It’s been a while since my last post, primarily due to the day job and a lack of visiting anywhere. Spring is slowly becoming summer, despite the snow, with life and the remnants of lockdown moving on much as it has for the last year.
We have been busy, though, with our podcast. Joined by a new Wyrdo, we’ve been managing to produce a new episode each month. The next episode comes out tomorrow, so here’s a plug for April’s episode.
Join me as we travel back in time, to days of turmoil, dynastic plotting and a war of ideology. Stand with us in the mist, watching battle loom on the field of Drumossie Moor. Come with us as we march to Culloden.
Magic and mystery looms large in the Borderlands. Tales of the Good People, the Quiet Folk – the Fairies – have been told here for hundreds of years, through stories by the fireside or the long, elegant ballads still performed today by folk musicians. Tales of witches, the Devil and chilling hauntings feature strongly in the local lore and cultural identity of this sometime turbulent place.
Today, a grey, gloomy and colder day than in recent weeks, I feel in the mood for some old-fashioned ghost stories. Outside of the window, the rain is falling steadily and the tops of the trees are shrouded in mist. A shiver is in the air.
Here, then, are a few of my favourites from the Border lands. Place to visit, perhaps, when the current restrictions end?
Mentioned in previous posts, I include it again not to note once more that Sir Walter Scott himself it said to haunt the place – which has been reported – but to remember that Sir Walter was pivotal in preserving many of the old tales and ballads, which he heard as a child and which he copied, adapted and embellished in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, his novels and other works. Without Scott, part of the rich detail of the ancient songs and legends would have been lost.
In addition to collected objects and artefacts from the past, Scott’s library is full of historical and historic books, tomes on witchcraft, hauntings and legends. There’s a little occult section, just by the window overlooking the Tweed, where I hope his children peeked a look at the stories of ghosts and witches – like I did in the seventies, pouring over my parents’ copy of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. I’m certain that Scott would have told them stories, sitting around the fire. The library is a beautiful room, like his study and drawing room and all can be explored as part of the self-guided tour. I like the anecdote that says Scott called his study room Edinburgh so that, when callers visited his house to meet him (as they did in annoyingly large numbers), his staff and family could honestly say that Sir Walter was in Edinburgh and sadly unavailable.
Knowledgable and friendly volunteer guides are on hand to add to your tour. There’s a great exhibition, shop and restaurant and the gardens and grounds can be explored at your leisure. I can’t recommend it enough. The audio tour, featuring his cat and dog, is extremely well-done and really adds to the atmosphere during a visit! The audio guide featuring Sir Walter ‘himself’ is also engrossing so a repeat visit is recommended – and cheap, as a ticket can last you an entire year!
I love Peebles. It’s a shame that the town sign with its “Peebles for Pleasure” motto has gone; the 1950s zingy-ness of the slogan always raised a smile!
There’s something very homely and welcoming about the place. Maybe it’s because the town has an attractive, bustling high street devoid of many of the chain stores that towns usually have: walking through Peebles, you can see independent butchers, grocers, bakers, craftspeople – and a bookshop! – among many others. It feels like it has an identity that chain stores erode. There’s a lot of history, too.
The haunting of the Cross Keys Hotel, a coaching inn dating back in part to the 17th century, is well known. If planning a stay and of a nervous disposition, it is recommended you avoid room 5! So too, is the figure of a woman who walks the chambers of nearby Neidpath Castle. When I was younger, this magnificent tower overlooking the Tweed, was empty and open to visitors. It quickly became my favourite castle in Scotland and I always looked forward to a return visit. The Earls of Wemyss’ family have found new uses for it more recently, so visitor access is now limited. But, then, castles were built to be used, not preserved as well-manicured ruins. The ghostly woman, said to be the shade of Jean Douglas, was a daughter of a laird of Neidpath who fell in love with a man from a rival family. Forbidden by her father to have anything to do with him, she pined away and died. Her ghost, said to be wearing a brown dress with white collar, has been reported ever since. Scott wrote about this, popularising the poor Maid of Neidpath.
Scott also wrote about a sometime Minister of Peebles, John Scott (everyone’s a Scott down here!) who was an expert in ‘reading down’ spirits, or exorcising them. Clearly troublesome sprites have been a problem in Peebles for quite some time. The Reverend Scott, however, is said to have met his end when another, younger, more rash Minister started the ceremony without him. The toll of dealing with the angry phantom, wrecking the house in which it had manifested, was too much for the cleric. The effort
“…occasioned his falling into a lingering disorder, of which he never recovered.”
I’ve written in a previous entry about the haunting of Buckholm Tower. If you prefer, you can also listen to the story in our Wyrd Scotland podcast – available wherever you find podcasts and also on YouTube. Another ancient Borders home which may have had a more peaceful haunting is…
Another favourite place, Traquair House is alleged to be one of the oldest houses continually inhabited in Scotland, with a history stretching back some 900 years and having welcomed 27 kings or Queens! I’ve featured the place in an earlier post, looking at the weirdness of the 1968 film The Ballad of Tam Lin, which used Traquair as the filming location for exterior shots. Traquair has a fascinating history and is one of the most wonderful places to visit in the Scottish Borders.
