Cwn annwn by Cinnamon Stix on Deviant Art
Fairies have a curious relationship to dogs. They have their own breeds, known as the cu sith in Scottish Gaelic whilst, separately from this, some supernaturals appear in dog form- primarily the black dogs and yeth hounds of English folk tradition. The faery relationship with dogs domesticated by humans is far less happy however.
The fairy dogs of the Scottish Highlands are distinctive in appearance: they are green on their back and sides, with a tail that coils over their backs and paws the size of a man’s hands. Their bark is very loud, capable of scaring cattle to death, and they sound like horses galloping when they run. Although they can instil terror in a human, to the fairies themselves they are beloved household pets and guard dogs.
Once some men on Barra were guarding their cows when they saw a large dog in the vicinity. Fearing for the herd’s safety, they tried to strike the dog to scare it off (although one in the group suspected the true nature of the hound and warned against hurting it). The man who hit the dog was paralysed in his hand and arm and had to be carried home in great pain. Luckily, a local wise-woman diagnosed the fact that he was suffering fairy revenge and was able to advise on a cure.
Fairy dogs are expert hunters and one human who was favoured by two fairy women was given a fine dog from which nothing ever escaped. This, of course, is a far less favourable trait where the human is the prey and there are several versions of a story where a woman forcibly retrieves a borrowed cooking pot from the local fairy knoll. The dogs are set on her and she is hard put to get home in one piece.
Fairy hounds by Roger Garland
There is a strong antipathy existing between the dogs kept by humans and the fairies. It is not clear exactly why this should be so: sometimes the dog is protecting its owner, in other accounts it just seems to be drawn to chase and fight the supernatural being. Perhaps part of the dislike, which is returned amply by the faeries, is the fact that dogs seem, naturally, to be imbued with the second sight. In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music).
Reasonable as this explanation sounds, there is one report that runs counter. It’s said in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that the sith folk can induce female dogs and horses to attack their human owners. The way to render the hounds harmless in such cases of ‘fairy possession’ is to either take blood from their ears or to collar them with a garter. Similar, perhaps, is the belief in the outer Hebrides that you should never call your dogs by name at night, otherwise a fuath (an evil bogie spirit) will come and summon both the dogs and the owner to follow it.
Mostly, though, the dogs will chase the fairies or fight with them, even to the death. They seem to have an aversion to every type of supernatural and to be so provoked by them that they cannot be restrained. Nevertheless, the fairies may be able to thwart the dogs by very simple means: Scottish folklorist J. G. Campbell tells a story about a dog called Luran who tried to stop the sith stealing his master’s crops. The fairies get away, mockingly saying that he would have caught them if he’d been fed on porridge. The farmer hears this and changes his dog’s diet. Still, the farmer’s defeated though, because the hound likes the new food so much that he overeats and is too full up to run- so that still the fairies make their escape, laughing derisively. A related story from Craignish has the escaping fairy thieves scattering bread behind them, which the pursuing hound stops to gobble up.
Hair off the dog
At Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness, there dwells a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich. She haunted a wild, high area where she would waylay and kill road users in a rather curious way. She would seize the person’s bonnet and dance on it until a hole was worn through- at which point the victim died. A dog could protect the traveller, but it would be nearly flayed in the process and the owner would be left sick for months. In a related story (of which several variants survive) a man called Donald, son of Patrick, was sitting by his fire one night when a hideous hag asked for shelter. She was very large, with one huge tooth, and it was plain that if he fell asleep he would be doomed. Luckily, his hounds kept her at bay until dawn.
The fairy female called the glaistig induced a similar response from hounds. A man called Ewan Cameron was crossing some hills at night and got lost. He saw a light in a hut and approached it, but inside there was a woman, drying herself by the fire and combing her hair. She asked him in but something warned him to decline. Her invitations got progressively more threatening and, eventually, he decided the only way he could escape was to set his four dogs upon her. He then managed to flee home. His three terriers were never seen again; only his greyhound returned to him and it was completely hairless. Two brothers from Onich, on Loch Linnhe, had a similar experience with a glaistig who visited them at a summer bothy. She was always troublesome and, one time, tried to grab one of the men. Their dogs defended them and chased her off; one returned later with only a few tufts of hair on its ears and the other “was like a plucked hen.” A comparable tale comes from Arran, in which the dog saves its mistress from a hooved woman (very possibly a glaistig) and is mangled and scalped in the process.
The bogies of the Highlands are likewise hated by dogs. In a story from the Isle of Mull, two men in a shieling hear a terrible screaming in the night, steadily drawing nearer to them. They go outside armed with sticks but can see nothing. A dark shape then passes them by and the sound fades. Their dog, however, makes chase and returns hairless- except for its ears. The animal’s coat never grew back properly- being replaced by a sort of down. On Islay a spectre called a fuath lurked in a notorious dell. One man’s dog fought it, lost all its hair and soon expired. A bocan (or baucan) that haunted a lonely spot on Arran could be kept at bay with a dog, too.
Cwn annwn by Autumn Estuary
The fearsome Highland water horse, the kelpie, that lived in the River Shin in the north west Highlands could also be beaten and killed by a dog, but (as we’re familiar with now) this would be at the cost of the creature losing all its fur.
Lastly, the fairies themselves might be savaged by hounds- and give as good as they got. Some men were minding the cow herds at Cornaigbeg on Tiree. They heard strange noises on the road, which made their dog very agitated. Something passed them by, sounding like the trampling of a herd of sheep (and which I assume to be the fairy host, the sluagh). The dog pursued it, but returned with all its hair scraped off and its skin bare and white, except for a few torn and bloody spots. It died very soon afterwards. In a related incident on Mull, a man travelling after midnight saw a light up in the hills and heard music. His dog ran off and he continued to his destination, where he arrived, too scared to eat. Within a short while the dog turned up, but (as ever) it was completely hairless. It lay down at his feet and promptly died. On Arran a piper descended into the King’s Caves with his dog; it seems he encountered the fairies there and was overcome. He never returned, although the dog did, completely bald.
It’s not wholly clear why encounters with faeries have such a drastic effect on dogs. Probably the loss of the entire coat is symbolic of the violence of the struggle of the faithful pet against the malign supernatural forces. Whatever the exact explanation, the consistency of these accounts only serves to stress to us the dangerous nature of any such meetings: not only humans can suffer from contact with the fae, but their pets can too.