Friday, 31 December 2010

Oshogatsu Everybody!

Scotland takes New Year traditions very seriously...particularly the parts of it that involve excessive drinking. But other cultures enjoy things in their own way. I like the sound of Japan's Oshogatsu...rice cakes, bells and a clean slate...

"In December, various Bonenkai or "forget-the-year parties" are held to bid farewell to the problems and concerns of the past year and prepare for a new beginning. Misunderstandings and grudges are forgiven and houses are scrubbed. At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples strike their gongs 108 times, in a effort to expel 108 types of human weakness. New Year's day itself is a day of joy and no work is to be done. Children receive otoshidamas, small gifts with money inside. Sending New Year's cards is a popular tradition—if postmarked by a certain date, the Japanese post office guarantees delivery of all New Year's cards on Jan. 1."

Read more: New Year's Traditions

Shameless non-folklore related plug; the scottish tradition of "watching some comedy while getting drunk before the bells" can be observed tonight by watching "/comedy" on STV at 10.45...for which I've written a few sketches.

Anyway...kinga shinnen! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku o-negai-shimasu.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Number 13

Final Ghost Story of the year, and we'll finish like we started, with one from the master, M.R. James, this time read in character by Christopher Lee.

This was part of a series of M.R. James readings broadcast over Christmas a few years ago.

View this and many more spooky classics on The Ghostwatching Youtube Channel

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Moonlit Road

Heres a completely different flavour of Ghost Story.

Check out The Moonlit Road, strange tales of the American South; wonderful folklore and spooky tales, some audio, some video, all good.

The Moonlit Road's special Christmas Selection is here.


Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dominus Dunrod

The following letter and journal fragments have been transcribed and reprinted with the kind permission of the Macintosh family archive.

Dear Macintosh

My most sincere apologies for the time it has taken for you to finally receive the enclosed items. While I am sure you more than anyone can appreciate the legal wranglings these kind of situations can cause, this will have done little to ease your mind. These then are the pages from the journal of Mr Malcolm Doyle, and with them, the ring given him by your daughter Elizabeth.

The journal pages and related personal effects belonging to Mr Doyle were found by William Allen in the grounds of the Dunrod estate.The pages were bound together by the ring and this, tied to a rock. It is my understanding that there is currently some dispute over ownership of the land and this certainly slowed down the process of forwarding these items to yourself. In my opinion, Allen was also trespassing and more than likely poaching when he found the pages, and his reluctance to pinpoint the precise location of the find made determining ownership of the items a most lamentable business.

Clearly however, it is to yourself and your poor daughter that these remnants belong, the last fragment in particular appears to be not so much a journal entry as a letter addressed directly to her. I would caution you however, to think carefully before allowing Elizabeth to read these pieces, in my opinion they are not suitable for the delicate female constitution.

I had a man sent down to Inverkip to collect the items, and while there, he asked after Alexander Lindsay, with particular reference to the events reported in Mr Doyle’s journal. Of late Lindsay has not been seen at his castle or the surrounding grounds, he is apparently travelling in the east. However, I am sad to report that Lindsay does indeed have a name for himself as a dabbler in the black arts and has for a goodly number of years terrorised this little village. It seems then, unlikely that we shall see Mr Doyle return, and must hope that whatever sinister fate befell him, he has since passed on into the protection of our Lord, where no such evil spirit may again cause him harm.

My thoughts are with you and with Elizabeth.
Peace be with you.

Your friend

John Sullivan

“Having arrived from Ayrshire, I have stopped at Inverkip. I could easily have travelled through the evening to reach Greenock and from there find passage home, but I was famished and for once, fancied myself more firm lodgings than aboard ship. The inn is pleasant enough and not for nothing does the kitchen comes well recommended. What a feast!
After my meal, I sat for a little while in the company of some local characters who were keen to impress me with tales and songs. As the night drew on, the conversation grew darker, and I was told in very serious tones of the exploits of one Alexander Lindsay, a landowner hereabouts. It seems that this man, has fallen into the service of Satan himself, and has been bringing these dark forces to bear on his tenants and those who labour in the surrounding fields. His foul temperament seeks to spoil the crops and the cattle of the other landowners by means of a sinister magick. It is said also that he has a number of witches in his service. Here the conversation grew still more hushed, as it seems that many of these familiars live within the village of Inverkip itself! Also, on several occasions early in the morning, Lindsay has been spied in the fields, piercing the skin of cows to draw blood for arcane purpose.

I eventually excused myself and retired to bed, having enjoyed both a good meal and a good yarn, I slept well. It was my intent to rise early, but I have slept til the midmorning, and so I will simply walk to Greenock by the Largs road. With luck I will find passage in the evening, if not then I will stay in The White Hart, as one more day’s delay will make little difference.”

“What turns fate takes! I left Inverkip in good humour and weather and headed up onto the moorland path. I had been walking for a little over an hour when the sky blackened. Shortly thereafter the mist rolled down from the hills. I stopped then, so as not wander from the path. However when the mist finally lifted, then came the rains. And what rains! I have passed down Greenock way a number of times now, and there was never such a place for the four seasons in a day. Sodden and not a little disheartened by the storm, I was set to turn back for Inverkip there to spend another pleasant evening by the Inn hearth, However, I could see in the near distance the castle which could only belong to Alexander Lindsay. Stories by the fireside of an evening are all well and good, but in the midst of a hellish afternoon storm, I had little reservation in approaching the castle. I would admit however, to firmly grasping my crucifix as I knocked upon the huge oaken door.

