This article was written for TCF by Folkorist, author and actor Mark Norman. See the end of article for more information on Mark Norman.
By far the most numerous quantity of Black Dog apparitions are on roads or pathways. Various reasons can be suggested for this. They are usually sighted at night when humans would naturally be following a road and therefore would see only what occurred in their path. A dog wandering home from a day’s business would be just as likely to use the road.
Some specimens are traditionally believed to patrol certain stretches of road. The Cornish ‘carrier’ is believed to be the ghost of a dog that always accompanied a carrier on his life-long journeys between Liskeard and Launceston. The carrier is compelled to travel as many Saturdays after death as before and it has been suggested that the dog acts as his protector. Seen near Berriow Bridge, in North Hill, Middlewood, miners tied a rope across the road to check the dog, but at midnight there was such a commotion that people had to get up and cut the rope. Many of the reports of patrolling dogs may be the guardians of such carriers. A similar example of a guardian is found at Roborough in Devon and was described by folklore collector Sarah Hewett in her 1900 book Nummits & Crummits:
A man was walking from Princetown to Plymouth on a December evening. On the Plymouth side of the reservoir, he heard and saw a black dog, the size of a Newfoundland. He tried to pat it but his hand passed straight through. Frightened, he hurried on, with the dog staying with him until he reached the crossroads. There was a loud report at this point, and a blinding flash and the man fell senseless to the ground. There is a tradition of murder at this point, and the victim’s dog tries to kill every passerby in the hope of catching the murderer. The dog is described as having “great glassy eyes” and sulphurous breath.
There are also many cases reported of huge black dogs that run alongside horses and carriages, and suddenly disappear when they come to the end of their patrol.
The difficulty in collecting folklore such as that we are examining now is that the people who have the information do not necessarily recognise their own time-worn memories, and direct questioning may not be of much use in producing the story; a more oblique approach may need to be adopted. This produces eyewitness accounts which then run the risk of being criticised by any respectable psychic researcher because they were not recorded within a day or so of the event, or because they are not accompanied by supporting statements from independent witnesses.
However, folklore is very difficult from the approaches undertaken by psychic researchers or other more mainstream scientists or psychologists. Therefore it is quite acceptable in this case to accept the accounts at face value because this is how stories and traditions are passed on. In fact, it is still not a problem when taking this approach if the stories have become distorted by the action of the individual’s tendency towards myth-making, as this is part of the interest of folklore research.
In speaking of the Black Dog we cannot ignore The Hound of the Baskervilles because that is what comes first to the minds of most people when Black Dog ghosts are mentioned. Oddly enough, the Hound is not typical but quite exceptional to the usual run of such creatures. No family hound chases the head of the house to his death, that is quite certain, and so the Hound is not based directly on any known prototype in Devon or elsewhere. However, the development of the legend in a fictional form is of great interest, since legends in general sometimes come to birth by a similar mental process.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in serial form in the Strand Magazine between August 1901 and April 1902. John Dickson Carr, in his Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tells us that in March 1901 Doyle was in a low state of health and went down to Cromer for four days, accompanied by his friend Fletcher Robinson. The weather was bad, and on the Sunday they stayed in their sitting room and Fletcher Robinson entertained Doyle with “legends of Dartmoor, the atmosphere of Dartmoor. In particular, his companion’s imagination was kindled by the story of a spectral hound.” And so the idea for a plot was born. Fletcher Robinson’s family lived at Ipplepen in South Devon. In a few days only, April 2nd, Doyle was staying at Princetown exploring the moor for himself. He went to view Fox Tor Mire and this was to become Grimpen Mire in the story.
At some early period, Doyle went to Ipplepen to stay with the Robinsons and was met at the station by a smart young coachman called Harry Baskerville, descendent of a family that had once owned two manors locally but had fallen on hard times. Doyle was impressed by the name and asked to be allowed to adopt it. Harry Baskerville drove Doyle about to further sites, which in old age he named for a reporter. However, no hint has ever been brought as to the identity of the spectral hound apparently known to Fletcher. There are many vague stories of hounds on the edges of Dartmoor, the best known probably being that of Lady Howard of Tavistock and her spectral coach.
Another possible source could be that of the legend of the Demon of Spreyton, this being located on the fringe of Dartmoor National Park, although the mention of the Black Dog in this is a relatively small part of the story. The events took place in Spreyton in 1682 and were recorded in a wonderfully named pamphlet of the time, “A Narrative of the Demon of Spraiton. In a Letter from a Person of Quality in the County of Devon, to a Gentleman in London, with a Relation of an Apparition or Spectrum of an Ancient Gentleman of Devon who often appeared to his Son’s Servant. With the Strange Actions and Discourses happening between them at divers times. As likewise, the Demon of an Ancient Woman, Wife of the Gentleman aforesaid. With unparalleled varieties of strange Exploits performed by her: Attested under the Hands of the said Person of Quality, and likewise a Reverend Divine of the said County. With Reflections on Drollery and Atheism, and a Word to those that deny the Existence of Spirits.” You wonder if the contents of the pamphlet were as lengthy as the title!
