There are stories of black dogs all over Britain. There’s usually something spooky or downright sinister about them, inspiring stories in both folklore and fiction – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles being the classic example. They are known by different names across the country – a barghest1, padfoot2, a schuck3, a gytrash4, the cù sìth (although he’s green)5 and, in Cumbria, the cappel6.
The most famous cappel lived at Cappleside Barn7, by a medieval house near Beetham. He was more like the hob of Cumbrian folklore than the terrifying, flame-eyed version, as he was very helpful to the farmer, gathering sheep and helping around the house. It seems he could talk, too. Unfortunately, the local vicar had a problem with hairy, talking, canine farm hands and exorcised him into the nearby River Bela.
The prevalence of names in the area with ‘cappel’ in them suggest that the Beetham cappels were either very busy supernatural entities, or part of a large family. There’s a Cappelrigg and Capplebarrow nearby; Capel Crag, near Egremont; Capple Howe, the mountain; and Capelthwaite Farm near Sedbergh8.
There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of the name ‘cappel’, often linking the creature to other animals. Marjorie Rowling10 believed that it was derived from a word for horse, although I can’t work out why. Another suggestion, which makes phonetic and etymological sense, is that it is the same as the Welsh, ‘Cath Palug’ – the catch being that this supernatural black beast with blazing eyes is, in fact, a cat. Admittedly, the size of a horse, but nonetheless definitely a cat.
The Cath Palug is mentioned in several sources11. Its mother was a pig, and its brothers were an eagle and a wolf; it swam to Anglesey, where it was adopted by Palug (the local chieftain)’s sons. They came to regret this when the Cath Palug killed ‘nine score’ warriors. Welsh legend states that the Arthurian knight, Kai, was sent to despatch the cat, but as the last half of that text is missing, we’ll never know if he succeeded.
Welsh mythology also has a ‘gwyllgi’, which is very much like the scary, fiery-eyed dog of Cumbria’s Beetham-Milnthorpe road.
The relevance of the Welsh stories is that Cumbria was once a Brythonic-speaking nation, Brythonic being the term for the old Celtic language which is the ancestor of modern Welsh. When the Britons of Cumbria were subdued by the English (Anglo-Saxons) and Scots in the 10th century, some old Cumbrian history and folklore was preserved in Welsh writings11, notably the Welsh Triads and the Book of Taliesin (the writings of the bard of the Cumbrian, Urien of Rheged), and this is where the Cath Palug’s story is found.
The black dog in this form – a solitary creature, of giant size, with fiery eyes, and probably dangerous – is distinctively British. Other dog folklore, which is present across northern Europe, is of the Wild Hunt, or, as it was known in Cumbria, the Gabriel Hounds. To the Welsh, the Cŵn Annwn was a pack of spectral hounds led by Gwyn ap Nudd; they collected the souls of the dead and took them to the Welsh otherworldly paradise. Christianised culture made the Cŵn Annwn more sinister, and Annwn became hell; it’s easy to see how howling dogs became an omen of death and misfortune.
There’s no doubt that black dog stories have evolved and got mixed up with other supernatural stories over the centuries. The Cappleside Hall cappel, for example, isn’t very like other Cumbrian cappels. The exorcism to the river seems to put the cappel into the same bracket as demons and witches, who were believed not be able to tolerate water, but a more ancient version of the cappel, like the Brythonic Cath Palu, would presumably have swum away. Perhaps that’s why there are still so many black dog stories in that particular part of Cumbria…
- Known in various spellings in the east of the country, especially Yorkshire. The word is of germanic origin and seems to contain the word ‘geist’, ie. ‘ghost’.
- Padfoot is also a Yorkshire black dog, popularised by JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where he is Sirius’s canine alter ego.
- From the south-east of England.
- The gytrash is first recorded in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, so we don’t know for sure if this is genuine folklore.
- The cù sìth, is, as you might expect, Scots Gaelic and a native of the highlands. The folklore is the same as other black dogs in Britain, only he’s green – perhaps this is because he is seen as one of the faery races, and there is a strong cultural link in Scotland between faeries and the colour green.
- Marjorie Rowling, in The Folklore of the Lake District (1976), states that William Henderson was mistaken in calling the cappel a ‘capplethwaite’ in his book, Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1866). Going by the other ‘cappel-’ place names and the fact that ‘thwaite’ means ‘clearing’ and is a common part of Cumbrian place names, I have to agree with her. As she says, Henderson’s error is repeated all over the place.
- I have no idea when the house came to be called this, as it clearly includes the cappel in its name!
- According to W Henderson in Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1866).
- Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1868). JG Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (1922) lists similar examples in other European countries.
- Marjorie Rowling, in The Folklore of the Lake District (1976).
- The White Book of Rhydderch, the Black Book of Camarthen, Welsh Triad 26, the Book of Taliesin.