The Fiendish Black Dog of British Folklore

"A Study of a Black Dog"by Sawrey Gilpin
"A Study of a Black Dog"by Sawrey Gilpin

There exists in British folklore a frightful creature known simply as the Black Dog. Although some stories may have originated with an encounter with a living dog, in legend the tales usually tell of a spirit or ghost dog. It is almost always described as larger than your average dog with shaggy black fur and glowing fiery red eyes, sometimes said to be the size of saucers.

Satan leading a pack of spectre dogs. Illustration by C E Brock, 1890.
Satan leading a pack of spectre dogs. Illustration by C E Brock, 1890.

Guarding Liminal Places

The black dog is seen in many areas of Britain, most often in the southern and eastern parts of England, but it has also been reported in Scotland, in the border region of Wales, and rarely in Ireland and Scandinavia.

The dog is encountered by wanderers out alone at night, and it is spotted in liminal places. These are places where the veil between the human and spirit worlds is said to be thin. Liminal places are often places of transition or symbolic of change, such as crossroads, bridges, gates, and entryways.

Sometimes he is seen trotting down a road that is known to be ancient. In some cases the dog is thought to be the guardian of an ancestral sacred place or some ancient treasure.

If you encounter one...

Although he is often described as a fiend and witnesses are nearly always terrified, not all black dogs are reported as malicious. Some are considered harmless, especially if left alone.

Witnesses advise that if you encounter a black dog, do not approach it! The black dog can do great harm if the passerby attempts to interact with it, but is likely to be quite benign if left alone.

The Irish Pooka

W.B. Yeats makes a very brief mention of the black dog in his book “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry” saying that it may be a form of the Pooka.

His short section on the Pooka says that “the Pooka, rectè Púca, seems essentially an animal spirit. Some derive his name from poc, a he-goat; and speculative persons consider him the forefather of Shakespeare's "Puck". On solitary mountains and among old ruins he lives, ‘grown monstrous with much solitude,’ and is of the race of the nightmare.”

On the Welsh Border

Jacqueline Simpson mentions black dog apparitions in her book “The Folklore of the Welsh Border.” She found a record of black dog lore dating to 1871 which states:

Joe Phillips entertained me with the terrors of the Llowes road at night, the black dog, the phantom horses, etc., which made my hair stand on end. He said many people would not travel that road at night for £100.

Black dog by Vasilios Markousis. Used with permission.
Black dog by Vasilios Markousis. Used with permission.

She continues on to discuss a report made by one Miss Wherry who was given her information from “a farmer’s wife whose family seem to have seen them quite frequently.”

They all follow the pattern of physical description described above, adding only that the dog was as large as a calf, others that it was as big as a fully grown cow, all with the same fiery glowing eyes.

The farmer’s wife took the apparition to be a harbinger of death. This interpretation was confirmed the following day when the woman received news that her brother had been killed in a railway accident (Simpson, 89).

Wild Edric

The black dog was sometimes reckoned to be the ghost of a man taking the form of a dog. Simpson mentions that in the Welsh borderlands the dog was sometimes thought to be the ghost of Wild Edric, an Anglo-Saxon hero who resisted the Normans whose story was passed down into legend. But, the dog could also be the ghost of other men as well.

The Devil's Chair, the hill Wild Edric is said to roam whenever England is threatened with invasion.
The Devil's Chair, the hill Wild Edric is said to roam whenever England is threatened with invasion. | Source

The Black Shuck

The black dog legend has many variations. One of which is the Black Shuck (or Old Shuck), found in East Anglia, England. It is thought that the term shuck is descended from the Anglo-Saxon word scucca, meaning demonic spirit (Rose, 42).

The black shuck’s description is very similar to the other black dogs' appearance, except he is said to be as large as a donkey and is sometimes seen with only one eye that can glow with either red or green fire. This dark is often seen on roads, marshes, alongside rivers, and guarding cemeteries

The Black Vaughn

Another variant on the Black Shuck is the Black Vaughn which was said to be tied specifically to the Vaughn surname. This dog’s role was to alert the Vaughn’s of impending deaths in the family.

Because the black dog is seen more frequently in England and areas that border England, it is likely that if this legend has ancient origins that it is more likely to be Anglo-Saxon than Celtic.

This view is strengthened by the Black Shuck’s tie to the Anglo-Saxon word scucca, the black dog’s sometime association with Wild Edric, and the fact that these legends also sometimes appear in Scandinavia.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Hound of Baskervilles," 1901
Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Hound of Baskervilles," 1901

Other Tidbits

The black dog, as a subgroup of other spectral dog and hell hound legends, which can appear in a pack of dogs which sometimes fly, may also have derived from the ancient tales of the Wild Hunt.

Variations of the Wild Hunt are found in both Celtic and Germanic mythology. But, it was especially prevalent in Germanic paganism where the hunt was led by the god Odin.

But, this kind of folkloric tale often has more recent origins, and is just as likely to be more British than specifically Anglo-Saxon or Celtic.

One other interesting bit of trivia is that the black dog legends are said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Hound of Baskervilles.”

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A depiction of "The Wild Hunt" that includes a black dog running beside Wotan (Odin) on horseback. By Franz von Stuck, 1889
A depiction of "The Wild Hunt" that includes a black dog running beside Wotan (Odin) on horseback. By Franz von Stuck, 1889

Works Cited

Rose, C. (1996). Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Enclyclopedia. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc.

Simpson, J. (1976). The Folklore of the Welsh Border. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.

Whitlock, R. (1992). Wiltshire Folklore and Legends. London: Robert Hale Limited.

Yeats, W. B. (1888). Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London: Walter Scott.

© 2016 Carolyn Emerick

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Comments 6 comments

DS Dollman profile image

DS Dollman 9 months ago from Loveland, Colorado

Great story--I think I had one of those in my backyard once! Seriously, though. I have read studies that show the prejudice against black dogs based on legends and folklore, which is interesting, too.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is an interesting hub, as always. I've heard about the black dog apparition before, but I appreciate learning more about it by reading your article.

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 9 months ago from USA

Black animals (dogs and cats alike) get so much flack through the ages. This was such an interesting hub though. I would agree that they're probably a harbinger of death or at least danger.

Robert Levine profile image

Robert Levine 9 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

I can't help wondering if the characterization of depression as a "black dog" by sources as wide-ranging as Winston Churchill, the British musician/songwriter Nick Drake, & the Australian poet Les Murray owes something to the legend--or, perhaps, if both the legend and these artistic expressions both tap into some common archetype.

From what little I know of Kabbalah, it often uses dogs to symbolize the demonic, though I don't believe color comes into play.

CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 9 months ago Author

Hmm. Did Kabbalah originate in ancient Israel or in diasporah Jewish communities? I ask because Middle Eastern societies seem to have different views on scavenging animals like dogs than European cultures held. But, these legends were so common in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, I wouldnt be surprized if it came to be a euphamism. The dragon and even unicorn were used as metaphore, so i dont see why a legend of a dark, looming figure which was so well known couldnt have been used to describe a dark lingering epsiode of depression. Regarding the demonic, well the Christianizing process in Europe caused most indigenous spiritual figures to be literally demonized. Former deities were diminutized to fairies and then the fairies were called demons by the church. So without knowing the point of origin of the myth its hard to know of it originated as something else and was demonized, or if it arose after the population was already believing in demons. But the glowing red eyes certainly give that impression!

Robert Levine profile image

Robert Levine 9 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

Much of Kabbalah developed in Europe, specifically Spain & Provence in France.

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