Behold, the earth hound! (Shaun Histed-Todd)
"Without a doubt, this must be the book of the year. Even before one opens the cover up the sheer quality of the publication grabs you. It is plush and impressive and the contents match the sleeve. This is Karl's finest work since The Lost Ark and is crammed so damn full of new information you just don't know where to begin. I pride myself in cryptozoological knowledge but there's stuff in here I've never heard of. Earth hound, weird subterranean carnivores that burrow into graves to devour cadavers, the sandewan, a Zimbabwean entity whose calling-card is a constant trail of blood, giant blue eels in the
Ganges, and legions more."
Richard Freeman – Review of my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (Carlton: London, 1999) in Animals and Men, No. 20 (December 1999)
Richard Freeman – Review of my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (Carlton: London, 1999) in Animals and Men, No. 20 (December 1999)
STRANGER THAN FICTION?
They do say that art imitates life, and sometimes it does so even without anyone initially realising it! So it was with the earth hound. Back in 1994, Canadian actor Stephen McHattie starred in an intriguing horror movie entitled ‘The Dark’, in which a mystifying – and quite monstrous – rat-like creature inhabiting graveyards was pursued by a cryptozoological biker. It is well known that two of my own abiding passions are cryptozoology and riding motorbikes, but at the time of this film’s release I had no idea that just a few years later I would be investigating a hitherto-obscure graveyard-inhabiting mystery beast allegedly resembling a grotesque rat, and apparently living in my very own British homeland!
Two stills from 'The Dark'
I first learnt of the earth hound’s existence when I happened to read a short account of it written by British folklorist Paul Screeton and published in his own magazine, Folklore Frontiers. This summarised an earlier article, from the 1992-1993 volume of the journal Scottish Studies, written by Alexander Fenton and cryptozoological chronicler David Heppell, which reviewed what little information appears to have been documented on this cryptid.
What would seem to be the earliest currently-revealed reference to the earth hound – also known variously as the yard pig or yard swine – appeared in the Reverend Walter Gregor’s book Notes on the Folk-Lore of North East Scotland (1881), in which he wrote of:
"...a mysterious dreaded sort of animal, called the “yird swine”…believed to live in graveyards, burrowing among the dead bodies and devouring them."
A CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE BITING KIND
During their researches, Fenton and Heppell discovered a detailed letter on the subject of the earth hound within the archives of the Department of Natural History of the Natural Museums of
. Written in 1917 by A. Smith of Wartle in Aberdeenshire to James Ritchie in Edinburgh, it recorded that a local gardener named Archibald recalled how his father was ploughing some fields in Deveron around 50 years earlier (i.e. around 1867) when he uncovered an earth hound in its nest. When he attempted to kill it with his foot, the earth hound bit his boot so hard that its teeth cut into the leather, so his father killed it with the plough’s swingle-tree, and took its carcase back home with him. (A swingle-tree is a wooden or metal horizontal bar used to balance the pull of a draught horse pulling a plough or carriage, known as a singletree in Scotland .) America
In his letter, Smith described the earth hound as being somewhat like a rat in basic form and brown in colour, but its head was long like a hound’s, and its tail was bushier than a rat’s. He also claimed that the nests of earth hounds were sometimes exposed by ploughs but the creatures themselves were only very rarely spied, and inhabited churchyards.
Depiction of the fraught encounter by Archibald's father with an earth hound (William Rebsamen)
Worth noting here is that the field being ploughed when this particular earth hound had been uncovered was very close to a churchyard – indeed, this churchyard was later abandoned due to the firmly-held belief that it was infested with these creatures. It was also believed that earth hounds always lived close to water, and constructed their nests in haughs (stretches of river-deposited land forming part of river valleys).
When his father arrived home with the earth hound’s carcase, Archibald saw it himself, as did all of their neighbours, who viewed it with great interest. In his letter, Smith stated that Archibald:
"...describes it as being something between a rat and a weasel, and about the size of a ferret, head very like that of a dog, and I think he said the tail was not very long. At a casual glance it would be mistaken for a rat, but was quite unlike on close examination."
Interestingly, further details from Smith were present in a note bearing the same date as his previous letter but posted the following day, and referring to a meeting in Mastrick with someone who may have been Archibald himself, although this is not made clear in the note. Yet whoever this person was, he had evidently seen the earth hound carcase and knew of the incident itself, because Smith had questioned him directly about it. According to this person’s testimony, the earth hound had run some distance along the plough before it had been killed, and additional morphological information contained in this note revealed that it had been:
"...about the size of a rat. Asked about colour, he thought it was like a dark rat. It had feet like a mole, and a tail about half as long as a rat’s. Head was long and nostrils very prominent, suggesting a pig’s. Head somewhat like that of a guinea-pig. It had noticeable white “tusks”, whatever that might mean – (probably incisors)…Mastrick is about 10 minutes’ walk from here, and curiously enough is close to the churchyard."
Reconstruction of the supposed morphology of the earth hound, based upon eyewitness descriptions (William Rebsamen)
A paragraph about earth hounds that appeared in the People’s Journal in June 1950 referred to them as ‘yird pigs’ or ‘earth huns’, claiming that they were “really rats...only found in graveyards”. More recently, in April 1990, when Alexander Fenton visited a Banffshire town called Reith, he discovered that the earth hound was still spoken of there. A Reith friend stated that they are between a rat and a rabbit, and live in graveyards, digging down and breaking into the coffins. He even took Fenton to a churchyard where such creatures are still said to dwell – Walla kirkyard at the edge of the River Deveron (thus in the vicinity of the earth hound incident featuring Archibald’s father over a century before) - but, sadly, no sign of any was found there.
