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If you mention black dogs to most people, they might think of a loyal Labrador or perhaps a cute terrier of some type. Yet England, and the British Isles as a whole, have a different species of black dog that lurks in the shadows and the deserted spaces that is far less cute and cuddly.
The black dog is often associated with the devil and the phrase hellhound is often used interchangeably with them. These dogs are bigger than a normal breed with glowing eyes. They are connected with crossroads as well as places were executions were once held and ancient pathways. There is also a connection in some parts with electrical storms and they are seen as portents of death.
Mythological origins for these creatures are plentiful and the British Isles has enough influences from European cultures to make it uncertain where they came from. The Cwn Annwn are a Welsh example, spectral hounds of the otherworld that took part in the Wild Hunt and whose howling were said to foretell the death of anyone who heard them. the Norse Garmr was the blood stained watchdog that stood at the gates of Hel while Cerberus was the Greek hound of Hades who also guarded the gates of the underworld to stop the dead escaping.
One of the most interesting things about the black dog phenomena is that there are many regional variations throughout the country. The Barghest of Yorkshire is one of the most famous, a monstrous black dog with huge claws and teeth that was associated with various places around the county and further north into County Durham. One was associated with the Darlington area where it could turn into a headless man who vanished in flames while another lived in the wasteland near Headingley Hill in Leeds.
The Black Shuck is the East Anglian version of the creature where it was seen as an omen of death but also a cryptid, a mysterious creature that was very real but not yet scientifically proven. One of the oldest reports of it dated back to 1127 and the Peterborough Chronicle where it appeared at Peterborough Abbey along with a number of huntsmen, described as ‘black, huge and hideous’ who rode on black horses and black male goats. More recent sightings include in 1945 in the Dereham area when a man saw it while cycling to RAF Swanton Morley.
Perhaps the most famous story involving a black dog is Arthur Conan Doyle’s the Hound of the Baskervilles. The tale that inspired this story comes from Dartmoor in Devon where a local squire called Cabell sold his soul to the Devil back in the late 1600s. when he died, black hounds appeared around his burial chamber and he became the huntsman. These hounds were known as Wishthounds.
Also in Devon are the Yeth or Yell Hounds, headless dogs that were the spirit of unbaptised children who would roam the forests of the area. They are described as being coal black with fire in their eyes and breath.
Tamworth Castle has its own resident black dog who hasn’t been seen since 1945 but regularly appeared between the castle’s construction in the 11th century and that date. The dog was described as having glowing eyes and would be seen prowling the castle and the grounds. People often mistook it for a normal, if large, dog until it vanished in front of them.
The Cu Sith is the huge otherworldly hound of the Highlands that is said to be as large as a cow. It was a harbinger of death that would take away the soul of the person in a manner similar to the Grim Reaper. These dogs were a little different to the normal black dogs because they were a bright green in colour.
Another Welsh form of the black dog is the gwyllgi, which appears as a black mastiff with red eyes. It is often found on lonely roads at night and is known as the Black Hound of Destiny.
The Isle of Man has the Moddey Dhoo, the black dog that haunts Peel Castle and was mentioned in the Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. Anyone who sees the dog is said to die soon afterwards.
Around the Channel Islands there are the dogs known as the Tchico. In Jersey, it is seen as a forerunner to storms while in Guernsey, the dog is headless and is the spirit of a former Bailiff of the island called Gaultier de la Salle who was hanged after having one of his vassal hanged on false charges.