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Black dogs in folklore

Bob Trubshaw

For he was speechless, ghastly, wan,
Like him of whom the story ran,
Who spoke the spectre hound in man.

Sir Walter Scott, The lay of the last minstrel, Canto VI, v.26.

Why is the death-hound of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles such a vigorous archetypal beast? Conan Doyle's inspiration was the folk tale of a phantom black dog on Dartmoor. Such beasts recur throughout Britain, with almost every county having at least one example. A typical reference appears in the Rev Worthington-Smith's book on the folklore of Dunstable, published in 1910:

'Another belief is that there are ghostly black dogs, the size of large retrievers, about the fields at night, that these dogs are generally near gates and stiles, and are of such a forbidding aspect that no one dare venture to pass them, and that it means death to shout at them. In some places the spectral dog is named "Shuck" and is said to be headless.' [1]

It is interesting that Worthington-Smith refers to the name 'Shuck'. I doubt that this is a name normally used in Dunstable, as this is normally associated with Norfolk, where the reference is more typically to 'Old Shuck'. In Suffolk the black dog becomes 'Old Shock' (both these probably derive from the Old English scucca, meaning 'demon').

In the Quantock Hills of Somerset the black dog was frequently seen and called the 'Gurt Dog'. Cornwall has various tales of the 'Devil's Dandy (or Dando) Dogs', Devon has the 'Yeth (Heath) or Wisht Hounds. Other local names include Barguest, Black Shag, Padfoot or Hooter. Just to be different, in West Yorkshire the common name is 'Guytrash'; in Lancashire this is reduced to 'Trash' or changed to 'Skriker'. Further afield, a particularly unpleasant phantom pooch frequented Peel Castle on the Isle of Man in the seventeenth century and was known as the Moddey Dhoo, or Mauthe Doog. In Ireland we hear of the Pooka.

Although Theo Brown produced a detailed and useful survey of black dog lore in a Folklore article of 1958 [2] she went on to collect considerably more material, although was unable to collate it into publishable form by the time of her death last year [3].

In the Mercian area there are at least seven examples for Warwickshire alone:

At Alveston, Charles Walton, a ploughboy, met a phantom black dog on his way home on nine successive evenings. On the final occasion a headless lady in a silk gown rushed past him, and the following day he heard of his sister's death. [4]

The apparition of a tall lady with a large black dog at her side has been seen Pickerings Barn in Brailes. [5]

During the Second World War at Brook House, Snitterfield (which used to be the Bell Brook Inn) a big black dog was seen. It ran over the tilled earth of the garden without leaving footprints. [6] Very old people of Warwick used to say that the castle was haunted by a black dog. The tale has the hallmarks of a time-encrusted tall story. The local version claims it all started when an old retainer there, a woman called Moll Bloxham, sold milk and butter from the castle stores for her personal gain. One Christmas she overdid this, and the then Earl of Warwick, getting wind of it, stopped her source of supply. Furiously angry, she vowed she would 'get them haunted'. She apparently succeeded and returned in the form of a big black dog. In due course the clergy were called in to exorcise the ghost with bell, book and candle, but for a time they were entirely unsuccessful. Then one day, so it was said, a huge black dog sprang from Caesar's Tower into the river below, and so ended the ghost story. [7]

A black dog with a matted, shaggy coat and green eyes roams in Whitmore Park at night. Local people avoided the area, since to see the dog means a death in the family [8].

Meon Hill has both a phantom black dog and a ghostly pack of white hounds. The death of George Walton in very curious circumstances on 14th February 1945 was accompanied by a black dog being hung in a nearby tree. Walton had seen a black dog on nine occasions - the last time it changed into a headless black woman. His sister died shortly after. Although strongly contested, Walton's death has many overtones of the ritual sacrifice of a 'cunning man'.

In Nottinghamshire only one black dog story is known. A manuscript dating to 1952 in Nottingham County Library records the words of Mrs Smalley who was then about 75 years old. 'Her grandfather, who was born in 1804 and died in 1888, used to have occasion to drive from Southwell to Bathley [near South Muskham] in a pony and trap. This involved going along Crow Lane, which leaves South Muskham opposite the school and goes to Bathley. Frequently, along that lane he saw a black dog trotting alongside his trap. Round about 1915 his great-grandson, Mrs Smalley's son Sidney, used to ride out from Newark on a motorcycle to their home at Bathley. He went into Newark to dances and frequently returned at about 11 o'clock at night. He too often saw a black dog in Crow lane; he sometimes tried to run over it but was never able to. One night Sidney took his father on the back of the motorcycle especially to see the dog, and both of them saw it.' [9]

Moving across to Lincolnshire there are a number of examples. The two best known appear in Ethel Rudkin's book [10]. 'The road up to Moortown House was haunted by a big black dog that always disappeared into the hedge at the same place.' And at Blyborough 'The Black Dog has been seen near the Fish Pond and near the "Old Yard"'. However Rudkin's 1938 article in Folklore [11] lists a much greater number - by 1958 there were 47 separate black dog localities in Lincolnshire [12].