A tall, slender man opened the door, this transpired to be Lindsay himself, no servants seemed to be in attendance. I explained my plight and he welcomed me in without hesitation as, he told me “You never turn away a stranger in a storm”. This did not seem to me to be the fiend described by the fellows at the inn and it occurred to me that they were perhaps having a little fun at my expense.

Lindsay showed me to a room at the top of the West Wing. There is a small window which overlooks the distant hills. I will stay here for the evening and take my leave in the morning.”

“This has been a most curious day. After a marvellous evening meal provided by my host I retired to bed. I did not wake until the late afternoon! I hurried to get washed and dressed, hoping to leave immediately for Greenock for the evening sailings. I could not find my host to offer him my thanks, so instead wrote him a short letter, leaving him my address that we might correspond at some later date. However, I found the front door to be locked, with no key to be seen. I once more looked for my host, calling loudly for him by name, again to no avail. Regrettably, all of the windows on the lower floor of the castle are too small to scramble through and so currently I find myself locked in the castle, alone. It will be dusk soon, and Lindsay has not yet returned.”

“I have passed the remainder of the afternoon reading from a copy of The Iliad I found in Lindsay’s library. There were a great many interesting books to be found there, but most were written in languages I could not understand. I also noted a number of books which did appear to contain sinister diagrams and magickal text such as would add weight to the allegations of the Inverkip villagers. Having been not a little unsettled by this, I find myself starting at the merest sound. And what sounds there have been echoing round these halls, empty but for myself. Strange whistlings and murmurings, a shrieking or screaming which sounds terrifying and real, yet so very far away. On two occasions, I have nearly leapt from my seat upon hearing a whisper at my ear, only to turn and find no one there. The reading has kept my mind at rest for a time, but with night now falling I can think of little else but the many rooms in the castle, and the many evil spirits I fear dwell within.”

“It is but a short time later. I have been staring from my window out across the way, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone passing. And sure enough, a shape emerged. A little cowled figure, wandering not along the path, but down from the hills. The figure was too small to be Lindsay, but did seem to be coming towards the castle in a laborious but determined fashion. I waited til this person had come closer, and waved from the window to try and attract their attention. And at once they glanced upward. I could see now it was an elderly woman, hunched over but most certainly not frail. She had clearly seen me, yet chose to ignore me and walked around the castle in order that she was out of view to me. Disturbed still further, I sat silently for an age, listening, hoping to hear if she entered. Apparently she did not.”

“It is a little before eight o’clock, a short while ago, Lindsay brought some food up to my room. He apologised for his disappearance earlier in the day, explaining that he had been running some very important errands. The door had been locked he said, because he does not trust the labourers or villagers. This I suppose, is possible, however, I sat by my window, watching the path leading up to the doorway, and listening, all evening listening, for the slightest sound, and I neither saw nor heard Lindsay arrive back at Castle. I thanked him for his hospitality, and made to be on my way. Lindsay however, was having none of it, insisting that the least he could offer me after such a day was another evenings lodgings. While I was keen to be away, the rain was once again lashing down, and my half hearted attempts to explain my departure were beginning to look most ingracious. I agreed therefore to stay one final night.

I asked him then about the woman I had saw come by, and he told me that she too was a guest of his this evening, an old acquaintance of the family down visiting from Lochwinnoch. He told me that one more guest was to arrive, a man of holy orders. I must admit that this did put me more at my ease. Yet here Lindsay grew very sombre, asking that for the duration of the evening I should remain in my room, as he and his guests had “a serious business” to attend to. In all honesty, I was not overkeen to spend the night in his company, and so will instead settle down with The Iliad.”

“Dearest Elizabeth,
As I write, my crucifix sits upon the table just in front of me. I now fear for my life, and my soul. I wish that I was with you now.

Downstairs I can hear them chanting still, and as they sing, so too do the restless spirits that rattle round these walls. There is a bad magick at work here, and I have watched them prepare.

A short time ago, as I sat reading by my little window, I saw a carriage draw up by the front of the castle, and a robed man emerged and drifted indoors. This was the monk my host had spoken of earlier. The carriage trundled off into the night and I returned to my book.

Not long after this, I heard a great deal of commotion downstairs and although my host had stated that I should remain in my room, curiosity got the better of me. I stepped quietly from my room, and peered down from the stairwell to the great hall below. And here were Lindsay, the old woman and the monk, arguing loudly. I could not understand what they were arguing about, but Lindsay kept shaking his head and gesturing to a chain he was wearing around his neck. There seemed to be some kind of ornamental piece upon the end of it, but I could not rightly make it out. Eventually, the argument quelled, and the three busied themselves by leafing through some of the volumes I had noted earlier in the library. Ever and again, they would stop to cast something across the open floor. I knew Elizabeth, that this was evil at work, that I should not linger, yet I sat transfixed. I watched as they drew strange shapes and symbols upon the stone floor, and here the chanting started. The temperature dropped considerably, and thankfully this seemed to rouse me. I resolved to watch no more, but I had not decided upon my course of action until I heard all three of them calling out to the Devil. They listed his many names, and I could listen no longer.

