I have recently had a couple of emails from people who are coming to Dartmoor for their holidays and have expressed an amount of concern about the phenomenon known as being ‘Piskie Led’. Firstly they wanted to know if it the stories they had heard were true, secondly if it still happens and thirdly can it be dangerous? Therefore by way of this web page I would like to offer some reassurance, I would really like to but I can’t. So to answer the three previous questions in a word – YES!
What I will do with this page is to look into the origins of being piskie/pixie led. A good place to begin is by trying to explain from first-hand accounts what happens when you get piskie/pixie led. There are those who will say that the phenomenon of being pixie-led is an invention of the Victorian era. Silver, (1999 p.152 -153) notes the following: ‘To be pixie-led was to experience the “uncanny”; it was to be taken across the border between the civilized and the wilderness, to have the familiar become strange and the known become “other”. Being pixie-led was frequently mentioned in the fiction of the period, often for its embodiment of the fear of the uncanny, of a nature now perceived as alien or unfriendly… The Western Daily Mercury of 6 June 1890. for example, carried a serious, non-ironic report of a man being pixie-led; folklorists retold the tale of a lad employed at a farm near Dartmoor who heard (as did others) plaintive voices calling, “Jan Coo” and followed them only to vanish on the moor.’
This theory is fine until you look at such references as this, ‘Thee pixie-led in Popish society‘ which appears in Clobery’s Divine Glimpses written in 1659 – well before Queen Victoria. So having seen a cosmopolitan interpretation of being pixie led what are the more provincial descriptions? Probably the best I have ever heard came from an old woman who has lived on the moor all her life. Whilst she had not actually experienced being pixie led herself her grandfather often related how he once earned the displeasure of the little folk and became ‘led’. Apparently one minute he was happily traipsing across the moor on a track he knew well. Suddenly a dense mist descended that appeared to have a very feint green tint to it, along with this the man’s head became ‘zwimmy’ (dizzy) and he began stumbling around trying to find his direction. The actual experience seemed to last for hours and he lost all track of time but when the mist lifted he looked at his watch and only a few minutes had passed. Despite thinking he had been wandering around for miles he had in fact only moved a few yards from the spot he had reached when the mist ascended. Another well-documented case of being piskie led concerns a man from Chagford. One day his employer sent him on an errand to the village of Drewsteignton where he safely arrived. However on the way back to Chagford he went firstly to Crockernwell and the next thing he knew he was back at Drewsteignton. Having left there his next port of call was Dunsford and it was near here that a local police constable saw him wander off down a lane towards the river Teign at around two o’ clock in the morning. Thinking this was an odd hour to be abroad the P.C. apprehended the man who appeared to be in a daze. When asked why he was heading towards the river he said that he thought the silvery gleam of the river was the road home to Chagford. All in all what should have been a four mile homeward journey turned out to be a piskie led trek of around sixteen miles. Probably the most famous story of people being Piskie Led on Dartmoor is that of the unnamed couple who got lost near Okehampton. So relieved were they to have survived such an ordeal that the husband erected a granite cross next to the well where they were spared, known today as Fitz’s Well.
Possibly one of the most knowledgeable people regarding piskies was William Crossing and his view on the matter is as follows:
‘Of all the superstitions connected with the piskies, that already remarked upon, of wayfarers being liable to be led astray by them, seems to be the one which has longest continued to keep a hold upon the country people. There are many now in our villages, who while they would not admit that they believed in piskies’ doings, yet are full of instances of folks having missed their way in the most mysterious manner, and are more ready to incline to the idea that supernatural agencies were at work, than to seek the actual causes of the mishaps‘, Crossing, 1890, p.92.
What does one have to do to become Piskie Led? Sadly in some cases nothing, it would be a simple matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All it needs is to come across a mischievous piskie who wants to play a prank and so for the fun of it he will cast a spell which calls down the mist and you become Piskie Led. Alternatively you can, by any one of numerous ways, upset the little folk and the result will be their vengeance in the form of being Piskie Led. It is believed that to pick the Stitchwort plant is to invite trouble, initially because it will anger the piskies/pixies who will take their revenge by piskie leading the guilty party. Secondly, the other name for the plant is Addersmeat because they are known to sleep amongst the leaves of the plant and don’t like being disturbed. There seem to be two modern conditions that can lead to people becoming ‘Piskie Led’, the first scenario involves an illegal substance or copious amounts of alcohol and the second is a result of the inability to read a map and compass – stoned, drunk or lost, blame it on the piskies.
What can be done to avoid being Piskie Led? The most commonest piece of advice is that as soon as you see the mist rolling down immediately turn your coat inside out or if you aren’t wearing a coat then a trouser pocket will do. If by any chance you haven’t a coat or pocket to turn inside out then it must mean you are doing a spot of nude walking and are basically in trouble. Another way to break the spell is to find and drink some clear, running water which on Dartmoor isn’t hard most of the year. Alternatively you can find a Piskie Pole which is a walking stick imbibed with the powers of stopping the piskies from causing their mischief.
So there you have it – Piskie Led, believe it or not the choice is yours, all I will say is that the, ‘truth is out there…’
Crossing, W. 1890 Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies, W. H. Hood: London
Silver, C. 1999. Strange and Secret Peoples. Oxford University Press.