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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter XIV. Ghosts, Witches, and Goblins


"Unquiet souls,
Risen from the grave to ease the heavy guilt
Of deeds in life concealed." -AKENSIDE.

EVERY traveller knows that much of the charm of Scottish scenery is derived from the legends and myths which tradition has associated with Scottish castles, churches, graveyards, glens, caves, and waterfalls. The Scottish pioneers of Zorra carried with them the traditions of their fatherland, and were strong believers in the occult and the dreadful. With Hamlet they declared:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Often have we sat by the old ingleside, and with mouth and eyes open, knees trembling, and the cold chills creeping along the spine, listened to weird tales told by our grandparents and others, concerning dismal sounds, ghostly appearances, and the sorceries of horrid witches. These uncanny tales made a deep impression upon our youthful minds, and we can remember occasions when, while passing through the dark woods, suddenly the hooting of the owl, or the far-away lonely cry of the nighthawk, or the rustling of the leaves by a squirrel or raccoon, broke the solemn stillness, and imagining some ghost or bogie or evil spirit approaching us, we took to our heels and ran like frightened deer. Zorra is perhaps not yet old enough to have developed a legendary era of its own, and the present matter-of-fact business age is not favorable to such a growth. Yet Zorra is by no means devoid of folk-lore. The characters, incidents, adventures, and experiences of pioneer days present as good material for the poet, the painter, the dramatist, and the legend builder as did Scotland to Scott and Miller, or the New England States and New York to Hawthorne and Irving. There is danger that the weird stories, myths, and legends of the early days may soon disappear, unless they are changed from the oral into the written form ; and I feel like Selkirk on his iland, when the rich fruits of autumn were dropping around him, that if I myself do not preserve some of them, they must perish.

Leaving it to others to enter fully into the subject, I shall, in this chapter, open the door just a little in order that the reader may have a glimpse at a few out of the multitude of shadowy forms that flit to and fro in the mists of Zorra legends.

Many years ago there lived in the township a family whom we shall call Gourlay. It consisted of four brothers, all unmarried. Naturally, these brothers were kind and generous enough, but, alas! they were all victims of strong drink, and when under the influence of the liquor-fiend they were, even beyond the ordinary drunkards, a disgrace to themselves and a terror to their neighbors. They would fight each other savagely, and often made night hideous by their yells, screams, and horrid profanity.

Still they scrupulously observed the outward forms of religion. Being bad during the week was to the Gourlay brothers an additional reason why they should be as good as they could on Sunday. Regularly they drove to the villagc church, a distance of five miles, and with a stolid stare, broken only by snuff-taking, they sat through the service. They had had, of course, a couple of drinks in the village tavern before entering the kirk, but oh, they were very, very dry before the long service was over, and glad were they to return to their favorite resort. Their reckless driving and boisterous behavior on the way home from church were a sore scandal to those who feared God and regarded His day. On Communion Sabbaths, when the roads were filled with people, men and women, old and young, the Gourlay brothers were more than ordinarily reckless.

It is 4 p. m. Hundreds of people are on the road wending their way homeward. There is a blazing sun overhead and the road is very dusty. Suddenly shouts are heard, "Clear the way!" The people pause, look back, and about half a mile behind, they see a thick cloud of dust. It's a runaway! No, it is the Gourlay brothers. Quickly the people divide, some going to each side of the road, and not a few timid ones geting over the fence, or seeking shelter behind the biggest stumps or trees near them.

With a whoop and hurrah, the four brothers, seated in their big heavy waggon, slashing the horses and waving their blue bonnets, fly past. The people utter a sigh of relief and pray the Lord to have mercy on the miserable drunkards.

Shortly after this, late one summer night, three of the brothers are returning from the village, drunk and noisy as usual. Two of them sit in the front seat of the waggon, and the third, whose name was Robert, sits by himself in the back. Coming along the sideroad through a marshy place where the road was very rough and dark, Robert takes out his black bottle, and is in the act of drinking, when suddenly the waggon gave a jolt, and the wretched drunken man falls out backward. He was a heavy man, and falling upon a projecting root, he broke his neck. Death was instantaneous. The brothers, too drunk to perceive what has happened, drive home and go to bed as usual. Next morning some neighbors find Robert Gourlay dead, his hand still clutching the neck of the black bottle, the lower part having been broken off in the fall.

