For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!
According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But 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. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:
Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.
Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –
“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”
“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”
“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.
Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:
“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”
“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”
“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”
“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?
East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich