Black Shuck

Yesterday we met the most charming and huge of dogs. He was vast, and black, and shaggy, a bernese mountain dog, I think.

It was warm, and he was hot, and he couldn’t really be bothered to move as Mac circled him maniacally, a toothy grin illuminating his features. He just sat there like a great island, gently, happily heaving. I wished we had a bowl of water.

Such a great mountain of well-meaning dog. A black dog who bucked every trend.

My friend Lydia used to live in a large and beautiful house in the heart of the forest. It lay close to one of those hunting tracks I have waxed lyrical about, which had now become a busy road.

One night, when the house was uninhabited by all save herself, she heard an unearthly howling outside. It circled the house, and for a long time it would not go away. Lydia was deeply unsettled. But being a woman of considerable good sense, she waited, and eventually it subsided. She never heard it again.

But just a little later, she did see something.

She had just forsaken the Stage Technician’s role in our haunted mansion for something a little more office based, more sedentary. It necessitated early shifts and one morning she set out in the small hours.

She has a car we all spend our time envying: a small but perfectly formed sports car. As she drove out of her house and into the dark little lane which had for centuries been just a tiny forest track, a great black dog ran out in front of her.

Huge and unearthly, the great hound loomed in her headlights. There was no sign of any owner, and why should there be when all good multi-faith men (and women) were tucked up in their beds?

It ran off, out of the headlights, but not out of her head. Later as we discussed the incident over coffee in my shabby happy kitchen, we wondered if folklore might have more to tell us about this black shuck.

Of course, there’re a wealth of black dog myth going back to Anglo Saxon times. The word ‘scucca’ means demon, or devil.

Black dogs don’t generally do anything to one, it seems. They just stare very hard. In some legends they are given a bit more weight: Norfolk’s black dog, with eyes like blowlamps, is a portent. Within twelve months, the legend goes, the person who encounters the black dog will meet an untimely death.

I should add here that Lydia is still very much alive.

These dogs don’t scare me. I’ve known enough dogs in my time to handle a ghost dog, no problem. Portent, schmortent.

The dogs that scare me are metaphorical.

And a few days ago I was reading a blog I try to call in at every day, and I came across him, large as life.

TheOnlyCin is the cyberhome of Cindy, a writer and dog owner herself. She owns a lovely dog called Diski with black ears which appear to have a life of their own. She has a great family and a clever, considered take on life, and I love to see what she has put out on her windowsill to cool each day.

Sometimes her post will be a recipe. Sometimes, a snippet of her life. Sometimes a snatch of a novel not yet born. And a few days ago she wrote a poem: it was about the Black Dog.

You can read her post for yourself at

But what struck me so much about her poem was that in it, a black dog just wandered into her bedroom one day, completely unexpected.

You don’t see him coming, this one.

Winston Churchill spoke about the same black dog: a depression which haunted this most extraordinary of men. There is evidence he suffered from its most extreme incarnation: biploar disorder. When the black dog came, he came with a vengeance.

His great friend, Lord Beaverbrook, said Churchill was always “at the top of a wheel of confidence, or at the bottom of an intense depression”.

Many argue that this very take on life is what makes men great. If we are going to reach the highs, we must necessarily feel the corresponding lows.

By the time Phil came home this evening, it was almost dark, but the dog must still be walked. Into the forest I went, my heart low at the growing limit the darkness was putting on my freedom.

As I walked, I thought about all those black dogs who have been haunting my recent days. I, too have a black dog: but it is not grand or imposing because my highs are simply not high enough.

I fancy I have a small black, slightly comical, poodle trotting at my heels.

Just like my friend Cindy, my poodle walks in unannounced. He doesn’t usually overstay.

I used to desperately try to deny the little thing was there. But I wonder if that’s healthy or wise.

Now, I just nod at the little metaphor trotting at my heels, and feel gloomy but proud.

Because, while some never meet the black dog, they never experience wild joy either. And I wouldn’t miss that for the worlds.


16 thoughts on “Black Shuck

  1. I’m reading a series of mysteries which take place some of the time in Ireland.There is a big black dog, some say a shape-shifter, some say kind, some say menacing. Interesting I should read your post now before the back dog in the books is explained–if indeed he can be explained…

  2. I can still see every detail about that un-earthly dog… The massive head in comparisson to it’s body who’s shoulders were much higher than it’s rump. Stocky legs with a thick tail, it’s fur matted and looked like it had been doused with oil. It disappeared into nowhere and I couldn’t have been more grateful I was safe in my car. The noise still haunts me too. The clicking and blood curdling screams… Shudder!!!!
    However experiencing the un-explained forces us to be more open minded and explore the strange. I would hate not to have had these things happen throughout my life. It’s made me the person I am… Just a little bit weird 🙂

  3. Oh, you do make a good point, Kate. We can’t dispatch these dark hounds until they go off of their own accord, and you’re right that they make us appreciate the light that much more. I acknowledge mine when he arrives, but I never (well, not often) feed him.

    Thank you for mentioning my blog 🙂

  4. Just yesterday I thought how much I would like to have a Scottish Labrador, those beautiful, non-shedding dogs with webbed feet.

    Your blog today is doubly coincidental. I too have the other black dog, the one I had to acknowledge was not going away on its own. True, the highs are no longer so high, and though I may occasionally miss those glorious heights, having lows that no longer plunge me into such depths is a blessing I would not change.

    I may have to drop by Cindy’s blog, recipes are always useful to pass on – I’m not renowned for my cooking ability 😉

    1. Bit of a creepy one, this one…there are some I love back there which are just buried in time. It’s why I’d love to publish one day – get them out of the attic and dust them off…

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