St Johnston - Carrigans     ~ Co Donegal.

 

Stumpy's Brae

The gruesome legend of Stumpy's Brae was occasionally called the Legend of Tom the Toiler according to Ireland's Own.   It is doubtful that Ireland's Own was correct on that point.

Stumpy's Brae is the steep brae between Craighadoes and Lifford near a bridge that is featured in the legend.   

Oral tradition says that Tom was murdered in a house there with a pick for his belongings by an elderly couple for his belongings. 

They tried to put him in his pack after emptying it of the goods but he was too tall.  So they cut off his legs at the knee to bury him.  Legend says he was buried among the roots of a tree.  Tom came back for vengeance as a gruesome ghost that walked about on the stumps of his legs and tormented his killers to their dying day.  

Oral tradition claims that the farmer's house was the old house at the foot of what is now called Stumpy's Brae.  The house was demolished in recent years.  The poem being written evidence has to be taken more seriously than oral tradition.  It says Stumpy was carried from the house over the bridge to the Brae for burial.

Oral tradition varies as to where Stumpy was sacrilegiously interred.  The story says they carried the body to a Brae and that there was a bridge over a burn between their house and where they put him.  Those who believe the house at Stumpy's Bray was the murder site say that the burial transpired in Craighadoes at a small brae between what used to be Joshua Galbraith's farm house and the road.  The legend tells us that the ghost went over the bridge and there is bridge between where Stumpy was supposedly buried in Craighadoes and Stumpy's Brae. 

The poem differs from oral tradition in the following respects.  It says Stumpy was taken from the farmer's house across the bridge up to the Brae for burial.

Other oral traditions have been preserved in accounts such as the following essay that can be found on the Dúchas website.  This account rings true unlike the poem.

Stumpy’s Brae!

Not far from the village of St. Johnston’s is a steep hill known as ‘Stump’s Brae’. Stump still haunts that hill and if you stop to listen some night when the moon is full you may hear the sound of his wooden stump on the hard road as he paces up and down. You will never see the man himself, you will only hear the sound of his footsteps.

Now long ago there was an old man living in St. Johnston. He had only one leg. The reason for this we do not know but the fact remains that instead of a right leg he had only a wooden stump. When the walked up the village street the wooden stump made a loud clattering sound and the people would say without even looking out through their windows ‘There goes old stumpy’. He was rich but there were whispers and rumours that he had obtained his money by some not altogether honest means. No one knew from whence he came. He himself never offered any information on the subject and his whole past remained shrouded in mystery.

Late one evening as he was coming home from market he was robbed and brutally murdered. Although thorough investigations were made in the murderer was never found and since, superstitious people always say that he can be heard walking on this brae.

I have heard the above story on several occasions.
R.W. Cunningham
Ardagh N.S. St. Johnston, Co. Donegal.

Dúchas.ie » The Schools’ Collection » Co. Donegal » Ardagh

 

Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander the author of Once in Royal David's City and All Things Bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away wrote the legend in poetry form.

Here it is albeit a bit different from the original.  It changed a little through oral recitation.

Stumpy's Brae

By Cecil Frances Alexander December 1844

Heard ye no tell o' Stumpy's Brae?

Sit doon, sit doon, young freen',

I'll mak your flesh to creep this night 

and your hair to stan' on end.

 

I mind it well in my young days

The story it was rife,

There lived in a lonely cottage

A farmer and his wife.

 

They sat all alone in the bright fire light

Wan blessed Autumn night,

The hedge without, the stones within,

Were streaked wi' the bright moonlight.

 

The boys and girls had a' gone doon a wee

To the old blacksmith's wake,

There passed one by the winda' sma',

And he gied the door a shake.

 

The auld man got up and opened the door,

And after he'd spoken a bit,

A pedlar man stept into the floor and tumbled doon the pack he bore,

A right heavy pack was it.

 

"Guid bless us a" cried the auld man wi' a smile,

"But ye're in the thrivin' trade",

"Aye, I have travelled mony a mile

An' plenty I have made."

