Home Heritage Spooky

Too many witches spoil the broth?

By Johnny Campbell
Edinburgh Dungeons General Manager

All through history there has been a terror of the enemy within. They look and act like normal members of society, but hold strange beliefs and are secretly dedicated to the destruction of all that is decent and proper.

From reds under the beds to witches on broomsticks these most fiendish of foes have been pursued with zeal by the righteous. The fact that they were often more imagined than real meant that innocents were punished for umpteen vile and never-committed crimes.

This year is the 350th anniversary of the peak of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt, when one such outpouring of fear, hatred and persecution reached its zenith. It was something I had heard about, but didn’t appreciate just how vast it really was, until we started researching for the Edinburgh Dungeon’s special Halloween show called War on Witches.

A look at the University of Edinburgh’s  Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database identifies 404 women and men accused of witchcraft in 1662 alone (doubtless a major underestimate as many records have been lost or destroyed). Delving further, the numbers turn into people. For example there were Bessie Hendersone, Agnes Murie and Isabel Rutherford, three women caught up in the first of that year’s trials in the Crook of Devon. Their cases were heard by 15 respectable local landowners who lapped up the forced confessions of meetings with Satan and found in favour of ludicrous denunciations.

Bessie, Agnes and Isabel were ordered to be “taken away to the place … of their execution … and there to be stranglit to the death by the hands of the hangman, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes …” At least eight others followed from this small community alone.

Our own show is based on an earlier spike in the witchcraft frenzy, the North Berwick trials of the early 1590s which saw King James VI himself taking part in the interrogations. Here was someone with a childhood terror of the supernatural taking charge of investigations into an alleged Halloween plot to whip up sea storms to sink the ship on which he and his new bride were sailing. Probably not a blueprint for justice.

At another level, here was the ruler of a small and vulnerable northern realm which had undergone a Protestant reformation, had deep political and religious divisions, and faced all sorts of jitters about civil war, rebellion and invasion. It’s hard to imagine that anyone sat down and thought “hmmm, clear need for internal unity, let’s trump up a major Satanic plot against the monarch to unite everyone”. However, it’s always interesting to see how some ideas gain ground at particular times and others don’t.

What amazed me was just how many interests could be served by making someone else suffer. There might be a personal grudge – one man denounced a woman who wouldn’t sleep with him any more after he refused to support her when she became pregnant. Alternatively a condemned “witch” might be kept alive by the authorities in return for ”identifying” others of their kind.

Then again, there were the witch prickers who could make £6 per conviction and used the equivalent of stage daggers to make it look like Devil-protected witches were being stabbed with long needles but felt no pain. In another instance sixteen men from the Elcho area were called to Edinburgh for imprisoning, torturing and executing women they suspected of being witches. They were reprimanded.

Once caught up in the official processes many horrors could take place. And it’s hardly surprising that with few rights, little education and almost no hope, the wretched suspects would admit to almost anything. With bootikins (devices where wooden wedges were hammered into iron boots to crush the bones) on your legs it would be very tempting to agree that you had once used faerie charms to heal a sick child.

Oddly enough, the witch hunters did their job too well. The persecutors wanted everyone to know about the enemies within. So cases like those of Agnes Sampson, part of the supposed North Berwick coven, were made famous while the moral values of their killers have been truly buried. Barely had the ashes of her burned corpse ceased blowing through Edinburgh but scandal sheets were regaling an eager audience with tales of her grim Satanic rituals involving cats and the severed body parts of a dead sailor. In fact there are stories that her bald ghost (she was shaved in search of the Devil’s mark) still wanders the Palace of Holyrood House where she was royally interrogated.

Perhaps it’s the fact that we recognise that the real evil that stalked Scotland in the days of the witch hunts was purely human that has allowed us to elevate the black-hatted, rotten toothed Halloween witch into a figure of scary fun. That and the fact that deep within us there is still a primitive fear that makes us squirm delightedly at horror movies and ghost stories. Perhaps we also love the Halloween witch because ultimately she is safe. We’d much rather take our chances with the cackling crone with a potion than with the government official brandishing bootikins.

● War on Witches takes place between 8-31 October.

Scotland has provided a dramatic backdrop to many a murderous deed throughout history, a rich tapestry of intrigue, betrayal and death. Whether the beautiful Madeleine Smith did, indeed, poison her clingy Victorian lover Emile L’Angelier – despite a Not Proven verdict -continues to generate debate. The murder of Lord Darnley divides opinion and one can still opt to view Burke’s skeleton and death mask at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh.

Hell, we love a good murder with a bit of mystery thrown in for good measure. It’s like the weather; we can talk about it endlessly. Perhaps it is this love that makes it the most popular genre read in Scotland’s libraries and bookshops, and that passion has spawned generations of quality Scots writers, able to bring crime fiction to life.

It is certainly true that the genre of crime writing is particularly well served in Scotland, with high-calibre authors such as Alex Gray, William McIlvanney, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and Ian Rankin appearing regularly in the ‘Best Seller’ lists.

Thankfully, to service our appetite, the first dedicated crime writing festival north of the border is arriving cloak and dagger, infiltrating the centre of Stirling this weekend. Running from 14th – 16th September, Bloody Scotland will have 40 crime authors, 20 events and a diverse program to appeal to fans of historical, true, contemporary or teen crime fiction. Readings, discussions and debates should pique the interest of fans, while a Crime Writing Masterclass (in partnership with the University of Stirling) will help aspiring writers hone their technique.