The house is beautiful and grand, but in a very homely way. The rooms feel authentic and welcoming, probably because they date mostly from the 17th century final phase of construction. Although redecorated since, the layout is that of 300 years ago. There’s a wonderful mural in one chamber, depicting a hunting scene – painted in the 1530s. It is beautifully atmospheric. The building has strong associations with the House of Stewart and the family remained loyal to the Scottish royal house after they were deposed in 1688, remaining Jacobite despite the cost. Their Roman Catholic faith also marked them out as defiant and faithful, again, despite the costs. There is a wonderful 19th century chapel in the courtyard of the house and inside a secret staircase through which priests could come and go during the harsh days of the Reformation and Covenanting times. And although I’ve mentioned it before, it’s worth stating again that the restored 18th century brewhouse is a highlight of the visit: the Jacobite Ale being a particular favourite!
For a house of such an age and with such history, it’s surprising that there are not more tales of ghosts here. The only spectral figure reported is said to be that of Lady Louisa Stewart, the last of the Stewart family ennobled as Earls of Traquair by King Charles I.
Lady Louisa died in 1896, just short of her 100th birthday. She was seen walking in the grounds in the early 20th century by one of the outdoors staff, watched gliding effortlessly through a closed gate and vanishing!
There are few other tales of the supernatural I can find. Given the feeling of peace and tranquility there, maybe that’s not surprising.
On the bank of the Tweed, not far from Maxton, stands the shattered, romantic ruin of Littledean Tower. Built in the 16th century, the tower stands surrounded by the earthworks of a (probably) prehistoric fort. Lives were lived and lost here, then, for a very long time and unlike Traquair is said to have an unfriendly, desolate feel. The house was lived in until the 18th century, but was abandoned, it is said, when the head of the house was gored to death by his prize bull!
The tower was said to be haunted by the spirit of a previous lady of the house, throughly disliked when she lived as
a covetous, grasping woman, and oppressive to the poor. Tradition averred that she had amassed a large sum of money by thrift or extortion, and now could not rest in her grave because of it.
according to William Henderson in his 1879 ‘Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders‘.
The spirit appeared to a servant girl in the castle, who took pity on her bedraggled cold appearance, bidding her to sit by the fire. The girl noticed her feeble shoes and cold feet, offering to dry and clean her shoes. On this act of kindness, the spirit confessed to her identity, offering to show the girl where she had hidden the gold that would not let her rest. She told the girl to command the Laird to split the gold in two: the first half was for him as head of the house; the second half was to be halved again, with the poor of Maxton to benefit from one share and the girl herself the other. If this was done, she would be able to rest.
The girl did indeed follow her instructions and she and the Laird uncovered the gold. The Laird obeyed the requests and all was well. The spirit had said she would
rest in my grave, where I’ve no rested yet, and never will I trouble the house mair till the day o’ doom.’
Let’s hope that, given the way of things, no-one should see the phantom lady any time soon.
Another of the Lairds of Littledean was said to be a strikingly handsome, dark-haired man. A notorious drunkard and womaniser, he treated his poor, devout wife terribly. He killed his young stable boy, for a minor misdemeanour and soon was being shunned by all except those who shared his cruelty and debauchery. He sounds very similar to the Laird of Buckholm, mentioned before.
One dark and stormy night (!) he rode his horse off into the woods, having drunk far too much to be sensible. As the storm worsened and as the cold, driving rain helped sober him up, he looked for shelter realising he had rode too far from home. At last, he came to a clearing in the woods and spotted a humble-looking cottage, with light shining from it’s little window.
He entered the single room within to beg for shelter, and was immediately transfixed by the beautiful women sitting spinning by the fire. Something bothered the Laird, though. There was something unnatural about the women, whose eyes sparkled with humour. As dawn broke, the Laird hurried back to Littledean, relieved to have escaped from harm. And yet, he could not, in the days that followed, get the mysterious woman from his mind. He started riding out, searching for the cottage but could not find it.
Then, when all hope had dwindled, he saw from the castle battlements the haunting figure of the woman – standing close to his home. He ran to meet her, she leading him to the edge of the woods, and there he would meet her again and again to satisfy his urges but only – at her insistence – within site of the castle and at the very same time of day. He was truly bewitched by her. He taunted his wife with his new hobby and she, powerless, resorted to prayer.
The Laird left Littledean on business, leaving his wife behind. A servant, loyal to the lady, spotted the dark-haired woman that the Laird had been meeting, walking to a patch of woodland near the castle. Summoning her servants the lady immediately rushed to the woods: there was no chance the stranger had escaped. However, on entering the woods, there was no sign of the woman. Only a large hare was seen, watching the party approach and then running off.
