A guest post. This is actually an extract from Erren Michaels’ new book on Jersey Legends which should be available very soon. It is available to pre-order here on the History Press website.
On nights when the black dog roamed the hills of Bouley Bay people would lock themselves in their houses, bar the shutters and bolt their doors. Those who had glimpsed the black dog gave varying reports of what it looked like. Some said it was the size of a bull, smooth furred with ears flat like a hound and huge eyes as yellow as gold. Others swore that the black dog was similar to a great black wolf, the size of a bear, with eyes that glowed as red as the flames of hell.
Many insisted that a sighting of the legendary black dog heralded a coming storm or the death of a loved one, while some said that he led lost travellers to safety. Others warned that the black dog chased unwary folk to their deaths from the cliffs, or that he savaged people viciously. Some people swore that the black dog would protect the vulnerable from harm.
Whether the black dog was an evil spirit or some benevolent freak of nature was a topic of much debate in the area. Sceptics muttered that the whole thing was a rumour spread by smugglers to keep people away from the bay at night, but when the eerie howls echoed down into the bay, anyone who heard them would make for the nearest house or for The Black Dog tavern just to be on the safe side.
It was a night late in May, and sea mist hung heavy on the hillsides, when the locals heard a ghostly howl echoing across the bay and locked themselves safely away once again. On this particular night any who had glimpsed the black dog might have wondered why it appeared so clumsy. They might have considered, had they hesitated to observe, that the black dog on this evening was about the size of a pantomime horse with a large fluffy tail that looked like it was made from feathers and wired onto its body. The black dog moved with a slow, irregular gait, and at one point, when the back half of it slipped and fell on some wet leaves, it could be heard to curse softly.
Had anyone chosen to follow the erratic path of the black dog down the steep slope to the shore they might have seen that, as it crunched onto the pebbles and drew near to the water, its rear end stood up and said firmly, “Right, that’s it, Pierre, I’m sick of looking at your backside. I want to be the head on the way back up.”
“Shh!” said Pierre severely, “Do you realise what will happen if we get caught by the customs men? Keep it down John, for goodness’ sake.”
Removing the huge black dog mask from his head, Pierre wiped the sweat from his brow, reached inside the shaggy outfit and rummaged in various internal pockets until he located his pipe. He grasped it in a large, fake paw and lit it with some difficulty.
“Anyway,” Pierre added as he puffed a glow from the pipe, “I do the howl much better than you, so it makes sense that I be the head.”
“Oh fine. Can you see them yet?” John asked, looking out over the waves.
“Can’t tell in this fog. They’re always late anyway.”
The pair squinted into the mist, listening to gentle waves wash onto the stony beach until a glittering reflection on the water revealed itself as a hooded lantern on the prow of boat rowing quietly into shore.
“Give us a howl, boys,” chuckled one of the sailors jumping into the shallows.
He crunched pebbles underfoot as he hauled the boat onto land. His two fellows jumped out and the small boat was swiftly unloaded of its small cargo: three kegs of brandy and a bottle of the finest gin.
“Good evening, you vile band of smugglers,” John shook hands with each of the smiling men, while Pierre examined their cargo.
“You’ve tapped this one,” Pierre said indicating an open keg with his pipe, “How much of it have you had?”
“Just a sip… Just a few sips,” said one of the sailors with a wink and a nonchalant wave of his hand as they began preparing to shove the boat back into the water, “A little to keep the cold away.”
“You know Martin will take this out of your payment, don’t you?” John said.
“He always does,” grumbled one of the other men and then, with a grind of shingle and the thumping of boots landing back in the boat, they were disappearing into the fog once again.
“Bloody smugglers,” Pierre muttered after them.
“Three kegs,” John said, weighing one of them in his arms with a grimace, “This is going to be awkward to carry, especially dressed as half a dog. Couldn’t we-”
“No,” said Pierre firmly, “Back in the dog, John. We can’t afford to be caught and we have to be home before dawn. It’s a hell of a slog up that hill.”
“A monstrous climb,” John agreed with a sigh.
“It’s steep and no mistake,” Pierre puffed on his pipe speculatively.
“Almost seems like it might be worth fortifying ourselves with a quick mouthful before we get started,” John mused.
“It couldn’t hurt,” Pierre said and from somewhere in the depths of his shaggy chest, he produced a small, battered tin cup and filled it from the tapped keg.
It was, they decided, a very small cup, and so it made sense to fill it a couple of times and drink down the contents with gusto before they eventually stowed the bottle of gin in John’s trousers. They hung the open keg around Pierre’s neck as though he were a St. Bernard, took a sealed keg each to carry inside of the dog suit, and began the slow ascent from the bay.
“You came well prepared, Pierre,” John said as they trudged slowly back up the hill.
“You don’t know the half of it, John,” Pierre said, “I’ve got two pies in my pack in case we get peckish.”
“Now that’s thinking ahead!” John said in admiration, “I thought you smelled appetising this evening. With a long hard climb like this, we’re bound to need some sustenance.”
