Sunday, 21 September 2008

Focus On: The Ghostly Black Dogs of Britain

The idea of big cats wandering the wilderness of Britain enthralls me and, Dear Reader, you can rest assured that I shall be bringing that topic up regularly. But before I do we need to look into a related series of stories from the folklore and history of this country, ones I'd hope anybody with a little historical knowledge of Britain will have at least heard of: the Ghostly Black Dogs. Perhaps some of the answers to the incidents of large black cats here in Britain lie with this phenomenon.

Stories of large, supernatural black dogs are worryingly common around the United Kingdom. I first became aware of them when I was quite young visiting Leeds Castle in Kent when, as I was being dragged around the worlds only dog collar museum, someone told me about the Ghost Dog of Leeds Castle

The stories range from the Channel Islands, through the south and Wales and up to Lancashire and Yorkshire. The dogs have many names be it the infamous Black Shuck in East Anglia or the Tchian d'Bouôlé (Black Dog of Bouley) in Jersey. But some things are common across most of the stories; they are generally much larger than your average dog, jet black with glowing eyes (usually red). And, worst of all, they are generally considered to be evil (a few benevolent black dog stories are around).

The first recorded account of black dogs appears in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ in 1127.

" Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immeddaitely after his arrival [Abbot Henry of Poitou at Abbey of Peterborough] - it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare o, D - many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Relaible witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter."

Picture is taken from the back cover of The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts in fact and fiction' by Daniel Farson (1978).

Black Shuck is by far the most famous example of this folkloric creature. The legend goes back as far as the Vikings but he shall always be infamous for one particular incident.

The story goes thus; On the 4th of August, 1577 a service at St Mary's Church in Bungay, Suffolk was interrupted when Black Shuck crashed through the church doors during a thunderstorm. He tore through the congregation, violently killing two people and leaving one injured. He fled out the north door leaving large black scorch marks that can still be seen today. He headed to the nearby village of Blythburgh and after scaring the congregation of the Holy Trinity Church he left again marking the doors in a similar fashion to those in Bungay. Accounts seemed confused over the doors and the deaths and over which church they occurred at, but one of the churches (Blythburgh if my sources are correct) still shows the scars on it's door.

A more sober account states that at least at Blythburgh a great storm brought down the steeple, which fell into the church and damaged the font on that date. Local superstition may have filled in the much needed Devil Dog to explain why such misfortune should affect a church. If lightening struck both churches on the same day during services, you could see why the superstitious congregations may have felt it to be the work of the devil rather than an act of God.

One interesting correlation between most of the dogs is their association with marshes: Black Shuck was considered to be a Devil Dog of the marshes and other local names for such apparitions suggest marsh links: Yeth, a southern name, means heath while Wish, as in the southern name of Wish Hounds, is a Sussex word for marsh. Either there is an original story from which each local story was born regarding marshes, or because of the fact these apparitions were supposedly found out in the wilderness then it's just a coincidence. Of course there is always the possibility that there really are giant black dogs stalking the marshlands of the south east. Beware Romney Marsh dwellers!!

Black dogs were usually encountered by travelers, on roadsides and other trails which must of been quite the sight! Just imagine walking along a dark, muddy road when out of the gloom comes first a pair of glowing red eyes and then a giant, snarling black dog attached to them. You see it's muscles tensing as it prepares to pounce. What would you do? Most of the stories do not end in immediate violence or death but suggest the black dog to be a harbinger of doom. The folklore was quite clear that seeing him meant it was highly likely that either you, or someone close, were not long for this world.

