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Byways of Scottish Story
Some Historic Apparitions


PROBABLY the more interesting half of the history of every country is the part uncountenanced and little known. The conspicuous event, patent to all the world and to all time, is apt to prove little more than dry crust of fact unless something is known of the personal elements which lay behind it. One asks to be made aware of the human motives and mistakes, the turn of thought, and the seemingly trivial circumstances which have led up to the catastrophe. A knowledge of this desire is the secret of the writing of historic fiction, and it is by filling in between the lines, supplying the probable train of human motive, circumstance, and passion, that the novelist produces his enchanting tale.

This same filling in is sometimes done for us by popular legend and tradition, and where this occurs a wonderful new realism and colour seem added to the narrative. Scotland, in particular, possesses a singular wealth of such tradition; and, to take one kind of it alone, it is remarkable how often conspicuous events of Scottish history have a lurid and significant light thrown over them by some corollary of uncanny legend which the popular memory has preserved.

Every one is aware of the story, which Shakespeare found in Holinshed, which Holinshed borrowed from Boece, and which Boece took and embellished from the chronicler Wyntoun, of the appearance of the three witches to Macbeth, their prophecy, and its tragic consequences. In Shakespeare's play the witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo as the two are crossing a heath near Forres on their way home from victory against rebellious islemen in the west. And so strongly has the dramatic incident taken hold of popular imagination that the hillock on which the witches stood when Macbeth accosted them is actually pointed out at a spot in the Brodie woods between Nairn and Forres, and the barrenness of its sides accounted for by the statement that the witches poured out their horrid brewing on the summit. The original account of the matter, however, as given by Wyntoun, is very different. In the old chronicler's narrative the incident is related in the form of a dream.

One night, it appears, Macbeth thought in his dreaming that he was sitting beside the king. It was at a pause in hunting, and in his hand he held two greyhounds in a leash. As he sat he thought he saw three women going by, and these women he took to be three "weird sisters." The first he heard say as she was passing, "Lo ! yonder the thane of Cromarty!" The second woman in her turn said, "Of Moray yonder I see the thane!" Then the third said shortly, "I see the king!" "All this," adds Wyntoun, "Macbeth heard in his dreaming. Soon afterwards, while still in his youth, he was made thane of these thanedoms; then next he thought to be king when Duncan's days should be over. But in the end the fantasy of his dream moved him to slay his uncle."

It is possible, of course, that Wyntoun, in giving this tale, modified some tradition of an actual, tangible appearance of the three weird sisters; but it is not likely that lie did so, for in another part of his work, he gravely recounts an altercation which St. Serf, the patron saint of his monastery, had with the devil in propria persona. The story, therefore, in its successive versions, forms a very good example of the manner in which traditions grow. But the legend in any shape, whether as dream or as actual appearance, remains the factor of dramatic interest in the otherwise empty story of the murder of King Duncan.

More mysterious, if less dramatic in its consequences, is a story recounted by Wyntoun's contemporary, Fordun, in the "Scotichronicon," and also embodied by Boece. It belongs to the last days of Alexander III., that "pessybill king, who kept his peace with such an iron hand, and gave the Norsemen on the sea-slopes at Largs to know how he could keep his kingdom.

This last of the long line of Celtic kings was a widower, past youth, and the succession to his throne hung upon the life of his daughter's daughter, the infant Princess of Norway. Scotland was still a land of separate races - Scotic and Cymric, Saxon and Norman and the nobles foresaw that, without a king to rule, the nation might easily fall to pieces, and be lost to name and fame. In the circumstances it was well that Alexander should marry again. bride was found in Joleta or Iolande, daughter of the Count of Dreux; and the marriage took place amid great rejoicings in the church of Jedburgh. In the evening - it was the 14th of October in the year 1285 - to crown the occasion, a great masked ball was given in the abbey. Never, say the chroniclers, had so magnificent a spectacle been seen before in Scotland. Thane and abbot, bishop and prince and earl-all the notables of the realm were there ; all had sought to do honour to the hour; and the brave king himself and his new-made bride were present to grace the occasion. Music and the dance were at their height, and the courtly pageant was at its brightest, when suddenly, to the awe and horror of the beholders, the apparition of a ghastly figure became visible on the floor of the abbey. It glided silently amid the revellers, seemed to join for some moments in the dance, and then vanished as silently and swiftly as it had appeared. None there knew what or who it was ; butt by all who saw it it was taken as an omen of disaster. And, sure enough, not a- year afterwards, by an accident to his horse, the brave Scots king lay dead under the cliff at Kinghorn, and the shadow of the longest and most dreadful of its wars was gathering on the horizon of Scotland.

