Ghostly Black Dogs

Subject ListMain Text

[ Ghosts Page | Sussex Main Page ]


Imagine the scene, you are walking back to your home village across the downs, the moon is hidden from view by clouds as you trudge on wearily to your destination. You climb over a stile into a field and as you turn around to continue on your way, you scream as a huge black dog with glowing red eyes comes bounding towards you out of the gloom.

Stories such as this are suprisingly common and some of them notably ancient, enough to merit sitings of such creatures being in a class of their own in the ghost world. Ghostly Black Dogs have been seen throughout Britain with few counties being left unaffected, though the form and identity of the beast may differ. Apparitions of this sort may be distinguished from normal flesh and blood black dogs by features such as large or glowing eyes, sometimes only one, their ability to disappear or appear out of thin air or into and out of the ground, no head, two heads or the ability to change their size or appearance.

The Beasts Many Names In Britain

The black dogs go under many names depending on which county you are in, here are some of the more common ones. In the north of England in counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire you will hear names such as Guytrash, Shriker or Barguest, in East Anglia and Norfolk you will hear Black Shuck, Skeff or Moddey Dhoo and in the south of England you will hear names like Yeth or Wish Hounds. The origin of the word Guytrash is unknown but Shuck can be traced back to the Old English Scucca, meaning Demon while Barguest may come from the German 'Bargeist' meaning 'spirit of the (funeral) bier'. The Demon association is sometimes emphasised by the title 'Devil Dog'. In the south, Yeth means Heath while Wish in a similar vein is an old Sussex word for marsh. This name for the hounds is widely used in Sussex but the origin also seems linked to the term Witch Hounds which is also common. Whether there is any connection between the two, one coming from the other is unknown. The names may just be referring to the fact that these dogs are often seen in wild country places.

Common Haunts

A very common place to see black dogs is on roads or other places where people move from one locality to another, such as footpaths, old trackways, bridges, crossroads, gates, doors, stairs and corridors. As far as roads are concerned, the location of most sightings, this may be because most of the time we spend in the countryside is travelling through it on roadways, but nevertheless, a lot of recorded cases have been on roadways. Another common haunt for the Black Dogs, especially in Wiltshire, are graveyards and barrows, leading some people to suspect from some of the locations that these dogs tend to haunt Leylines and features variously known as Corpse Ways or Spirit Paths. These ancient paths folklore tells us used to run to churches and the spirits used to travel along them from graveyard to graveyard. They were usually dead straight and coffins used to be taken along these paths to be buried, sometimes the folklore going so far as to state that if this wasn't done, bad things would happen. Another location, particularly popular in Sussex, is along the Downs. Apart from being covered with old burial mounds, the Downs were once the principal means of travel before the weald was cleared of it's inpenetrable forest.

Black Dog Folklore

In many places the dogs are seen as omens of death, to see one means either a portent of your own death or the death of a family member. In a case in 16th century Peterborough, a Black Dog entered two churches a few miles apart and killed several members of the congregation by burning and wringing of necks! Near Peterborough in the Neolithic/Bronze-Age site of Flag-Fen were found the bodies of dogs that had been ritually killed and dogs were found in a well attached to a Romano-Celtic temple site at Muntham Court near Findon, West Sussex, buried at the bottom of an 80 foot deep well. One of the supernatural associations the Dog had in Roman-Celtic mythology was with the underworld, in the case of Muntham Court this was made more pronounced by their burial in a ritual pit, which had underworld associations in itself. In ancient European folklore, the dog is seen as both the guardian and consumer of dead spirits, especially with the Wild Hunt where a pack of dogs with a master of the hunt flies through the sky looking for lost souls. Such a hunt has been witnessed at Ditchling Beacon. Various ancient gods associated with the underworld, hunting, birth and death are also associated with Dogs, such as Anubis, Hekate, Diana (and Cerberus), Nehalennia and Artemis. Despite a generally bad press, many dogs are seen as helpful, leading lost travellers or protecting them from harm. The protection motif is sometimes also present when Black Dogs are beleived to guard treasure.

Black Dogs In Sussex

Sussex itself has its fair share of Black Dog ghosts, the common name for which are 'Wish Hounds' or 'Witch Hounds'. Despite sightings of Black Dogs, it was once a superstition in Sussex that when the ghosts of dogs walk abroad, they are only seen by other dogs. The Sussex historian M.A. Lower once said : "Nearly every unfrequented corner has its Demon in the form of a Black Dog". From East to West, here are the stories :

