Spooklights in Tradition and Folklore

David Clarke
Magonia 24, November 1980.

Few people today will have heard about the once common phenomenon known generally in the British Isles as ‘Will o’the Wisp’ or ‘Jack o’Lantern’. Prior to the end of the 19th century this rural mystery was a terror familiar to night travellers, especially in the marshy, undrained areas which still remained in many parts of England.

Will o’the Wisp is known to scientists by its Latin name ignis fatuus – foolish fire – and is variously described as a strong, flame-like light (often first taken for a lantern or the lights of a house in the distance) seen hovering over marshland just after sunset. However, many reliable witnesses have described seeing brilliant Will o’the Wisps dancing over hedgerows, rising high in the air or performing elaborate movements. They often appear to display signs of intelligence – the light is said to recede from an observer who approaches it, or follow him if he retires. This appears to contradict the long-held, but never proven, belief that Will o’the Wisps are caused by the spontaneous ignition of marsh-gas or ‘phosphoretted hydrogen’ in swampy areas.

In 1980 A.A. Mills, a chemist at Leicester University, published a study investigating the possible connections between marsh-gas and Will o’the Wisps. [1] He worked initially on the old premise that the phenomenon was due to ignition of natural gas or methane, perhaps ignited by contamination with phosphine or a higher hydride. Mills experimentally tried to create a Will o’the Wisp in his laboratory by filling a gallon glass bottle with compost, peat, eggs, bone meal and other such ingredients, which were then allowed to incubate at a warm temperature. He collected the ‘marsh gas’ which bubbled off, “but although repulsively odiferous it never displayed the slightest luminosity when allowed to come into contact with air”.

Further, Mills stated that to explain Will o’the Wisp as marsh gas one had to “explain how to achieve natural ignition of an intermittent, disconnected bubble of gas rising through the marsh”. The suggestion that phosphine could provide this natural ignition is a non-starter, as phosphorous is never found in a pure state in nature, and vapour-phase chromatography has failed to detect even parts per million traces of phosphine in marsh gasses analysed in laboratories.

Will o’the Wisp is therefore as much a mystery in our present age as he was to earlier generations. In recent times he appears to have diappeared from the countryside, along with fairies, as marshes have been drained, and as technology has redefined his image for our modern perceptions. We now regard strange lights in the night sky as heralds of extraterrestrial visitors rather than the mischevious sprites, evil spirits and elementals which were once familiar to our ancestors.

In 1855 a writer in Notes and Queries asked if Will o’the Wisp was still to be seen in any parts of the British Isles. He received replies from many correspondents, giving eyewitness acounts of recent sightings. One correspondent replied:
I have little doubt that the sprite is still to be met with in certain districts of Essex or among the Norfolk Broads… the inquirer might procure a sight of one if he would enquire of some rustic where they most frequently occur. But for this purpose he must know the vernacular name in the district where he lives [2]
Nearly every country district of the British Isles has its own particular name for Will o’the Wisp and his kind, most of them personalised – Joan the Wad (Devon and Cornwall); William with the little flame (Ireland); Jenny Burntail (Warwickshire; Kitty wi’the Wisp (Northumberland), and countless others. Similar names can be found throughout Europe: irrllchtern, ‘wandering light’ (Germany); feux-follets (France); Fuoco fatuo (Italy); lycktegubbe ‘lantern bearer’ (Sweden) – suggesting a world-wide occurence of similar phenomena. Other names have been given, or related to Will o’the Wisp. Countryfolk and folklorists connect him with Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Friar Rush and other pagan elementals. These traditions are unwittingly continued on bonfire night when children place a candle in a hollowed-out turnip to represent the evil spirit or Jack o’Lantern. [3]

Of purpose to deceive us
And leading us makes us stray
Long winter nights out of the way
And when we stick in mire or clay
He doth with laughter lead us
Drayton’s Nymphidia

These wandering lights have been known to haunt certain spots for centuries. The folklore of the Scottish Highlands is particularly rich with stories concerning strange lights regarded as omens of death or disaster, and the Gaelic language has several names for them: solus bais, a death light, solus taisg, a spectre light, and teine biorach, “a fire floating in the air like a bird”.

In ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ [4] R.C. McLagan writes that “there are places which have got their names from the belief that mysterious lights have appeared in their neighbourhood, Thus Creag an T-Soluis, a rock above Cairn near Port Charlotte, has its name from a belief that supernatural lights used to be seen about it. For the same reason another rock down at the shore below Cairn Cottage is called Carraig na Soluis.”

