In his classic book Explore Phantom Black Dogs, author and researcher Bob Trubshaw wrote the following words: “The folklore of phantom black dogs is known throughout the British Isles. From the Black Shuck of East Anglia to the Mauthe Dhoog of the Isle of Man there are tales of huge spectral hounds ‘darker than the night sky’ with eyes ‘glowing red as burning coals.’ The phantom black dog of British and Irish folklore, which often forewarns of death, is part of a world-wide belief that dogs are sensitive to spirits and the approach of death, and keep watch over the dead and dying.”
Having investigated many such cases across the UK, I can say for sure there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a very real – and undeniably paranormal-based – phantom black hound in the UK. Indeed, it’s one that has been able to call the old land its very own for centuries. And although reports of the beast are nowhere near as prevalent as they were in the Middle Ages, they still surface from time to time.
Some of these fiery-eyed creatures, however, may be of far more prosaic and down to earth origins – albeit still of a deeply fascinating nature. Not only that: this other category of critter may have played a major role in nurturing and continuing the sinister saga of Britain’s black and beastly dog. But in a very odd and alternative way.
In 2007, the British-based Center for Fortean Zoology’s in-house publishing company – CFZ Press – published an updated and revised edition of paranormal expert Mark North’s book, Dark Dorset (co-written with Robert J. Newland). It’s a book that detailed the many and varied mysteries, myths and folklore of his home-county of Dorset, England. In that same year, I was back in the UK for a couple of weeks, so I was able to spend some time speaking to Mark about an undeniably intriguing story he had come across. He told me:
“I’ve done a lot of investigations into the stories and myths around black dog tales. If you go back to the older tradition of black dogs, I think a lot of it could have been invented. On the Dorset coast, for example, there was a very big smuggling trade going on centuries ago. I think a lot of the stories of these animals were invented to frighten people and keep them away from the smuggling areas.”
Mark continued and revealed something very noteworthy: “What was also happening around this time is that Dorset had a lot of connections with Newfoundland, Canada, and they used to do a lot of trading with the fishermen there. It was around this time that the Newfoundland dogs were brought over here, to this country. So, you have a new type of dog being brought over here, which was very large, and that no-one had ever seen before. And then you have these tales of large black dogs roaming around, and smugglers inventing these black dog tales. So, I think it could be that part of the story, at least, is that the Black Dog legends have their origins in these large, working black dogs brought over from Newfoundland.”
Was it possible that Britain’s entire mythology of ghostly black dogs was based solely upon the tall-tales of smugglers? Both Mark and I considered such an all-encompassing possibility to be highly unlikely, and most probably impossible, given the fact that sightings of such nightmarish beasts had been made all across the British Isles, and long before the smugglers of Dorset were even up to their terror-inducing tricks.
Rather, and in all likelihood, we both concluded that those same smugglers had merely, albeit highly ingeniously, modified for their own ends already-existing black dog legends – something which would have worked even better for them with the introduction to the British Isles of the gigantic, imposing-looking,and black-coated, Newfoundland hound.
And as Mark told me in conclusion, while provoking imagery of a time long gone, but one that still lurks and beckons in the shadows: “Back in the 1600s and 1700s, when many of these stories started, people were very superstitious. Back then, it was a completely different world. And that’s what I like about it: it was very innocent in some ways. You’ve got this superstition of these black dogs there that turn everything around and it made it a completely different world. You could go into some of the old woods, and on the moors, and it would have been like being in a different world, where anything might have happened.”