The Moddey Dhoo

As it is Hop tu Naa here on the Isle of Man (Halloween to the rest of you) I thought I’d share one of our local legends, the story of the Moddey Dhoo, or black hound, which according to Manx folklore haunts Peel Castle.

Peel is on the west coast of the Isle of Man, a pretty little town, with the ruins of a magnificent castle, originally built by the Vikings, standing on St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was built in the eleventh century, originally of wood, and was added to over the centuries. The cathedral was also located on the island until it was abandoned during the eighteenth century. Peel Castle is now owned by Manx National Heritage.

The original written source of the story of the Moddey Dhoo comes from English topographer and poet George Waldron, who wrote his History and Description of the Isle of Man, first published in 1713. This is his version of the legend:

“They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance.”

There was apparently a passage which crossed the church grounds and led to the room occupied by the captain of the guard, where the Moddey Dhoo used to appear as it grew dark, returning the same way at dawn. Waldron reports that one drunken guard ignored the usual procedure of locking the gates of the castle in pairs, and did it alone. After locking up, the guard was supposed to go along the haunted passage to deliver the keys to the captain. Strange sounds were heard that night and when the man returned to the guard room he was white and terrified, unable to stop shaking. He never spoke of that he had seen that night, but three days later, he was dead. This was the last recorded sighting of the Moddey Dhoo; it was decided to seal up the haunted passage and use a different route, and the hound was seen no more.

Waldron’s Moddey Dhoo made a comeback in a different form when Sir Walter Scott wrote Peveril of the Peak, an installment of his Waverly novels, in 1823 and introduced the “Manthe Dog” which was a demon in the shape of a large, shaggy black mastiff. Scott’s fiendish dog was somewhat larger than the Manx spaniel, but he credited Waldron as the source of his creation in his author’s notes.

Local legend claims that the Moddey Dhoo has been sighted beyond the walls of Peel Castle over the years. William Walter Gill has written some of the accounts which have placed the ghostly dog near Ballamodda, Ballagilbert Glen and possibly Hango Hill. He also reports sightings in the 1920s and 1930s at Milntown corner, near Ramsey.

Moving to the island back in 2002, I had never heard of the Moddey Dhoo until my first visit to Peel Castle. When we acquired Toby, our huge black labrador, we were frequently greeted by strangers when we were walking him, comparing him to Peel’s most famous canine. With Toby gone now, we have Oscar, a younger version, to keep the old legend fresh in our minds.

I always really liked the original story of the ghostly dog coming to doze by the garrison fire until morning. He must have been irritated when the antics of a drunken guard caused his route to be blocked up. In my admittedly over-active imagination, he went elsewhere and found a warm spot in the cottage of an old man who thought he was a local stray and welcomed the company. That guard probably died of a pickled liver anyway.

For anybody who wants a historic ghost story, I wrote The Quartermaster to celebrate Hop tu Naa this year and An Exploring Officer last year, both set during the Peninsular War. They’re both free, so read, enjoy and share if you wish.

Happy Hop tu Naa (or Halloween) to everybody, from all of us at Writing with Labradors. Here on the Isle of Man, they say that the veil between the worlds is much thinner on this night, and spirits of the dead can be seen. Like the garrison of Peel Castle all those years ago, I’d be very happy if the spirit of one particular black dog wandered in and curled up by the fire just like he used to…