The Laird returned home on his horse, some nights later. As he neared Littledean in the gloom, he spotted a large hare running towards him. Soon, another hare joined the first and ran behind the Laird. Several more appeared and, to his horror, the Laird realised they were trying to surround him and his horse. The horse, terrified, almost threw the Laird, but he kept hold and tried crushing the hares with his horses hoofs. When that failed, as they scampered closer and closer, he drew his sword. He managed to hack off a paw of a hare that had leapt on to this saddle. The injured hare retreated, followed by all the others, leaving the Laird to hurry home.
White-faced and trembling, the Laird reached the safety of his castle. As he removed his long cloak, he and his servants were horrified to see a human hand tumble to the floor – hacked off at the wrist. The Laird, realising that the hares had been witches transformed, picked up the severed hand using his sword and hurried down the slope to the river, throwing the hand into the running water. He hurried back to the castle and bolted the heavy door shut with a bang.
The next day, he set out to find the cottage and, as these stories go, happened to find it. Inside, the beautiful woman he had been dallying with was gone, transformed into a wizened hag. In front of her body she held her right arm, which ended in a bloody stump wrapped with rags. Hate filling her eyes, she screeched at the Laird that as he had taken the hand so he would never be parted from it. He returned, horrified, to his chamber in his tower and there, on the stone flagstone floor, was the bloody, severed hand. Terrified, he threw it out of the window and retreated to his bed. On lying down, he found the hand under his pillow. He picked it up and threw it on to the fire, watching it burn away.
In the morning, his servants discovered him quite dead on the floor in front of the fireplace. Marks around his neck showed he had been strangled by hand(s) unknown.
It is said that his ghost, riding frantically on his horse, can still be seen racing towards the tower on stormy nights. Two other spectres, both young women in white, were reported walking towards the tower from the river. They are said to have been victims of his, killed after he abused them for fun, buried in unmarked graves. In the 19th century, two skeletons were found buried under rough stone slabs near the riverbank. They were given proper burials in the graveyard nearby and the spectres were not seen again. It is little wonder that locals avoided Littledean Tower and its reputation for hauntings was very well known.
This interesting and unusual castle, with a massive D-shaped tower, is not very well-known now, and worth a visit – but not on dark and stormy nights.
Jedburgh Castle was once an important royal defence guarding the route from the south and was easy prey for invading forces during the long years of war with England. King Malcolm IV died here and Alexander III was married here – a spectral figure with the face of a skull, said to have appeared as portent of the doom which his death would plunge his poor little kingdom into. Being so close to the border, Jedburgh would be frequently attacked and was burned by invading troops at least six times, most cruelly during Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing in the 1540s. The magnificent 12th century Abbey was last attacked then and has remained a romantic ruin ever since.
The site of the castle may have been fortified from prehistoric times and the route of the Roman’s Dere Street nearby suggests so. During the Wars of Independence, the Scots used their vital tactic of regaining the castle from the occupying garrison and then demolishing it, to render it useless. The original castle was destroyed by the beginning of the 1400s, and remained a ruin for centuries. In the beginning of the 1800s, the site was cleared and a fort-like prison, in the fashionable Gothic style, was built.
Like Inverness, the mock-castle dominates the landscape of the town. The prison lasted a mere 60 years, but has been restored as a museum of prison life in the 1820s. The design was considered at the time to be revolutionary, showing an enlightened approach to penal reform. Despite its grand design, it’s fair to say that inmates did not enjoy their time inside, especially those whose crimes were met with execution. Designed by Archibald Elliot, who would design the grim mock-fortress jail on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, the museum includes the original cells and Jailer’s House – now a museum which looks at the long history of the burgh.
Many visitors, though, are enticed to the jail because of its haunted reputation. Ghost-hunter groups, armed with electronic beeping machines and ouija boards, have been here a number of times, convinced of the supernatural activity. These groups claim on their websites to have encountered many unhappy spirits, including those condemned to death. Other visitors have felt uneasy in parts of the gloomy building, with one young visitor from a primary school failing to take a great selfie, but capturing what may be one of the condemned, looming in a corridor! The photo featured in the local Border Telegraph newspaper – and is, certainly, intriguing! Another photo, taken by a member of a ghost-hunting group, made it as far as the Daily Record.
Before the virus, there appear to have been ghost-hunting vigils regularly. Once the current lockdown ends perhaps they’ll begin again, socially-distanced, of course. The appeal of “Scotland’s most haunted jail” looks set to continue.
If you’re looking for a spookyish podcast to wile away an hour or so, may I recommend our very own Tales from Wyrd Scotland to you?
The latest episode is a bumper hour-long dander through the first half of a supernatural alphabet of Scottish wyrdness. Narrated by me – featuring breathily wyrd intonation – and the electronical genius of Nick Cole-Hamilton and You Better Run Media, it’s the prefect accompaniment to plotting a trip around our strange little country or merely getting the ironing or hoovering done!