In 1127 a rapacious Abbot called Henry of Poitou was appointed to Peterborough Abbey. The chronicler of the day records 'tat as soon as he came there . . . the soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and big and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats.' Such a wild hunt was reported at a similar time in the Welsh Marches by Walter Map, writing about 1190. Walter map also gave us the legend of Wild Edric in the Clun area of the Marches. As late as last century Edric was said to haunt the hills around Church Stretton - in the form of a huge black dog. [13]

Such packs of spectral hounds - with or without hunters - have been seen all over Europe, and are generally known as the Gabriel Hounds or Gabble Retchets in Britain, and as the Wild Hunt in Germany and Woden's Hunt in Scandinavia. They are similar to the Seven Whistlers in that they were a portent of death or disaster. Perhaps the association with Gabriel and an old word for 'corpse'. Clearly, these wild hunts also like with the Welsh tales of Cwm Annwn, the spectral hunt, and even with the Wandering Jew folklore which is known throughout Europe. To what extent all these sky-traversing hounds are the last vestiges of a complex and ancient cosmological mythology is a matter for academic debate. I will just observe here that as far away as the New World the Cherokee Indians refer to the Milky Way as 'Where the dog ran'. A dog which ran from a corn mill in the south towards the north, dropping meal as he ran, is given as the origin of the Milky Way in Scandinavian legends too [14]

I know of no examples of phantom black dogs in Leicestershire and Rutland and only circumstantial accounts of one at Retford, Nottinghamshire.

Although a country-wide survey would extend well beyond the confines of this article - indeed beyond the whole issue of Mercian Mysteries - I will venture to mention two examples from West Yorkshire which might not be more widely known.

In Thornton, near Bradford, Jim Craven Well (104:SE1033) was the haunt of the ghost of 'Peggy wi't Lantern' and 'Bloody Tongue', a great dog with red eyes and a huge tail. The well is now lost [15].

A spectral hound with large glowing red eyes traditionally haunts Helliwell Banks Well, Baildon (104:16103962; now capped over) and the nearby Slaughter Lane. Several other wells in West Yorkshire are associated with the 'Guytrash' which takes the form of a large shaggy dog with broad webbed feet. It has drooping 'saucer' eyes and walks with a splashing sound (the 'trash' sound of old-fashioned boots) [16]

Folklore also tells us of some dramatic consequences resulting from the sighting of black dogs.

Somerset has a black dog which appeared in 1960 to two people - who both died soon after. East Anglia, Essex and Buckinghamshire all have examples of phantom dogs which disappeared in dramatic flashes, in one case burning to death a farmer, his horse and wagon.

Bungay Weathervane (4k)

Bungay weathervane.

On Sunday 4th August 1577 an extremely violent thunderstorm shook the church of Bungay, Suffolk. A fearful-looking black dog appeared inside the church, in front of the parishioners. Two who were touched by the animal were instantly killed and a third shrivelled up like a drawn purse. On the same day a similar hound appeared in the church at Blythburgh, seven miles away, also killing three people and 'blasting' others. The market's weathervane depicts the fiendish hound. Other such devastating apparitions had been recorded, for sometime before 1613 a bull-like creature manifested inside the church at Great Chart in Kent, leaving a trail of dead and seriously injured, before demolishing part of a wall and disappearing. [17; 18]

As a link in to my article elsewhere in this issue on the mythology of dogs, I will draw upon just a few examples most relevant to Earth mysteries. In Wiltshire, Bishops Canning, has a black dog legend associated with a stile into the churchyard and a possible ley - and 40 or so other black dogs are also recorded for that county alone [19].

