The Simonside hills near Rothbury in Northumberland are home to some of the most sinister elemental beings I’ve come across. The duergars are dwarfish, earth-like beings which have a taste for human flesh and delight in leading people to an unpleasant death. The local shepherds respected and avoided them. Outsiders often blundered into their presence.
Two Newcastle gentlemen went shooting in the hills and came across a small, muscular man in clothing the colour of dried bracken. The rather unfriendly man invited them for a meal. The men refused and hurried back to Rothbury. Their landlord told them they’d had a very lucky escape.
A shepherd, recently moved to the area, saw a light in a hillside cottage when faced with a cold night under the stars. Nobody was at home but he seated himself by the fire until the owner returned. When a brown-clad dwarf entered, the shepherd realised he was in the home of a duergar. The duergar merely sat and watched him, and the shepherd decided to wait until dawn when he hoped he could make a run for it. He sat through the night, not daring to move or sleep, the duergar’s eyes on him throughout, until at sunrise dwarf and house vanished. Just inches from his feet was now a hundred-foot sheer precipice.
An educated visitor decided to prove the duergars were mere superstition. He went up the hillside one night and soon saw a lantern-light. He called out and the light went out. He heard scurrying coming towards him. He struck one of the figures, assuming it to be locals playing a trick on him, and a brown-clad dwarf leapt from the heather. The dwarf pulled his club and the man fled. He raced down the hillside, chased by dozens of the dwarfs, and made it back to Rothbury unharmed. He never ventured into the hills again.
I hadn’t heard these stories when I walked through Simonside. That made the place seem even more eerie, with hindsight. I’ve never been anywhere so unsettling. I’m used to walking through wild and lonely places on my own, and generally never get nervous. Here, walking through dense woodland, thick heather and bracken, across treacherously rocky ground which threatened to twist an ankle on every step, I found myself shrinking down, trying to walk as silently as possible, constantly looking around for the watching eyes I was sure I could feel. I eventually turned back, fighting the urge to run, and was very glad to reach the road in the valley.
Perhaps the duergars are still there, watching and waiting. Perhaps there is something about the spirit of this place which triggers terror and the sense of being watched. It’s possible: certain resonant frequencies caused by rock and underground water can have this effect, something exploited by the builders of many megalithic monuments. Whatever’s going on here, it’s certainly creepy. Visit at your own risk.
This inspired a short story, The Watchers in the Hills, which you can read for free here