Guernsey Press

Through our past, darkly

A renewed interest in folklore has seen people heading back to the tangled hedgerows and deep furrows of our ‘wyrd’ past. Ploughing such a fertile field is Rosanna Courtney and her new book, Island Lore. Shaun Shackleton, in tweed shooting jacket and mustard turtle-neck, reports...

Roseanna Courtney working in her studio. (31398462)

TCHICO, ‘hound of hell’, roaming Tour Beauregard at Cornet Street; Baal-Barth atop Le Trepied Dolmen, presiding over witches and wizards; Le Faeu Boulanger wandering the lanes between Torteval and Rocquaine; the Devil’s hoof-print in a rock at Fontenelle Bay; the Witch’s Finger at Richmond.

Guernsey folklore is a rich, bubbling cauldron of superstition, fairy-tales, Neolithic remnants, paganism, the dark arts and a bestiary as varied and fantastical as any in Europe. And of late there’s been a revival of interest.

A welcome addition is Rosie Courtney’s book, Island Lore.

‘I’ve always been a fan of folklore and myth, which I pursued in my BA at Bournemouth,’ said the local illustrator and writer. ‘But for my MA in sequential design and illustration at Brighton Uni I had to have a project and I thought why had I never looked at Guernsey folklore?

‘At first, though, I was concerned that my project wouldn’t have a place. But the tales are already there, so it was a case of giving it a modern purpose.’

She began with the island’s prehistory.

‘The dolmens and monoliths that are dotted round the island, I grew up around it all and I thought that they’d be a good place to start. There were so many of these sites and many were cleared away for housing. So that gave my project purpose – a way of preserving ancient culture. Andy Fothergill’s Megalithic Guernsey website was very, very helpful. There were ones there I didn’t know existed.’

The two hallowed texts on the subject – Edgar MacCulloch’s Guernsey Folklore and Marie de Garis’ Folklore Of Guernsey – also proved indispensable.

‘They were fantastic for learning about folklore, but MacCulloch’s book, at 800 pages of intense text, well, I’m a visual learner. We need these very scholarly texts but I wanted to interpret them the way I see them and to imagine them in my own style.’

Rosanna divided her book into three chapters – monuments; deities, fairies, witches, ghosts; and superstitions.

‘There are so many tales influenced by folklore from other cultures but visitors over the years – pirates, merchants, wanderers – have brought them over and they have changed.

‘My favourite superstition is about the eggshells. After they were used eggshells had to be broken, often ground down into a powder, if not, imps and witches could use them as boats and they could sail away and wreak havoc wherever they wanted.’

Rosanna also had a few favourites in the deities, fairies, witches, ghosts section.

‘I love Bodu, or Tchico, the hell hound, the dog of the dead.

Dogs were protectors of the dead. A lot of people used them to get away with smuggling but they’re undeniably spiritual tales. There’s something spiritual about Guernsey.’

She also found tales of witches fascinating.

‘I had an interview with the radio on the Tower Hill steps where the three women were burned at the stake for being witches. Guernsey was abound with witches. They would gather at Le Trepied Dolmen at Le Catioroc. And I have included a page on Marie Pipet, who was perhaps Guernsey’s most famous witch. A very mischievous woman. There were white witches and wizards too.’

She was also interviewed by US filmmaker Blair Bathory (see right), who was on-island making a documentary on Guernsey folklore, and something otherworldly happened.

‘We met at the Fairy Ring and the sun was just setting. What was spooky is that we looked up and circling above us was this huge black bird – a buzzard? – just watching these strangers below.’

At the beginning of the project Rosanna was unsure of what age group to aim the book at.

‘If for kids, then I’d have to tone down the dark elements. If 12+ I could include them. Find a balance between the good and evil. Being frightened by the tales connects you to the people of the past.’

The beautifully rendered illustrations perfectly complement the text.

‘I used linocuts for the monuments, a very bold way of printmaking and a good way of evoking the past. Apart from the photography the rest of the illustrations are hand-drawn on an iPad and for these I kept with the linocut/printed style and used a muted pallet.

‘Also in the back I have a section on which herbs you could use for various purposes. Guernsey grows so many herbs. It’s fascinating.’

As well as the book Rosanna has a four-minute animation based on the illustrations which can be seen in the upcoming Guernsey Arts Open at the George Crossan Gallery.

‘It took a long time to create but it was a really rewarding way to connect with a new medium.’

After tonight’s book launch a couple of trips are on the cards for Rosanna.

‘I have a personal project which I’ll be doing while travelling around Italy and also I want to explore Alderney. I’ve had quite a few supernatural experiences in Guernsey and Alderney is supposed to be a very haunted place.’

  • Island Lore by Rosanna Courtney is published by Blue Ormer at £15. It can be ordered at It will be available soon at the Lexicon, Candie Museum, Cadeaux and the Guernsey Information Centre.