  • There has been a sighting of a ghostly black dog in Harewick Bottom, a small valley in the South Downs just south-east of Jevington. The dog appeared and then vanished.
  • A sighting of a Ghostly Black Dog on Windover Hill above the Long Man of Wilmington corresponds with other sightings of Black Dogs around barrows in other parts of the country. The area of the South Downs is where most of the Black Dog sightings are concentrated.
  • Alfriston has two ghostly dogs, though only one of them black. The black dog ghost here has been seen several times on a full moon running from the Downs through "Town Fields" to look over the flint wall of the road before running back again. The second dog is white but had a reputation of being an omen of death or bad luck. The dog and his master, an heir to a local estate, were murdered by some farm labourers to supply them with drinking money. The Dog and his master were buried at the side of the road and the ghost of the dog appeared on Midsummer Eve every seven years until the road was widened, the remains found and given a proper burial.
  • On the main road which runs East-West to the south of Lewes and Mount Caburn, before it was widened, a ghostly black dog, like a Labrador was seen walking east along the road before disappearing into thin air.
  • In a valley to the east of Philpots Promontory Camp wanders the ghost of a Black Dog. A poacher in the area has said : "There's one thing I dare not do; I'd be afear'd to walk through that girt valley below Big-On-Little after dark. It's a terrible ellynge place and a gurt black ghost hound walks there o'nights". Ellynge is a local Sussex word for eerie and the hound is called "Gytrack" which is very similar to the "Guytrash" found in the north of England. Ian Hannah notes that the valley "seems to have no name (except that it is locally known as the Grattack, after a dog)".
  • Just south-east Ditchling is a spur of the Downs called 'Blackdog Hill' which is haunted by the ghost of a headless black dog. It is interesting to note the path that runs diagonally over the hill points directly towards Westmeston Church and may be the remains of an old 'Corpse Way' or 'Coffin Road' along which the dead were taken along a dead straight line to be buried. The dog is seen by many cultures as a protector of the dead. The dog has been seen on the road from Ditchling to Westmeston which curves around the hill. Nearby is the earthworks of Ditchling Beacon hillfort where as late as 1933, a wild hunt has been heard flying overhead with the sound of horses hooves and yapping dogs. This was a common tale told by the shepherds who worked on this area of the downs, who would say their sheepdogs would crouch down and look upwards wimpering because the witch-hounds were passing overhead. The shepherds are all gone, but the tale remains. Another version of the tale says the phenomenon is actually a phantom army which passes over the area on May 24th to May 26th and leaves a nasty smell as it passes.
  • A wood near Henfield was haunted by an animal the size of a calf with flaming red eyes. This particular story may have been started by smugglers, who often used such tales to keep people away from where they stored their illegal goods.
  • In the appropriately named village of Yapton south-west of Arundel, it is said that the villagers leave their door open to let the ghostly black dog roam freely. This is more out of fear of angering it and causing it to howl than welcoming it into their houses as the dog would howl if not allowed to pass freely. Other stories relating to the leaving of doors open include a farmer having a calf get his head stuck in the bars of a gate, causing the farmer to leave all doors and gates open. Another tale tells of a man who to avoid window tax, blocks up all his windows, causing his servants to leave his doors open to let some light into the place. A more prosaic reason is that the doors were left open for the smugglers so they could easily hide themselves and thier booty.

There are also places in Sussex with Black Dog place names but no legend known by the author, who would like to hear any information on these, or any other Black Dog tales in Sussex, from anyone who knows any.

  • Just south of the Surrey border near Haslemere is a place called Black Dog copse.
  • An old name for a lane that runs between the old Crawley high street and West Green is Black Dog Lane.
  • A Place marked on old OS maps as Black Dog near Horsted Keynes.

Resources Resources
  At The Edge - Black Dog Folklore
At The Edge - Black Dogs
At The Edge - Hellhounds

Bibliography Bibliography
  Becket, Arthur : Spirit of the Downs, Methuen 1943
Bord, J. & C. : Alien Animals, Panther Books 1985
(Brown, Theo) : Animals in Folklore, Cambridge
Brown, Theo : The Black Dog, Folklore Vol 69 (175-192) 1958
Green, Miranda : The Gods of the Celts, Sutton 1997
Gwynne, Peter : A History of Crawley, Phillimore 1990
Hall, Doris M. : Westmeston, Sussex, Delta Press 1980
Hannah, I.C. : Philpots Camp, West Hoathly, SAC Vol. 73 (156-167) 1932
Holliwell L.R. : South-East England, Climbers Club 1969
M : "Witch Hounds" on the Downs, SCM Vol. 7, No.11 1933
Woodward, Marcus : Lingering Sussex Superstitions, SCM Vol. 12, No. 4
Seward, Desmond : Sussex, Pimlico 1995
Simpson, Jacqueline : The Folklore Of Sussex, B. T. Batsford Ltd. 1973
Stevens-Bassett, R. : Ghostly Tales & Hauntings of E. Sussex, CLX 1993
Stevens-Bassett, R. : West Sussex Ghostly Tales & Hauntings, CLX 1993
Stevens, Robert A. : Local Ghosts..., CLX 1996
Thomas Geering : Our Sussex Parish, Methuen 1884
Wales, Tony : Sussex Ghosts & Legends, Countryside Books 1992
Wills, Barclay : Shepherds Of Sussex, Skeffington & Son 1938
Woods, Barbara A. : The Devil in Dog Form, Folklore Studies Vol. 11 1959

[ Ghosts Page | Sussex Main Page ]