The Black Dog of Morton by Rachel Moffat

Nov 05 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

On Wednesday morning, just before school, Ashley Dean posted a short clip of a large black dog running down from the wood at the top of Greyleas. By lunchtime the film had made its way round all the schools in the Morton area. Ashley claimed that it was footage of Morton’s Black Dog. It certainly looked the part: unkempt, feral and undeniably a very big black dog. Over the next few days, the children rehashed all the traditional Black Dog stories, posting and re-posting everything they had ever heard, enjoying a frenzy of terror. The adults shrugged their way through the familiar fright-fest; there was no point telling the children that May was too early. It was sometimes difficult to listen to them working themselves up into a state of mock fear, but it would blow over soon.

All records of encounters with the Black Dog, since the first in 1765, gave dates in autumn or winter. Most described a terrible chase by a hell hound through the back lanes of Morton or outlying areas. Very occasionally bodies had been discovered instead, bearing the signs of having been attacked by something vicious. In the 1970s a PhD student researching the tradition of Black Dogs within Britain observed that, although Morton’s Black Dog had not been specifically identified before the 1760s, the area had a long history of brutal attacks. Records of mysterious winter killings dated back to the late 11th century and had been much more frequent before the mid-18th century.

Since 1765 these records showed thirty-two fatal incidents officially attributed to wild animals but traditionally regarded as Black Dog attacks. The most recent of these had been in 1927, when a missing farm labourer had eventually been found dead in a remote corner of the valley, his body half-hidden among bracken and brambles. There had been substantially more reports from people who claimed to have been chased by a massive and vicious black dog, the last dating from 1973. And there were still two women alive who had heard the 1895 Stories from survivors. These Stories were the various memories of one famously bloody attack. In the January of that year some children had gone missing and men had searched through the freezing night. It was after midnight when the children were discovered in a hayloft. But shortly before this news arrived in the town, bells of alarm rang out. Men had begun returning to Morton, supporting those who were badly injured and carrying the covered remains of the dead. Many were too shocked to recall anything with clarity. Those who were still coherent reported hearing terrible screams across the fields. As men had hurried from all directions to give aid, the Black Dog had come at them in the darkness again and again.

In 2016 many people found their local folklore more entertaining than threatening but they were unwilling to ignore the legend’s influence entirely. The Dog stories were regarded as an integral part of Morton’s character and remained well-known and popular. Moreover, alleged sightings were not always dismissed out of hand. If the time of year was right, there was always plenty of talk about what might have been seen. And, while most of these discussions carried the thrill of campfire ghost stories, some contained a genuine sense of dread. Some residents still regarded the Dog as Morton’s curse and took precautions to ward off its evil influence. Their homes had rowan trees in the garden as well as blackberry bushes and plenty of ivy, although the Dog had never been seen in the town. Charm jewellery was also popular, especially as tokens for the children. Certain areas around Morton’s valley were regarded as sensitive occult spots and, while not all of them were considered unlucky, they were avoided by those who did not want an encounter with the Dog.

These habits mostly belonged to families who had lived in Morton for two generations or more. Reports of the Black Dog peppered each successive childhood and the most recent accounts always held the greatest currency as reminders that the Dog was not an old ghost story. These residents knew every 20th-century story by heart, many having heard the accounts first-hand. Peter Grey’s story from November 1973 was one of the most popular and he repeated his narrative whenever asked, especially to the children. A 22-year-old at the time, Peter had been walking home from a friend’s house late at night through the back lanes. He recounted how unearthly snarls and growls had ripped the still night apart with a shocking violence. Turning, he had seen the Black Dog not twenty metres away hurtling towards him murderously with fangs bared. Peter still turned pale to remember how near he had felt to death. He described running in a blind panic with the sound of the Dog all around him, never expecting to hear anything else. It seemed incredible to Peter that he outran the Dog and, like others, he put it down to the magical influence of ley lines and the boundaries of the lucky or unlucky ‘pockets’ which had been identified over the years.

