The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern. It is impossible to ascertain whether the creature originated in the Celtic or Germanic elements in British culture. Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death. Examples of this are the Cŵn Annwn, Garmr and Cerberus,all of whom were in some way guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs. It is possible that the black dog is a survival of these beliefs. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, and a few (such as the Barghest) are said to be directly harmful. Some, however, like the Gurt Dog in Somerset and the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills in Connecticut, are said to behave benevolently.
Black Dogs by Locale
Some of the better-known black dogs are the Barghest of Yorkshire and Black Shuck of East Anglia. Various other forms are recorded in folklore in Britain and elsewhere. Other names are Hairy Jack, Skriker, Padfoot, Churchyard Beast, Shug Monkey, Cu Sith, Galleytrot, Capelthwaite, Mauthe Doog, Hateful Thing, Swooning Shadow, Bogey Beast (Lancashire), Gytrash, Gurt Dog, Oude Rode Ogen, Tibicena (Canary Islands), and Dip (Catalonia). Although a Grim is not a barghest, a Church or Fairy Grim can also take the form of a big black dog.
Black Dogs have been reported from almost all the counties of England, the exceptions being Middlesex and Rutland.
On Dartmoor, the notorious squire Cabell was said to have been a huntsman who sold his soul to the Devil. When he died in 1677, black hounds are said to have appeared around his burial chamber. The ghostly huntsman is said to ride with black dogs; this tale inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his well-known story The Hound of the Baskervilles.(See an alternate explanation in Monday’s post on “Hergest Court.”)
The Devon Wishthounds (‘Wisht’ is a dialect word for “Ghostly/Haunted”) are a related traditional folklore phenomenon apparently related either to the Germanic dogs of the Wild Hunt or the Brythonic Cwn Annwn.
In Lancashire, the black hound is called Barguist, Gytrash, Padfoot, The Grim, Shag, Trash, Striker or Skriker.
In Tring, Hertfordshire, a fierce-looking black hound with red eyes is said to haunt the middle of the road in the area where the gibbet once stood. Locally it is known as Lean Dog, and is the spirit of a chimney sweep executed for murder. When approached, the lean dog sinks into the ground.
The Gurt Dog (“Great Dog”) of Somerset is an example of a benevolent dog. It was said that mothers would allow their children to play unsupervised on the Quantock Hills because they believed the Gurt Dog would protect them. It would also accompany lone travellers in the area, acting as a protector and guide.
Stories are told of a black dog in Twyford, near Winchester.
In Wakefield, Leeds, Pudsey, and some areas of Bradford the local version of the legend is known as “Padfoot.”
There are many tales of ghostly black dogs in Lincolnshire collected by Ethel Rudkin for her 1938 publication Folklore. Such a creature, known locally as “Hairy Jack,” is said to haunt the fields and village lanes around Hemswell, and there have been reported sightings throughout the county, from Brigg to Spalding. Rudkin, who claimed to have seen Hairy Jack herself, formed the impression that black dogs in Lincolnshire were mainly of a gentle nature and looked upon as a spiritual protector.
A black dog has been said to haunt the Newgate Prison for over 400 years, appearing before executions. According to legend, in 1596, a scholar was sent to the prison for witchcraft, but was killed and eaten by starving prisoners before he was given a trial. The dog was said to appear soon after, and although the terrified men killed their guards and escaped, the beast is said to have haunted them wherever they fled.
Galley Hill in Luton, Bedfordshire, is said to have been haunted by a black dog ever since a storm set the gibbet alight sometime in the 18th century.
Betchworth Castle in Surrey is said to be haunted by a black dog that prowls the ruins at night.
In Norfolk, Suffolk and the northern parts of Essex a black dog, known as Black Shuck or Shug is regarded as malevolent, with stories ranging from terrifying victims to being a portent of illness or death to themselves or a person close to the victim. There are tales that in 1577 it attacked the church in the village of Bungay, killing two people before running to the church in the nearby village of Blythburgh, leaving claw marks which remain today. There are also less common tales of a similar dog said to accompany people on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen. But in mid Essex Black Shuck is most commonly regarded as a bringer of death.
