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 http://sententiaeantiquae.com/ 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)