Pierre stopped walking suddenly and John head-butted him lightly in the rear.
“Did you hear that?” Pierre whispered.
“Can’t hear much of anything back here, Pierre.”
“What is it?
John was silent, but after a few moments couldn’t resist asking, “It’s not the black dog of Bouley Bay is it? Because he might think we were taking some liberties dressed this way and-”
“Quiet, John! Quick, into the bushes.”
John found himself hauled into a tangle of gorse, and swore softly as he shielded his face against the thorns. He was glad of the thick costume for the first time, as it saved him from the worst of the scratches.
Freeing his head from the dog costume, John could make out the faint sound of low voices carrying through the fog. The mist caused them to seem muffled. The millions of tiny water droplets hampered the sounds and caused the light of a lamp to spread a ghostly glow all around.
“Is it the customs men?” he whispered.
“Be still, John,” Pierre said softly.
They lay in the dark, listening to the muffled voices of men far enough away that they could not tell how many, but close enough to make the hairs rise on the backs of their necks. The illumination faded and the quiet chatter turned to silence, but still John and Pierre waited until they were certain that the men had moved on.
“Do you think they were looking for us?” Pierre asked quietly.
“Very possibly,” John said softly, “I’m glad I’m quite drunk. I got a bit scared there, Pierre. We nearly had to wash my half of the dog.”
Pierre laughed uneasily as he crawled from the gorse.
“Let’s be getting on then,” he said readjusting his costume.
They struggled up, moving into the darkness beneath the trees. After ten minutes of hard uphill climb they were both breathless and in need of a rest.
“Let’s have another cup, Pierre,” John panted, “Whatever we drink will make that thing lighter around your neck.
“Very thoughtful of you, John,” Pierre agreed, and they stopped to have another drink each.
“I thought I might try my howl again,” John said draining the small cup, “I’ve been practising in the bath and I think I might have cracked it.”
“Go ahead,” Pierre said reaching for the little cup, “The customs men are probably miles away by now. I’ll get the pies out so that I’m not looking at you. I wouldn’t want you to get stage fright.”
“That’s good of you, Pierre,” John cleared his throat with all the solemnity of an opera singer, and inhaling deeply to fill his lungs he lifted his chin and let out a loud and ghostly howl which echoed and hung in the thick fog.
“Oh yes, that’s much better than last time,” Pierre said, impressed, “Very eerie, very mournful. Here, wet your whistle and have a bite of pie to soothe your throat.”
“Thank you, Pierre,” said John, a little embarrassed, “It’s still not as good a howl as yours though.”
“I try to make mine as low and deep as possible,” said Pierre conspiratorially, before taking a bite of his own squashed pie, “That way it sounds as though the howl belongs to a very big dog indeed,” he added with his mouth full.
John nodded appreciatively and nibbled delicately on his pie as Pierre wolfed his down.
“If I may?” said Pierre.
“Please do!” John handed him back the cup so that Pierre could wash down his food before clearing his throat and performing an impressive howl.
The sound rang around the bay and John could imagine the residents of the area dipping their heads under their covers or checking the bolts on their doors. The customs officers would have to be brave indeed to risk continuing their search with such a convincing black dog abroad.
“That’s so loud, Pierre. I’m going to try again and see if I can do better.”
“Practice makes perfect,” Pierre clapped him on the shoulder and stood up, “I need to go and, er, water a tree though…” and with that he stepped away into the shadows to relieve himself.
John howled again, but could match neither the volume nor the depth of Pierre’s attempt, so he ended his effort with a disappointed grunt and a sigh. He took a bite of his pie, savouring the flavour.
From the shadows nearby sounded another chilling howl, a sound so primal and so terrifying that hairs stood up on John’s neck and arms.
“That was excellent, Pierre,” whispered John in awe, “You see, that’s why you’re the master and I am but the apprentice. That’s why you’re the head. That’s why-”
“It wasn’t me!” said Pierre reappearing swiftly with his dog’s head skewed to one side, hastily doing up his trousers, “That wasn’t me John.”
John reached slowly for the open keg of brandy.
There was the crack of a twig and then, through the fog, they could make out a deeper darkness. A huge shadow detached itself from the trees ahead.
Pierre froze. The small keg dropped from John’s numb fingers and rolled downhill unremarked, spilling rich brandy into the soil before coming to rest against a tree. The cheese pie fell from John’s other hand as he slowly backed away.
The black dog emerged from the mist. Tendrils of fog curled away from its face as it stepped into the clearing. It was bigger than any dog either man had ever seen. It was powerfully built, like a great wolf, but with the soft flat ears of a retriever. John had heard that the black dog had eyes of hellfire red, or possibly of sulphurous yellow, but as far as John could tell in the pale moonlight, its eyes were as black as the rest of it.
“Pierre,” John said quietly, “It’s looking at me, Pierre.”
“Don’t… run…” Pierre hissed through gritted teeth.
The dog turned its massive head and stared instead, unblinking, at Pierre.
“Now it’s looking at you, Pierre,” John whispered.
