Scotland Mysteries—Part II: Ghosts, Fairies, and Witches
Joe Nickell continues his investigation of Scottish enigmas—based in part on his excursion following the 2012 skeptics QED conference in England, with intrepid skeptical investigator Hayley Stevens and her father Andy, who is a photographer and professional guide. Part I (SI March/April 2013) tracked “The Silly Ness Monster” from lore to shore. Part II investigates the hauntings of Sterling Castle and the Royal airfield at Montrose, as well as the strange case of “A Fairy-Taught Witch.”
Green Ghost of Stirling Castle
Atop a great volcanic crag that is believed to have been fortified since ancient times, Stirling Castle was rebuilt again and again. Its first mention is in the eleventh-century Life of St. Monenna. From 1296, it was often occupied by the English, but then it returned to Scottish control after a six-month siege in 1342. Much of the castle as seen today was created by James IV as a magnificent residence and setting for his royal court (Yeoman 2011, 36–48). (See Figure 1.)
Various colorful legends of the castle survive. In the fifteenth century, an English chronicler named William of Worcester identified the site as the home of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table—a myth repeated by subsequent writers. A more down-to-earth (quite literally) story tells of an Italian-born alchemist, John Damiano, who in 1507 attempted to impress his patron, the king, by engaging in man-powered flight from the castle walls! Unfortunately, his strapped-on wings failed the brave birdman, who plummeted to earth yet survived by landing in the royal rubbish heap (Yeoman 2011, 38, 48–49). Today’s popular Stirling Castle legend is that of a ghostly lady in green.
The Green Lady is generally acknowledged to be “Stirling’s most famous ghost” (“Scottish” 2012). “Some say” (reports Kinnaird 2009, 38) “she was a poor lass, driven to despair—separated from her love, trapped, starving within the castle walls during King Edward’s siege of that great fortress.” Yet another version posits that “the Green Lady was the daughter of a governor of the castle who was betrothed to an officer garrisoned there.” Supposedly, “The poor man was accidentally killed by the girl’s father and she in despair and anguish is said to have thrown herself from the battlements to her death on the rocks 250 feet below” (“Stirling” 2012).
Others tell a very different tale. They claim the Green Lady was a maidservant to Mary Queen of Scots. According to a popular legend, she saved the queen after her four-poster bed’s curtains caught fire. Versions of the tale disagree as to the maidservant’s fate at this point, one having her somehow dying in making the rescue (“Scottish” 2012), while another says the door was broken open “and anxious arms strained to carry them both to safety” (Kinnaird 2009, 38). Yet another source, however, observes of the rescue that “history has failed to record whether or not she perished as she did so” (Love 1995, 22). Attempting to harmonize the discrepancy, Kinnaird (2009, 39) ventures, “of the girl little is known, though it is feared that she quickly perished from the wounds she received that fateful night.” (Remove the word feared from the preceding and it is easy to see how speculation could be transformed to alleged fact in the retelling of a tale.)
Lack of historical record has not prevented still more elaborate versions of the tale from proliferating. For instance, the maidservant is sometimes alleged to have been alerted to the fire by a dream of the queen being in danger; on being rescued, the queen purportedly “recalled a prophecy that her life would be endangered by a fire whilst she was at Stirling Castle” (“Stirling” 2012)—although no source is given. Folklorists call differing versions of folktales “variants”; they are evidence of the folkloric process at work.
Apparently by extension from this legendary event, the apparition is said to be “most commonly encountered before some major disaster” (Love 1995, 22). This is a folk motif (or narrative element)—Ghost warns the living—that is common to the folklore of England and Scotland (Thompson 1955, 2:435).
Further evidence of the Green Lady’s folkloric origins comes from the fact that “Scotland seems to be the home of the green-colored ghost, in particular the ‘Green Lady.’” Indeed, while “Accounts of blue, white, and grey ghosts are noted throughout the world,” those of the green variety are few, even in neighboring England, according to Dane Love. She devotes the entire first chapter of her Scottish Ghosts to these numerous apparitions, stating, “Tales of the Green Ladies haunting ancient castles are told the length of the country, from Dumfriesshire’s Comlongon Castle in the south to the Castle of Mey on the northern extremity of the mainland” (Love 1995, 17).
In his cultural history of ghosts, R.C. Finucane (1984) demonstrates that as people’s expectations concerning the dead change with time and place, so do their perceived specters. The profound iconographic peculiarity of green as the dominant color of Scottish ghosts is telling: it suggests that a supernatural basis is unlikely and is instead quite attributable to Scottish lore.
