exploring tales of british folklore

Fairy Steeds and Demon Dogs: Exploring Tales of British Folklore

Written by Steph McCulloch


British canine folklore is a fascinating and diverse tradition that reflects the important role that dogs have played in our culture and mythology for centuries.
Big black dog sat in field next to animal skull


Folklore refers to a collection of myths, tales, legends, and beliefs passed down through generations of different cultures. Dogs have been an integral part of such folklore for thousands of years with their influence seen in legends around the world.

In the UK particularly, dogs hold a special place in stories of old with canine tales dating back centuries. From demon dogs with fiery eyes to legends of faithful hounds, it’s fair to say that canine folklore is a rich and varied part of British culture. Folklore stories not only continue to entertain us but also serve a purpose - offering us insight into the beliefs and values of the people who told them.

We’re delving deep into the fascinating world of canine folklore and exploring the origins of some of the most popular tales - as well as the legacies of these legendary creatures.

A Brief History of Dogs

3 large white dogs in a forest

Dogs were the first domesticated species and evolved from wolves around 15,000 to 30,000 years ago (though this timeframe is still up for debate by scientists and anthropologists alike).

Over time, the relationship between humans and dogs saw us grow closer with dogs taking on a variety of roles to help human society develop. In addition to hunting and protecting dogs have, and continue to be, used for herding, guarding, and of course, companionship.

However, dogs have not only been closely involved in how humans live and survive, but their presence has given rise to many fascinating and mystical stories that have entertained and educated us for centuries.

Throughout history, dogs have also played significant cultural and symbolic roles in our lives. For example, in ancient Egypt, dogs were associated with Anubis, the god of death, mummification, and the afterlife. They were frequently mummified (a sacred act) and buried with their owners or placed in their own coffins.

In Norse mythology, a dog called Garm was believed to guide the dead to the afterlife. Garm helped to keep the souls of the underworld contained behind the walls whilst stopping the living from entering and searching for their loved ones. In the Poetica Edda (a collection of Old Norse poems), Garm is referred to as ‘the best of hounds’ by Odin.

Black Shuck

A quick online search of British, and more specifically English, canine folklore will most often bring you to the infamous Black Shuck, a demon dog of many other names who is said to roam the English countryside and coastline tormenting and killing humans. Whilst, like many folktales, the origins of this story are blurry, they seem to appear in recorded English literature in the year 1127.

However, in 1577 in Bungay (a town in England) a black dog was said to have walked into a church and killed two worshippers amid a flash of lightning. After this, the dog walked to another town 12 miles away and killed three more people.

Since then, tales of a black dog roaming the countryside and luring travellers to their death have made a prominent contribution to English folklore and beyond. If dogs are considered ‘man’s best friend’ and our relationship with them is incomparable to any other animal, why do many canine folktales often centre around antagonising and so-called ‘evil’ dogs? And is this just limited to English tales?

When it comes to discussing folklore, it’s worth thinking about how such tales arose - as there are often multiple sources and origins. In the case of English black dog stories, it appears that such tales were concocted not only to provide entertainment but to keep certain areas free from pests and thieves. Allegedly, many tales of black dogs with red eyes can be attributed to local smugglers who wanted to keep trespassers (and children) away from coastal smuggling routes.

Whether these stories were told to warn weary travellers and trespassers or to excite children and teach lessons, there’s something about a good old ghost story that still continues to draw us in, though instead of sharing such stories around the campfire or a dimly lit pub we arguably now prefer taking them in through the screen of an air-conditioned cinema.

It’s also worth noting that the black dog is used as a symbol throughout folklore of various cultures. Though the motif originated in England, the motivation of the black dog often changes depending on the cultural perception of canines. In cultures where dogs are considered unclean, they tend to be more villainous.

Black Dog Syndrome

For those of the British lower and working classes, sharing stories of black dogs was often a clever way to preserve business and income (whether legitimate or not). However, it ultimately led to a fear of black dogs that has remained embedded in our cultural consciousness. Such superstition has continued to impact the perception of black dogs resulting in what is now known as Black Dog Syndrome.

Black dog syndrome refers to a phenomenon where black dogs are overlooked for adoption despite being just as friendly and lovable as their lighter canine counterparts. Black Dog Syndrome further exemplifies the power of storytelling and gives us an interesting look into the preconceived notions passed down from generation to generation. For centuries, negative connotations surrounding black dogs have been absorbed into our attitudes and beliefs, often whether we realise it or not.

