JON KANEKO-JAMES tells us about shape-shifting devil horses from the north of England
I’ve only just started this column, so I’m not particularly worried about running out of ideas yet, but I did sit down for this one thinking, “I hope I can deliver something suitably strange.”
And here we are, a race of mischievous shape-shifting horses who terrorise the north of England: Brags.
Imagine the scene: you’re a medieval Geordie making your way back from the pub one night, feeling the toll of a hard day’s work and a hard night’s drinking, when you spot a perfectly good horse stand there at the roadside. Now, horses can be treated like bikes: there are places where someone can tie them up with some food and water, and go do their own thing. This, however, isn’t one of them. This is the roadside, not an inn or a stable.
So, you do the only thing you can do: you look both ways, call out feebly, and claim it for your own.
The beast behaves well. It walks well, it’s well fed and looks healthy. You decide to take it for a turn around the pond on your way home … which is where things start to go wrong.
As soon as you get near the water the beast tenses up, twitches, and bucks you straight into the pond. You splash and flounder in the water, coughing as you rise to the surface. What you see is a thing from your future nightmares: a shaggy, black, donkey-like thing with flaming blue eyes the size of saucers. You thrash to get away from it, but it turns tail and runs into the night, laughing an eerie, human laugh.
That’s a Brag, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. According to a woman of Pelton, in Sir Cuthbert Sharpe’s book Bishoprick Garland, the Brag was a malevolent shapeshifter and herald of death. Its more innocuous forms were animals, like a calf with a bushy tail, or a dog with a neckerchief, but the Brag had much more horror than that up its sleeve.
Perhaps it would follow you through the darkness as a white pony, or Galloway, as it did one terrified Durham midwife as she went about her rounds. Perhaps it would appear in the strange form of four men carrying a white sheet…
However it had a more terrifying form still, since Sharpe reports that his source told a story of a local doctor how was so frightened by the creature that he could bear no mention of it ever again, and a man from Bewick who committed suicide after seeing it, so terrified of the creature was he.
Perhaps it’s the creature’s last reported form that terrified the man so much: that of a naked, headless man. Or perhaps it was because of the fact that the Brag was not only a herald of death, but one who could lay curses in its own right. Our Pelton woman tells the story of a man cursed while wearing a white suit. He saw the Brag as four men carrying a white sheet and so badly cursed was he that he was never able to wear the suit again without terrible bad luck.
We can’t say for sure, but the Brag is even described as thundering up to a house with a sound like six horses, forcibly claiming the soul of an elderly man inside…