The Black Dog is a long-enduring, widely circulated legend, one that extends throughout the entirety of the United Kingdom. It has been said that just about every county in the UK has their own Black Dog myth, and Orkney is no exception. Orkney’s most famous black dog story is the Black Dog O’ Quholmsley, a massive hound who was said to reside under the bridge of the road to Sandwick and Birsay. Numerous witnesses returned from journeys reporting a chilling vision of this animal appearing from this spot at the dead of night, and following them on their travel for some distance before suddenly disappearing. This is but one of numerous encounters with the Black Dog and other phantom animals peppered across the islands.
The Black Dog myth is very old. So old, in fact, that the details of where it first emerged remain a secret. There were many who believed that the Black Dog was a ghost of a slain hound, but accounts of its presence actually predate the ghost story in the “returned spirit of the dead” form we know it today, suggesting the Black Dog could be something older and more primal. Widening our scope beyond Orkney and factoring in the legend of the notorious Black Shuck in England and all the other myths across the country, it can be seen that the accounts of the creature’s nature are in fact wildly differing. Some refer to the Black Dog as a demonic beast, a hellhound who breathes fire and will violently attack any poor soul unfortunate enough to lay eyes on him. But others refer to the Black Dog as a protective spirit that wards off evil entities, with several accounts of Black Dogs guarding cemeteries and churches to be found in folklore, and the odd tale of lost or endangered travellers being guided to safety by a spectral hound.
There is, however, one trait that seems to recur in all accounts of the Black Dog: his presence is an omen of impending death. It seems that anybody who sees the Black Dog is destined to die, or someone close to them will die. The length of time between the sighting and the death varies widely, with some stories suggesting it’s within the year, while others suggesting it will happen within days, hours, or even immediately. But the outcome is always the same. If the Black Dog appears, death will soon follow.