A local ghost story

Overlooking Galashiels, Buckholm Tower stands, ruined and looking a little forlorn. Inhabited into the twentieth century the tower could yet be saved, but a feeling of neglect and the passing of time almost overwhelms. Built in 1582, the tower was typical of the fortified towers that can be found throughout the Borders, but this one is still more or less complete, which makes its abandonment all the more melancholy.

The home of the Pringles of Buckholm, lairds in these parts, Buckholm is famed for its hauntings more than its architecture. One of these lairds, James Pringle, has become as notorious in death as he was, by all accounts, in life.

This story is very well known locally, so you might have heard it, but as Christmas is a time for tales of ghosts, here it is.

James Pringle lived in the second half of the 17th century and was feared for his temper, his cruelty and his debauchery.  His wife and children would flee from him after years of torment and no woman was safe to visit Buckholm Tower. His reputation for evil was known for miles around and his favourite pastime was said to be hunting Covenanters – religious rebels in the eyes of the government –  trailing them with his great hounds, as other lairds would hunt foxes and deer.

Ladhope Moor was a secret meeting place of the religious dissenters, anxious to worship far from the eyes of the State. Pringle knew of this and led a band of government troops there, keen to capture these Covenanting troublemakers. The Covenanters heard of the attack and fled, but one old man, Geordie Elliot – once a servant in the house of Buckholm – had fallen badly from his horse.  His son, William, stayed by his gravely ill father.  The Elliots were captured by the troops and Pringle was keen to execute them there and then.

The Captain of the troops, however, hoped to force details of their Covenanting friends from the men, so asked Pringle to hold them in the prison-like cellar in Buckholm Tower overnight. Pringle agreed.

With the Elliots held fast in his cellar, Pringle ate and drank alone. His brandy cup was filled and emptied several times and his sense of power and cruelty grew stronger by the cupful.

Pushing past those few servants in his employ, gathered outside the cellar door and listening to the cries for mercy coming from within, Pringle wanted to show his prisoners exactly how powerful he was. He entered the cellar, locking the door behind him, his terrified servants listening as sounds of a skirmish were followed by two, different, agonised screams.

Pringle emerged sometime later, locking the cellar behind him, a chilling smile on his face.  He returned to his chamber and his brandy bottle.

Sometime later, a servant disturbed his drunken slumber. A visitor had arrived at Buckholm Tower. Old Isobel Elliot, wife of Geordie, had arrived to beg the Laird of Buckholm for mercy.  With a leer, Pringle led the old woman to the cellar. Throwing open the cellar door, Pringle ushered Isobel inside with a mocking flourish.

A heart-breaking scream was all Isobel could give when she saw her husband and son, hanging from the meat hooks in the cellar ceiling, their bodies impaled like the meat of pigs which would normally hang there.  Sobbing, she fell to the floor, where Pringle spat the insult “Witch!” at her.

Rising up, Isobel cursed the Laird of Buckholm, wishing him harm because of his hateful crimes.

And, from that day, a change was seen in Pringle of Buckholm.  He claimed he had become accursed, haunted by packs of terrible hounds following him wherever he went. Servants would find him in his study, alerted by his screams, fighting off great dogs that no one else could see.  Ghostly dogs would snap at his heels as he ferociously rode his horse back to Buckholm, begging his servants fight off the unseen dogs.

Then, not long afterwards, James Pringle of Buckholm died, in agony. Writhing in pain, the Laird departed this life, mourned by none.

One year later, as is often the case, on the anniversary of Pringle’s death, a ghostly figure was seen running up the winding path to Buckholm Tower, pursued by a glowing pack of hellish hounds.  Loud banging noises were heard, as if the Devil himself was banging on the great wooden door of the castle, desperate to enter. Terrifying screams were heard from the castle courtyard but, when the door was opened, there was nobody there. And, a little later, screams were heard, coming from the cellar.  Could it be that Pringle was being forced to reenact his terrible crimes, as punishment?

Every June, on the anniversary of his death, terrifying screams have been heard near the tower, ghostly hounds observed in the hills nearby.  And, more dreadful again, heavy loud knocks from the now deserted cellar.

It is said that a Minister from Galashiels once performed an exorcism to rid Buckholm from these terrible torments.

Now, however, Buckholm has been left to its ghosts.

Margaret Wilson

I count myself lucky to live in a beautiful part of Scotland, steeped in legend and folklore.  This is, after all The Old North, land of the Gododdin of legend; this is the land of Merlin and Thomas the Rhymer; William Wallace led the fight for Scotland’s liberty from the forests of Ettrick and the fairy folk held court in the lair of the Green Man.   Peaceful now, it was not always so.

