by Geoff Holder
This book has been a pleasure to read and review – a straightforward, well-researched, well-written, well-illustrated book with basic maps and a comprehensive bibliography. It demands room on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Scotland, its ghosts and its history.
Geoff Holder is an experienced author, with 17 books on the strange, supernatural, Gothic and gruesome under his belt, and it shows. However, I was also impressed by his firm grasp of the history of the Jacobite cause and the sociological, religious, folkloric and cultural dimensions swirling around it.
The book is in three sections – a brisk, clear and balanced overview of the historical context; followed by a longer and more detailed survey of the occult beliefs on both sides; and then a fairly extensive gazetteer of the sites – on both sides of the border – associated with the ghost stories and other alleged phenomena of the Jacobite risings from 1689 to 1745.
The second of these sections, on beliefs in the occult, starts with an account of the concept of touching for the King’s Evil (scrofula) as evidence of a king benefiting from divine favour and protection, then moves on to consider omens, prodigies and prophesies, including an account of the Drumming Well at Oundle, my old school, the drumming of which under James 11 was argued in their favour by both sides (like the Hertfordshire ‘woe waters’, which also herald national disasters, the Drumming Well manifested itself again in the dry summer of 1914).
Mr Holder makes the point that science was also taking root, especially amongst the Whig establishment with their closer intellectual links to the Continent, who were increasingly preferring to leave belief in the occult to, as they saw it, the pathologically superstitious Jacobites: but he also quotes some seemingly well-attested examples of precognition, including a tenant on Eigg who in 1685 had a vision of Williamite troops landing and raping a local woman, which was widely reported and laughed at - until it happened in 1690; and the time in 1744 when 14 people on Skye saw a royal warship anchoring in Loch Snizort, as HMS Furnace was to do two years later to search for the fleeing Young Pretender.
The section on occult beliefs ends with a consideration of witchcraft, magic and supernatural beings. Prosecutions for witchcraft were in decline by the 1690s, but the dawning age of rationalism evidently brought with it problems of its own, for some – Geoff Holder tells the sad story of Angus, the greatest piper on Lewis, who was taken to play at a feast under the fairy hill, where time moved so much more slowly that amongst we mortals that his one night’s music-making lasted 50 years, and he only escaped when he accidentally touched the cold iron of a sword. Making his escape, he went home in his kilt with his pipes – and was arrested for crimes under the 1747 Act of Proscription, which forbade Highlanders from wearing tartan or bearing arms or bagpipes. The military tribunal rejected his defence that he had been in Fairyland, and shot him…
And so to the gazetteer of sites, which occupies nearly two-thirds of the book. I can’t know what’s not there, but it looks pretty comprehensive, covering Scotland; England (even getting to Long Marston, near my home in Hertfordshire, where in 1745 a mob carried out the last witch-ducking in England, drowning an old woman and her husband for cursing a local farmer with the hope that the Young Pretender would come and carry off his cattle (Hertfordshire folk cling to the good old ways?); and Ireland.
The accounts are well illustrated, although I’d have liked to have seen better plans of battlefields. They include an extensive account of the ghosts of Killicrankie (with a brief discursion to consider the problems of its anniversary haunting, now that the advent of the Gregorian Calendar has moved the date of the battle from 27 July to 7 August, but the ghosts have refused to follow), and a thoughtful analysis of the legends around John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee). Similarly, there is a thorough coverage of Culloden, including a reference to a Scottish harbinger of doom of which I had never previously heard, the Skree, described as ‘a harpy-like creature with a human head, black leathery wings and burning red eyes’ seen hovering over the Jacobite forces the night before the battle (and, possibly again one November night in the early 1990s when something like a large broken black umbrella lying on the ground near the stone inscribed ‘The Field of the English’ suddenly rose and flapped awkwardly away like a huge bat). Hideous winged death warnings feature in most Celtic cultures (although I’ve not heard of one from Cornwall) - the Banshee can manifest as hideous or beautiful, but wails either way - but what this most reminds me of is the Welsh Hag of the Dribble (Gwrach y Rbibyn). That and its Irish counterpart are firmly associated with warning of deaths in old families, rather than mass slaughter on the battlefield, but why waste a good spinechiller?
A couple of other snippets also warmed my flinty old heart. As one of Campbell (of Argyll) blood, I was cheered to read on page 86/7 that the Government were able to blackmail the MacDonalds and MacLeods of Skye into not coming out in the ’45, after catching their chiefs kidnapping their own less-obedient clansmen to sell as slaves to the West Indies. It’s that sort of uplifting story that gives the study of history it’s moral meaning…..And what a delight to discover on page 94 that the Hannoverian commander disgraced for losing the battle of Prestonpans was able to regain his equanimity (and fortune) by betting on his successor to lose the following battle of Falkirk.
This was a delight to read, and has only added to my belief that the Ghost Club should pay another visit to Scotland, her scenery, cities, battlefields, breweries and distilleries…
Reviewed by Lance Railton