Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth and the Warlock Ringan Sempill
It is quite surprising that there is relatively little folklore or legend woven into Lochwinnoch’s cultural tapestry. The conditions existed, after all, for it to have been quite different as the essence of the old village was made up of the very sources which give origin to those components of cultural life. Lochwinnoch has great longevity and a rural heritage; its native traditions have had long periods of immunity from external influences; it had an enviable inclusiveness which helps form local customs; and it has had a social structure well suited to the tradition of orally passing on stories and tales from one generation to the next.
Elsewhere on this website there is a record of a unique local custom which survived into the 1970’s. That was the Lochwinnoch tradition of “Acting the Galoshes” at Halloween.This article focusses not on old customs but on a piece of village folklore which has survived the years. It tells of the legendary characters of Jenny wi’the Airn Teeth and the Warlock Ringan Sempill. Few people living in Lochwinnoch today will be aware of the legend of Ringan Sempill. Almost all, however, will know that the old North Gate to the Castle Semple Estate (bottom of the big dip in Bridesmill Road) is known locally as the Warlock Gates and this is where Ringan was supposedly often seen.
A summary of a relatively recent incident, at least in folklore terms, gives an interesting perspective on this Lochwinnoch legend. The incident took place in Glasgow.
On the evening of 23rd September 1954 an extraordinary event took place in the Hutchesontown area of the city. According to a Glasgow newspaper of the day, “The Bulletin”, police were called by residents because hundreds of children were rampaging through the streets and climbing the walls of the Southern Necropolis to look for a monster with iron teeth. Similar scenes occurred the following evening but then came to an end. In the search for explanations some blamed a horror movie which had recently been shown at a local cinema. Others focussed on the impact new horror comics being imported from America might be having on the children. Of interest to older residents is that one of the educationalists who commented on the phenomenon in the Scottish Educational Journal was Norman Buchan who later became a very much admired constituency MP for this area.
However, other researchers followed a line of inquiry into the incident by investigating a possible origin in folklore. They found an article written in 1902 but referring to an earlier period which gave details of a belief widely held among Glasgow’s East End children . This suggested that an ogre lived in a house close to Glasgow Green. The house said to be occupied by two spinsters one of whom had prominent teeth with very apparent metallic fixings. She was dubbed “Jenni wi’ the Airn Teeth“ by children in the area.
To further their investigation into this folklore the researchers sought input on any similar tales. This established a strong link to Lochwinnoch folklore which was brought to their attention by the Cathie Robb (later Cathie Hymers of Lybster) who was a primary contributor to the SWRI’s “ History of Lochwinnoch “ published in 1966.
Tradition in the village had it that any misbehaviour by children was responded to with the warning that “Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth will get you“. This admonition derived from the old Lochenyochian folklore tale “The Crune of Ringan Sempill”.
Ringan Semple was the mythical keeper of the Peil Castle (the ruin still visible across the loch from the Visitor Centre) and was, by reputation a Warlock. In the legend he is described as a “camsheuch and capernoytit carl, and seildon made his compeirance afore frem folk“. He was in league with others “ wha wonnit in the lochsyde heuch “ and principle of these was Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth“.
Updated research into the possible folklore basis of the Glasgow incident was carried out in 1978 by the Department of Social Studies at the Paisley College of Technology and then updated and presented in1985 at the International Conference on Contemporary Legend held at Sheffield University.
Other “ iron teeth “ characters were reviewed at this Conference and included Baba Yoga, Tante Arie, and Tom Dockin from the folklore of Russia, the Jura Mountains, and Yorkshire respectively. However none of these predated the mention of “ Jennie wi’ the Airn Teeth “ in the Lochwinnoch legend. This originated around the time of the “dingan doun“ of the Peil Castle in 1735.
We are fortunate to have the words of this legend in the original local Scots dialect with a translation kindly produced by the late Gordon Walkinshaw.
The copy of the Legend and much of the background to this article were provided by Cathie Hymers. Prior to her marriage Cathie (nee Robb) taught at Lochwinnoch School and was most knowledgeable about local history. Indeed, she studied History at Glasgow University in the late 1930’s/early 40’s and used village history for many of her dissertations. She colluded in much of her research with another of our local historians, the late Parker Love. I owe much to their records and to the results of their “spearin” of older locals in those days !
Adrian Tharme, November 2019
Updated from original produced in 2008.