In the aftermath of Ashley’s film the young people soon built up their own mythology. Within a week they had all seen the Black Dog up on Greyleas at least once and most had been chased by gigantic black dogs through Morton’s lanes. The rustle of rabbits and fidgeting sparrows in hedgerows were continuously provoking headlong dashes through brambles and nettles. In the local pubs some residents shook their heads at the young people’s restless excitement, uneasy with such ghoulish celebration. Ultimately, of course, this thrilling tension was unsustainable. Other distractions filled long summer days and Greyleas was forgotten. By October, no one wanted to camp out to catch the Dog on film. Now that autumn had arrived, however, a number of adults became quietly watchful, often turning their eyes to the thickets on the hill. Some were only influenced by the thrill of the stories and the recent excitement. They couldn’t resist checking at first but soon forgot to look. But there were others who continued to scan the tree line and were heard to talk about avoiding certain areas after dark.
*

The woodland at the crown of Greyleas Hill had once been part of the defunct Morton Estate. The black dog walked at the tree line, half-hidden but with a good view of the small town which had developed from villages and tenancies of the old estate. The dog had watched over these changes with steadfast vigilance. The creature he waited for often disappeared for many years but, so far, it had always returned and so the dog was always ready. Centuries ago, when the black dog had been called Bauderon, the creature had come to his home as the year was ending. For three days and nights Bauderon had caught the scent of something vile hidden in the woodlands of his master’s estate. He often barked and strained at his chain, sensing a hideous threat. As the sun went down on the fourth day the stench grew stronger, so that Bauderon knew something was approaching. Alarmingly, he could see nothing at all. The dog writhed in a madness of terror, unnerved by the presence of some invisible creature which was now racing past him, frantic in his attempts to warn his family of the danger. His desperate wrenching broke the weakened chain and he followed the scent, barking viciously through the grounds of the estate.

In the gardens behind the house he saw his family and raced towards them with barking shouts, defiant and protective. He was relieved to see Mistress and Nurse hurrying towards the house with the children. Master was rushing over from the other side of the lawn, but the evil stink still pervaded and Bauderon followed it, racing after the women and children, desperately wondering how to defend against an invisible attack. Suddenly, he felt a sharp and shuddering pain in his side and realised that the monster was attacking him and not his family. Before he could turn to engage the creature his eyes clouded over and the pain made him stumble. But in a moment his eyes were clear again and now he could see a squat, dark brown figure unlike any sort of animal he knew. Somehow it was ahead of him and not at his back. It seemed to shamble in an ungainly way, long arms dragging through the lawn, but it was moving with an awful speed.

It was gaining on Mistress, who was carrying the eldest child and had fallen behind Nurse some distance. Master ran shouting past Bauderon, who was shocked to see the women slow down and look behind them. No one reacted to the wood beast but it was now crouching to spring at Mistress. Bauderon instinctively leapt also, although he felt he
was still too far away. But he must have been nearer than he thought, or perhaps was better at leaping, because he landed square on the beast’s back and brought it to the ground. In a moment Bauderon would have been at the creature’s throat but it was quick too. With its powerful legs it pushed Bauderon away, turned and bounded off. The dog watched it out of sight and when its scent was only faint he turned round to the house. It was then that he saw his own dark shape huddled on the other side of the green lawn and remembered the dangerous pain at his side.