Again, not many years after the appearance just narrated, tradition records a strange adventure which is said to have befallen the patriot Wallace. The story is told by Henry the Minstrel in rude but spirited verse.

In the course of an amorous adventure in Perth the knight of Elderslie had been all but trapped. Indeed, but for the timely remorse of his lady-love, who had been bought over by the English governor, he must inevitably have been taken. As it was, escaping in woman's clothes, lie was closely pursued by his enemies, aided by a bloodhound. Accompanied by a small party of followers, he made for the Forest of Gash, in Strathearn. After some time, the pursuit continuing hot behind them, and their case appearing almost desperate, one of the party, a man named Fawdoun, suddenly declared lie could go no farther. Wallace appears to have had previous suspicions of his follower's good faith, and these suspicions were now strengthened by Fawdoun's conduct. The leader, at any rate, knew that if this man fell into the English hands the fate of the party was assured. To prevent treachery, therefore, as there was no time to lose, Wallace drew his sword and struck off Fawdoun's head. This act saved the lives of the party for the time, for on the hound reaching the spot it stopped at the blood; but the occurrence had a curious sequel.

The little band, now reduced to thirteen, took up their quarters in Gask Hall. There they made a fire, and began in haste to make ready a couple of sheen which they had taken from a fold close by. They were about to begin a rude supper, when they were startled by a sudden blast of horns outside. Fearing it might be the English who had discovered his retreat, Wallace sent out two men to bring word. After a time, no tidings being returned and the horns still making a tremendous blast, he sent out other two. These, however, also remained away; and presently, in anger, the leader sent forth his whole remaining party. Wallace was now left alone, wondering and impatient. Still the blast of horns increased; so, concluding that the place was surounded by enemies, and that his men had fallen into their hands, the knight himself drew his sword and went to the door. There, standing opposite to him in the darkness, he beheld Fawdoun, with -dreadful to relate! - his head in his hand. At the sight Wallace crossed himself ; but the spectre hardly gave him time to do so, for, with surprising promptitude for a dead man, he hurled the head at him. The hero, nevertheless, proved equal to the occasion, for lie picked up the head by the hair and as vigorously hurled it back again. By this time, though, he had had enough of the interview, deeming his antagonist no spirit of man, but some devil ; and considering, as the narrator quaintly puts it, that there was little advantage to be got by remaining longer there, he turned and fled. The last thing lie saw, as he made his way up Strathearn, was Gask Hall in a blaze, with the spectre of Fawdoun towering gigantic in the lurid light, as it brandished a blazing rafter over its head.

That night Wallace swam the Forth at Cambuskenneth, and from his refuge in the Torwood sent a woman back to the scene of his discomfiture. Strange to say, she found Gash Hall unharmed; and there a fragment of the ruin stands to the present day to witness to the tale, though it has been succeeded since then by an "auld house" and a new house of Gash in turn, both famous in sweet Scots song.

A traditional portent, not less interesting, has supplied the motive for John Galt's romance "The Spaewife," and is related with telling effect in D. G. Rossetti's poem "The King's Tragedy."

