I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faerywhich they released in April this year.
As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.
The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.
Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.
These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.
I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.
I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!
As I have already described, phantom black dogs are encountered across Britain. However, there seems to be a particular concentration of these faery beasts in Northern England, from Yorkshire and Lancashire up to the border with Scotland.
Being myself from The North, and seeing as there are so many separate (albeit closely related) species or breeds of spectral hound, I thought they deserved a separate examination.
Defining the exact nature of the Black Dogs has challenged folklorists for well over a century. They are variously described as ghosts, boggarts and goblins (although the dividing line between boggart and ghost is very hazy). One writer, describing ‘Dog Fiends’ for the Northern Echo in August 1892, suggested that there were two types of spectre hounds. There are those that are fiends (or demons), that have taken on dog form to harass humans, and there are those that are the spirits of the dead that return to earth as hounds in punishment for their mortal sins. He cited, for example, a Hertfordshire woman who was hung at Tring as a suspected witch in 1751. Thereafter, a black dog haunted the site of the gibbet. Some of these hounds seem to be simply the ghosts of dogs, that come back to haunt their former master.
Whatever their exact nature, spectral hounds are ubiquitous and, almost always, alarming to those who meet them. They share a number of common features, although there are minor differences between the varieties.
The barguest, or bargheist, or bar-hest is one of the commonest types. It has been suggested that the name derives from the dialect word ‘bar,’ meaning a gate or stile, although there is no particular evidence that these hounds only lurk around such spots. In truth, what the Black Dog apparition might be called was dependent as much on location as behaviour and looks. What was classed as a barguest at Tadcaster and east towards York and Selby might be termed a ‘padfoot’ further west, around Wakefield, Brighouse and Halifax and to the south of Leeds.
The barguest is regarded as a sign of imminent death. If it’s heard outside the window of an invalid, there imminent demise is assured. Apparently, death through sickness is not all that the barguest can foretell. At Arncliffe, in Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales, a sighting of the hound predicted the death by suicide of a friend of the witness (he jumped from the bridge into the River Skirfare).
In an extension of this, it was said in the area around Leeds that the barguest would appear after a local dignitary had died. It would then prowl through the vicinity and all the dogs kept there would emerge and follow it, barking and howling. If an unlucky person crossed its path (on these occasions at least) the barguest would lash out with its paw, inflicting a wound that never healed.
The other function of the barguest seems to be to alarm those walking alone late at night. It will follow the victim, often invisibly, although it may be felt brushing past and the sound of its chain may be heard. When seen, the creature has been described as being as big as a sheep, with glowing eyes. Another eye-witness compared it to a wolf or bear. Some are alleged to have tusks as well as fearsome fangs and claws. It appears that, unlike many of the faery kind, the barguest is able to cross running water, making it that much harder to escape.
Oddly, the barguest known to haunt the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne was regarded as friendly and was even described by one reporter as performing “all the offices of a public brownie.” He did servants’ work and would swim the River Tyne to fetch a midwife to a woman in labour. The barguest would then howl depending upon whether or not the new-born child is likely to survive. Perhaps it is this association with childbirth that explains why, in the Craven district of Yorkshire, it’s said that a barguest will never harm a pregnant woman.
The usual form of the barguest is a large hound-like creature with heavy feet and saucer-like burning eyes, but it has also been seen as a white cow, a horse, ass, sheep or swine.
The padfoot is so-called because of the ‘pit-pat’ of his paws on the ground, often the first (and sometimes only) sign that he has joined you. Although regarded as a kind of supernatural dog, the padfoot is said to roar rather than howl.
When he is seen, he looks like a large, smooth haired animal dragging a chain. Anomalously, the padfoot at Horbury is seen as a white dog with blazing eyes. The padfoot at Horbury can range in size from a small dog to something ‘as big as a mule.’ At Upton near Wakefield it was described as being between the size of a bear and a donkey, shaggy and very dark and with very heavy footsteps, ‘clomping’ along as if it wore shoes.
It is impossible to strike the animal- your blows will pass straight through it- and its presence alone can scare a witness to death. The Upton padfoot was reported to be solid and physically violent: it crashed through a gate into a garden and then stampeded about, trying to uproot trees. Comparably, a foolhardy Leeds man once tried to kick a padfoot he met- it seized him in its jaws and dragged him all the way home, through hedges and ditches.
The padfoot can rear up and walk on its two hind legs, or it may be seen apparently running on three. The explanation of this is that its forefeet may be chained together, hence the sound of trailing links frequently described.
Like the barguest, the padfoot will appear before a death. It will prowl up and down outside the house of a mortally ill person, or will waylay those going to visit the invalid. In some places, the beast also seems to have a regular ‘beat’ that it prowls at night. At Rothwell near Leeds there was a flight of steps that had been worn down by its pacing. If you should meet a padfoot, you should always allow it plenty of space to pass you by. A man in Craven who failed to ‘give him the wall’ was mauled by the hound, and died within a few days. Luckily, however, they are said not to be able to cross flowing water.
I was delighted, during my research, to discover that the padfoot was known in my home town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Apparently, it was seen there as being harmless- as long as it wasn’t interfered with. If it felt obstructed or threatened, though, it might savage a man or throw him over a wall. Just as with the Newcastle barguest, the Barnsley padfoot has an association with childbirth. The sight of it predicts a good delivery. Nevertheless, the look and sound of the animal were so alarming that most midwives refused to travel alone to and from a patient’s home, and always insisted upon the husband of the woman fetching and accompanying them.
Lastly, the creature is only encountered at night and, certainly, one late Victorian writer claimed that the introduction of street lighting had unintentionally banished it from many of its former haunts.