 

The two sat on in the bright fire light,

The pedler had gone to his rest.

The devil he came to the auld man’s ear,

And slip’t intil his breast.

 

He looked at his wife across the fire

She was as bad as he,

"Could we no murder this man the nacht?"

"Aye could we rightly," quo’ she.

 

He lifted his pick without a word,

It stood behind the door,

And as he pressed in the sleeper stirred,

But he never wakened more.

 

"He’s deid!" cried the auld man coming back,

"What’s to do wi’ the corpse, me dear?"

"Oh, bury him snug in his ane wee pack.

Never mind the loss o' the sack. I’ve taken out the gear."

 

"The corpse's too long by two guid span,

Oh!  What’ll we do?" quo’ he.

Says she - "Ye're a doting, unthinkin' oul man,

Just snick him off at the knee."

 

They shortened the corpse, and they packed him tight

Wi’ his legs in a pickle o’ hay,

Over the burn in the bright moonlight

They carried him up to the Brae.

 

They shovelled a hole right speedily

And they laid him on his back,

"A right guid pair are ye" quo’ the Pedlar,

Sitting boldly up in his pack.

 

"Ye thought ye’d lay me snugly here

Where none should know my station

But I’ll haunt ye far, and I’ll haunt ye near

Father and son, wi' terror and fear, till the nineteenth generation.

 

They sat all alone the very next night,

When the wee bit dog began to cower

And they knew by the pale blue fire-light,

That the Evil One had power.

 

It had just struck nine o’ the clock,

That hour when the man lay dead,

When there came to the outer door a knock,

And a heavy, heavy tread.

 

The auld wife’s heid swam roun' and roun',

The auld man's blood did  freeze,

‘Twas not like a natural sound, but like someone

stumping over the ground

On the banes o’ his raw bare knees.

 

And in through the door like a sough of air,

And he stumped and he stumped around the twa’

Wi’ his bloody heid, and his knee bones bare

As he died that night awa.

 

The wife’s black locks ere morn grew white,

They say, as mountain snows.

The man was as straight as a rush that night

But he crooked when the next morn he rose.

 

And every night as the clock struck nine,

The hour they did the sin,

The wee dog began to whine

An' the ghost came clatterin’ in.

 

And stump, stump, stump to his ploys again

Over the taps o' the stools and chairs,

Ye’d surely hae thought it was ten weemen and men

Dancin' all in pairs.

 

A’ night, there was a fearful flood,

Three days the skies had poured

And the tap wi' foam and the bottom wi' mud,

The burn in fury roared.  

 

Quo’ she, "Guid man ye needne turn sae pale

In the dim fire light

The stumpy cannae cross the burn

He’ll naw be here the nacht."  

 

"For it’s ower the bank, it's ower the brae,

It's ower the meadow rig."

"Aye", said the ghost comin' clattering in a gied the auld wife a bat on the chin,

"But I cam' roun by the brig".

 

They sold their gear and across the sea,

To a foreign land they went

But sure what can flee 

from his appointed punishment?

 

The ship swam over the ocean clear,

Wi’ the help o’ the Western breeze

But the very first sound they heard on the wide, smooth deck

Was the thumpin’ o’ them twa bare knees.

 

Out in the wild woods of Americay

Where their weary feet they set,

But Stumpy was there first they say, and haunted them to

Their dying day, And he haunts their children yet.

 

Now that's the story o’ Stumpy’s Brae

And the murderer’s fearful fate.

Young friend, your face is turned that way,

This night you'll gang that gate.

 

Ye’ll ken it well, through the few fir trees

The house where they were wont to dwell

If ye meet any there as daylight flees,

Stumping about on the banes o’ his knees,

It’ll just be Stumpy himsel’.

Analysis

Mrs Alexander, wife of the Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry, was an accomplished poet and as mentioned the author of well known hymns.  Yet there are indications that she was revising and editing an older poem.  

One indication is how the poem was so uncharacteristic for her.  She didn't like morbid tales that could terrorise children!  Also, the legend with its moral that supernatural vengeance awaits the murderer - even to the point of God sending a ghost as avenger - does not sit well with her affection for God.

