Imagine that it’s the dead of night. There’s electricity in the air as the long-threatened storm finally breaks. You’re alone in an unsettling place, somewhere like a graveyard perhaps, or an ancient crossroads where many years ago, as local legend has it, a hangman’s gallows used to stand.
Suddenly you feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise up, and you get the unpleasant feeling that you’re being watched. You turn and there, right in the centre of the road, is the largest dog you’ve ever seen. Its coat is so black that you can only just make out its shape against the night and it’s just standing silently, staring back at you with its horrible glowing red eyes. The fear and desire to run are almost unbearable, but even worse is the feeling of utter despair.
You’ve just been visited by a Barghest.
That’s what this supernatural hound is known as here in Yorkshire, and although the mythological creature’s name may change, its spooky legend remains remarkably similar from Scotland and the north of England to Wales, Cornwall and the Channel Isles.
Up and down the country since at least the 12th century there have supposedly been sightings – usually at night-time – of monstrous Black Dogs the size of calves or even bigger. They have huge teeth and claws, and eyes as big as saucers that can glow a devilish red. Sometimes they attack and kill people immediately, on other occasions they’re known to be portents of death, with either the person who sees the dog or one of their close family dying shortly after the sighting. In some accounts only one person in a group sees the hound, with their travelling companions seeing nothing there at all; evil will soon befall the poor solitary victim.
The dog often fades from sight as the poor soul watches in horror, or has disappeared when the marked person looks back. Sometimes the animal is said to appear to members of the same family down the generations, usually heralding each person’s demise in turn.
It’s said that if anyone dares to return to the place of the sighting they may find the ground where the creature stood scorched or burned. This gives credence to the theory that the Barghest is a being from the fiery pit of Hell, come to take the soul of an evil-doer back from whence it came.
In Wakefield the creature is called Padfoot, while the Welsh refer to him – and strangely enough the dog is always male – as Gwyllgi, the Dog of Darkness. On the Isle of Man it is known as Mauthe Dog, and in Norfolk they’ll talk of Black Shuck. Even those unfortunates over on the wrong side of the Pennines know the creature. They call him Guytrash or Skriker. Whatever its name the beast is always huge, black and terrifying.
Sightings have become scarcer in these more enlightened days, but the Black Dog is still very familiar to us from the arts, and suspense literature in particular. Perhaps the most famous of all Black Dogs in popular novels is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that celebrated Sherlock Holmes tale set in the mists of Dartmoor, a great black beast is said to haunt the Baskerville family as a result of a pact made with the Devil by one of their clan. The Devil Mephistopheles first appears to Goethe’s Faust in the shape of a Black Dog, albeit in the slightly less frightening form of a small black poodle, but even this seemingly harmless pup leaves fire in its wake. And what is the title character in Susan Hill’s classic novel and subsequent long-running stage play The Woman in Black if not a chilling human version of a Barghest? All black, silent, frightening in the extreme, a harbinger of death but only visible to those on whom the calamity is about to befall; she’s a Barghest through and through.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells how the vampire’s arrival at Whitby is in the shape of a huge Black Dog leaping from his ship to the shore. Whitby is particularly associated with sightings of the Barghest, something that Stoker would certainly have been aware of when working it into his novel. The town’s links with the spectral pooch have long been celebrated by the recently revived Black Dog Brewery, whose tasty
products nicely echo the alternate spelling of Barguest.
Many people have claimed to have seen the creature in our locality over the centuries: The bleak Troller’s Gill at Appletreewick, the old stone bridge over the river Swale where pall bearers would rest their heavy load on the way to Ivelet, a disused well on Slaughter Lane at Baildon – all have recorded Black Dog appearances. Likewise Egton, Grassington, Nidderdale, Ilkley Moor, Sedbergh and Skipton. Even Sheffield’s Graves Park has allegedly been visited by the infamous goblin-dog.
York too has its own special version of the legend, with the unholy canine having been seen by several lonely travellers in the narrow alleyways that abound in that ancient city, usually with fatal consequences. It is most unusual for the hell-hound to be reported in an urban setting like this. The majority of sightings have historically been made on lonely moors, graveyards or out-of-town roads.
Of course the image of a Black Dog is also associated with depression, as in Winston Churchill’s famous quote of his “Black Dog on my shoulder.” This metaphor wasn’t of Winston’s own invention though. The father of the English dictionary, Samuel Johnson (of whom Churchill was a fan), used the term in his letters in the 18th century, but its roots go back much further. Even the Greek classics feature accounts of Black Dogs appearing to foretell of an untimely death. Perhaps these stories were originally created as warnings against travelling alone through dangerous areas? Or perhaps they were based around simple but calamitous coincidences. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something in them after all?
Whatever the truth is, take care if you should find yourself in lonely, desolate places. If you hear heavy paws and the clicking of vicious claws following you, don’t turn to look. The Barghest can strike anywhere.
(c) Shaun Finnie 2011