None of this is to suggest that people have never “seen” the Green Lady—or at least a “misty green figure” such as described by a cook in the officers’ mess (an army garrison was located at the castle). But the condition under which the phantom was perceived—while the percipient was engaged in routine activity (“Stirling” 2012)—is revealing, since apparitional experiences are often linked to such periods of reverie. In this dissociative state, the subconscious may yield up a spectral image that thus seems momentarily superimposed on the visual scene (Nickell 2012, 345).
Known as “the phantoms of Montrose,” ghosts allegedly haunt the Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield at Montrose, Scotland. A variety of phenomena have been attributed to them, especially to one pilot who perished on a solo flight at Montrose on May 27, 1913.
The pilot was Lieutenant Desmond L. Arthur, an Irishman, whose biplane plummeted after a wing broke off. By 1916, sightings of the phantom aircraft and a ghost presumed to be that of Lt. Arthur haunted the RAF station. Unfortunately, popular stories of “the haunted airfield” (Cohen 1984; Caidin 1996) are long on sensationalism and mystery but short on evidence and documentation. Much of what is alleged seems attributable to the dynamics of folklore, the power of suggestion, and misperceptions of various types. For instance, a 1916 sighting of a ghostly figure in flight gear occurred just after a sleeping flight instructor “came awake with a start” (Caidin 1996, 35). Under such conditions, the likely explanation for the apparition is a common type of hallucination: known as a “waking dream,” it occurs in the twilight between being fully asleep and fully awake (Nickell 1995, 290; Nickell 2012, 353–354).
Supposedly, the ghost of Lt. Arthur flew on each airman’s first solo night flight at Montrose. Often, those making such flights felt a distinct tap on the shoulder, and some even claimed the ghost remarked, “O.K., son, I’ll take control.”
I heard this tale from former RAF Sgt. Pilot Clay Bird, an acquaintance of mine in Toronto, Canada, in the mid-1970s. Bird related to me his own spooky experience at Montrose. It was February 1942, and he was then making his first solo night flight. He was of course apprehensive—ghost or no. Flying a single engine two-seat trainer, he prepared for landing by sliding back the “hood” or canopy. (This was standard procedure so that in the event of a crash, rescue would be speedier. When an instructor occupied the rear seat, he slid his hood forward, the two sections then overlapping over a central, stationary section. The cockpit would thus be open front and rear. On solo flights, however, only the front section would be pushed back.)
Sgt. Bird began to concentrate on the approach. Suddenly he felt—really felt—a tap, tap, tap! The taps were then repeated, “as if he [the ghost] were getting impatient,” Bird remarked.
Understandably unnerved, he turned and actually saw the “ghost”: It was part of the adjusting strap! An eight-inch section of harness, extending from the point of buckling, was flapping in the breeze and hitting against his shoulder!
“I don’t scare easily,” Bird said, “but I’ll tell you I didn’t fly again that night!”
A Fairy-Taught Witch
In my travels in Scotland, I picked up a book, Scottish Witches, which devotes several pages to Isobel Gowdie. Of the witch hunts of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, when untold numbers from Scottish towns were burned at the stake, Gowdie’s case stands out, both for the voluntary nature of her confession (made in four parts over a six-week period in 1662) and for the rich amount of information it offered (Seafield 2009, 116–22). (For the complete text, see Wilby 2011, 37–52.)
Gowdie, of Auldearn, detailed how she and a dozen other witches had flown to sabbats riding on rushes and corn straws (charming them into flight with an invocation of the Devil). Gowdie also went on rides to fairyland and claimed that she had been taught much of her witchcraft by fairies (Guiley 1989, 142).
She and other witches, Gowdie stated, raised storms by reciting incantations while beating a wet rag on a rock. In confession number two (recorded in an antique English script called Secretary Hand, penned by a notary) she explains:
Quhen we rease the wind we tak a rag of cloth and weitis it in water and we tak a beetle and knokis the rage on a stone, and we say thryse ower I knok this ragg upon this stone, to raise the wind in the divellis name, it sall not lye untill I please again (damaged—words missing) we wold lay the wind, we dry the ragg and say (thryse ower) we lay the wind in the divellis nam (damaged—words missing) ryse q[uhi]ll we or I lyk (word crossed out) to rease it again, And if the wind will not lye instantlie (damaged—words missing) wee call upon o[u]r spiritis and say to him thieffe thieffe conjure the wind and caws it to (damaged—words missing) we haw no power of rain bot ve will rease the wind q[uhe]n ve please, he maid us believ (damaged—words missing) th[e]r wes no god besyd him . . .