In summary, the Demon of Spreyton was a series of poltergeist-type events where the second wife of Philip Furze of that Parish infested the house, tearing clothes and moving household items. Reading the full account it is obvious that the happenings were all down to the young servant, Francis Fey, who related the incident. But in the course of these events, it is reported in the pamphlet that the spirit of the woman appeared in various forms, including “a dog, belching fire”.
It is curious that no one enquired about the origin of Conan Doyle’s Hound at the time of publication, nor can members of the Sherlock Holmes Club throw any light on the problem for certain. One member, Dr. Morris Campbell, wrote a paper claiming it is the Black Dog of Hergest in Herefordshire. The family was that of Vaughan, related by marriage to the Baskervilles on an adjoining estate. However, the Hergest creature has no features in common with Doyle’s Hound.
The Black Dog of Hergest is associated with “Black Vaughan” who was killed at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. There are two versions of the story. In the first, Vaughan is said to have returned and appeared in various forms such as a fly and a bull until he was exorcised. Campbell states that Vaughan upset farmers’ carts and the like. He was reduced in size, stage by stage, until he could be shut in a snuff box. This was buried in the bottom of Hergest Pool in a wood, with a big stone on top, and so he was bound for a thousand years.
In the second version, Vaughan is supposed to have been accompanied in life by a demon dog. This haunts Hergest Court and is seen before a death in the Vaughan family. Also, he inhabits a room at the top of the house and can be heard clanking his chain. He is also seen wandering, minus the chain, particularly in the vicinity of a pond, the “watering place” on the high road from Kington. The dog is supposed to have been seen by many people, according to a witness recounting in 1909.
It is tempting to ask whether the coachman, Harry Baskerville, was distantly related to the Herefordshire family. There was a real Hound of the Baskervilles, reflected in the family crest, but it was a friendly one. It does not terrorise or chase the head of its house – indeed nor does any other family dog in England. Apart from the name, there is really nothing to connect the Hergest dog with the Dartmoor Baskerville hound.
There is a stronger possibility for the original of Conan Doyle’s beast which was suggested by a writer in Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries. Ipplepen, where Fletcher Robinson lived, is not very far from Buckfastleigh, on the edge of Dartmoor. The parish runs up the great slopes northward, and these are scored by long, deep, narrow valleys, cut by the streams hurtling down to join the River Dart on the in-country. Tucked away in these remote areas are mysterious little old farms, manors and cottages. One of these is Brooke, where Richard Capel (or Cabell, spellings vary from report to report) lived and died in 1677. Local tradition credits him with a reputation not unlike that of “Black Hugo” in the novel, though no details are given. His death was said to be suitably unpleasant for a hunter of village maidens: he was chased across the moor by the Whisht hounds until he dropped dead.
Another version of the story says that as he lay dying in his house, Whisht hounds bayed outside. If we accept the last, then it could be seen to be a death warning as is found in many families and which we will examine in a later chapter. But if we accept the former, then this is a local story that Robinson may well have known and passed on. The equation of pack and single hound occurs commonly in folklore.
In 1972 Cecil Williamson, recognised as one of the founders of modern British witchcraft as well as being responsible for amassing much of the collection housed by the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, visited the churchyard at Buckfastleigh. Whilst there he saw a dog which he described as being quite substantial looking, but when he tried to touch it he found that his hand passed straight through.
There is a postscript to the legend which is worth repeating. The remains of Buckfastleigh church, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in an act of vandalism in July 1992, are perched on the top of the hill overlooking the village. It is here that Squire Capel is buried outside the south door in an altar tomb. It is said that the parish was in a quandry about how to bury such an evil man in such a manner that his brutal spirit would not rise up and continue to plague them. Finally, they buried him deeply with a heavy stone on his head. They piled the large altar tomb over his grave and then constructed what appears to be a symbolic prison to contain the tomb. It is solidly built, with a wide iron grill on the side facing the church, and on the opposite side is a strong wooden door with a locked keyhole. Young boys used to dare each other to walk clockwise around the building thirteen times and insert a little finger into the keyhole, which the prisoner would then gnaw at the tip. This is an example of a typical playground ghost-type game in the same vein as Bloody Mary or, following the film of the same name, Candyman.
There are, as is plain, some small parallels between the Hergest and Buckfast legends but this is not uncommon in folklore as stories develop over time and become attached to differing locations from a common root theme.
It is most likely that Conan Doyle would have used an amalgamation of information and legend to base his story on, from those cited here as well as general examples of spectral dogs such as the Whisht hounds, yeth hounds, and others. This is the general way in which stories develop after all, both from a fictional and from a folklore perspective.
Mark Norman is a folklore researcher and writer who lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. He holds what is generally considered to be the country’s largest archive of Black Dog traditions and eyewitness accounts, which also includes the complete transcriptions of Theo Brown’s work and the recently donated archives from Janet Bord. He receives new eyewitness contact on a regular basis.
Mark’s book on the subject “UK Black Dog Folklore” will be published worldwide in early 2016 by Troy Books. He welcomes followers to interact with his work via his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/marknormanfolklore where you can also contact him for writing work or public speaking.
Along with a small team of colleague, Mark also produces audio books on both esoteric and non-esoteric subjects, which can be found at www.circleofspears.com/store