Green Men. Part one.

Like King Arthur, Robin Hood is most firmly associated in the world’s collective imagination with England – and specifically Sherwood Forest.  However, as with King Arthur, when we look back in history we find that myth, legend and established history are not quite so simple and both these strange, alluring figures also have links to the place we now call Scotland.

Indeed, many of the earliest written references to Robin Hood, can be sourced from southern Scotland and not England.  The important 15th century history of Scotland  Scotichronicon begun by John of Fordun in the 14th century and completed by Walter Bower, Abbot of Inchcolm, in the 1440s, contains possibly the first written mention of Robin Hood – but as a very old legend.

John of Fordoun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum or Chronicles of the Scottish People was concluded, unfinished, around 1385 and lamented the lack of older records which were destroyed during the almost continuous warfare of the 1300s.  Indeed, this first attempt to write a continuous history of Scotland was written as an expression of national identity  and in reaction to the invasion of Edward I of England – whom Bower describes as a tyrant whose invasion led to the destruction of much of Scotland’s ancient manuscripts and histories, during the Wars of Independence.  Bower extended the reach of this history, which he titled Scotichronicon, up to the murder of James I, King of Scots, in 1437.

The Scotichronicon is a fascinating insight into medieval Scotland.  The founding legend of the Scots as descendants of Scota, a daughter of  Pharoah, is included as is a passage on why many Englishmen have tails!

The reference to Robin Hood, under the year 1265, refers to

the famous armed robber, Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices.  The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing of them more than in other romances.  Yet some of his exploits thus recited are commendable…

An alternative translation starts this passage by calling him the famous murderer!   Robin, of course, is a nickname for Robert.  Robert Burns, Scotland’s eighteenth century national poet, for example, was never (never!) known as Rabbie Burns – despite the common use of this today – but he was, in his lifetime, known as Rob or Robin.

Fourdon / Bower mention Barnsdale in the English county of Yorkshire as the location of the tale of Robin Hood.  The passage concerns his devout worship and godliness, rather than glorifying some daring deeds.  It is interesting, though, that it is the celebration of the figure of Hood by the people that takes most of the author’s attention here.  Also notable is the fact that ballads or stories of Robin were not simply confined to England.  Like Arthur, the legend of Hood – or the spirit of who (or what) he represents – would cross national boundaries.

Around 1450, a ballad was written in Middle English, “A Gest of Robyn Hode” and may well be a printed version of a much older oral ballad or story, which travelling minstrels may have sung to audiences.

Lythe and listin gentilmen
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman
His name was Robyn Hode

Another ballad, “Robin Hood and the Munk” [Monk], was also published around 1450 in England and, like “A Gest‘, may incorporate much older folk ballads and tales, perhaps dating back to the period of the Wars of Independence in the 14th century.  That would help explain why the ballads and legend of Robin had travelled around southern Scotland – minstrels perhaps accompanying the soldiers of the English army.  Robin seems to have been a central part of plays that were performed around May Day, in both England and southern Scotland. These plays included performances of tales of Robin Hood, dancing and feasting, celebrating spring and fertility in the land.  It is interesting that where May Day celebrations take place today, a man in green – or a Green Man – feature, including in the resurrected (or manufactured, depending on your point of view!) Beltane Festival in Edinburgh.

greenman

In the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that Robin, dressed in forest green attire,  was a symbolic figure taken from folklore or earlier folk-belief gained some support.  Margaret Murray, whose Witch Cult in Western Europe, became one of the set texts for those who claimed historical witchcraft to be alive and kicking into the modern era, claimed such.   Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the Green Man and others, besides, were proposed by a number of different authors as being a nature spirit, or remnant of pagan Briton’s ancient belief system.  It’s also worth remembering that green clothing was associated with Fairies and also featured in witchcraft confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

robinhoodnadsirguy

The idea of continuous witch cults, surviving from the pre-Christian era into the present day is an idea which still divides opinion, academic and popular, to this day.  Now, however, there is little mainstream support for the idea that Robin was some type of spiritual entity, linked to the woodlands – an erstwhile nature spirit or guardian.  But, the idea still appeals to many.  To some, Robin Hood is a simple corruption of Robin of the Wood, a green god which lingered on long after Christianity replaced (partially?) the Old Ways.

Supporters of this idea claim that this is why the figure of the Green Man can be found in so many medieval churches.  The term Green Man is modern – dating to a 1939 volume of The Folklore Journal, where Lady Raglan wrote of  “The Green Man in Church Architecture”. Jack-in-the-Green is an alternative that has been used, as has Herne, Cernunnos, Bacchus and, of course, Rob or Hob.  The origins of the figure and the reasons why he has appeared carved in some many churches and temples around the world is obscure. Examples can be seen from Saint Magnus’ Cathedral, Orkney; to Nicosia, Cyprus; Istanbul and beyond.

In Scotland, the image is more rare, but can be found in spectacular detail in Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, with over 100 different appearances in this spectacular building.

There is also at least one little green man in Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire which, not surprisingly is less well known that his near neighbour, the bagpipe-playing pig.  But more on this another time…

 

A Loch without a bottom and a lot of Bull

Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford is well worth a visit (when the current lockdown eventually ends!), for it’s fantastical architecture and antiquarian collections. It’s a place of romance and legend, showing the character of the author of Waverley, Ivanhoe and Red Gauntlet – the J. K. Rowling of his day.