IN SEARCH OF AN IDENTITY
So what exactly is the earth hound – a still-undiscovered mini-beast awaiting detection if it hasn’t died out by now, or just a macabre Scottish legend, or even nothing more than a monstrous misidentification of some already known species? In the film ‘The Dark’, the movie equivalent of this mystery beast turned out to be an archaic species of rat previously thought by scientists to be long extinct. In contrast, I think it highly unlikely that Scotland’s earth hound will ever be shown to be a prehistoric survivor, but its tantalisingly scant documentation yet lingering recollection among the local Banff people is sufficiently noteworthy to warrant some consideration as to what it may – or may not – be.
Consequently, I included a concise account of the earth hound in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), the first cryptozoologically-related book ever to document this mystery beast, and which also contained a specially-commissioned full-colour reconstruction of its likely appearance by acclaimed wildlife artist William Rebsamen from
. This superb illustration is now included here too, along with a second picture by William, depicting the boot-biting earth hound encounter described above. Fort Worth, Arkansas
As a result, I have since received some suggestions and ideas regarding what this mystifying mammal could be. Two of the most intriguing ones, for different reasons, are as follows.
BADGERING FORTH AN EXPLANATION?
One of these is the suggestion that because ‘earth hound’ and ‘earth pig’ have been used as local names in Britain for the European badger Meles meles, and because badgers have been known to dig through graves, the Scottish earth hound may be one and the same creature as the badger. If only it were that simple! The fundamental, irreconcilable problem with this proposed identity is that the description of the earth hound as documented in all of the sources presented here is radically different in shape, size, and colour from that of the European badger, which in any case is one of the most distinctive, readily-identifiable, and familiar mammals throughout the
British Isles. Consequently, it is inconceivable that any country-living person would not recognise a badger (even a very young, small badger) if they should encounter one. Also, badgers do not make nests in ploughable haughs or fields. Instead, they construct extensive setts in woodlands.
European badger – radically different in appearance from the earth hound (Peter Trimming/Wikipedia)
In short, whatever the earth hound is, or was, it certainly has no affinity with a badger, other than the sharing with it of a country name - something that occurs with many other animal species, often featuring zoologically unrelated species linked only by some common behavioural or very superficial morphological trait. In the case of the Scottish earth hound and the badger, the only similarities of any kind are their powerful digging feet (something that all burrowing animals necessarily possess anyway) and their underground (but very different) abodes – a simple nest in the case of the former animal, a complex and sizeable sett in the latter.
BEWARE THE WOLVERINE, MY SON!
The other intriguing identity is that the earth hound stories refer to young specimens of the wolverine Gulo gulo (adult wolverines are the largest members of the weasel or mustelid family). Unfortunately, however, as with the badger suggestion, the morphology and lifestyle of the earth hound do not correspond at all with that of wolverines, of any age, which are not fossorial at all. In addition, whereas the badger is at least native to
, the wolverine is not, though it does occur in parts of northern mainland Britain Europe.
Young wolverine – not corresponding physically or behaviourally with the earth hound (Zefram/Wikipedia)
Having said that, and as also documented in Mysteries of Planet Earth, a few specimens have allegedly been sighted in recent years in various parts of
. If genuine, these may be escapees from fur farms (wolverines have not been maintained in British zoos for several years). Even so, the wolverine is simply too dissimilar in every way from descriptions of the earth hound for this to be a viable identity. Great Britain
RAT, MOLE, OR FERRET?
So what is left? Just a Scottish myth, or something more?
through the earth hound accounts, three very different zoological identities come to my mind. One is that the rat-like earth hound is indeed a rodent of some kind. However, although it is comparable to rats in size, colour, and superficial form, and makes nests like the black rat (but not like the much more common brown rat, which isn’t a nest-builder), it still doesn’t closely match either of these two known species of British rat (or any other known British rodent) on account of its furry tail, digging feet, hound-like head, and large tusks. Reading
Conversely, moles definitely possess large digging feet, but not a hound-like head or tusks. They do build nests, but only inside their deep burrows, not in fields, and they certainly do not burrow into graves and devour human corpses present there.
Equally, if we assume that the earth hound may be a small mustelid related to the weasel and to North America’s black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes (which until its near-extinction in the wild lived in abandoned prairie dog burrows), it is difficult to reconcile the possibility that until at least a century ago a very distinct species of mammal (rodent or mustelid) undocumented by science had been alive and well and living in Scotland.
Black-footed ferret (Mariomassone/Wikipedia)
After all, if this were indeed the case, surely there would have been a few preserved specimens or skins, or at least some illustrations of this creature, possibly even a blurry photo or two – especially as Great Britain is one of the most extensively-studied places in the world in relation to wildlife. Yet there does not seem to be any physical evidence of its existence on record anywhere. If only Archibald had preserved the carcase of the specimen killed by his father. That, to me, is the single biggest reason for casting a very sceptical eye over the earth hound file – at least for now. If, of course, someone should uncover additional information, and, ideally, some tangible evidence for this fascinating mystery beast’s reality, I would be only too delighted to reconsider!
After first learning of its existence from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth, Richard Freeman became so interested in the earth hound that he subsequently wrote a suitably gruesome, chilling horror story concerning this necrophagous nightmare, which he has included in his recently-published collection of short stories. Accompanying his earth hound story was a spectacular, specially-commissioned artwork by Shaun Histed-Todd, who has kindly permitted me to include it in my writings too. So here it is, in two different colour versions, opening and closing this present ShukerNature blog post – thanks, Shaun!
The earth hound wakes! (Shaun Histed-Todd)