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Book of Scottish Story
The Haunted Ships


Chapter Two

By Allan Cunningham

"And trow ye," said the old woman, who, attracted from her hut by the drowning cries of the young fisherman, had remained an auditor of the mariner’s legend; "and trow ye, Mark Macmoran, that the tale of the Haunted Ships is done? I can say no to that. Mickle have my ears heard, but more mine eyes have witnessed since I came to dwell in this humble home by the side of the deep sea. I mind the night weel: it was on Hallow-e’en, the nuts were cracked, and the apples were eaten, and spell and charm were tried at my fireside ; till, wearied with diving into the dark waves of futurity, the lads and lasses fairly took to the more visible blessings of kind words, tender clasps, and gentle courtship.

"Soft words in a maiden’s ear, and a kindly kiss o’ her lip, were old world matters to me, Mark Macmoran ; though I mean not to say that I have been free of the folly of daundering and daffin’ with a youth in my day, and keeping tryst with him in dark and lonely places. However, as I say, these times of enjoyment were past and gone with me; the mair’s the pity that pleasure should flee sae fest away,—and as I couldna make sport I thought I would not mar any; so out I sauntered into the fresh cold air, and sat down behind that old oak, and looked abroad on the wide sea. I had my ain sad thoughts, ye may think, at the time; it was in that very bay my blythe gudeman perished, with seven more in his company; and on that very bank where ye see the waves leaping and foaming, I saw seven stately corses streeked, but the dearest was the eighth. It was a woeful sight to me, a widow, with four bonnie boys, with nought to support them but these twa hands, and God’s blessing, and a cow’s grass. I have never liked to live out of sight ot this bay since that time; and mony’s the moonlight night I sit looking on these watery mountains, and these waste shores; it does my heart good, whatever it may do to my head. So ye see it was Hallow-e’en ; and looking on sea and land sat I; and my heart wandering to other thoughts soon made me forget my youthful company at hame. It might be near the howe hour of the night ; the tide was making, and its singing brought strange old-world stories with it ; and I thought on the dangers that sailors endure, the fates they meet with, and the fearful forms they see. My own blithe gudeman had seen sights that made him grave enough at times, though he aye tried to laugh them away.

"Aweel, between that very rock aneath us and the coming tide, I saw, or thought I saw (for the tale is so dream-like that the whole might pass for a vision of the night) the form of a man. His plaid was gray; his face was gray ; and his hair, which hung low down till it nearly came to the middle of his back, was as white as the white sea-foam. He began to houk and dig under the bank ; and God be near me ! thought I, this maun be the unblessed spirit of auld Adam Gowdgowpin, the miser, who is doomed to dig for ship-wrecked treasure, and count how many millions are hidden for ever from man’s enjoyment. The form found something which in shape and hue seemed a left-foot slipper of brass; so down to the tide he marched, and placing it on the water, whirled it thrice round ; and the infernal slipper dilated at every turn, till-it became a bonnie barge with its sails bent, and on board leaped the form, and scudded swiftly away. He came to one of the haunted ships ; and striking it with his oar, a fair ship with mast and canvas, and mariners, started up : he touched the other haunted ship, and produced the like transformation ; and away the three spectre ships bounded, leaving a track of hre behind them on the billows, which was long unextinguished.

"Now wasna that a bonnie and a fearful sight to see beneath the light of the Hallowmas moon? But the tale is far frae finished; for mariners say that once a year, on a certain night, if ye stand on the Borranpoint, ye will see the infernal shallops coming snoring through the Solway ; ye will hear the same laugh, and song, and mirth, and minstrelsy, which our ancestors heard; see them bound over the sand banks and sunken rocks like sea-gulls, cast their anchor in Blawhooly Bay, while the shadowy figures lower down the boat, and augment their numbers with the four unhappy mortals to whose memory a stone stands in the kirkyard, with a sinking ship and a shoreless sea cut upon it. Then the spectre-ships vanish, and the drowning shriek of mortals and the rejoicing laugh of iiends are heard, and the old hulls are left as a memorial that the old spiritual kingdom has not departed from the earth. But I maun away and trim my little cottage fire, and make it burn and blaze up bonnie, to warm the crickets, and my cauld and crazy bones, that mann soon be laid aneath the green sod in the eerie kirkyard.”

And away the old dame tottered to her cottage, secured the door on the inside, and soon the hearth-flame was seen to glimmer and gleam through the key-hole and the window.

"I’ll tell ye what," said the old mariner, in a subdued tone, and with a shrewd and suspicious glance of his eye after the old sibyl, " it’s a word that may not very well be uttered, but there are many mistakes made in evening stories if old Moll Moray there, where she lives, knows not mickle more than she is willing to tell of the Haunted Ships, and their unhallowed mariners. She lives cannily and quietly; no one knows how she is fed or supported; but her dress is aye whole, her cottage ever smokes, and her table lacks neither of wine, white and red, nor of fowl and fish, and white bread and brown. It was a dear scoff to Jock Matheson, when he called old Moll the uncannie carline of Blawhooly: his boat ran round and round in the centre of the Solway—everybody said it was enchanted—and down it went head foremost; and hadna Jock been a swimmer equal to a sheldrake, he would have fed the fish; but I warrant it sobered the lad’s speech, and he never reckoned himself safe till he made auld Moll the present of a new kirtle and a stone of cheese."