Ian Rankin has been a great proponent of the festival, and at the launch last year offered his thoughts:
“Scottish crime writing continues to fire on all cylinders, and talented new voices keep appearing. Bloody Scotland is a long overdue celebration of Scotland’s favourite genre, one of its most successful cultural exports – and a chance to hear some of the most interesting international writers too.”

And there is plenty to celebrate, see and do, with a full program of events coming to fruition over the three days.

Author Alex Gray is joined by Professor Jim Fraser, director of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University, to discuss her personal forays into the gruesome world of post mortem examination, and to explain how she has used this to authenticate the female pathologist character in her novels. Elsewhere, Peter James and Professor Sheila McLean discuss the role of evil within the crime novel, the moral ground and whether it illuminates the darker side of our curiosity.

Being Stirling, the town has embraced the spirit of the festival. Crime and Punishment is based at the Old Town Jail and is the result of collaboration between Creative Stirling and the Bloody Scotland Festival. The plan is to host special events to celebrate the nation’s first Crime Writing Festival.

The first event will take place in the unique outdoor surroundings of Stirling Old Town Jail Yard to welcome visitors to the Festival. An evening of acoustic music and fine local beers from the Bridge Of Allan Brewery are lined up to keep guest oiled and mellow. There will be some blood-soaked ‘crime’ graffiti art being created live on site, as well as literature, locally produced artwork and fine prison stovies for sale to keep you hale and hearty, and to soak up all the beer.

Tickets for Bloody Scotland are available from the Albert Halls and Tolbooth, Stirling, theatre box offices. Call 01786 473544 or online from ticketSOUP.com

Next week sees the end of a year-long celebration of Scotland’s watery history, as the Year of Scotland’s Islands comes to a close. Throughout the year, events have been held on 42 of our inhabited islands, covering everything from piping to the sound of big bands.

But besides the many inhabited islands off Scotland’s coast, there are numerous uninhabited gems, with histories as rich as anything on the mainland. So join us here at The Caledonian Mercury as we introduce a mini event of our own, celebrating some of our less accessible and altogether less civilised islands.

Eynhallow, with Rousay beyond <em>Picture: Ian Balcombe</em>

Eynhallow, with Rousay beyond Picture: Ian Balcombe

Eynhallow, between Orkney Mainland and Rousay
The fair people of Orkney have long agreed that finned people and mermaids live among them. The sightings – and there have been many – centre on the now-deserted island of Eynhallow. These fishy people are described as being dark and swarthy, with long fins which act as cloaks to disguise their rather obvious absence of legs. And just like most Scottish towns, the merpeople have twinned their home of Eynhallow with Finfolkhaheen, a mysterious underwater city where they spend the winter.

If you see a merperson, the best advice is to run, as the finmen are known to abduct locals to marry their finwomen. It is small wonder mortal men are favoured by the mermaids, as marriage to a finman saps them of their youth, and turns them from beauty into beast.

Flannan Isles, 20 miles west of Lewis

Flannan Isles lighthouse <em>Picture: JJM</em>

Flannan Isles lighthouse Picture: JJM

On Boxing Day 1900, the Hesperusarrived at Eilean Mor on the Flannan Isles, having battled the Atlantic for days in order to bring relief to the lighthouse-keepers on the isolated island. The ship’s crew found the fires out, the beds unmade and the clock stopped. The three keepers – James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur – were nowhere to be found.

A rigorous search failed to turn up the missing men. An inspection of the lighthouse log showed it was written up until 13 December. The rescue team noted that on 15 December, a great storm had warped the jetty and twisted the railings. The ship’s crew concluded that a strong wind or a freak wave had cast the men into the water and certain death.

But a poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson succeeded in making a mystery out of what was undoubtedly a tragedy. Flannan Isle described the accident in terms of such foreboding that many concluded an altogether more complex conclusion was possible. People wanting a mystery did not have to look very far for their proof.

Superintendent Muirhead’s words on the state of the “twisted” railings were deemed to indicate some diabolical presence. There were oddities in the story such as the discovery of a set of oilskins, which indicated that one of the men went out of the lighthouse in a storm without protective clothing. Finally, any “natural” explanation for the disaster ran contrary to the rigid lighthouse-keeping rule that insisted one man stay in the lighthouse to guard the lamp, come what may.

Incredible theories sprang up: one of the men went insane and killed his colleagues before throwing himself off the island; a sea-monster dragged the keepers to a watery grave; and, finally, a much later theory claimed that the men were abducted by aliens.

North Rona <em>Picture: Roddy MacDonald</em>

North Rona Picture: Roddy MacDonald

North Rona, 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis
While not home to mystery or mermaids, you probably wouldn’t like to pack up and take off to North Rona. The most northerly of the Hebrides, it is thought to have been inhabited since the eighth century until, in 1685, a shipwreck off the coast led to an invasion of the black rat.

It is not known whether the rats ate all the food and the islanders starved, or whether the rats brought plague. What is known is that the rats got their comeuppance, as the wild weather meant that they themselves starved to death.

