The Towzie Tyke

Celtic Stories of the Devil Dog

Black dog with yellow eyes in snowy woods

A winnock bunker in the east,
There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast:
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge;

When Robert Burns wrote of the legendary ‘towzie tyke’ in his famous poem, Tam o’ Shanter, the depiction was one to strike a curious fear into the readers’ hearts. The association is an interesting one to reflect on, especially when ‘the dog’ is supposed to be man’s best friend, so what conclusion are we to draw? Is the black dog friend or foe? The black, devil dog or towzie tyke, was a character that frequented many a Celtic folktale and was a symbol to be feared. There is one legend that a black demon dog, trained by an English knight, was a fearless adversary and took down many a Scottish solider in the Battle of Roslyn in 1303. However, the dog was slain during the battle and is said to still roam the garden at Roslyn Chapel, terrifying anyone that crosses its path. There are stories from Tyree of a black dog that follows walkers along the beach, letting out a mournful howl before disappearing into thin air. 

Harry’s Uncle Sirius Black, aka ‘Padfoot’

In the British Isles, the black dog is associated with impending death or a disaster. However, in some legends, the black dog is said to be a personal guardian at times, especially over small, unattended children; prompting parents to be more watchful. J.K. Rowling even integrated the imagery into the Harry Potter series with the introduction of Harry’s Uncle Sirius Black, aka ‘Padfoot’ as he had the ability to shapeshift into a large black, protector. 

In one Scottish legend, a man from the Highlands selected a black pup from a litter and was told by the breeder that the ‘dug’ will only work one day in its life. The man paid no attention and raised the pup, although many found the dog to be useless and urged the man to get rid of it. Then the time came for the man to go hunting on a distant isle with his friends and he brought the dog along. The men would say, ‘why would you bring this useless animal when he does nothing for you?’ The man replied, ‘the dog’s day will come’. That day came sooner than he thought. After a long day of hunting the men took shelter in a nearby cave for the night. As their bonfire burned and whisky flowed, the men longed for a fair maiden to dance with. All the men made the same wish except for the man with his dog. Shortly thereafter, some beautiful and mysterious women entered the cave and using magic, danced the night away until the fire turned to ash. When all was dark, the men’s screams echoed throughout the cave as the sound of death was heard. At these screams the dog stood against the darkness and ran after the beautiful creatures that were in fact Baobhan Sith (baa-van-shee), or shapeshifting vampires. The fighting was fierce and raged until dawn when the dog returned to its master to lay on his lap one last time. The dog’s day or rather night had come and the dog served the man with its own life. 

Magnificent black wolf with yellow eyes

The most relevant association with the black dog within our society today, might feel slightly too close to home for some of us. It’s sad that depression often feels like the presence of a ‘black dog’ looming as a constant companion. However, the use of the term ‘black dog’ can also help identify those dark feelings and allow the individual to seek help as result. Interestingly, to this day black dogs are the last to be adopted from pet shelters. Maybe it’s in our ancient psychology to steer clear from this seemingly dangerous demon, but like any dog, treated with respect and love, they can be powerful allies and soothing friends. Understanding their heritage and our association with these creatures, bring us ever closer to understanding ourselves. After all, in the famous poem Tam o’ Shanter, Robert Burns states; 

To gie them music was his charge; 
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.