Peel Town, 1806 – an excerpt from an Unwilling Alliance

Peel Town was ten miles from the Crellins’ Malew home and they set off early with one of Hugh’s grooms riding at a discreet distance behind. The weather was cooler and cloudy but the rain held off and they arrived by mid-morning. Hugh left the groom to stable the horses at the inn which was right on the quay and led Roseen along the busy seafront.
Peel Town was on the west coast of the island, a thriving and busy little town situated on the tidal estuary of the River Neb sheltered to the north by the rocky St. Patrick’s Isle and to the west by Peel Hill. The grey stone of Peel Castle out on the island was less well preserved than Castle Rushen although there were signs of building and activity, with scaffolding erected in places around the walls. The ongoing war with France had given a new incentive to coastal towns around the British Isles to improve their defences, and Roseen remembered the work being done on the little fort down on St Michael’s Isle.
Peel was primarily a port, its main industries fishing and ship building and the quayside was thronged with people in a way that she only saw on market days in the quieter streets of Castletown. Over the centuries the town had grown up on the right bank of the river facing Peel Castle on St Patrick’s Isle. It was a rabbit warren of tiny cobbled streets of sandstone and brick houses running from inland down to the busy heart of the town by the sea. The oldest houses tended to be close to the quay with newer and more elegant buildings further back.
As always, the usual smells of the sea, wood fires and tar from the ship works were overlaid in Peel Town by the smoky odour of herring smokers. Many of the small cottagers smoked their own kippers but there were one or two commercial enterprises now, smoking larger quantities of fish and exporting them to England. Hugh led Roseen along the quay. Several people hailed him and he responded cheerfully, leading Roseen to assume that Captain Kelly had spent some time here during his months back on the island. About halfway along, a white painted Manx cottage with several large sheds attached bore a painted sign announcing Shimmin’s Smokery. Hugh rapped on the door to the house and it was opened after a moment by a very young maid in apron and cap.
“Is Mr Shimmin in?” Hugh asked, and a voice from within hailed him with cheerful vulgarity.
“Bloody hell, is that the Kelly boy again trying to cadge a free breakfast? Every damned time he comes to town he’s on my doorstep…”
“Watch your mouth, you miserly old coot, I’ve a lady with me!” Hugh shouted, and a man emerged from a dark passage. He was probably sixty, fat and red faced, dressed in the fashion of a previous age with pale breeches and a waistcoat and coat straining across his ample stomach.
“Well how could I have expected any sensible female to be seen out in your company?” he demanded cheerfully. “Ma’am, my apologies. James Shimmin, at your service.”
Roseen offered him her hand and he bowed over it gravely with old-fashioned courtesy, then straightened and looked enquiringly at Hugh who grinned.
“I’m guessing you’ve not met Miss Crellin, James, she’s the daughter of my business partner Mr Josiah Crellin of the Top House, Malew. Miss Crellin, this fat old goat is Mr James Shimmin, proprietor of Shimmin Smokeries. He smokes the best kippers on the island, which of course means the best in the world, and he was a friend of my father’s. He’s also completely right, I am indeed here for a free breakfast. How are you, James?”
“All the better for the sight of a pretty girl. Come through into the dining parlour, Miss Crellin. Sally, get some food on. The new bread, mind, we’ve guests. And fry up some of the smoked bacon, I want Captain Kelly’s opinion on it. Where’s my wife?”
“Out back, sir, with the chickens.”
“Call her in, will you?”
They ate in a small, dark parlour which had probably once been the main room of the cottage before it had been extended to display Mr Shimmin’s increasing prosperity. There were two front sash windows and a big open kitchen hearth. A selection of prints adorned the walls and a big dark oak table was quickly set with traditional pottery plates and cups.
Mrs Shimmin was some years younger than her husband, a comfortable motherly Manx woman who made Roseen feel very welcome. They chatted about local concerns; the coming harvest and the unexpectedly fine summer weather and the fishing prospects. Roseen knew many of the local fishing families through her brother.
The food was excellent and plentiful, the rich smoked fish and bacon supplemented with home baked soda bread and fresh milk from the Shimmins’ smallholding. The two men drank mild ale and talked a little of the war and of Hugh’s probable recall to duty soon.
“You not tempted to come out, fella?” Shimmin asked, studying Hugh. “It’s not like you’ve not done your duty. How many years is it?”
“Almost fifteen,” Hugh said. “I was twenty two when I had my first commission. Don’t think I’ve not considered it, James, especially now that I’ve a place of my own to come home to.”
“I heard there’d be no shortage of officers ready to take your place,” Shimmin said.
“That’s true enough, but they’re not all that good at it. Better than the army, mind, half of them have paid for their promotions and they’ve no idea what they’re doing. But still – the navy’s been very good to me. Not the right time to drop them in the brine.”
“You don’t think he’s beat then?”
“I think he’ll take a while to come back from Trafalgar. He lost his navy there, whether he admits it or not.”
