The sources for these stories will be given at the end of the series.
There are many types of supernatural dogs to be found all over the British Isles.
This article focuses on the Cu Sidh – the Fairy Dog of the West Highlands, Cu (coo) being the Gaelic for hound and Sidh (shee) for fairy. In appearance the Cusidh was different from other Celtic fairy hounds in being dark green in colour, with a lighter green towards the feet, whereas other fairy dogs were white with red ears. It was said to be the size of a yearling bullock. It was shaggy, with a long tail coiled up its back, or plated in a flat plait. Its feet were enormous and as broad as a man’s: its great footmarks were often seen in mud or snow, but it glided along silently, moving in a straight line. It did not bark continuously when hunting, but gave three tremendous bays which could be heard by ships far out at sea. The fairy dog bark has been described as ‘a rude clamour’, sounding not unlike that if an ordinary dog, only much louder. There was usually a long interval between each bark, which gave the terror stricken listener a chance of making for safety before he or she heard the third bark. Apparently few objects produce more terror than the fairy dog if ever encountered on dark nights.
It is said that the fairy dogs were tied up inside the Brugh (broo) to be loosed on intruders. However they also went with the women looking for human cattle to milk or drive into the Sithein. Tradition has it that the Cusidh were sent out in search of human women to drive into the fairy mounds to become the nurse maids for fairy children. Sometimes a Cusidh would be allowed to roam alone, taking shelter in the clefts of the rocks. This Cusidh would be terribly formidable to mortal men or dogs, but those loosed in the brugh were driven back by the mortal dogs when they approached human habitations.
There are several stories re-told by the famous Highland folk story collector, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, in The Peat-Fire Flame (1937) which give interesting insights into the legends surrounding these dogs.
The first, a folk-tale from Tiree, tells of an islander crossing the machair near Ceann a Mhara, and seeing a strange dog crouching by a sand dune immediately decided to take a different route home. The next day he felt brave enough to go back to the dune where he discovered the imprints of a dog’s paws as large as the spread of his palm. He traced the imprints some distance till they disappeared and could only conclude that they had been made by a fairy dog.
Evidence of a visitation by fairy dogs who leave their huge paw marks features in a story of Hynish Hill, in south west Tiree during the days when families moved to a summer shieling to pasture their cows. One night two young boys who were watching the cows to prevent them roaming off went into the sheiling to sleep, but were disturbed by heavy tramping on the turf roof and by loud howlings. Next morning the marks made in the turf by the fairy dogs were all too evident.
Also to be found in Tiree is a cavern traditionally known as the Lair of the Fairy Dog, where the barking of a huge dog has been heard.
The barking also features in a story of an old Tiree woman who, accompanied by a neighbour, was searching for driftwood on a stretch of the beach known as Reef. When she heard mysterious barking her neighbour grabbed her and rushed home with her, believing that if they had heard the dog bark three times they would have been overtaken by the dog.
Another story, this time from Lorne on the Argyll mainland, tells of a shepherd sheltering behind a rock who found two very large pups in a hollow beside him and was surprised to find that they were considerably larger than his own full grown collies. Realising they were the whelps of a fairy dog the shepherd made off quickly in case the mother should return! Apparently the shepherd’s dogs were just as apprehensive as their master.
These stories show a rich oral tradition based in a belief in fairy dogs, which also featured in Celtic religious tradition.
By Claire Cartmell
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