The island was repopulated, but this proved short-lived, as an unexplained boating tragedy in 1695 once more resulted in the whole population being wiped out. After this, it was decided that North Rona might be an inauspicious place to live.

A spooky epilogue to the island’s history recounts a tragic time in 1884, when two Lewis men, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, went to stay on Rona to look after sheep. Two months after their arrival, a passing boat found them in good spirits, but by April of the following year the two men were dead: a final grim toll from this most inhospitable of Scottish islands.

Ailsa Craig, seen from Ballantrae beach <em>Picture: Harriet Ellis</em>

Ailsa Craig, seen from Ballantrae beach Picture: Harriet Ellis

Ailsa Craig, 10 miles west of Girvan
Known affectionately as Paddy’s Milestone for its position halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, this volcanic plugoff the Ayrshire coast could have been yours – if, that is, you had the £2.5 million asking price and could have seen a reason for buying a rocky island that hosts the UK’s third-largest gannet population. Presumably not many people either had the will or cash, as this month the island was taken off the market by its owner, the Eighth Marquess of Ailsa.

The island has had a colourful past and many uses. In the 16th century it was a place of refuge for Roman Catholics during the Scottish Reformation, and the Spanish Armada had hoped to use it as a stopping-off point during its proposed invasion of Britain.

It was briefly used as a prison during the 18th and 19th centuries, then found itself reborn as a quarry, providing a rare form of granite to make curling stones. Eventually, nearly 80 per cent of all curling stones were made from this rock, including those used by the British ladies’ curling team who triumphed in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Rockall <em>Picture: Andy Strangeway</em>

Rockall Picture: Andy Strangeway

Rockall, somewhere in the North Atlantic
Rockall might be a small island, but it punches well above its weight in terms of importance and conflict. Though worthless in itself, the waters that surround it could potentially net billions, either through fishing or, more importantly, if oil and gas were discovered under the seabed. It is for that reason that the ownership of this tiny island is disputed.

In 1955, three Royal Marines landed on Rockall and promptly hoisted a Union Jack, claiming the island with a rousing: “In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this Island of Rockall”. The Island of Rockall Act 1972 declared the island to be part of Inverness-shire, a claim subsequently reiterated by the secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead, in 2011.

However, despite this rather old-fashioned method of claiming land, our European cousins have not released their claim – with Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Ireland still arguing for ownership rights. The issue is now with the United Nations, which is expected to decide this year who gets to keep this knobbly outcrop of potentially fantastically lucrative rock.

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Turnip lanterns <em>Picture: Paul Stainthorp</em>

Turnip lanterns Picture: Paul Stainthorp

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Once again Halloween is upon us, when witches and ghosts and cats and bats go from door to door, hoping for gifts of sweets or money. All this is very traditional, but some things have changed over the years.

Take the lantern, for example. A few decades ago the traditional Halloween lantern was a hollowed-out turnip, or neep in Scots, with a face carved on it and a candle placed inside it. The phrase “hollowed-out” sounds relatively effortless, but this is far from the case with regard to turnips, known in England as swedes.

I don’t know whether you have ever tried hollowing out a turnip, but the task is not for the faint-hearted or for the gentle-fingered. It is hard work and unsuited to anyone who lacks patience – and certainly unsuited to anyone who cares about the state of their hands.

The inside of a turnip is very hard and the word excavating, or better still the Scots howking out, is a much more appropriate description of the task than hollowing out.

No wonder then, in these days of speed and convenience, that the turnip has had to take a back seat when it comes to shedding light on Halloween. Our native vegetable has been usurped by an interloper, the pumpkin. This has undoubtedly made the making of Halloween lanterns much easier, since the flesh of the pumpkin is soft and easy to remove.

The pumpkin lantern has another advantage over the turnip lantern – although I am not sure if this was a factor in its takeover. It does not have the powerful and unpleasant smell that burnt turnip acquires as time goes by.

However, I personally prefer the turnip lantern. Perhaps this is partly because I faced the formidable task of making them for so many years and see no reason why others should not suffer as I did. But I also think that the turnip lantern looks more sinister and so more appropriate to the spirit of Halloween. The plump pumpkin can look altogether too jolly.

Other aspects of Halloween have also become less sinister-looking over the years. One of these relates to dressing up as a witch. Hitherto, the Halloween pretend-witch was meant to be a really ugly, scary creature with long black garments, a big hat and a broomstick. The black garments and the accessories remain, but attempts have been made to reduce the ugliness factor.

While staying more or less true to her roots, the Halloween would-be witch has frequently become glamorised. The flowing black garments are often now made of some flimsy material and shortened to at least knee level. Some are even trimmed with pink or other pastel colour.

This could be a result of the influence of Barbie and the like, but it could also be put down to the influence of commerce. Time was when children and parents raided the cupboards and put together home-made Halloween costumes. Some still do, but many more make their way to the relevant supermarket shelves or click on the internet.

This glamorisation of witches could also be something to do with the fact that more adults now seem to celebrate Halloween and dress up as witches and the like – although I think the practice is more common south of the border, where the American custom of Trick or Treat has become popular. It is certainly not the aim of adults with freshly made-up faces and expensively coiffed hair to look ugly and scary – hence the proliferation of glamorised witches.