For years after this, it was alleged, a strange form was seen from time to time moving to and fro along this side-road. The figure was not more than four feet high, very stout, and with little or no neck, the head set closely upon the shoulders and drooping forward upon the breast. The eyes glared like two balls of fire; the mouth was partly open and the tongue projected. It certainly presented a gruesome appearance. The voice was low and sepulchral, resembling somewhat the gurgling of a distant streamlet. Whenever the ghost appeared the dogs in the neighborhood, it was said, howled piteously, while the cattle and horses snorted and took to their heels.

The spectre uttered many groans and moans and uncanny sounds that stirred the hair of Iisteners on their scalps, but the only sound that could be understood was the one word—death (Gaelic for drink), uttered with a hoarse, gurgling tone. Whether this word was meant to indicate the cause of ruin, or the present thirst of the spirit, was never ascertained. But for years men, returning from the village about the same time of night that the killing took place, would see the awful form moving backwards and forwards, holding in its right hand the neck and part of a black bottle, and amid the hollow moans and sullen groans uttering ruefully the ominous word—deoch.

At length one dark stormy night, as an elder of the Church was passing along the side-road, the ghost appeared. The good man at once took out his Bible, and, opening it, held it right between himself and the ghost. Then for the first time the ghost found full and distinct utterance. It related with deep contrition the history of the past, and added: "This is the last time I shall ever appear on earth, for tonight I would have died had I not been killed twenty years ago on this spot through—deoch"

And from that day to this the "gaist of Rob Gourlay" was never more seen.

* * * * * * * * *

In an old log shanty, situated on the edge of a great marsh, usually known as the "big swamp," lived Jean Gordon. Her only companion was a black cat, which was said to be an evil spirit incarnate. Jean was an old beldam, wizened and toothless, and nearly bent double; she had apparently not troubled comb or washbasin since her infancy, which was long, long ago. She had, it was believed, the power to transform herself into a cat, dog, ape, a bat, an owl, or even a frog. She could inflict rheumatism, headache, or toothache on anyone against whom she had a grudge; she could put the cows dry and prevent the butter coming in the churn, the bread from rising and the soap from forming; indeed, the death of two calves was ascribed to her sorceries.

Andrew McCulloch's wife declared that Jean had bewitched her child, so that, while the child grew with unnatural rapidity, it sucked from her breast not milk, but blood, leaving her, the poor mother, nothing but skin and bone.

Jean spoke Gaelic, but with such rapidity of utterance that she could not be understood, and it was believed by many that she mingled with her Gaelic Hebrew or some other primitive language.

She seldom left her lonely home by day, but was often seen flitting through the shadows in the woods about the time of sunset. On dark and stormy nights she would screech and jabber down a chimney, and scream and whistle at windows, and by the dim firelight or candlelight her face might be seen peering through the panes. She was more than once seen to arise from her shanty on her broom; and, when high up, stir and push clouds before her with the broom.

On the farm of Alexander Macdonald there was a great elm tree, with branches bare and decayed, because one night Jean, going about in the form of an owl, had perched for a few moments on the topmost branch.

But, alas! one day Jean's existence came to a sudden close. She was out in the form of a bird. A farmer, named Tom Ferguson, was hunting; he heard the rush of wings, and, looking up, saw a black bird with a long neck and with feet like scrawny hands. It uttered a cry so weird and so shrill, that it made the farmer shudder. Soon it alighted on a dead tree, and he shot at it. With a blood-curdling yell, the bird, or evil spirit, whatever it was, circled round his head. Three times he fired, with the same result. Then he concluded that it must he some uncanny thing, and he remembered that evil things could not withstand silver. (This is certainly a fact to-day.) But having no bullet of that metal on him, he took a sixpenny piece and rammed it down his gun with a piece of cloth, at the same time uttering much prayer.

