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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XVIII - Superstitions


BUT after the different things I have said of the Lews, some account ought to be given of the quaint superstitions and stories of that country. I am not going to touch upon any part of that field of second-sight and Highland seers so ably described by many other writers; but suffer me to tell two or three stories, or rather meander away upon different stories and incidents that came under my own immediate knowledge.

Now, I don’t pretend to be a hero in the dark; I had rather walk by day than night any time, and I don’t think it at all pleasant being by oneself in a lone corner of a house or muir —above all things, on a good high road in the neighbourhood of a large town, manufacturing or otherwise, between twelve and two in the morning—say from the 66 Peacock ” at Islington to the Edgware Road; or from the Regent’s Park country to the top of Portland Place. But still, if the thing is to be done, it must be done. I have never exactly made np my mind about ghosts, but I don’t see why they should be an impossibility; and I don’t believe, if the truth were really spoken, that any one quite alone hearing a strange noise at night, or seeing a queer sight on the road, that he don’t feel his heart beat, and would not sooner have a comrade with him. I don’t think that he is quite as cool as he would be in the broad daylight; and absolute coolness and indifference, are the criterion of courage according to the old French soldier’s view. In the Moscow campaign, when France had soldiers, two of the Old Guard had a bet on which was the coolest under fire. They decided the wager the next day—I think, if my memory serves me right, at Borodino, where the fire was heavy enough to please any epicure. "Tiens, tu as perdu, mon camarade ! Regarde—il deboutottne l’habit.” Latour Mau-bourg had unbuttoned the top button .of his coat. His comrade demurred to this, and the decision was referred to a committee of old soldiers, who decided that he had lost. Latour Maubourg evidently felt hot, and Poniatowski did not. Nobody, they say, is a hero to his valet-de-chambre, much less to himself. What is the use of it ? No one is a bit the wiser.

“Why should I bribe myself?”—as said a celebrated English Prime Minister to a friend who asked him why, at least, he did not give himself the Garter.

Therefore the result of my lucubrations is, that being conscious of being no hero in the dark myself, I have a fellow-feeling for those who dislike it too. But, then, there is a limit to all things, and I don’t think that generally ghosts walk till past ten at any rate; so you surely need not mind them, however much you may other bipeds, who are more dangerous in the early than in the late hours. But, then, if you fear the swell-mob in the early, and the ghosts in the dark hours of the night, you won’t have a cheery time of it anywhere, particularly in the Lews, when your dusk certainly begins about four in the afternoon, and it is not light at eight in the morning. Now, I have met with a good deal of fear of the fairies in the far west of Ireland, and consequently imbibed a great respect for their reign ; for the Irish fairies, like some other inhabitants of the land they are said to frequent, are mighty pugnacious, and often administer a hearty drubbing to those who interfere or go out to dance with them by the light of the moon—at least, so I have been credibly informed by the fairy dreaders; for I never met a fairy myself, by day ol* by night, though I lived a long time in their peculiar land—Kerry.

But for true night-fear commend me to the Lews. Yery few, indeed, ever ventured on night-travelling, and that only in troops. I had a very excellent workman in my employ almost all the time I was at Soval. He cut my peats, did all my farmwork, which consisted chiefly in keeping up a turf fence round a field that produced nothing but a small crop of rushes, though it had been drained in every possible manner. This turf fence was always cracking and crumbling back into the field in the dry weather, and tumbling down into the ditch and the road or the loch in the wet weather. On the whole, I never knew what good the field did any one but poor Callum, to whom it afforded constant work. From being the poorest man in his township, he became the richest, and purchased a cart and pony, which was also very much employed. So that, but for the mortality in his family, he would have done well. But, poor fellow ! all his sons and daughters sickened as they grew up, and died away of consumption; and he, the last time I saw him, was a miserable object, just about to join them. Well, this poor Callum was the greatest night-coward I ever yet encountered. He never would come to his work in the morning, or go away home at night, without being accompanied by either son or daughter, or both ; for this night-fear ran strong in the family, and the child that accompanied the father was obliged to have a companion to return home. The loss of labour that took place in the family owing to this insane fear was prodigious, for if he had no companion, he would sit up by the kitchen fire all night, and thus lose his next morning’s work. We often talked and reasoned with him, but to no purpose. It was not .that he was afraid of robbers, for there were no such things. He was not afraid of ghosts; but it was simply an indescribable terror of being by himself in the dark, and I believe but for this terror, he would have been the richest man in his district—nay, more; he was watcher over my river at Saxay, and, in company with another, would go out at night, and was really a very fair watcher, for he understood the ways of fish, and the ways of their enemies; and though I don’t suppose he would have risked his bones in a row, yet he counteracted poaching.

Now when I instance Oallum as an example of night fear, it is not describing him alone.

Very, very few are devoid of it, and there was a peculiar spot not far from me which was the dread of the whole country. It was a rock on the road to Stornoway, said to be haunted by the ghost of a boy murdered there some years ago, the particulars of which I shall her§ relate.