Almost everywhere these lights are regarded as omens of death, particularly in Celtic countries where the ‘corpse candle’ tradition originates. One account describes the candle as a light “seen during the night slowly gliding from the house to the gate of the churchyard and along the church-road, but that by which the funeral processions pass” [5] McLagan notes that:
In the Isle of Man, on May Eve, many of the inhabitants remain on the hills till sunrise, endeavouring to pry into futurity by observing particular omens. If a bright light were observed to issue, seemingly, from any house in the surrounding valleys, it was considered a certain indication that some member of that family was soon to be married; but if a dim light were seen, moving slowly in the direction of the parish church, it was then deemed equally certain that a funeral would soon pass that way to the churchyard! [7]

This tradition is similar to that connecting the lights to areas of pre-historic sanctity – burial mounds, stone circles and ancient religious sites’. In Norwegian folklore the little islands off the coast were inhabited by dwarfs, and on festive nights were “lit up with countless blue lights that moved and skipped about without ceasing, borne by the little underground people; and the grave mounds of heroes emitted lamdent flames that guarded the dead and treasure buried with them [4].

A fascinating account of this kind appeared in the popular science magazine English Mechanic during 1919. This described how a correspondent, T. Sington, saw “strange lights… no doubt will o’the wisps” while walking with a friend in the dead of night near the ancient and spectacular Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake District:
When we were at a point near which the track branches off to the Druidical circle, we all at once saw a rapidly moving light as bright as the acetylene lamp of a bicycle, and we instinctively stepped to the road boundary wall to make way for it, but nothing came, As a matter of fact the light travelled at right angles to the road, say 20 feet above our level, possibly 200 yards or so away. It was a white light, and having crossed the road it suddenly diappeared. Whether it went out or passed behind an obstruction it is impossible to say, as I have not yet had an opportunity of again visiting the place during daylight. There is certainly no crossroads there. We then saw a number of lights possibly a third of a mile away, directly in the direction of the Druidical circle, but of course much fainter, no doubt due to distance, moving backwards and forwards horizontally; we stood watching them for a long time, and then only left as it was so late at the hotel people might think we were lost on the mountain (Helvellyn).
  "Owing to some local conditions at present unknown
such lights would have attracted the attention of the inhabitants, who would have attached great significance to them
and might then have selected the site
as a place of worship or sacrifice"

Whilst we were watching a remarkable incident happened – one of the lights, and only one, came straight to the spot where we were standing; at first very faint, as it approached the light increased in intensity. When it came quite near I was in no doubt whether I should stoop below the boundary wall as the light would pass directly over our heads. But when it came close to the wall it slowed down, stopped, quivered, and slowly went out, as if the matter producing the light had become exhausted. It was globular, white, with a nucleus possibly six feet or so in diameter, and just high enough above ground to pass over our heads.

Mr Sington concluded his fascinating story by stating his suspicion that the ancient builders of the stone circle had selected this particular spot “owing to some local conditions at present unknown… such lights would have attracted the attention of the inhabitants, who would have attached great significance to them, and might then have selected the site as a place of worship or sacrifice.” [9]

In view of recent research at various megalithic sites by members of the Dragon Project [9] Mr Sington’s idea seems to be vindicated. In Folklore (1894), Mr M.J. Walhouse describe a visit to the marvellous megalithic stone-rows at Carnac in Britanny, where he asked a boy who was guiding him about any local popular beliefs attached to the stones:
It was not easy to understand him, and I could only gather that on certain nights a flame was seen burning on every stone, and on such nights no-one would go near – the stones are there believed to mark burial places.[10]

Walhouse adds that:
... in the extreme south of India the Shanars, a very numerous caste of devil-worshippers, believe that waste-places, and especially burial grounds, are haunted by demons that assume various shapes, one after another, as often as the eye of the observer turns away, and are often seen gliding over marshy land like flickering lights. They are called in Tamil pey-neruppu, i.e. devil fires. Riding late after dark over a jungly tract near mountains I once saw what the natives averred was a pey-neruppu; it seemed a ball of pale flame, the size of an orange, moving in a fitful wavering way above the bushes and passing out of sight behind trees; its movements resembled the flight of an insect, but I know of none in India that shows any such light; the fireflies there are no larger than fireflies in Italy. [11]

Another writer in the same publication tells an interesting story of similar lights observed in another part of India, upon which similar legends were attached.
I was staying on a tea-garden (plantation] near Darjiling last year (1893) and one evening as we were walking around the flower garden our eyes were caught by a light like that of a lantern being carried down the path which leads to the vegetable garden some 200 feet below. My host sent for the Mah1i who came down from his house, and asked him what business anyone had to be going to the vegetable garden at that time? ‘Oh’, said the man, ‘that is one of the chota-admis (i.e, little men); and on being asked to explain, he said that these little men lived underground, and only came out at night. He did not appear to be very clear as to what their occupation was, but they always walk or fly with lanterns. They are about three feet high, and they will never allow anyone to get near them; but if by any chance one was to come upon them unexpectedly, they would quickly disappear, and the person who saw them would become ill and probably die. They are constantly about on dark nights, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty together, but he and all the natives always gave them a wide berth.
Whilst he was speaking we watched the light, which apparently left the path, and in two or three minutes flew across to another portion of the hill, between which and the vegetable garden was a steep dip which would take an ordinary individual at least half an hour to descend and ascend the other side; then it disappeared, and we saw no more that night, but two or three times afterwards we saw similar lights, sometimes carried along the paths and at others flying across dips in the hills. We made enquiries from the natives, who all told the same tale; but when we asked other planters they could tell us nothing about them. The light was too large and not erratic enough for any firefly that we have seen in that neighbourhood, more like a lantern than anything else we could think of. [12]

