Folklore of the Fens: Black Shuck, the Devil Hound

7 06 2010

A Demon Hound

Last year Lincoln Book Festival invited me to give a talk on the ‘Folklore of the Lincolnshire Fens’ – that large marshy area on the east coast which was drained for farm land in the 17th Century (incidentally around the same time that Matthew Hopkins was busy hunting witches in the counties just south of Lincolnshire). 

Although the Fens have a rich and varied folklore, full of creepy monsters and puckish faeries, it is not as well-known as the folk tales of, say, the West Country, Wales and Ireland. But don’t be fooled – there are many strange creatures that the walk these beaches and byways, these fens and marshlands… 

One of the most colourful of these supernatural characters is Black Shuck or, as he was more commonly known in Lincolnshire, Hairy Jack. Black Shuck was a goblin dog or hell hound. He has haunted Lincolnshire since the days of the Viking invasion, and some believe that he is a true Dane hound – a monstrous beast that was brought over by the Vikings, transplanted from their Nordic sagas and re-settled on the coast of Lincolnshire. He is a welcome, if somewhat disturbing, immigrant. 

Shuck on the prowl

Eyewitness accounts have described a great black dog, the size of a horse, with flame red eyes and dripping jowls. Like many devil dogs in mythology, Black Shuck has been identified as an omen of death. A portent of disaster. He has often appeared to travellers on lonely stretches of road, teeth bared, eyes blazing, only to disappear into the shadows. Days later, the unfortunate witness is found dead, seemingly from natural causes. 

When seen around marshes, Black Shuck appears to float on the mist. On the Norfolk coast, he is most often seen rising out of the sea – again a reference to his Norse seafaring roots. 

Sometimes, in churchyards and at crossroads, he is headless. However, he is not always portrayed in such a terrible light: sometimes in the Norfolk legends Black Shuck is a guardian spirit that will offer his protection to any defenceless maid walking home alone. 

Lincolnshire has the dubious distinction of being the county with perhaps the most sightings of devil dogs. By 1958 it was recorded in Theo Brown’s book ‘Folklore’ that there were 47 separate black dog haunting grounds in this locality.  

The Devil's Fingerprints?

Often these legends have little respect for county borders, and it is in Suffolk that Black Shuck makes his most notable and grisly appearance. In 1577, the same year in which Sir Francis Drake set off on his round-the-world voyage, Black Shuck was making mischief. 

In the old church at Blythburgh, the congregation had just settled down for the priest’s Sunday sermon when, without ceremony, the demon hound burst through the heavy oak doors and ran headlong down the nave. The beast stopped only once, in order to wring the necks of an old man and a young boy, before bounding towards the terrified clergyman, its eyes fixed and flaming. A few feet short of the altar table the infernal creature simply disappeared into the ether. The congregation had hardly regained their collective breath when a great rumble sounded from the foundation of the church. Cracks splintered along the walls and the steeple gave way. Crashing through the nave, it finished off most of the Blythburgh parishioners. If you go to the church you can still see the scorch marks at the north door where Black Shuck’s paws burned into the consecrated stone floor. 

In another version of the legend it was the devil dog’s master that visited the church. The story runs much the same except, in this case, it was Satan himself that destroyed the church and left his infernal fingerprints on the north door. 

A very famous writer picked up on the legend of Black Shuck and turned it into one of the most terrifying novels of the 19th Century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle transplanted the spectre from the wilds of Lincolnshire to the Devonshire Moors for his most celebrated Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Many famous writers have been inspired by the legends of Lincolnshire, including Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dorothy L Sayers. Sayers made use of the well-known Lincolnshire legend of ‘talking church bells’ in her Lord Peter Wimsey detective story ‘The Nine Tailors’. Bells that ring out by themselves in protest against murderers and evildoers are not unheard of in the Fen churches of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. 

But back to Black Shuck and his literary appearances. Those of you who enjoy a bit of Harry Potter might recognise old Blacky from his appearance as The Grim in ‘The Prisoner of Azkhaban’, but it is definitely in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ that he makes his most significant bow… 

Coming soon… more terrifying tales from the Fens!