Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror

When I came across this book at a local bookstore, it seemed just the thing to read before visiting Scotland.

Review: Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, ed. Peter Haining, 1971, 1988.

Scottish Tales of Fantasy and Horror
Cover by Hector Garrido

Besides including some good stories, this is a nice primer on the Scottish tradition of supernatural stories. In 288 pages, in manages to pack in a fair survey on the subject from several centuries ao to 1971. (And it also has a glossary for the Scottish dialect.) It was first issued under the title Clans of Darkness. Haining includes not only stories set in Scotland but work from authors of a Scottish background. Angus Wilson’s “Foreword” notes that faerie stories are a prime element and that the borderlands between England and Scotland and the Orkney Islands contributed more tales than the more well-known Highlands.

Thomas the Rhymer” is a legendary figure in Scottish history. Not only is he credited with the first poetry we have written in English but also with the gift of prophecy. This anonymous tale has him encountering a beautiful woman who may be the Virgin Mary but her accoutrements of expensive saddle, dress, bow and arrow, and three greyhounds suggests Diana. Thomas is smitten with her and proposes marriage. But she tells him he has to be her slave first. And she changes into a hideous woman. But Thomas is faithful and goes on a quest that will include a tree of forbidden fruit and a trip to Elfland. It’s an interesting mix of Christianity, faerie legends, and an historical figure.

Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth” is an excerpt from his famed book of the same title. That 17th century work was a book of faerie lore, and this excerpt tells us about the nature and deeds of the Sith or Good People.

What would a book of Scottish fantasy be without witchcraft, and that’s the theme of “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered” from George Sinclair. It’s an excerpt from the 1685 eponymous work, a supposedly true account of what witches get up to. It’s the story of William Barton, a warlock, and his confession of the deal he did with the Devil to get the love of a beautiful gentlewoman and her money.

We move from the misty area of purportedly true witchcraft to honest fiction with Sir Walter Scott’s “A Night in the Grave”, a self-contained excerpt from his 1824 novel Redgauntlet. Haining’s note pronounces it “the finest piece of diablerie in Scottish fiction”. Also known as “Wandering Willie’s Tale”, it’s an enjoyable story that brings in the Devil, Scottish rigidity, and the bloody history of the Covenanter wars. The story revolves around Steenie Steenson. Behind in his rent, he’s able to borrow the money, but his landlord, Robert Redgauntlet, drops dead before he gets a receipt, and so begins a nightmare for Steenson that involves a castle full of dead people, diabolic bagpipes, and a pet monkey.

John Galt’s “The Black Ferry” starts out well with some bitter newlyweds. Nocton is a regimental officer forced to wed Mary Blake. The narrator, staying at an inn near a ferry crossing of a swollen river, hears a cry in the night. But he’s not a friend of the couple and doesn’t expect to see them again. The story gets more interesting when, every night on the anniversary of that night, he has startling dreams. On the first anniversary, it is of Mary’s dead visage. The other thirteen dreams are of Nocton. But the story gets predictable from then on.

Having known about James Hogg’s work collecting border ballads, I was pleased to see him here with his “The Brownie of the Black Haggs”, and I enjoyed the tale quite a bit. It centers around the nasty Lady of Wheelhope whose husband lets her mistreat all kinds of people until she ends up killing a servant. But, one day, Merodach shows up, a strange looking man of boyish face and old eyes whose mockery of the Lady drives her to murder. Well, attempted murder, murder attempted several times unsuccessfully. Has evil attracted evil? On the strength of this one, I’m interested in reading more Hogg and picked up his Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Allen Cunningham’s “The Ghost with the Golden Casket” opens with a long description of a bit of Scottish coast, and then the narrator hears a tale from a local about why it is cursed, a story involving greed and a ghost and an abandoned cottage. It’s well-done.

J. F. Campbell was a collector of Scottish folktales. I didn’t find his “The Sea-Maiden” all that interesting. It is full of complications surrounding a fisherman’s deal with a sea-maiden for good catches and some children. It’s one of those stories of fatal promises. In this case, the fishermen is to hand over his eldest son when he’s three years old in exchange for the favors of the sea-maiden.

John Mackay Wilson’s The Doom of Soulis” is a very enjoyable tale of sorcery and adventure. It comes with a long prelude before we are given Dr. Leyden’s ballad of the very bad Lord Soulis from the time of King Robert the Bruce. Like Wilson, Leyden collected Scottish ballads and folklore”, and he claimed the fate of Soulis was the inspiration of the Dunsinane Wood bit in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I didn’t care all that much for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The House of Eld”, a moral parable about a boy in a land where everyone has a gyve put around their right ankle. At age 15, he beings to question this. He asks a sorcerer in the House of Eld what the justification is and is presented with three unsatisfying arguments from his uncle, father, and mother. Suspecting they are all illusions conjured by the sorcerer, he kills all three. On returning home, he finds everyone still wearing gyves but now on the left ankle – and something much more unpleasant. I suppose the idea is that denying tradition is symbolically killing your parents and that morality can be arbitrary.