In days of yore, two boys of Stornoway, instead of going to school, amused themselves with going out egg-stealing in the grouse-hatching time. They quarrelled about the division of the spoil, and one of the young gentlemen hit the other rather too hard on the head with a stone and killed him. He was horridly frightened; but when he found his companion dead, he kept his wits, and dug a hole in the muir under this rock by the burnside, in which he buried the body. He then betook himself to Harris, got on board a fishing-boat in Tarbet, whence he made his way to the mainland, became a sailor, and wandered about the world for many years. At last, in the course of his voyages, the ship—in which, I think, he had become mate—went into the port of Stornoway for repairs. When there, instigated by an almost supernatural anxiety and curiosity, he went on shore. He could find no traces of the cabins where his own family and that of his poor friend used to live; and he entered one of those small public eating and drinking-houses which were always, I presume, open for the refreshment of sailors, and called for something to eat. While his food was preparing, his attention was drawn to something peculiar in the shape of the handles of the knife and fork laid on the table ; and he was examining them closely when his hostess addressed him, “You may well look at those handles; for we got them in a strange way. I was returning home one evening from Balallan with a hay-load, and sat down by the burnside at the bottom of the hill near the white rock, when my eyes were attracted by something white under the rock, and, in what seemed to have been a hole, I found three or four bones of dead sheep, I suppose, and I brought them home with me and made handles for two or three of my old knives that wanted them. But, mon! what’s the matter with your hands? they are full of blood.” The sailor sprang to his feet with a wild scream. “They’re no sheep’s banes, they’re poor Willie’s banes, and I am his murderer, and see how they tell the truth and witness against me.” For it was the bones, and not his hands, that were oozing with blood. He at once confessed his crime, was tried, condemned, and executed on Gallows Hill, protesting to the last that he never had any ill-will to poor Willie, but only killed him in a fit of passion; but that he deserved his fate for not giving himself up at once and confessing the deed.

Ever since this occurrence this rock, under which the bones of the murdered Willie were found, was considered to be haunted. And the strange part of the story was that no one ever saw the ghost on the road to, but always on the road back from, Stornoway. Now, I am going to account for this. The rock was situated about four miles from Soval, on the right-hand side of the road, at the bottom of the hill, by a little stream. As you walked down the hill from Soval you saw nothing of the rock, because it was level with the heathy hill. As you walked down the hill upon this rock from Stornoway, it stood on the contrary—a bluff, bare, grey rock, white in part towards the top, as many of these rocks often are. At one time, for some years, I had to go into Stornoway regularly once a week, and, if the weather permitted me at all, I returned the same night —particularly in the woodcock season—if possible. Well, one horrid day, I had walked in, as the morning was Lewisian, and I wished to give old Fred a rest, as the next day we were bound for Dalbeg. My business over, I resisted the hospitable invitations of my friends, and started for Soval somewhere about eight or nine o’clock. It was a fine, bright moonlight night, after the wet morning; the wind had gone north, and I cracked on best pace for home, with a good caulker of the old Sheriffs excellent whisky. I was cheering myself with the thoughts of the cosy fireside at home, and anticipations of the woodcocks for the morrow, as, doing my four miles an hour, I swung down the hill beyond the five-mile stone, when I was pulled up all of a heap; for lo ! there, on the haunted rock, stood a boy in a shirt! The boy’s ghost! I had passed, some half-mile behind me, two or three people on the road, or I think I should have bolted. Instead of this, helped with the Sheriff’s caulker, I walked on. The ghost disappeared. This seemed odd, and knowing people were behind me, I got very bumptious, and turned back to have another look: when, as I got back, I saw not the whole, but half the ghost, and then presently no ghost at all; and then there was not the same clear brightness as before, and for a few seconds the moon wept behind a cloud over some fair maid’s misfortunes ; then it broke forth again, slowly, to shine upon a very small bit of ghost indeed. By tliis time, hearing voices, I became very valiant, and distinctly saw the ghost become bigger. “ Hang it! ” thinks I to myself. “ Maidens may love the moon, or the Buffalo gals like to come out and dance by its light; but I never heard of a ghost’s partiality to its cold, pale raysand I took a very steady look, and then I found out exactly what the ghost was. In the angle I was coming down the road, the moon just struck upon the white part of the rock I have already alluded to, and it did appear something like a figure; and I can perfectly understand any one, seeing what I saw, being awfully scared; I know I was, and I don’t to this hour understand why I did not run away, and certain sure I am I should have done so but for the above-mentioned reasons. The good people came up very shortly, and were astonished at catching me up. I thought I might do them some good by explaining and pointing out to them what I had seen, and thus diminishing the awe of the spot. Not a bit of it; I did more harm than good. In vain I tried to walk my best the rest of the way to Soval. They stuck to me like leeches, and would not leave my kitchen fire till light came; and the ghost story was for ever confirmed. As sure as death, the master had seen and spoken to the ghost, and there was no mistake, and I was implored not to go night-walking any more; and because I was obliged to do so sometimes, I believe they conceived no very good opinion of me, but thought that I was no that canny as it behoved a man to be, who had once seen a ghost and talked to it, and then ganged the same gait. It was just a warning, and it would fare worse with me if I did not heed.


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