This is a damned place, and I must leave before I am taken, therefore Elizabeth, it is my intent to clamber from this window down to the moors below.

The weather however is against me, and so in case I should fail in this venture, I would not have you imagine it is you I have run from. I will roll these last pages together, and loop them with the silver band you have given me. I have chipped out a little stone from the walls and I will bind the ring and pages to this. I shall throw this from my window out toward the wall by the road where I might easily retrieve it. You would know Elizabeth, that I would not willingly be separated from that ring, so should it come back into your possession, it is because I have failed in my efforts to leave this place. I pray that you need never read these pages.     

All my love always.”

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Tulya's E'en

Winter is the favourite time for Trow's, for with winter, comes Yuletide, and as everyone on Orkney knows, this is when the Trow hordes are given permission to come above ground. And as the darkness and cold creeps in, the Trow's leave behind their homes in the hollow hills to cause mischief all across the islands.

It was Tulya's E'en, seven days before Yule, and in her little croft, Bodil was starting her preparations for Yuletide. She woke her two children as soon as the day broke, and once they had eaten, she had them go out to the herd and pluck a hair from the tail of every beast. As they did, Bodil herself began pleating straw into small crosses to hang around the house. It was while she worked, and while the children were in the fields that her neighbour Taina came to visit.
"Oh it's terrible!" said Taina "Have you heard?"
"Heard what?" asked Bodil
"It's poor Farmer Marwick. The Trow's have got him."
"What happened?"
Apparently, Marwick had been out walking the night before, when a group of the hill-folk, out a little earlier than they should have been, jumped from behind some stones and surrounded him. Now Marwick knew how to deal with Trow's, and he quickly searched through his pockets and found a little knife. He fell down to the ground and scored a hasty circle all around himself. The Trow's advanced on him, but could not pass the circle. And so it went all night, Trow's all around him and poor Marwick unable to cross the line.
"They found him this morning, in the circle, dying of the cold." said Taina. "You should gather your children in now."
So Bodil brought the children back in from the fields, and just as she'd asked, they had taken a hair from each beast. Bodil pleated all these together and hung them over the house alongside an ear of corn. Finally, she placed a straw cross at the outermost points of her land.
"There," said Bodil "Well done, we have made our sainin. Now our house, our herd and our crops are safe from any Trow's."
But just to be sure, Bodil kept the children indoors for the next week, and stayed with them at all times.
On Yule's Eve, the final preparations were made. Bodil helped her children to make the Yule Cakes, little oatcakes shaped like the sun, and then they all cleaned the house from top to bottom. Once everything had been cleaned, they all washed their feet and hands, dropping three coals into the water.
"Mother, why do we put coal in the water?" asked the eldest child.
"Well, " said Bodil "this stops Trow's from stealing the power from your feet and hands."
 Bodil threw out the dirty water and they all put on a clean set of clothes, only then were all the doors and windows unlocked and an iron key or blade set next to them.
"Mother, why do you unlock all the doors if we don't want the Trow's to come in." asked the youngest child.
"Well," said she "it's not only Trow's who are out on Yule, but the spirits of our ancestors. And if they should come to visit, they can enter freely. The iron will keep the Trow's away."
But there was one thing Bodil had forgotten, and that was to set a peat fire. And just as she was lighting it, a Trow  jumped down the chimney. The fire took up nicely, but it was too late, the Trow was in the house. And this was Belia, a nasty little she-Trow. Bodil knew that Belia would wreck her home if she didn't act quickly. She had a blade in her pocket, but if she scratched a circle around herself, her children would be left in danger. And she didn't have enough time to get to her children to draw a circle around them. Suddenly Bodil remembered hearing that if you met a Trow's gaze and refused to look away, the Trow is unable to move. So that's exactly what she did. Bodil stared right at the little Trow-wife, holding it still as she went to her children. But Belia was cunning, for she took up the tongs from the fire.
"If you don't blink," she smiled "I'll put out your eyes."
Quickly, Bodil drew her little circle, holding her children near to her as Belia advanced. But when she got to the edge of the circle, she could go no further. Seeing she was beaten, she dropped the tongs and looked around. There were iron keys by every door and horsehoes and blades by each window. There was only one thing for her to do, Belia jumped onto the fire and back up the chimney, howling all the way.

Laughing Bodil stoked up the fire and set a little candle in the window. The candle burned down, night passed and gradually light crept back across the land. And the Trow's crawled back under their stones down into their kingdom beneath the hills until next winter.

Historical Note :
Trows are trolls or goblins, similar to our own Bogle or to the Yule Lads of Iceland. For a more thorough history and some quite frankly marvellous Orkney folklore and traditional Orkney ghost stories...trot along to Orkneyjar.

Over the festive period Radio Scotland will also be broadcasting Scottish Ghost Stories For Christmas. Definetly worth a listen.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Ghosts of Oxford Street

Less dark and atmospheric, more just barmy, in this early nineties Channel 4 classic, Malcolm McLaren tours us around London. For purists, it is worth noting some of the ghosts in the title are metaphorical and symbolic, but there are some spooky stories in there, plus performances from Shane MacGowan, the Happy Mondays and Sinead O'Connor. What's not to like?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Duchal Well

Historical Note :
Sightings of "black wild cats" around Inverclyde have become more widespread in the last ten years, but there are recorded sightings and anecdotal evidence of unusual beasts pre-dating WWII.

