A respectably antique ghost is one reported by John Nichols in his History … of Leicestershire (1795–1811). He writes:
About midway between Sapcote and Stoney Stanton, over a rivulet, is a stone arch called Scholar’s Bridge about which supernatural appearances are said to have been seen; and, though such appearances are generally exploded, the Scholar’s Bridge Ghost has been for ages, and still continues, a nightly terror to many of the inhabitants of both these villages.
Possibly the bridge got its name from some scholar who met his end here. Possibly not. In earlier sources, apparitions are often unaccounted for by a narrative explaining their history (how they came to be ghosts), because people accepted the presence of supernatural entities in the landscape. To some extent they expected certain spots to have ghosts: bridges in particular, like other transitional places, such as crossroads, have from antiquity been notoriously haunted.
Moreover, not all ‘ghosts’ were revenants (the returning dead) requiring identification; they could be supernatural beings of some other kind. Nichols gives a hint of what it might have been supposed to be in the following circumstantial and therefore uncommonly valuable account of an alleged ‘sighting’:
A friend, who is no wise given to be superstitious, relates the following circumstance, which happened to himself at this bridge … ‘I was,’ says he, ‘walking between Stoney Stanton and Sapcote one very fine night, in the autumn of 1806, between the hours of eleven and twelve, my mind anxiously engaged upon a problem in mathematicks. In the middle of the meadow adjoining Scholar’s Bridge, and at the distance of about 80 or 90 yards from the Bridge, I heard suddenly a groaning sort of noise; which I could not at that time account for … The … foolish old women’s tales I had so frequently heard about the ghost of Scholar’s Bridge rushed instantaneously into my mind, and I was in some measure prepared for the extraordinary circumstance that followed. The night was fine, but rather dark; so that I could distinguish objects at the distance of a few feet only; and had got across the meadow, as far as the stile, which stands close to the Bridge, before I saw any object whatever. This stile stands upon ground raised somewhat above the level of the meadow, and a stone-step is placed for the ease of passengers in getting over. Just as I had set my left foot upon the stone, and in the act of throwing my right leg over the stile, an animal, apparently larger than a fox, and which I suppose to be a shagged dog, brushed by my right shoulder with a surprizing velocity. The darkness of the night prevented me from seeing the animal before its spring over the stile, and I never saw it but only its descent to the ground after touching my shoulder, and I verily believe it was either a fox or a dog; but, meeting with it in the middle of the night, upon the wing as it were (for I never saw it on the ground), in the very place where so many people had been frightened, I was very much startled at first; and the animal … seemed to be … as much frightened as myself.’
This is a first-class report, taking into account both physical and psychological conditions, of an experience supposed at the time to be supernatural. Though afterwards rationalized (‘I verily believe it was either a fox or a dog’), what Nichols’ friend may have supposed at the time was that it was not a real ‘shagged’ (shaggy) dog, but a spirit in that form.
Tall tales are called ‘shaggy dog stories’ for the good reason that the shape-shifter often manifesting itself as a dog (black or white) was traditionally rough-coated, and sometimes locally bears names that reflect this, as in the case of the Norfolk Shuck (see SHERINGHAM, Norfolk).