The beast left that night and Bauderon began his long watch. Year on year, the dog waited for the return of the wood creature, soon recognising the seasonal pattern. Even after years of the beast’s absence the dog remained watchful until the spring buds broke open. At first, Bauderon stayed in the shadowy groves beyond the Hall’s formal gardens. Unseen he watched his family live and grow older. The children left and the parents grew frail, dying during a winter of dangerous sickness. Aware that he was a shade, Bauderon had hoped to see their echoes but they had left him. He realised this had been foreshadowed by the fact that he had remained visible to humans, but not the ones he had known. The Morton Estate was broken up and sold by the young master and Bauderon went to make his home in the woods, commanding a better view from Greyleas. As the nights drew in and grew colder, Bauderon would move out from the dark thickets of the woodland and stalk the tree line at the top of the hill. Stags, foxes and other dogs were frequently mistaken for the Black Dog, but Bauderon walked there too and some sightings were genuine. He rarely reflected on his reputation beyond the knowledge that it was useful. He did not know he was the only guardian the valley had known in all the long centuries of the beast’s ritual of slaughter.

*

In October 2016 Bauderon was alert, sniffing the air intently. Last year the wood beast had returned after an absence of five years and the dog did not expect a quiet winter. The beast’s vicious appetite had been largely frustrated over 250 years, but it had not yet learned to relinquish its claim on Morton. Confined within the valley’s limits, Bauderon could do nothing to forestall the beast’s arrival and every sunset found him pacing the outer limits of his woodland lookout, unquiet until dawn. In the early hours of the first morning of December, Bauderon picked up the creature’s scent as it crossed an ancient boundary line into the valley. It was travelling through a wooded area south of Greyleas and Bauderon swiftly made his way down the hill to find it. Familiar scents faded into the background against the wood beast’s distinctive, eerie odour which was so easy to follow.

As often as the wood beast returned the dog had contained the creature’s aggression by stalking it through the night, forcing the invisible marauder towards the more remote areas of the valley and away from its human prey. This constant surveillance had soon shown Bauderon that the beast sought cover when the sun rose. Not that the creature needed sleep as such, but it lost its thirst to hunt and liked to hide itself away from daylight. Needing to exploit any vulnerability Bauderon had hounded the beast relentlessly, preventing it from entering dens and chivvying it from leaf piles and tree holes. He forced it back under the eye of daylight and, while a winter’s sun was just bearable for the wood beast, its strength diminished. Enraged and frustrated the beast would hold out as long as it could, but each successive sunrise found it weaker. Usually it was spent by the third morning and a cold and wintry dawn would see it running for the nearest boundary and the promise of shade.

For a long time this was the only weapon Bauderon had against a beast as seemingly indestructible as himself. He had dramatically curtailed the wood beast’s attacks with his relentless shadowing but the beast had enjoyed freedom for too many centuries to relinquish its territory. It did not return every year, following a pattern hidden to Bauderon, but the dog never regarded even a lengthy absence as permanent. And he had never been mistaken. In fact, the beast’s season in Morton was tied to the erratic traditions of an ancient festival, a week-long event connected to the shifting auspices of full moons through autumn or winter. The festival had been abandoned more than 700 years ago and was long obliterated from knowledge but the beast still returned, enabled by forgotten invocations. Denied its ritual offerings, the beast had forged a hunting ground to satisfy its gnawing maliciousness.

It had been a profound shock to the wood beast to be faced with such a formidable challenger after centuries of freedom. Bauderon had passed through death and emerged gifted with the same speed and strength as Morton’s ancient predator. The dog’s advantage was the subtlety of his intelligence, a keen weapon against the beast’s limited instincts. Bauderon quickly exposed his enemy’s weaknesses and, crucially, almost entirely neutralised the deadly advantage given by its invisibility. Chance provided the beast with occasional kills in the unwatched moments after its arrival but it was usually discovered by the dog first or, worse, thwarted with its prey in sight. Bauderon would appear, racing at an unnatural speed, filling the air with growls and snarls. He was always carefully positioned so that no one ever ran unsuspecting towards the wood beast. Bauderon never failed to be as horrible as possible; he remembered how his family had fled from him. As the victims took to their heels the dog would wrestle the beast to prevent any pursuit, forcing it towards more remote areas.

