2 August 2012
the black hound
Arran: Photograph by Islay McLeod
It was the summer of 1969 and I was 15 years old. We were in the place I love best in all the world, the island of Arran. 'We' were a family of seven Glaswegians, mum, dad and five siblings spending the month of July in our usual haunt, Bridge Farm, a couple of miles east of Shiskine on the String Road. We'd been coming here for years, renting the farmhouse from Colin and Martha Currie who, along with their three children, would move out to the bothy across the yard for the duration of our stay.
Our days were spent helping out on the farm, milking and herding the cattle, baling hay, digging potatoes, shooting rats in the barn, mucking out the byre, helping the local farmers with dipping and shearing the sheep, collecting eggs etc, etc. And fishing, lots of fishing. For us would-be-farmer townies it was an idyllic break, and one that was fully maximised by Colin who had a willing and happy unpaid workforce for a whole month. My lacerated fingers (from baling string) and bulging biceps were the talk of the neighbourhood, and the subject of much respect and admiration from the local youth.
But something different happened that year, to me at least. I was offered a job. Mary Currie, a relative of Colin's, and one of the landowning gentry on the island, decided she needed some weekend help in the kitchen at the local hostelry she owned, the Shepherd’s Howff, at Shiskine. (Howff is a phonetic rendering as I can't remember exactly how the Gaelic word was spelled, but it means 'crook'). As I was 15, I was legally allowed to be employed, as long as I didn't hang about in the public bar. The pay offered was minimal, but the proposition took my fancy as I'd never been employed before and the whole idea was novel and fun.
I put it to my parents and, as to be expected, they were doubtful about the whole enterprise. I was only 15 and I didn't need to earn any money (as they saw it), and why would I want to go and work in a pub? They were both non-drinkers and viewed drinking culture with some disdain. Much discussion and pleading ensued, assurances that I would only be in the back kitchen were given, and eventually they agreed that I could try it for one night, on condition that my father or one of my older brothers would drive me there and pick me up at closing time.
I had to agree to the drop-off, but in an age where there were no mobile phones, in fact there were no landlines most places either, and not at our farm, I wheedled my way into being permitted to walk home alone, because I didn't know what time I would finish. My mother was not happy, but dad relented and agreed, as long as I faced the oncoming traffic on my two-mile walk back to the farm. Dad spoiled me, as I was the only girl and by many years the youngest of the family, while also sensing that now was the time for me to flex some of my bulging muscles of independence.
So off I went that Friday night, brother Gerry driving me, to my first paid employ. It was a lovely evening, warm and balmy on the outward journey, and with the standing stones of Machrie Moor clearly visible. At other times, these Neolithic megaliths would be shrouded in Scottish mist for days on end.
I spent an eye-opening night at the pub, my first introduction to institutionalised drinking and the leering glances of old farmers and shepherds. What fun for a young woman! I managed to escape around 10pm, and started on the longish walk home. The night was clear and starlit, vaguely light as it is in Scotland in the summer, and slightly chilly, so I donned my beige Shetland wool sweater that I'd taken with me, just in case. Being careful to walk facing the oncoming traffic (there was none), I wended my not-at-all-weary way towards Bridge Farm, musing over the events of the evening, particularly my sight of Mary Currie dishing out garden peas onto people's plates with her bare hands – health and safety eat your heart out. I was in a good and light-hearted mood, not a care in the world, and had a few shekels in my pocket. I knew all the locals and this island like the back of my hand, so was completely and utterly comfortable with my lonely journey home, just how I liked and wanted it.
I was thinking what to do with this money, save it or blow it on something my mum would thoroughly disapprove of, when I became aware, at a distant sensory level, that I suddenly had company. I looked to my left and saw a huge black dog pacing me, padding along, totally silently, in the middle of the narrow tarmac road, eyes ahead, and paying no obvious attention to me. I was startled, to say the least. I had no warning of its approach, no sound and no barking and no sight of it approaching the road via the fields on either side. I had had a bad experience with an unfamiliar dog as a young child so was always wary of them, unless it was a dog I knew well (we had our own family dog whom I loved), but my vaguely uneasy astonishment soon gave way to a strange acceptance of my unannounced travelling companion.