(Quoted in Wilby 2011, 43).
In addition, Gowdie said, the witches hexed children (by inflicting injuries on clay dolls), damaged a farmer’s crops (by unearthing an unchristened child’s corpse and burying it in the farmer’s manure heap), and so on (Guiley 1989, 142). When they became bored, the witches metamorphosed into animals. (For example, to turn into a cat, Gowdie recited three times: “I shall go into a cat, / With sorrow and sign and a black shot / And I shall go in the Devil’s name / Ay while I come home again” [Cawthorne 2006, 129–30].)
Sexual activity was central to the witches’ coven. At the sabbats Gowdie claimed to have intercourse with the well-endowed Devil and with various demons. She even copulated with one demon lover while she lay in her own bed, she maintained, with her husband asleep beside her (Wilson 1971, 419). The basic elements of Gowdie’s account were supported by another witch, Janet Braidhead. Together they implicated more than thirty others in their confessions. There is no existing record of any of these people’s fate, but it is widely assumed that Gowdie and Braidhead, at least, were put to death (Seafield 2009, 117).
Now researchers have wondered how to explain Gowdie’s claims. Montague Summers, a believer in true magic, thought her account “substantially true” and only lamented being unable to identify the leader of the coven! (Robbins 1959, 232). Somewhat similarly, skeptic Owen Rachleff (1971, 105–117) suggested that the Devil was actually the coven leader in costume, complete with “cloven-shaped boots,” that drugs induced the “flying” sensation, and so on. At the other end of the spectrum, some have suggested that Gowdie may simply have lapsed into madness (Seafield 2009, 120), what Walter Scott (1857, 281–2) termed “some peculiar species of lunacy.”
I think these views, however, represent the same false dichotomy—a choice between believing the experiences true (or at least staged) or thinking the claimant is mad—that is often posed in the matter of alien abductions. As we now know, most self-claimed abductees are sane and normal but have traits indicative of fantasy-proneness, coupled with magical thinking and common hallucinations (Nickell 2007, 251–58).
The magical thinking engaged in by Gowdie and others is ubiquitous. It can be no coincidence that the hexes and spells practiced by the “witches” were simply those common to Scottish lore. (Hitting a wet rag against a stone to conjure up a storm is only one example of sympathetic magic. The voodoo-like use of dolls as substitutes for people is another.) That witches like Gowdie believed them effectual is hardly proof that they were actually so. Instead, it suggests they counted (or reinterpreted) any seeming successes, while rationalizing away any failures. This is the effect of what is called confirmation bias.
As to Gowdie’s demonic sex encounters, these may have been only fantasies stemming from sexual repression: Gowdie was apparently the bored, childless wife of a boorish farmer (Cavendish 1970, 1143). Indeed, her description of sex with a demon in her own bed sounds like earlier reports of visits by incubi (medieval demons who came at night to copulate with women). Today we understand that the incubus is a product of the imagination, akin to such other night visitors as ghosts, angels, vampires, and aliens who appear in “waking dreams.” As discussed earlier, these are simple hallucinations that occur in the interface between sleep and wakefulness and seem particularly vivid and realistic (Nickell 2007, 254–55).
Similarly, the witches’ reports of “flying” may have been due to out-of-body experiences (OBEs). Also called astral travel, this phenomenon of seemingly leaving the body and floating or flying is another hallucinatory type of experience (Nickell 2007, 254). Often one “seems to be able to travel to, and perceive, distant locations on Earth or in nonworldly realms” (Guiley 1991, 419)—hence, no doubt, Gowdie’s trip to fairyland. (OBEs are still often reported, with one-fourth of Western adults believing they have had such an experience. It can occur when one is awake or sleeping and under certain conditions, such as stress [Guiley 1991, 420].)
Significantly, magical thinking, waking dreams, and out-of-body experiences are all associated with the fantasy-prone personality, as Wilson and Barber (1983) make clear in their classic study. So is the tendency to have imaginary companions, such as an invisible friend, guardian angel, alien communicant, or the like; Gowdie said each of the witches “has a Spirit to wait upon us, when we please to call upon him” (qtd. in Cavendish 1970, 1144).
No one in Gowdie’s time knew what to make of her reported experiences—apparently including her. Even today many people still engage in magical thinking and believing in supernatural powers, including witchcraft. Fortunately, others of us look instead to science and reason, seeking to learn about the real, natural world in which we actually live.
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