We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


What Is the Barghest?

This cryptid has been the inspiration for many famous fantasy creatures, and it rarely brings good tidings.

eyes looking out from the woods
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Neil Rosenstech / Unsplash

When it comes to creatures of folklore and human fancy such as the barghest, asking what it is can lead to a wide array of answers, depending upon whom you ask. In Dungeons & Dragons, for example, barghests are sort of like goblin werewolves. They are born to normal goblin parents, but they grow up into shapeshifting fiends that consume goblin souls. In the Witcher video game series, on the other hand, barghests are spectral hounds that appear in packs and “show the living no mercy.”

“Barguests an’ bogles an’ all…”

Legends of the barghestalso sometimes spelled “barguest”originate in Northern England, and the creature is particularly associated with Yorkshire, where barghests have been known to haunt Whitby, Leeds, York, and other environs, often taking the form of ghostly dogs. 

“Stoker’s choice of having Count Dracula arrive in Whitby in the form of a huge black dog was no doubt influenced by the barghests of local folklore,” writes The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain, and Stoker himself mentions the barghest in that novel, as an old man in Whitby goes off on a “sort of sermon” about local folklore, including “barguests an’ bogles an’ all.”

Just as the nature of the barghest is somewhat disputed from one source to another, so are its origins. At one time, Northern English dialect pronounced the word “ghost” more like “guest,” and the term barghest is thought to be a derivation from a number of possible prefixes attached to that word, such as “burh-ghest” or “town-ghost” or the German “berg-geist” or “mountain ghost.”

In her book An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Katharine Briggs says that the barghest (she uses the spelling “barguest”) is “a kind of bogy or bogey-beast. It has horns, teeth and claws and fiery eyes.” She goes on to say that it “can take various forms, but usually appears as a shaggy black dog with huge fiery eyes. It is generally regarded as a death portent.”

Barghests and their kin are sometimes associated with the “diabolical werewolves” which were said to plague certain parts of England in the Middle Ages, according to the Readers’ Digest book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. This link may have informed Stoker’s decision to have Dracula come ashore at Whitby, and also influenced my own short story “The Barghest,” one of the tales in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, my first short-story collection.

Black Dogs and Barghests

Across numerous different traditions and descriptions, the barghest is often depicted as distinctly canine in some fashion, linking it to the broader tradition of the black dog in English folk belief. “Stories of black dogs are to be found all over the country,” writes Katharine Briggs in An Encyclopedia of Fairies. “They are generally dangerous, but sometimes helpful. As a rule, the black dogs are large and shaggy, about the size of a calf, with fiery eyes.”

These legends have found their way into British literature in a variety of places, from the eponymous canine in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to the count’s transformation into a wolf in Dracula to a variety of references in Harry Potter, especially in relation to the character of Sirius Black.

These black dogs are often omens of death and may also be associated with the Devil or the Wild Hunt, another common folk belief in which spectral, infernal, divine, or otherwise supernatural figures engage in a twilight hunt across the lands. Of all the various black dogs in England, one of the most famous is Black Shuck of East Anglia. As is the case with many of these types of stories, the descriptions of Black Shuck vary from place to place and person to person, but a particularly evocative one comes from author W. A. Dutt, who sketched the creature as follows:

“He takes the form of a huge black dog and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year.”

Where Can I Find a Barghest?

Should you want to meet one of these spooks for yourself, your best bet is to go to Yorkshire. There, they have been known to prowl the notorious Snickelways, a twisting collection of narrow alleys and streets in York, where the historic building at 1 The Shambles is also sometimes called the Barghest. 

You might find one in Trollers Gill in the Yorkshire Dales, where a ballad first written down in the early 1800s tells of a man who goes there to “call on the Spectre Hound,” only for the nearby villagers to find his body the next morning, with marks “imprest on the dead man’s breast—but they seem’d not by mortal hand.”

According to William Henderson, writing in the 1879 publication Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, in Glassensikes, situated in England’s County Durham, you may encounter a barghest “which assumes at will the form of a headless man (who disappears in flame), a headless lady, a white cat, rabbit, or dog, or a black dog.” 

Near Leeds, Henderson adds, one may see an unusual procession, led by a barghest. “On the death of any person of local importance in the neighbourhood, the creature would come forth, a large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers, followed by all the dogs of the place howling and barking. If any one came in its way the Barguest would strike out with its paw and inflict on man or beast a wound which would never heal.”

On second thought, though, maybe you shouldn’t try to see a barghest. They seldom seem to bring good fortune…

Featured image: Neil Rosenstech / Unsplash