It was commonly believed on the Isle of Man, as in many other places, that a witch could take the form of a hare and stories of hares turning into old women and vice versa could once be heard in every parish. Sabine Baring-Gould mentioned a folk belief that witches are transformed after death into hares and adds, ‘a lady wrote to me from the Isle of Man that she could not get her servants to eat hare because it might be the body of some old woman transformed’.
In many Manx stories both witch and hare are very much alive and no matter where the story is told the details vary little. Someone seeing a hare disappear over a hedge would later find an old woman walking about on the other side of it, or the hare might be shot and wounded in the leg – but never fatally unless with a silver bullet as ammunition – and then sometime later a woman suspected of being a witch would be seen walking with a limp.
An unusual slant is given to the belief in a story from Ballafesson in the south of the Island, the witch in this case being a man. This ‘witchman’ came into a house one day where a man was mending nets and as he watched he started talking in a curious way about the fields at Cregneash: he spoke of certain fields where the grass was very sweet and of others where it had a bitter taste. The man who was listening to him supposed that he was remembering how the grass tasted when he had been eating it in all the different fields at Cregneash in the form of a hare.
This particular witch inclination was known in the Isle of Man as being ‘rough under the foot’. The man who supplied this invaluable piece of information said that up to a few years ago (1960s?) the use of the expression in company was a guaranteed conversation stopper: not as might be the case today that it was not understood, but because it was understood only too well.
He recalls hearing it used once quite openly when he was having dinner in a farmhouse. Some neighbours who had come to help in the hay were sitting around the table with the family, and conversation was brisk. Then suddenly someone remarked of a man whose name had been mentioned ‘they used to say he was a bit rough under the foot’, and at once there was dead silence and everyone looked embarrassed.
It was not the kind of thing to say out loud and in company; but only when two or three were gathered together could it be spoken of with any propriety…and better then in a whisper.
(source: The Folklore of the Isle of Man by Margaret Killip (1975); photograph of hare by Andy Howard)