“And we lost Lord Nelson,” Shimmin said. “A great pity.”
Hugh grinned. “Nelson was a great commander,” he said. “But between you and me, there are others I’d rather serve under. He was a bit of a twat, to be honest. Sorry, ma’am, forgot there were ladies present.”
Roseen had begun to laugh. “Captain, I cannot believe you just said that about England’s hero! You will be keel-hauled!”
“I’m careful where I say it, but I’m not the only one. I’m friendly with John Quilliam who was his first lieutenant at Trafalgar and although he’d nothing but good to say of the man’s talent and leadership, he didn’t like him much. Bit of a peacock. But the men loved him and it’s sad he’s gone.”
“So can Bonaparte rebuild his navy?” Roseen asked. The grey eyes studied her thoughtfully.
“He can, and he’ll make the attempt. But if he wants to damage British trade through a blockade he’ll need to do so quickly before we rebuild the European coalitions. The powers-that-be are more worried that he’ll steal a fleet from somebody else.”
“Not Spain?”
“No, Trafalgar finished Spain. But both Denmark and Portugal have a fleet. Both are currently neutral – more or less. Portugal, I’d say, would favour an English alliance over a French, if they get the choice. Denmark, I’m not so sure. They’re not fond of our navy.” Hugh set down his napkin and smiled. “And I’m talking war on a day of pleasure. Forgive me, Miss Crellin.”
“It is particularly irritating when you treat me as though I were a child, Captain, unable to understand the least thing about the war, or politics, or trade, or anything else,” Roseen said in measured tones. “Has our brief acquaintance given you the impression that I am intellectually less capable of understanding such matters than your male friends?”
She saw, with satisfaction, that she had genuinely shocked him. James Shimmin gave a snort of laughter.
“That’s told you, Captain Kelly! You should hold on to this one, she’d be good for you!”
“Thank you, I will bear that in mind,” Hugh said faintly. “Miss Crellin, my apologies. It isn’t your intelligence that I question, it is your interest in matters military. It is not generally considered a subject for ladies at the gatherings I’m used to attending.”
“Then they must be very dull. What are the ladies allowed to speak of beyond their needlework and the latest gossip, I wonder? Is there a manual? You must provide me with a copy so that I do not make any further faux pas.”
Hugh started to laugh. “You are the worst termagant I have ever come across! Feel free to continue making me feel bad for the rest of the day if you want. Should I ask if you want to come and look at this yacht with me? I shall try not to offend you again.”
Roseen blushed slightly. “I’m sorry. I should not have…”
“No, please do.” Hugh rose and held out his hand. “It’s a shock, but you’re very good for me. I keep telling you how hopeless I am socially, it’s time I learned.”
“I am not the best person to teach you, Captain, I don’t have the reputation of knowing how to behave properly myself. Mrs Shimmin, thank you for a wonderful meal, it is so good of you. I hope you are not annoyed by our squabbling, we do not seem to be able to help it.”
Outside the clouds had darkened and Hugh studied them thoughtfully. “I’m not so keen on this weather, I should probably have brought the carriage. I hope it holds off.”
“If it doesn’t, I’m not going to drown, Captain. I’m Manx. Rain isn’t new to me.”
He laughed aloud. “And I’m coddling you again, aren’t I? All right, lass, no more of it. Come and tell me what you think of this yacht, then. She’s not new and she’s been badly neglected but she has beautiful lines and I think with some work she’ll be a gem.”
The yacht was moored at the far end of the quay; the boy waiting to show them around was an underfed lad of eighteen or so, presumably not the owner. Roseen climbed the ladder onto the battered wooden deck without difficulty and stood looking around her in some delight.
She could see immediately the appeal of the old boat. Despite her neglected appearance she was a graceful vessel, 25 feet in length, schooner rigged and built some forty years earlier. While Hugh asked a series of intelligent questions of the boy and inspected woodwork and masts, Roseen climbed below into the cabin area and stood looking around thoughtfully. After some time he joined her.
“She’s in poor condition but with time and money spent she’ll be lovely again.”
“Who owns her?”
“The owner is a man called Callow, an advocate in Douglas. She was his father’s but he’s not a sailor himself. Recently inherited and he’s selling off everything he has no use for.” Hugh’s voice was quiet. “She’s priced too low, I don’t think he knows anything about sailing or yachts, I want to snap her up before somebody tells him he’s got this wrong. There’s also a small boatyard with some storage. I’ll take that off him at the same time and Isaac can find me a man who can take on the restoration.”
Roseen turned to look at him thoughtfully. “Has this man had a good look around that boatyard?” she asked.
“No idea. Why?”
“I’d get it checked thoroughly once you’ve signed the contract. Wouldn’t want any surprises if the excisemen come calling.”
Hugh froze, studying her in some surprise. Then he looked around again and caught his breath. “This cabin’s too small.”
“By three or four feet against the outside, I’d say.”
“There’s not that much smuggling done here these days, I’m told.”
“There was forty years ago, before the Duke of Atholl sold out to the English. One of the Manxman’s favourite pastimes, for all they blamed it on the English and the Irish.”