The ruins of Duchal Castle and the Duchal blackwater can be found on the outskirts of Kilmacolm.
Definetly worth a winter walk...though take care.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Signal-Man

Charles Dickens is of course responsible for everyone's favourite Christmas Ghost Story,  "A Christmas Carol". His chilling tale "The Signal-Man" is believed by many to be the greatest short story ever written, if slightly less festive...

"Halloa! Below there!"
When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.
"Halloa! Below!"
From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and, raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.
"Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?"
He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question. Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down. When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.
I repeated my inquiry. After a pause, during which he seemed to regard me with fixed attention, he motioned with his rolled-up flag towards a point on my level, some two or three hundred yards distant. I called down to him, "All right!" and made for that point. There, by dint of looking closely about me, I found a rough zigzag descending path notched out, which I followed.
The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down. For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path.

continue reading...

BBC adapted The Signal-Man as part of a Ghost Story For Christmas. Tremendously atmospheric...

Sunday, 12 December 2010


A tale of unease set at Christmas during the second world war...

Historical Note
Greenock was the embarkation point for some of the ships sent to Iceland during the "occupation".
The Jolasveinar tradition is still celbrated in can get really cool decorations and figurines. Check out these images.

Also, here is a wee Christmas Carol about them sung by Bjork

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Curse of Crow Mount

An ancient and mysterious portion of Greenock, Crow Mount, or as it was commonly called, The Mount, formed that part of the town stretching westwards from Bank Street to Ann Street, and running northwards from Dempster Street to Roxburgh Street. Rumour has it, that this was once the haunt of witches, who held covens there, far from the watchful eye of the townsfolk. Later still it was said that a witch was hung from one of the same trees and that as she choked she forever cursed the ground beneath her dangling feet and the forest all around. By the 1800s our town ancestors had long since abandoned the mount to the Crows. Historians remember it for its lush greenery, a stark contrast to the smoke and industry already taking hold at the rivers edge. But the story goes that from branch to root those trees hid a darker tale.

In 1513, the Lords of Greenock assembled the townsmen to march with King James against the English. On foot all the way to Northumberland, the men walked to the beat of the ancient town drum. Some say that this drum had been framed with wood from Crow Mount. Whatever the case, it is true that when disaster struck, and the Scots were crushed on the fields of Flodden, few returned to the town. But those that did, brought with them that same drum. And here it remained, a memory to the ghosts of Greenock’s fallen.

For over 300 years, the drum was kept safe by the townsfolk, seldom heard, save for the odd ceremonial occasion. One historian recalls that by the 1850’s it was gathering dust, it’s proud history all but forgotten. It was a fate shared by one lonely townsman of the day. Archibald Weir, a resident of Crow Mount had fought in Crimean War alongside Sir Shaw Stewart. Injured in the siege of Sevastopol, Weir returned home, bitter and haunted by his experiences on the battlefield. Hard on his luck, he took to petty crime – picking pockets mostly. So it was that one day in the Coffee Rooms, his eyes fell upon the old town drum. “A drum like that might fetch a pretty penny in the markets of Glasgow” thought Weir.

And so that night, he returned to take the ancient drum for himself. Climbing the hill to Crow Mount, he rushed home to hide his stolen prize, planning to fence it the next day. But an uneasy sleep awaited him. Nightmares of wars and witches awakened him.And all the time, ringing in his ears, the endless beat of a lonely drum; The Greenock Drum. On and on it went. Thump. Thump. Thump. The drum would not be silenced.

The next morning the town awoke to the news that Weir’s lifeless corpse had been found hanging from the oldest tree on Crow Mount. The drum was nowhere to be found. Was it some witches curse come back to haunt Crow Mount, the ghost of one of Floddens Fallen? Or simply a poor soul, driven mad with guilt?

Shortly after the grim discovery of Weir’s body was made, the trees of Crow Mount were cleared to make way for the Mount Church. And those same trees were used to make some of the pews. But superstitions die hard, and all refused to sit on them. So as you walk the streets these winter months, listen carefully for the beat of the Greenock Drum, and the whispered curse of Crow Mount.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Pleasant Terrors

Ghost Stories are best enjoyed in wintertime, by the fireside with friends, by candlelight with a book..the cold and the dark of the season are perfect for what are often referred to as "pleasant terrors".

So for the rest of December, Tales of the Oak will be sharing ghost stories old, new, local and international. Some written, some spoken, some traditional, some modern...hopefully something for everyone. You supply the chestnuts and mulled wine.

Where better to start, than with one from the master - M.R. James

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Mermaid

There was a merchant from Dumbarton.  It happened that the merchant and his crew left the rock, and had been at sea for a long long time when they sailed straight into a storm. The boat was wrecked, and the crew all drowned, except for the good merchant, who found himself washed ashore on an island. He wandered around for a time, looking for food and somewhere he could shelter, and he came across a little hollow by the shore. Being altogether shaken and tired from his ordeal, he lay down on the rock and fell instantly asleep. When he woke, there was a mermaid beside him, and thereafter she came to the cave everyday to sing to the merchant, and to bring him provisions. Not only food, but gold, silver and jewels."

