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Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport

29 Sep 04 - 12:01 AM (#1283719)
Subject: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: Barbara

I was researching this line from the Somerset Wassail tonight:
"The Girt Dog of Langport has burnt his long tail
And this is the night we go singing wassail"
I found some information on the web, quoted below, but I thought perhaps some of you locals could tell me more about the critter. Why is his tail long, and burning?
"In central Somerset, for example, within the Region of the Summer Stars, Canis Major is called "The Girt Dog of Langport" and occupies a geographic region about 5 miles long and 1 mile broad, and includes 16 recognizable star centers in its geomythic body. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, touches down locally at Oath Hill which was once used by King Arthur to obtain oaths and fealty-commitments from his Knights."


The Glastonbury Zodiac is an astrological configuration in a great landscape circle 10 miles across. The 12+1 zodiac signs appear to be formed by hills and outlined by roads and rivers.   Katherine Maltwood who discovered this great circle in the 1930's, claimed it was the original Round Table in Avalon with Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the Chief Knights still seated about it as the signs of the Zodiac and the seasons of the year. A great hound five miles long, the Girt Dog of Langport, guards this star temple. Several local legends and about 100 place-names, like Wagg on the Dog's tail, Earlake Moor on his ear, hint that these effigies were once well known. You will find Aries at Street, the Phoenix of Aquarius rises from Glastonbury Tor, and the circle continues around the Isle of Avalon.

from the River Parrett trail page

The biggest dog in Britian and possible the entire world lives in Somerset. Like Cornwall's Beast of Bodmin Moor, this Somerset beast haunts the Somerset Levels along the banks of the River Parrett, between the settlements of Burrow Bridge and Langport. The Girt Dog is a massive drawing of a dog sculpted into the very landscape of Somerset, drawn by the lines of roads, tracks rhines and the River Parrett itself. You can only see it from a great height or by looking at an accurate Ordinance Survey map. The mega mongrel is simply to huge and too massive to photograph. You would need to take an air balloon up hundreds of feet above the ground, Because the Girt Dog is about t miles long from the tip of his nose to the end of its tail. At first this seems like nonsense, but when you think about it, It begins to seem quite possible , and why not?

The Somerset Levels are a unique man made landscape that naturally would be bog marshes and tidal estuary. Giant drawings on the ground are not unknown....
Across the main road from the Girt Dogs ear is the Earlake Moor. Just off the narrow road that leads from the dog's muzzle is a farm called Walkeys Farm, and best of all at the other end of the dog, his tail finishes in the small settlement of Wagg. The long and winding Wagg drove draws this dog's tail... It would nearly have been forgotten but for the vision of Mrs. Katherine Emma Maltwood in the mid 1920s.... She discovered all twelve signs of the zodiac drawn in the Somerset countryside...
She later wrote two books called Glastonbury's temple of the stars and "The enchantments of Britain.

29 Sep 04 - 05:09 AM (#1283834)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: Geoff the Duck

It just goes to show how much of the content of the Internet is just bollox, doesn't it!
Other than having sung the Somerset Wassail in the past, I do NOT claim to have any actual verifiable information concerning its origins of meanings, but seriously doubt that Eric Von Daniken's aliens have anything to do with a Wassail. They may have built runways for spaceships on the plains of Nazcar in South America. but I doubt that as an encore they went on to sculpt the river Parrett.

As for a Zodiac "discovered" in 1930 - didn't the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, The Greeks and the Norse already have a zodiac. And anyway the song pre-dates 1930, so that reference can be binned.
I am also wary of anything quoted about King Arthur because most of it is made up to suit the teller. Especially stuff on the internet, which is a haven for fantasists and so-called New Age mumbo-jumbo.

As for spelling, I would reckon that the word "Gurt" is used as a corruption/dialect for "Great" as in "Big" whereas "Girt" is derived from "Girdle" and in different usages can be the past tense of "Gird" i.e. to put a belt round, or to encirle , or to measure the girth of... (actually "Gurt" is a mining term for a gutter or water channel - so we can discount that usage).
Searching for the "Gurt dog of Langport" brings up a more believable explanation Black Dog - Canine Apparitions Revisited and Beyond - the song is referred to at the very bottom of the page. and reckons :-
Secondly the Vikings were likened to wolves themselves. There is an old Somerset wassailing song whose chorus goes;

The Black Dog of Langport have a-burned off his tail;
And this is the night of our jolly wassail;
Vor tis our wassail,
And tis your wassial,
And joy be to you, vor tis our wassail.