Hugh looked around him again. Now that she had pointed it out, the disproportion was obvious. He glanced again at Roseen and said:
“Is that how your father got his start in trade, Roseen?”
She laughed, obviously unabashed. “If it is, Captain, he’s hardly likely to tell you about it. The reversion to the English crown put a stop to that, and it’s all before your time and mine. Do you object to being in business with a former smuggler?”
“I’d struggle more with a former slaver. I’ve boarded one or two slave ships in my time, the images stay with you.”
The girl shivered with real revulsion. “How horrible. There are men living here who have done very well out of slaving. The Gellings, up Ramsey way for one, and I’m told that old Orry Gelling is hoping to find new ways around the law.”
“Well he’ll find himself in trouble then. The government is serious about this, once the navy isn’t spending all its time chasing the French we’ll be policing it very thoroughly and I don’t know any officers who like slavers. But as for smugglers, it’s in the past. I don’t like the fact that it still goes on; the French wars have been kept afloat at times by gold and information from English and Irish smugglers. But your father is well beyond that point, lass. I’m dying to find out what’s behind that panelling and I will certainly warn Isaac that he’s to rip that storage apart to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing left behind. But I’m going to make an offer on this lady, she’s gorgeous. Have you seen enough?”
She nodded and he helped her up, thanking their guide and promising that his man of business would be in touch over a possible offer. Business over with, they strolled up into town, past the solid tower of St Peter’s Church and through the market square. Roseen paused to look in several shop windows but Hugh was faintly amused to see that her interest was purely practical. She passed the silk merchant and milliner without a glance but paused to look thoughtfully at a carpenter and furniture maker.
“Did you get your new bed frame, Captain?”
“Yes, I ordered it from a carpenter in Douglas, he made it especially. I’m tall.”
Roseen looked round at him with a quick smile. “Is that a problem aboard ship?”
“It won’t be aboard my new ship, I’ve ordered a much longer bunk specially made for me. The joys of being captain.”
“No more squashed toes,” Roseen said, moving on. “Do you mind if we stop at the herbalist – we’re in need of a few things for the kitchen at home, the one here is better than the one in Castletown.”
“I’m at your disposal, Miss Crellin.”
The girl turned her head to look up at him. “I can never work out when I am to be Roseen and when I am Miss Crellin.”
“Nor can I. It’s why I get it wrong so often. Do you mind?”
She shook her head firmly. “No, I like it. Miss Crellin sounds like some dreadfully missish female that I should have very little time for.”
“I need to be formal with you in public, lass. There are rules; even I know that.”
She laughed aloud. “So do I although I cannot always remember what they are.”
“My name is Hugh.”
She looked horrified which made him laugh. “Captain, I must not. People would genuinely be shocked.”
“All right. Just for your information, I will not be shocked and you may call me by my given name any time you wish. I’ll leave you to choose your moment. The herbalist is along here if I remember right.”
They wandered through the square, stopping at one or two stalls. Surprisingly for a town of its size, Peel Town had no regular weekly market although several times a year it held a cattle fair and traders set up their stands to take advantage of the extra custom. But there were usually a few farmers bringing produce in for sale and setting up informal market stalls and the square by St Peter’s had always been known as the market place although Hugh was not sure that it was officially called so.
Their shopping done they wandered back down through the town. A number of people called greetings to Hugh and several of the gentry recognised Roseen and bowed, their eyes alight with curiosity at her escort. Hugh glanced at his companion and wondered if she was aware that island society was rife with gossip about his interest in Josiah Crellin’s daughter.
Hugh had asked Isaac Moore what he knew about Roseen Crellin. Moore had made some discreet enquiries and had reported that she had the reputation of being something of a hoyden and as she had freely admitted to him, had not been seen much in local society until recently when her aunt and her father had clearly decided that it was time to rein her in and get her ready for a suitable marriage. Her reputation meant that she was not as sought after as one might have expected, given both her prospects and her lovely face but there were rumours that one or two local gentlemen were waiting to see if Miss Crellin managed to settle down and behave well enough for them to consider her a respectable bride.
Their hesitation might well give Hugh the advantage he needed. He was not overly modest about his own value in the island marriage market. Mann was not crowded with prosperous unmarried gentlemen with a distinguished naval career and money in the bank and it had been made very clear to Hugh during these past months that Roseen Crellin was not his only option. A few months ago he would have been ready to look around him and weigh up the merits of several girls who had shown themselves very willing but he admitted ruefully that he was no longer even remotely interested in the fair charms of Miss Quayle or the frosty elegance of Miss Amy Corlett. Setting aside her excellent dowry and the advantages of an alliance with her father’s business, Roseen Crellin with her dusky curls and quick smile, was a girl he found immensely attractive in her own right and he was fairly sure it was a shared attraction.