Theo Brown states bluntly: 'Roads. These seem to be the natural home of Black Dogs. I have at least 55 examples of these . . . In addition to the above, there are nine haunting bridges. Numerically it looks as though the emphasis is on the man-made road being guarded, rather than the natural stream.' [20]

Other writers have speculated on the links between these phantom black dogs and leys. Janet and Colin Bord, in a chapter of Alien animals giving a comprehensive account of phantom dogs, show that a number of such sightings occur in places - such as churchyards and barrows - which are Watkins-style 'ley markers' and have a list of four tentative alignments in Lincolnshire which are associated with black dog sightings (Algakirk; Northorpe; North Kelsey; Blyborough) [21].

Acknowledgements

I am indebted to a number of friends for responding to my request for information on phantom black dog legends; in particular Jeremy Harte and also Pat Bradford, Janet Bord, Bob Dickinson, Frank Earp and John Michell.

References

1: Rev Worthington-Smith, Dunstable and its surrounds, 1910.
2: Theo Brown, 'The black dog', Folklore, Sept 1958 p175-192.
3: Her notes are now deposited with University of Exeter library. I can only hope that sooner rather than later a post-graduate student obtains funding to compile these into a publishable book.
4: Roy Palmer, The folklore of Warwickshire, Batsford, 1976.
5: Alfred Woodward, Memories of Brailes, Peter Drinkwater, 1988.
6: Palmer, op. cit.
7: David Green, A Warwickshire Christmas, Alan Sutton, 1980.
8: Palmer, op. cit.
9: Nottingham County Library MS; information kindly supplied by Frank Earp.
10: Ethel H. Rudkin, Lincolnshire folklore, Beltons, 1936.
11: Ethel H. Rudkin, 'The black dog', Folklore, June 1938, p111-113
12: Brown, op. cit.
13: Jennifer Westwood, Albion - a guide to legendary Britain, Granada, 1985
14: G. de Santillana and H. von Dechend, Hamlet's mill Macmillan 1970
15: Val Shepherd, Historic wells in and around Bradford, Heart of Albion Press, 1994; citing T. Mackenzie, Bronte moors and villages, 1923.
16: Shepherd, op. cit.
17: John Michell and Bob Rickard, Phenomena: a book of wonders, Thames and Hudson 1977.
18: Westwood, op. cit.
19: John Michell, Earthspirit, Thames and Hudson, 1975; citing Kathleen Wiltshire, Ghosts and legends of the Wiltshire countryside, Salisbury, 1973.
20: Brown, op. cit.
21: Janet and Colin Bord, Alien animals, Panther, 2nd edn 1985.

Black dogs - stop press latest

Just when I thought I'd got to grips with just about everything worthwhile on the subject, up barks Peter Jenning's article on Black Shuck legends in the latest Gippeswic [1].

In addition to some more examples of black dog apparitions in East Anglia, two very interesting ideas emerge from this survey. Jennings notes that black dog sightings seem to be especially prevalent in East Anglia and the Yorkshire east coast - areas which were heavily settled by Scandiavians from the seventh century. A link with Norse traditions does, of course, fit in well with the mythology discussed by Alby Stone and myself in our articles. Personally, I would want to make a more accurate assessment of the distribution before making such an assertion - there are, after all, many examples too from other regions and countie with plenty of recorded examples of black dogs are usually simply those where a folklorist has been particularly active.

One other snippet of speculation more strongly suggests Scandiavian associations. As I have noted, black dogs appear under a variety of regional names. One such is 'barguest', prevalent in parts of Yorkshire. Peter Jennings reports that Sir Walter Scott suggested that this appelation came from the German bargeist, 'spirit of the (funeral) bier'. Now that really does fit in exceptionally well with the 'guardian of the corpse ways' concept. Many thanks Peter for drawing attention to this - even if you would prefer to see the origin as impling some sort of guardian spirit who 'bars' unwanted 'guests' (though, that too, has strongly liminal associations).

On a lighter note, Jennings informs us that in Suffolk there is a Black Shuck Borderline Morris team. Is the 'borderline' aspect merely an unconsciously affirmation of the liminal role of the Shuck mythos?

1: Gippeswic No.9, June 1994, GBP1.75 from 42 Cemetery Road, Ipswich, IP4 2JA

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 August 1994.


Of all the articles uploaded to the At the Edge Web site, it has been this overview of black dogs that has generated the most emails.

Summary of emails received about black dogs.

Black dogs section of Jeremy Harte's bibliography Alternative Approaches to Folklore

Black dogs: guardians of the corpseways A wide-ranging study by Bob Trubshaw of black dogs as psychopomps.

Mike Burgess's Shuckland (East Anglian phantom black dogs)


At the Edge home page

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw / bobtrubs@indigogroup.co.uk
Created April 1996; updated November 2008