It is said that The Black Dog is a reference to the defeat of the Danes by King Alfred in 878.

As I say - I have NO verifiable references, and no particular axe to grind. I am just sceptical of some of the outrageous claims and statements on the Wibbly Wobbly Web.
Best of luck with the search.
Geoff the Duck.

29 Sep 04 - 05:30 AM (#1283840)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: greg stephens

There are a considerable number of lines on any bit of map, if you allow youself to use roads, tracks, field boundaries, rivers, streams, drainage ditches and whatever else comes to mind. So indeed you can draw a huge dog around Langport. You can, equally, draw a teapot or Brigitte Bardot. All depends what you fancy I suppose.

29 Sep 04 - 05:35 AM (#1283844)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: Geoff the Duck

No there's a thought! Brigitte Bardot pouring a pot of tea! Sounds like heaven ;0)

29 Sep 04 - 05:58 AM (#1283862)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: greg stephens

The very size of the dog is the thing that makes it unconvicing(and all the other zodiac bollocks). Now a smallish figure(Cerne Abbas giant, Uffington white horse etc) is clearly deliberate. You can see it, for a start. You can invent any figure you like using the lines on the ground, but only if you make a mile or more across. Mind you, the fact there is a plce called Wagg on the dog's tail is curious. Now, in Ashdown forest in Kent there are two ponds close together known as Robin Hood's Balls. As far as I know nobody has identified a ten mile long drawing of Robin Hood incorporating these features, but I'm sure a glance at a map will make this a fairly simple task, and should get you half a page in the Guardian and a one hour documentary on Channel 5(complete with re-enactments of forest life involving nerds with bows and arrows). I make a present of this idea to anyone who wants it.

29 Sep 04 - 06:44 AM (#1283882)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: Geoff the Duck

I think I'll pass on the present of Robin's balls if that's okay with you?

29 Sep 04 - 02:04 PM (#1284200)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: Barbara

Thanks, guys. What I want to know is about the dog in the Somerset Wassail. Anyone know anything more about the Danes and that reference?
I did find that link too, but I was having trouble wading through all the ghost stories writ in chartreuse on a black background (what was he thinking?).

28 May 08 - 08:13 AM (#2350919)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,Shilly

Well, what matters? the gort dog will soon make a lovely walk with several decent pubs in it's wake, so what's not to like, eh?

28 May 08 - 04:43 PM (#2351343)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport

The note to the Somerset Wassail in the Oxford Book of Carols saya, "This Wassail was noted about twenty years ago [i.e. approx. 1908] from the Drayton wassailers in Somerset [Drayton is just south of Langport, seven or eight miles SW of Galstonbury] ... Sharp thought that the great dog of Langport was a reference to the Danes whose invasion of Langport is not yet forgotten in that town."

In fact, this Danish raid may be mere legend, as it seems that the Vikings never penetrated that far into the West Country. Their attempted invasion began on Christmas Day 877, when Guthrum's surprise attack on Chippenham drove Alfred into the marshes of west Somerset. Alfred set up a base at Athelney (the Island of the Nobles) a few miles west of Langport, and immediately began organising his counter-attack. In 878 he defeated Guthrum at Edington (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies the Edington near the Westbury White Horse, although there is a theory that it was the Edington by the Polden Hills near Glastonbury). It was the resulting treaty between Alfred and Guthrum which divided England into the Anglo Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw.

I think the only Danish attack on the West Country was by the force which arrived at the mouth of the Parrett and was wiped out at Cannington. If they had got any further, they would have come up against Alfred himself at Athelney.

My theory about the girt dog is that the wassailers remembered another incident. There was this farmer who had a big dog, and one evening he took it down the pub, where the dog curled up by the fire and fell asleep. The dog had an exciting dream about chasing rabbits, and wagged his tail in his sleep, and his tail went into the fire ... It was probably the most memorable event since Alfred had come through there 1000 years earlier.

28 May 08 - 04:56 PM (#2351363)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,JeffB

Sorry, the above was from me. For some reason my handle didn't get automatically added on. Have I been banned ?

04 Jun 08 - 05:02 PM (#2357536)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport

what i had read was that the gurt dog is the local term for the vision of the black dog i.e. the Devil
the Devil has burnt his tail from our jolly wassail
the Devil being burned by all the seasonal goodwill at Christmas

06 Jun 08 - 10:30 AM (#2359365)
Subject: RE: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,JeffB

Sounds as reasonable an explanation as any. Or, could it have something to do with the Battle of Langport in 1645, which I suppose was really the only memorable event from there.

26 Nov 09 - 09:35 AM (#2774097)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,BTH Leeds

Barbara's original message includes some suggestions as to how to get into a position where one might make out the shape of the dog.

Google Earth seems to offer the right opportunity to take a look from the appropriate viewpoint, but without much more information on its extent and location I can't see anything. I would like to, if anyone can supply a few more pointers.

01 Dec 09 - 10:00 AM (#2777518)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,Shep

Guthrum converted to Christianity under the persuation of Alfred at Aller Church just North West of Langport. The site of the battle of Edington has never been properly established but Athelney is very close to Aller, which adds more weight to the theory that the battle was at the Poldons rather than in Wiltshire.

01 Dec 09 - 10:02 AM (#2777520)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,Shep

I forgot to add that if you believe in the giant landscape dog the Aller church is the the dogs nose.

01 Dec 09 - 04:45 PM (#2777878)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: JeffB

Shep, it's interesting that you think the Battle of Edington might not have happened in Wiltshire. There is of course another Edington on the Poldens which could be a candidate.

Many years ago I got hold of an old book (which I no longer have) called (I think) the Wars of Wessex by someone called (I think) Albany Major, who put forward the theory that Alfred did not march 60 miles into Wiltshire to tackle Guthrum, but rather the vikings advanced into Somerset and were surprised by Alfred. In Major's scenario (as far as I can recall from memory), Guthrum moved to Glastonbury, and then along the Polden ridge searching for Alfred's base. However, Alfred had moved up from Athelney with his army and following in Guthrum's track caught up with his rearguard near Edington. Major thought that the fortress Guthrum retreated to was not Chippenham but the ring fort at the western end of the Poldens, which is now just on the other side of the M5.

On his surrender, Guthrum converted to Christianity and was taken around the seven churches in the neighbourhood, one of which was Aller. Major thought, and you have to agree with him, that it isn't likely that Alfred brought Guthrum and the surviving Vikings 60 miles from Wiltshire into Somerset for the ceremony. It would surely have been done in Chippenham, which after all had been Alfred's HQ only the year before.

There is nothing in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which disproves this attractive theory, except for one very important point, which is that the ASC specifically says Alfred mustered his army near Chippenham. Major explained this by saying that the Chronicle was written many years later when the Anglo Saxon power base had moved east and detailed memory of the battle had been lost. However, everyone knew it had happened at a place called Edington, so the assumption was made that this was the one in Wiltshire and the Chronicle written to conform to this.

Does it particularly matter? you have to ask. Well, only for reasons of interest and sentiment, because a lot depended on the outcome of the Battle of Edington. If Alfred had disappeared from history at that point and Guthrum had established a ruling dynasty in Wessex, someone other than Harold Godwinson would have faced the Normans at Hastings 200 years later, and - who knows? - that could have meant a different result with profound consequences. Anyway, it would be nice to know for sure which Edington it was.

25 Dec 09 - 10:01 PM (#2796487)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,DoINeedAnAccount

Another possibility is that the Girt Dog burning his tail has to do with the heliacal rising of the "tail" star of the Great Dog (Canus Major) - that is the night "we are going wassail".

I'm perplexed by the maid with the silver-headed pin - which sounds like another stellar reference - for Casseopea and Virgo are both far away from Canus Major. Anyone have an idea of which constellation the maid was/is?

25 Dec 09 - 10:51 PM (#2796498)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,DoINeedAnAccount

Oops - I guess I mean the opposite of the heliacal rising: the rising of the star in the east (vs. setting in the west), first visible just after sunset. Of course, the heliacal rising of Sirius, in Canus Major, is in August: the Dog Days of summer. I'm new to this part of astronomy, and don't have my "sea legs" yet.

