If you travel moors or glens of Scotland by night, be wary; great beasts prowl these desolate hills and paths. Look too long into the darkest recesses of the rocks and you may see glowing red eyes peering back at you from the darkness.
Few fairy beasts inspire as much fear as Cù Sìth... which may or may not be appropriate, depending on which stories you read. You see, these shaggy dogs have a strange reputation.
One with the Moors
Shunning daylight, Cù Sìth live in the rocky crevices in the highland hills, but by night they roam freely, especially in the less frequented parts of the moors and highlands.
There are different tales about Cù Sìth, but all agree on their appearance. Cù Sìth are large dogs, in fact, they are truly huge and can be around the size of a small cow, making them bigger than the average grown human being. Their paw prints are said to be bigger than a grown mans spread hand.
Despite their size, Cù Sìth are silent in their movements; these spectral hounds are a part of the scenery... literally. Their dense fur is green and may look mossy, their tails are either braided or coiled. Though colossal, Cù Sìth can move throughout the rough highland terrain silently and with terrifying speed. What they use this speed for, however, is a matter of debate.
Guard Dogs, Soul Shepherds, or Feral Hounds?
So, here's where it gets interesting, depending on which stories you read, Cù Sìth are guard dogs for the Daoine Sìth, 'The People of the Mounds', who live in fairy mounds in the highlands, non-malicious shepherds to the souls of the dead, or vicious hounds that attack travellers.
While two of these can be true at once, there are obvious contrasts between the nature of a soul ferryman of sorts and a marauding, vicious beast. So, what's the truth according to traditional folklore?
Well, there seems to be no single answer. Here are the two versions of the Cù Sìth myth:
First, Cù Sìth are merely harbingers of death. They fortell doom, but do not cause death. They are reclusive creatures that, generally, would attack only if approached or bothered.
Second, Cù Sìth are hunters. They prowl the moors and will hunt down and maul travellers that come to their attention. They may even abduct pregnant women or nursing mothers, taking them to the Daoine Sìth to provide milk for their young.
Whether the Cù Sìth you encounter are merely foreshadowing misfortune or on the hunt, it is said that you will hear three, blood-curdling barks or howls. These sounds are incredibly loud, being heard for miles around, even out at sea, and there will be an interval between each.
You must reach safety before the third bark, lest the Cù Sìth catch up to you.
Cù Sìth in Other Celtic Cultures
It's important to note that the Cù Sìth, as described here, is not unique to Scottish folklore; you will also find it in Irish mythology where it will be spelled Cú Sídhe.
There is another creature in Celtic folklore like this, however. More specifically in Welsh lore. Cŵn Annwn or 'Hounds of Annwn' are spectral hounds of the Welsh otherworld Annwn.
They herald a form of Wild Hunt, which you will see in the folklore of many European countries. These hunts are led either by Arawn, king of Annwn, or by Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the underworld. Cŵn Annwn are thought to mostly hunt around the mountain Cadair Idris and their growling and barking is loudest when they are far away, growing quieter as they near (a thought I find particularly unnerving).
Tales like these expemplify what I like best about folklore; the tenuous threads that connect cultures across distance and time. The desire to tell stories is, after all, intrinsically human.
If you want to read more about Scottish folklore, consider the other instalments in this series:
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