In the long forgotten days before Ipods and such demonic inventions the folk of Dartmoor had to make their own music. This meant learning to play an instrument such as an accordion, flute or a fiddle and such musicians would be akin to the ‘Rock Idols’ of today. I suppose in a way the fiddler was the modern equivalent of the lead guitarist and was by way and far the star of the show. So it was not surprising that every young boy dreamed of becoming a famous fiddler who when he played had all the young girls falling at his feet. One such a lad lived on the edge of the moor just outside Tavistock. He had seen the fiddlers playing at the fairs and how the crowd swayed trance-like to their melodies and knew that one day it would be him they were listening to. Imagine then the boy’s excitement when early one Christmas morning he found a fiddle lying beside his stocking. It took a lot of scrimping and saving for his parents to afford the fiddle and even then it was an old one they managed to buy off a passing gypsy band. None the less it was a start and the ensuing months saw the boy endlessly scraping and sawing the fiddle in an effort to play a tune. At first the parents put up with the painful noise believing that it was early days and things would improve. Sadly things did not improve and the ear-shattering caterwauling soon became a bone of contention until the day came when father banned the fiddle from the house. But fair do’s even the fact that the lad had to stand out on the moor to do his fiddling did not deter him from his goal.
It must have been late one summer’s evening when the lad returned from the moor with a rather smug look on his face. His parents knew that expression from old and immediately asked what mischief he had been up to. With a smile he produced the fiddle and before his father had chance to sling him through the door the boy began to play. Both mother and father were astounded because coming from that old battered fiddle was the most soulful tune they had ever heard. No longer did it sound like a cat being cut for this was now truely music to their ears. When the lad had finished the tune he then struck up a proper foot stomping jig that soon had the parents clattering around the flagstones. From that day on the boy and his fiddle were allowed back into the house and on most nights music wafted out onto the moorland air.
It did not take long for the boy’s talents to be recognised and soon he was up on the boards at most of the local fairs and ‘hoccasions’. It did not take long for coin to start coming his way and along with this came the delights of ale and women. At last the fiddler had reached his dream although along with it came the reputation of a ‘ne’er do well’ but that was part and parcel of stardom so he never minded. That was until about ten years later, just when his career was at its height. For some unknown reason the lad suddenly became morose and began looking for answers deeper in his ale tankard.
It must have been around Michaelmas when the lad, well no, he was a grown man by then, sheepishly went down to the abbey at Tavistock. Here he just sat outside the gates sullenly staring into space, occasionally plucking a tuneless note from his fiddle. Eventually one of the monks came out to see what the problem was, something he later wished he hadn’t done. Bit by bit the man’s dire secret came out, he explained all about his fiddle and how despite hours and hours of practice he could never master its secrets. He went on to say how whilst walking down a lane one day he met a tall stranger dressed in a black suit with white ruffs on his neck and cuffs. The man then began to tremble as he confessed how this stranger had struck a bargain with him, the monks eyes stared wide and he crossed himself. The fiddler then dropped his bombshell, in return for being given the secret of how to play the fiddle he had exchanged his mortal soul. In a torrent of tears and snot the man said how in two days it was time to hand his soul over to the stranger. The monk, in that holier than thou manner which the righteous seem to have, berated the man for his youthful foolishness. With finger wagging the brother said that it was the Devil himself that the pact had been made with and that there was nothing for it but to face up and keep the pact as any man of honour should. Then with a thoughtful rub of his chin the monk suggested that in return for a generous contribution to the abbey he would accompany the fiddler to his appointment of destiny. Greedily eyeing the heavy purse that the man produced, the monk went on to explain that with a servant of God by his side the Devil dare not take his soul.
On the dreaded day the fiddler met the monk at the arranged place on the moor, he handed the brother a large purse which quickly disappeared into the folds of his black habit. No sooner had that transaction been completed than the air became thick with the smell of sulphur. The monk immediately vanished behind the thick hedgerow and the fiddler was left to face Satan alone. A thick green mist descended, out of which emerged ‘Old Nick’ himself, the fiddler could see he was still dressed in his black suit but this time he could plainly see a cloven hoof sticking out of each trouser leg. The diabolical one strode up to the fiddler and sniffed the air, with a snort and a stamp he bellowed out:
“Tis the blackbird behind the hedgerow that keeps thee safe, thou scraper of old tunes, and foul railer against thy master. Know fiddler mine, and I tell it thee only because I cannot help it, being compelled to do so by the exorcisms of the brethren now going on at the abbey – that hadst thou never called me, I had never appeared. But look to thyself, friend, and blame not me. Has it not ever been with thee, when thou wast angry, in mirth, in sadness, in bargaining or in liquor; “I wish the Devil did this;” or “I wish the Devil had me;” or “I wish the Devil were here.” Devil here and Devil there; and yet now is he unwelcome company? Go home, tune thy fiddle, play my lord abbot a psalm; leave off profane swearing, and obey the monks, not failing to give them their dues, and fear no more dog nor devil for the nonce.”
With that tirade the satanic figure strode back into the green mist until it was only the sound of his cloven hooves clattering on the stony lane that could be heard. When total silence descended a dishevelled ‘blackbird’ dressed in his black habit staggered out of the hedgerow, his face as white as the ‘Old Man’s Beard’ that was draped around his neck. It did not take him long to regain his wits enough to remind the fiddler that Satan had commanded him to pay the monks their, “dues,” adding an extra word – regularly.
From that day forward the only place the sound a the man’s fiddle was heard was at church services and the fiddler lead an exemplary life for the rest of his allotted years.
So be warned any profaners, do not invoke the Devil for as the old saying goes: “speak of the Devil and he shall appear.” Desist ye of little resolve from taking the easy way out because the monks of Tavistock Abbey are no longer there to bail you out!