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Here’s another tale taken from George Sinclair’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, and it isn’t a very happy one.  In Relation XXXII, Sinclair tells the tale of Demonic possession in the Borderlands, this time, the town of Galashiels some three hundred and forty years ago – more or less.

The Minister in Galashiels, a Mister Wilkie, was sitting in the manse one night, when there was a thunderous hammering on his door.  His servant, answering the door, ushered in a local man of some standing, respectable in every way and not given to flights of fancy.  A Godly sort, one could say.  The Gentleman, in an anxious state, begged the Minister to attend to his household, where his niece, Margaret, was being vexed by a terror that only Wilkie, a man of God, could end.

The poor Mister Wilson claimed that the Devil was at his house with phantom knocking shaking the building, even when his poor family tried to gather together at prayer!  All this terrible, awesome activity seemed to be centred around his niece, Margaret.

The man and the Minister rushed to the house where they – and many witnesses – were shocked to see that Margaret, having been put to bed and soundly asleep, was lifted up by forces unseen, hovering above her bed.  Many strong men – who happened to be there at the time, apparently – were not able to pull her down.

The story goes on, with many other uncanny events taking place, presumably in the sight of the Minister.  Margaret’s body was shaken by forces unseen and loud, scratching sounds echoed throughout the rooms of the house with no obvious cause.

On waking, Margaret claimed that the Devil had spoken with her, offering her gifts.  At this point, the Minister seems to imply molestations of a more earthly nature, which the uncle loudly protested against, but Sinclair’s text is unclear in parts – so best not to dwell on this too much, perhaps.

“After much trouble of this kind, and much noise and talking…the woman went to Edinburgh and the torments ceased.”

The Devil seems to have tried his best to deter Margaret from church-going and other Godly things, and it’s only at that point that Sinclair mentions she is 12 years old.

Then, Margaret went somewhere else.  After that, she married, then she died.

And, like many of the Relations in the book. The story ends abruptly.  Like this one.

The Devil Comes Calling… Part Two.

The village of Stow tends to be a little over-looked, I think. In histories and anthologies of the Scottish Borders and in books about sacred places, haunted spaces and witchcraft, it often doesn’t feature at all.  Imagine, then, how chuffed I was (chuffed to bits, in fact), when I happened across the name of our village in a book about spirits and witchcraft.  And not,  just any old book.

Satan’s Invisible World Discovered is a wonderfully odd read, written in 1684-5 by George Sinclair, sometime Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.  His Satan’s Invisible World is perhaps, now, the writing he is best remembered for, although his name lives on in the George Sinclair Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.

SinclairSatansWorld1685      Witches-Being-Baptized-copy_1

A staunch Protestant, eager to swear allegiance to William of Orange following that king’s overthrowing of the Stuart king, James VII in 1688, Sinclair wrote the book as proof of the Devil, evil spirits and witches which, therefore, proved the existence of God in the face of a growth in atheism.  It is interesting that some sources claim Sinclair was born in East Lothian, which, some decades earlier, had been at the heart of some of the worst witch-hunts in Scotland, most famously including the North Berwick witch panic of 1590.   Had something in his childhood struck the young George with fear, which manifested itself in later life as his unshakable belief in the supernatural?  He was also a scientist, attracting much fame for exploring the wreck of an Armada ship in a large diving bell, among other things.

The book was immensely popular, said to be second only to the Bible in the humble cottages of Scotland, and contains a curious mixture of ancient and recent tales, which give a flavour of folk belief and superstition of the late 1600s.  The most famous incidents, told through a serious of Relations, include the hauntings of Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, the infamous Major Weir and Wigtownshire’s Glenluce Devil – one of Scotland’s earliest alleged poltergeist hauntings.

Relation IX was one that immediately caught my attention a few nights ago, as I sat in my study reading late at night.   According to Sinclair, in the ancient and royal burgh of Lauder in the year 1649, Robert Grieve – also known as Hob Grieve or Hob Grier in other sources – was arrested on charges of witchcraft.   He was, says Sinclair,

“…an eminent warlock…”

His wife, unnamed in this account, had apparently been burned as a witch some twenty years previously, so perhaps the taint of magic and devilry had surrounded him like a mist for all those years.  It was his wife, the story gained through his interrogation stated, who had introduced him to the Dark Arts as a means of escaping their poverty.  If he agreed to meet a Gentleman he would learn how to become rich…

He had travelled with her to “a haugh on Gallawater near to the Stow” where the story begins.  Here, then, in STOW! Sleepy, little over-looked Stow!

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Following the sudden appearance of a fearful great black hound

“a great mastiff, bigger than any butcher’s dog” 

that came and went and was not mentioned again in the story (something that seems to happen a lot in Sinclair’s stories, where weird stuff happens and everyone just moves on to the next weird stuff), the Devil appeared, “in the shape of a black man” and made Robert many promises in exchange for Robert’s services.

