not really British. An even stronger case could be made for including Aesop’s fables. They’ve been in print in Britain for over 500 years and most people know something of them – but they are still called ‘Aesop’s’ fables and are described as being Greek (or perhaps Egyptian). And they are aren’t they? They’re about grapes and pitchers, and wise men on donkeys—not things you find very often in an English village! (But I’ll admit that I did allow at least one to sneak in!)

As might be expected there are quite a few tales about favourite British pets like cats and dogs (and even a tortoise and a parrot!) There are the familiar animals of the countryside – cows and bulls, hares and foxes. (I was surprised by a lack of stories about horses…) There haven’t been wolves or bears in Britain for hundreds of years but there is no lack of stories about them. Many of the bears are of the ‘dancing bear’ type used for ‘entertainment’ until comparatively recently but the number of wolf stories shows our innate fascination with my favourite wild animal. There is also a whole range of more fantastic creatures – dragons, werewolves, silkies and so on. (Another thing to ponder: is a werewolf an animal or human?) More surprisingly perhaps, I’ve been able to include stories about alligators, lions and elephants! Well, the British have always been great travellers!

The result of answering each of these questions and then inviting stories in (they are quite like cats!) is a broad survey of animal folk tales in many shapes and sizes from Orkney to Lyme Regis, and almost every place in between.

By Pete Castle


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books