When I first spotted a brown torpedo nestled amongst the seaweed, I was correct in my suspicions that it had something to do with a dog. Relieved to notice it had a face, this squeaky sausage toy was not the dirty deposit I had initially feared.
Allowing man’s best friend to roam our beaches is a contentious subject, with many Councils deciding to ban our canine friends from the sand in high season between May and September.
Dog toys, ranging from traditional balls to these more comic playthings are a common find on the tideline, testament to the close bond we share with our furry friends, where sandy paws and salty noses enjoy exploring wide expanses of sand as much as we do. However, mention dogs roaming along the coast in the East of England and this image will invoke a fear of something far more sinister than a squeaky sausage.
Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk boast a rich folklore of ghost dog legends, the most notorious being Black Shuck, still feared by some to this day. In his 1958 study, The Black Dog, Theo Brown collected many regional variations in name for this common legend including the Barguest, Shuck, Black Shag, Trash, Skriker, Padfoot and Hooter.
Black dog legends abound across England and even are as widespread as The Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Brittany. Sightings of one of these terrifying canines are usually accompanied by warnings. At the very least, ill fortune will befall anyone who sees the prowling Barguest, but more often than not, the dog is a harbinger of death, warning that horrid things will befall you should you look into the ghost dog’s crazed, red eyes.
Over the centuries, there have been many accounts of huge, crazed canines marauding along the coast, however, it is not insignificant that these legends abound in regions where smuggling was once rife. In East Anglia, appropriations of the local Shuck legend were deliberately exaggerated to encourage people not to venture out if a consignment of illegal contraband was arriving.
This was a common phenomenon during the 1700s, and it was even known for ghostly hauntings to be announced in advance, warning locals to stay indoors, such as the white lady and black man of Hadleigh Castle, Essex or the ghostly drummer of Hurstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, (a known smugglers’ safe house) all of whom seemed to provide ample notice of their next planned haunting.
We can only surmise as to whether locals were genuinely frightened of these ghosts, or whether the true fear lay in the lawless and unruly smugglers, however, these reports evidently were a signal to stay indoors and keep the coast clear, quite literally, for illegal items to come ashore.
Accounts of Black Shuck sightings abound across the internet, some centuries years old and biblical in nature, such as the Beast of Bungay who reportedly terrorised a congregation of God-fearing folk. Other tales are within living memory and document apparitions appearing down lonely lanes on misty Norfolk nights.
In his research, Theo Brown recognised that there were concentrations of sightings near ancient sites such as burial mounds and cairns, leading him to believe that ‘our creatures are faintly echoing some half-forgotten mythology of vast antiquity’. It becomes interesting to consider whether these ghost dog stories are in fact part of a much older narrative, perhaps from a time when wolves roamed the landscape and really were feared. Although appropriated over the years, could these stories be a barely perceptible remnant of another time, long since forgotten? What is of interest, as noted by Norfolk writer Nick Stone, is the fact that in the Twenty-First Century, we consider these tales worth repeating, despite the obvious lack of any tangible evidence.
In 2017, we may think of smuggling as an archaic pursuit undertaken centuries ago by shadowy characters on clifftops holding flickering lanterns swathed in black cloaks, but the desire to conceal contraband from the authorities remains as strong as ever.
Rather than characters in Whisky Galore or Jamaica Inn, today the smuggler is a tourist trying to sneak a few hundred extra cigarettes through airport security in their suitcase, or a desperate individual using their own body to conceal drugs. Even exploitative human traffickers who prey on the most despairing individuals willing to risk everything for a new life must consider the dog at the border.
Dogs, once used as a distraction to illegal activities in centuries old smuggling tales now are firmly on the side of good, sniffing out contraband and protecting that invisible line, between home and abroad, land and sea, and in the case of ruthless human traffickers, just as our ancestors may have believed, dogs are guarding a line between life and death.
- Brown, Theo The Black Dog Folklore, Vol 69, No. 3 (Sept. 1958), pp.175-192
- Burdsey, Daniel Race, Place and the Seaside (2016) Palgrave MacMillan
- Grierson, Jamie Cocaine worth £50m is washed up on Norfolk beaches The Guardian 10 February 2017
- Hare, Chris The Secret Shore: Smuggling and Folklore in Hampshire and Sussex (2016) The South Downs Society
- Stone, Nick Black Dog Tales: Bungay Blog – Invisible Works