So, curl up in your favourite dark corner and join me on a journey through some of Scotland’s oddest places and weirdest moments in history, from Auldearn to Men (Green)…
Available here or where other devilishly good podcasts can be found…
The Scottish Borders is a land rich in legend, myth and all too real history. Some seventeen miles from where we live, in the valley of the Yarrow River, stands the gaunt shell of Newark Castle. Here, one of the most awful chapters of Borders history took place, ostensibly in the name of God.
Newark Castle is a large, strong tower which was built by the Douglas family in the 15th century. Sir James Douglas, whom the English dubbed The Black Douglas due to his success at fighting the invading army of England’s Edward I, fought with King Robert at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Folk in the north of England would recite the little poem
Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye. Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye. The Black Douglas shall not get ye.
to children, as a soothing lullaby! Good Sir James, as the Scots called him, would take his comrade King Robert’s heart to the Holy Land in crusade, a promise made and almost fully kept after the sovereign’s death. Douglas was killed in battle, but the heart was saved and returned to Scotland. It lies buried in a lead casket at Melrose Abbey, not too far from Newark.
The Douglas family would become too powerful for the Scottish royal house of Stewart, almost eclipsing the royal family in power and prestige. In 1440, the 16 year old William, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, were invited to a feast in Edinburgh Castle, in the presence of the ten year old puppet-ruler King James II. All was well until a black bull’s head was carried into the Great Hall. A bull’s head was a potent symbol of death and this was placed before the Earl. The two young men were then dragged into the courtyard and after a mock trial, beheaded for treason. The event would live on in infamy as The Black Dinner, and inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’.
A short rhyme commemorates the event:
Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower, God grant ye sink for sin; And that even for the black-dinner, Earl Douglas gat therin.’
The Douglas power was extinguished for a while. Newark Castle was taken in the name of the King and became a royal hunting lodge, surrounded by the dense Ettrick Forrest. The arms of King James III and his Queen, Margaret of Denmark, were emblazoned in stone above the entrance.
The almost continual wars with England in the 1500s saw many churches, towns and castles in the south burned and Newark was one of these, but it was restored again.
Worse was to follow, though, during the brutal Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1645, a Great Plague year, a horrible travesty of justice would take place. As the civil wars in Scotland and England and the Irish Wars played out, around 100 Royalist soldiers, their wives and children were captured and held in the castle’s courtyard in the aftermath of the battle of Philiphaugh (although some say as many as 400 in total). There, they had faced the Army of the Covenanters, under the command of David Leslie**, a professional solider for hire, who had previously served the Swedish Empire and the Tsar of Russia.
(Left)David Leslie. (Right) Marquis of Montrose
The Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians, galvanised into a movement following the disastrous attempts of King Charles I to impose perceived Anglican forms of worship on the Church of Scotland. This, less than a century after the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was a catastrophe from which King Charles would never recover. Although born a Scot, in the royal Palace of Dunfermline in Fife, Charles was very much a King of England who continually failed to understand the religious or political landscape in Scotland. From riots in the streets, to fully-fledged armed conflicts with the Royalist forces of the king, the Covenanters were fully embroiled in civil war in Scotland.
At Philiphaugh, on the banks of the Yarrow, the two sides met in the early morning mist. Some 4,000 Covenanters faced a Royalist force of half that size, under the leadership of the poet-soldier, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. Montrose’s hopes would end at Philiphaugh, although he himself would live to tell the tale, for a short time, at least.
The defeated Royalist troops and their camp followers – often the wives and children of the soldiers, in addition to merchants, laundry workers and the like – were shot, executed by the Covenanter Army where they stood, in cold blood. The Covenanters perhaps paused, briefly, before committing this terrible act, but they were, after all, an army convinced of their righteousness and Godliness. It no doubt helped that many of the prisoners were Irish and, or Catholic. Leslie would order a strikingly similar massacre at Dunaverty Castle, Argyll, in 1647.
A mass grave was seemingly discovered in the early 1800s in a field near Newark named Slain Men’s Lea, which seems to have become the victims’ final resting place.
On the anniversary of this dreadful deed, September 13, the cries of the victims are said to echo still. Their terrifies screams, echoing through the gaunt ruin.
Newark was damaged further during the war years that followed, but restored again for Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch – apparently the last inhabitant. On her death, the Castle was stripped of its finery and abandoned. The new mansion of Bowhill, nearby, a more comfortable and modern residence. Slowly, Newark fell into ruin, although still stands more or less complete to the wallhead.
Sadly, Newark seems to be open very rarely. Perhaps, the echoes of the past are louder inside than out! It is a remarkable building, with a fascinating story. Maybe one day, more can be made of it and public access allowed. But perhaps a place to avoid in mid-September.