“I see that, John,” Pierre said gently, “I see that very clearly, thank you.”
“Maybe you should take off the dog head,” John said, “So that he doesn’t think that you’re another dog and try to fight you.”
Pierre slowly removed his half of the dog costume and let it drop to floor, holding his hands palm up as though in surrender, noticing as he did so that John had bent his knees slightly and was rotating from side to side so that his fake tail wagged weakly back and forth.
“Good dog,” John said hoarsely, “Who’s a good dog then? Is it you?”
The dog looked away from Pierre and moved slowly towards John, each huge paw the size of a dinner plate, padding silently closer.
John gave a squeak and tried to back up, but found himself pressed against a gorse bush. The dog dropped it’s head, sniffing the ground, and with great dignity and delicacy ate the cheese and onion pie that John had dropped to the floor.
“Good dog,” John whispered as the beast lifted its head again, “Who’s a good boy then?”
The black dog gave a low growl.
“Oh hell,” muttered John, then realised that the dog was now looking past him. He half turned and noticed the sound of quiet voices carrying through the mist. He had been so focused on the black dog that he had not seen the glow of the approaching lantern.
“Customs men,” Pierre breathed, “They must have heard us howling.”
“Stuck between a dog and a hard place,” muttered John, “What do we do, Pierre?”
In one great bound the black dog was gone into the mist, leaving great gouges where his claws had dug into the soft earth.
“Move! Now!” Pierre hissed.
They grabbed everything up and fled as fast as their cumbersome load and costume allowed.
Yells of terror echoed through the night along with a roaring growl and the sounds of men crashing through the undergrowth.
“The black dog!”
“Run for it, lads! Run for your lives!”
One particularly girlish shriek echoed up the hill, but there were no sounds of men being savaged and no dying screams, only occasional panicked shouts echoed up to Pierre and John.
John, puffing and red-faced, his tail swinging wildly, eventually had to stop.
“They’re gone Pierre. Slow down, please, I can’t breathe.”
Pierre collapsed with a grunt, wheezing for breath. Reaching inside his costume, he plucked out his pipe and flung it as far from him as possible, pressing a hand to his chest and gritting his teeth as he fought to fill his burning lungs with breath.
John lay down on the cool ground, panting until he could speak again.
“Damn dog saved our hides, Pierre.”
“He did at that, John. Who’s to say that he hadn’t been planning to eat our hides just before that though?”
“He ate my pie, Pierre.”
“You missed out there, John. They were excellent pies. I baked them myself.”
“You do bake a fine pie, Pierre. I’ve always said so. You’ll make some woman a fine husband one day.”
“He has excellent taste, that dog.”
“He’s a good dog,” John said firmly, “I knew it the moment he didn’t kill us.”
Pierre nodded vigorously, “A fine show of solidarity. We black dogs have to stick together. Who’d have thought it, John? The black dog of Bouley Bay! I never believed a word of the legend myself. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, eating my own pie, then I wouldn’t believe it now.”
“Always believed in it, Pierre,” said John firmly, “Never doubted a word about it.”
The two men lay on the ground in silence, considering their encounter until eventually John propped himself up on one elbow.
“I tell you what, Pierre, all that running has left me right parched.”
“I’m spitting feathers myself, John,” Pierre said producing the cup.
They drank a toast to the Black dog of Bouley Bay, and it was the first of many.
Notes on the text
The Black Dog tavern has stood for centuries in Bouley Bay on the northern coast of Jersey, and its name is a constant reminder of the legend from which it takes its name. Perhaps ironically it was the trade of alcohol itself that caused smugglers in the island to appropriate tales of the black dog. They famously used stories and costumes to scare people away from their illicit activities, and thus made the legend more famous.
There are tales of the black dog breathing fire and attacking fishermen, or dragging a chain behind him, which were no doubt spread to keep curious locals at a distance. Yet separate from the smugglers negative representation of the dog, he seems to have maintained a reputation as a storm herald, and fishermen would not put to see if a sighting of him was reported. There are also accounts, some very modern, in which people claim to have seen the Black Dog sitting peacefully beside the road surrounded by rabbits.
I found it interesting to note that one of the legends of the black dog that I researched made mention of a fisherman from Newfoundland. Anyone fortunate enough to have encountered this country’s famous breed of huge black dogs might allow that unwary islanders encountering such a creature could be forgiven for thinking them supernaturally large.
The black dog of Bouley Bay is only one of a number of black dogs that are rumoured to exist in the island. There is a well known tale of a black dog ghost, who runs across the road in St Peter’s Valley causing cars to swerve or crash, as well as more ancient rumours of black dogs as treasure guardians.
The black dog as an image seems to crop up in folklore with extraordinary regularity: as a storm warning, as a treasure guardian, or as the Grimm; a harbinger of tragedy and death.
With such a well-known mythic creature, but no single specific legend to describe him, I tried to use elements from Jersey history to create a tale that allowed the Black Dog of Bouley Bay to retain his mysterious nature and yet touched upon the smugglers’ famous use of his legend.
All text and pictures are © Erren Michaels.