We walked up through the forest, following a rising track surrounded by trees, waiting for the moment that it opened out and offered us views east to the calm waters of the North Sea that we had left behind a few hours before, and north to higher hills along the Scottish border. As we walked we told stories, imagining the path we were following had been cleared by dragons, or that the dry-stone walls half-swallowed by the undergrowth were ancient territory markers of beasts and beings that existed only in our imagination. We did not know it then, as we walked through the forest, but the Simonside Hills that we were aiming for have long been a place of stories and storytelling, and we were far from the first to have been inspired by this landscape.
The rocky ridge of hills that stand above the town of Rothbury on the edge of the Northumberland National Park are said to be the home of dangerous dwarves known as the Duergar who target the wayward traveller and especially those who get caught in the bogs between the rocky outcrops. In 1889, the Morpeth Gazette made reference to the legends of Simonside and what might be lurking on the hills:
“And once upon a time did not the caverns and recesses amid the rocky heights of Simonside nightly witness the unearthly revels of a tribe of ugly elves and dwarfs – so says tradition – amongst whom it was dangerous for the solitary wanderer to venture, and is not the dismal “Caudhole Moss,” behind “Spy Law” – the home of Will o’ the Wisp, who, in former years, led benighted and unwary travellers by his treacherous luring light into the depth of the bottomless heaf.”
The stories, retold and recounted for generations, speak of the Duergar coming out after dark to target those travellers still out on the hills as night falls only to disappear again with the first cockerel call of the morning. Others tell of the Duergar appearing at the very moment visibility goes for the hapless wanderer, as low cloud descends or fog engulfs the moorland. Thankfully, we walked Simonside in a mix of sunshine and high clouds, and as we began the steep climb up to the highest point along the ridge of crags, the only troublesome small people to be seen were the ones we had brought with us and who we were now chasing up the hill.
Along the ridge it is not hard to see why this is a place to which stories such as the Duergar cling to. There are caves and ravines and the bog on either side of the stone-slab pathway threatened to swallow whole a carelessly placed walking pole. Once in it would be hard to get out… But if there were any demons in the moss-covered dens or heather-hidden caves they were keeping themselves to themselves, although we were startled by a grouse that seemed as shocked as we were while a kite hovered above our heads, enjoying even better views that those granted to us down on the path. And our views were incredible, of the Cheviots and the Northumberland coast. It was only later that, when reading some of the stories of these hills, we learned that perhaps we’d had a lucky escape…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig
Notes: Quote from the Morpeth Gazette comes from the Northumberland National Park website. Read more about the folklore of Simonside here.