Folkmoor: Phantom Black Dogs

Folklore researcher and author Mark Norman profiles the phenomenon of ghostly apparitions of Black Dogs which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his most well-loved Sherlock Holmes novel.

When asking people about the ‘Black Dog’, the first thing brought to mind is either the metaphor for depression popularised by statesman Sir Winston Churchill, or the Sherlock Holmes story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

However, apparitions of ghostly black dogs are recorded worldwide and have been for nearly a millennium. I hold the UK’s largest archive of sightings and traditions (around a thousand). The earliest recorded sample comes from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle in Peterborough, in the year 1127.

Despite there being such a long and rich history of examples to draw from, many people are unaware that their experiences were not unique. They may not have spoken about them for many years for this reason. In my book ‘Black Dog Folklore’, I list around 750 examples from my archives. I also devote an early and very important chapter solely to the Black Dog examples from the Westcountry. In this part of the world, the recorded examples of ghostly Black Dogs represent all of the attributes found elsewhere in the United Kingdom as well as internationally.

Many people see the Black Dog only as a portent or omen of doom – unlucky (or worse) if met head on. This was certainly the character trait which Doyle played upon most when constructing his fictitious hound. One reason for this, of course, is that most journalists will only refer to this angle when discussing the idea. Newspaper copy is much more exciting with a banner headline introducing the ‘Hound of Hell’!

In fact, less than half of the examples of ghostly black dogs in my archive have this foreboding aspect to them, whether old examples or modern. The higher percentage perceived in this way come from East Anglia and the North, where the dog is often called the Shuck or Barguest. More often, the dog is seen as neutral or protective in character, harking back to our own domestication of dogs as companions from prehistoric times.

Dartmoor is rich with examples of the Black Dog. Some are more legendary in character and others sighted within living memory. A headless version is said to haunt the Dewerstone valley. A shadowy example at Doccombe chased people from the crossroads as far as Cossick Cross.

The village’s name derives from Dog-combe but we should be wary of reading too much into this; despite the ghostly legends, the Black Dog Inn at the village of Black Dog was named after a landlord’s hunting dog. The most famous Dartmoor example is probably associated with Lady Mary Howard of Fitzford in Tavistock, who is condemned to travel to Okehampton Castle until the end of time, accompanied by a phantom hound.

These and more would have influenced Doyle when he visited his friend Fletcher Robinson at Ipplepen. And the symbol continues now. You may have your own story to tell. If you do, I would be delighted to hear it.

Mark Norman is a committee member of the Folklore Society and the creator and host of The Folklore Podcast (www.thefolklorepodcast.com). His book ‘Black Dog Folklore’ can be bought from this website by clicking on Folklore Shop.

Mark and his wife, historian Tracey Norman, will be writing a regular column on Dartmoor Folklore in forthcoming issues of ‘The Moorlander’. They would love you to share your old beliefs and traditions with them. To get in touch, please email thefolklorepodcast@gmail.com

Mark Norman

Author: Mark Norman

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