**Changing sides, like many nobles, Leslie was ennobled by the restored King Charles II, as the first Lord Newark. This new title was named after the Leslie family’s Newark Castle in Fife, not this one! However, was a title that also – however inadvertently – recalled a massacre a sly judgement from the new King?
It seems like a very long time to have been here. But also no time at all.
It isn’t possible to remember where I was. Before here. But I must have been somewhere. Or, maybe not.
Nothing has changed but everything has changed. There’s a pile of rocks over there, just before the broken tree but after the little river. That pile of rocks used to be bigger. And there were people living in it. Before them there were other people. And the pile of rocks was tall. And other people came to the place and threw fire at it. And the people inside were eventually pulled out and cut down on the flat earth outside. Then they all went away and I was left by myself. Waiting. As the rocks began to fall, one by one.
And the trees! The trees have been and gone many times. Once, about as far back as I can remember, the trees were everywhere. There were trees in the very bottom of the valley, right up to the tops of the hills. There were hardly any people, which made waiting all the more boring. But, still, there were trees and trees and trees.
I’m not even sure why I am waiting.
But I am good at it. Every now and then, someone comes close and I stop waiting. But it seems that in the past little while, there have been fewer people coming close. So, I have started to not wait. But to go. This has made all of the difference. The last one. That was funny. He made…I think it was he…he made funny little noises, like words but not like words. Just sounds. He looked sad at the end. It made me feel sad. But not for very long.
I walked to a new place. I went very slowly, so that he wouldn’t hear me. I do this sometimes. It makes the surprise better.
This new place is a very old place that I knew a long time ago. There’s a rock in the middle of a field. There were many more rocks here before, but not now. The man who lives in the big, white house in the valley is the last of a line of men who took the other rocks away a long time ago. But I remember when there were many rocks. There were people here as well. They thought no-one could see them, but I could see them, through the trees. While I waited.
I think I will go back there again. Yes, I will go. And when I get there I will wait. I will not have to wait for long.
The mist was rippled by a slight breeze as he walked across the gravel to the porch and the front door. The tops of the pines at the far side of the field over the road were still hidden, but it looked as if the mist was finally moving away. The eerie, quiet whiteness unnerved him. It was when the world was at its most still that unfortunate things happened. Or so it had seemed.
He looked back along the road as he reached into his pocket for the keys. He was expecting a delivery this morning and didn’t want to miss the lorry. He was completely out of Thomas The Rhymer and his regulars wouldn’t let him off another night without any. Silly buggers, there were plenty of other bottles of cider, ales and spirits. Creatures of habit, though, the local ale was his best seller to his regulars and he’d be buggered to lose money if he could help it. No sign of the lorry, he unlocked the door and walked into his pub. Turning on the lights, he smiled as he looked around the bar.
The Hoppringle was his pride and joy, which he knew was a bit of a cliché, but one that was true. Once a large farmhouse with a stone courtyard, for at least two centuries it had served the old road as an Inn. Built of solid, stone walls, it was, he thought, a rather beautiful place. Bare wooden floors shone with a polish and colour that only the passing of time could provide. The grey walls inside showed the old prints on the plastered walls to good effect, sharply contrasting with the golden wood that panelled parts of the room. Just right.
The marks in the wooden door and window frames were all intact, he was relieved to see, and he’d already noted that there was no sign of any disturbance in the gravel outside the pub. All good, then, he sighed.
He took the log basket he’d filled the previous evening from the log store outside up to the pot-bellied stove in the corner and started building a fire to warm the bar up. He could see his breath in the air, even inside, on days like this. It was always noticeably colder up here on the ridge road, compared to down in the village. He shivered and stood up from the stove, taking from his pocket the red yarn wound tightly around an old bobbin. In his other pocket, he felt for the little plastic envelope which contained the berries and rowan twigs. He’d see to this later, he thought.
A sharp blast of a loud horn announced the arrival of the draymen. At least Janey wouldn’t have to endure another night of moaning from the locals, providing the keg of Thomas was here. And where the hell wasshe anyway? Not like her to be late.
He walked across the room, checking that the fire in the stove had taken, towards the door. He pulled it open and met Lanney, his regular brewery drayman. Lanney was scratching under his wooly hat with a pencil. He liked Lanney. One of the good guys around here. He was also a regular, which still struck John as odd. He’d be as well drinking at work and saving time and money than trecking up to the pub.
‘Alright, Lanney,’ he said.
‘Hiya John. Six kegs, aye?’
It was at least half an hour later than Janey finally arrived.
‘Afternoon, Janey’, said John.
‘Aye, very good, John. I’m not that late. I’m sorry, the bus was ridiculously behind,’ she replied, as she hurried across to behind the bar, taking her coat off as she walked. ‘I’d have called you, but you know what the signal’s like at the stop?’
‘Aye, alright Janey, no bother. The brewery delivered, so at least we’ve got Thomas for tonight.’
