I’m returning to my roots in this post. Being back in the North East of England has reminded me of the amazing rich folklore and history of this area, particularly the North York Moors and surrounding area, which was the backdrop to my childhood. It’s a strangely magical place; full of Mesolithic and Neolithic burial mounds, Roman roads, Viking and Ango-Saxon burial sites and early examples of British Christianity. In short, it’s very old, very isolated, and very exposed to the elements.
It’s not surprising that the moors and the coast to the east of it have inspired so many fascinating tales, not least Bram Stoker’s Dracula in my hometown of Whitby. Whitby alone has such a wealth of history and folklore, some of which I’d like to explore in more detail at a later date, but today, my attention turns to a tiny hamlet a few miles north of Whitby, called Kettleness.
Kettleness, which perches on the edge of an infamously unstable cliff of the same name (Ness is Old Norse for ‘headland’), consists of only a handful of houses and has the Cleveland Way passing right through it. A site of alum mining, it used to be considerably larger, but unfortunately in December 1829, the Ness experienced one of it’s landslides, and the whole village crumbled with the cliff into the sea! Now made up of a few local residents, a scout hut based in an old railway station (there also used to be a railway linking it to Whitby and Loftus. Another story, another day!) and some holiday cottages, most visitors are probably unaware of it’s link to Stoker’s famous novel…
Reverend Dr Donald Omand was a Devon clergyman and a high profile practioner of exorcism. Sometime in the 1950’s, he received a letter from a schoolmaster in Kettleness, telling a terrifying story;
‘On visiting Kettleness they [a schoolmaster and two friends] all experienced a wave of terror when, looking over the shore to the misty sea, they had seen a huge hound—so large it could not be mortal—appear out of thin air. Silent with shock they watched it move towards them before disappearing as silently and mysteriously as it had come. All three were left with such a strong sense of evil that the schoolmaster believed it was a case desperately in need of exorcism.‘Extract from Dr Omand’s biography – ‘To Anger the Devil’ by Marc Alexander
Dr Omand wasn’t a stranger to Kettleness or it’s folklore. He had visited the village as a child, and later, whilst working as a reporter for the Northern Echo, interviewed a fisherman who claimed he had seen a huge black dog appear and disappear there more than once. He had also read Dracula as a teenager and was reportedly profoundly affected by it, and believed that Stoker himself had been to Kettleness and seen the dog for himself, inspiring parts of the novel.
Unsurprisingly given this personal link, Dr Omand sent a telegram to the schoolmaster and arranged to meet him at Scarborough Station. They then travelled the 30 miles to Kettleness by car, arriving at nightfall…
‘”All we need now is for Dracula to come bounding ashore in the form of a great black dog,” muttered Donald with a smile. But the smile froze as his companion suddenly gripped him by the arm….
What we saw looked like a huge black hound, but bigger than any member of the canine species, known to man. It was moving straight in our direction and the schoolmaster’s nerve gave way completely. He rushed back to the car.
Uncorking the bottle [of Holy Water] which I was carrying, I commanded the spectre as follows: “Be gone in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Be gone to the place appointed for you, there to remain for ever. Be gone in the Name of Christ.”
As I spoke the last words, I splashed Holy Water in the direction of the apparition, and the latter disappeared as suddenly as it had materialised. Then I exorcised all the ground which the spectre had covered and a great heaviness went out of the atmosphere. The menace of Kettleness was ended.’
The story doesn’t end well for our poor schoolmaster. He apparently never recovered and had a breakdown, before being admitted to hospital suffering mental illness. Dr Omand however, continued with exorcism, his more notable cases being exorcisms of Loch Ness, and the Bermuda Triangle!
There are many theories as to the origins of the Black Dog, or ‘Barghest’ as it’s known in some parts of the North. The Black Dog features heavily in British folklore, and ‘sightings’ continue to this day in various spots in the country. And as mentioned, Kettleness is very much part of old Viking country, and may still have snippets of old Norse lore, like the wolf Fenrir.
But most interesting of all, is the fact that less than a mile from Kettleness, at Goldsborough, lies the site of an ancient Roman Signal Station, one of many along the North East coast. During excavations of this site in the early 20th century, a gruesome discovery was made.
The skeleton of a man, and at his throat, the skeleton of a large dog.