Haining is certainly right in his introductory notes to W. E. Aytoun’s “The Man in the Bell” in is reminiscent of the psychological horror pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe, specifically his “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Here a man is trapped in a bell tower as massive bells swing about creating a deafening roar. (ISFDB has this as an 1821 story. Aytoun would have been eight years old when this was published. There’s another story of the same title in ISFDB also from 1821 by a William Maginn. Its plot sounds similar, so Haining seems to have misattributed this story. The Web of a Million Lies seems confused on the attribution of this story. Tychy’s description of the story certainly makes it sound like it was Maginn’s and gives a date of 1819. Poe even mentioned this story. )

Of Neil Munro’s “Red Hand”, I can only say that I didn’t really understand it though I liked Scottish music and the bagpipes being central to whatever was going on.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Through the Veil” is a slight tale about a married couple visiting an archaeological dig in Britain and discovering their previous lives as residents in the Roman Empire.

John Buchan’s “The Outgoing of the Tide” is a fine tale of witchcraft with its clergyman narrator talking much of compacts with the devil and unpardonable sins. The story centers around evil witch Alison Sempill and her daughter Ailie who is as good as her mother is bad. And, when Ailie gets a suitor, Alison hatches a plot with the Devil to corrupt them both. This is a nice look at diabolic happenings in Scotland through a Calvinist lens.

Since I was heading to the Orkneys, I was pleased to see many stories in the anthology set there. The first was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wolves of God”. It effectively combines Blackwood’s time in the Canadian woods with the Orkneys’ history of being a recruiting ground for Hudson Bay Company employees. Here one such employee returns to the Orkneys after quitting the company even though he only had two years to go to collect a pension. He seems awfully glad there are almost no trees on the islands after spending time in the Canadian woods. And, to his brother, he seems awfully nervous about dogs howling in the night.

Neil M. Gunn’s “The Clock” is a strange and vague story that borders on the weird and has a tinge of the decadent in it. Its narrator becomes fascinated by his landlady’s clock. She got it as a gift from a man her late husband saved from drowning. The narrator begins to think it’s an evil clock.

Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Tam Mackie’s Trial” is a slice of life, or, in this case, slice of death tale told in dialect. We hear about the young Tam Mackie staying beside the bed of his dying sister. Trepidation and pride vie in his mind at the prospect of being selected for such a duty while so young. Not really a horrific or fantastic tale.

The same can be said of A. J. Cronin’s “The Strange Meeting”. It’s just a tale of uncanny coincidence and about second chances and redemption and how the potential in people is not always visible. The narrator is a doctor returned from America. On the voyage back, he meets a married couple and realizes that, years ago, he had a pivotal encounter with one of them.

John Keir Cross was another author new to me that I was impressed by. As is Cross’s wont (I’ll be reviewing a collection of his in the future), “Music When Soft Voices Die . . . “ the story is skillfully narrated by a person who insists he is no writer and apologizes for his clumsy account of events. He relates the story of Sir Simon Erskine, last of the Black Erskines, the sort of fanatical and violent Scottish aristocrats who would take the head of a man off for blasphemy or personally hang their adulterous wife. At an auction of the late Erskine’s effect, we start to hear about his drums from Africa made of human skulls and the disappearance of his wife.

And it’s back to the Orkneys for the anthology’s last two stories.

Eric Linklater, a native Orcadian, gives us “Sealskin Trousers” though it’s not explicitly set in the Orkney Islands. It’s about the narrator’s girlfriend meeting a selkie and even gives us a biological rational for such creatures.

Alex Hamilton’s “Dead Men Walk” came out of Hamilton, a reporter, visiting the Orkneys to interview their famed local poet George Mackay Brown. I liked this one though it has only a smidgen of the fantastic. His smooth, glib prose, mostly dialogue and with changing of scenes barely noted, conveys a nice since of the islands (at least, from my limited experience almost 50 years later). The reporter starts a romantic relationship with a local woman, and they have a strange experience in the Standing Stones of Stenness.

I enjoyed this anthology quite a lot not only for authors I never read before like Hogg and Cross, but for the older tales as well which blend history and purported fact with compelling stories.

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