There can be little doubt that there is a real, objective natural phenomenon lurking behind many of these accounts, which appear to be describing luminous shape-shifting blobs which have a mysterious relationship with certain areas and types of terrain. They appear to interact in mysterious ways with human beings, particularly those undergoing intense emotional excitement – as shown by the phenomena accompanying the Welsh Revival of 1905, or are attracted to the electric fields surrounding human beings out in the open. Although they may appear to possess some kind of rudimentary or mischievous intelligence, this is more likely to be an illusion produced by the observer through some process of perception. It is more likely that the energy from which they are formed is affected by external changes in the surrounding environment – geology, variations in the earth’s magnetic field, changes in air density, etc. These may all contribute to giving the impression of intelligent motion.

In 1967 ufologist John Keel had realised that it was the spookllght sightings, what he described as ‘soft objects’, which “represented the real phenomenon.” He described these sightings as of “transparent or translucent objects seemingly capable of altering their size and shape dramatically.” [13] During his investigations in West Virginia Keel actually had the opportunity of watching them from his skywatch position at Gallipolis Ferry. In The Mothman Prophecies [14] he says:
Each night from three to eight unidentified ‘stars’ appeared, They were always in the same position at the beginning of the evening and a casual observer would automatically conclude they were really just stars. However, on overcast nights these unidentifieds would be the only ‘stars’ in the sky, meaning they were below the clouds. While the rest of the night sky slowly rotated, these phony stars would remain in their fixed positions, sometimes for hours, before they would begin to move. Then they would travel in any direction, up, down, clockwise, etc, they had a number of curious traits. When a plane would fly over they would suddenly dim or go out altogether. As soon as the plane was gone they would flare up again.

These strange lights are still with us, appearing at various spots throughout the world, and there is little doubt their comings and goings will add to the considerable amount of folklore already in existence. The lights which have been haunting the remote Norwegian valley of Hessdalen since 1981 display remarkable ghost-like characteristics – playing tag with observers, at times appearing to be gaseous and at others solid; sometimes showing up on radar and at others not. A similar kind of phenomenon – this time a brilliant orange ball of light – has been plaguing the Pennine hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire since the 1970′s, particulalry the Rossendale Valley and the area around Skipton and Grassendale. The fact that both these areas are criss-crossed by numerous geological faults can surely be no coincidence, and adds to the considerable evidence now available which appears to indicate that one of the variables which may explain the creation and origin of the lights – fault lines – has now been isolated.

As regards the recent sightings in the Craven district of Yorkshire, local UFO investigator Tony Dodd, a police officer and alleged witness to over 200 sightings, said in 1983:

There are strange things flying around at night, but where they come from is another thing. They seem to be more prevelant on winter nights. A lot of the ones I have seen have been way below cloud level. This area has a very high percentage of national sightings. I have seen 60 to 80 of these machines in the last ten years… I feel because this is one of the hotspots as far as sightings go, there are bases located in certain places where they go underground. [15]

Although Mr Dodd may not realise it, he may have given us one of the most important clues to solve this mystery.

Notes and References:
  1. HILLS, A. A. ‘Will o’the Wisp’ in Chemistry in Britain, 16:69, Feb. 1980,
  2. Notes and Queries, April 4th 1891.
  3. Old drawings and woodcuts showing Will o’the Wisp’s consistently depict the light being carried in the outstretched hand of an imp or hobgoblin.
  4. McLAGAN, R. C. ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ in Folklore, vo1,8 (1897), pp.203-256.
  5. FEILBURG, H. H. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 6 (1895), p.293.
  6. This connection has become apparent to me time after time during research work. The sightings around Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, in 1923-4, described in Spooklights; a British Survey were seemingly centred upon a pre-Norman church and its holy well, This is one of many examples which could be cited.
  7. Train’s Isle of Man, vol. ii, p.118.
  8. SINGTON, T„ ‘A Mystery’ in English Mechanic, Oct, 17, 1919, pp,152-153.
  9. ROBINS, D. Circles of Silence, Souvenir Press, 1985.
  10. WALHOUSE, M. J. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 5 (1894), pp. 293-299.
  11. In McLAGAN, op. cit. there is the story of a prehistoric burial cairn near Ledaig in Scotland called Carn Bhan which has a legend attached to it that seven kings were buried there. A 70-year-old woman resident of the area told McLagan that “there used to be a large light often seen at the Carn Bhan, indeed I think it is not so very long ago since it was seen there, I have often seen it there myself, it was as large as the light of that lamp”.
  12. Folklore, vol, 6, (1895), pp. 245-246.
  13. KEEL, JOHN A. ‘The principles of transmogrification’ in Flying Saucer Review, vo1,15, no.4, (June-July 1968), pp,27-31.
  14. KEEL, JOHN A. The Mothman Prophecies, Dutton, 1975
  15. Craven Herald (Skipton, Yorkshire), July 21, 1983.