The guytrash, the name of the phenomenon west of Leeds, is another omen of death. Its name comes from the sound its feet make splashing through puddles in the road. Unlike the barguest, the guytrash reportedly cannot cross running water. The example at Ilkley has been described as being like a large black dog or ass.
The guytrash, like other hounds, can be seen in particular by those who possess the second sight through being born at midnight or on a Sunday. It is possible for the person with the gift to transmit it to another person by touching them (if they really, truly want to be able to see a giant hound with huge, blazing eyes).
Trash and Skriker
Over the Pennine Hills into Lancashire, the phantom hound is called the ‘trash’ or ‘skriker.’The beast has been seen as a white horse or cow as well as in the form of a huge mastiff with broad feet, drooping ears, shaggy hair and the usual glowing eyes. Besides the sound of its feet splashing through puddles, it’s known for its blood-curdling shrieks (hence ‘skriker’).
Hundreds of these beasts are known around Lancashire, frequently haunting graveyards. As always, they forewarn of a death, either in the family of the witness or one of that person’s friends. The more clearly the skriker is visible, the sooner the death will occur.
Seemingly, too, in some cases the skriker can inflict death. That known at Colne lurked around the churchyard and the old Roman pavement there. In one case it met a man and put its paws up on his shoulders so that it could look him full in the face. The meeting was so shattering for him that he was stupefied and afterwards dwindled away until he died. If you meet a skriker and you’re brave enough to try to follow it, the hound will retreat backwards before you, vanishing the instant your attention is distracted.
Some of the Lancashire hounds were known to be headless- just to add to their terrible aspect. One such was known to haunt the vicinity of the Collegiate Church in Manchester. On one occasion in 1825, it put its paws on a man’s shoulders and then drove him home at a furious speed. This nuisance was laid for 999 years under the bridge over the River Irwell to Salford.
This is a Westmorland hound whose appearances do not presage death- unlike the barguest.
In the extreme east of Yorkshire, near the North Sea coast, the same phantom entity is known as the ‘tatterfoal’ because of its shaggy coat. At Easington, for example, its prowls between the very oldest houses in the district, trying to jump on the backs of people travelling at night so that it can hug them to death.
In Beyond Faery I describe how some faery beasts appear in shapeless or amorphous manifestations. Several of these are barguests.
For example, the generally benign barguest of Newcastle upon Tyne would now and again scare a drunk wandering home late at night by appearing before him like a ball of fire. A woman called Sally Dransfield, who worked as a carrier between Leeds and Swillington in the mid-nineteenth century, often saw a barguest on the highway that rolled along before her like a woolpack, before it vanished suddenly into the hedge. At Appletreewick in the Craven district of North Yorkshire, the guytrash was also seen as a woolpack that rolled and tumbled in front of a witness. This was no insubstantial apparition: in this case it stopped suddenly and he fell over the thing.
This posting complements the chapter on black dogs included in my new book, Beyond Faery. As of November 8th, this is available on all formats through Amazon.com and as a Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk, with the print version being released in the UK on December 1st
This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.
The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands. They have been reported since the Middle Ages.
The black dog phenomenon
These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.
For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common. Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers. Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford. This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.
Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker. I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.
On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour. It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind. These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground. La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling. Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.
Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs. A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55). A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.
The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound. The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling. To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked. Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals. As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly. Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded. Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home. Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.
Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs. However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.
Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds. The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner. A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired. A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby. As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds. If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.
Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick. It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering. The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit. The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.
The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs. In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country. If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries).
Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots. Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting. The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air. They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.
Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain. On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night. Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth. In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.
Other faery beasts
There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form. There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm. White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death. For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows. He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).
At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along. At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen. The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.
In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it. However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.
From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat. One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside. He went to shoo it away, but it would not move. He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky. Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…
This is by no means an isolated account. Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647. She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.” Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town. They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.
A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds. It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard. They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)
Faery Pets and Livestock
It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting). These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here. The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.
I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds. There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears. The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two. This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance. This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.
In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound. It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went. Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks. In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby. Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees. Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.
I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.
I’ve always been fascinated by the fairy foxes of Japan. Foxes had always seemed mysterious to me as a child (because they were rarely and fleetingly seen- not so now that I am living in London!) and when I discovered the kitsune, the shape shifting supernatural foxes of Japanese mythology, I was immediately hooked. These fairy foxes can speak, they can trick people, they can morph into human form or assume other, sometimes inanimate, shapes. That unearthly wailing and yelping that foxes produce only confirmed and explained to me their reputation in the Orient and puzzled me as to why we did not tell similar stories.
In the British Isles, we have a tradition of fairy beasts, but it is not so strong. The creatures tend to be solitary and do not have the scheming, magical nature of the kitsune. The beasts are, nevertheless, antagonistic to human beings, by and large, a feature they definitely share with their eastern counterparts. An encounter with a fairy beast is almost always perilous. Meeting a fairy steed or hound at night will at least lead to a severe fright, if not an actual fatality. They will chase the hapless wanderer, or seek to carry him off and drown him.
-dogs- such as the English barguest and gally trot;
cattle- like the Dun Cow of Kirkham;
‘bogies’ such as the brag, trash, shock and Hedley Kow, monstrous beings that resemble dog/horse crosses; and,
selkies– the Highland seal folk who can take the form of seals but also appear as human-like by divesting their skins. It is perhaps these latter that most resemble the Japanese foxes, although they are generally far less openly dangerous and are more often at risk from men rather than the other way round.
We often conceive of fairies as exclusively anthropomorphic, but even a brief review of the folklore reveals that they come in a variety of forms, including shape-shifters. This serves to emphasise the fact that the boundary between conventionally conceived fairies and ghosts, spirits, giants and monsters is fluid and uncertain. By its nature, folk belief is not rigidly categorised; perhaps only the supernatural nature and undercurrent of peril are common to all these creatures.