Black Dogs – Trash the Skriker

Skriker or Trash – encountered by young Matthew is a dream in Book I – is at the centre of a cluster of old Lancashire lore regarding the appearances of a large, dark dog that could be seen but is actually of no substance. His appearance can vary from version to version of the tale but some common themes include the breathing of fire and the sound of splashing water beneath his paws even on dry ground. Two particularly common locations for his appearance seem to have been the Cliviger Gorge between Todmorden and Burnley and the area around Brierley’s Burnley church itself. For more details see K. Eyre – ‘Lancashire Legends’ (Dalesman Books, 1992).

Certainly of related interest is the tradition of the Barguest in Yorkshire which was an evil spirit which could take the form of either a dog or a pig. There is also a Guytrash (which looks suspiciously as though it may have etymological links) in Yorkshire whose form is more obscure but similar in some ways. For the Yorkshire lore see A. Kellett – ‘The Yorkshire Dictionary’ (1994). Somewhere such as Grindleton probably had influences from both traditions – if they were ever really separate. Etymologically Skriker must derive from the Lancashire dialect word for ‘to shriek’, skrike.

Note that a Guytrash in its wider understanding of some sort of animal familiar is referred to in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:

“As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head…”

Black dogs have hardly been confined to the North within England. Indeed, some of the most documented have been sighted in Southern England. One particularly notable example would be Black Shuck of East Anglia. In August 1577, at Blythburgh in Suffolk, such a dog is said to have burst into the parish church subsequently killing two, causing the steeple to collapse and burning its clawmarks on the north door.

In many of the Northern traditions and some of the Southern ones, simply sighting the beast can bode ill, either foretelling the death of the viewer or his / her close family. There are other commonalities amongst the very varying traditions as well: fire-breathing is common as is moving around upon water or mist.

Traditionally these dogs get written off as primarily an Anglo-Saxon or Nordic hangover. But they may go back far further. In Classical mythology, for example, there is Cerberus or Kerberos, sometimes multi-headed, sometimes not. A post on WordPress recently from discusses the potential etymological roots of this name.


A Fleming – ‘A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay [Bungay]’ (1577)


17 thoughts on “Demonic dogs of England

  1. But, suddenly, I became convinced that I was being watched by another set of eyes – but, unlike all those other eyes around me, this pair was covert, lurking, absconding. A great fear – unlike any other – welled up inside me, some pressure of ante-diluvian panic and I started to run through the woodlands. And, as I ran, I also started to stumble. And the faster I tried to run, the greater and more frequent those stumbles became. Indeed, after a time, my running became nothing more than one constant stumble. I could feel all of the eyes of the experienced nighttime practitioners also looking upon me, part worried for me but also in part scornful as my body continually did its utmost to return to the earth. Were they questioning my foolish behaviour or were they just spectating, waiting to see this great, hidden carnivore pounce upon me? Whilst they made no move for me, they parted company with their branches and brambles at the prospect of the panting beast. In my head I could hear my father’s discussion of the identification of the wicked in St. Paul’s address to the Romans . At that point in my imaginings – and I shall for the time being, call them just imaginings – I was still unaware of what might be following me. But, suddenly, I was conscious of the sound of a heavy animal’s thunderous paws running through shallow water. That in itself was rather strange as I did not know of any pools in that area. Do not forget, even as a small child, I knew those woodlands well! The paths through them were my streets, the trunks of the trees my crown posts . The river was quite far away and the ground still felt parched dry beneath my feet; the leaves were still brittle and breaking beneath them. Such inconsistencies, I guess, are the matter of dreams; the saplings growing in that febrile, fertile soil of fear, seedlings of a crop that will never be harvested properly because the time for such a reaping never arrives. I had to run faster back toward home. I broke from the woods as soon as the density of trees would allow me to do so. I broke out onto the open floodplain – now it might have made sense to hear splashing paws but nothing in the sound of them changed in the slightest. Suddenly, the cloud removed itself (albeit rather briefly) from the early budding moon so that there was a burst of relatively bright semi-illumination across the floodplain. If I were to turn now, then I would see it – I was certain of that. However, I did not know whether I really wanted to see this being. True, it might prove to me that I was running for no reason and that whatever animal was following me was totally harmless and could be turned away simply by facing it and gesturing. On the other hand, my mind was still overbrimming with fear and the creative forgemastery of my imaginings. However, my father had always taught me to have no fear that is grounded in irrationality and so, gradually, the former logic got the better of me.

    Therefore I turned. And what met my eyes was worse than I had imagined: it was something hideous, the likes of which I had not only never seen but I had quite simply never imagined either. Then I had a fear that was no longer rooted in the irrational! It was a large dog that was following me but it was truly unlike any other canine for its frame was massive and, although its coat was dark and shaggy (the precise colour still being obscured by the poor light and – thankfully – still a little too great distance). There was also something colloidal about it – disgusting, filthy. I felt as though I would be unable to touch it even if it were clearly dead at my feet. That was an in-built revulsion from the unclean and that beast was so obviously unclean and a carrier of poor humours from some place else – perhaps even from the Pit itself . It moved in unfamiliar fashion too, not like any natural thing. Its ability to bound forward meant that it was moving forward towards me with some alacrity but each and every time its paws landed it sent up spouts of water on either side of it.

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  2. Your blog is very interesting for me. I haven’t known anything before all these stories. But it will take time to read them, especially me, with this second language. But be sure I try to follow and read. You are doing great job with all these old stories. Thank you, with my love, nia

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      1. I am an ex-caver and there are a lot of caves and old lead mines around there. Also some Bronze Age circles and carvings and a circle of two. But Trollers is a dark claustrophobic gorge and a god breeding ground for legends

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  3. Trollers’ Gill is where the Barghuest waits until you look into its eyes, round as saucers and red as flame…and then you meet your death. Unless you keep a stream of living water between you and its maw…

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  4. It’s interesting how there are such similar stories from all across the country – there is the black shuck or the old shuck in East Anglia where I come from, and then there are the stories which crop up in the press nowadays of big beasts or big dogs killing livestock and terrorising people at night!

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      1. Oh really? I go to what we call a Saxlish class,looking at Anglo-Saxon influences on language but lots of other things as well – very knowledgeable people – I’ll ask them when i see them on Friday!


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