The Battle Of Embo

As readers of this Blog will be aware, I am staying in Dornoch – Dornoch is where my Granny lives and Dornoch has remained a source of inspiration to me for years. When I get up here it is as if I settle down – yes, I am on holiday and therefore in holiday mode – but, there seems a slower pace of life here than urban Yorkshire where I work. There are less distractions in Dornoch to being yourself.

We had the day off and I managed to get sunburn in the Scottish Highlands. Alison & Dad went for a walk and saw someone panning for gold. I took advantage of a break in walking & eating cake and went with my wife to the History Links Museum in Dornoch – the staff were knowledgeable and friendly and the exhibitions were local but on point. There was a plethora of early C20th Photos and a great bit about the Battle Of Embo among other time periods explained from Dornoch’s point of view. It really is worth the ÂŁ4/adult entry fee. However, it is about the Battle Of Embo I want to write about now.

Dornoch’s Coat Of Arms

According to the History Links site, some doubts remain as to the exact date of this battle: tradition suggests the 1240s, but more reliable recent evidence places the battle in the 1260s. The battle took place after a party of Danes landed at Little Ferry and encamped near Embo. The Earl of Sutherland asked Richard de Moravia (St. Gilbert’s brother who had been given Skelbo Castle by him in 1235) to engage the Danes and hold them in check until he assembled a strong enough force to come to Richard’s aid.

The plan worked, and the Danes were routed on the arrival of the Earl. During the battle Richard was killed and Earl William reputedly slew the Danish leader with the leg of a horse,* an incident that accounts for the horseshoe on Dornoch’s present coat-of-arms. After the battle the Earl arranged for Richard de Moravia’s burial in Dornoch Cathedral, where the remains of his damaged sarcophagus can still be seen.

The only primary evidence I could find was this image on a Dornoch History Links image library. It is cited as –

Copy account of the Battle of Embo written in old English style taken from an old book. 2 A4 pages glued on a sheet of brown paper

Picture added on 22 February 2012 at 12:53

… so the origin is lost, but I am not too tempted to dig deeper about a man who kills people with horses legs. But here is the image** –


*Emphasis on my account

**No mention of the horse leg

Church Grim // Black Shuck

A_Staunge_and_terrible_WunderIn this Blog article I would like to write about Church Grims & Black Shuck – two Spectres that cannot be separated in my imagination. As readers of my blog will testify, I have a keen interest in the Social History & Beliefs of this fair Isle that I call Home. The UK has a wealth of supernatural ghouls that needs no Harry Potter (however, HP may have switched on a whole host of new celebrants). Indeed, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sybill Trelawney, the divination teacher, associates Harry’s tea leaves with the Grim, which she calls “a black dog who haunts churchyards.” Church Grims make a digital comeback in the iOS and Steam game Year Walk, which is based on Swedish mythology, the Church Grim is the last creature the player encounters. In the game, the Grim takes the form of a cloaked goat-headed figure and if the player touches its heart they can see the secrets of the universe (derived from an old southern Swedish folktale).

The Church Grim, or Kirk Grim if you are North of The Border (Kyrkogrim (Swedish) or Kirkonväki (Finnish)), is a figure from English and Scandinavian folklore, said to be an attendant spirit, overseeing the welfare of its particular church. English Church Grims are said to enjoy loudly ringing the bells. They may appear as black dogs (even as other animals, such as rams, horses, roosters or ravens) or as small, misshapen, dark-skinned people. The Swedish Kyrkogrim are said to be the spirits of animals sacrificed by early Christians at the building of a new church. In parts of Europe, including Britain and Scandinavia, it was believed that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to guard it against the Devil. To save a human soul from the duty, a completely black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the churchyard, creating a guardian spirit, the church grim, to protect the church.

The Scandinavian and Nordic Kyrkogrim or Kirkonväki can also occasionally appear as pale-skinned ‘ghosts’, said to be the spirits of the folk who lived in the proximity of the church that they now ‘guard’. William Henderson in his 1878 Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties attributes it to a foundation sacrifice and points out that the Kirkogrim of Sweden appears in the form of a lamb, which in the early days in Christianity in Sweden was buried under the altar. The Kirkegrim of Denmark took the form of a ‘grave-sow’.

Being born in the County of Norfolk (and therefore being superstitious), I associate this Church Grim with the beast Black Shuck. According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, primarily coastline, graveyards, side-roads, crossroads, bodies of water and dark forests. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia describes 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 Snarleyow 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.

It is Dutt’s description which gave rise to one misnomer for Black Shuck as “Old Snarleyow”; in the context of his description it is a comparative to Frederick Marryat’s 1837 novel Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend, which tells the tale of a troublesome ship’s dog.

According to some legends, the dog’s appearance bodes ill to the beholder – for example in the Maldon and Dengie area of Essex, the most southerly point of sightings, where seeing Black Shuck means the observer’s almost immediate death. However, more often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives; in some cases it has supposedly happened before close relatives to the observer die or become ill.

By contrast, in other tales the animal is regarded as relatively benign and said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen. Some black dogs have been said to help lost travelers find their way home and are more often helpful than threatening; in his book, Apparitions of Black Dogs, Dr. Simon Sherwood notes that benign accounts of the dog become more regular towards the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.

One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.[15]

The encounter on the same day at St Mary’s Church, Bungay was described in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:

This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.

Adams was a clergyman from London, and therefore probably only published his account based on exaggerated oral accounts. Other local accounts attribute the event to the Devil (Abrahams calls the animal “the Divel in such a likeness”). The scorch marks on the door are referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints”, and the event is remembered in this verse:

All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.*

Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve suggest that a fierce electrical storm recorded by contemporary accounts on that date, coupled with the trauma of the ongoing Reformation, may have led to the accounts entering folklore.