Here's a thought about the Silver Headed Pin: perhaps the Maid with the Silver-Headed Pin is indeed Virgo, disappearing into the sun in the west in January: opening "the door to let us walk in".

Sirius, in Canis Major, and Spica, in Virgo, are two of the very brightest stars in the sky; several ancient calendars used the rising and setting of prominent stars to mark special points in the year.

26 Dec 09 - 10:50 AM (#2796690)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,Henryp

Of course, the maid with a silver headed pin could be just a literal description.

As Langport was a port on the tidal River Parret, the Great Dog of Langport could indeed be a Norse invader, even Guthrum defeated in 878 by Alfred at Edington.

27 Dec 09 - 01:23 AM (#2797042)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,DoINeedAnAccount speaks of a Wassail at the Somerset Rural Life Museum (Who I'd trust to know at least the current interpretation of Wassailing). ...and talks about the Danes. So it sounds like the Danes are at least one layer of meaning in the Wassail song.

I'm still holding out for the Canis Major - Virgo connection as a pre-Danes explanation of when to Wassail...but I have to wait until I find some more astronomical calculations.

Wass Hail!

28 Dec 09 - 03:02 AM (#2797642)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,DoINeedAnAccount_BradNeedham

WooHoo! I found a nice web page for calculating the first and last visibility of various stars during the year, at

Feeding it the latitude and longitude of Glastonbury, Somerset, UK (and with a few more assumptions thrown in) it comes up with an Evening Rising time (first visibility after sunset) of Sirius of January 5, 100 BC. That is, (allowing for a bit of hand waving) at about 100 BC the date when Sirius would be first visible at sunset was about January 5.

The exact date isn't important (because it relies on things like atmospheric conditions in the area and the calendar in use at the time) - what's important is that it's possible for it to come out to something close to Twelfth Night: the time of Wassailing.

So, the verse about the Girt Dog of Langport burning his long tail could (possibly) be giving instructions: The time to go Wassailing is the first night on which you see Sirius rise just after sunset.

(Unfortunately, my idea of the maid with the silver-headed pin referring to Spica in Virgo doesn't seem to pan out - the risings and settings of Spica don't seem to come out anywhere near Twelfth Night.)

Just to clarify: I'm not talking about some mystical/astrological thing: I'm suggesting that the text gives practical instructions of how to choose the time of Wassailing based on simple observations of the sky.

28 Dec 09 - 03:14 AM (#2797645)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,999

"Somerset Girt Dog of Langport"

I can believe it.

10 Mar 10 - 01:43 PM (#2861181)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,Isabel Aimee

there is also a woman talking with the dog, her head can be made out by the drainage channel which wiggles up to the North. Her Pineal gland is in Lyng and she has a radiant head- no eyes left any more... her face is in profile. see if you can see her- there is a little farm in her mouth! i think she is speaking to the girt dog...

09 Sep 16 - 09:59 AM (#3809117)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,John Hartoch

Here are a couple of verses coming from two different versions of the Gower Wassail:

Now master and mistress if you are within
Pray send out your maid with her lily-white skin
For to open the door without more delay
For our time it is precious and we cannot stay

There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand out in the mire
Come you pretty maid with your silver headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in

This would (somewhat disappointingly!) suggest that the reference was to the master and mistress's maid and that, for some reason, she had a silver-headed pin!! Maybe it meant she was wearing her best: maybe it suggests the prosperity of the master and mistress that their maid should be able to afford a silver headed pin.

Any other ideas?


09 Sep 16 - 10:05 AM (#3809122)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,John Hartoch

And here's another one:- I'd had this idea myself but thought the master & Mistress's latch pin would hardly have a silver head but this verse comes from 'The Wassailing Song' but the site doesn't give it a locality.

Then here's to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.


09 Sep 16 - 10:08 AM (#3809125)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport

It was Gloucestershire!


09 Nov 17 - 06:59 PM (#3887766)
Subject: RE: Folklore: Somerset Girt Dog of Langport
From: GUEST,henryp

Come you pretty maid with your silver headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in

When doors had latches, they could be locked by a pin which prevented the latch being lifted.

The pin was often on a chain. If the chain broke and the pin was lost, it would be replaced by a nail or something similar.