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Phantom animals

Ghost Hound: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie Orkney has been the haunt of several animal ghosts over the centuries.

Unfortunately, very few of these tales were documented, with the majority dying out with the original storytellers.

However, the tales of the animal ghosts that survive today can be broadly split into two groups.

The first group contain the standard "ghost stories", in which the spirit of an animal returns to haunt a specific area. These, however, are few and far between.

The second group is more common and by far the most interesting.

In my opinion, these tales are not actually ghost stories. More often than not we could just as easily state the apparition could have been a "magical" creature, rather than the wandering spirit of a dead animal.

The group has one common motif - to encounter the spectral animal was an ill-omen, usually presaging the death of the witness, or someone closely associated.

Ghost or varden?

I believe the ancient Orcadian beliefs surrounding death had much to do with the development of these yarns.

One belief in particular, the varden, could account for a large proportion of these spectral harbingers of doom. In Orkney, it was once thought that everyone had a varden. This companion spirit usually took the form of an animal.

The varden accompanied the person everywhere and would moan, howl or cry dismally when the mortal was about to die. A classic example of how the varden has corrupted into a "ghost" can be seen in the Boky Hound - one of the traditions surrounding the Balfour family of Noltland Caste in Westray.

The Wild Hunt

Another possible origin for some of Orkney's animal ghosts lies in the widespread belief of the Wild Hunt.

According to Teutonic mythology, the passing of the Wild Hunt was said to presage misfortune such as pestilence, death or war. In various old Norse tales we learn that, after the Wild Hunt's passing, a small black dog was often left behind.

This enchanted dog had to be kept, and carefully tended, for a full year, unless it could be frightened away.

The usual recipe to accomplish this, which incidentally was also the way to get rid of changelings, was to brew beer in eggshells. This act was, for some reason, guaranteed to startle the spectral hound and drive it away.

Orkney's Phantom Black Dogs

The phenomenon of phantom dogs is common throughout Britain but perhaps the most famous 'Hellhound" is England's "Black Shuck". This creature has stalked East Anglia for years - perhaps no coincidence, considering the area's early Saxon conquest, followed by later Viking invasions and settlement.

Encounters with Black Shuck generally followed the same pattern as the few examples of Black Dog folklore in Orkney - to meet the hound usually meant death would follow.

This superstition also ties in with the Norse belief that the baying of a hound on a stormy night was an infallible omen of death.

So, the combination of all the above elements has left me firmly of the opinion that the Orcadian tales of cursed dogs (and other animals), that have been grouped together with the lore of wandering spirits and restless souls, are actually a remnant of a much older tradition and not stories of ghosts at all.

Some examples of Orcadian animal spectres

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