A MONG the more intriguing features of this region are the wonderful folk tales that continue to be told and written. I find them fascinating because, quite often, they are based on real events even if the passage of history has dimmed memories. It is likely folk tales told today bear little or no resemblance to the original.

One fine example is the story of Leyburn Shawl. Noone knows whether the most publicised version of the origins of that name is true or not. But it’s a good yarn and bears repetition.

Today, Leyburn Shawl is the name of a wonderful stretch of hilly fellside plus some trees. It stretches a mile or so from the west of Leyburn Market Place and it was purchased by Leyburn Town Council to ensure it is always free for the benefit of local people and visitors.

Wonderful views of Wensleydale can be enjoyed from the footpaths and you can also get a clear view of Penhill and the surrounding uplands. Furthermore, you can walk via the Shawl to Preston-under-Scar and thence to Castle Bolton. You might even hear the roar of Aysgarth Falls if the River Ure is heavy with fresh water.

It is Castle Bolton that provides the kernel of the story for it was here, according to legend, that Mary Queen of Scots lost her bid for freedom after being imprisoned in the castle.

Because she was of royal birth, she was accorded a degree of freedom during her stay, although she was a prisoner and kept under constant guard. However, one day she managed to dodge her guards and ran from the castle to vanish into the thick woodland around it. She knew the area quite well because she had hunted here, and so she ran towards Leyburn.

Her struggle through the undergrowth took its toll and even before reaching Leyburn, she heard the noises of men, horses and dogs in close pursuit. According to the story, as she fled through the undergrowth her shawl caught upon a briar and it was dragged from her shoulders. Her pursuers found it and this indicated she had fled along that route.

It was then a matter of wearing her down and maintaining the pressure upon her, and so she was caught before she reached Leyburn. Ever since, the place she was arrested has been known as Queen’s Gap and the entire wooded hill through which she tried to gain freedom has since been called The Shawl or Leyburn Shawl.

Detractors from the tale tell us that the name shawl or shaw’el means woodland combined with a hill or with thick, shady places. It might also come from the Old Norse schalle or skali which refers to huts or shelters.

There is a story that below the Shawl there are the remains of prehistoric dwellings.

Whether this story, or perhaps part of it, is true or not, it has given rise to a lovely piece of folklore that will be told for centuries.

Mary, regarded by Catholics as the rightful Queen of England, was executed in 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle not far from Peterborough.

T HIS week my wife noticed an unusual visitor in our garden and for a while we were not sure what it was. A tall and rather hairy plant with blue flowers. There were some pink buds at the tips of the short branches, but from each blue flower there protruded slim pinkish coloured stamens that were longer than the petals of the funnel-shaped flowers.

Indeed, each flower’s petals were different lengths too whilst the main stem was covered with short hairs plus some dark red-brown blotches. The height of our specimen was two feet or so (60cm) and at ground level were its long leaves which were also covered with white hairs. This mystery plant seemed quite at home among our garden plants and flowers.

As I do not claim to be knowledgeable about flowers, I had to search my various reference books. It did not take long to discover our visitor was a viper’s bugloss (echium vulgare). It seems able to thrive in gardens and in the wild, especially along some of our seashores where it is often known as either bluebottle or cat’s tail. Farmers dislike it because it has long and strong roots and it is not welcome among their crops.

They know is as the blue devil.

It seems it acquired its name because a 17th century herbalist called William Coles thought its stem was speckled like a serpent’s skin whilst other herbalists thought the flowers looked rather like snake’s heads and tongues. For those reasons the plant was widely used as a medicine to cure snake-bites.

When a herb was distinctive in some way this was known as the doctrine of signatures when its general appearance gave a clue to its medicinal value. Because so much of this plant had snake-like elements, it was believed it would cure and prevent diseases and injuries associated with snakes. Hence its name of viper’s bugloss.

Oddly enough, the bugloss section of its name is not connected with snakes but with the tongues of oxen. It was believed that the long hairy leaves, shaped something like the blade of a spear, were very similar to rough ox-tongues, hence the name bugloss which comes from the Greek for oxtongue.

Not surprisingly it has other names such as snake flower, viper’s plant, viper’s grass, wild borage, blue cat’s tail, blue thistle, Our Lord’s flannel and blue weed. Whether or not our specimen will reproduce itself in the garden is uncertain but our puzzle at the moment is this – where did it come from?

A S WE were busy studying our viper’s bugloss, my attention was drawn to our sedum. This is highly attractive to butterflies, and in the autumn sunshine four interesting specimens were sharing a single plant. They were sitting with their wings folded looking like miniature yachts, but in the warmth of the sunshine, they repeatedly opened them for a moment or two to gain maximum benefit from the sun’s rays. They were enjoying the sunshine as much as we were.

What interested me was that all the butterflies came from the group known as Aristocrats. This name is given to our largest and most colourful butterflies, some of whom have names like purple emperor, red admiral and painted lady.

Enjoying our sedum, therefore, was one red admiral, one peacock and two small tortoiseshells. The size and striking colours of the red admiral, with its red and white markings on black wings, are a ready means of identification whilst the peacock’s wing markings look like two pairs of large eyes on a chestnut background.

The small tortoiseshell’s brown and orange wings have black-and-white markings along their leading edge. They were lovely visitors to our garden on a sunny day.