Up on the ridge we looked out across the landscape. Heather tinged with purple. Solitary trees. Rocky outcrops. In the distance we could see the blue waters of the North Sea and the hills that straddle the border to Scotland. We were on the Simonside Hills of Northumberland, a place of stories and legends. To keep shorter legs motivated for the climb up onto the ridge we had invented some of our own. It was only later that we discovered we weren’t the first to have been inspired into storytelling by this landscape. It was only when we were back down, in the safety of our cottage, that we heard tell of the Duergar.
The Simonside Hills stand over Rothbury. As we walked up through the forest and via a steep, winding path onto the ridge, we’d heard the curlews call and caught a glimpse of a red grouse in the heather high up on the ridge. But the most famous residents of the hills were keeping themselves hidden on this day. Perhaps it was because we had come in numbers, for the Duergar of these rocky heights were said to target the lonely traveller, not a noisy group of hikers.
The Duergar are the most infamous of the so-called ‘little people’ long believed to live among the caves and rocks of the Simonside ridge. They were said to come out at dusk and would try to lure solitary wanderers who had become benighted on the hills to their death. These tales were shared and passed on over the centuries, and later collected in books like Grice’s Folk-tales of the North Country (1944).
Grice documented the story of a man on his way across the hills to Rothbury who had managed to survive his Duergar encounter. The Duergar had been trying to encourage the wanderer to come towards a hut with its fire on the other side of a gate post. It must have been tempting for the traveller, who instead decided to stay where he was and wait out the long, cold hours of darkness, all the while trying to ignore the temptation of the dwarf and his hut.
What the man thought about is lost to time, but ‘as soon as the cock had crowed, the dwarf disappeared, and with him the hut and the fire. The traveller looked up. The sky in the east was turning grey, and by its dim light he saw that he was sitting on the big grey stone. But it was the topmost stone of a dark, rugged precipice. Had he leaned over to the left to reach the other gate-post, as the dwarf had challenged him to do, he would have fallen down the cliff and killed himself…’
Beneath a rugged rock on the ridge we stopped and had our lunch. The sky was ever-changing. Sunshine one minute, moody clouds the next, but it was summer and we had a lot of time until darkness fell. The biggest danger on the ridge path was probably stepping off the heavy stones that had been laid against the erosion caused by walkers’ feet and to chart a path through the boggy moorland on either side.
Walking poles pressed into the earth on either side of the path sank a metre or more down into the mountain, and it was easy to imagine how a solitary walker picking his or her way across the ridge in the dark had more to fear from wandering off the path and getting stuck than any mythical small people that may or may not have been lurking in the shadows.
Our route led us down off the ridge and onto a dirt road, back into the forest that stood at the foot of the hills and where we had started our walk. Now we were in a shadow landscape of moss-covered boulders, crooked pines and abandoned stone walls, all providing more inspiration for the imagination and a new set of stories about who or what might be living hereabouts.
We had not known about the Duergar and the others who had lived on for centuries in the stories of the Simonside Hills, but in our own inventions that day it was easy to understand how the landscape had provided fertile ground for folklore and fairy tales. The aim was presumably to keep people close to home, to prevent kids wandering off up onto the heights where they could do themselves a mischief. But the stories don’t always work that way. Sometimes they make a place more intriguing. We wanted to climb the steep path to see what might be lurking behind that rock, high on the ridge. To discover what was hiding in the heather or around the next corner.
As long as we were careful, the Duergar were not going to lead us into danger, but into a place that was bleak and beautiful, where we could see for miles and yet it felt like we had this view all to ourselves. Quite often, the places that stories warn you about are the ones with the most to offer.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton