Gabriel Hounds

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In northern counties, the name Gabble or Gabriel Ratchets was applied to a strange yelping sound heard in the sky at night, supposedly a death omen. The name, first recorded around 1665, implies a link with the dogs of the Wild Hunt, ‘ratchet’ being an old word for a type of hound. In Cleveland, the explanation given was that ‘a gentleman of the olden times was so strangely fond of hunting that, on his deathbed, he ordered his hounds all to be killed and buried at the same time and in the same tomb as himself’, and therefore he and they still hunt as ghosts (J. C. Atkinson, The Gentleman's Magazine (1866), part II, 189); in Derbyshire, that a squire persisted in hunting on Sundays, and once drove his pack into a church, for which sin he is condemned to ride out on stormy nights for ever (N&Q 11s:5 (1912), 296–7). Some informants, however, spoke of spectral birds with glowing eyes which showed themselves (singly) to those who had a friend or relative close to death, shrieking mournfully; others, of ghosts of unbaptized babies flitting round their parents' homes.

It is generally agreed that the sounds are really bird cries: curlews, widgeon, teal, or wild geese. ‘Gabble’ is a good word for this noise, which would explain the name; however, ‘Gabriel’ is supported by a Derbyshire belief from the mid-19th century that ‘the angel Gabriel was hunting … [the damned] and that the cries were uttered as the lash of the angel's whip urged them along’ (N&Q 7s (1886), 206).

Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary (1898–1905).

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