Ghosting Scotland

Chasing an Imaginary Scotland
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 30 2007 7:42 AM

Ghosting Scotland

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The stories of castle hauntings are shockingly light on cliffhangers. Over blood sausage and eggs the next morning, I boned up on a few ghost tales in preparation for my meeting at the University of Edinburgh with Bella and her experts, and I found that they read more or less like the autographed headshots of movie stars hanging in pizza shops: "The White Lady was here!" or "We've got Mary, Queen of Scots!" I'd like to think this is because there isn't room enough in the promotional literature to develop a slow-mounting sensation of dread, but the truth is perhaps more boring: Ghosts are celebrities, and I am a beseeching fan. John McPhee witheringly described my type in his 1969 book In the Highlands and Islands:

It is not the islanders who preserve the early magic of the island. It is the women who stay at the inn—the ones with the knitted caps and tweed skirts and walking sticks, some of whom have brought their own shepherd's crooks with them from Edinburgh. … In their heads hang splendid tapestries of Hebridean lore and legend, and when they come to the island, for their brief visits of a week or ten days, they become solitary silhouettes in the heather on the hilltops, drinking in the air of ages past and imagining themselves to be in the company of forms unseen.

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At least I'm not alone. After dinner the night before, we'd all gathered around the massive stone fireplace, where I introduced myself to a pleasant blond woman and her husband, a stocky dark-haired man wearing a kilt. My hopes of chatting with a genuine Scotsman evaporated as soon as he opened his mouth: They were visiting from upstate New York. But Scotland was their thing—the passion that brought them together (over the Internet), the theme of their home décor (lots of tartan and framed portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie), the destination of every shared vacation. "If it's haunted and it's in Scotland, I've seen it," she told me. In his spare time, he does 18th-century Scottish battle re-enactments. At this point, he unbuttoned and rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath tattooed in thick Gothic script on his forearms:

For as long as about a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom. For that alone which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

It was an impressive, and depressing, devotion. I looked at this man in his tattoos and fake kilt—at least, the silver belt buckle looked fake—and wondered if I was seeing a distorted version of myself. An incredibly exaggerated, massively inked version, to be sure, but there we both were, chasing an imaginary Scotland, indifferent to its modernity, bandits pillaging a highly romanticized past.

And yet, and yet … are we entirely to blame? I'm not even referring to the 20-page pamphlet called "Spooky Scotland" that I received from the Scottish Tourist Board. Or the fact that, the week of my visit, Glasgow University announced a new course in supernatural studies. The Scottish Gaelic tradition is steeped in the supernatural. On top of countless specters and apparitions, elves and fairies (islanders used to pour milk into the ground to feed the sídhe, or "still folk," who lived there) is "second sight," a variety of involuntary extrasensory perception believed to have originated in the highlands.

In Scottish Ghost Stories, one of the few genuinely interesting and readable guides I've come across, James Robertson catalogs five different phrases used for the visions and sounds that augur death: "The deid-bell (a ringing or tingling in the ears); the deid-chack (the ticking of the deathwatch beetle, or of woodworm); the deid-drap (water dripping on the floor, or the intermittent drip of water from the eaves of the house); the deid-nip (a blue mark that appears, for no physical reason, on the body of one about to die); the deid-rap (an unexplained knowing, or a sound like the stroke of a switch); and the deid-spail (the half-melted wax from a candle overhanging the lip of the holder, which, when formed in such a way as to resemble a shroud, seems to extend in the direction of one particular individual)." He goes on to cite as additional warning signals a fallen picture, footsteps heard overhead, a stopped clock, and the sound of an approaching vehicle. If nothing else, these are a people obsessed with mortality.

With this in mind, Gillian and I set off from Borthwick in our rental car to brave—and then get hopelessly turned around by—Edinburgh's confusing thicket of streets. By the time we arrived at the Department of Scottish Studies, there was only time enough for a quick whisper (we were in the library) with Lynn Holden, an authority on global ghost stories. Hurriedly, she listed a few of the reasons ghosts are known to haunt—to demand a proper burial, warn of impending danger, atone for transgression, reveal treasure, fulfill a promise, prevent child abuse—then, she let slip that Bella had seen a ghost.

I was stunned. Whereas Lynn, with her wild mane of black hair and intense aspect, seemed the ghost-believing type, tall, prim Bella with her kind face and tailored blouse did not. Later, over coffee, when I asked Bella to tell me her story, she winced and said, "Who told you that?" Then she relented and, in the halting, embarrassed manner of an otherwise practical person in possession of something even she was disinclined to believe, told me her tale: One night in the early 1960s, walking down a darkened street in St. Andrews, a city north of Edinburgh, she caught sight of a blurry white figure with burning eyes. It lingered for a moment then disappeared.

And that was that.

Dear reader, I totally believe her.

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