Recently, someone who will remain nameless told me an interesting account of a huge black dog, seen at dusk in the churchyard at Riccall, near York. I wondered if it’s the most recent sighting of a barghest – or someone’s Irish wolfhound got loose?
Interestingly, when I Googled ‘black shuck’ – because I know a black shuck story when I see one – I found a reference to church doorways. This is precisely where my anonymous informant says he and a friend saw the big black dog. Needless to say, they legged it.
Genealogy/history needs a context and for me that’s not battles, or the reigns of kings and queens – but ordinary things, and the everyday tales folk spun. I’ve always loved tales of Spring-Heeled Jack, barghests, white ladies and suchlike; this was the world our ancestors inhabited; half-christian, half something older and deeper in the subculture. Sometimes, I write about textile history or genealogy. But a future book I’m working on takes us into folklore territory, so bear with me, gentle reader – and don’t be scared.
“…I have frequently had it described to me as being a large, four-footed creature, something in the shape of a dog with ‘saucer eyes’ and carrying a portion of chain which it rattled now and again. In this neighbourhood (Tadcaster), what is spoken of as ‘the Barghest’ seems to have been identical with the ‘Padfoot’ of Wakefield, Brighouse, and Halifax… I am told by an old resident of the village of Colton that fifty years ago, if it were heard…under the window of a room where a sick person was lying, it forboded certain death. … Certified teachers and Board Schools will soon get the upper hand of such superstitions; and a very good thing too, say I.”
From: The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, February 28th, 1880
Interestingly, one Barghest sighting in late 19thC Stillingfleet parish – was by the board school’s teacher.
Once a common piece of folklore in the North-East of England, ghost dogs were variously known as barghest, black shuck, padfoot, trash, guytrash, skriker, boggard, langar-hede or tatter-foal.
For clarity, I’ll stick with “barghest” here!
The barghest usually took the form of a huge black dog, the size of a pony, with large red eyes that shone like lamps. Seeing a barghest “foreboded calamity and death”.
The word “barghest” originates from beorh- ghost (eg: barrow ghost), or a spirit that guards the barrow. It is as ancient and as the myth of the dragon guarding the underground hoard. Most local tales of barghests have long fallen out of memory and many Northern villages or towns may no longer be aware they ‘once’ had a barghest. In Yorkshire, the dog is particularly associated with York, Whitby and Grassington. But Leeds, Halifax, Barwick-in-Elmet, Stillingfleet and other places had their barghests too – long forgotten, now.
In Yorkshire, ‘gabble retchets’ were the noisy ghosts of unbaptised children, which took the form of howling black dogs that haunted churchyards:
“An old folklore belief in the Leeds area was that the souls of babies who had died before they were baptised would return to haunt their parents, in the shape of devil dogs known as Gabble Retchets”.
It is maybe no coincidence they were thought to hang around churchyards, given the older associated with burial mounds. (Blimey – that’s where the person who gave me the recent barghest sighting, saw one).
The ‘Big Black Dog’ legend is a Christianised variant of the Norse Wild Hunt – which explains why stories of barghests were commoner in the North East, the old Danelaw where the Vikings had their base. If you check out the picture of Riccall church door below, you can see the Viking influences in the stone-carving; so the Norse culture informed Yorkshire’s lore in a very tangible way.
One anonymous 19thC journalist wrote:
“…black dogs, also in Denmark, guard treasures concealed in grave mounds…”
19thC accounts of barghest sightings often mention the spectral hound’s huge, fiery red eyes “like lamps”. Barghests had some peculiar properties, too – a sort of in-built hydrophobia (bear in mind well into the 19thC, rabid dogs were not an uncommon sight on UK streets). According to another unnamed journalist writing in 1880 in The Leeds Mercury, the “barghest is supposed to be unable to cross a water…” In Celtic and Viking folklore, bodies of water were often seen to be liminal places; the threshold into magical worlds.
In West Yorkshire, like Leeds and Halifax, they were often called ‘Padfoot’ because the black dog was heard approaching before it was seen.
Like other popular 18thC and 19thC legendary figures such as Spring Heeled Jack, the barghest seemed to die out with the coming of the 20thC. By the late 19thC, society was changing – and the chattering classes saw old stories like the barghest as silly superstitions that the provisions of the 1870 Education Act could wipe out. Yet, for some elderly locals in Barwick-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, the barghest lingered on after the trains and industry had come:
“…an aged stone-breaker… ‘Things have strangely altered since that time.’ Thoughtfully added the old man. ‘There were no railways when I wor a lad and t’padfoot wi’ saucer-eyes, used on dark nights to come clomping through Barwick town-gate, and ghosts and bargests haunted houses and churchyards… by they all done away wi’, now.’”
The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, November 7, 1896
I think this anonymous interviewee can be found in the 1891 Census:
“James Sparling, married, aged 72, born in 1819, Retired Highway Labourer, born Barwick-in-Elmet, living with wife, Martha, 68, born Allerton Bywater.”
Still, the faithful black hound persisted into the 20thC and 21st Centuries. There are a couple of 20thC sightings from Grassington, in the Dales:
“Summer 1948, a group of ramblers, while out walking, noticed that the sheep in the field ahead, were bleating loudly and running around in panic. As the group of ramblers approached, they were shocked to see an extremely large hound (Size of a large bear), carrying a fully grown sheep in its jaws. Winter 1955, a local farmer out tending his sheep in the deep snow, noticed a trail of blood leading across the fields, across a stream and up the side of the crag, a distance of almost 1½ Miles. The farmer followed the trail and was shocked to find a large hound with great staring eye’s devouring a sheep, the farmer described the hound as having a look of pure evil, the farmer raised his shotgun and fired at almost point blank range at the hound, but the hound didn’t even flinch, it turned and walked away, the farmer watched open mouth as the hound then vanished into thin air, he noticed that there was no foot prints in the snow….”
The barghests continue to be seen:
“They were usually referred to as ‘Padfoot’ in Leeds though. Bob Trubshaw’s excellent book ‘Explore Black Dogs’ relates that a man called Nichols, writing in 1828, said :-
‘Leeds has it’s distinct Padfoots, distinguishable one from another (as I am told), for almost every street’.
“There was even a reported sighting last year, in a park somewhere in Leeds (Armley area I think).”
That’s a lot of phantom Black Dogs for one town. I know my grandad told a story of something inhuman encountered in a dark alleyway. But at this distance in time, I can’t recall the story’s precise details. And he was maybe on the way back from the pub.
Bringing us bang upto date, rehoming centres refer to the ‘curse of the black dog’. Apparently, black dogs are far harder to rehome as people’s negative view of them is so ingrained. This shows how our folklore reverberates down the ages; even though the barghests of Northern England are now largely “fallen out of time, and mind”.
The person who related the modern day barghest story to me was totally unaware of the folklore and said they (and a friend) saw it at dusk, in the church porch. Maybe these motifs are deep in our psyche and a manifestation of something long forgotten?
Riccall church door