It is not just at Halloween that the scariness has gone out of witches. When I was a child – which, admittedly, was a long time ago – I was absolutely terrified of witches, as many children were. I was haunted by a picture in a book depicting a Hansel and Gretel-style witch and was convinced that such a creature inhabited my wardrobe or the space under my bed. You may or not recall that a wicked ugly witch shut Hansel up in a cage to fatten him up with a view to eating him. Such was the image of witches then.

How things have changed. Now children’s fiction has several witches who present a benign, friendly image. Winnie the Witch, for example, may look quite scary, but she is presented as a well-meaning, harum-scarum creature with a good heart and a sense of fun. My witch was never like that.

Perhaps witches no longer cut it in the scary stakes because there are so many scary things around in children’s fiction and on DVDs, where terrifying monsters and aliens seem to abound. Maybe some of them will join the witches and ghosts and bats and cats in the quest for goodies on Halloween. Make sure you have stocked up with a plentiful supply of these.

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Fairy Land <em>Picture: Edward Reginald Frampton</em>

Fairy Land Picture: Edward Reginald Frampton

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Anyone who has recently read a story to a young female of the species cannot fail to be aware of the immense popularity of fairies in modern children’s fiction. Are these fairies a throwback to those which once played such an important role in Celtic tradition? Is history repeating itself?

Absolutely not. The modern fairy is a minute female who is very much a creature of her times. She is fashionably dressed in well-coordinated clothes, with modishly styled hair, the whole liberally sprinkled with sparkles. Above all, the fairy of today’s fiction is intent on doing good, both in fairyland and in the land of humans.

In the Celtic tradition of Scotland and elsewhere, by no means all fairies were out to do good. Admittedly, there were some kindly fairies who did good deeds to humans and these belonged to what was called the Seelie Court. The many fairies who were malicious and wicked belonged to the Unseelie Court. These mischievous creatures were dead set on causing as much harm as possible to humans and they were a powerful force for evil.

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As to clothes, some fairies were thought to wear green – but, apart from that, not much was known about their appearance. This is hardly surprising, as they were invisible for most of the time.

In modern children’s fiction, children – or at least little girls – are very anxious to meet up with fairies and they frequently do so. In former times, however, people were only too anxious to avoid the company of fairies and did their very best to ward them off.

Various things were called into play to help in this task. Horseshoes, then as now, were considered to be a symbol of good luck, but they were also regarded as a fairy deterrent. This was particularly effective if the horseshoe was made of iron, as would most likely be the case, since iron was regarded as a powerful deterrent to all malevolent supernatural creatures. The horseshoe was made even more of a threat to fairies if iron nails were used to fix it to door or the fireside.

A rowan tree planted near the threshold of the house was thought to keep at bay fairies and other forces of evil, such as witches. Other plant life was also used in the relentless struggle against fairies. Such plants included gorse, rosemary and dill, while St John’s Wort, now often used to ward off depression, was used to ward off fairies who were intent on stealing away humans while they were asleep.

It was a common part of fairy business to steal humans away. However, it appears that they mostly concentrated on the removal of human children. When they did steal away a human child, they would frequently leave a fairy child (called a changeling) in its place. The fairies’ most determined attempts at child-stealing were made between the time a child was born and the time it was baptised.

Much effort was concentrated on preventing the fairy invaders from carrying off a baby – or, indeed, the baby’s mother. Staying with the iron theme, someone in the household where there was a new-born baby might hammer a row of iron nails into the headboard of the bed where the new mother and baby were lying.

In some parts of Scotland, a pair of trousers belonging to the baby’s father was thought to frighten off fairies. The trousers were hung at the foot of the bed in which mother and baby slept. Sometimes the father’s shirt was used to wrap the new-born baby in, to stop the fairy thieves in their tracks. I do not know why fairies should be so afraid of male garments. It cannot have been that fairies were weak females who were afraid of men, because not all fairies in the Celtic tradition were female.

Human urine was another weapon used in the battle against the fairies. Presumably this could be supplied by a member of either sex. The urine was sprinkled on the doorposts of the front door or on the doorposts of the room where the baby lay. Apparently fairies found the smell of human urine extremely offensive and were likely to give it a wide berth. It cannot have been very pleasant for the humans in the house, either.

More pleasant-smelling was the practice of lighting a piece of fir-wood and carrying it three times around the bed where mother and baby lay. Alternatively, the lit wood was twirled three times round the heads of mother and baby. Poor things. They never seem to have got a moment’s peace when this fight against the fairies was being waged around them.

How would you know if the fairies had outwitted all attempts to stop them from making off with the baby and had left one of theirs in its place? Well, the fairy child was apt to be very pale, almost greenish in hue, and very frail-looking. They were said to seem to be always hungry and always crying, often with a particularly strange, pitiful cry. I know. That does sound like most babies, does it not?

Many Scottish changelings were thought to have a particular longing to play the bagpipes. They did their best to get hold of a set and if they did they could play them without receiving any tuition. Or was that skirling noise just their pitiful cry again?

If you suspected that the fairies had taken a baby and had left a changeling in its place, what action could you take? Well, you could get out the girdle. A girdle in this sense was not a female undergarment to pull the stomach in, but a flat cast-iron pan for making pancakes or scones on.

The girdle was placed on the open fire as though a baking session were about to begin. The child who was thought to have been dumped by the fairies was then held very near the girdle over the fire. If the child were indeed a changeling it would, supposedly, go straight up the chimney to be replaced by the real child who would come down the chimney.