In the UK, black dogs are still the least likely to be adopted from shelters. For example, a survey conducted by the Dogs Trust in 2017 found that black dogs took an average of 31 days to be adopted, while lighter-coloured dogs took an average of just 23 days. Another survey by the RSPCA in 2020 found that black dogs and cats were the least likely to be adopted, with only 24% of respondents saying they would consider adopting a black dog, compared to 40% for other colours.

Though folklore is not the main cause of this, further perpetuation from television and films has continued to show black dogs as aggressive, unmanageable, and intimidating which causes potential owners to shy away from adopting them in favour of lighter-coloured dogs - something we hope continues to change in the future as our understanding and appreciation for dogs of all sizes and colours collectively grows.

Big black dog peering at camera through trees

Gurt, Gelert, and Celtic Tales

However, whilst many folktales represent black dogs as omens of death, this isn’t true for all. Some black dogs, such as the Gurt Dog of Somerset, are considered guardian dogs who protect travellers from unsuspected danger and keep them on the right path. Others are supposedly attached to certain locations such as countryside roads and aimlessly roam through the night with no ill intention. Like with any folktale, the story changes depending on where you hear it and who tells it.

It’s not just England that has a plethora of dog-related folktales, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are rich in canine history too.

When we look at tales of dogs within Celtic lore many of them share the same sentiment - the power of faithful canines. Arguably, one of the most famous Welsh folklore tales is adapted from a specific type of motif which involves the undue killing of a loyal animal. Tales like this are told globally through many different cultures to warn against taking hasty action and living with regret.

The story takes place in the 13th century and tells of a prince who arrives home from hunting to find his baby missing and the cradle overturned. He does, however, see his faithful hound named Gelert with blood smeared around his mouth. Believing Gelert has harmed the baby, he kills him. As Gelert cries and draws his final breath, the prince hears the baby and finds the true attacker, a wolf already killed by Gelert. Overcome with grief and remorse, the prince provides his dog with a great burial ceremony - though he cannot stop hearing Gelert’s cries and never smiles again.

A grave for Gelert can still be found in the village of Beddgelert where every year, thousands of visitors pay their respects to the loyal friend who has now been immortalised through a bronze sculpture and tombstone.

The beauty of folklore is that it doesn’t just serve one purpose. While some tales serve as literal warnings, others are more nuanced and are told to encourage us to be better people, as can be seen through the tale of Gelert. Many folklore tales also serve to simply celebrate dogs such as stories of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi whose name derives from the Welsh word for dwarf (‘cor’) and dog (‘ci’).

Legend has it that fairies rode Corgis through forests and fields as well as head-first into battle. The Corgis themselves were also believed to harness magical powers, such as predicting the weather and guiding lost travellers back to safety.

Corgi companions are held in high regard to this day and are still considered somewhat magical beings through the unique markings on their backs that resemble ‘fairy saddles’. Other breeds that are also believed to harness mystical powers within legend are the Pug - who is considered particularly skilled in the art of healing and curing sickness, and both the Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Terrier - who are often depicted as fierce and loyal warriors capable of speaking and offering advice to humans.

Folktales and legends around specific breeds such as Corgis and Pugs help us to deepen our connection with the canine companions in our lives whilst also allowing us to learn about different cultures' perspectives on canine behaviour and characteristics. Hearing these stories can bring a newfound insight and appreciation for the loyalty and companionship our dogs bring to our lives.


Since the beginning of time, creating and sharing folktales has remained a key method of communication. Folklore helps us to share a common history, reinforce cultural values, and highlight important traditions. It’s also used to scare children into behaving but that’s another story entirely.

British canine folklore is a fascinating and diverse tradition that reflects the important role that dogs have played in our culture and mythology for centuries. From the loyal and brave Wolfhound to the mischievous and unpredictable púca of Irish folklore, dogs have been a constant presence in our storytelling habits and their stories still captivate audiences around the world.

Though our methods of such storytelling may have now changed, canine folklore continues to offer insight into how dogs were viewed by the people of Britain throughout history. They also demonstrate the enduring bond and relationship between humans and our four-legged companions.

British canine folklore is a valuable cultural legacy that continues to enrich our understanding of the world around us and the dogs with whom we share it - firmly cementing them not only as man’s best friend but as an extension of our humanity.

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