Abbotsford

The estate that surrounds Scott’s conundrum castle is important for its pioneering landscape and beautiful walks.  It was only last year that I learned of Scott’s passion for forestry and his great planned arboretum.  Abbotsford became one of the first and largest re-imagined woodlands anywhere.   In its heyday, the estate reached some 1400 acres, as Scott bought farm after farm, creating the landscape visible today.  Bankruptcy would see the estate shrink back to the 120 acres looked after by the Abbotsford Trust today.  An army of volunteers help the Trust to restore and maintain a vast network of paths and the historic gardens.

Many dignitaries would call on Scott during his lifetime here – often to his annoyance – given his global fame as an author: the visiting book in his house notes such celebrities as Oscar Wilde among its pages.

The estates contain as much romance and history as the mansion.  At one point, the lands included an area promoted as being the haunt of the legendary Thomas the Rhymer.  Scott allowed and actively encouraged free access to his estate, except for the private gardens immediately next to the house, unlike many other landowners at the time, or since.

Another visitor hosted by Scott may be of interest to those of a slightly gloomy, supernatural disposition.  Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, visited Scott in 1817.  Paying homage to Scott, Irving would then travel to Newstead Abbey,  the gothic seat of the late Lord Byron.

His journal of the visit was published in 1835 and evokes a warm, image of the man and his house, his dogs and grimalkin, the cat:

The evening passed away delightfully in this quaint-looking apartment, half study, half drawing-room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of “Arthur,” with a fine, deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a rich treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such a place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture.

While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin, already mentioned, had taken his seat in a chair beside the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

Scott accompanied Irving around his lands, including up a carriage route which travels uphill from Abbotsford towards a loch, Cauldshiels.  It is a very pleasant route – we walked it in the height of summer and did not see another soul!

Cauldhsiels

Cauldshiels Loch was known then – and now – as being a special place, because of the water spirit or bogle that lies within its depths.  It was also said to be bottomless!

The sprite that haunted this place was a fearsome and enormous Water Bull – a supernatural being that is now less well known that it’s cousins, the kelpies or selkies. Water Bulls – known in Gaelic Scotland as tarbh uisge – were widely believed to be real well into the nineteenth century.  Said to be malevolent – or benign! – these creatures lurked in the depths of lochs, but could shapeshift into human form and wander on land.  They were feared but also thought useful as they were less of a threat to humanity than their enemies, the terrifying Water Horses or Each Uisge.  Perhaps a remnant of pre-Christian, ancient animal worship, Water Bulls lingered in the popular imagination for centuries.

Scott mentioned the spirit to Irving, as they paddled across the loch in a small boat.   He recalled this in his book:

We had a pleasant row about the lake, which commanded some pretty scenery. The most interesting circumstance connected with it, however, according to Scott, was, that it was haunted by a bogle in the shape of a water bull, which lived in the deep parts, and now and then came forth upon dry land and made a tremendous roaring, that shook the very hills. This story had been current in the vicinity from time immemorial;—there was a man living who declared he had seen the bull,—and he was believed by many of his simple neighbors. “I don’t choose to contradict the tale,” said Scott, “for I am willing to have my lake stocked with any fish, flesh, or fowl that my neighbors think proper to put into it; and these old wives’ fables are a kind of property in Scotland that belongs to the estates and goes with the soil. Our streams and lochs are like the rivers and pools in Germany, that have all their Wasser Nixe, or water witches, and I have a fancy for these kind of amphibious bogles and hobgoblins.”

Whether Irving believed this tale or not, is not made clear.  What is certain is that Irving seems to have developed a genuine friendship with and admiration of Scott.  His journal is well worth reading and it’s still in print, or available free online.

The path that leads away from Cauldshiels is now part of the Borders Abbey Way – a trail we hope to follow when we can.

On the day we visited, we saw no sign of the Water Bull, although I do remember hearing a surprisingly loud Moo! at one point…

 

 

A Pious Massacre

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

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?

 

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.

 

A local ghost story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil comes calling… Part One.

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

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The old and new Parish Kirks in Stow of Wedale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witches circle

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

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

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

But men, were accused of witchcraft.  In my last post, I mentioned that one of the six accused of witchcraft was described as a Man of Lauder.   I’ve been wondering about this man ever since.  Our wonderful Parish archivist and author Mary W Craig (whose excellent Border Witch Hunt book came out last  year) has suggested that he was of wealthier stock that the others, whose family could pay to have his –  their – name removed from the records.  Sounds likely.  Doubtful they had enough money to save him from the stake, though.

Witch!

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

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

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

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But, imagine an average double decker bus.  Then imagine four of them, full of people.  That’s roughly how many people were taken from their homes, interrogated and cruelly put to death.  That we know of.  Accused by neighbours, relations, clergy, friends.  It is horrifying.  And are we really so different to the folk back then?

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

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

Jonet Henrison

Marion Henrison

James Henrison

Isobel Thompson

Margaret Dunholme

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

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

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

Witch-pricking_Needles00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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