Even within the realm of cryptozoology and Forteana, there are creatures that seem to defy easy classification. To me there is absolutely a distinct line between the field of cryptozoology, which by definition deals with undiscovered organisms which are real, flesh and blood animals, that of paranormal phenomena, and that of folklore. While they may at times cross paths or briefly converge, typically these fields are as different as night and day, and deal with entirely different sets of phenomena with different areas of study, classifications, methods, aims and goals. Yet there are times when the gulf between them is not clear cut, when something that on the surface appears to be an uncategorized animal evades such a simple identification. These are the times when the mystery creature in question is not easily classifiable as real animal, paranormal apparition, nor mere legend, but rather a sort of subspecies of cryptozoology wherein we have something that cannot be readily identified as flesh and blood nor something more supernatural in origin, and so it remains in a kind of limbo between the realm of the tangible flesh and blood, and the world of ghosts, demons, and inter-dimensional beings. One such enigmatic beast has surely got to be the infamous black hellhounds of the United Kingdom, a category of creature so bizarre that it transcends any attempts to safely label it.
Hellhounds have been recorded throughout human history, from a variety of far flung cultures, and the British Isles are no different. Long have there been tales of phantom hounds which prowl the lonely roads, crypts, cemeteries, and wilds here, and stories of these hellhounds go back centuries. They are known by as many names as there are places in which they are seen, which are many. The hounds have been known as the Gurt Dog, Padfoot, Barguest, the Hairy Hound, the Yeth, and Old Shock, Old Snarleyow, and Old Scarfe, among many others. In Ireland they are known as Pooka, on the Isla of Man they are Moddey Dhoo, in Wales the Gwyligi, and in Scotland the beastly hounds are called Cù Sìth. The most popular and widely used term for these bizarre entities in the United Kingdom is the Black Shuck, a term which originated with the name the hounds were given in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with the name deriving from the Old English word scucca meaning “demon,” or possibly the word “shucky” meaning “shaggy” or “hairy.” These frightening creatures were said to be anything from the ghosts of dead travelers, to the spirits of dead hounds awaiting the return of their masters, to inscrutable guardians of forbidden knowledge, to being the Devil himself. The folklore and sightings of these huge, mysterious hounds go back centuries, inspiring a great amount of literature and spooky history in their path. One famous passage from Old Norfolk does a good job of describing the general reaction to their presence:
…and a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring,
And its wild bark thrill’d around.
His eyes had the glow of the fires below,
‘twas the form of the spectre hound.
The appearance of the black hellhounds of the British Isles also varies depending on the area and the local traditions, but typically they are described as a very large black hound which can range anywhere in size from that of a large great dane, all the way up to the size of a cow or horse. They are usually described as truly frightening beasts, being totally black, with shaggy or matted fur and large, saucer sized eyes that are typically described as burning with a malevolent red, yellow, or green glow, although some accounts say they have only a single luminous eye. Usually they are described as having formidable claws, vicious looking fangs, and as being supernaturally agile, fast, and strong. The hounds can be reported as either tangible and real, or conversely purely spectral creatures, with any attempt to touch them proving to pass through them as if they aren’t there. Folklore usually suggests that they have a horrific wail or howl which can invoke sheer terror in those who hear it, and they are known to even have a sinister, human sounding laugh, but that their foot falls are typically completely silent. Particularly ominous details of many Black Shuck reports is the presence of fire and scorched earth in the wake of their appearance, and they are quite often regarded as being a bad omen. In his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia, author W. A. Dutt described the creatures’ appearance and commonly reported ability to predict or cause death thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
Although this is the typical description, there is a wide range of variations. Sometimes these ghostly dogs are said to be wreathed in mist or to be shackled in chains. Other traditions claim that they float or hover above the ground and are limbless or even headless. Other variations exist as well. In Balsham (Cambridgeshire), along Wratting Road there was a hellhound with the body of a large black dog, but with a bald head and a face similar to a monkey, which reportedly often travelled about standing upright and would jump in front of vehicles only to scamper out of the way or outright vanish right before impact. In Algarkirk (Lincolnshire), during the early 20th century, there was a black dog which allegedly had an abnormally long neck and muzzle. Still other stories describe them as shape shifters, typically said to take the form of a horse or donkey, and indeed reports of spectral horses seem to go hand in hand with mystery black dog sightings. The black hounds were even believed to be able to take the form of a human being. Other Black Shuck sightings are even more unsettling. At a place called Creag an Ordain, there were numerous reports of a black shuck which had the twisted, contorted face of a human, as well as two horns like those of a devil, which was said to portend disaster and death if it barked more than two times.
