British Folklore: Legends of the Black Dog

The British Isles are rich in history and tradition and there are many strange and wonderful legends gathered from folklore whose origins are lost in the mists of time.  From these mists there have emerged many folk tales of spectral animals with strange and terrible powers that are said to haunt the forests, hills and remote byways of this ancient land.  Perhaps one of the most terrifying of these is the legend of the Black Dog.

Black Dog – Author: Liza Phoenix – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Sightings of phantom Black Dogs have been recorded from many parts of Britain for many centuries, with encounters in England seeming to be the most prevalent.  Most of the English counties report incidents and sighting of these mysterious beasts which are known by many names, depending on location. In East Anglia the beast is often known as Black Shuck where it has haunted the countryside even before the arrival of the Vikings.  In Scotland there is the Cu Sith and in Tring, Hertfordshire, the Lean Dog and in other parts of England there is the Church, or Kirk, Grim and many other names.

The Black Dog of Bungay

One of the most frightening incidents ever reported took place in the quiet market town of Bungay, in Suffolk.  On the Sunday morning of the 4th of August, 1577, during the Morning Service at St. Mary’s Church a terrible and violent storm broke out. The sky darkened, thunder crashed and rain fell heavily from the skies.  Lightning flashed wildly as the storm broke upon the church.  Inside the congregation knelt to pray.

Suddenly to the horror of the congregation from out of a flash of lightning there appeared in the church a huge and monstrous Black Dog.  Howling wildly as the lightning flashed and thunder pealed, the beast ran amok attacking the terrified parishioners and causing havoc.

Two people at their prayers were killed and a third man was badly burned from being mauled by the beast, but did survived the ordeal.  There was great damage inflicted upon the church, as the tower was struck by lightning and the clock destroyed, before the Black Dog finally ran wildly from the church to the relief of the petrified congregation.

Around twelve miles away in the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh, at a about the same time the Black Dog, or another beast like it, appeared and also attacked the frightened congregation at prayers killing three people.  There are scorched scratch marks on the church door that can still be seen to this day.

Title page of the account of Rev. Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog “Black Shuck” at the church of Bungay, Suffolk in 1577: “A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in ye yeere of our Lord 1577.” – Author Abraham Fleming – Public Domain

The Lean Dog of Tring in Hertfordshire

In the Hertfordshire town of Tring a phantom with red, glowing, eyes and known as the Lean Dog is said to haunt the site where a gallows once stood.   In 1751 an old woman was accused of witchcraft by locals and drowned.   A local chimney sweep was accused of taking part in her murder and was hanged from the gallows.  In the 19th century two men who encountered the Lean Dog reported it as being gaunt, haggard and unkempt.

A local schoolmaster who encountered it reported it to being about the size of a Newfoundland dog with a shaggy coat and tail and long ears.  There are also reports that state that with its first appearances it materialize as, or from, a fiery torch.

The Cu Sith

In Scottish and Irish legend the Cu Sìth, which means ‘fairy dog,’ was said to have a dark-green, shaggy coat and to be about the size of a large calf.  Its eyes were large and had a fiery glow and its tail was curled and sometimes braided.

In Celtic tradition phantom dogs are usually black though sometimes they are white but have red ears.  The Irish Cu Sith is describe as being a huge black hound. Green is associated with ‘fairies’ in Celtic lore and it is named the ‘fairy dog’ and seems to be in league with them.

The Cu Sith was feared as a harbinger of death.  In much the same way the Grim Reaper appears at death to lead the soul to the afterlife, so the Cu Sith takes the soul to the underworld.

The hound is said to have hunted silently for its victim but would sometimes rend the air with three blood-curdling yowls that carried for a great distance. When this was heard men would lock up their women to prevent the Cu Sith from stealing them and taking them to the fairy world where they would be made to give up their milk to the children of the fairies.

The Church, or Kirk, Grim

The Vikings brought many of their customs and traditions to England from Scandinavia and may well have influenced the legends of the Black Dog.  The Church Grim was also known as Kirk Grim and in Finnish, ‘Kirkonväki’ and in Swedish, ‘Kyrkogrim.’  Both appear in English and Scandinavian folklore as sentinel spirits whose task was to protect a church and its grounds.  They could appear as small, dark, grotesquely formed people, or as a Black Dog.

In many parts of Europe, including Britain, early Christians are believed to have sacrificed animals when a new church was built.   A black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the land which would then become the guardian spirit keeping the church and grounds safe from the devil.  It was often regarded as a herald of doom bringing death to anyone who encountered it.

Hound of the Baskervilles – Image Author: w:Sidney Paget – Public Domain Image

The Black Dog of Galley Hill, Luton

In ancient times Galley Hill was home to a hill fort and barrow.  Later in 16th-and 17th century it became a place of execution and a gallows was erected.

Galley Hill is a highly visible landmark where witches and criminals were executed there and their bodies covered in tar to preserve them.  They were then left to hang on the gallows which stood high on the hill as a warning to others before being eventually buried.

It is reported that one night the hill was hit by a ferocious storm.   The gallows were struck by lightning setting it and the ground around it on fire.  In the flames a Black Dog was said to have been seen howling and capering wildly.  People believe that the beast comes for the souls of criminals and witches driving them through the Gates of Hell for Satan.

Benevolent Black Dogs

Sightings and encounters with Black Dogs are still reported though they seem less horrific than those of the past and in some cases even benevolent with the beast acting as a guardian or guide ensuring travellers arrive at their destination safely.  Sometimes they have been reported by drivers who have seen them in their headlights in the road at night only to vanish when the vehicle is about to make contact.  There are also reports from many other parts of the world about similar ghostly encounters which suggest that the Black Dog is not just a British phenomenon.

                                                                                                                    © 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

 Copyright 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

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6 thoughts on “British Folklore: Legends of the Black Dog

  1. Pingback: Black dog folklore – Paradise is this Way

  2. Pingback: Ancient Stories: The Wild Hunt | Words With Nick

  3. Pingback: The Grim #FolkloreThursday | Ronel the Mythmaker

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