At sight of this the bird screamed dreadfully with terror, and vainly tried to escape. He fired. The ugly creature dropped with the coin in its body, and fell on its right side. At that very moment, Jean Gordon, living in her shanty beside the big swamp, more than a mile away, arose from her spinning wheel, gasped, and fell on her right side—dead.

* * * * * * * * *

At certain seasons of the year a ghost of most terrible appearance could be seen on a dark road east of Embro. The phantom stood about five feet high, and from the top of the head there issued a pale white light. The light was so bright that a man could see the time of night on his watch by means of it. Just below the flame there appeared two eyeballs, luminous and immovable, and a great gaping mouth. Many trustworthy witnesses there were to the existence of this ghost, and, indeed, for some time the road was deserted by the terrified people. Tradition said that in very early times a murder had been committed on this spot by the Indians, and that the pale light issued from the top of the victim's head, from which the Indians had removed the scalp.

But Sandy Dunbar was a godly man, of great courage and strength, and he determined to confront the ghost, whatever the consequences might be. So one night, taking, as his neighbors told him, his life in his hands, he went forth on his weird mission of investigation. Some half dozen brave young Highlandmen, armed with knives and sticks, accompanied him till within several hundred yards of the dreaded spot. Then the brave man proceeded alone. Sure enough, there was the ghost, and the sight of it made the sweat ooze from every pore. However, it was Sandy's boast that he had never turned his back on a foe, man or devil. So, after praying for his wife and children, and especially for himself in his present trying situation, he called to the ghost, demanding who or what he was and what he wanted. But there was no response. Coming a few yards nearer, and grasping more firmly the hickory club with which he had armed himself, he made the same demand a second time; but the same awful silence continued, and so also after a third demand. Still the ghost was there, the head blazing, the eyes glaring, and the mouth wide open.

Slowly and cautiously Sandy moved nearer and nearer the ghost, ready to defend himself to the death if necessary. At length he was so near that, with great fear and trembling, he summoned courage enough to put out his hand and touch the ghost, when, to the delight and surprise of the brave Highlander, it turned out to be the stump of a spruce tree. The light at the top was the mycelium of the fungus which, it is well known, develops on the decaying wood of the spruce and some other kinds of trees under certain climatic conditions, and shines at night with a pale soft phosphorescence. It is frequently called by the country people "fox-fire," and sometimes "wolf-fire." What appeared as mouth and eyes were only spots where the bark had fallen off, and the uncovered surface reflecting the light from above formed a crude resemblance to a human face.

This same "fox-fire," it is said, has led to many a ghost story. Trees sometimes cast their roots into a cave. These roots get injured, and consequently decay; and in the process of decay they frequently give out this phosphorescence. The light in the cave is seen at night, and a ghost story is the result.

* * * * * * * *

A Zorra man, who is now in his eighty-fifth year, but hale and hearty, relates the following. I give the narrative in his own words: "In the year 184— myself and family were living in the southern part of Zorra. My wife's sister had come from Hamilton on a visit. Every night for several weeks, about 1 a.m., we heard the most delightful singing coming towards the house, and then suddenly ceasing at the door. The singing was in a minor key, low and soft, making a strain of rare, unearthly sweetness.

"One night my sister-in-law was sitting near the window, and, hearing the sound, looked out and saw a man approaching the house singing softly as he came. Reaching the door, he looked up to the window where she was and then passed on. She observed him particularly, and that same night gave us a minute description of his hat and clothes.

"Next day my sister-in-law, my wife, and myself were in Woodstock, and, seeing a mechanic in his ordinary every-day working clothes pass by, my sister-in-law exclaimed, 'That's the man I saw last night coming up to our house singing.' A few weeks after this the young woman was taken down with a fever, and after a few days' illness died.

At that time coffins were not kept in stock, but any ordinary carpenter made them to order. Along with a relative, I went to one carpenter after another in the neighborhood, four or five in all, but for some reason or other, none of them could make the coffin. We then came to Woodstock, went to Mr. B.'s carpenter shop, and the first man we met at once consented to make the coffin. This man was the one my sister-in-law saw approaching the house singing, and whom she afterwards identified on the streets of Woodstock."

