The Burning of Old Bartle

Saturday 26th August 2017

West Witton, nr Leyburn, North Yorkshire

The Doggerel

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags

Hunters Thorn he blew his horn

Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brak' his knee

Grassgill Beck he brak' his neck

Wadhams End he couldn't fend

Grassgill End we'll mak' his end

Shout, lads, shout!

Are you coming to see Bartle burn?

Burning Bartle - The Tradition

Like so many UK traditions and customs, the exact origins of 'the Burning of Bartle' are a matter of some contention, even among long-standing village residents!

Opinions vary as to who (or what) 'Bartle' was, when the custom began, and what the exact meanings (and origin) of the doggerel are but here are some of the most popular theories:

Bartle as a statue (16th Century)

'Bartle' is a common name for 'Bartholomew' and there are obvious links here in that the ritual takes place near St. Bartholomew's day and the church in West Witton is dedicated to St. Bartholomew.

One version of the tale is that 'Bartle' was a (wooden) statue of St. Bartholomew that the villagers attempted to hide from the ransacking of the Reformation in the 16th Century, taking it from place to place until finally 'losing' it at Grassgill.

Bartle as a sheep thief (unknown)

One of the most popular origins is that Bartle was a sheep thief who was chased around the village when they took the law into their own hands. Although one of the most popular tales in the village, this version does miss any obvious connection to St. Bartholomew

Bartle as a holy man (16th Century)

Another idea from the 1500s is that Bartle was, in fact, Abbot Adam Sedburgh of Jervaulx Abbey. Jervaulx is close to West Witton (approx. 9 miles) and there are links between the Abbey and buildings here. Abbot Sedburgh was apparently trying to dodge the draft for the Pilgrimage of Grace, a mass march to London protesting against the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, records exist that show that the Abbot was actually hanged at Tyburn, York, so this casts some doubt on this theory.

Bartle as a pig farming giant

A truly 'mythical' version of the story has Bartle as a giant, the son of Norse god Thor. When one day the giant, who for unknown reasons had taken up pig-farming near Witton, discovered his prize boar missing he blamed the folk of West Witton. Being hardy folk they weren't perturbed and eventually chased and killed the giant, setting his 'castle' ablaze in the process.

What seems most likely is that the modern tradition of Burning Bartle is an amalgam of many old (and ancient) customs and traditions, possibly stretching back to pagan harvest rituals (as many August/September rituals do). Over many hundreds of years the ritual has been modified and altered to suit the age and the news of the time, resulting eventually in what we see today.