This belief that the hellhounds could foresee death, misfortune, and disaster, or even cause them, is a common recurring theme with many Black Shuck accounts, and there is a long history of accounts of this reputation as a bad omen or harbinger of doom. One of the most popular tales from the lore says that if one looked upon one of these spectral hounds, especially if they made eye contact with it, then they would surely die within the year. Indeed the Black Shuck was notorious for seeming to sow death wherever they went. In 1909, in the area of Ardura, Mull (Argyll and Bute), there was a phantom black dog well known for warning of impending death, such as in the case of a Dr. MacDonald, who saw a black hound shortly before his patient, a Murdoch Gillian MacLaine, died. Often, the Black Shuck are seen as predicting a specific incident. In the late 19th century, near Alveston (Warwickshire), a Charles Walton claimed to have seen the same beastly black dog for several consecutive nights, and then suddenly on one night there stood the ghostly form of a headless woman in the place of the expected hellhound. It was later learned that his sister had died on that very night. In 1930, in Buxton (Norfolk), a man saw a large black dog while passing a churchyard. When he reached out to, perhaps unwisely, pat the dog’s head, it is said to have promptly disappeared into thin air and he subsequently learned that his brother had died at precisely the exact moment he had seen the dog. The list goes on and on, and these kinds of accounts are not even confined to old reports either. As recently as 2000, a large black dog was reported to have ran out in front of two women traveling between Northallerton and Leeming Bar, and the driver braked hard in a panic, fully expecting a possibly fatal crash, but the creature was reported to have passed through the vehicle, and was described as having no facial features and floppy ears. When the women reached their destination, the first person they talked to went on to kill himself shortly after.
However, despite this malevolent reputation, the unearthly black hounds are not always seen as evil or malicious, and there are in fact many reports of them serving a more benevolent purpose, such as accompanying lone women or others as they made their way along darkened roads. For instance, in Cottingham (Northamptonshire), at the Old Corby Road area, the ghostly dogs were seen as a friend, walking amiably alongside lone travelers and dutifully warding away danger or misfortune, but promptly disappearing if touched or directly addressed in any way. In another case of seemingly benign intent, in the 18th century, at Collingbourne Kingston (Wiltshire), in the vicinity of Marlborough Road, a large black spectral hound was said to have chased two men who had just been convicted of a brutal murder back to their village, after which they were arrested and the mysterious black dog proceeded to vanish without a trace. The black hellhounds were also attributed to other purposes as well. They were seen as guarding churches, or to be the gatekeepers of various other portals, such as gates, doorways, or even the gates to the Underworld or the entrance to Hell itself. The black hellhounds are additionally sometimes depicted as being guardians of secret places or lost treasure, a tale particularly popular in Scotland, such as the giant black dog said to guard treasure buried under a standing stone near Murthley in Perthshire.
The phantom black hellhounds are usually solitary apparitions, but not always. In Eastbourne (Sussex), in the Willingdon area, there were tales of three of the beasts roaming about the countryside together and almost always seen to be a bad portent of doom. In the Blandford Forum wooded area there was even said to be a phantom hunt, in which the ghostly voices of many dogs yelping and barking could be heard traversing the gloomy woodlands. The favorite haunts of the Black Shuck are said to be dark, lonely roads or secluded woodlands, and they seem to be inexorably drawn to crossroads and Gallows sights, where they are often said to be the restless spirits of executed criminals. One infamous such Black Shuck is one that is said to haunt the gallows site of Tring, Hertfordshire, which is described as being around the size of a Newfoundland dog, with black shaggy fur, flaming eyes, and long jagged teeth. This hellhound is said to be the spirit of a woman executed for witchcraft in Tring in the year of 1751.
The accounts of huge, phantom black dogs roaming the British countryside go way back. They can be traced all the way back to at least 856 AD, when it was written in a French manuscript that a giant black hound had burst into a church seemingly on the prowl for something before vanishing. In 1127, there was an account in the Peterborough Chronicle of an incident at the Peterborough Abbey, which described the incident thus:
Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after [Abbot Henry of Poitou’s arrival at Peterborough Abbey] – it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare – many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.
