Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ghost Week: The Headless Horseman of Onecote

Today we're off to Staffordshire, home to many a ghost legend, including the headless horseman that's said to haunt the small village of Onecote.

It was first recorded in 1900 that a farmer, on his way home from Leek market at night found himself whisked up on the back of a phantom horse, seated behind a headless rider. It is said that the horse effortlessly bounded through fields and over hedges. Then, the farmer was flung to the ground close to his home and succumbed to his wounds a few days later.

After further reports of headless horseman activity, including one man, who, after experiencing the terror of this phantom rider witnessed the death of his horse an dog, the clergy set out to banish the demon. However, the ghost could not be exorcised so is still said to roam the lonely country roads.

Writing in Folk-Lore (1942) W. P. Witcutt gives a couple of explanations as to the origin of the decapitated rider. Either it is the ghost of a pedlar who was killed by robbers and his headless body was left to ride off on his horse, or it could be the ghost of a knight who died in battle against the Scots. His white horse bore his headless body back home. 

Folklorists Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson have pointed out that these explanations are probably more recent, since headlessness tended to be just a sign of the supernatural, rather than a reflection of how the person had died.

There is another explanation given for the horseman, that it was one of the four spirits that were cast out of heaven and forced to roam the Earth until the Biblical Day of Judgement. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ghost Week: Temple Newsam House Ghosts

Welcome to Ghost Week, where I'll be looking at poltergeists, grey ladies, headless horsemen and other tales of things that go bump in the night.

I'm kicking things off with a local story, namely of the ghosts that are said to inhabit Temple Newsam house in Leeds, England. Temple Newsam house is a beautiful Tudor mansion dating back to 1520, known as 'The Hampton Court of the North'. I used to frequently go there as a little boy with my grandma to visit the farm on its grounds, but I didn't hear about the ghost legends until I was a bit older and more curious about such things. 

There are said to be a handful of spirits haunting the house, but the most well know has to be the Blue Lady. She is said to be the ghost of Miss Mary Ingham (1638-1652) and legend has it that she was travelling back to Temple Newsam after visiting relatives when her cart was set upon by three robbers who dragged her out and stole her possessions. Apparently this scarred her psychologically and from then on she chose to hide her valuables in random places throughout the house. The Blue Lady has supposedly been seen trying to find her belongings again that she hid all those years ago. 

Other ghosts include a monk in brown robes, a knight (in 1155 the area was given to the Knights Templar) , a small boy who climbs out of a cupboard and runs from the Darnley room, and a weird misty apparition. Apparently a young serving girl who was murdered by a footman also haunts the back stairs of the house. 

Local ghost legends are always fascinating, but I do want to make it clear that I don't believe in ghosts myself. There are frequent 'ghost hunts' in the house, especially at Halloween, which is a bit of fun but shouldn't be taken seriously. For me it's the stories that are the most interesting parts, not wondering whether the ghosts or goblins or giants are real or not. It's fine if you personally believe in these things, but for me they are just great stories and wonderful examples of anthropology.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

East Anglian Folklore: Black Shuck and Others

Tales of ghostly dogs and hounds of hell are abundant in the British countryside, with most counties having their own variation on the creature. One of the most famous of these monsters is Black Shuck (or Old Shuck), popularised throughout Norfolk and Cambridgeshire as a "black shaggy dog, with fiery eyes...who visits churchyards at midnight." (Revd E. S. Taylor). 

Throughout the centuries, there have been recorded sightings of Shuck throughout East Anglia, such as from Quaker Amelia Opie, who spotted the hound in 1829 while staying at Northrepps Cottage. In her journal she writes: "Traditions says, that every evening, at twilight, the ghost of a dog is seen to pass under the wall of this is known by the name of Old Shuck".

Some experts say that rather than being a traditional Black Dog, Shuck is a Bogey Beast - a shapeshifter. One of Shuck's variations is Old Shock, which in 1830 was recorded to have been able to transform into a dog or a donkey. Similarly Old Scarf would appear as a goat. Probably the weirdest of all comes from West Wratting, Cambridgeshire, which has its own Shug Monkey. The name 'Shuck' itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'scucca' meaning 'demon'.

According to some accounts, seeing Black Shuck will result in your death within a year: "Such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year." (W. A. Dutt: 'Highways & Byways in East Anglia', 1901.)

As for its origin, Mike Burgess of Hidden East Anglia  has found references to a spectral dog in Dartford, Kent, from the rebel Jack Cade in 1450, who was accused of having "rered upp the Divell in the semblaunce of a black dogge". However, this seems to be more related to witchcraft and familiars rather than traditional Shuck lore, which possibly came about a century later. In 1577 Abraham Fleming wrote that a "black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse" wrought havoc during a storm in Suffolk.

Black Shug and other spectral hound legends persist to this day, with people claiming they have seen it roaming the East Anglian countryside. Here's a short film about Leslie Goodwin, who talks about his experience with Black Shuck in the 60s. There are a couple of photos at the bottom of this article from December 2003 of a big black dog spotted in Norfolk.

Westwood & Simpson, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, 2006
Mike Burgess, Hidden East Anglia,, 2005
Norfolk Coast,

Folklore Slashtag on Blekko

I've recently become a huge fan of search engine Blekko, mostly because it tries to remove as much spam from search results as possible. It does this using slashtags, which are tagged onto the end of a query in order to specifically search a human-curated vertical. For instance, if you were looking for headache cures you could add the /health slashtag to bring back more authoritative results.

With this in mind, I've created the /folklore slashtag. Now, this isn't because folklore is a particularly spammy area on the internet. Instead it's because finding folklore sites can be a bit of a chore. There are some fantastic blogs out there that can't be seen through a conventional Google search on the first few pages so I wanted to create a good list of all the best sites to use for when myself or other folklore bloggers/academics are doing online research.

All you have to do is go to Blekko and key in your query followed by /folklore. For example 'Robin Hood /folklore'. If you have other sites you think I should add then please either put it in the comments or shoot me an email.

Happy slashing!