A year passed and then one day, when the mermaid was away, a ship passed by the island. The Merchant hailed the ship, and the vessel spied him, and sent a boat ashore. And the merchant told them all about his shipwreck and the mermaid and his gold and silver and jewels. The crew of the boat explained that they were outward bound, but suggested that if the Merchant gathered together a sizeable booty, then they would come again in a year and a day to take him home. 

So a year and a day passed, and everyday the lovesick mermaid brought more food and wine and treasure to the Merchant. And at the appointed time, the ship again dropped anchor by the island. Again the mermaid was away, and again a boat came ashore. The merchant and the crew made quick despatch to get all the stores on board before the mermaid returned.

The ship set sail, but the mermaid returned to her cave, found it herried, and angrily she swam after the ship, overtook it, and demanded that her husband and her stores be returned. Now the skipper, was a canny man, so he cast off a bundle of hoops and he agreed to hand over her man and her stores only if the mermaid could count the hoops. This she did and she then repeated her demands. But the skipper cast off another set of hoops again and again and again until they reached Gourock. The Captain had a lot of hoops.

The Dumbarton merchant, set foot again on dry land at Gourock, and refused to go with the mermaid. And she pleaded with him to return to their cave where they had spent so many happy days. But he refused again, so the Mermaid gave to him the baby she had borne him, demanding that he give it a good home with all the gold and silver he had stolen from her. She then gave the merchant a book which he was instructed not to let the child see til he was full grown.

The child grew and took up residence in the old castle of Ardrossan, taking the name Michael Scott, later more commonly known as The Devil of Ardrossan. It was by the means of his mother's book that he commanded the foul thief, that imp who carried out his every dark request. And the very first command given to this devil was to rid Michael of his own father, the merchant. You could hear his screaming all the way to Ireland.

The mermaid meantime, befriended the great serpent Clutha of the Clyde, and she lives in the waters to this day. She pops her head out of the water now and then for to sing a wee song. She might even tell your fortune, depending on your luck.

Over a hundred years ago, the funeral procession of a young girl, taken long before her time, passed along the riverside on its way past the Newark castle on route to the old church. The Mermaid appeared out of the water and sang

"If she drank nettles in March
And mugwort in May
Sae many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay."

Have a read about more mermaids around the UK in Caught By The River's scans of the classic rural folk zine The Country Bizarre.

The Port Glasgow Mermaid also makes an appearance in our book Wee Nasties, which you can read for free online on scribd or ibooks.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Enchanted Cap

So, this guy turns up on the Greenock dock, and he's keen to get doon the road tae Largs fairly sharpish. And time's knockin' on, so he figures he'll jist nip up the hill and take a short cut across the moors. Only thing's Halloween.

He's up the backroad, and he jist passes Dunrod Hill when this big storm starts...and it's lashin' doon. Absolutely lashin'. Thunder. Lightning. It's murder. And he's struggling along, walkin' intae the storm, when he spies this wee hut.

So he goes inside, heads up to the corner, wraps himself up in his jacket, and nods off.
A few hours later, oor man gets woken up, by aw these voices...murmurin'. And there's a wee peat fire gaun in the hut. There's a pot on the fire and roon aboot it, there's three witches, muttering and incanting. Heedorum. Hodurum. Ye know the sort o thing.

And the first witch, the oldest wan, she brings oot this sorta pointy hat. She wrings it oot, as if she wis dryin' it, puts it on her head and says 'Ho! For Kintyre!' and whoosh! She goes fleein' oot the lum. And after she's gone, the cap jist falls back down the chimney. So the second witch, sorta middle aged like, she grabs the hat, wrings it oot and shouts 'Ho! For Kintyre!' and she's away as well. The hat falls back doon, and the third witch, young, naw bad lookin', she picks it up 'Ho! For Kintyre!' and there she goes, firin' oot the chimney."

Yer man looks oot the windae, an it's still lashin' doon. And the cap floats back doon intae the hut and he thinks tae himsel'...ah wouldnae mind a wee go oan that hat. So he picks it up, and he says 'Ho!For Kintyre!' and...he's hurled intae space, still holding the cap, and he is speedin' through the air and he gets to Kintyre. And here, when he gets there is there no a big room full a witches. And they're aw waitin' there for the Dread Master of All Evil. The Devil. And this year he's decided to have his big Halloween bash in the King of France's wine cellar. Fur reasons unknown, this happens to be in Kintyre.

Anyhow, the witches don't seem tae mind, and he's invited tae enjoy the party. But here, he mebbe has a few wee glesses too many o the auld elderberry brew. And he's dancin' aboot and swearin' like a loon, and the devil turns up and he has a wee dance wi him, and, well, he jist has a right good time. But, he sorta comes to in the mornin' a wee bit the worse for wear, and he's in a cell in Kintyre jail. Seems he was wanderin' about the streets swearin' and smashin' things. And when he tries tae explain that it wis really aw the fault o the witches and the devil...naebody believes him.

He's in a right pickle, cos he's caused so much bother wi aw his swearin' and carryin' on, that he's been sentenced to hang. Must have been a right rough night. So they're aboot tae hing him, which as you can imagine, he's no aw that keen on, and so he says 'Would it be awright, if ah wore ma favourite bunnet on the gallows'...So they march him up to the gallows, and the big chap there, he's aboot tae put the rope roon his neck, so oor man puts the enchanted cap on sharpish and says 'Ho! For Largs!' and he's away. Jist like that.