Robert’s fortunes did, indeed, improve significantly and he went on to become a powerful local warlock with many followers.  His luck ran out in 1649, when the Godly society caught up with him.  Along with five others he was dispatched as a witch, burnt at the stake – although, interestingly, it does not state where in this version of the tale.

Now, it might be stretching something a little to suggest that he was taken back to the scene of his Diabolical Tryst, to the haugh at Stow and dispatched with the five named Stow ‘witches’.  Of course, there are many scholars and more learned folk than I who will scoff at this, but I like the thought that the story can be completed by the inclusion of poor Hob Grieve in the story of our little village.  It can’t be proved at all and there may be no truth in it , but it’s possible, perhaps?  Interestingly, Robert Grieve does not feature at all in the University of Edinburgh’s Scottish Witch-hunt Survey or its excellent interactive map (fascinating and horrifying – have a look!), but a Jon Grieve is listed as accused some thirteen years later.  Could he be the son of Robert?  Or, has the tale of a warlock called Grieve simply bound splinters of fact together? Maybe none of this occurred at all.

I mentioned in a previous post that Stow currently has no pub in the village.  Wouldn’t it be great, if ever one is opened in the future, if it is called The Black Hound – a memory of a terrible injustice that once gripped the locals with fear and saw six innocents put to the fire in the name of the Godly?

Maybe, maybe.

The Devil comes calling… Part One.

It’s been a while since my last post and it’s been a busy year.  Recently, I’ve been reading and researching more about this strange, wonderful corner of Scotland and I was pleased to find some more startling stories from Wedale and round about.

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The old and new Parish Kirks in Stow of Wedale.

I mentioned below that six people were executed in Stow in 1649, a horrific year in which mass panic about witchcraft erupted throughout many parts of the kingdom.  Scotland would have five mass witchcraft panics:

  • 1590-91
  • 1597
  • 1628-30
  • 1649
  • 1661-2

There were witch-hunts, interrogations and executions at other times, of course, but in these five periods, the panics and executions intensified in scale and terror.  Localised panics could often break out at times when other parts of the country were relatively peaceful, as occurred, for example, in Renfrewshire in 1697-1700 in Bargarran.

1649 was one of the worst peaks.  In The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), Rossell Hope Robbins noted that

Scotland is second only to Germany in the barbarity of its witch trials.

Witchcraft in Scotland became a crime in 1563, only three years after the Protestant Reformation, during the reign of the absent Queen, Mary.  The Witchcraft Act formally made the Biblical offence of suffering a witch to live, a legal reality.  By making witchcraft illegal, Scotland was setting the scene for accusations, recriminations and mob rule.   The land was in the grip of religious vervour, the revolutionary Reformers determined to create a GODLY kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.

Belief in witchcraft was nothing new, and tales of witches and warlocks stretch back through history.  What was different after 1563, was that the State now could act upon superstition, suspicion and finger-pointing, legally.  And it did.

witches circle

The causes of the major witch panics are still discussed and reinterpreted.  Scotland during the period would be wracked by religious and political conflict and wars.   Famine through poor weather and crop failure, disease and plague are also contributing factors.

Recently, more attention has been given to the misogyny and sexism of the witch-hunts.  Doctor Julian Goodare, in The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context (Manchester, 2009) notes that some 85% of the recorded witch trials involved women.  These trials centred on accusations involving fornication.  In the Godly State the Reformers hoped to set up, all aspects of the lives of the Parish were under increased scrutiny.  The Kirk Sessions records note all misdemeanours and punishments and sexuality features strongly.  The Reformers’ revolutionary zeal and enthusiasm for making sure their neighbours obeyed the laws of God ,added to ages-old superstitions and a need to blame, provided a heady mix which would peak five times.

Sex, sexuality and fornicating with the Devil are common themes in the records that survive and, presumably, took centre stage in the accusations and executions which were not recorded.  The Devil, surprisingly conservative in his sexual choices, seems to have limited his lust for the female of the species.  Homosexuality and Devilish fornication does not feature with the Godly menfolk, but if this is misogyny and control in play, that’s hardly surprising.  The righteous were definitely wearing the trousers in the seventeenth century.

But men, were accused of witchcraft.  In my last post, I mentioned that one of the six accused of witchcraft was described as a Man of Lauder.   I’ve been wondering about this man ever since and , last night, stumbled across a story which – possibly – gives him his name back…

 

 

Witch!