The purpose of the girdle was to catch the baby who was returning home so that it would not land in the fire and get burnt. It presumably did not matter if the changeling suffered such a fate. There were various variations on this process and they all sound decidedly risky.

If members of a household failed to unmask a changeling at a very early stage, the outlook was not good for the changeling. When its identity was suspected, he or she might be subjected to ill-treatment, such as being left to suffer from exposure on a dung-heap, or might even be murdered. It has been suggested that the authorities might turn a blind eye to such treatment of changelings.

In more recent times, it has been proposed that children who were described as changelings were in fact not children of fairies, but human children who were developmentally disabled in some way. Many such disabilities would make them look different and this difference could be put down to the fact that they were fairy children. Unfortunately, this may have been considered to be more socially acceptable than having a disabled child in those unenlightened days.

There was a particular kind of fairy in the Celtic tradition that people did not want to ward off. This was a Brownie. A Brownie was a kind of nocturnal fairy who spent the night carrying out the household or farm tasks while members of the household were asleep. The said household members allegedly had to be hard-working and kind-hearted in order to qualify for Brownie help.

The work of Brownies did not go unrewarded. They were paid not in money, but in food – particularly milk, honey and porridge. Brownies were very fond of their food and could be temperamental. If one night the food was not put out, the Brownie might well go into a huff and storm off to households new.

I have long felt that a Brownie would make an ideal addition to my household. Alas, one has never come my way, although I consider myself to be both hard-working and relatively kind-hearted. Mind you, I do not like honey. That could be it.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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Fettes College. <em>Picture: Lee Kindness</em>

Fettes College. Picture: Lee Kindness

By Elizabeth McQuillan

I cannot walk past Fettes College in Edinburgh and not marvel at how much fun it would be to be a student there, especially if you had a room in one of the towers. Ornate spirals and turrets thrust themselves skywards, and the whole gothic structure suggests Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Fettes just seems too grand and fantastical to be used for the somewhat less enchanting job of schooling muggle children born to parents that can afford the fees. Tony Blair was one such muggle, as was the significantly more interesting fictional character, James Bond.

Actually, the school was founded on a legacy provided by Sir William Fettes (1750–1836) who was twice Lord Provost of Edinburgh. It was specifically meant to cater for the poor, orphaned and needy urchin boys of Edinburgh, providing them with a good education. Free of charge.

Fettes was a very successful and canny merchant – and this is where he made his money, trading in tea and wine during the Napoleonic Wars – military contractor and underwriter. There was plenty of demand for a stiff drink in a crisis. And tea. And money.

With his pots of cash, he bought the Estate of Comely Bank, as well as a few others: Arnsheen in Ayrshire, Redcastle in Invernesshire, Denbrae in Fife and Gogar in Midlothian. Fettes appears to have had a genuine care for his fellow humans – he was involved in many charities and showed concern for the welfare of the people of his city. He did serve as Lord Provost in 1800 and 1805, which was unusual given his relatively humble roots, eventually becoming a baronet in 1804.

Sadly, his only son died of typhoid in 1815 while off travelling in Europe. Unable to pass on his wealth to an heir, he bequeathed the enormous sum of £166,000 in memory of his son. He had considered building a hospital, but instead plumped for a school. His will stated:

“It is my intention that the residue of my whole estate should form an endowment for the maintenance, education and outfit of young people whose parents have either died without leaving sufficient funds for that purpose, or who from innocent misfortune during their lives, are unable to give suitable education to their children.”

I wonder if such a philanthropist would approve of his school in 2010? Despite the fact there are a few scholarships available for poorer kids, the Fettes College of today prides itself on being a top-notch private school, and this is reflected with fees that most parents could only aspire to.

It strikes me as the antithesis of what Sir William Fettes intended, and terribly sad that his dream, the memorial to his son and his school ethos got hijacked somewhere along the line. It followed the fate of many similar schools in Scotland’s cities, set up by wealthy merchants, with the poor supposedly the benefactors.

Sir William Fettes’ £166,000 funds were accumulated for a number of years by the trustees, with the architect David Bryce designing the magnificent French gothic structure some 20 years after Fettes’ death. In 1870, 34 years after his death, the school opened its gates for the first time to 53 pupils.

Schiehallion. <em>Picture: Willow Herb</em>

Schiehallion. Picture: Willow Herb

Smack bang in the centre of Scotland is a Munro that dominates both the landscape and the imaginings of numerous scientists, walkers and searchers after the supernatural.

Ten miles north of Aberfeldy in Perthshire, Schiehallion, from the Gaelic Sidh Chailleann – “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” – is an isolated glacial monument described in 1901 by the Rev Hugh MacMillan as “a great icy tool … it is a residual, adamantine knob of pure quartz.”

This “icy tool” was, in 1774, the site of one of the most exciting scientific experiments of the 18th century. It was here that Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, conducted research which resulted in an accurate measurement of the density of the earth. Maskelyne was helped in this ground-breaking work by the mathematician Charles Hutton, who, in an aside to the important work of “weighing the world” also came up with the notion of contour lines.