The message of the poem that the murderer can't escape his or her just punishment contradicts Mrs Alexander's kindly nature and her belief in a merciful God indicating she was preserving and editing someone else's poem.

The following verse is awkward and clumsy and not like how Mrs Alexander would write which can be taken as evidence for her having reworked an existing poem.  She was more the editor of the poem than the author.

The auld man got up and opened the door,

And after he'd spoken a bit,

A pedlar man stept into the floor and tumbled doon the pack he bore,

A right heavy pack was it.

Another 

"He’s deid!" cried the auld man coming back,

"What’s to do wi’ the corpse, me dear?"

"Oh, bury him snug in his ane wee pack.

Never mind the loss o' the sack. I’ve taken out the gear."  

There can be little doubt that Mrs Alexander was not the original author of the parts of the poem.  She wrote the poem yes but she sacrificed her poetic skills when necessary to make the poem conserve oral tradition. 

"Oh, bury him snug in his ane wee pack.

Never mind the loss o' the sack. I’ve taken out the gear."  

 

Breaks the pattern of the poem by having the underlined line too long and awkward and the unnecessary I've taken out the gear.

 

Mrs Alexander wrote about the boys and girls having gone to the old blacksmith's wake the evening the pedlar man came by the cottage.  We do not know why we are given this seemingly useless information.  We do not know who the boys and girls are and the poem makes little sense unless the old man and his wife are living alone.  It was not their children.  The explanation is that she got it from tradition and despite the lack of context she just included it in the poem.  It is as if she thought it might be important someday or to somebody.  It is better to preserve even seemingly unimportant and irrelevant traditions. 

The original author of the poem is a person who was able to see the farmer's cottage from near her or his home.  It was a person who belonged to the St Johnston area, it looks like a person who lived in Craighadoes.  It must have been a person famed for folklore and poetry when Mrs Alexander went to the trouble of meeting the person.  Possibly the person was known to the Church of Ireland rector who likely told the bishop of Derry who then told his wife.  Quite likely the original author was a member of the Church of Ireland.

Mrs Alexander had a great charity for the poor and loved to meet with them and talk to them and hear their stories.  She was only 21 when she wrote Stumpy's Brae.

The poem is written in the local dialect which was infused with a huge Scottish influence so the time setting is after the Plantation.  It seems that we are talking about the 1600's or the 1700's.  Local tradition favours the 1700's.  The house standing until recently would support this as well. 

Mrs Alexander having consulted an older person who remembered the story from his or her young days in 1844 would tell us that the story was circulating possibly 60 years before in 1784.  This tallies in with tradition and other indications of a mid-1700's date lending authenticity to some of the story.  We suppose that the events that gave birth to the legend took place in the 1700's because had they taken place in the nineteenth century we would expect the historian Minister of Ballylennon Presbyterian Church to have said something about it.  This minister was the Reverend G Lecky BA, who was Minister from 1878 to 1929.  He investigated the history of the Laggan area and wrote two books based on his studies.

Another indication that the story has some historical elements to it is the old woman's claim that the Stumpy cannae cross the burn due to the flood.  This is a clue that the bridge was wooden and should have been broken by the flood.  This would have been the precursor of the current stone bridge.  The ghost however informs her that he was able to get over the bridge. 

The old man being a farmer and he and his wife being desperate for money would indicate that they had money troubles.  The pedlar man must have known people locally when he trusted them enough to say he had plenty of money with him.  People would have been asking questions had he disappeared and yet the couple took a chance.  The house after all was near Lifford which had been taken over by the British and provided the army protection for the Laggan Valley since the Plantation.  Not the perfect place to commit a crime!

They must have been in danger of losing the farm.  They would no doubt have been of Scottish origin and they or the old man's ancestors leased the farm off the Cunninghams or the Stewarts after 1609.  Curiously the house and the farm did survive - was it because some wealthy pedlar man was robbed and murdered enabling them to buy the farm?  The Cunningham's and the Stewarts didn't do business with people who were in danger of being insolvent so the farm would have gotten into a mess over a long time.  This would seem to indicate the 1700's.  

