The previous article dealt with the fairy dogs of the West Highlands and the stories of the fear that they seem to have engendered. However there are some stories of fairy dogs being befriended by humans and returning the favour. These dogs would have been held in such awe because they were part of the organized realm of the fairy, which unwary humans got involved in at their peril. However, in the stories the stress placed on the fact that they barked three times suggest that they were associated with omens and prognostications. In the West Highlands second sight was and is particularly strong and often is concerned with foreseeing death, so there may well be a connection here.
There is one particular type of dog that had a very close connection with death and this is the spectral Black Dog, best known through Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Black dogs were almost always seen as a dangerous omen and sometimes as instruments of divine justice stalking a guilty person until justice was done. Black dogs were particularly connected with England as reflected in the large number of ‘Black Dog Lanes’ in villages and towns up and down the country, but there are many variations and different names for these dogs in different parts of the British Isles.
It appearance, Black Dogs are described as usually shaggy and as big as a calf, with huge fiery eyes, but they make no sound. In the north the black dog is also known as Capelthwaite, Padfoot or Shag, and there is a black dog called The Black Angus, who is said to haunt the moors of Scotland and northern England, appearing to those destined to die in a short time.
East Anglia also has a black dog called Shuck, which may derive from the Saxon for devil (succa). Black Shuck or Old Chuck has either a single eye set in the centre of his head or has glowing red eyes, but he has even been described as headless, yet having glowing eyes set in front of him.
One of the most famous of these dogs was The Black Dog of Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, the ‘Mauthe Doog’. Though Black Dogs were dangerous and ominous as they could ‘blast’ anyone who spoke to or struck them, nevertheless the Black Dog of Peel Castle apparently gave a friendly warning of disasters at sea.
The Black Dog is particularly associated with two Scottish families one for the good, the other for ill. Ean Mac Endroe of Loch Ewe and his and descendants were granted protection from the power of the Black Dog by a fairy whom he saved about the time of Culloden (1746). On the other hand, any member of the Clan MacLartin was doomed to death on a dunghill if he were to see a Black Dog. The story goes that Jamie MacLartin was the last of the MacLartins to encounter a Black Dog and was subsequently killed by English Dragoons and throw on a dunghill in the earlier Jacobite rebellion of 1715.
The Church Grim is another kind of dog found in England - also considered a death warning. There was a widespread tradition that church yards were guarded from the devil and from witches by a spirit in the form of a Black Dog. One story tells that the Yorkshire Church Grim can be seen about the church in dark stormy weather by day and night. It sometimes tolls the bells at midnight before a death and at a funeral that the clergyman would see it looking out from the tower and would be able to judge from the dog’s appearance whether the corpse was bound for heaven or hell. There was certainly a belief that the first man buried in a churchyard had to guard it against the devil, but to save a human from this task a Black Dog was buried in the north part of the churchyard as a substitute. This is similar to the belief held in Scotland, that is was the duty of the last buried corpse to guard the graveyard till the next funeral.
By Claire Cartmell
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