Wistman's Wood, a remnant of ancient oak Quercus robur woodland on Dartmoor, Devon, England. Credit: Alex Jane via Wiki Commons

Demon dogs

I was scrolling through the Fortean Times’ Twitter feed when I came across this story of a woman thinking she had taken a photo of a demon dog in a park in Yorkshire. Although this ‘mythical ghost dog’ looks more like a black cat taking a stroll, the photographer is quoted as saying that it was ‘monstrous, almost like a werewolf’ and that she’d researched it, and it was a gytrash.

Having never heard of a gytrash before, I thought I’d investigate what turns out to be a rich and varied world of demon dog folklore in England.

A gytrash is a northern English word for a demon dog ghost that lurks on rural roads at night. In one of the earliest mentions of the gytrash in literature, Charlote Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre mistakes Rochester’s dog Pilot for ‘a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes’, having grown up on her aunt’s cook Bessie’s tales of beasts lurking on country lanes.

Local variations

Going back to 1879, William Henderson recorded tales of local folklore in northern England and the Boarders. A wide range of witchcraft, spirits, elves and ghostly interference was still believed in, with tales passed down in communities over centuries. The most common cause of difficulties with churning milk for example was ‘the cow having been struck with an elf stone while grazing in the field’, whilst you can get rid of redcaps – a malignant spirit that haunts castles and towers up in the Boarders – by holding up a cross, upon which it will ‘yell dismally, or vanish in a flame of fire, leaving behind him a large tooth’.

It seems an earlier version of the gytrash is ‘padfoot’, which Henderson recorded as coming from ‘the villages around Leeds’. He records the tale of a Yorkshirewoman called ‘Old Sally Dransfield’ who had ‘often seen it – sometimes rolling along the ground in front of her – like a woolpack’ and then vanishing into the hedge. Sometimes seen as an omen of death, this version of the demon dog now famously appears in Harry Potter, both in divination as the Grim as well as Padfoot being the nickname of Sirius Black.

Various other names seem to have been attributed to the same phenomenon, showing the far more insular nature of village life back then. Some examples from Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire include barguest, bahrgeist or boguest, whilst Lancashire used the term boggart or bogey beast. A barguest at Glassensikes near Darlington seemed to be particularly versatile, switching form between a dog, a black dog, a rabbit, a white cat, a headless lady and a headless horseman who disappears in flames.

Sidney Paget's illustration of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story was inspired by a legend of ghostly black dogs in Dartmoor. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Sidney Paget’s illustration of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story was inspired by a legend of ghostly black dogs in Dartmoor. Credit: Wiki Commons.

‘How widely do these grotesque and churlish goblins differ from the light and frolicsome Devonshire pixy!’ exclaims Henderson, a bit disingenuously seen as Devon has plenty of its own horrifying beasts lurking around the moors. On Dartmoor, Wisht hounds, described as ‘rough, swarthy, and of huge size, with fiery sparks shooting from their eyes and nostrils’ are a pack of spectral hounds more in the vein of the Wild Hunt mythology. ‘It is not safe to leave the door of the house ajar, for in this case they have the power of entering, and have been known to devour sleeping children in the absence of the household,’ we are told. Frolicsome my bum. However, to stop the hounds from eating your beloved children, just put a crust of bread beneath their pillow.

A Dartmoor demon dog is also put to use famously in Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. He was possibly inspired by the story of squire Richard Cabell, who lived in Buckfastleigh, was known to be a keen hunter, and was ‘monstrously evil’. Having apparently sold his soul to the devil, upon his death in 1677, black hounds were said to appear around his tomb and each year on the anniversary of his death he leads them on the hunt. As an interesting side story, it is said that the Devil tried to prevent the building of the church Cabell was eventually interred in, but was foiled by the construction of 196 steep steps. Why the Devil can’t climb steps is unexplained.

Moving to the opposite coastline, the East Anglia version was ‘black shuck’, which sometimes appeared headless or floating on mist. One particular black shuck sighting was in 1577 at Bungay in Suffolk. It’s said that a giant dog burst through the doors of St Mary’s Church with a clap of thunder, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. It then ran to Blythburgh Church where it killed more people and left scorch marks on the church door, which can still be seen today (pic below).

Guardian grim

Scorch marks on Blythburgh Church. A variation of the story is that lightning struck Blythburgh Church, bringing down its steeple, and the marks are from the Devil leaving the building. Credit: Spencer Means via Flickr.

Scorch marks on the north door of Blythburgh Church, said to be from the retreating hound. A variation of the story is that lightning struck Blythburgh Church, bringing down its steeple, and the marks are from the Devil leaving the building. Credit: Spencer Means via Flickr.

The term grim, or ‘church/kirk grim’, rather than being demonic, actually guards churches in England and Scandinavia against the intrusion of witches, thieves, vandals and the Devil. As it was thought that the first soul to be buried in a new churchyard was then destined to forever watch over all those subsequently buried, a black dog or other animal was buried when the church was consecrated, to both protect it and prevent a human soul from being trapped on earth.

Interestingly, in Swedish folklore, there is the idea of a ‘year walk’ where a person on either Midsummer’s day or Christmas Eve would embark on a walk through the fields and gain knowledge about the year that lies ahead. The grim ‘is a natural enemy of the year walker, who had to pass the graveyard and circle the church’.

Beware the geese

These were just some of the very, very many stories about black ghostly hounds, and that’s not even mentioning all of the other demonic animals howling and shrieking in the middle of the night. For now, however, I’m going to leave you with possibly the weirdest I found: Gabriel hounds.

Gabriel hounds, from the Yorkshire/Durham area and probably the result of hearing geese flying overhead and honking, were flying dogs with human heads. Sometimes they hang over somebody’s house, says Henderson again, ‘and then death or calamity are sure to visit it’. He includes a sonnet written and sent to him by a Mr Holland of Sheffield, in 1861:

‘Oft have I heard my honoured mother say,
How she has listened to the Gabriel hounds –
Those strange unearthly and mysterious sounds,
Which on the ear through murkiest darkness fell;
And how, entranced by superstitious spell,
The trembling villager not seldom heard,
In the quaint notes of the nocturnal bird,
Of death premonished, some sick neighbour’s knell.
I, too, remember once at midnight dark,
How these sky-yelpers startled me, and stirred,
My fancy so, I could have then averred
A mimic pack of beagles low did bark,
Nor wondered I that rustic fear should trace
A spectral huntsman doomed to that long moonless chase.’

Keep your bread crusts close!

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