In some parts of the country, the dogs act as death omens. Elsewhere, they represent the Devil. And in other legends, they’re even protective of travellers. Plenty for us to dig our teeth into then!
Traditionally, the black dog walks alone. It favours graveyards, lonely roads, and river banks. Emerging at dusk, its red eyes glow in the gloom. They vary in size across the tales, ranging from the size of a calf to that of a horse.
Black dogs are often known as Black Shuck, shuck coming from the word ‘scucca’, an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘demon’ (Reader’s Digest, p. 229). How very appropriate, given their most common association.
Other people know the black dogs as the Barguest or even Padfoot.
I wonder if Prongs and Moony know?
Black Dogs and the Devil
Many associated with black dog ghosts with the Devil until the late nineteenth century. These demonic spirits might plague homeowners, as one did in Oxfordshire between 1591 and 1592 (Davies, p. 35). Others claimed to see the Devil in the form of a black dog. I’m not sure how they knew it was the Devil, but there you go.
Owen Davies also notes the tales of a black dog near Tring in Hertfordshire. The spirit appeared near the spot where Thomas Colley was hanged in 1751 (p. 53). He apparently played a role in the death of Ruth Osborne, a suspected witch, taking us back to the diabolical link.
Davies highlights a new link between spectral black dogs and the human dead by the late nineteenth century. He notes the “[s]tories of ghostly dogs haunting the spots where their deceased masters or mistresses had last been seen or murdered” (p. 36). The stories neutered the spectral black dogs, removing the demonic and giving them the same romantic qualities as human ghosts.
Regional Black Dogs
The oldest description we have of demonic black dogs dates to 1127. Strangely, this description from Peterborough sees the dogs accompany a wild hunt, where the huntsmen, horses and dogs alike were jet black (McEwan, p. 122). Rarely do the stories elsewhere feature more than one black dog.
In Suffolk tales, the black dog sometimes appears as a harmless figure. He guards gold at Stowmarket’s Clopton Hall. This version features the body of a monk and the head of a hound. Maybe he’s terrifying enough to behold that he can live with being harmless! Many only realise they’re in the presence of the Suffolk black dog when they feel him pass by.
Though the Suffolk black dogs aren’t always friendly. On August 4, 1577, a black dog burst into St Mary’s Church in Bungay, Suffolk. Apparently, he ran down the nave, wringing the necks of two parishioners at prayer (Reader’s Digest, p. 229).
On the same day, Black Shuck pulled the same trick at Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh. Here, he killed a man and boy, caused the steeple to collapse, and left scorch marks on the door.
Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve examined the evidence from contemporary accounts. They think an electrical storm on the same day caused much of the damage. The story got twisted as it passed into legend.
The Essex black dog patrols lonely roads, kindly protecting travellers. He haunts graveyards and the site of the gallows.
The Cambridgeshire black dog has more in common with the Norfolk Shuck. Stories claim that seeing him warns of death in your family.
Speaking of the Norfolk Black Shuck…
Black Dogs in Norfolk
The Norfolk Shuck more closely resembles werewolves. People report hearing his howls even above high winds. Motorists swerve to avoid him when he saunters across the road. According to Reader’s Digest, “no one can set eyes on Black Shuck and live” (p. 229), though presumably, people do to pass on their tales.
According to W.A. Dutt, “to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year” (p. 216). Dutt goes on to link these black dogs with an old Viking story about Odin’s black hound. Which makes a nice change from demons. Dutt also notes Black Shuck’s fondness for storms. It seems he enjoys “the roaring of the waves” and the fact he “loves to raise his awful voice above the howling of the gale” (p. 216).
Speaking of ghostly dogs that like the sea, one legend related by G.M. Dixon describes a shipwreck in 1709. The ‘Ever Hopeful’ (ironic, I know) ran aground near Salthouse. The captain and his pet wolfhound attempted to swim to shore but were dragged under by the current. Their bodies washed up on the beach, still clinging to one another. The locals buried the wolfhound on the beach, and the captain ended up in an unmarked grave at Salthouse Church.
Soon after, they saw a spectral black dog howling and running between Salthouse and Cley. Now with fearsome red eyes, legends abound that “a story has never been told of a man who has escaped the jaws of Black Shuck” (Dixon, p. 27). Has time and separation from his master driven this devoted dog mad with grief?
The Hound of the Baskervilles?
I know the famous Sherlock Holmes story is set on Dartmoor. But its inspiration lies in Norfolk and its Black Shuck legends. This is Cromer Hall.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here to convalesce after contracting enteric fever in South Africa. While a guest at the hall, someone told him the legend of Black Shuck, the hell hound of Norfolk. According to this version, the dog ran through the grounds of the hall. He based Baskerville Hall on Cromer Hall when he wrote ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.
It was the Norfolk Shuck that inspired my short story, ‘Black Dog’. Sanitarium published it in their 44th volume but it’s no longer available so you can find the story here.
There are many more tales of black dogs than I can feature here. No one really knows if the tales refer to real giant black dogs, roaming the countryside. Or maybe they’re a trick of the light, an overactive imagination sent into overdrive by the gathering dusk.
Or perhaps they’re something else entirely…
Over to you! Have you ever seen Black Shuck? Let me know below!
Davies, Owen (2007), The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, London: Palgrave.
Dixon, G.M. (1980), Folktales and Legends of Norfolk, Peterborough: Minimax Books.
Dutt, W.A. (1901), Highways & Byways in East Anglia, London: MacMillan.
McEwan, Graham J. (1986), Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland, London: Robert Hale.
Reader’s Digest (1973), Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, London: Reader’s Digest Association.
Waldron, David and Christopher Reeve (2010), Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay, Harpenden: Hidden Publishing.
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