I was working late last night, taking the second-last train home (this seemed important!) and stepping into the village at just before midnight.  As I crossed over the bridge that spans the Gala Water river, I could just make out the ruins of the 15th century Kirk in the heart of Stow.  There was no-one around.  No traffic or movement of any kind and not a sound to be heard.  The silence felt loud.  I walked to the centre of the village, pausing at the Celtic Cross of the War Memorial, glancing over towards the Parish Church.  It was near here, just next to the river, 369 years ago, six people were put to death.  Odd to think, in such a tranquil, sleepy location.

Remind me not to think about such things, when standing alone at midnight at the village crossroad!

1649 may  have been when the largest number of people were executed for witchcraft in Scotland in any single year.  The figure could be around 300.  With the passing of time, this seems almost meaningless, so far off from our enlightened times.  The impact of such a horrendous figure seems detached from reality.   It conjures up thoughts of  pointy hats, cackles and cries of “She turned me into a newt…  But I got better“.

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But, imagine an average double decker bus.  Then imagine four of them, full of people.  That’s roughly how many people were taken from their homes, interrogated and cruelly put to death.  That we know of.  Accused by neighbours, relations, clergy, friends.

Some years earlier, a woman from Stow, Catherine Watson, was charged with witchcraft, having been a ‘wise woman’ or folk healer.  Healers or midwives were among the accused, perhaps if a charm or medicine they had produced had not worked.  It’s not known what happened to Catherine, but even if she were not executed, she would be feared and shunned in her community.  Many of the accused who were found innocent starved to death, having been unable to maintain a job or seek support.  One woman I read about was found dead by the roadside, having starved to death.  An old, poor woman, she was tainted by the mere accusation of witchcraft and was denied a Christian burial.  Her corpse was thrown into the Gala Water.

A majority of the executed in Scotland were women and many of them were poor.  But not all.  In Stow in 1649, four of the victims were women.

Jonet Henrison

Marion Henrison

James Henrison

Isobel Thompson

Margaret Dunholme

A ‘Man of Lauder’.  Why was his name not recorded?  No idea.  I’d love to find out.

I hope to find out more about this episode in the history of this village.  It wasn’t isolated, of course.  Many villages and towns in the Border counties saw similar atrocities, with Peebles seemingly being the most ferocious: 29 people were recorded as executed there, throughout the various Scottish witch hunts.

Many of these witch hunts also involved some of the darkest characters in Scotland’s history: the Witch Prickers.  Witch Pricking was a common part of the interrogation of suspected witches in Scotland, with sharp needles or bodkins used to find the so-called Devil’s Mark: a part or spot of the body insensitive to pain – and proof that the ‘witch’ had made a pact with Satan himself, who touched his disciple’s body and left his mark, sealing their demonic pact.  Pricking formed part of the torture that could be used to extract the ‘truth’, with victims essentially being repeatedly stabbed.  Some Prickers were alleged to use needles with retractable points, thus causing no harm to the accused and ‘proving’ their guilt.

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Sleep-deprivation and ‘walking the witch’ were also commonplace.  It is little wonder that so many of the accused confessed, often with lurid and elaborate stories of their unGodly practices.

The Devil was thought to be an ever-present threat to the Godly, in a country weakened by disease, famine and religious turmoil.  It was easy to spot the ‘hidden enemy’ in the poor, the strange.  A barbaric age?  Certainly different to our own, but how different? Intolerance and fear of the ‘other‘ is on the rise again in our own time.

Witch Prickers were – horrifically – individuals who made a living out of witch hunting, being paid for every guilty witch they discovered.  And who was going to prove them wrong?  Around ten individuals operated in Scotland, including one who was supposedly revealed to be a woman in disguise.

Matthew Hopkins may be the most remembered individual in England thanks to Hammer Films, but in Scotland, John Kincaid is perhaps even more repulsive.  Possibly from the town of Tranent in East Lothian, Kincaid would earn a lucrative income, ‘discovering’ witches in the Lothians, Fife, southern counties and elsewhere.  He was present in the little village of Stow, too.

For Margaret Dunholme’s ‘guilt‘ he was paid £Scots 6.  He was also paid £Scots 3 for food and lodgings for himself and his manservant.

Kincaid was feared for his cruelty and, if summoned, there would have been little hope for the accused.  In the sight of the Minister of the Kirk, the five people of Stow and the anonymous Man of Lauder, were incarcerated in the Bailie’s House and Church, then taken to a spot next to the Gala Water, strangled or “worryit” at the stake, and burned.

Some of the confessions sound almost comically ridiculous to us now, but at the time were proof for many of the evils abroad.  Think Blackadder’s Witchsmeller Persuivant, but real.  And very deadly.

There is, currently, no memorial to their fate in the village.  Indeed, there are hardly any memorials to these heinous acts in Scotland, although an interesting project in Orkney is currently underway.  Maybe, in our age of growing intolerance and rise of the Far Right, more memorials – reminders – would be no bad thing.