A Hatful of Hauntings

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?

Abbotsford

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.

1532500c7a070642a944cdbdb7ccd600
The Library, Abbotsford

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!

Peebles

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.

Neidpath
Neidpath Castle

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…

Traquair House

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!

Traquair
Traquair

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.

Littledean

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.

g3636

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

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.

IMG_7529
Jedburgh Castle Jail

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.

An A-Z of Wyrd Scotland

Image

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…

Green Men. Part two.

The origins of the ‘Green Man’ which can be seen in medieval churches, Victorian graveyards and New Age shops, is one that has many contradictory versions depending on where you look.

To some, as mentioned in the previous post, he represents a nature spirit; to others, he is an echo or remnant of the head cult of the the ancient Celts.  To others, still, he is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, whether that of Christ or of the world.

Supposedly one of the, if not the, oldest depictions of a Green Man in a Christian setting can be found in the Church of Ste Hilaire, in Poitiers, France – a basilica dating to the 10th century.  The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and can be found of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

saint-hilaire      download

Church of Ste Hilarie, Poitiers

Carved on a tomb which is suggested as dating to the  early 5th century CE, the face of a green man looks at us clearly,  after so many centuries.  A Christian appropriation of an earlier symbol?  Possible, as Christianity adopted the places and trappings of Pagan worship as it advanced across Europe.

5th century Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul, on the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople,  show a face we could recognise as the Green Man, but to the creators of these beautiful images, they may  have known him as: Achelous, the God of Water and Rivers in Greek and Estruscan culture; Bacchus, Roman God of wine, fertility and agriculture, whom the Romans borrowed from the Greek Dionysus and whom may have been a Hellenic version of Osiris…; a Wild Man, representing the Pagan and therefore uncivilised, barbaric heathens yet to be enlightened.  No-one knows.  But, given the reach of the Empire and the geographical location of Constantinople, it’s not a great leap of faith to see direct links and similarities with the mosaic face and the earlier Hindu carvings of the Indian sub-continent or Parthian Empire of the Middle East, which show similar designs.

dd77b1da9b0fbd533cf6b8889aea3b9f      220px-Hatra-Ruins-2008-3

Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Instanbul (left).  Hatra, Iraq,  2nd century, CE (right) 

Whoever he is, his image has been carved thousands of times.  Perhaps, he is nothing more than a style of decoration, an artistic motif.  Just like, say, a stylised sun with a face, or a moon, a creative design that proved popular and so was replicated.  Scotland, an ancient European nation with cultural links to the continent and further afield, would see churches and monasteries built through the centuries, often by craftsmen from the continent.  They brought with them their skills and their craft, but also their ideas and cultural influences.

In Culross, Fife, we can see more Green Men.  At the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey, built in the 13th century on the site of an older monastic site, a carved frieze survives. Two green men, at either end of a vine? branch, can clearly be seen.  Like so many similar designs, they have foliage sprouting (or vomiting?!) from their mouths.

4daf46e63ea9e4ecc6fab357a822f351

Culross Abbey

Interestingly, the older religious community at Culross was said to have been founded by Saint Serf, adoptive father of Mungo – later canonised as Saint Kentigern – who would go on to baptise Merlin! (More on this later!)  Early Christian stones found here date back to the 700s or 800s, showing that the site was religiously important for many centuries before the Abbey was built.  The Protestant Reformation of 1560, the religious revolution that converted Scotland from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, saw the Abbey closed and allowed to fall into ruin.

Similarly, Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire, fell into ruin after the Reformation.  Here, another Green Man can be seen, although somewhat eroded.   Melrose was also a Cistercian Abbey – the first in Scotland – and founded by King David I in 1136.  One of the finest examples of medieval religious architecture on the island of Britain, it is well worth visiting.  In addition to the Green Man, the heart of Robert I The Bruce lies here and there are many other beautiful carvings to see.

9e50403befc37cf3999de69157b35048    bagpipe-playing-pig-at

Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire 

The Green Man here tends to be overlooked by visitors who are searching for a better-known carving on the facade of the church: the bagpipe-playing pig.  This is understandable, as this happy looking porcine musician is a fun reminder that church-builders had a sense of humour!