Historical Note - There are versions of this story all over Scotland, most famously, Burns used one as the basis for Tam O Shanter. Enchanted Cap most definetly Greenock's. Tell it to someone and keep it alive a wee while longer...

The Ballad of Auld Dunrod

Inverclyde was hoaching with witches and supernatural beasties in the 16th and 17th Century...but none were more feared, than the evil warlock Auld Dunrod whose evil deeds were detailed in a popular ballad...

This was a wee spoken word experiment from a few years by our old english teacher Gerry McGinty...a true gent,

Malkie And The Bogle

There once was a farmer lived up Kilmacolm way, and his name was Malcolm McPhee. He was neither a very good farmer, nor a very happy farmer. Malcolm had inherited his farm from his father and while he liked his land and his money well enough, he did not care so much for the hard work. But Malcolm was not a stupid man, and so he worked just hard enough to keep his wife and his farm and his land, and he dreamed that one day he’d find a way he’d never have to work at all.

It was a night in late November when Malcolm McPhee first heard about The Bogle, a cold night, but with no moon. There was a stranger telling stories that night in the Inn down Port Glasgow way, and all the usual folk had gathered round to listen and laugh. The stranger told them all about a mermaid who’d told his fortune at the Port Glasgow shore, about a witch he’d danced with up by Lochwinnoch, and about a ghost he met up on Duchal moor. He could spin a yarn and all were enjoying the company.

“And of course” he said “not half a mile’s walk from here lives the Bogle himself.”

A few drifted away, perhaps having heard this story before.

“Aye. He hides behind the stone at the top of the Clune Brae, and will jump out to chase folk all the way across the moor to Kilmacolm. It's said that if he catches you, he chews you up with his sharp white teeth. But I know a secret about this Bogle, told to me by an old fox who owed me a favour. The Bogle doesn’t want to catch you, he’s just trying to scare you away, for if you turn round and grab him…he’s got to give you three wishes.”

“Three wishes?” said Malcolm “Any three wishes?”

“Yes indeed.” Said the stranger. “Whatever you want.”

“With those three wishes I’d never have to work again” said Malcolm. “What does he look like this Bogle?”

“Oh you’d know him if you saw him.” Smiled the Stranger “For you’d never have seen his like before.”

“Then I shall know him soon.” Said Malcolm “For I’m going to catch that Bogle.”

So it was that the next night, Malcolm walked across the moors to the top of the Clune Brae and stood watching in case the Bogle should leap from behind the stone. He waited all night til it was light. And the Bogle didn’t come.

When he got home he was too tired to work his farm saying to his wife

“Don’t worry about the fields, for when I catch this Bogle, I’ll wish for a much biger farm and scores of labourers to work for us."

The next night, Malcolm again walked to the Bogle’s stone. And again the Bogle didn’t come. When he got home he was once again too tired to work his farm, and said to his wife

“Don’t worry, for on our new farm, I shall wish for our crop to be the best in the land."

Night after night, week after week, month after month, Malcolm stood by the stone, hoping to catch the Bogle. And the Bogle never came.

One morning he returned home, and found his home empty for his wife had gone. And he looked to his lands and he saw they were overgrown for he had not tended them. All too late Malcolm saw that his farm and his lands and his marriage were all in ruins, and he walked again to the Clune Brae and down to the Inn. He drank long and hard and when he had spent the little money he had left, he began the long wander home across the moorlands. But this night, as he passed the stone he heard a noise. A rustling, then a whistling. Malcolm turned, and there was the Bogle.

“Boo!” said The Bogle.

“Hah!” said Malcolm, who could not believe his luck.

“Aren’t you going to run?” asked the Bogle “People usually run when they see a Bogle.”

“Why would I run from you?" said Malcolm "I've been looking for you for months!"

“Go on.” Said the Bogle “I’ll give you a head start.”

At this, Malcolm grabbed the Bogle by the arm.

"Hah!" said Malcolm "I have caught the Bogle. And now you have to give me my three wishes."

But the Bogle just smiled and said

“And who told you this? A stranger? A stranger who dances with witches, talks to foxes and walks with ghosts?”

And Malcolm saw that the Bogle had tricked him all along.

“A Bogle can’t give you wishes and you must work for what you want." laughed the Bogle "You have wished your life away. And you should have run when you had the chance.”

The Bogle grinned a nasty grin with his sharp white teeth.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Terror of The Catman

A ragged vagrant terrifying the town's children while looking after dozens of stray cats...or a fictional bogeyman from our industrial past? Who is, what is, where is...The Catman?

Greenock's shipbuilding was already in decline in the seventies and fast heading towards complete collapse within the eighties. Sightings and mentions of The Catman stretch back to the nineteen seventies, all centred around a specific narrow lane which connects what was the industrial “East End” of the town, with the town centre - one of those interesting crossing points at a self imposed division line - very often the focus for folklore and fairy stories.

Throughout the boom years of shipbuilding, many local shipyards informally employed a “Catman”, someone who fed and kept cats around the yards in order to keep rats at bay. It is interesting to note that the first mention of the vagrant Catman in Greenock coincides with the decline of the shipbuilding industry.

