Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween - Ghostly Dogs.

Photo courtesy of
As nights draw in, and the autumn air turns thick with bonfire smoke, the stage is set for the arrival of Halloween ghouls and spooks. These conditions would be perfect for Conan Doyle’s phantom dog, the Hound of the Baskervilles, to set about his chilling work of terror. Does it send a shiver down your spine to learn that Conan Doyle based his deadly hound on a dog from British folklore called the ‘Shuck’?
        From the ‘Black Shuck’ of Orkney to Suffolk and ‘Old Shuck’, stories abound of these ghostly dogs; the size of a Retriever, with blazing eyes. The word ‘Shuck’ is derived from an Old English word ‘Scucca’ meaning a demon, and the Norse believed  a dog baying at night was an omen of death.
Illustration from Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles."
Many legends have a 'shuck' dog haunting the gallows as if waiting for a soul to steal. For instance, in 1751 in Tring, Hertfordshire, an old woman was drowned by a chimney sweep because he suspected her to be a witch. He was then found guilty of her murder and sentenced to death by hanging, where upon the gibbet became haunted by a large black dog. The local schoolmaster saw and described it-
‘Eyes of flaming fire, shaggy… and as big a Newfoundland.’
Part of the horror these legends instilled was the fear of losing your soul. Because people believed that the physical body needed proper burial for the soul to be released, any animal that was seen to eat carrion was labelled as evil.

Photo courtesy of Keith Evans.
Black Dog ghosts were widespread in the 15th century. Warwick Castle was subject to just such an apparition after the Earl of Warwick, antagonised an old woman, Moll Bloxham. She sold butter and milk around the castle precincts but always gave short measures. The locals were too afraid to challenge her, certain she would bewitch them. When the Earl cut off the source of her dairy supplies, Moll swore to haunt him and barricaded herself within the castle tower. Uncertain of how to rid himself of an angry witch the Earl called in three priests. However when they broke down the tower door they found not Moll but a snarling black dog with eyes blazing red and immense fangs. Catching site of the priests the Black Dog jumped from Caesar’s Tower into the river below, and was never seen again.

Warwick Castle - photo courtesy of Martin Dawes
In the reign of King Charles II a ghostly black dog, the Moddey Dhoo (pronounced ‘Mauther Thoo’ in Manx Gaelic) haunted Peel Castle, the Isle of Man. This large black dog wandered the corridors of the castle at night, to settle himself by the guardroom fire. The soldiers believed him to be an evil spirit waiting for an excuse to harm them and so were respectful in his presence. However one night, a drunken guard mocked them all as cowards and set off to lock the castle gates, passing through the darkened chapel, cursing and swearing as he went. Minutes later his compatriots froze with fear at the blood-curdling sound of screaming. He eventually returned but was unable to speak, his face twisted with fear. He died three days later and the dog was never seen again. Interestingly, in 1871, excavations in the castle found the bones of Simon, the Bishop of Man who died in 1247 and was famous for his intolerance of drunkenness. Buried alongside him at his feet was the skeleton of a dog….
All over Europe tales of spectral hounds exist such as ‘Gabriel’s hounds’ in Britain, the ‘Wild Hunt’ from Germany and the Scandinavia ‘Woden’s Hunt.’  The latter are hounds that crossed the sky, not dissimilar from the stories of Cherokee Indians - they describe the Milky Way as ‘Where the dog runs.
From Siberia comes the belief the dogs belonging to the god, Tuli, caused earthquakes. These flea-ridden dogs pulled a sledge through the sky, on which rested the earth. Each time the dogs stopped for a scratch, the earth shook and man was aware of an earthquake.

Certain dogs struck fear into the ancient Chinese who believed they could possess their souls. They distrusted the elderly dogs called ‘jen-shih’ or ‘one who imitates a person.’ It was believed they saw and knew too much, granting them power to possess the living and transform people into vampires.

Finally, some dogs were used to break spells and bring good luck. Dog’s blood poured at the village threshold would protect the inhabitants from evil and be a barrier for epidemics.  Three thousand years ago, when a Prince of China undertook a long journey, disturbingly, he would deliberately roll his cart over a dog to crush the poor animal. The blood was said to consecrate the road and the body buried as a sacrifice to the road god for his goodwill. Who knows what ghostly form these sacrificial dogs might then take – the Black Shuck perhaps?

Black dog legends are widespread
and part of local culture.


  1. Fascinating post! Also strange how the earl of Warwick in the early 14th C was given the nickname of 'the black dog of Arden' by Piers Gaveston. I wonder if there's any connection (half remembered tales perhaps) with the story of Warwick Castle above?

    1. That was a great post and I was thinking the same about the Black Dog of Arden. The ghost of a black dog haunts the ancient ruins of Bordesley Abbey in Redditch where Guy de Beaucamp (10th Earl of Warwick) was buried.

  2. This is amazing. I never knew any of this. Older dogs know too much? They do tend to emulate their owners. I like the title Black Shuck. It sounds eerie.
    Life is tough enough for dogs. I hope most of these beliefs are history!


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