Black Shuck and Other Ghostly Hounds of England
England is an ancient country of fertile, rolling fields, dark forests, windswept moorland and, for such a small, highly populated part of the world, many lonely, remote places. Crisscrossed by straight roads built by the Roman invaders and winding, narrow lanes, it can be a landscape of rolling mist, darkness and hauntings.
One of the most persistent stories you will be told by the locals if you are brave enough to listen is of a huge, black phantom hound with slavering jaws and fire pouring from its saucer eyes.
This fearsome beast is known by many different names across the country such as Black Shuck, the Barguest and Padfoot, and sightings have been reported in nearly every English county. But what if it were true? What if this hound from hell had once existed and really been a flesh and blood animal rather than a terrifying ghostly dog sent by the devil?
You may say this is impossible, just a lot of nonsense, but archaeologists working in the ruins of Leiston Abbey in East Anglia have recently excavated the skeleton of a huge dog that would have weighed around 200lbs and stood at least seven feet tall when it was alive. This massive beast was found buried in a shallow grave in the abbey and scientists think it would have been put there around the same time as two of the most famous phantom black hound stories supposedly occurred not too far away and entered into local folklore.
For way back in 1577 on the morning of the 4th August, a huge storm raged over East Anglia and out of the flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and pouring rain the devil in the guise of a massive black demon dog materialised in the parish church in Blythburgh. As this spectral hound rampaged through the church it caused the steeple to topple and kill three parishioners, smashed the baptismal font into tiny pieces and scorched other worshippers as it ran past them.
The marks from its massive claws were discovered on the door it fled from on its way to menace the good people also attending mass in nearby Bungay church. This second visit left another two worshippers dead and one badly injured as though some invisible, infernal flames had left him burned and shrivelled.
This demon hound became known as Black Shuck and local legend said if you caught sight of the massive black phantom dog or it crossed your path, then the very life would be sucked out of you and your corpse would later be discovered in the road or remote countryside you had been walking in. The name ‘shuck’ derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘scucca’ which means demon. Also sometimes known as ‘old shuck’, there have been many spectral dog sightings reported around East Anglia.
If you wish to encounter this hound from hell, you need to roam the lonely lanes, riverbanks and old graveyards which he haunts after the sun has set. But you will need great courage for he is said to be the size of a calf, but so stealthy that the first you know of his presence is the brush of his rough coat as he lopes past you or the icy chill of his breath on the back of your neck.
However, reports of the phantom hound’s behaviour vary across East Anglia. In Suffolk Black Shuck is thought of as a largely benign ghostly visitor unless you are ill-advised enough to directly challenge it, as it will then attack you until you are rendered unconscious and usually died. He is also reputed to be the guardian of a lost treasure hoard, as at Clopton Hall in Stowmarket a ghastly apparition with the body of a monk and the head of a huge black dog is sighted patrolling and protecting lost gold.
In Norfolk, Black Shuck has a much more fearsome reputation as local folklore states you cannot look on the demon hound and keep your life and when someone was close to dying it was said ‘the Black Dog is at his heels’. Across the border in Cambridgeshire if you encounter Black Shuck on the roads it is said to be a bad omen there will soon be a death in your family, while in Essex it is thought to actually protect any wayfarers it encounters on its nightly prowling.
If you travel further north to Yorkshire, these black ghost dogs are known as the barguest or goblin dog. Again those who have been unlucky enough to encounter one describe them as huge, black shaggy beasts with flaming saucer eyes and sometimes trailing a jangling chain behind them. To have escaped the barguest these unlucky travellers would have had to have jumped across a stream or pond as this devil’s hound cannot cross water. One of the most famous barguest hauntings is in the historic port of Whitby where it is said to roam the darkened streets and lanes at night. But be very scared if you hear it howl as this means you will die on the following day as only the doomed can hear its hellish barking.
In the more rural country around Appletreewick the barguest also reputedly haunts the lonely countryside. It is said that in 1881 a very brave, or very foolish depending on your point of view, man visited a gorge called Trollers Gill after darkness fell to investigate the area where the spectral hound was rumoured to roam. Concern grew when the man failed to return and, tragically, his ripped up, mauled corpse was found by some local shepherds the next day after the sun rose.
One of the most famous phantom hounds in England is the fictional ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, the literary creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This spectral beast terrorised the Baskerville family around their home on Dartmoor in the county of Devon in the south west of the country and it took the genius of Sherlock Holmes to solve the case and stop the murders. Conan Doyle could have based his novel on stories he had been told by locals of the yeth hound or yell hound said to haunt the Devon woodlands after dark. This ghostly dog is particularly horrific as it is believed to be the wraith of an un-christened baby that is headless, but still manages to sob and moan.
Do you believe sighting of ghostly black hounds are
Scientific tests and DNA analysis are being undertaken on the massive dog skeleton unearthed in Leiston Abbey which will hopefully provide more evidence and information on which breed of dog it was, when it died and what killed it. We will probably never really know why it was given a burial in sacred ground. Perhaps it was a favoured pet or maybe it really was thought to be the dead body of Black Shuck. But we have to ask why legends of ghostly black dogs are so prevalent throughout England? Are they based on real dogs like the skeleton that has just been excavated which were bigger and more terrifying than most of the dogs at the time?
Or were these stories deliberately spread by the medieval church? The old religion and pagan customs lingered for centuries in England after the arrival of Christianity, especially in remoter, rural areas. The church was very threatened by this, so could have made up stories of ghost dogs which haunted the old places of pagan worship to frighten their parishioners into compliance and fill their pews each Sunday. Or the stories could have been spread purely for the practical reason of deterring the unwary, especially young children, from getting lost and possibly injuring themselves if they wandered into isolated backwoods, mountains or gorges.
But the next time you are walking or driving down a lonely English road after dark or are tempted to take a short-cut through the woods or across a graveyard at night, be sure to look away if you see a flash of black fur or flaming eyes out of the corner of your eye. And if you are unlucky enough to hear fiendish howling through the mist and darkness, maybe you should start praying for your soul.
Black Shuck weather vane image Keith Evans Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 2.0 generic
Trollers Gill Image Gordon Hatton Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 2.0 generic
Black Dog Ghosts Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_dog_(ghost)
Yorkshire Dales Barguest - http://www.yorkshire-dales.com/barguest.html
Mysterious Britain Phantom Black Dogs - http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/phantom-black-dogs.html
Reader's Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain
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