‘Thank God for that. I couldn’t be bothered having Roddie whining on and on again, like last night’.
John smiled. Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.
Around five o’clock, the pub was warm, cosy and beginning to get busier again. Outside, the land had disappeared into the night. The mist had cleared during the day and now it was cloudless and very cold. A slight frost was glistening already and, judging by how many stars glowed overhead, it was to be colder still. The sky had that faint snow smell that the farmers knew well. By the end of the week, the snow would cover the hills, much later than normal this year. Inside, the lamps gave off a warm, subdued glow. The music in the background was just right with Maddy Prior’s voice just audible above the friendly conversations that were taking place.
Roddie was perched on his usual stool by the bar, a pint of Thomas in one hand and a vaporizer in the other. He was chatting to Janey, his left leg bouncing up and down repeatedly, as always happened when he was talking about something he had an opinion on. On this occasion, Brexit. John watched them both from the corner of his eye as he collected empties from across the room. The pub has been busy that afternoon, thanks to the ramblers from Gala. Janey was smiling slightly at Roddie, whilst she twisted willow stalks in her hands.
John could tell that Janey was enjoying the chat, even if her expression said otherwise. She was used to the peculiarities of his customers after all these years. Roddie was harmless. Just lonely. And far too bloody chatty. It must be difficult for him, though, stuck up at Cauldhaugh ever since Malcie had gone.
Thinking of Malcie always made John’s cheeks burn red and he was thankful that no-one was watching him. He gathered up the empty glasses and took them behind the bar to the sink. Roddie was still talking, but John wasn’t listening. It was only when Janey touched him lightly on the arm that he began to listen again. Janey leaned in closely, turning her back on Roddie. Roddie didn’t seem to notice, or care, that his audience was moving away. Maddy Prior had been replaced by Toni Arthur and Roddie was now in full song.
‘Did you see that there’s been another one, John?’, she asked.
‘Another what, Janey?’
‘You know what. At the Sentinel Stone, this time.’
‘Ach, Janey, that was early last year. You must have seen the posters, surely? It was all over the news, too’, said John.
‘No. I didn’t. I don’t know why. That was when I went to Edinburgh, to the University, to see Bethan. But, John, The Sentinel Stone. It’s getting closer. That can’t be good, can it? What does it mean?’.
Janey looked a little scared, he was surprised to see.
“It was last February, Janey. I think we’re okay now.’
Janey wasn’t convinced. ‘You saw the marks on the wood, didn’t you? That daft bugger’s been trying to erase them, hasn’t she? She thinks if she rubs them out, it’ll let it loose, doesn’t she?’
John stopped polishing the pint glass he was holding. He turned to look at her, smiling.
‘Janey. The marks are all still there. Not that that matters a bit. If that daft old bitch wants to play games, then let her. We’re safe. We follow the rules and we stay safe. Now, don’t worry. Go and see what Roddie wants, will you? He looks like he’s never had a drink in his life, the way he’s waving that pint glass at us like a loon.’
As she walked away, John’s eyes flicked to the dark grooves and patterns in the beams by the window. They all looked right. Didn’t they? He picked up another clean glass and polished it, without thinking.
The bus was late again. This wasn’t unusual and she didn’t mind at all. The sooner it arrived, the sooner she’d have to start work and that could wait. If only it was a bit warmer.
The mist still hadn’t shifted and that made her feel sad. This time of year usually did, but something had changed in the last month that she couldn’t quite explain. She shivered, drawing her collar higher up. Sighing, looking at her watch again, she shifted her position against the bus shelter seat that wasn’t a seat. It was more like a shelf that you had to prop up against. At her age, she could have done with a proper sit down.
She smiled. At her age, she shouldn’t be working at all, in which case she could be back in her cottage in front of the fire. Life hadn’t quite worked out as planned, though, had it?
She stood up, trying to stamp some warmth into her legs. She turned, glancing at the notices someone had taped to the scarred plastic windows in the shelter. Two new homemade posters begged for help in finding missing cats. Peachy and Sparky. One black, one white. Ebony and Ivory, she hummed.
The older posters carried other photographs. Missing: Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn. Last seen, 17/01/18 on the Borders Towers Way near Scarrigg Water. And, next to the fading photograph of the German student, his friendly, bearded face fading as the seasons bleached the printer ink, another face. Missing – Aylie Liddel, 17, from Galashiels. Last seen walking near the bus stop at the Sentinel Stone, February 2019.
She sniffed. The hopes that these folk had, desperate to see their loved ones again. She had felt like that once, long ago. She remembered putting notices up, full of expectation and terror, checking every day for months that her posters could be seen. She had walked the paths around the village and beyond the valley every other day, terrified of missing a call from the Police but fearful of doing nothing but wait. That’s when she had started going to The Hoppringle. At first, it was to talk with the landlord, John, to see if there was any news. Then, to talk with the customers to see if they could help her; locals mostly but with hillwalkers and cyclists regularly visiting. No-one ever had any news of any use. Visiting more frequently, she had become a regular herself without realising. After a few months, John had asked if she needed work, with money not coming in any more. Her job there had now lasted a little over fifteen years. And still, she had no news. Or, rather no news that anyone sane would believe.