The beast was beside itself with rage and frustration but clung furiously to its claim on the valley. Indeed, the humiliation of many defeats fed the creature’s resolve nearly as robustly as the glory of a rare triumph. Opportunities for its crude strategies were rare but they did occur.
Prior to the beast’s most notorious victory in 1895 its best chances had occurred on the handful of occasions when it had arrived in early autumn, before livestock were under cover of barns or byres. The beast had been elated to realise that it could baffle Bauderon’s tracking skills by slaughtering the large animals and confusing its own scent with a myriad of blood scents. The beast could then make its way towards Morton undetected. While its magical nature held thresholds as taboo, keeping it from built-up areas, it could still count on finding victims in the lanes or fields before the dog discovered the right trail.

To be outwitted by the wood beast, and with such bloody results, left Bauderon distraught and humiliated. The only minor victory against such dreadful defeats was that the following day’s chase was much more taxing for the wood beast. It was shattered by the warmth of autumn, so unlike the watery gaze of a winter sun. Even cloudy days stifled it. As the day wore on it would make its escape, desperate for shadow and dank, woody holes. But this early retreat was small consolation for the dog. It was not enough to make the wood beast pay for its slaughter if it was never to be deterred from returning. The beast needed to fear the valley and Bauderon as its protector.

In 1895 the beast had arrived at the start of a cold January and the first thing it saw as it emerged from a copse was the blink and flicker of lanterns, as the townspeople searched for the missing children. It was like walking among the sheep and cattle again. Even now three men were making their way towards the copse and the wood beast roared triumphantly towards them. Frenzied with excitement it cut, slashed and bit. Then, aware that time was short, the beast dashed headlong away looking for more lights. As it bounded over a stone wall into the lane beyond, two more men came rushing towards the cries they had heard. Their own screams soon sounded across the fields, baiting the beast’s next trap. It stood by its kill and waited.

Men now came running from several directions, horrified by what they had heard. Their terror and despair only increased when they saw the bloodied bodies in the lane. Their first thoughts were for the children before they realised that they were under attack. At first no assailant could be seen; there were claws and teeth but no one could glimpse what creature came at them in the dark. But then vicious growls cut through the night and the light of a remaining lantern showed the shaggy form of a large dog, leaping and snapping through the mêlée. In the confusion of bodies and stumbling men, the beast slipped out of Bauderon’s grasp, but the dog was determined not to lose the trail and followed as swiftly as he could. The beast had forgotten about stealth, in any case, and Bauderon heard it crashing through trees away from the main path.

The beast ran swiftly through the woods, following the road and watching for more tell-tale lanterns. Bauderon followed, shaking with rage at the beast’s easy success and its brutal delight in slaughter. Shouts sounded from behind as more men hurried along the lanes. The beast whipped round, hoping to catch the dog off guard and dodge past him. It ran into Bauderon’s snarling face and sprang back rapidly. Slightly disorientated by this, the beast bounded off into the depths of the woods, away from the road. Bauderon followed and the hubbub of distress dwindled behind them.

Rushing haphazardly through the trees the beast suddenly scrambled down a ferny bank. It landed on a broad path and ran on, hoping to shake the dog by being erratic. But they were now in the woods near Morton Hall and there was no way to dodge the dog or confuse him on such well-known paths. The beast ran on, unable to shake Bauderon but still hopeful of surprising victims in the dark. In time it was scattering the gravel under an avenue which opened onto the formal lawns of the Hall. And now the beast’s pace faltered slightly as it recognised the gardens and recalled its first encounter with the black dog. Immediately Bauderon was upon it. He cannoned into the beast and they tumbled down a shallow flight of stone steps into hedges lining the walkway below.

Bauderon sprang up rapidly but was startled to see the beast scramble away from the neatly clipped trees with screams of anguish. It huddled on the gravel of the walk gibbering and sobbing, apparently in pain and shock but with no apparent wound. Bauderon looked at the hedging more carefully, which seemed ordinary enough. The dark trees carried berries which, rather than glossy, had a sort of dusty matt appearance. He remembered that they had been planted elsewhere on the estate too, in a shady clearing where a small mausoleum housed master’s ancient family.