The High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles’ Cathedral, claims to have 66 Green Men, although I confess to having missed virtually all of these the last time I visited.  Once the Covid-19 lockdown ends – hopefully – I’d like to go back and try to discover them all.

e928b8edb117d959627aa3354ab48805      f838daf0bd99a8a305e47b8415521d16     c8bbdadb2ce8ad59009ab15d24fc86e3

(l-r) St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh; Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian; Roslin Glen, Midlothian.

The Holy Grail (!) for Green Men spotters, though, must be the magnificent Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian.  Famous worldwide as a result of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, much has been written about the mysteries of this spectacular building – with its elaborate carved interior.  One hundred or so Green Men can be found inside, with the most famous looking more than an little mischievous (above).  Less well known is the more naturalistic Green Man, carved into living rock in the valley below the Chapel, Roslin Glen.  The legends concerning the glen would fill a book, with everything from sightings of Robin Hood – yes, him again! – to hidden temples, spectral hounds and UFOs!  You get your money’s worth here, if you like that sort of thing!  I’ll feature Roslin again, sometime soon.

The Green Man is a symbol which can be interpreted in different ways, to suits people’s own beliefs.  It seems likely that a figure which is part-human, part-vegetation in its most basic form illustrates humanity’s dependence or interdependence with the natural world, divine or otherwise.  The Green Man’s origins may be lost in time, but in the second half of the last century and now into our own, the appeal of a spirit of nature and of man’s vital reliance on the environment, is a compelling one.  As we endure years that are routinely hotter than every previous one, as climate chaos moves us ever closer to near-future scenarios that we pretend are unthinkable, the totem of an Earth deity is one we may cling to more fervently than before.  With extinction rates increasing and global warming already near the point of no-return, perhaps, we all need to be the Green Man.

 

The Shelly Coat: part four

Waiting.  Just waiting.

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 Shelly Coat: part three.

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 was she 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 Shelly Coat: part two.

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 Journey Begins

Eight months ago, my partner, my cat and I moved house, with a good few hundred books, multiple boxes of plates, cups and brass candlesticks, heavy old furniture, pot plants (that is, plants in pots) and sundry stuff.  And Tupperware. LOTS of Tupperware.  We moved from Fife to another part of Scotland that we were none too familiar with: Selkirkshire in the Scottish Borders.

We moved to a house built in 1879, standing in its own grounds, in the heart of a village (population approximately 700).  A friend of mine said “Every house you’ve lived in looks like the set of a horror film”.  She might well be right.

We’ve unpacked the books, but not so many boxes of plates (there really were too many of them) and have mastered how to light the fires in the old house we now live in.  Somehow, we’ve run out of Tupperware.  We’ve discovered what grows in the slightly untamed garden.  We’ve frozen ridiculously large amounts of rhubarb.  Will this prove to be a good move? Time will tell.

What is clear is that the little village we’ve moved to is incredibly old, with legends dating back to around the ninth or tenth centuries.  We’re in the centre of Arthurian legend, in the old, old kingdom of Y Gododdin and the heart of the most ferocious witch-hunts of the 1600s.  There are haunted woods and ancient standing stones, isolated, gaunt ruined castles and the smashed remnants of great abbeys.  It’s also breath-takingly beautiful and quite remote-feeling at times.  Yet, every day we commute for under an hour to Scotland’s Capital city.  So far, I think it’s the best move we’ve ever made.  I hope I always feel like that!  I’ve always loved history and the supernatural.  I hope to write about both here.

One of the first things a villager said to me was “Oh, you live there?  Have you met the ghost yet?”  There’s not many ways to respond to that.  Well, it might have been fortuitous, as that is what gave me the idea for this blog.  Spooky, old stuff.  Bit witchy.  Bit ghostly.  Bit Merlin-y…

But this blog is really more like a journal for myself, noting stuff I like and find interesting.  Hopefully you will too…  If you don’t, there’s really no need to let me know.

Borderlands1

“Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.” Jung