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Dark Huntsman

Dark Huntsman

One dark night a moorman was riding his pony homewards from Widecombe fair. To say he was in good spirits was a slight understatement, he had taken some bullocks and made a fair price for them so there was coin in his pocket and whisky in his belly. A pale moon hung in the night sky and the cloud bank was building from the west. Silence engulfed the moor like a shroud, and not a breath of wind shook the tussock grasses. ”ead on pawny, a storm be on its way,” he shouted at his horse. The animal’s ear pricked and as if smelling the air it sniffed and snorted. This journey up over the mighty dome of Hameldon was well trod by the horse and so little direction was needed from the farmer. The slow swaying motion of the plodding pony gradually rocked the moorman to sleep. It was a good job nobody else was abroad because from a distance the form of slumped rider and mount accompanied by the hideous sound of snoring would have convinced them some ghoul was stalking the moor.

As the horse approached the old granite ring of the druids one of his hoofs clipped a boulder with a loud clonk, immediately waking the moorman with a snort. He gibbered and groaned as his whisky soaked brain tried to get its bearings. “Ah, the Druid’s Circle already,” the man slurred, “Gud job it ‘ent Christmas or us ‘ud see they awld stones a frolicking and dancin’,” the farmer informed his mount. He was referring to the old legend that on Christmas Eve the stones came to life and danced frenetically. Once past the circle they headed into open moor, suddenly the ‘taller’ ‘ taller’ sound of a hunting horn wafted on the night air. In the distance a hunter and his pack of hounds appeared, they were coming full tilt towards the farmer. A maelstrom of big black dogs shot past, their jaws gnashing and snarling with blood red tongues lolling out. They seemed to be baying but no cry could be heard. Hot on their heels came a tall rider clad all in black, he was mounted on a huge blacker steed with eyes of fire. Sparks were flying from the horses hooves as it sped across the tussocks. The moorman watched the spectacle through clouds of whisky, “Hey, huntsman,” he yelled “what be ee a chasin’, give us zum of yer game.” The dark rider slung him a bundle, “Take that and think yourself lucky,” the hunter bellowed. A wrapped packet fell into the farmers lap, “why thank ee kindly,” he slurred. The pony’s eyes were bulging out of their sockets and it danced and nervously pranced around. Once the hunt had gone the little horse began to calm down and carried on across the moor. By now the cloud had thickened and blocked the moonlight, the moor was now in total darkness. The surefooted pony stolidly picked its way through the clumps and tussocks. The farmer began to wonder what tasty meal the hunter had given him, it was too small for a deer but too big for a hare. No matter how hard he squinted at his bundle could he work out what it was. Before long, horse and rider were clattering across the cobbles of the farmyard, the moorman called for his wife to bring a lantern. A few moments later the kitchen door was flung open and a glowing cow’s horn lantern was bobbing down the path.  “Why what on earth be ee doin’,” his wife enquired. “I met a huntsmen who gave me some game and I wants to zee what us got,” the farmer excitedly exclaimed. His face took on a yellowy hue as the woman passed him the lantern. He held it high and peered into the bundle that was sat in his lap, with a shriek he leapt off the pony and a sad little form tumbled to the cobbles. The woman looked down and then too screamed and yelled, her face buried in her hands – the tasty ‘game’ was the tattered body of their baby.

The farmers neighbours soon got to hear the tragic news and out of earshot whispered that it was the Wisht hounds that the moorman had met and how they were hunting for un-baptised babies. For ages it had been remarked that it was about time the couple had their child christened and now they had paid the ultimate price. Everyone agreed that the Wisht Hounds normally didn’t come this far north, mostly they hunted in the area around their kennels at Wistman’s Wood or down south by the Dewerstone. The following weeks saw a spate of christenings at the local church – “jest to be sartin.”

Oh, for a wild and starless night,
And a curtain o’er the white moon’s face,
For the moor fiend hunts an infant sprite
At cock-crow over Parkham Chase.
Hark to the cracking of the whip!
A merry band are we, I ween;
List to the yeth-hounds yip! yip! yip!
Ha! Ha! tis thus we ride unseen.

Another tale concerning a black dog is the one about a farmer who was out on the moor one night when he heard a loud, rhythmic padding sound coming from behind him. When he turned around to see what was following him he saw a huge black dog. For a moorman he should have known better, but he put his hand out to smooth the approaching beast and as soon as he did the dog loped off leaving behind the acrid smell of its sulphurous breath. He watched the beast speed off across the moor and noticed that as it approached a nearby stream it exploded into a thick yellow cloud of sulphur.

There is also a story told on the southern moor of a group of rabbit poachers who were up on the Avon with their terriers. It was a Sunday night and all of a sudden the dogs came howling and yelping back to their masters. In the distance could be heard the baying of the Wisht hounds and so poachers and dogs sped off home. Within two weeks every single dog had died of unexplained illnesses.

The legend of the Wisht hound is the one that Conan Doyle based his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles on and this was the beast that used to haunt the great ‘Grimpen Mire’. However, early in January 2006, it now seems that the folk of the Yorkshire Dales are trying to say that the Baskerville Hound was based on their ‘Barguest’ beast which stalks Trollers Gill. Mind you, Tyne Tees Television have made a series of programmes looking for Yorkshire links with Conan Doyle so they would say that wouldn’t they. Hands off, the Baskerville Hound came from Dartmoor and after all, have Yorkshire got a ‘Hound Tor’ or a snack wagon called ‘Hound of the Basket Meals’ ? Next thing you know them ‘Northerners’ will be going around singing ‘On Dartymoor by tat’ and saying the Wisht Hounds are whippets – ee by gum!

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. There’s a long standing tradition from the Welsh Marches that Conan Doyle based his story on the legend of the evil Black Vaughan of Hergist, near Kington which also involves a phantom hound. Vaughan may well have inspired the original wicked Hugo Baskerville, and Conan Doyle then grafted the Wisht Hounds into it. He dedicated the novel to a friend who related ‘ a west-country legend’ to him. From others of his stories, and other Victorian writers such as M R James that phrase seems to have included the Vale of Severn and Welsh Marcher country back then.

    East Anglia also has a devil-dog, the awful ‘Black Shuck’, but as far as I know they’re not trying to claim a connection!

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