Move Over Nessie: Five Mythical British Beasts

Black Shuck

Black Shuck (as drawn in 1577)

The Loch Ness monster is one of the most famous mythical beasts in the world, up there with Sasquatch and the yeti and the perfect wife for TV’s Simon Cowell. But Nessie is by no means the only made-up beastie to come from the British Isles. In fact, for such a small geographical area, there are an astonishing array of recaps, shug monkeys and sooterkins running about, causing havoc. Enough to fill a virtual zoo, in fact.

Here are just five:

The Knocker
Miners have every reason to be superstitious. They work in a horrifically dangerous environment, chipping away at the foundations of their own workplace, and risking death from falling rocks, explosive gases, poisonous gases, all sorts. Consequently, they have their own elaborate folklore, based on the curious sounds of their underground world. In Wales (originally) and later Cornwall, the knocker is a spirit that resides in the tunnels, being the ghost of a tin miner who died. He’s approximately two feet tall, with a big head, big beard and long arms that nearly drag on the ground. And he carries miner’s equipment: lamps, pickaxes and whatnot. And yes, he makes knocking sounds that reverberate through the mine.

There’s some argument as to whether he’s a benign presence, but most accounts agree that knockers are troublesome rascals, pinching tools and misdirecting miners. Worse, they also take the blame for mine fires. In America, expat Cornish miners took to calling the cheeky sprites tommyknockers, as Stephen King fans will happily confirm.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor
Moors are inherently spooky places, as Scooby Doo and his gang have already made plain. And when you’re already a unsettled, the mind can play tricks on you. So, there is a legend, not unlike that of the Loch Ness monster, of a puma-sized wild cat that lives on the moors of Bodmin, in North Cornwall. Scientists deny that it is there, or that the moor could sustain a breeding population of such creatures, but the stories remain.

Further north, in Devon and Somerset, there is a similar legendary cat that is said to roam Exmoor – a panther-ish puma, or vice versa – killing local livestock. There have been numerous eyewitness reports, particularly during the ’70s and ’80s, and even photographs taken. But, as is the nature of these things, they’ve always been too blurry or inconclusive to firmly prove much of anything. And let’s be honest, that’s the way we like our mythical creatures to be, right?

Black Shuck
Never mind the hound of the Baskervilles, British folklore is riddled with tales of hate-eyed and vengeful black dogs, and they all have their own local names. There’s the Barghest of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland; the medieval Freybug, the Guytrash of Lancashire, the Padfoot of Leeds, the Cu Sith of Scotland, or the Gwiyllgi of Wales.

In East Anglia, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, he’s called Black Shuck, and he’s the canine embodiment of Satan himself. His eyes (or possibly just one big cyclops eye) ablaze, and always the harbinger of appalling luck. Should anyone see him, they are instructed to shut their eyes or hide, lest they become so cursed they will die within the year. There again, some reports claim his fearsome presence is actually a protection to lost travellers.

There’s even an account of an appearance in the Suffolk church of Blythbugh, that dates from 1577.  In it, Black Shuck bursts through the doors, with thunder at his back, kills a man and a boy, then causes the steeple of the church to collapse down through the roof. He then departs in a fiery rage, leaving scorch marks on the door.

And of course, we’d be entirely remiss in mentioning Black Shuck without adding this, the song the Darkness recorded about him, in which they claim, with some justification that “that dog don’t give a f***” :

Asrai
A water fairy, or freshwater mermaid (without the fishy tail). Some accounts describe her as resembling a young woman, others say a little girl. It’s claimed they live for centuries, and naturally, given their home, they have webbed feet/hands. The legend runs that if a man sees an asrai, he will want to capture her. However, if a single ray of the sun should touch her wet skin, she’ll die and become water.
There’s also the tale of the fisherman who did catch an asrai, who begged for her freedom, touching his arm in the process, and leaving a cold spot that could never be warmed again.

 

Ratman of Southend
A relatively modern (and downright unpleasant) addition to the menagerie of implausible varmints.

The version passed around children in the seaside town of Southend, Essex is that the Mayor of Southend had been serially unfaithful to his wife, and as punishment, his son was born with a rattish face and a small tail, and a carnivorous palate. Embarrassed by his child, the Mayor arranged for an underpass to be built, concealing a cell in which the boy resides. At night, he escapes and tries to scare people away (or eat them). There are even night tours of the underpass to see if he’ll emerge.

There is an even nastier version of the story that revolves around an old and doddery homeless man sheltering from the rain in that self-same underpass. A gang of teenagers happen by, and attack him, stealing his blanket and leaving him for dead. Injured, unable to leave, and overcome by hypothermia, he dies while being feasted on by local rats. Then, later, the underpass was said to contain strange noises: squeals, scratches, moans, and these are attributed to the ghost of the homeless man: the Ratman of Southend.

Quite why he’s not called the Kicked To Death By Rotters-man of Southend is beyond me.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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