A ‘Gothic’ icon

Ravens (Corvus corax) are a relatively common bird in some places. In the British Isles they currently breed mainly in the west and north. But they have been moving eastwards.

Single Ravens are now and again seen over the North York Moors. Excitingly, this summer saw the first breeding Ravens in the North York Moors for a long while, at least 50 years. Three chicks fledged.

Adult Raven near Ravenscar - copyright Graham Oliver, BTO.

The nest was near Ravenscar on the coast. Ravenscar and other places in the North York Moors such as Raven Hill, Raven Heath, Ravensthorpe, Raven Stones, Ravens Gill and Ravensgill Beck, usually share some kind of nearby cliff edge habitat (coastal or inland) where Ravens like to nest. The occurrence of these place names indicate that Ravens were more usual in the North York Moors in the past, so the fact that they have bred again in the North York Moors suggests a return and a boost to the natural heritage of the area.

These places were named so because of the presence of Ravens; Ravens have always been culturally significant. It’s not hard to see why. Their size, colour and sound is striking, but it is also their perceived cleverness, their carrion eating habits and their interaction with human society which gives them a special place in cultural history. Ravens have been loaded with superstitions and connotations. Wariness of the apparent watching and knowing nature of the bird causes unease. They are associated with premonitions of doom; seeing or hearing a Raven has been taken as a sign of imminent death. These dark associations continue, at least in part, today.

Raven - the Watcher by JestePhotography. http://jestephotography.deviantart.com/art/Raven-The-Watcher-532656250.

So in celebration of this age old cultural fear and to mark Halloween, here is an example of a local Raven tale. The lesson is – never look a Raven in the eye.

Some time ago a man was walking home over the moors.

It was already dusk but he didn’t mind because he didn’t have much further to go and he had made money that day.

He knew the way because he had walked it many times before. He counted the scarce land marks as he went till he knew there were only three more boundary stones to pass before the moors would give way to a gentler landscape and then it was only a few miles to his home.

As the gloom drew in he saw the first of the three boundary stones just ahead of him. A Raven was sitting on top of the stone. As the man went passed the bird didn’t fly away, instead it looked at him, cocked its head and called out in the silence

“Craaw craaw”
“Corpse corpse”

The man turned his head. The Raven still looked at him.

“Craaw craaw”

The man hurried on. He was starting to feel tired but he could see the glow of the lights of his village in the distance just over the horizon of the darkening moors. He thought about the warmth of his fire and the taste of his dinner.

It was getting colder and the greyness around him was turning to black. There were no stars in the sky, and he couldn’t see the moon. There were odd shapes on the moors, in the gloom – ancient silent burial mounds and twisted bitter rowan trees.

Just in front he saw the outline of the second boundary stone. There was a Raven sitting on top. The man didn’t look at it – he walked straight on, looking ahead. The Raven looked at him though.

“Craaw craaw”
“Corpse corpse”
“Corpse corpse”

The man pulled his coat around him. He didn’t know why he was mishearing the bird call. He tried to hum a tune, but he couldn’t think of one.

For a moment he thought about heading off the track to avoid the last boundary stone but he knew he couldn’t because then he would be lost. He thought about the people he’d heard of that had been lost on the moors and who had never got home.

He kept walking. He felt the damp blackness pressing about him. He couldn’t see the last boundary stone. He thought he should have seen it by now. The glow on the horizon didn’t seem any closer, in fact it looked to be receding as if it were being out blotted out by the dark.

He stumbled and nearly fell. There was the last boundary stone and there was a Raven.

“Corpse corpse”
“Corpse corpse”
“Corpse corpse”

The man stopped and looked at the Raven. The Raven looked back at him, eye to eye.

The man became aware of the dead around him and knew in fact he must be dead too. He could go on walking but would never get home. So instead he sat down next to the last boundary stone and waited.

The darkness gathered in.

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Ravens make a lot of different noises (listen here) – and can even learn to mimic words.

For a Halloween Raven-themed treat – both ominous and ghastly – try here.

3 thoughts on “A ‘Gothic’ icon

  1. Pingback: Last year’s top 5 posts | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

  2. In “Some Reminiscences and Folk Lore of Danby Parish and District”, by Joseph Ford. (published in 1953) He refers to and old friend of his who, in the 1850s can remember Ravens as being almost gone in the district of Danby and the high moorlands. He states that the last Ravens’ nest was in Bransdale about 1875 and that the young were taken and an effort was made to bring them up as pets.

    I doubt very much whether Ravens elsewhere in or around the NYMNP area survived much longer than that.

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