The killers are said in the poem to have emigrated to America to avoid the ghost but he followed them there.  Interestingly, there was a mass emigration of the descendents of the Plantation settlers of Ulster in the 1700's to America.  They wanted to leave because they met a lot of economic hardship as well as religious intolerance for their Presbyterian faith.

The man and woman who killed Stumpy were to be haunted to the nineteenth generation and taking a generation to be 25 years this is 475 years.  So the descendants of the old man and woman must still have been claiming weird experiences at the time the person who gave Mrs Alexander the legend was young which explains why "I mind it well in my young days, The story it was rife."  But that there was no ghost can be shown from the fact that he hasn't bothered anybody in years though this 475 years is not up yet!

The poem seems to record the experiences of a greedy old couple who murdered a man.  Though the poem regards the ghost tale as true it can still been seen to have indicators in spite of itself that mental illness perhaps senility and over-imaginative weakness can explain what happened to the couple in the years following their victim's murder.  The murder preyed on their feeble minds almost as soon as the deed was done and their imaginations went haywire and they thought the dead man had come back to make them pay.  The poem tells us that the old man was unintelligent and his wife told him he was doting.  The old woman's head span round and round when one night they thought they could hear thumps outside and they concluded that they were the murdered man's two bare knees.  Quite an assumption!  These could indicate that the legend had some basis in fact. 

Some verses added to the usual version tell us that the story was given to a young man or boy.  The warning about the power of greed and sin and regret elevates the poem to the level of a lesson in religious morality.  A poem that was intended as a joke or fantasy would be ineffective for that purpose.  As a Protestant, Mrs Alexander would not have accepted that a real Christian can lose the grace of God.  The line, And drives God's grace awa' fits Catholic theology better than Protestant theology.

Young man, it's hard to strive wi' sin
And the hardest strife o' a'
Is when the greed o' gain comes in
And drives God's grace awa'.

O, it's quick to do, but it's lang to rue
When the punishment comes at last
And we'd gi' the whole world to undo the deed
That deed that's gone and past.

From a version written in Craighadoes school in the 1930's we find another verse:

And heard ye never the voice of blood
Called from the earth in vain
And never has crime one worldly good
But it bought it’s after pain.
 

This goes in after the verse about the old couple going to America and their children being haunted to this day.

Another indication of some historicity to the tale, is the fact that Mrs Alexander's apparent source identified the house where the murder took place. This couldn't be done unless the then owners and inhabitants of the house permitted it and didn't deny the story.  Houses in those days were money and it would have been serious to condemn a house as haunted or as a murder site.  A bad reputation would prevent the house ever being sold. 

Who was Stumpy?  The poem quotes him as saying, "Aye, I have travelled mony a mile, An' plenty I have made."  Stumpy speaks in the local dialect.  This pedlar man was a local man.  Also, his boasting to the farmer and the farmer's wife that he had made plenty of money in his travels indicates that he felt safe with this couple as if he felt safe in the area.  This would only be likely if he had been raised in the area or lived there in the past.  He had no family left in the area when he had to ask for a bed for the night from the old couple.

 


Stumpy's Brae, 

Another Version, notice the three extra verses marked in blue


Heard ye no tell O'Stumpy's Brae,
Sit doone, sit down, young friend,
I'll make your flesh to creep this night
And your hair to stand on end.

Young man, it's hard to strive wi' sin
And the hardest strife o' a'
Is when the greed o' gain comes in
And drives God's grace awa'.

O, it's quick to do, but it's lang to rue
When the punishment comes at last
And we'd gi' the whole world to undo the deed
That deed that's gone and past.

Over yon strip of meadow land
And over the bintie bright
Dinna ye mark a fir-tree stand
Beside yon gable white
.

O, I mind it weel, in my younger days
When the story yet was rife
There dwelt within that lovely place
A farmer man and his wife.