Ghosts—what are they? Whence do they come?

"Perhaps they are the signals loved ones send
Who wait our coming on the other shore;
Too spirit-full with earthly sense to blend,
Too finely soft to fully pierce life's roar."

So, at least, says the poet; but there is another theory, not so poetical, but equally plausible, in explanation of ghostly appearances.

* * * * * * * * *

I give the following well-authenticated narrative, not as a Zorra ghost story, but because it explains a good many ghost stories in Zorra and elsewhere. The celebrated Dr. Abernethy stood at the head of the medical profession in his day. He was once applied to by a man whose terrible experience was as follows: He could neither eat nor sleep, and was wasting away day by day; and he gave as the cause of all his trouble that he was visited every night between the hours of eleven and twelve by a horrible creature, grim and ghastly, who, unbidden, would open the door of his room, walk, or rather glide in, put its skeleton arms around him, and its cold, bony face against his. The man had begged his neighbors to come and sit with him, and help him tide over the awful hour, but they were all afraid and shunned his dwelling as haunted.

He asked Dr. Abernethy if he would come and stay with him one night. The doctor readily consented, and the man was overjoyed. The doctor came and sat with him, talked to him about his health and his habits, asked him to let him feel his arms, rolled up his sleeve, and and was apparently diagnosing the case. He then brought a basin of water, as if he was going to sponge him. As the hour of eleven drew near the patient got terribly excited, and began to shudder. Just as the clock struck the man uttered a scream. "There's the door opening, it's coming in; don't you see it?" Abernethy, with his lance, instantly bled him; but so excited was the patient that he never felt it. The blood flowed rapidly. In a few moments the man calmed down, saying "It's not coming any further to-night. Why! it's going out again. The door is closed."

Then for the first time he noticed that he was bled. The doctor explained to him that the cause of his seeing the spectre was the condition of his blood, owing to his bibulous habits and riotous living. He assured him there were two ways in which he might escape seeing bogies - temperate living, or being bled every month. The man, it is said, chose the latter.

* * * * * * * * *

One night, many years ago, a party of young people were returning from a dance about 2 a.m. The road was dark, being thickly wooded with trees on both sides. The moon cast fitful beams of light across the way, and the clouds rushing across the heavens kept the shadows constantly changing. There had been a funeral along that road not long before, and as the young people in silence passed along, ghostly stories of the fireside came vividly to their minds. One little group in advance of the others suddenly stopped, and a thrill of horror passed through the company, for at this exact spot a ghost had some time before appeared, and just now did they not see a strange sight and hear an inhuman sound resembling a long-drawn snore?

It was in October, and the ditch at the side of the road was filled with leaves that rustled to the movements of the ghost. One lad more venturesome than the rest dared to approach the horrid thing. The leaves rustled, but more closely still he approached, when suddenly what appeared to be a huge living mountain arose from the ditch, and rushed away with great speed and clatter of hoofs. The crowd with ghastly faces were riveted to the spot. Their hair stood on end, as one of them afterwards said, like "quills upon the back of the fretful porcupine." After some time, however, it turned out that the supposed ghost was only Donald Urquhart's horse, which had strayed out of its customary pasture field, and was enjoying a soft warm bed upon the leaves in the ditch.