The reports would continue until we come to one of the most dramatic and most infamous accounts of the phantom black hellhounds. On August 4, 1577, at the Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh, a congregation was in progress, with all most likely seemingly normal at the time except for the raucous lightning storm waging outside the church doors. This was all to change when an especially volumous booming clap of thunder was said to herald the arrival of a particularly malevolent hellhound, a snarling conglomeration of bristling black fur, teeth, and claws, which proceeded to burst through the doors and run amok, at one point ruthlessly slaughtering a man and a boy peacefully engaged in prayer. Other people in the church were also struck down by the creature, which roamed up and down the aisles roaring and lashing out, and although these victims survived they were left with hideous scorch marks and charred flesh from some preternatural heat exuded by the monstrous entity. Some witnesses even claimed the thing was wreathed in fire and smoke. Such was the fury of this sudden attack that a steeple was said to have collapsed entirely through the roof to come crashing down spectacularly upon the stone floor below. On its way out, the mysterious black hellhound allegedly created formidable black scorch marks upon the church door which are said to be visible to this day and which are often referred to as “the devil’s fingerprints.” On this very same day, the same black hellhound reportedly continues on its rampage to unleash its fury upon a church in Bungay, Suffolk, a mere 12 miles away, where it killed several more churchgoers with supernatural, merciless swiftness. In this instance, a Reverend Abraham Fleming later wrote of the incident thus:
This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clene backward, in so much that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.
To this day, Bungay’s coat of arms is emblazoned with the image of a black dog dashing past a lightning bolt, and the area’s folklore carries on the tradition of this harrowing encounter to this day. Black dog sightings in the same general vicinity continued for many years after, with sightings from here made as recently as 1973, when a man working near the church heard the panting of a large dog, yet whatever the beast was chose to remain invisible. In another harrowing encounter from the 70s, a man passing by the very same church claimed that a huge black dog the size of a horse came loping at him from the darkness only to disappear before impact. Modern sightings such as this pop up from time to time from all over the United Kingdom. On 19th April, 1972, a coastguard by the name of Graham Grant, who was working the night shift as Gorleston rescue headquarters, sighted a large black hound roaming along the beach about a quarter of a mile from his lookout. In this case the hound was said to be sniffing about and looking around as if searching for something or someone. Grant watched the strange beast for around 2 minutes before it inexplicably vanished into thin air right before his eyes. The coast guard had recently been transferred and had never heard any tales of the Black Shuck before, and it was only when a colleague heard of his encounter and explained the old stories that the full bizarreness of what he had seen dawned on him. Indeed, eyewitness accounts of phantom black dogs persistently continue to come in even to this day from all over the United Kingdom.
At first glance, these stories may seem to many to be no more than merely local folklore and spooky stories, yet in recent times there has been evidence that the tales may be at least partially based in a grain of truth. In May of 2014, an archeology group from London called Dig Ventures uncovered something strange buried 20 inches down in the earth under the ruins of Leiston Abbey, Suffolk, which is incidentally located only a few miles from where the rampaging hellhound was said to have killed worshippers in the two churches of Blythburgh and Bungay back in 1577. There interred under the ruins were the bones of an enormous dog that was estimated to have stood 7 feet tall on its hind legs and to have weighed around 200 pounds. Based on pottery fragments found on the same level as the bones, the bones were claimed to have dated back to the days of when Leiston Abbey was in operation in the 1100s, making them possibly connected to some of the old tales of large black hellhounds in the vicinity. The remains exhibited a wound to the leg, suggesting that the enormous animal had been buried here intentionally as a sort of funeral. The finding of the bones of such a large dog so close to where such legendary accounts of the Black Shuck took place certainly points to some interesting possibilities. The director of Dig Ventures, Brendon Wilkins, said of the matter:
The story of Black Shuck has to have originated from somewhere and, who knows, it could have originated from the dog which was buried here.
It is open for debate as to just what significance these bizarre unearthed remains hold concerning the Black Shuck phenomenon, but there is certainly something going on here. Considering the rich history of sightings of large black hellhounds from all across the region, what could possibly be behind this phenomenon? Is this all the result of superstition, mass hysteria, or hallucinations? Are we dealing with some sort of real, flesh and blood animal, or is there something more supernatural at work here? Are these spirits, demons, ghosts, or something different entirely? It is hard to say. This is a case which in my opinion seems to represent a complicated witch’s brew of folklore, real sightings, urban legends, and the paranormal. It is a case which to me at best lies in the very outer fringes of cryptozoology, in the dark badlands where the line between real animal and the distinctly supernatural becomes blurry and faded. I am not sure if we can call these entities, or whatever they are, a cryptid, yet neither am I ready to say for sure that they are entirely supernatural in nature, nor totally disregard them as pure legend. The Black Shuck of the United Kingdom is certainly in a unique category all its own, and whatever they are, they continue to dwell somewhere within that shadowland between myth, reality, and the world of otherworldly phenomena perhaps lying just beyond our current understanding of the universe.