"O father,"' said his granddaughter Barbara, "ye surely wrong poor old Mary Moray: what use could it be to an old woman like her, who has no wrongs to redress, no malice to work out against mankind, and nothing to seek of enjoyment save a cannie hour and a quiet grave—what use could the fellowship of the fiends, and the communion of evil spirits, be to her? I know Jenny Primrose puts rowan-tree above the doorhead when she sees old Mary coming ; I know the goodwife of Kittlenacket wears rowan-berry leaves in the head-band of her blue kirtle, and all for the sake of averting the unsonsie glance of Mary’s right ee ; and I know that the auld laird of Burntroutwater drives his seven cows to their pasture with a wand of witchtree, to keep Mary from milking them. But what has all that to do with haunted shallops, visionary mariners, and bottomless boats? I have heard myself as pleasant a tale about the Haunted Ships and their unworldly crews as any one would wish to hear in a winter evening. It was told me by young Benjie Macharg, one summer night, sitting on Arbiglandbank ; the lad intended a sort of love-meeting, but all that he could talk of was about smearing sheep and shearing sheep, and of the wife which the Norway elves of the Haunted Ships made for his uncle Sandie Macharg. And I shall tell ye the tale as the honest lad told it to me.

"Alexander Macharg, besides being the laird of three acres of peat-moss, two kail gardens, and the owner of seven good milch cows, a pair of horses, and six pet sheep, was the husband of one of the handsomest women in seven parishes. Many a lad sighed the day he was brided; and a Nithsdale laird and two Annandale moorland farmers drank themselves to their last linen, as well as their last shilling, through sorrow for her loss. But married was the dame ; and home she was carried, to bear rule over her home and her husband, as an honest woman should. Now ye maun ken that though flesh-and-blood lovers of Alexander’s bonnie wife all ceased to love and to sue her after she became another’s, there were certain admirers who did not consider their claim at all abated, or their hopes lessened, by the kirk’s famous obstacle of matrimony.

"Ye have heard how the devout minister of Tinwald had a fair son carried away, and bedded against his liking to an unchristened bride, whom the elves and the fairies provided: ye have heard how the bonnie bride of the drunken laird of Soukitup was stolen by the fairies out at the back window of the bridal chamber the time the bridegroom was groping his way to the chamber door; and ye have heard—but why need I multiply cases? Such things in the ancient days were as common as candlelight. So ye’ll no hinder certain water-elves and sea-fairies, who sometimes keep festival and summer mirth in these old haunted hulks, from falling in love with the weel-faured wife of Laird Macharg; and to their plots and contrivances they went, how they might accomplish to sunder man and wife; and sundering such a man and such a wife was like sundering the green leaf from the summer, or the fragrance from the flower.

"So it fell on a time that Laird Macharg took his halve-net on his back, and his steel spear in his hand, and down to Blawhooly Bay gaed he, and into the water he went right between the two haunted hulks, and placing his net awaited the coming of the tide. The night, ye maun ken, was mirk, and the wind lown, and the singing of the increasing waters among the shells and the pebbles was heard for sundry miles. All at once lights began to glance and twinkle on board the two Haunted Ships from every hole and seam, and presently the sound as of a hatchet employed in squaring timber echoed far and wide. But if the toil of these unearthly workmen amazed the laird, how much more was his amazement increased when a sharp shrill voice called out, ‘ Ho! brother, what are you doing now?’ A voice still shriller responded from the other haunted ship, ‘ I’m making a wife to Sandie Macharg.’ And a loud quavering laugh running from ship to ship, and from bank to bank, told the joy they expected from their labour.

"Now the laird, besides being devout and a God-fearing man, was shrewd and bold; and in plot and contrivance, and skill in conducting his designs, was fairly an overmatch for any dozen land elves. But the water elves are far more subtle ; besides, their haunts and their dwellings being in the great deep, pursuit and detection are hopeless, if they succeed in carrying their prey to the waves. But ye shall hear.

"Home flew the laird, collected his family around the hearth, spoke of the signs and the sins of the times, and talked of mortification and prayer for averting calamity; and finally, taking from the shelf his father’s Bible, brass clasps, black print, and covered with calf-skin, he proceeded, without let or stint, to perform domestic worship. I should have told ye that he bolted and locked the door, shut up all inlet to the house, threw salt into the fire, and proceeded in every way like a man skilful in guarding against the plots of fairies and fiends. His wife looked on all this with wonder ; but she saw something in her husband’s looks that hindered her from intruding either question or advice, and a wise woman was she.

