One of our favourite beach pastimes is to look out for interesting bits and bobs when wandering along the shoreline. Shells, sea glass (if we are lucky), pebbles that catch the eye. Once we took a metal detector onto West Beach. Our expectations where dashed when all we found was a lump of old chain, some rusty nuts and bolts and a couple of squashed coins!
We especially like to look for stones with a hole in them, known as ‘hag stones’. In folklore these stones are said to have protective powers. In Dorset they have been used for many years to protect people against witchcraft. Fishermen, well into the mid 19th century, tied them to the bows of their boats to protect against bad luck, accidents and the inability to catch fish. This is mentioned in a book about Dorset, published in 1906. An Abbotsbury fisherman relates that in his youth, when a particular boat caught no fish when neighbouring boats were catching plenty, it was thought that the boat was “witched” because the stone had “not been placed, or not properly placed, or not placed soon enough, on the boat”. To dispel the bewitchment, “a mackerel stuck with pins was placed in the stern hatch.” To this day hag stones are sometimes still hung on local fishing boats.
It wasn’t just fishermen who believed in the charm of the stones either. People used to hang hag stones on key chains or on the end of their beds to protect from nightmares. It was believed that if you looked though the hole you could see through to the ‘faerie realm’, or put a curse on your enemy. The stones are also known as holey (or holy) stones although it is not clear if this is because they have a hole through them, or ‘holy’ from being a source of protection against evil.
We have taken the hag stones we have found home, threaded them on a length of string and hung them in the garden. Next time you find yourself on a beach with time for a little beachcombing, why not keep your eyes open and you may soon find some beach treasure to take home. A simple reminder of your happy holiday.