The Hoppringle Inn was one of the best old pubs in the county. Everyone said so. At least two hundred years old – the souvenir T-shirts and mugs claimed 400 years – the pub was a sturdy stone building, two storeys tall and cosy in winter with the fires burning. Halfway along the Towers Way, the pub had become increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists and less so with locals. Nothing to do with the influx of strangers and more to do with drink driving checks and the smoking ban, there was still a loyal following of Borders who still visited regularly. Real Ales, dogs welcomed and football barred, she loved it. John’s only concession to the outside world was a jukebox and a fading Saltire fluttering outside, the word Yes printed across it. Were it not for these intrusions, the pub could be a hundred years ago. That’s what folk said.
She shivered again. Where the hell was the bus? It was definitely getting colder. She took out her mobile, wondering whether to call John. The wind picked up, her coat flapped around her legs and she tightened her belt, hugging her arms together and hopping from foot to foot. No cars had passed on the road for some time. She wondered if Alasdair would be on his way soon. Or, maybe, Mary. Either would be able to give her a lift, as the pub quiz would be sure to include them both. It usually did.
It was beginning to get dark, now. The bus stop was in an exposed spot, overlooking the river valley. The dry stane dykes that lined the verges on either sign of the road providing a bit of a shelter, but this was a bitterly cold place to have to wait. The Hawthorns and Scots Pines that managed to grow here were more twisted and stunted than elsewhere, showing their shared history of storms and high winds that blew along the valley. Only gorse seemed happy here, and the rough, shaggy grass that grew in strange waves and bumps on the ground. Too far outside the village to be useful to most, she normally had the shelter to herself. Only occasionally did anyone from Calzeanie Farm use the stop, preferring their pick ups or ATVs to the infrequent buses.
She began to think that maybe she should retrace her steps, back down the hill and home. She could call John and explain. He’d understand. She turned round, unsure of what to do next. Her eye caught the face of Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn. Glancing again at his poster, an email address begged for information to be sent to Helmut and Suzie Drewes.
Oh, Helmut, Oh, Suzie. That’s not going to happen, is it, loves? Not now. She had received no good news fifteen years ago and nor, now, would they. Eventually, she was sure, they would move beyond grief but they would never be able to understand what had happened to poor, handsome, friendly Jakob. Nobody could possibly understand. Except the Shelly Coat, of course. The Shelly Coat knew why, when and where. But would never tell.
The red and cream bus was announced by the sound of hissing breaks, bringing her back to the present. She climbed aboard, nodding her usual greeting to Tam the driver. Wearily, she sat down, thinking of the Hoppringle and the work that awaited.
The mist which was hiding the tops of the hills and sinking, reaching, down into the valley, had not budged in two days. The trees which, when lit by bright autumn sunshine, had looked golden, ruby red, now looked ill. Diseased. Jaundiced. Most had lost their leaves, almost overnight.
Every frond on each fern he could see, looked sharp and slick, moisture glistening in the pale, grey light. The relief in which he saw everything seemed far too sharp today, despite his pounding headache. The brambles’ long stems which were covered in sharp thorns, seemed to reach toward him as he slid and slipped and tried to find his way back to the path.
He had left the farm very early, when it was still dark. All he wanted was quiet and to be alone. Already, though, the record player had been opened, with a very old recording of Annette Hanshaw’s Little White Lies playing. Again. Leaving the song crackling away in the empty kitchen, he’d slipped out of the door, trying to close it without the usual loud clunk of the latch.
Clear of the house, crunching as quietly as he could across the frosty gravel, he’d felt his mood lighten just by leaving the farm behind and climbing up the gentle slope that led from the house to the stile beside the tree-line and the way to the hills above. That had been four hours ago.
Now, as he reached the crest of a small, pointed hill, he sat down on a large rock. The rock was one of his favourite places to walk to, the size of a door, rounded by centuries of frost, wind and rain. When his brother has still been here, they had played up here as children, performing their spells at the ‘Druid temple’.
As he sat here now, he realised that his biggest problem was not that he wanted to be left alone. No, his biggest problem was that he was being left alone.
On social media, when he looked at what his friends were doing, he was one of the many Thumbs Ups, Hearts or Likes , retweeting the hell of out of others. He watched the interesting, exciting lives of others: he watched the nights out and celebrations his friends were gathering at; the birthday parties that his friends with kids were organising; the holidays his old school mates were travelling to, grinning in anticipation of the sun to be. And he was never there. Years ago, he had been, in the background, smiling shyly. Or, overcompensating, he was in the forefront, drunk and performing – glad to be someone else for a night. But, now, he gave his unasked for approval to remote and increasingly distant folk who neither valued his Likes, or missed them when he failed to.
