Most of us can probably remember being told as a child ‘don’t do that or the [insert monster here] will get you!’ Growing up in Norfolk, for me that monster was Black Shuck. Norfolk is a place of marshes, big skies, and lonely beaches. Shells of broken windmills stand in the perpetual wind from the North Sea, which tears across the countryside no matter how far inland you go. It is the perfect place for a malevolent, ghostly dog to reside.
Variations of black dog legends exist throughout the UK, with differing names. In Essex, he’s called Galley Trot. Up in Yorkshire, you’ll find Barghest. In Somerset, it’s simply Gurt Dog which means ‘great dog.’ In Scotland there’s Cù Sìth or ‘fairy dog,’ in Wales there’s Gwyllgi or ‘dog of darkness.’ In Norfolk, he’s called Black Shuck. As a child, my brother would torment me with Black Shuck stories. They scared the living daylights out of me at the time, but now I find the wider implications of them more interesting.
Despite all the different names and locations, all black dogs share similar attributes:
Black dogs are spirits, and behave as such. They appear and disappear, their footsteps are silent, they have supernatural features such as red eyes, and sometimes they seem to float on a cloud of mist. Some, like the Scottish Cù Sìth, also have a spectral green glow.
Black dogs are usually described as being the size of a great dane, but looking more like a wolf (yes, it would make much more sense to say they are wolf-sized and like wolves, since there’s not much difference in size between a wolf and a great dane. But we just don’t do that!) Some stories also say that black dogs are the size of donkeys.
Appear in lonely places
Many accounts of black dogs involve travellers. They commonly appear at crossroads, or follow people along empty paths. In Norfolk, Black Shuck is said to haunt the empty coastlines and the flat, soggy plains which are carved up by the Broads.
Based on all of this, black dogs don’t sound like the sort of creatures you want to meet. At the very least, they are regarded as harbingers of misfortune. It is uncertain whether they merely warn of bad things to come, or if seeing one is what draws the bad things to you. Either way, they are not good omen. A common belief in Norfolk is that if you see Black Shuck, you must say a poem backwards three times to ward off evil.
Another local story tells of how Black Shuck terrorised the village of Blythburgh, Suffolk, in the 1500s. In fear, the villagers ran into the church and bolted the door to protect themselves from him. Black Shuck clawed at the door, and eventually broke in and mauled several people before leaving. As he made his exit, the church tower collapsed. Nowadays, this incident is attributed to being the work of a storm. But to superstitious country folk, on an eerie winter’s night, it’s easy to see why they would have believed old Shuck was about. However, there is the matter of the scratch marks which remain on Blythburgh’s church door…
…and the skeleton of the giant hound, which was discovered in an unmarked grave during an archaeological dig at nearby Leiston Abbey. So maybe there is some truth to this story. We’ll never know for certain, which I’m okay with, because where’s the fun in that?
Dogs are renowned for being playful. Throw a stick, they’ll fetch it. Put them together, they’ll play fight. Have some food? Look away for a minute, and you won’t have any more! In some stories, black dogs also reveal their playful side. One of my favourite examples of this is the English fairy tale ‘The Rose Tree,’ collected by Joseph Jacobs. In this, a girl is sent out to fetch candles for her stepmother and a black dog steals them. Such an innocent, puppy-like thing to do, but it causes a lot of trouble for the girl (as those of you familiar with the Grimm story ‘The Juniper Tree’ can well imagine). So in this sense, the black dog is a sign of misfortune, but also a sign of being a dog thinking ‘cor, I’d quite like to chew on those candles!’
Black Shuck isn’t always bad. Like many other folklore characters, black dogs have an ambiguous nature. Sometimes they are portrayed as watchful creatures, who accompany travellers home instead of harming them. In The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, it states that a black dog ‘is a guardian of the place that it haunts.’ If this is true, then maybe it’s our fault for stumbling onto their turf and disturbing them — the impending misfortune is just their revenge. Also, dogs are loyal, territorial creatures. Especially in the Welsh story of Gelert and the Scottish story of Greyfriar’s Bobby. It makes sense that their restless spirits would want to guard somewhere which was significant to them in life.
Black dog stories are curious, because there is the potential for truth in them. Dogs are real animals, and some of them do have black fur. If their owner lets them out onto the beach for a wee on a moonlit night, then anyone with knowledge of these legends is going to be afraid! Even now, over a decade after my brother told me about Black Shuck, if I see someone walking a big black dog my brain instantly has a mini freak-out. Because that’s the power stories have. They turn something as everyday as a dog into a mysterious, fearsome being.
- John Matthews, The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures (London: Harper Element, 2009)
- Joseph Jacobs, ‘The Rose Tree’ on Sacred Texts