James I., it is said, was on his last fatal journey, to spend Christmas in the Blackfriars' Monastery at Perth. He had reached the shore of the Scottish Sea, as the Firth of Forth was then called, and was about to embark for the opposite shore, when a woman threw herself on his path, and with wild gestures and boding words urged him to turn back. Time after time in her wanderings, she declared, she had seen his wraith, and each time a windingsheet was wrapped higher about his figure ; and now, she exclaimed, if he crossed that sea, lie should never again come back. James, as we know, put aside the warning, crossed the Firth, and took up his abode in Perth, with the tragic consequence which is matter of history. It is said, however, that on the wild night of February on which he was slain, just before the assassins broke in, the soothsayer once again appeared- with her warning before the Charterhouse gates, and had James listened to her he might even then have escaped his doom. One of the last things he heard, before the flare of torches and clash of armour told him the truth, was the wall of the woman's foreboding under the very windows of his chamber, when she had been turned from the door. Tradition has it that the soothsayer was possessed of second sight; but as she was Highland, it may well be that she had less occult means of knowing the plots for the king's death which Sir Robert Graham was then hatching in "the country of the wild Scots."

Two of James I.'s descendants, if tradition is to be believed, were favoured likewise with supernatural warnings, and in the case of James IV. the warning occurred twice. Both occurrences are recorded by Pitscottie, who received the account of them from an eve-witness, the famous Sir David Lyndsay.

It was on the eve of setting out for Flodden, and James was worshipping in the great old kirk of St. Michael, which still stands close by Linlithgow Palace. Evensong, it appears, was nearly - done, when there came suddenly in at the kirk door a tall man in a blue gown, belted with a linen roll and wearing sandals on his feet. His head was bare, in his hand he carried a great pikestaff, and he came forward rudely "cryand and speirand for the king." Without ceremony he went up to James, and leaning his arm on the royal praying-desk, began a brusque harangue. "My mother," he said, "hath sent me, desiring thee not to pass whither thou art purposed; for if thou dost, thou wilt not fare well in thy journey, nor none that passeth with thee. Further, she bade thee melle with no woman, for if thou do it thou wilt be confounded, and brought to shame." The king, it is recorded, was about to make answer, but before his eyes, and in the presence of all his lords, the man vanished " as he had been ane blink of the sunne, or a whiss of the whirlwind," and could no more be seen.

The second occasion happened a few days later. James was at Edinburgh, busy marshalling his army on the Boroughmuir, and getting his cannon out of the castle for the campaign, when at midnight a cry was heard at the Market Cross, proclaiming what the invisible herald gave out to be the "summons of Plotcock," otherwise Pluto. This summons called upon all men "to compear, both earl, and lord, and baron, and all honest gentlemen within the town, every man specified by his own name, within the space of forty days, before the said Plotcoch, where it should happen him to appoint." All the persons thus cited, it would seem, were among the slain afterwards at Flodden, except one. That fortunate personage, happening to be on his outer stair, heard the summons, and, with great presence of mind and legal knowledge, took a crown from his purse and threw it into the street, crying, "I appeal from that summons, judgment, and sentence thereof, and take me all whole in the mercy of God and Christ Jesus, His Son."

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that both of these apparitions were stage effects got up by the astute Sir David Lyndsay himself, at the instance of Queen Margaret, to dissuade the somewhat morbid mind of James from the English war. The mention of a possible relation to a woman points to a natural feminine jealousy of the king's weaknesses towards the Queen of France and the Lady of Ford.

For the apparition which in his later days visited the sleepless eyes of James V. the sole authority is the highly characteristic "'Historic" of John Knox. Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, the former friend of the king, had been tried and executed at Edinburgh upon a charge of twice attempting the life of James once seeking to murder him in bed at Holyrood, and again shooting at him from the steeple at Linlithgow. These charges, however, did not satisfy the mind of Knox, who seeks to make out that the true reason for Hamilton's condemnation was his leaning towards the cause of the Reformers. In proof of his assertion Knox states that the king was tormented afterwards by the apparition of his unjust judge.

"How terrible a vision," he states, "the said prince saw, lying in Linlithgow that night that Thomas Scot, Justice-clerk, died in Edinburgh, men of good credit can yet report. For, afraid at midnight or after, he called aloud for torches, and raised all that lay beside him in the palace, and told that Thomas Scot was dead"; for he had been at him with a company of devils, and had said unto him these words, "Oh, woe to the day that ever I knew thy service; for serving of thee against God, against His servants, and against Justice, I am adjudged to endless torment."

It is needless to expatiate on these traditions. The chief interest which they possess lies in the light which they reflect upon the human nature of past times; and, for the amount of that light which they afford, they remain of more value than many dissertations.


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