He could, he thought, sit on his rock, here, until he mouldered to a carcass and no-one would notice. He could retrace his steps back down and just wade into the winding river at the heart of the valley and disappear into the silver water. No-one would rise up in alarm, looking for him.
You could drown in a puddle. He was sure he’d heard that.
He could, he thought and warming to the subject, lie down on the rails that brought the trains through the valley, tracing a line close to the river or rushing away through the woods or fields. This would show them, he thought. Well, maybe not. Folk would notice, but only if they were trying to catch the hourly service to Edinburgh. It had happened before: the commutes cancelled by A Person Hit By A Train. We’re sorry to announce. Automated indifference. Makes a change from Train Faults.
He’d heard folk on the trains, moaning about the inconvenience of the delays, before. Lives lost, with delay repays offered in remembrance for the living. Providing you were inconvenienced for longer than thirty minutes, of course.
In the trees nearby, a loud sudden flapping of wings in the branches of a pine, brought him back to the present. Suddenly chilled by the mist, he shivered. Smiling slightly, he shook his head, disappointed in how quickly he’d turned his wake up bad mood and feeling of dread into his own private abyss. He stood up, patting his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. Finding the packet and his lighter, he lit one, puffing out a couple of clouds of smoke which vanished into the mist. He turned and made his way back to the path which led down the hill, though the wood.
The path he was following was really little more than a rough sheep track which ran downwards towards the river valley below. The woods he was walking in were ancient, mostly of birch, oak and Scots Pine. Red squirrels sometimes made themselves known to him, but mostly this was a place of buzzards and deer. Very few folk made their way up here from the village. The other paths that led through the big house’s estate was where the joggers, dog walkers and kids on their bikes went. Up here, beyond their farm, the road came to an end after about a mile and then the old, old wood was all there was. Unless you were looking for the hill fort higher up, the other ruined farmhouse, or the stone he’d been sitting on, there was no other reason to come up here. The valley stopped beyond the wood, ending in a steep hill, beyond which there was nothing but a wind farm. No-one ever bothered coming to this wood, except him and the sheep. The wood, dense and dark, had been left alone for a very long time and he hoped it would always be left alone.
After twenty minutes or so, he emerged from the wood and continued to walk down over the rough pasture that covered the slope of the hill. Now and then, he passed alongside the stone dykes, covered in thick green moss, many of which had collapsed. Cubist, alien plantations of pine interrupted his view and his path, forcing him to follow their sharp outlines and rough, awkward corners and climb over a number of metal gates. The path, heavily rutted by the tractor now, led along a level that led to an older, wooden gate. This marked the end of the farm and the start of the neighbouring estate, vast and empty. Up here, the south felt like the north, rugged and remote. It could be Sutherland or Caithness, if you didn’t know better. He liked this empty place, the path continuing to another, ruined farm. No-one had lived here for over one hundred years and the farmhouse was a broken, stone shell.
Surrounded by an intricate maze of stone dykes that led to a courtyard, the old house had long ago lost its roof, windows and floors. All that remained was a gaunt, stone wall, broken by where folk had once sat, looking out at the weather, their rooms cosy by firelight or lamps. He went inside what had once been the front door.
Chimney pots perched on each gable, like fingers pointing, while in one space that had once been a room, a cast iron fireplace still stood. Looking out of the space for a window, he would have been able to see up the valley on a good day. Today, though, with the mist still thick, he could only look across the empty, rough grasses of the former fields. Beyond, the valley and village remained hidden. In what had once been a small garden, the metal support for a single bed mattress lay flat, grass growing through the diamond-shaping gaps between the stretched wires still held by the bed frame.
He sat on a stone step and lit another cigarette. At his foot, a faded Irn Bru can lay rusting in the dirt. He kicked it aside with his boot, angry at this modern intrusion to his own private world. Raising his eyes, he looked for the old milk bottle he’d found here years ago, half-buried in the ground. It was still there, where he had left it. The word Kelso raised along one side. He wondered again how long it had been here. Had it been here on the day the tenants left this house for the last time? The farm, still known – if anyone ever bothered speaking about it at all – by the name Rowancross – was one of the oldest settlements in the valley. It survived for hundreds of years, until the twentieth century. He didn’t know why it had been abandoned, but imagined some great tragedy. Maybe war? Or murder? Or maybe, the folk were scared away.
He shivered again. It was here that his brother, his stupid, annoying brother that he missed with all his heart, had first told him about The Shelly Coat. He stood up, nipping the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, dropping the scraps of unburnt tobacco on the ground and putting the cigarette butt in his pocket. Turning out of the front door, he looked round and, as always, said quietly, ‘Bye again’.
With lighter steps, he walked away from Rowancross, down the path to the road.
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.