* * * * * * * *

Mrs. A. died in Embro, and it was thought necessary to have the burial as early as possible. So the carpenter employed was obliged to work all night in order to have the coffin ready in time. It was the custom of James Mc----, when his day's work was over, to don his best suit, and go courting a pretty girl who lived on the other side of the common, as it was called. The night in question was a dark one, and a feeling of timidity crept over him as he passed the carpenter's shop, where a tallow candle but dimly lighted the large place, yet showed the long queer-shaped box on which the man was working. The young man gave a few moments' serious thought to the present state of the intended occupant, but all feeling was quickly dispelled by the smiles with which he was greeted by his sweetheart. The hours passed all too quickly, and it was very late when he said good-bye for the last time that night, and set out for home. The darkness had deepened. There was that stretch of common between him and the point he had to reach. -The stroke of the carpenter's hammer was the only sound that broke the stillness, and it recalled the train of thought which occupied him on his way out. He walked cautiously, the greater part of the way being marshy, and there was a pond which must be avoided. Suddenly there was a fizz, followed by a flash of light, which revealed to him a tall object robed in white. Had there been time for thought, it would have only confirmed the belief which he held that it was the ghost of the woman whose coffin was being prepared in the shop. He screamed and fell, but quickly rising redoubled his speed, and reached home in a sorry plight. Some mischievous boys of the house where he payed his nocturnal visits had planted a pole, thrown a sheet over it, and lying in wait until his return, by means of a squibb startled him and showed the ghost.

"If," writes a correspondent," you do not believe in ghosts after reading the record of pioneer life in Zorra, then all I can say is, what is the use of ghosts at all, if people are so perverse that they will not believe in them?"

* * * * * * * *

I have seen nearly all the rites of the Scottish Halloween, as described by Burns, enacted in Zorra. The "burning of nuts," the "eating of apples before the looking-glass," "going around the straw-stack," "counting the furrows," "selecting the cabbage heads" and "throwing the clue" were all familiar to the Zorra pioneers.

"Throwing the clue" consisted in stealing away all alone into some dark and lonely place, and there throwing behind some object such as a brush heap, or great log, a ball of blue yarn, and then winding it into a new ball off the old one. By and bye something will hold the thread; then the person was to ask "Who holds"? and from out of the darkness, an answer would come, giving the full name of the future husband or wife, as the case might be. The following incident is said to have taken place; and if so, it was an illustration of a prediction bringing about its own fulfilment:

Archie McPherson was a hired lad, who with a rough exterior had a large heart, which he had set upon his master's beautiful daughter, Nellie; but his love was not reciprocated. Nellie had other suitors whom she favored more than Archie. But Archie, like other lovers, was rich in resources. Somehow he learned that Nellie was determined on Halloween to repair to a certain lonely place, and throw the clue behind the brush fence, and he determined to make the most of the occasion. So during the day he asked leave of his master to spend the evening at a neighbor's, where a number of young people were to assemble. This was, of course, readily granted him. But instead of going to the neighbor's, he hied away to the lonely spot aforesaid; anxiously he waited there for a long time. By and bye, however, he heard light footsteps approaching, and soon he discerned through the brush, the handsome form of his loved one. She drew out a small clue of yarn, and then threw it to the very spot where Archie was hiding in the darkness. He let it turn round and round for some time, then firmly held it fast. "Who holds"? said the girl in a low trembling voice. Out of the darkness the reply promptly came, "Archie McPherson." Quickly the girl fled in great terror, and reached her home pale and trembling. She kept the secret to herself, but from that night Archie had a vantage ground from which to lay siege to the heart of Nellie. He was evidently predestined to be her husband, and what was the use in quarrelling with fate? In due time they became husband and wife, and then Archie McPherson explained to his spouse the mystery of throwing the clue."

* * * * * * * * *

Our ancestors had some snake stories which were at least as true as similar tales of modern times. There was the hoop-snake for instance. "This here snake," Donald would say, "doesn't travel like other snakes; he has a sharp pointed tail full of pizen, and when he wants to take after a man or a critter, he takes the end of his tail in his mouth, forms himself into a hoop, and revolves after his victim at the rate of a mile a minute. He can only travel, however, in a straight line, and if a man will make a bee line for a tree, and then duck sidewise, the snake will strike his forked and pizened tail into the tree, and the tree will die."

There was a popular belief that the female snake swallowed her young ones in the presence of danger, turning herself into a sort of animated "dug-out" for their safety.

* * * * * * * * *

I think I hear some of my youthful readers exclaim, "What a superstitious lot! " But not so fast. So long as we find multitudes in our own day ready to believe the absurdities of spirit mediums, fortune-tellers, miraculous healers, and charlatans of every sort, we are not in a position to throw stones at our ancestors.


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