From the seventies onward, he fulfilled both a basic “bogeyman” role and source of scary stories for local children. For example, there was an abandoned railway tunnel near his apparent den; dubbed “the double darkie”, children would dare one another to see how far in they could get into the tunnel, all the while assured that if they went too far, Catman would jump out of the darkness to grab them.

He was rarely seen throughout the eighties and nineties, but certainly still talked about - and there were more than enough sensible grown ups prepared to confirm that they had spoken to him, or passed him food or flasks of tea. Also, his den was in plain view and frequently showed signs of someone living there.

It was a few years ago that the most major Catman development took place, mobile phone footage of the man himself, crawling around under cars in a bus garage located next to his den, then apparently eating a dead rat. This footage beamed around every young person in Greenock’s mobile phone, before ending up on You Tube and eventually in the pages of The Sun. 

So convincing was this sighting, that Greenock Social Work department explained to the local paper that they had sent someone up to the site to see if Catman could be located in order to provide assistance. Since then....nothing more. Perhaps he has been quietly helped and moved into some form of residential care to maintain his dignity.

No one of course can agree on who he is really - stories range from a Russian sailor down on his luck to a former yard worker who never returned home. Another theory runs that his first appearance was not long after the TV debut of “Catweazle”, and that he is nothing more complicated than a childhood fantasy made flesh.

Even more intriguing is perhaps the fact that his appearance in the seventies also coincides with the beginning of a series of Big Cat sightings which continue to this day. Could this be some sort of Were-Cat? It is not for me to speculate...though clearly, that would be really cool.

I wrote a wee hometown horror story featuring The Catman in the Greenock Sugar Sheds, its called Candybones, you can listen to it here. 

You can also purchase our Tales of the Oak comic which features the 'Terror of the Catman' strip from our Magic Torch Comics shop.

He also stars in a deleted scene from our book Wee Nasties,

In 2015, a group of students from Edinburgh University created a short film which tried to uncover the truth about our local bogeyman...

Happily, a much more friendly version of the Catman story, appears in a children's book I've written, The Superpower Project...

With the help of a wisecracking, steampunk robot, two accidental superheroes discover that they have inherited some amazing, if unusual, abilities. Computer whiz Megan can fly (mostly sleep-flying, but she's working on it) while her best friend Cam can (in theory) transform into any animal, but mostly ends up as a were-hamster.

Together they must protect the source of their ancestral powers from a wannabe evil mastermind and his gang of industrial transformer robots who've disguised themselves as modern art installations on their Greenock estate.

It isn't easy to balance school and epic super-battles, not to mention finding time to search for other super-talents and train with their Mr Miyagi-esque were-tiger coach.Can Megan and Cam beat the bad guy, defeat his robot transformers and become the superheroes they were born to be?

The Superpower Project is available from Floris Books / Kelpies.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Captain Kidd - Greenock Folk Hero.

Captain William Kidd was hanged on 23 May 1701.

Was he a bloodthirsty swashbuckling pirate who was born just off West Blackhall Street and made a fortune on the High Seas...or some bloke from Dundee?

With Kidd, even the historical facts arent straightforward, a Scottish merchant, who was asked by the government to raid French ships and then subsequently hanged for murder and treason when he got caught doing it. And when they hanged him, the rope they just strung him up again. Not a very lucky man. However, as is often the case, it was after he died that things got really interesting. A ballad of his (largely made up) confession from the gallows was hastily printed and distributed, becoming a popular song in taverns all across the east end of London. It is this ballad which names him as coming from Greenock, creating centuries of confusion. It's hardly the most reliable historical source - but we aren't historians, we're folklorists. As we are fond of saying, historically speaking we're not 100% that there's a big dinosaur living in Loch Ness, but that doesn't stop people going up for a look - have a bit of fun, just go with it. 

Kidd’s legacy lives on, a controversial character long after his death, the historical accuracy of Kidd’s Greenock lineage was recently called into question, and Dundee claimed the pirate as their own. A shrewd move on the part of Dundee city council’s tourist board. However, Dundee are very welcome to Kidd the historical character, we'll have Kidd the bloodthirsty pirate that inspired Treasure Island and every pirate tale that followed. The one which folklore and happenstance have gifted us.

Regardless of historical fact, many local folk would maintain that Kidd’s birthplace is Jamaica Street in Greenock. Until recently, we even had a 'direct descendant' living in the town. One local legend suggests that Kidd’s father was a covenanting minister, responsible for some of the baptisms at the Covenanters Well in Larkfield. Perhaps Kidd himself was baptised there. Probably not though.

Today, at the site of execution dock you can find “The Captain Kidd”, a pub dedicated to his immortal memory. London folk legends talk of his ghost still wandering at the Wapping dockside. Treasure hunters sail around the Caribbean in search of his ill gotten gains and in Boston, schoolchildren are taken on “treasure tours” which use stories of Kidd’s journeys to teach history and geography.

Stories of Kidd’s buried treasure were also adapted into the new wave of American romantic literature in stories by Washington Irving, James Fenmore Cooper and later, Edgar Allan Poe. The work of Washington Irving was fundamental to bringing a sense of “mythology” to the new world of the Americas. “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” were among his most popular stories. Kidd – who had spent most of his life in America – became a part of this folk patchwork. For this reason, Kidd is better known in America than he is here, a legendary “bogeyman” who still finds his way into children’s stories. No surprise then, that Hollywood has plundered his legend before. Charles Laughton played the misguided Kidd in the 1945 film – recently re-released on DVD. A slew of sequels followed, “Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl”, “Captain Kidd Against All Flags” and the final indignity “Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd”.