However, as reported in The East Anglian Daily Times, in May 2014 a large dog was excavated at Leiston Abbey and was linked to the legend of Black Shuck. Carbon dating of the bones “indicated a date of either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920” and the animal “was likely to have been interred when there was no surface trace of the original building remaining”.

  • Enid Porter, The folklore of East Anglia, Volume 1974, Part 2


The Dancing Plague of 1518

This story sounds like something straight out of fiction, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records. In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded history, The Dancing Plague or “Dance Epidemic“, struck the city of Strasbourg, France.

Sometime in mid-July, a woman, referred to as Frau Troffea, stepped into the street and started to dance, for no apparent reason. There was no music and her face betrayed no expression of joy. That lasted somewhere between four to six days and she appeared unable to stop herself from her madness. Within a week, more than 30 people had joined, dancing night and day on the streets of Strasbourg. And it didn’t stop there. Within a month, at least 400 citizens (mostly female) of Strasbourg were swept up in the phenomenon, dancing for days without rest, experiencing the madness.

Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, a Renaissance painter, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders.
Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, a Renaissance painter, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders. source

As the situation got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned. Some of these dancers eventually died from heart attacks and strokes. Many died from pure exhaustion. Physicians were called in to document the event and try to find a solution. With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by a condition known as “hot blood”. In the 1500s, “hot blood” was usually considered as a process known as “bleeding” or “bloodletting”. During that period in time, doctors believed withdrawal of “bad blood” could cure or prevent many illnesses. The authorities believed and eventually decided that the only way the dancers would recover is if they danced it out of their systems. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. They even hired a band of musicians to provide backing music.

Ggroups of people caught up in 'dancing mania' or a 'dancing plague' .
Groups of people absorbed in ‘dancing mania’ or a ‘dancing plague’

In August, as mysteriously as it began, the Dancing Plague was over leaving almost 400 dead and one truly strange event.

Modern researchers proposed numerous theories for the cause of the bizarre event, including poisoning, epilepsy, typhus and mass psychogenic illness. Other theories have suggested the dancers were members of a religious cult (originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing), or even that they accidentally ingested ergot fungus, the organic version of LSD, a toxic mold that produces spasms, seizures, and hallucinations.

Best get myself to RETRO Bar ….

Roast Egg? …. Anyone?

Try this old Elizabethan recipe – but beware of explosions! A dish I am sure John Dee would have relished. A roast egg, according to the recipe, is cooked to perfection when it begins to vibrate on its skewer. So far, my eggs have done everything except vibrate. They have cracked, split, oozed, smashed, buckled, dribbled, shattered and rolled off their spits into the fire. My boots have been spattered in shell shrapnel and there’s yellow yolk in my hair. Continue reading →

First Stop In Prague

In 1576, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II chose Prague to be his home. More than any other person, Rudolf made Prague a hotbed of alchemical interest. Rudolf lived in the Prague Castle, where he welcomed not only astrologers and magicians but also scientists, musicians, and artists. In addition to noted alchemists Edward Kelley and John Dee, Prague was also home to the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the painter Arcimboldo, the poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, among others. Rudolf arguably spawned the most intense period of occult activity in history. Continue reading →

The Worst ‘Get Rich Quick’ Scheme Ever

Among get-rich-quick schemes, the nĂĄbrĂłk, which directly translates as “necropants,” is one of the more extreme.

Necropants, a replica of which can be found in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in HĂłlmavĂ­k, Iceland, are an example of just how desperate things really were in 17th-century Iceland. Crushed by a terrible class system, natural disasters, and pirate raids, the peasants of Iceland barely survived. But hope came in the form of necropants, for which you needed to find a dead male friend, skin him, wear his skin like pants, and drop a coin taken from his widow into the scrotum of the skin trousers. As the legend went, once this had been achieved, every time you checked the pocket thereafter, there would be more money in your “money sack.” Continue reading →

Allantide & My Mate Allan

I have a mate called Allan – he is probably unaware of Allantide so I thought I would trawl the internet and find some facts out about this day, today, for him – and post them up here. Needless to say me and my mate, Allan, will not be indulging in these traditions – we are, instead, DJing at an event called VIBE tonight.

Allantide (in Cornish Calan Gwaf or Nos Calan Gwaf) is a festival celebrated on 31st of October . The festival itself seems to have pre-Christian origins similar to most celebrations on this date, however in Cornwall it was popularly linked to St Allen or Arlan a little known Cornish Saint. Because of the this Allantide is also known as Allan Day. As in all celtic cultures this time of year was seen as being a significant one and sometimes considered to be the celtic New Year (although this is disputed). In the celtic mind this was the point in the year when the veil between this world and the next was most thin.  At one point Allantide was a popular time for parties across Cornwall. It is customary to give large polished Red Apples at Allantide which in the past  were bought at large “Allan Markets”. Continue reading →

Cemetery Symbolism

Put aside everything horror movies have ever taught you about cemeteries and you’ll find that the final resting places of our dearly departed can be hauntingly beautiful bits of green space. And every gravesite has a unique story to tell, whether it’s with a clever epitaph or a symbolic decorative detail.

Atlas Obscura spent some time uncovering the meanings behind some of the most common gravesite symbols, which they’ve compiled into the below infographic. It’s sure to come in handy (and equip you with some fascinating talking points) when you encounter a set of clasped hands or a flying hourglass on your next graveyard stroll.