We walked on together for some few minutes, my mind exercised about where this hound had come from, when I decided to have a really good look at this creature so I could describe it to the local farmers, in case it was a local phenomenon belonging to somebody. And phenomenon it was. Even at that tender age of 15 I was already trying to rationalise. The beast was huge, and I mean huge, somewhere between the size of an Irish wolfhound and a donkey.
Its back was level with my waist. I averted my gaze, knowing already, at a deep level, that there was something seriously wrong with this scenario. We walked on. With the next surveillance glance I took in its coat, black and slightly long and shaggy, but shiny and almost smooth, sort of like a setter. Its ears were pricked up, however, not like a setter at all. Confusion. I had never seen a dog like this in my life, nor in any literature I’d read or pictures I'd seen. I couldn't see its muzzle properly at this point, and was too reticent to run in front of it and have a look.
At this point I stopped walking out of sheer bemusement, but strangely not fear. The dog stopped also after a few paces when it realised I was not following. When it slowly turned round to gaze back at me, I was shocked to the core. Its eyes were red, the colour of dying embers in a fire, glowing dully with no source of reflection anywhere in the environment. I was stunned and immobilised, fascinated and perplexed, but never fearful, which is strange in itself. It waited patiently until I had mustered enough gumption to start walking again. Although I wasn't really afraid I did feel the need to get home at this point. And so we continued our journey, me wondering, and goodness knows what was in its mind.
A few minutes after this mutual gazing, a car came careening round a bend at high speed, with no headlights, and on my side of the road. In the fraction of a second it took me to register what was happening, the dog had leapt across the road and softly pushed me into the verge, a ditch actually, with a little stream running through. I felt its breath on my face, not at all unpleasant but warm, and I got up soaking, alive and uninjured. The car didn't stop. If I had disobeyed my father's instructions, I would have been safe.
We continued our journey home. I can't begin to tell you what my feelings were at this point. This weird beast had saved my life and continued to escort me. My mind was buzzing, with road accidents and supernatural interventions. I walked the last mile in a daze, my faithful companion at my side. When we reached the bridge at Bridge Farm, I turned to look at the monster hound with the glowing red eyes. I am not ashamed to admit that I thanked him for saving life and limb. I turned for a moment to look towards the lights of home, and when I looked back to say goodbye to my saviour, he had gone, as mysteriously as he'd appeared. And it was a 'he', of that I'm sure.
My parents were still up, of course, and waiting for me. They had no idea of what I was about to relate. My mother's reaction was predictable. 'What a lot of nonsense, it was a local sheep dog whose reactions were swifter than yours'. Yeah, right, mum. Sheep dogs are that huge and have glowing red eyes. Paradoxically, my mother was the most 'fey' person I have ever known, and consistently denied her Highland gift (she's a Campbell/McEwan). That's the subject of another story altogether.
My father (of Irish stock), however, was intrigued and asked me so many questions. After a lot of ruminating, he did offer to me that I'd been in the company of a hell hound that, contrary to expectation, had been sent to assist a human, not to terrify. He decided I'd been immensely favoured, but did quiz me about whether I'd been imbibing at the pub. I most definitely wasn't.
I did work at the Shepherd's Howff after this, but was always taken there and collected by one of my family. I never saw my spooky canine friend again, but enquiries with the local community went something like this, 'Ah, the black hound. We thought he'd died with our fathers. None of us has ever seen the beast. You're special'.
Maybe I did inherit my mother's and father's Celtic seeing, for this was not the only strange experience I've had in the west of Scotland.
In June of 2011 I visited Arran again after a long number of years of absence. On our return journey my partner and I found ourselves lingering in the tourist information office at the ferry terminal in Brodick, waiting for our sailing back to the mainland at Ardrossan. My attention was caught by a cartoon postcard depicting a mythical giant who lived on Arran and who was wont to have altercations with a giant from Ulster who had envious eyes on the western isles. This Arran giant had an equally giant black dog whom he used to exercise on Machrie Moor, and whom he tied up to a ring in one of the standing stones across from Bridge Farm. I knew nothing about this legend until that day in 2011.
Judith Jaafar is an anomaly researcher and writer for the last 20 years, as well as being a clinical/medical hypnotist