British Folklore: Black Dog Stories From the UK

Last week, Kristin’s fabulous guest post discussed how folklore is used to motivate children’s behaviour, particularly through fear. Most of us can probably remember being told as a child ‘don’t do that or the [insert monster here] will get you!’ That got me thinking about my childhood. I grew up on the East coast of England, in  the county of Norfolk. It’s a place of marshes, big skies, and lonely beaches. Shells of broken windmills stand in the perpetual wind from the North Sea, which always tears across the countryside no matter how far inland you go.
 
It is no wonder, then, that Norfolk is rife with legends. It has it all: smugglers, headless horsemen, witches, will-o’-the-wisps, and phantom highwaymen. Enough stock to write several Halloween blog posts with leftovers. But for this one, I am going to focus on my favourite: Black Shuck.
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

Bit of an obvious one given the name! Black dogs always have black fur. This is usually shaggy.

Ghostly

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 Cù Sìth, also have a spectral green glow.

Cù Sìth
The Scottish Black Dog, Cù Sìth, is a ghostly figure whose fur glows with a green tinge. Image from Portal dos Mitos.

Big

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.
Norfolk Broads
Lonely landscape of the Norfolk Broads. Easy to imagine all kinds of folklore figures lurking around here, especially a huge ghostly dog! Image by Mike Edwards.

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…

Blythburgh Church Black Shuck
Claw-shaped burn marks on the north door of Blythburgh Church. Image by Spencer Means.

…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 fairy tale ‘The Rose Tree,’ which is a gender-swapped variation of the Grimm Brothers grisly classic ‘The Juniper Tree.’ In this, a girl is sent out to fetch candles for her stepmother and a black dog steals them. Such a innocent, puppy-like thing to do, but it causes a lot of trouble for the girl (as those of you familiar with ‘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!’

Bungay Suffolk Black Shuck
Black dog decoration in the town centre of Bungay, Suffolk. Image from Bungay-Suffolk.

However, 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 legends of Gelert and Greyfriar’s BobbyIt 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.

Black dog
‘Oh, this is just my day job. I’m really a terrifying ghostly hound!’ Image from Favim.

What do you think of black dogs — good or bad? Real or not real? Are there any black dog legends where you come from?


Featured image by MO-ffie on DeviantART
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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

4 thoughts on “British Folklore: Black Dog Stories From the UK

  1. Love the scratch marks on the church door, would love to visit and see that, also the bones dug up – how intriguing. I have always heard that there are more black dogs in rescue centres as they don't get chosen as much as the others. Awww, I made up for it and picked two black shucks of my own.

  2. Me too, they're so peculiar. Even if they're not what people claim, it's still a mystery where they came from and a fantastic story! And I've heard that, too. So sad. I'm a firm believer that dogs shouldn't be judged – they can't help how they are, but their owners can. You've proved that, by loving black dogs other people didn't! I'm sure your dogs are lovely 🙂

  3. Thanks Kristin 🙂 And yes they are, I got a bit scared looking for pictures to use in this post haha! I'm not a fan of Harry Potter, but I've heard people talk about it relating to a black dog somehow so thanks for clearing that up. Definitely explains why he would be freaked out!

  4. Great post! And those are some chilling images too! I immediately thought of Harry Potter. I might get the details wrong but I think in the third book he keeps seeing a big black dog which we later learn is Sirius and I never understood why he would be so freaked out! Makes much more sense now 🙂

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