Found in folklore throughout the British Isles, a black dog, usually demonic, is variously considered a ghost, a hellhound or even a shapeshifter. Sighting one of these apparitions is believed to be a deadly portent, with the death of the witness or a relative said to follow. These sightings are often linked to electrical storms alongside ancient roads, crossroads and places of execution. Often believed to serve as the familiar of witchs and warlocks, black dogs have long been associated with witchcraft and were mentioned in the alleged pagan killing of Charles Walton, a case highlighted by this author last week.
While the legends of black dogs cross the breadth of the British Isles, inspiring such popular culture as The Hound of the Baskervilles, two legends stand out amongst all others, those of the Barghest and the Black Shuck, the most deadly of all Britain’s Demon Dogs.
With its origins in the north of the country, Barghest appears only at night and is described as goblin-like, featuring huge teeth and claws. Those who fully saw the Barghest would have seconds to live, while those who only caught a glimpse would be a little more fortunate and live for several months afterwards. Equally, some said that upon the death of a notable local person, the Barghest would appear at the head of a procession of normal dogs in the area, leading the animals in a chorus of howls to lament the death. At this time, anyone who got in the way would be struck by one of Barghest’s razor-sharp paws. They would suffer a wound that would never heal.
One such demon in Darlington, a town in County Durham, is said to be of the shapeshifter variety. This Barghest was able to take the form of a headless man or woman, a white cat, a rabbit and, of course, a black dog. There are tales of the beast in the folklore rich Whitby and well as entering York. In Lancashire the creature went by the name of Trash, Skriker, or Striker, featuring wide feet that were sometimes backward in association with the devil. There is, however, a Barghest of Burnley and the Manchester Barghest is said to be headless. Other names include the Demon of Tidworth and the Black Dog of Winchester.
Some other tellings of the Barghest legend tell of it becoming invisible, only the sound of its dragging chain to be heard. Others say it represents a clear portent of doom, laying at the threshold of a house where death is about to take place.
The Barghest has appeared throughout British culture, with the Victorian ballad of The Legend of the Troller’s Gill being an early example. It tells the dark tale of a man at Toter’s Gill in North Yorkshire who sets out to find the Barghest as part of an arcane ritual. The man is soon discovered with inhuman wounds to the chest, his folly being fatal. More recently, Barghests have featured in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, The Witcher video game, The Lord Of The Rings Online and the Neil Gaiman short story Black Dog.
While the Barghest may dominate the north, the south around East Anglia is the territory of the Black Shuck, forming a crucial part of local folklore in the likes of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The word shuck is derived from the old English for the devil or fiend, and such is the association of the creature with the area that the Black Shuck is rife throughout local legend, culture and iconography.
As with all myths and legends surrounding black dogs, the descriptions of the Black Shuck are many and varied. Most versions, however, state the demon to be much larger than an average dog, being between the size of a calf and a full-sized horse. The creature is silent of foot and has a chilling howl, prowling the footpaths and dark lanes. In the Highways & Byways in East Anglia by W.A. Dutt, Black Shuck is described as having a single fiery red eye and is linked to the black hound of Odin.
However, this is a misnomer. Odin is not described as having a dog of any kind anywhere in the authentic Norse legends. Geri and Freki which are said to accompany Odin in the Poetic Edda are wolves and not dogs. Other wolves are associated with the myths and known as “the Dogs of Odin”, with a wolf pack often introduced to battlefields seeking to feast on the slain. Again, these are not dogs. While others have tried to link to the legend to Garm, the dog who guards the gates to hell, there are in fact few legitimate links between British demon dogs and the Viking legends.
“Some people believe that dog-phantoms derive from [Viking] myth…This theory is, however, untenable — at least from a historical and geographical point of view — for dog-ghosts appear prolifically in parts of England uncontaminated by Nordic beliefs.”
Patricia Dale-Green, Dog
One of the earliest descriptions of the Black Shuck features in the Peterborough Chronicle which is one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Recorded c. 1127, the book contains unique information on the history of England and tells of a Wild Hunt. These hunts feature the appearance of a named figure in folklore, often Odin in the Germanic legends, leading a soul-raving chase in the company of ghostly apparitions. Like with the black dogs, witnessing this hunt was a portent of death or even war and plague. Some equally believed that bearing witness to this unique phenomenon would lose the watcher his or her soul, either being pulled into the underworld or into being one of the spectral hunters.
“Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.”
In 1450, meanwhile, the rebel Jack Cade stood accused of having “rered upp the Divell in the semblaunce of a black dogge” at Dartford in Kent. However, this is seemingly an accusation of witchcraft rather than being explicitly linked to the legends surrounding the Black Shuck.
Perhaps the most famous account of the beast, however, came in 1577 when the Black Shuck was said to have entered two churches, being portrayed as the devil himself in dog form by Abraham Fleming, the clergyman, writer, translator and poet. Fleming told of how on August 4, the Black Shuck “wrung the necks” of two of the faithful inside St Mary’s Church, Bungay.
“This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) 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.”
Abraham Fleming, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder
Meanwhile, at the Holy Trinity Church in the village of Blythburgh, the Black Shuck is said to have burst through the doors with a clap of thunder and ran past the congregation, killing a man and child before the steeple collapsed through the entire roof, ruining the church. As the demon dog left, flaming footprints were burned into the stone.
There is some debate as to whether these two incidents derive from the same tale. Many believe Fleming was recording the details from passed along oral accounts, the details becoming changed in the process. Of note is the fact that a massive electrical storm hit the area that same day, lightening being known to have hit Holy Trinity Church during morning service. It “cleft the door, and returning to the steeple rent the timber, [and] brake the chimes”. The falling spire damaged both the font and roof and wasn’t repaired until the 18th century. While there are scorch marks by the door, these are caused by candles.
These sightings don’t end in the age of superstition, however, with a reported case in 1905 at the village of Laburnham Villa, located halfway between London and Bristol. Written in 1908 by Clarissa Miles, the story the dog in this instance was believed to be the spirit of a deceased farmer who had committed suicide the previous century.
“At the beginning of January 1905, about half-past seven in the evening, I was walking up from the Halfway [a local inn]. I suddenly saw an animal that seemed to be like a large, black dog appears quite suddenly out of the hedge and run across the road quite close in front of me; I thought it was the dog belonging to the curate. I was just going to call it to send it home when it suddenly changed its shape and turned into a black donkey standing on its hind legs. This creature had two glowing eyes, which appeared to me to be almost as big as saucers. I looked at it in astonishment for a minute or so, when it suddenly vanished. After that, I hurried home, for the sight of this creature with the large shining eyes gave me a shock. The evening was a light one for the time of year.”
Clarissa Miles , Experiments in thought transference. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
In May of 2014, a large dog was found during excavations at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk. The East Anglian Daily Times ran a tongue-in-cheek article on the find, speculating that the remains were that of Black Shuck. Soon after, the absurdist Daily Mail was reporting the creature had “stood 7ft tall on its hind legs” (it was 2.36 ft) and the likes of International Business Times and Yahoo! News were reporting the news as verified fact.
The poet and songwriter, Martin Newell wrote on the subject, saying that he was “surprised at how seriously the story was taken” and that even today he had been warned to “be careful”.
“One local woman told me that she’d seen Black Shuck early one summer morning in the 1950s, near Cromer, when returning from a dance. A Suffolk man said he’d seen the dog one evening on the marshes near Felixstowe. I later read an old newspaper story of an encounter in Essex. The account was given of a midwife who had been cycling home after a delivery during the 1930s. One winter’s night, she claimed, she was followed by the creature through the lanes near Tolleshunt Darcy. She added that the dog was huge and no matter how fast she pedalled, it seemed to effortlessly keep up with her. The apparition, which remained silent throughout, then suddenly vanished.”
Martin Newell, East Anglian Daily Times
Further reports of demon dogs have been reported right up until the present day. Like with Barghest, the Black Shuck is notable for crossing into poplar culture. The Suffolk band The Darkness feature the creature in a song from their debut 2003 album Permission to Land, while JK Rowling featured a description of the animal in the third Harry Potter novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the coming months, the Black Shuck will also feature as a mini-boss in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the latest game in their bestselling series.
With their origins lost to time, the tales of Barghest, Black Shuck and Britain’s other demon dogs are quintessential to British folklore. They have crossed from the superstitions of old into modern mediums such as novels, movies and video games. Acting as portents of death and doom, they have become a frightening warning of devilry, witchcraft and the dangers that lurk in every shadow of sleepy country lanes across the land.
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