Yet however interesting Schiehallion is, or was, to the world of science, it is with regard to darker matters that it is still discussed. The mountain was long been regarded as a sacred and mythical place where fairies roamed, with tales of long underground caves taking the unsuspecting to the underworld.

The Rev Robert MacDonald published his Statistical Account for Scotland in 1845. In it he wrote of a “remarkable cave … called Tom-a-mhorair [which is believed to be] full of chambers or separate apartments, and that, as soon as a person advances a few yards, he comes to a door, which, the moment he enters, closes, as it opened, of its own accord, and prevents his returning.”

This mysterious cave was also deemed worthy of note by Malcolm Ferguson, who, writing in 1891, describes a “long series of mysterious caves, extending from one side of the mountain to the other.”

According to tradition this cave was the haunt of Sidhs and fairies, which mankind entered at its peril. It is perhaps here that the “Cailleach Bheur” goes to rest – if rest she ever does. This terrifying blue-faced hag, the representation of winter, is reborn each Halloween, to smite the land with all kinds of terrible weather.

Other traditions hold that the magic caves are peopled by a powerful supernatural race. These “offspring of the Gods” enjoy extraordinary powers such as the ability to levitate and make themselves invisible (yes, OK, so some of this research came from David Icke’s website and this article was nearly left incomplete, so sidetracked was I by pictures of a reptile emerging from beneath Hilary Clinton’s face, and snakes appearing in Elizabethan portraits, and … that’s probably enough for now.)

More extensive is the body of writing which investigates whether Mount Schiehallion is a lost mystical Biblical mountain. Isaiah, 14:13, is to blame for this particular obsession, including as it does the passage: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north.”

According to Barry Dunford, in ancient times there were a trio of mystical mountains, including Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah and Mount Heredom – whose location remains a mystery. Heredom (“Mount of God”) can’t be found on any map, but is, according to Dunford “60 miles from Edinburgh” – ie Schiehallion, the “mount of assembly” mentioned in Isaiah. His book becomes slightly confusing unless you’re very versed in Freemasonry and can follow the Masonic allusions to Heredom. I sadly can’t – and struggle even to paraphrase, but, erm, he says there’s lots of evidence.

Excitingly for those still suffering from the withdrawal of all the splendid Templar, Rosslyn, Holy-Grail-Da-Vinci-Code stuff, there is apparently a possibility that Heredom could be Solomon’s Temple and therefore very probably the bolt-hole sought by fleeing Templars when they escaped France with all their fabulous treasure. Oh, yes.

Still, you don’t need to be a supernatural buff to love this mountain. It’s hugely popular with walkers. The east side was acquired by the John Muir Trust in 1999, who have worked to improve the path that leads to the summit.

It’s a good walk, with spectacular views, and, who knows, the possibility of meeting up with some extra-terrestrials when you stop for a breather.

The Well of the Seven Heads monument. <em>Picture: Sylvia Duckworth</em>

The Well of the Seven Heads monument. Picture: Sylvia Duckworth

The West Coast of Scotland has many weird and wonderfully-named hills, glens and villages. How the tourists must titter as they pass through Tongue and then Tarty, or get Lost after visiting Odness and Quarrelton.

But few places reverberate with such past menace as the chillingly named Well of the Seven Heads.

You’ll know you’ve got there when you pass over the swing bridge which crosses the Caledonian Canal, and the western shore of Loch Oich is on your right. There, 18 miles south of Invergarry, you will see the Well of the Seven Heads Convenience Store (fresh fruit and newspapers available) and then a rather creepy obelisk, atop which rest a serrated dagger and seven heads.

This monument was erected in 1812 by Colonel Macdonell of Glengarry and commemorates a particularly bloody incident in Scottish history which throws light on the lawlessness of the clans and casts a shadow over Highland justice of the time.

In 1663 Alasdair and Ranald Macdonnell (or Macdonald in some versions) of Keppoch had arrived back from France. During a visit to their uncle, Alasdair Buidhe of Inverlair, and his six sons, there was a quarrel which ended up with the murder of the Macdonell brothers. Some say that the fight broke out after the cousins were mocked for their French accents and foreign ways; others suggest that a dispute over a patch of land led to the trouble.

In the 17th century, the Highlands were a long way from what could best be described as the short arm of the law. Although the killers were known, neither the locals nor other clansmen appeared particularly bothered by the murders and Edinburgh justice rarely made it that far north.

The only man who cried out for vengeance was the dead men’s kinsman Iain Lom, or Bald Iain, who was at that time Scotland’s Gaelic equivalent of the Poet Laureate. He began a one-man campaign to bring the killers to justice. First he approached Lord Macdonell of Glengarry – the High Chief of the Clan Macdonell – but he wasn’t particularly interested in getting involved. Next was Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, but he too declined to help.

But Bald Iain refused to give up and then approached Sir James at Duntulm Castle on the Isle of Skye, who had fostered the two men when they were younger. Iain travelled to Skye to make a personal and impassioned plea to Sir James – firing the blood of the laird with judicious use of ripe Biblical quotations. Presumably drawing himself up to his full bardic height, Bald Iain launched forth crying: “Abel is cold and his blood is crying in vain for vengeance. Cain is hot and red-handed and hundreds are lukewarm as the black goat’s mile.”