The beast was shivering through its sobs. Bauderon grasped the scruff of its neck and dragged it towards his former woody haunts, sweeping it through the gravel. It remained unresponsive and Bauderon imagined it might be grateful to be taken from the hedges. It didn’t mistake the scent of yew, however, as they approached the mausoleum. Distressed, it tried to twist free of the dog’s grip, but it was too weak. Against the back wall of the mausoleum leaned an ancient yew, bent and gnarled, its split trunk revealing a hollow. Bauderon flung the beast into this space, provoking renewed cries of agony, and settled himself to guard the opening.

The dog watched the night pass and did not stir. The beast’s noisy keening finally quietened to shuddering sobs and moans with an occasional howl. Bauderon listened with angry satisfaction. The creature’s agony was some sort of penance for the awful victory it had achieved. Never, in Bauderon’s experience, had the beast enjoyed such blood-ridden human butchery and what a lucky chance had revealed this punishment. When the late winter dawn finally broke, Bauderon could see a grey shape huddled and exhausted in the centre of the hollow. The greyness was not a trick of the dawn’s light, the beast’s brown, barkish hide was now silvery grey and startling in its contrast. Bauderon looked at the tortured creature grovelling and whimpering and decided he could afford to allow it to leave its prison. He stepped back but watched the beast closely in case this appearance of weakness was exaggerated. It shuffled out slowly, refusing to look at the dog, and limped through the dappled light towards the darker recesses of the woodland. Bauderon followed as it crawled towards the nearest boundary line it could remember. He wondered if the beast could be leaving to find a hole to die in but then rejected the idea, convinced instead that its resilience would gradually be rebuilt in some dark corner. He watched the creature over the boundary and saw it shuffle off, wondering if it would keep away and for how long.

*

Now, in the small hours of a new December, Bauderon followed the beast’s scent along a moonlit lane heading towards Morton. Of course, the beast had returned to make its sorties again since 1895. The glory of that success had not been entirely overshadowed by the severity of the punishment, but imprisonment had hurt the beast and broken its aggressive belligerence. After avoiding the valley for twenty years it had crept back in again, both hopeful and cowering. Bauderon had caught the offensive scent instantly and soon appeared in a wild fury. At the sight of him, the beast had turned tail and made for the boundary. Its coat was still pale, suggesting that it had lost some strength. Certainly the nature of the wood beast’s visits took on a very different character; instead of bold hunting forays, the creature acted warily as a trespasser. Once it managed a lucky kill, meeting a farmhand moments after crossing the boundary, but even then it ran off before Bauderon appeared, fearing retribution. Throughout the 20th century its visits to Morton were fleeting and less frequent.

Bauderon was nearing his quarry in the lane, anticipating the beast’s panicked reaction when he appeared. Suddenly a new scent triggered a current of alarm and he increased his speed with urgency. Some distance ahead a man was walking along the lane; the beast had not had such a chance for more than forty years. Bauderon followed the twist of the lane round and there was the beast at full pelt, desperate for its first human kill in nearly a century. Bauderon was no less desperate and he unleashed his most ferocious snarls and a bark of mad fury. In the next moment he realised, with mortification, that he had made a rare mistake. The man was now rooted to the spot in terror, unable to run, and the beast was closing down the gap all too easily. As it sprang so did Bauderon, catching at the beast’s outstretched legs. And as he saw the Black Dog leaping towards him the man finally tried to move, but only stumbled backwards and fell down.

Feeling helpless in the dirty lane, watching the Black Dog’s teeth and claws as it leapt towards him, the man was astonished to see the Dog tumble forwards, apparently entangled in the air. Hot breath and rough coat brushed past the man and then the Dog was wrestling on the ground, snapping and slashing, trying to pin down nothing at all. The man realised, with a mixture of relief and anti-climax, that the dog was fighting itself. He almost laughed at how surely he had believed in the Black Dog for a few petrified minutes. But he felt panic stir again as he registered the mad, vicious growling and ran wildly back down the lane, away from the carrying sounds of the dog’s deranged battle.

