Beyond Faery VI: Spectral Hounds

Barguest by Earlnoir on Deviant Art

“Night-roaming ghosts by saucer eyeballs known,

The common spectres of each country town”

John Gay, ‘A True Story of an Apparition

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.

Barguest by Citizen Wolfie on Deviant Art

Barguest

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.

Padfoot

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.

Guytrash

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. 

Capelthwaite

This is a Westmorland hound whose appearances do not presage death- unlike the barguest.

Tatterfoal

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.

Formless Forms

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.

Read More

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