On the Saturday of August Bank Holiday weekend, along with CCL colleagues David Clarke and Richard Bradley, I travelled north to attend the Burning of the Bartle at West Witton, near Leyburn in North Yorkshire. This short, quiet, yet slightly macabre calendar custom takes place each year on the Saturday closest to St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). The custom is reported to date back over 400 years (although the church records to prove this were lost in a fire) however first hand testimony exists dating back to the mid 19th century.
At around 8.45pm a small number of townspeople, holiday makers, visiting photographers and folklorists, gather in the half light of dusk at the point where Chantry Lane meets Mesnes Lane (A684) at the west end of the village to await the arrival of ‘Owd Bartle’. The Bartle is a straw effigy of a man carried by two villagers accompanied by a caller carrying a staff. The figure is made and kept in secret during the preceding week, dressed in trousers or jeans and a jumper and often wears a hat and a sheep’s wool beard. He has a Halloween mask over his face behind which two glowing bulbs are positioned to shine through the eyes. Some years the trio are accompanied by a visiting piper, masked and in disguise apparently to avoid any issues with PRS.
The custom has been maintained by at least three generations of the Harker family. This year the Bartle was carried by David Harker and Gareth Robson and the caller was John Harker. A Harker has carried for as long as anyone can remember, John’s father Alan began his Bartle making in the early 1950s while his grandfather Jack was a singer before him. David has been involved for over 20 years while John has been caller for 33 years taking over from John Spencer in 1986. Gareth is a ‘new recruit’ having started in the late 1990s.
At around 9.00pm the main road through the village is closed by members of the organising committee, who have been trained to do so in order to avoid the cost of hiring the police and to prevent irate motorists forcing their way through the crowds as happened a few years back. Shortly after a procession begins during which the Bartle is carried between his escorts through the village stopping at local ale houses (The Wensleydale Heifer, The Fox and Hounds and the Old Star) and with a number of villager’s houses. At each stop the execution party is met by the residents before the caller recites a short story in verse listing a series of nearby locations:
On Penhill Crags he tore his rags,
Hunter’s Thorn he blew his horn,
Capplebank Stee happened a misfortune and brak’ his knee,
Grisgill Beck he brak’ his neck,
Wadham’s End he couldn’t fend,
Grisgill End we’ll mak’ his end,
Shout, lads, shout!
The gathered crowd then responds with a hearty ‘Hurrah!’
The verse is said to refer to the chase and capture of a notorious sheep stealer, (or perhaps a pig or cattle thief) by local farmers and his subsequent execution after a trail at the local village court held on St Bartholomew’s Day. Others believe the custom to be an acting out of a dragon myth linked to the area.
After the recitations drinks (usually a shot of whiskey or glass of wine) are provided to the escorts, brief conversations are held and the procession moves on. As the Bartle and his party approach the east end of the village they turn to the right up Grassgill (Grisgill) Lane and after a couple of hundred yards stop and the effigy is propped up next to a dry-stone wall overlooking fields. Health and safety have seen the introduction of barriers to keep the crowd at a safe distance and once all are gathered the Bartle has his mask and glowing eyes removed before being set alight. The crowd watches as the figure slowly burns while the verse is recited a further two or three times and traditional songs are sung.
This year there was a reasonable crowd, perhaps as many as 50 people, a mix of villagers and holidaymakers staying in the village along with those who’d stayed behind after a fell race held earlier in the afternoon and a small number of people who’d attended specifically to meet the Bartle.
This was my second visit, in 1995 there was no musician, no official road closure and no health and safety barrier at the burning site. In the intervening years one of the carriers, Alan Harker, has retired and fewer songs are sung for which less people know the words however little else has changed. Performed by just three people accompanied by a musician and lasting not more than an hour the custom is relatively small and quiet however the reciting of the doggerel and the sight of the burning effigy can tend to linger in the memory.
Andrew Robinson, Sept 2019.