Each year, we celebrate Captain Kidd on the blog, with Captain Kidd Month.

Kidd is also one of the hosts in our Tales of the Oak comic. He appears in our childrens book Wee Nasties, and he sails around the world collecting stories in our Thirteen Commonwealth Tales book. We are also developing a permanent exhibition based on his legend for The Dutch Gable House in Greenock, and are working on a graphic novel I Thought I Was Undone, based on the myths and mythconceptions about this complicated and controversial character.

Wherever you believe him to be from, we invite you to celebrate Captain Kidd with us here in Inverclyde and on the Tales of the Oak blog...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Greenock by William Wordsworth

We have not passed into a doleful City,
We who were led to-day down a grim dell,
By some too boldly named “the Jaws of Hell”
Where be the wretched ones, the sights for pity?
These crowded streets resound no plaintive ditty
As from the hive where bees in summer dwell,
Sorrow seems here excluded; and that knell,
It neither damps the gay, nor checks the witty.
Alas! too busy Rival of old Tyre,
Whose merchants Princes were, whose decks were thrones;

Soon may the punctual sea in vain respire
To serve thy need, in union with that Clyde
Whose nursling current brawls o’er mossy stones,
The poor, the lonely, herdsman’s joy and pride.

Greenock – By William Wordsworth
(composed while travelling
through on his highland tour)

The Ghostly Captain of Lunderston Bay

Who has not heard the tale of Auld Dunrod, the stories of the Inverkip witches, or the haunting Bogle of Boglestone? But who among you has heard the tale of the Ghostly Captain of Lunderston Bay?

Our tale begins in 1588, when King Phillip of Spain raised an Armada and sailed against England. After a disastrous defeat at the battle of the Gravelines, the Armada found itself blown off course and scattered along the Northern coast of Britain. Only a few brave or foolhardy Captains were able to steer their ships through the dark nights and harsh storms of the North-western coast of Scotland. Among those few left was Captain Mordoba, whose ship the Salamanca became the scourge of Ports and villages along the West Coast of Scotland. The bowels of his ship became stuffed with the gold of the Scots.

Then one night, late in October, a fierce storm, much like the ones we still see this time of year, tore the sails from the Salamanca, and threw her into the Firth of the Clyde. As the wind howled and the rain battered down, Mordoba’s men scrambled overboard. But the Captain himself would not be separated from his gold. It was to be the death of him. And so it was the Captain met his fate on the rocks of the Gantocks, his ship lost the waves. Some say that the Captain himself was laid to rest in the old cemetery of Inverkip, and to this day, if you look hard enough amoung the overgrown stones, you will find a small grave marked with a simple skull and cross bones.

But what of Mordoba’s treasure, you may ask? Well it is said that in the days after the storms a young farm hand named John Carswell came across a black chest while walking along the beach at Lunderston Bay. He thought fortune had smiled on him that day. With Mordoba’s gold, Carswell was a rich man. But never a happy one. For the tale goes hat wherever he went, a shadow was always at his back. He became convinced that the Captains Ghost had returned for his gold, following him at every turn, unresting and unyielding in his haunting. And so, driven mad by the spectre, Carswell resolved to bury what little remained of the gold, and leave the cursed wealth behind. He died a penniless and miserable man, and as he went to his grave, he still muttered of the Ghostly Captain.

Just a yarn you might say. But there is a strange twist to this tale. In the 1950’s two workmen discovered a cow horn containing sixty coins while digging in Burns Road. The coins were dated to around 1580, and to this day reside in the National Museum of Scotland and the McLean Museum. The last of Mordoba’s gold? Perhaps. Or perhaps it still lies waiting to be found. Certainly there are still those today who swear they have seen the haunting spectre of the Ghost Captain stalking along the beach at Lunderston Bay, searching for his treasure.

Twice Told Tales

From ancient celtic sun worship to haunted country mansions, from the coming of the Roman Legions to the rule of the Welsh Kings, through a dark age of superstition to the red tides of war, the river has always run, bringing settlers, invaders and travellers to our shores.

Templar Knights, Irish immigrants, Nazi spies, sea serpents, exiled highlanders, Vikings, pirates, gypsies, warlocks, mystics, saints, witches, poets and revolutionaries; some passed through, some stayed forever, all of them left their mark on the Clyde and her people.

All of them have stories. Centuries of songs and stories.

And the stories never stop. Even now a black wildcat roams the hills behind our town, a semi-mythical wildman lives on the outskirts of the east end and strange lights are seen in the sky above Port'll know stories of your own...or the stories your Gran told you.

Thats what this is. Somewhere to share those stories. Mainly stories about this wee corner of the world, but folktales, stories and urban legends from everywhere always find their way across cultural and geographic divides - even more so these days.

Here's the rule...its not history...its folklore. If people are genuinely telling and sharing a good story, we're only half interested in the facts.

Here's why...

"The legends represent the imagination of the country, they are the kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambitions and ideals of the people, and in this respect, have a value far beyond the tale of actual events and duly recorded deeds which are no more history than a skeleton is a man."
Standish O'Grady