In its first rush of fury the wood beast fought Bauderon with all its madness, clawing, tearing and biting. But then panic came and when it twisted from the dog’s reach it had already given up its prey. Instead, it dashed wildly through a gap in the hedgerows to open countryside beyond and fled from Bauderon’s anger. In its panic it had chosen a direction at random; the nearest routes out of the valley were at its back. But the beast could do nothing except run and stay clear of the dog’s grasp. Eventually, cresting a high field, the beast sighted a stretch of woodland, one of the largest acreages of trees in the valley and still some miles away. There was a boundary on the far side. The distance would be taxing for the beast but it sped on, desperate not to flag. Bauderon followed, confident that he could still run the beast down and imprison it among the yew trees again.

In time they approached the woods, which were bordered with scrubland thickly overgrown with some unruly plant. The wood beast continued its dash towards the trees, becoming enmeshed in the shrub. Suddenly it began to scream and keen, heaving and tearing at the thin green stems which were not strong but plentiful. Hastily it ploughed its way through the plant to reach the tree line, shaking and gibbering with fear. The scent of sap from ripped leaves and stems hung heavily in the air, spreading an unfamiliar fragrance. Bauderon watched his enemy falter through the green snares, knowing that with a leap he could force the beast back into this new prison. Even in his anger Bauderon wondered if he was really going to watch the beast struggle in this undergrowth until it died. Its coat was whitening and it sobbed as it tore itself free. Bauderon hesitated but then sprang. Hearing the shifting rustle of leaves, the creature screamed but sprinted away through the trees. Bauderon raced after it realising, with some surprise, that he needed to run at full pelt to keep the creature in sight. He had expected it to be much weaker and felt a keen disappointment. The beast continued on, following the route of a stream, tearing up the banks in the desperation of its flight. The stream soon joined the river, leading out of the valley. Keeping to the shade of the trees all the way the beast followed the water, never letting up its pace. Bauderon kept up the chase, hoping he would not regret his hesitation.

They ran for several miles along the river at breakneck speed. Slowly the darkness lost its depth and gave way to a dim sort of dawn. The light gave the beast a translucent, pearly look but its speed did not slacken. After another mile Bauderon could see the woods thinning as the river made its way out of the forest and through moorland into the next valley. He would not be able to chase the beast beyond the trees and it could smell its escape. But, as they approached the newly sunlit grass, the creature slowed. On the moor, some distance away, thickets of gorse promised a tantalising haven of shade, but the wood beast hesitated at the very edge of the light. It was now transparent and fog-like. Grey wisps of the beast streamed around it, feathering its form. Its manic flight had been its death throes and its powers were exhausted. It was now turning rapidly in an agitated manner, aware of Bauderon gaining but unable to steel itself to cross the stretch of open day.

Bauderon stopped a few paces from the beast and allowed the time to pass, watching the creature accept its situation. It saw Bauderon’s appraisal and read his triumph. Hatred snarled within it; it was unbearable to see the dog observe the moment it chose its death. Baring its teeth and growling with all its murderous energy it turned and sprang over the boundary, racing the daylight to reach the dark thickets. Bauderon watched as the sun seemed to draw wisps of substance from the wood beast. Over the grass it pelted, still swift, and Bauderon wondered if some fragile outline of the creature might reach shelter after all. A hazy form strained towards the gorse and then there was no form. Like mist and like water the shape of the beast broke apart, streaming in all directions. At the very last it was a shimmer hanging in the winter air and in a breath it was gone.

***

Bio:

Rachel Moffat lives in the west of Scotland. She has developed her love of literature through research as well as creative writing. She loves collecting ordinary and random details for inspiration and taking them off in entirely new directions.

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