Irresistible stuff, or at least it proved so for Sir James. He applied to the Privy Council in Edinburgh which issued letters of “fire and sword” against the killers. Sir James’ brother, Archibald, then rounded up 50 men to tackle the murderers and gain vengeance for the wronged family. The 17th-century “SWAT team” travelled to Inverlair to find that Alasdair Buidhe and his family had barricaded themselves inside their house. The squad smoked them out, before murdering and decapitating the seven men – although there are suggestions even more were killed.

Bald Ian had his vengeance, but needed everyone to know, so he wrapped the severed heads in his plaid and journeyed to Glengarry to gift them to Lord Macdonnell. Before presenting them to his chief he stopped, by the side of Loch Oich where he washed them clean in the local well.

It is at this spot that nearly 150 years after the massacre the monument was erected. At the time of construction, so the story goes, at least seven headless bodies were found buried in a mound close by. So it is here at “Tober nan Ceann” – the well of the heads – that we can be reminded of the deaths and brutal vengeance of the warring clans.

After their triumphant tour round the Highlands the heads were sent to Edinburgh and where there “affixit to the gallowes” between Edinburgh and Leith as a grim reminder to all.

An interesting side note to the story is the parallels it has with both the Celtic cult of head and water worship and the more widespread reverence of the magical properties of severed heads. Perhaps, with his poetic bent, Bald Iain’s gruesome baptism of the severed heads pleased him with its mystic and ancient connotations.

But locals take note, these times have long passed, so, perhaps you’d better resist mocking any French tourists for their la-di-da accent and fancy ways if you happen upon them in Glengarry. You never know where it might end.

<em>Picture: _StaR_DusT

Picture: _StaR_DusT

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Pristine white sheets, pegged out on the washing line and flapping in the breeze, is the dream my mother has always had prior to the death of someone close to her. A vision of a happy smiling elderly lady, wearing a very distinctive brooch, beamed down at me once when I was sleeping. I didn’t recognise the person but when my mother phoned the following day to tell me a great aunt had passed away, it really came as no surprise – I knew exactly whom I had seen.

An Dà Shealladh is the Gaelic name meaning “the second sight”, the involuntary ability to supposedly see the future or distant events. Historical information on this gift points to a strong Celtic heritage, with a focus on the people of the Highlands in particular.

It seems unlikely that the Scottish people should be peculiar in this ability. Certainly within Roman and Greek mythology there is reference to premonitions warning of impending danger or change, and it is common in other cultures too but often after an intake of hallucinogenic drugs.

In Scotland, unlike our neighbouring countries, having the second sight was not connected with witchcraft. Its supposed prevalence here could be attributed to the fact that the subject was openly talked about, whereas it was not safe to do so elsewhere and that is why many known seers were Scottish. It is likely that it was simply accepted in Scotland as something that naturally occurred in some individuals although, contrary to what we might expect, it was considered to be more of a curse than a gift.

According to folklore the best known was The Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar (Kenneth the Sallow). He is credited with foretelling a great many events including:
•Finding oil in the North Sea –‘A black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen.’
•The Highland Clearances – ‘The sheep shall eat the men.’
•The Battle of Culloden – ‘Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see the day, for it will be a fearful period; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy shall be shown or quarter given on either side.’

It has been suggested that the Brahan Seer was born Kenneth Mackenzie on the Isle of Lewis, he is reputed to have worked as a labourer for the Seaforth family of chieftains on their Brahan Estate in Ross-shire.

The story goes that he lost his life after Lady Seaforth, a woman not known to be bonnie, insisted she tell him news of her husband’s trip to Paris. His prediction did not please her as he told of another, fairer, woman and the end of the Seaforth line with the last being deaf and blind.

This prediction actually came to pass with the final heir being rendered deaf and blind following a bout of scarlet fever as a child. His four sons all died prematurely and the Seaforth line ended. Kenneth the Sallow was boiled in a vat of tar for his troubles.

There is no written evidence to corroborate the existence of Brahan Seer in the 17th Century, but there was a gypsy called Coinneach Odhar in the 16th century who was accused with 26 other witches for supplying poison. Most of the others were burned, but what happened to this Kenneth remains unknown – perhaps he went on to have gifted children.

Lynne Gillespie, a psychic based in Falkirk, says she has been seeing spirits and visions since she was a child. Was a seer in the 17th century much different to a psychic or medium of today? Both are thought to receive messages from the spirit world. Both would appear to possess an unusual ability.

“We are the seers of the 21st century, we try to interpret what we see,” says Lynne, “Messages come through the spirits and they convey their messages to someone who is open to this.

“This might be as an image, something you hear, dream or simply feel. Many people who are not psychics do have the gift, but most that do just don’t have faith or trust the thoughts that come to them. Certainly psychic ability does seem to run very strongly in families.”

Whether the Brahan Seer really existed we shall never know but, due to the strong Scottish oral tradition, the story and the prophecies have persevered and been passed down through the centuries. Perhaps the strange things my mother and myself have seen are coincidental dreams, but then again perhaps they are the visions of those who still possess a remnant of An Dà Shealladh.

An Dà Shealladh is the Gaelic name meaning ‘the second sight’, the involuntary ability to supposedly see the future or distant events. Historical information on this gift points to a strong Celtic heritage, with a focus on the people of the Highlands in particular.