She was probably not the easiest woman he could have chosen for a bride, and a few months ago her outspokenness and unconventional outlook might have given him pause. Now that he was coming to know her, he realised that he liked her better for her refusal to conform. Life with Roseen Crellin might occasionally be difficult but it was never likely to be dull. She would gain social confidence with age and encouragement but Hugh admitted that he found her occasional awkwardness endearing and he liked her hardiness and her lack of pretension.
Arriving back on the quay they wandered along looking at the boats and talking about fishing. She was surprisingly knowledgable, presumably from the times she had gone out with her brother. He felt a strong desire to see her aboard his ship, to give her the tour and answer her questions about what he did and how he lived his life. It occurred to him suddenly that if she agreed to an early marriage, he could take her with him to Yarmouth when he went to overlook the final stages of the refit.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
“No, not at all. Why?”
“I was wondering if you’d be willing to walk up the hill before dinner. I love the view from up there and I’m curious about the building work.”
Roseen laughed. “Thomas Corrin’s folly? Yes, half the island is talking about that one. His wife is buried up there and it’s said he’s building a tower in her memory.”
“She died?”
“Just after Christmas, in childbirth. Very sad, they’re saying he’s gone a little mad with grief. But I like the walk.”
“Good. Let’s leave the parcels at the inn.”
It was a steep climb up the hill on the west side of the Neb, the paths narrow but well worn. By now he was used to her agility and although he glanced at her occasionally to make sure that she was not struggling, he did not offer help although when they finally reached the building site at the top of the further hill he reached for her hand and she gave it to him. They walked forward, studying the piles of stone and the scaffolding. Three or four builders were working steadily and another, possibly the foreman, was standing nearby watching, alongside another man in his thirties dressed in dark clothing and a black beaver hat. The two men turned at the approach of Hugh and Roseen and Roseen bowed.
“Mr Corrin, how are you?”
“Miss Crellin. I’m well enough thank you.” Thomas Corrin turned his sad dark eyes onto Hugh and studied him. Then he smiled. “And if I’m not mistaken, I know this fine gentleman. Although you’ve grown a bit since I last remember you, Hugh.”
“It’s good to see you, Tom. You’re a bit taller yourself since we were at the Clothworkers together.”
“Unlike Moore who’s hardly grown an inch,” Corrin said with a grin. “I’d heard you were back and I understand you’ve taken over the old Cretney estate. I should have called, fella, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I heard about Alice, lad. I’m so sorry, I know how you felt about her.”
Corrin nodded and turned to look back at the partly built tower. “They think I’m mad, the good people of Peel Town. Building this up here. She loved this place. She’s buried up here, you know. Just over there. Didn’t want her in that bloody churchyard; it’s full of people I’ve no time for. Up here…I feel closer to her, somehow. Like me, she was never one for the established church.”
“Tom, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but if you’ve the money to spare and it gives you comfort you can build a tower in her memory on every bloody hill on this island as far as I’m concerned. She was a lovely lass, I remember her running around with us when we were children, and you must miss her like hell.”
Corrin smiled. “You’ve not changed,” he said. “I’m glad you’ve decided to settle back home, boy, too many of our good men leave and don’t come back. You married?”
“Not yet,” Hugh said briefly and he saw his childhood friend’s bright dark eyes shift to Roseen. Corrin grinned.
“Aye, well you’ve time. You going back to the navy?”
“Yes, until this war is over. They’ve need of experienced captains. I’ve a ship refitting over in Yarmouth but I thought I’d take time to come home and settle my affairs here for a few months. If I make it through the war, I’ll come home for good.”
“No yearning for the high life in England then?”
“I’ve had the high life in England,” Hugh said. “Travelled a fair bit of the world. But this is home, always will be.”
Corrin glanced at Roseen again. “You’ll be in need of a good Manx lass then,” he said cheerfully and Hugh saw the girl colour slightly. He shook his head.
“Don’t be an arse, yessir, you’re putting my lass to the blush. We’ve nothing settled yet, there’s time.”
“Well don’t waste it, boy, she’s too pretty to wait around for the likes of you to make up your mind. You’d best get yourselves down, it’s mizzling already but we’re in for a downpour. It’s been good to see you, Hughie.”
“You too. Now we’ve met, get yourself over to me next week – come Tuesday afternoon and you can dine with me and Ise and we’ll get drunk and toast your lass, who’s much missed and his upcoming wedding.”
“He finally going to marry Voirry? About time, I’m surprised she’s waited. I’ll be there, Hugh, if only to laugh at you as a respectable landowner. Miss Crellin, it’s been a pleasure.”

An Unwilling Alliance is available for pre-order on Amazon now.