They sat together all alone
That blessed autumn night
When the trees without and hedge and stone
Were white in the sweet moonlight.

The Boys and Girls had all gone down
A wee tae the blacksmith's wake
When passed my on by the window small
And gi'ed the door a shake.

The man he up and opened the door,
And when he had spoken a bit,
A pedlar man stepped in to the floor
Down tumbled the pack he bore right heavy pack was it.

"God save us a'," says the wife wi' a smile
"But yours is a thriving trade"
"Ay, ay, I've wandered many a mile,
And plenty I have made."

The man sat on by the dull fire flame
When the pedlar went to his rest
Close to his ear the Devil came,
And slipped into his breast.

He looked at his wife by the dim fire-light
And she was as bad as he.
"Could we no' murder yon man tonight?"
"Aye, could we no'?" ready quo' she.

He took the pick-axe without a word
Where it stood behind the door.
As he passed it into the sleeper he stirred
And never wakened more.

He's dead, says the auld wan coming back,
"What o' the corpse, my dear?"
"We'll bury him snug in his ain bit pack,
Never ye mind the loss o' the sack,

I've taken out a' the gear."
"The Packs ower short by two guid span,
And what'll we do?" quo' he.
"And you're a doited thoughtful man,
We'll soon cut him off at the knee."

They shortened the corpse, and they packed him tight
Wi' his legs in a pickle o' hay.
Over the burn in the sweet moonlight,
They carried him to this brae.

They shovelled a hole right speedily
And they laid him on his back
"A right pair are ye" quo' the pedlar,
He sitting bolt upright in his pack.

"Ye thought ye'd lay me snugly here
Where none should know my station 
But I'll haunt ye far, and I'll haunt ye near
Father and son, with terror and fear, to the nineteenth generation."

The two were sitting the very next night
When the wee bit dog began to cower
And they knew by the pale blue fire-light
That the evil one had power.

It had just struck nine, just nine o' the clock,
That hour when the man lay dead,
When there came to the outer door a knock,
And a heavy, heavy tread.

The auld man's head swam round and round
The woman's head gang freeze,
T'was not like a natural sound, but like someone stumping over the ground
On the bones o' his raw bare knees.

In through the door like a sough of air,
And stump! stump!! stump!!! around the twa'
Wi' his bloody head, and his knee bones bare
They had maist tae die awa'.

The wife's black locks ere the morn grew white,
They say, as the mountain snows,
The man was as straight as a staff that night
But he stooped as the morning arose.

Still day by day as the clock struck nine,
In the house where they did the sin,
The wee bit dog began to whine
And the ghost came clatterin' in.

A night, there was a fearful flood,
Three days and nights the skies had poured
And white wi' foam and black wi' wind
The burn in fury roared.

Quo' she, "Guid man ye needna turn sae pale
In the dim fire light
The stumpy canna cross the burn
He'll no' be here the nicht."

"For it up the Jinn and it' ower the bank
And it's up to the meadow ridge"
But the stumpy he came harplin' in,
gave the wife a slap on the chin
"Sure ah came roon by the bridge."

And stump, stump, stump to his ploys again
Over the stools and chairs,
Ye'd surely hae thought ten men and women
Were dancing there in pairs.

They sold the gear and across the sea,
To a foreign land they went -
But sure what can flee from
His appointed punishment?

The ship swam over the water clear
Wi' the help o' an Eastern breeze
But the very first sound on the wide, smooth deck,
That fell on their ears, was the tappin' o' them bare knees.

Out in the woods of wild America
Their weary feet they set,
But stumpy was there first they say, and haunted them to their dying day.
And he haunts their children yet.

This is the story o' Stumpy's Brae
And the murderer's fearful fate.
Young friend, your face is turned that way,
You'll be ganging the night that gate.

Yell ken it well, through the few fir trees
The house where they were wont to dwell
if ye meet ane there as daylight flees,
stumping about on the banes o' his knees
It'll just be Stumpy himsel'.


C. F. A. Dec. 1844

 

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