"Near the mid-hour of the night the rush of a horse’s feet was heard, and the sound of a rider leaping from his back, and a heavy knock carne to the door, accompanied by a voice, saying, ‘The cummer’s drink’s hot, and the knave bairn is expected at Laird Laurie’s tonight ; sae mount, gudewife, and come.’ "Preserve me!" said the wife of Sandie Macharg, ‘that`s news indeed! who could have thought it? The laird has been heirless for seventeen years. Now, Sandie, my man, fetch me my skirt and hood.’

"But he laid his arm round his wife’s neck and said--" ‘ If all the lairds in Galloway go heirless, over this door threshold shall you not stir to-night; and I have said it, and I have sworn it : seek not to know why and wherefore,—but, Lord, send us Thy blessed moonlight ! ’

The wife looked for a moment in her husband’s eyes, and desisted from further entreaty.

"‘But let us send a civil message to the gossips, Sandie; and hadna ye better say I’m sair laid wi’ a sudden sickness? —though it’s sinful-like to send the poor messenger a mile agate with a lie in his mouth without a glass of brandy.’

"‘To such a messenger, and to those who sent him, no apology is needed,’ said the austere laird, ‘so let him depart.’

"And the clatter of a horse’s hoofs was heard, and the muttered imprecations of its rider on the churlish treatment he had experienced.

"‘Now, Sandie, my lad,’ said his wife, laying an arm particularly white and round about his neck as she spoke, ‘ are you not a queer man and a stern? I have been your wedded wife now these three years, and, beside my dower, have brought you three as bonnie bairns as ever smiled aneath a summer sun. O man! you a douce man, and litter to be an elder than even Willie Greer himsel,—I have the minister’s ain word for’t,—to put on these hard-hearted looks, and gang waving your arms that way, as if ye said, "I winna tak’ the counsel o’ sic a hempie as you." I’m your ain leal wife, and will and maun hae an explanation.’

"To all this Sandy Macharg replied, "It is written, "Wives, obey your husbands;" but we have been stayed in our devotion, so let us pray;’ and down he knelt. His wife knelt also, for she was as devout as bonnie; and beside them knelt their household, and all lights were extinguished.

"‘Now this beats a’,’ muttered his wife to herself; ‘however, I shall be obedient for a time; but if I dinna ken what all this is for before the morn by sunket-time, my tongue is nae langer a tongue, nor my hands worth wearing.’

"The voice of her husband in prayer interrupted this mental soliloquy ; and ardently did he beseech to be preserved from the wiles of the fiends and the snares of Satan ; ‘ from witches, ghosts, goblins, elves, fairies, spunkies, and water-kelpies ; from the spectre shallop of Solway ; from spirits visible and invisible ; from the Haunted Ships and their unearthly tenants; from maritime spirits that plotted against godly men, and fell in love with their wives ’——

"‘Nay, but His presence be near us !’ said his wife in a low tone of dismay. ‘God guide my gudeman’s wits ! I never heard such a prayer from human lips before. But, Sandie, my man, for Lord’s sake, rise; what fearful light is this?—barn, and byre, and stable, maun be in a blaze; and Hawkie and Hurley, Doddie and Cherrie, and Damson-plum, will be smoored with reek and scorched with flame.’

"And a flood of light, but not so gross as a common fire, which ascended to heaven and filled all the court before the house, amply justified the good wife’s suspicions. But to the terrors of fire, Sandie was as immovable as he was to the imaginary groans of the barren wife of Laird Laurie; and he held his wife, and threatened the weight of his right hand—and it was a heavy one—to all who ventured abroad, or even unbolted the door. The neighing and prancing of horses, and the bellowing of cows, augmented the horrors of the night; and to any one who only heard the din, it seemed that the whole onstead was in a blaze, and horses and cattle perishing in the flame. All wiles, common or extraordinary, were put in practice to entice or force the honest farmer and his wife to open their door; and when the like success attended every new stratagem, silence for a little while ensued, and a long, loud, and shrilling laugh wound up the dramatic efforts of the night.

"In the morning, when Laird Macharg went to the door, he found standing against one of the pilasters a piece of black ship oak, rudely fashioned into something like a human form, and which skilful people declared would have been clothed with seeming flesh and blood, and palmed upon him by elfin adroitness for his wife, had he admitted his visitants. A synod of wise men and women sat upon the woman of timber, and she was finally ordered to be devoured by fire, and that in the open air. A fire was soon made and into it the elfin sculpture was tossed from the prongs of two pairs of pitch-forks. The blaze that rose was awful to behold; and hissings, and burstings, and loud cracklings, and strange noises, were heard in the midst of the flame; and when the whole sank into ashes, a drinking cup of some precious metal was found; and this cup, fashioned no doubt by elfin skill, but rendered harmless by the purification with fire, the sons and daughters of Sandie Macharg and his wife drink out of to this day.”


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