Black Dog Hill and Black Dog Halt railway station in Wiltshire are named after a dog, which is said to be found in the area.
A Barguest is said to roam the snickelways and side roads of York, preying on passers by; this dog has also been seen near Cliffords Tower. To see the monstrous dog is said to be a warning of impending doom.
A black dog is said to haunt Ivelet Bridge near Ivelet in Swaledale, Yorkshire. The dog is allegedly headless, and leaps over the side of the bridge and into the water, although it can be heard barking at night. It is considered a death omen, and reports claim that anybody who has seen it died within a year. The last sighting was around a hundred years ago.
Devon’s Yeth Hound
The yeth hound, also called the yell hound, is a black dog found in Devon folklore. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the yeth hound is a headless dog, said to be the spirit of an unbaptised child, which rambles through the woods at night making wailing noises.The yeth hound is also mentioned in The Denham Tracts. It may have been one inspiration for the ghost dog in The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, described as “an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen” – with fire in his eyes and breath (Hausman 1997:47).
The Cù Sìth (Scottish Gaelic pronunciation: kuː ʃiː) is an enormous, otherworldly hound, said to haunt the Scottish Highlands. Roughly the size of a cow or large calf, the Cù Sìth was feared as a harbinger of death and would appear to bear away the soul of a person to the afterlife (similar to the manner of the Grim Reaper). Supernatural dogs in the legends are usually completely black, or white with red ears. The Cù Sìth’s coloration is therefore highly unusual because of its light green color, although it may be derived from the green color often worn by Celtic fairies.
Channel Islands and Isle of Man
In the Isle of Man is the legend of the Moddey Dhoo, ‘black dog’ in Manx, also styled phonetically Mauthe Doog or Mawtha Doo. It is said to haunt the environs of Peel Castle. People believe that anyone who sees the dog will die soon after the encounter with the dog. It is mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in The Lay of the Last Minstrel:
“For he was speechless, ghastly, wan
Like him of whom the Story ran
Who spoke the spectre hound in Man.”
In the Channel Island of Guernsey, there are two named dogs. One, Tchico (Tchi-coh two Norman words for dog, whence cur), is headless, and is supposed to be the phantom of a past Bailiff of Guernsey, Gaultier de la Salle, who was hanged for falsely accusing one of his vassals. The other dog is known as Bodu or tchen Bodu (tchen being dog in Dgèrnésiais). His appearance, usually in the Clos du Valle, foretells death of the viewer or someone close to him. There are also numerous other unnamed apparitions, usually associated with placenames derived from bête (beast).In Jersey folklore, the Black Dog of Death is also called the Tchico, but a related belief in the Tchian d’Bouôlé (Black Dog of Bouley) tells of a phantom dog whose appearance presages storms. The real reason for the superstition of the Black Dog of Bouley Bay is thought to be due to smugglers. If the superstition was fed and became ‘real’ to the locals, then the bay at night would be deserted and the smuggling could continue in security. The pier at Bouley Bay made this an exceptionally easy task. A local pub retains the name “The Black Dog.”
On mainland Normandy, the dog is referred to as the Rongeur d’Os (bone-gnawer)
In Wales, its counterpart was the gwyllgi, the “Dog of Darkness”, a frightful apparition of a mastiff with baleful breath and blazing red eyes. Also related are the spectral Cŵn Annwn, connected with the otherworld realm of Annwn referred to in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi and elsewhere; however, they are described as being dazzling white rather than black in the medieval text.
Another ghostly black dog is said to haunt St Donat’s Castle, with some witnesses claiming it to have been accompanied by a hag.
A black dog is said to have appeared to wrestlers at Whiteborough, a tumulus near Launceston.
A black dog was once said to haunt the main road between Bodmin and Launceston near Linkinhorne.
A black dog is known to haunt an area that was frequented by a local Hellfire Club, and is connected to a spiritual Black Cat. Sightings have persisted for years, and it has been known to attack an inn in the area of the old Hellfire Club’s location.