For he was speechless, ghostly, wan,/ Like him of whom the story ran,/ Who spoke the spectre hound in man. – Sir Walter Scott
With Hallowe’en appearing on the horizon, you might be forgiven for being on the lookout for ghosts. But be aware that not all spirits take on a human form. According to the folklore of the British Isles, many a ghost takes on the shape of a dog – and a large black dog at that.
It makes sense, I suppose. If deceased humans can return to haunt the living – and folk beliefs throughout the Ages have insisted that they can – then why shouldn’t the same be said for man’s closest companion in the animal world? But beware: the black dog, or Hellhound, is anything but a friendly spectre. In fact, it has decidedly diabolical associations.
Larger than any normal dog, and with fierce, glowing eyes, the black dog is – according to legend, at least – a frequent wanderer on Britain’s lonelier roads and pathways. It is particularly fond of the supernatural hot spots that are ancient highways, crossroads, and places of execution. Almost every county in England, Scotland and Wales has its own ghostly black dog, it would seem, and these canine fiends have a variety of local nicknames: the Barghest, Padfoot, Galleytrot…
It is Black Shuck, however, the black dog associated with East Anglia, that appears to be both the best-known and the most malevolent – indeed, the name “shuck” may derive from the Old English scucca, or “demon”. When Black Shuck isn’t acting as a portent of death and disaster, he’s only too happy to be striking terror into the hearts of, and occasionally killing, those who have the misfortune to cross his path…
The good people of Bungay in Suffolk found this out to their cost one day back in 1577, when a violent storm broke out. Just as the thunder and lightning was reaching its earth-shaking peak, a large black dog suddenly appeared in the middle of the town church, and proceeded to cause chaos. “This black dog,” said the Reverend Abraham Fleming in his account of the incident, “or the divel in such a linenesse … running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.”
Or, as the band The Darkness sang, rather more prosaically, “Black Shuck, that dog don’t give a f***.” Er, quite.
What are we to make of this odd encounter? Was it all down to strange atmospheric phenomena? A flesh-and-blood dog run amok? A bit of local moonshine? Or a genuine encounter with the supernatural? The choice, dear reader, is yours …
If you want to find out more about Black Shuck’s terrible exploits, you can browse the encyclopaedic Shuckland website.
Down on Dartmoor, meanwhile, a black dog story gave rise to a literary classic. Local legend has it that one Squire Cabell, a huntsman and a “monstrously evil man”, sold his soul to the Devil. Following his death, black hounds gathered around his grave, baying horribly, as if summoning his wicked soul to Hell. To this day – or so local mythology insists – Cabell’s tortured spirit is said to ride furiously across the moors, accompanied by these hellish hounds.
Just another country tale, you might think. It might have remained as such, had not one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his hands on it. The Dartmoor hellhounds were later to re-emerge, in slightly modified form, in The Hound of Baskervilles – and the black dog was reincarnated for the modern age. Sherlock Holmes, of course, being possessed of an unassailably logical mind, soon worked out that the terrifying hound that haunted the Baskerville family was just an ordinary, if oversized, dog, and was being controlled by human hands for malign purposes.
To what does the black dog owe its folkloric provenance, then? I’ve heard several theories, from the disappointingly mundane to the utterly bizarre. According to one account, it’s a straggling survivor of old German and Norse legends, such as the Wild Hunt. Others suggest that the story was deliberately put about by smugglers in a bid to keep local people away from their haunts after dark. Still others insist that black dogs, which apparently have a tendency to loiter in the vicinity of ley lines, are actually manifestations of earth energy.
It doesn’t matter, perhaps. Wherever they come from, black dogs continue to haunt the human mind. Britain is full of Black Dog pubs and inns. According to animal shelters, people show a curious reluctance to offer homes to black dogs. Nor are sightings of the black dog confined to the dim and distant past; in 1945 one John Harries reported being followed by one as he cycled through the quiet lanes of East Anglia.
Forewarned is forearmed, perhaps. If you want to learn more about phantom hounds in general, you could do far worse than to consult Karen Bush’s Haunting Hounds. This intricately-researched compendium comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Claire Colvin, and 50% of the royalties will be donated to Kim’s Home for Elderly and Abused Dogs.
Until next time, beware the padding of ghostly paws…