If you think these stories are just folkloric tales from the post, you'd be quite wrong. People have been reporting seeing these creatures up until very recently. The following stories are taken from: Apparitions Of Black Dogs

Here is a case which was collected by Miles (1908) during an investigation of strange animal apparitions which had been reported in a lane in Laburnham Villa, a village situated approximately halfway between London and Bristol. The apparitions were believed to be the spirit of a local farmer who had hung himself in an outhouse about a century earlier. One of the villagers gave the following account:

" In the beginning of January, 1905, about half-past seven in the evening, I was walking up from the Halfway [a local inn]. I suddenly saw an animal that seemed to be like a large, black dog appear quite suddenly out of the hedge and run across the road quite close in front of me ; I thought it was the dog belonging to the curate. I was just going to call it to send it home, when it suddenly changed its shape, and turned into a black donkey standing on its hind legs. This creature had two glowing eyes, which appeared to me to be almost as big as saucers. I looked at it in astonishment for a minute or so, when it suddenly vanished. After that I hurried home, for the sight of this creature with the large shining eyes gave me a shock. The evening was a light one for the time of year." (Miles, 1908, p.259).

And within our lifetimes... well not mine but you know what I mean!!

Here is an account of an experience that I had as a small child, aged probably 3-5 years, when I was living in Spalding in Lincolnshire, England. I wrote this account as part of a school topic book when I was aged 9-10 years of age.

"The year was about 1974. I had been in bed a couple of hours. I awoke to hear a patter of feet. I looked up thinking it was my dog, but to my terror I saw a massive black animal probably with horns, but perhaps ears, galloping along the landing towards my bedroom. I tried to scream but I found it impossible. The creatures eyes were bright yellow and as big as saucers. The animal got to my bedroom door and then vanished as quick as it has appeared. I then managed to scream and my mum came in to calm me down. She said it was a reflection of car headlights what I thought was a ghost. I believed this until a few years later when I was reading a local paper which had an article about a haunted council house which was inhabited by a poltergeist. A variety of objects were hurled at the family's baby child. The father claimed that a black dog rushed at him and then disappeared. He also claimed that a black goat had been seen running around the house. I also thought I saw a ghostly black goat on the landing of my old house. After reading this article I was convinced that what I thought had happened a few years back had most probably happened."

Although it is difficult for me to recall a visual image of the 'apparition', I estimate that the animal was 2.5-3.0 feet high; its fur was standing on end and it seemed to be snarling or at least it was baring its teeth. It was this experience that stimulated my interest in parapsychology and the paranormal. An account of the effects that this experience has had upon my life was published in the Exceptional Human Experiences (EHE) journal and the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 2000.

I do think that whatever is responsible for this phenomena, be it psychological or supernatural, must be linked to reports of Shadow Men, and the story above has similarities with my own experiences.

So briefly, what are some of the proposed explanations?

Well of course these could be the ghosts of dogs that had died, but why they would come back in such a form is not immediately obvious.

Some think they might be "projections", i.e. "real" apparitions projected from a persons mind. Which is all fine except that is creating a whole new scientific law.

Others suggest dogs that have been "possessed" might explain the phenomena, but that doesn't cover the weird ghostly way they come and go nor explain the whole possession thing.

It's suggested that these are stories told to children to keep them away from roads at night or told by workers in graveyards (where the dogs often appear) to keep grave robbers at bay.

Hypnagogia (waking sleep) is cited as a possible explanation, although this does not really explain sightings made by more than one person.

A final explanation could be that these are actually large black cats (as in big cats not just oversized moggies!) who may have been misidentified as black dogs.

Personally I think it might be a mixture of explanations depending on the circumstances, some from above and some we haven't discussed. Whatever the cause it is certainly an interesting phenomenon... and not one now limited to just our countries... reports have been received from as far away as Brazil and the USA. So whatever is causing this it is a universal thing rather than merely a cultural one.

If you do happen to find yourself alone on a dark British country road at some point in the future and you hear a dog barking in the distance, maybe you might want to pick up your pace... otherwise you might find yourself getting up close and personal with Black Shuck himself...

Further Reading

Three Men Seeking Monsters - Nick Redfern - An attempt to explain... well everything! It's a fun road trip around Britain during which a theory forms that may well connect the black dogs with lake monsters, bigfoot, ufos and the fairy people. Or they may just have been drunk at the time. Whatever the case it's a great read.

Explore Phantom Black Dogs - Robert Nigel Trubshaw

Ghostly Black Dogs

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