The Guytrash, Brighouse

One of the most common motifs in English ghost-lore is the phantom black hound: in North Yorkshire it is known as the barguest; in Lancashire as skriker; in Cumbria as the capelthwaite; in Somerset as the girt-dog; in Devon as the yeth-hound; and—most famously—in East Anglia as Black Shuck. The motif has been exploited extensively in literature: Charlotte Brontë references the belief at a pivotal scene in “Jane Eyre”; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle built an entire novel around the belief with “The Hound of the Baskervilles”; while J.K. Rowling has recently introduced a new generation to such lore through the Grim in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, the phantom black hound was known as the guytrash or padfoot—for convenience this former term will be used here. Most towns and villages in the county had a guytrash—sometimes even individual streets could claim their own spectral canine guardian—and Brighouse was no exception. Sadly, however, details of the tradition in the town are sparse: it is only mentioned in passing by Joseph Lucas in “Studies In Nidderdale” and Samuel Dyer in “Dialect of the West Riding of Yorkshire”—published in 1882 and 1891 respectively. Fortunately, however, we can fruitfully reconstruct the legend from comparable traditions elsewhere.

In an unpublished fragment written in 1837, Branwell Brontë describes the guytrash around his home in the Worth Valley as “a spectre not at all similar to the ghosts who were once alive, nor to fairies, nor to demons” which typically appeared as “a black dog dragging a chain”. Another source claims that the guytrash was “the size of a small bear, black with shaggy hair and large eyes like saucers”; it “uttered a roar unlike the voice or any known animal” and walked with a distinctive “shog…shog…shog” sound.

Discussing the tradition in 1888, the antiquary Charles Hardwick notes “when followed by an individual (the guytrash) begins to walk backwards with his eyes fixed full on his pursuer and vanishes at the slightest momentary attention”. He adds that the guytrash was often seen to disappear into rivers and other bodies of water; whilst “at other times he sinks at the feet of the person to whom he appears with a loud splashing noise, as if a heavy stone was thrown in a miry pond”. The antiquary speculates that the dialect name “guytrash” might even be an onomatopoeic representation of this characteristic sound.

The guytrash was a source of considerable dread to the uneducated classes of the 18th and 19th Century and William Harbutt-Dawson noted that in Skipton “nothing more effectively cleared the streets than the report that t’guytrash was out”. If an unwary traveller encountered the guytrash, the fiend would often pursue its victim and sometimes cause bodily harm. Rev. Alfred Easther records the story of an Almondbury resident who was followed by the local guytrash as he was fetching home a pail of milk one evening. As the unfortunate man reached his house, he was seized by a paralysis in his arms and only just managed to get through the door before the beast was upon him.

On other occasions, the guytrash caused no harm itself but appeared as an omen of death or misfortune either for the witness’s family or some local worthy. Charles Hardwick writes, “(the guytrash) generally appears to one of the family from which death is about to select his victim and is more or less visible according to the distance of the event”. As a death-omen, the guytrash is perhaps a descendent of the Gabble Ratchets: an airborne flight of baying hell-hounds whose passage over a house similarly portended the proximity of death. This tradition was probably itself a descendent of pre-Christian traditions such as the Anglo-Saxon Wild Hunt or the Celtic Cŵn Annwn.

Sadly, there is no surviving record to suggest which specific places Brighouse folk once believed to the guytrash to haunt. Typically, however, the most likely places to an encounter such beasts were areas that could be described as “liminal”—i.e. borders, boundaries and thresholds. Folk religion perceived such spaces holistically; liminal regions were not merely physical/geographical borders but also spiritual ones—at which denizens of the Otherworld could cross into our own. Examples in England include gateways, ruins, crossroads, wasteland, churchyards, bridges, wells, parish-boundaries and so forth; all of which attracted rumours of the supernatural over the centuries.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of guytrash-lore is the fact that whilst a large black dog was its favoured incarnation, it was essentially “protean”—i.e. exceedingly variable; readily assuming different shapes or forms. Sometimes it appeared as a goat or a bear, but on other occasions its guise was infinitely more bizarre: Branwell Brontë notes that the Worth Valley guytrash sometimes adopted the aspect of “a flaming barrel bowling across fields”; it was once reported as a rolling woolpack in Almondbury; whilst around Todmorden it was seen as a dirty white rag hanging from a thorn tree—which in a cotton-weaving milltown must have made walking after dark a terrifying undertaking!

Although we do not know which areas of Brighouse the guytrash once haunted, its favoured shape in the town has fortunately been recorded: a local man named Sam Blackburn told Samuel Dyer that in his home town the guytrash appeared as “an evil cow”! Whilst the image of burly mill-workers cowering from supernaturally malevolent cattle may strike some as regrettably Pythonesque, it is scarcely more absurd than the good folk of Elland cowering from a spectral mouse at Long Wall—which as an omen of misfortune was essentially the local variant of the guytrash. Equally, residents of both Cowling and Rochdale were once afraid of a phantom rabbit!

By the late 19th Century, the vast majority of correspondents who related such traditions to industrious Victorian folklorists were adamant that the guytrash was a thing of the past and had been seen for the last time a generation ago or more. Discussing the guytrash than once haunted the outskirts of Bradford, William Cudworth wrote that it “left Horton when the district was incorporated, as it had grown jealous of the policemen”. Other sources claimed that the fiend had retired following the introduction of street-lighting, or because modern agriculture had destroyed the thickets in which it liked to hide. Whatever the reason, few feared molestation by the guytrash anymore.