By Pip Land
From the August 2003 issue of Dalesman magazine. Reproduced with permission.
On Penhill Craggs he tore his rags;
Pip Land looks at the gruesome history behind a thriving Dales tradition.
Ghostly memories of harsher times when sheep stealers faced summary justice at the hands of local people are remembered each year in Wensleydale, with the ancient and unique ceremony of Burning the Bartle.
The oral history for the centuries-old event is held by 75-year-old Alan Harker who can remember following the Bartle when he was about four-years-old.
By the last week in August he and his small team will make the effigy of the Bartle, stuffing trousers and a shirt full of straw and giving it a head. Then, at 9pm on Saturday, August 23, the 45-minute parade through West Witton will begin, starting from the west end of the village and ending at grassgill where the Bartle will once again be ceremonially burned.
"Some have said it's a harvest ritual which to me is daft because we had to plough out in wartime to grow corn and it didn't grow because the climate wasn't right. I believe he was a sheep stealer as what I was told by George Smorthwaite," said Mr Harker.
The late Mr Smorthwaite had been born in the village but later worked in London as a schoolteacher. He had collected some historical records about the village and the Bartle but these were lost in a fire.
Fifty-one years ago, when Mr Harker was asked to help with the ceremony, Mr Smorthwaite told him that it was already over 400 years old.
By the time Mr Harker was seven he had learned the doggerel chanted at the ceremony off by heart from men like Bert Spence and George Stockdale who were then in their 50s. To him it speaks of a local man, chased down from Penhill and then executed.
The term 'Bartle' he believes comes from St Bartholomew's Church. He was told by Mr Smorthwaite that the man, once caught, was probably tried at the village church court and that was why his effigy was traditionally burnt during the patronal festival.
In the 1920s there were 70 children in the village school and all enjoyed the feast of St Bartholomew which included two sports days as well as the Burning of the Bartle. "It was a busy little village then," Mr Harker remembers.
There were about seven shops including the post office, grocer, baker, cobbler and joiner and there was plenty of work around for the local men, whether in the quarries, with the railway company or on the farms.
"There was very little traffic then. There were only two or three motor cars in the village. It's a bit dodgy now because of the traffic and some don't keep the speed limit," he said.
Not only does the Bartle parade now become entangled with cars but last year one vehicle was even parked in the middle of the burning site. It had to be moved because Mr Harker was determined that all aspects of the ceremony must be retained.
"It's an old custom that's gone on all these hundreds of years and it wants carrying on," he said. "It's quite popular now but the feast nearly fell through." In the 1980s there were sometimes only three people at the meetings to plan all the feast activities, including Burning the Bartle. Of the latter Mr Harker commented: "We don't want it to die out. Gareth Robson is a new recruit. He's been with us a few years now and is in training for the future."
The present team consists of Mr Harker, his brother Robert, who has been helping for 26 years, his son, John, who after 16 years is now the chief executioner, and Mr Robson. These days Mr Harker does not carry the Bartle all the way from Kagram to Grassgill (Grisgill End) because he suffered a stroke over a year ago. Along the way they will be plied with drinks and the doggerel will be chanted, to the accompaniment of the Bartle's flashing eyes.
"When I started he had just one eye and we used a flashlight for it, switching it on and off," Mr Harker said. Now they have a battery poked in one of the Bartle's back pockets and have two eyes peering out of a plastic mask.
Another innovation during Mr Harker's 50 years has been to use a sheep's fleece for the Bartle's hair and beard. "It's changed quite a bit but it is still a bag of straw when it's done," said Mr Harker.
Incomers are now working alongside those like Mr Harker who have lived in the parish all their lives to make a success of the feast of St Bartholomew.
Copyright © Dalesman.