Ritual Britain: Lynch-law celebrated in slaughter of effigy

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THOSE who witnessed the ritual of Burning Bartle on Saturday would have been forgiven for thinking they were in a horror movie. All the elements were there: a dark, windswept night, an isolated North Yorkshire village and a primeval, violent murder.

The killing is an annual event in the Wensleydale village of West Witton, where, after dark on the Saturday after St Bartholomew's Day, two brothers emerge at the top of the village carrying a life-sized effigy. This figure, stuffed with straw and dressed in a blue anorak and green wellingtons with flowing white hair, is the miserable Bartle. He is borne down the main street on the shoulders of his makers, his legs dangling and his green eyes flashing from electric bulbs in his eye sockets. At every house where whisky or brandy is offered, his bearers stop and a third chants his shameful history:

'At Pen Hill crags he tore his rags

At Hunter's Thorn he blew his horn

At Capplebank Stee he had the misfortune to brak' his knee

At Grassgill Beck he brak' his neck

At Wadham's End he couldn't fend

At Grasgill End we'll mak' his end

Shout, lads, shout]'

At which point the crowd cheers, the bearers down their drinks, and the procession stomps on. When it reaches the end of the village, it turns right into Grassgill End. Here the brothers perform the ritual slaughter. Bartle is stabbed with a knife and diesel poured into his bowels. Then he is propped against a dry-stone wall and set alight. When his insides have turned black, he is decapitated.

These depredations are carried out by Alan Harker, 65, a farmer, and his brother Robert, 59, an employee of Northern Electric.

The explanation for this horrifying ritual is that Bartle was a notorious sheep-stealer who lived on Pen Hill in the 17th century. The West Witton men assembled a posse and killed him at Grassgill End. Another legend about a giant who clubbed a shepherdess to death and was killed by farmers may have its origins in the same event.

Either way, the village - which is said to consist only of three families: the Harkers, Spences and Guys - feels strongly about its ceremony. But there are some who dislike the increasing numbers of 'outsiders' coming to watch the slaughter. Another Harker brother refused to speak about it. 'It's politics,' he said dourly. 'Naw, it's the newspaper,' corrected his drinking partner. 'Whatever,' he retorted, 'I'm saying nowt.'

(Photograph omitted)