Health and safety officials in Austria have recently trialled a new way of reducing accidents in a notorious crash site along a busy main road. Rather than opt for speed reducing measures instead they enlisted the help of the local druids, who, by dint of placing objects along the route which they say detracts from the negative energies, have reduced the fatalities from six per year to zero.

Genius. If controversial. And highly unscientific. And more than a bit bananas.

But if the Austrians can do it, then surely we Scots ought to be giving it a shot, particularly as some regard Scotland as the birthplace of the druidic learning tradition. Indeed, it has been suggested that Jesus himself travelled here to learn at the (bare) feet of the Scottish mystics (although admittedly, this is not supported by any evidence whatsoever).

Should we decide to utilise our druidic abilities today, then first we’d better refresh our memories as to where the druids used to hang out. That way we’re just one short wave of the willow wand away from getting help to sort out our sub-primes, the Greek financial crisis and ensure that the new Curriculum for Excellence is actually viable. So here are a magically numbered seven sites of intense druidic action from days of yore.


Cairnpapple. <em>Picture: SubberCulture</em>

Cairnpapple. Picture: SubberCulture

This dumpy-looking hill close to Bathgate is a major ritual site and an intriguing and complex structure. Here you can find henges, graves, stones and circles – proof of use that goes back thousands of years to the Neolithic period. Cairnpapple may have been used for any of the purposes that have been suggested of Callanish and Stonehenge. So, its purpose might have included moon-worship, sun-worship, rites, calendars…you get the idea. In terms of Scottish mythology it has it all. Apparently King Arthur used to live nearby; the Knights Templar owned the land and used it for, oooh, secret things. It may well have been used by the druids too.

Kipps Druid’s Temple

This site, close to Cairnpapple, is referred to in a number of sources as a “cromlech” or “druid’s temple”. It comprises a central stone which has been split in two, some say by lightning. According to James Paton, writing in the late 18th century, the temple “is an altar of four great unpolished stones, on which, according to tradition, sacrifices were anciently performed”. Ooh, er. Worth pointing out that the whole notion of druids making human sacrifices came from the victorious Romans, and we should all remember to take what the victor says of the defeated with a pinch of salt.

Druids’ Seat Wood

Just north of Perth, on the way to Blairgowrie, deep in the heart of the Druids’ Seat Wood you can find a pretty stone circle, ruined slightly by graffiti, yet still atmospheric. Here is a circle that alternates between boulders and taller stones, nine in all. It should come as no surprise that druids were attracted to woods as trees appear to have played a large part in their ritual. They favoured the oak tree in particular – with the English word “druid” deriving, some say, from the root “dru” or “oak”. Historians confirm that where you found an oak circle, you invariably found a gaggle of druids.

The Druid’s Grave

Down the sleep slopes of Bencallen Hill in Ayrshire lie the remains of a chambered cairn, now enveloped within the perimeter wall of a sheepfold. You can still see two pairs of side stones, and some capstones which might form part of the entrance to the grave. The cairn sits amidst a forestry plantation and although it’s hard to tell now, was probably circular. Sadly it has been grave-robbed although enough remains to allow us to pick out the outline. But the druid who was buried there? Well, if there ever was one, he’s long gone now.

Ossian’s Cave

The Three Sisters in Glen Coe. <em>Picture:Bruce89</em>

The Three Sisters in Glen Coe. Picture:Bruce89

High up the slopes of Aonach Dubh, one of The Three Sisters, is Ossian’s Cave (not to be confused with the artificial Ossian’s Cave in Perthshire’s Hermitage). The route to it, through Glen Coe, is tricky with no clear trails. So although it is seldom visited, it is well worth the effort. Ossian, a third century bard, was the son of Fion and Sadbh. Whilst up in his cave, he probably thought often of his poor mother and his rather unlikely birth. Sadbh was turned into a deer by the druid Fer Doirich. Luckily the druid relented, returned her to human form and sent her homewards – unscathed, but now pregnant. Ossian was later born in this cave.

Abbey of Holywood

The abbey was one of three monasteries in Dumfriesshire and Galloway founded in the 12th century. However, sources suggest that prior to this the place had another use that pre-dated the Christian one. Holywood an easy enough name to interpret, but before that the area was known as “the oak wood of Congall” or “the monastery of the sacred grove”. The presence of a sacred oak grove immediately conjures up notions of druids and this is further hinted at by a stone circle, sometimes referred to as a druid temple nearby. The parish minister in the late 18th century Rev. Dr Bryce Johnson, writes of “a large Druidical temple, still standing, within half a mile of the church.”


St Martin's Cross, Iona. <em>Picture: Jema Smith</em>

St Martin's Cross, Iona. Picture: Jema Smith

No list of druidic places would be complete without tipping a nod to Iona. Now firmly regarded as a Christian cradle of worship, its old Gaelic name was Innis-nam Druidbneach or Island of the Druids. According to the Akashic records (please don’t ask, I have never been able to work out what on earth these were about other than that they’re a sort of stream of consciousness from every person in the planet, recorded and filed by some, er, one?), so… according to the Akashic records, Iona was inhabited by a mystic community who moved there after Atlantis disappeared. These Atlantean Priestesses, when threatened, brought some more run-of-the-mill druids into the sanctuary to protect them. Oh, and another important point. Back then if you wanted to visit Iona you didn’t need to get on a boat. Most visitors came on the astral plane.