Presbyterian Ghost Hunters
Original text by Andrew Lang, revised and edited by William Mackis ©
In spite of a very general opinion to the opposite effect, it is not really easy to determine in what kind of age, and in what conditions of thought and civilization, ghosts will most frequently appear, and ghostly phenomena will chiefly abound. We are all ready to aver that ‘ghosts and eldritch fantasies’ will be most common ‘in the dark ages,’ in periods of ignorance or superstition. But research in medieval chronicles, and in lives of the saints makes it apparent that, while marvels on a large and imposing scale were frequent, simple ordinary apparitions and haunted houses occur comparatively seldom. Perhaps they were too common to be thought worth noticing, yet they are noticed occasionally, and, even in these periods of superstition, were apparently regarded as not quite everyday phenomena.
One thing in this matter is reasonably certain, namely, that intense religious excitement produces a tendency to believe in marvels of all sorts, and also begets a capacity for being hallucinated, for beholding specters, strange lights, dubious miracles. Thus every one has heard of the temptation of St. Anthony, and of other early Christian Fathers. They were wont to be surrounded by threatening aspects of wild beasts, which had no real existence. In the same way the early Zulu converts of Bishop Callaway, when they retired to lonely places to pray, were haunted by visionary lions, and phantasms of enemies with assegais. They, probably, had never heard of St. Anthony’s similar experiences, nor, again, of the diabolical attacks on the converts of Catholic missionaries in Cochin China, and in Peru.
Probably the most recent period of general religious excitement in our country was that of the Covenant in Scotland. Not a mere scattered congregation or two, as in the rise of Irvingism, but a vast proportion of a whole people lived lives of prolonged ecstatic prayer, and often neglected food for days. Consequently devout Covenanters, retired in lonely places to pray, were apt to be infested by spectral animals, black dogs as a rule, and they doubted not at all that the black dog was the Accuser of the Brethren. We have Catholic evidence, in Father Piatti’s Life of Father Elphinstone, S. J., to black dogs haunting Thomas Smeaton, the friend of Andrew Melville (1580). But Father Piatti thinks that the dogs were avenging devils, Smeaton being an apostate (MS. Life of Elphinstone). Again Covenanters would see mysterious floods of light, as the heathen also used, but, like the heathen, they were not certain as to whether the light was produced by good or bad spirits. Like poor bewildered Porphyry, many centuries earlier, they found the spirits ‘very deceitful’. You never can depend on them. This is well illustrated by the Rev. Mr. Robert Law, a Covenanting minister, but not a friend of fanaticism and sedition.
In his Memorialls, a work not published till long after his death, he gives this instance of the deceitfulness of sprites. The Rev. Mr. John Shaw, in Ireland, was much troubled by witches, and by ‘cats coming into his chamber and bed’. He died, so did his wife, ‘and, as was supposed, witched’. Before Mr. Shaw’s death his groom, in the stable, saw ‘a great heap of hay rolling toward him, and then appeared’ (the hay not the groom) ‘in the shape and lykness of a bair. He charges it to appear in human shape, which it did.’ The appearance made a tryst to meet the groom, but Mr. Shaw forbade this tampering with evil in the lykness of a bair. However a stone was thrown at the groom, which he took for a fresh invitation from the bair, so he went to the place appointed. ‘The divill appears in human shape, with his heid running down with blood,’ and explains that he is ‘the spirit of a murdered man who lay under his bed, and buried in the ground, and who was murdered by such a man, naming him by name’. The groom, very naturally, dug in the spot pointed out by this versatile phantom, ‘but finds nothing of bones or anything lyke a grave, and shortly after this man dyes,’ having failed to discover that the person accused of murder had ever existed at all.
Many ghosts have a perfect craze for announcing that bodies or treasures, are buried where there is nothing of the sort. Glanvill has a tale of a ghost who accused himself of a murder, and led a man to a place in a wood where the corpse of the slain was to be found. There was no corpse, the ghost was mad. The Psychical Society have published the narratives of a housemaid and a butler who saw a lady ghost. She, later, communicated through a table her intention to appear at eleven p.m. The butler and two ladies saw her, the gentlemen present did not. The ghost insisted that jewels were buried in the cellar; the butler dug, but found none. The writer is acquainted with another ghost, not published, who labors under morbid delusions. For reasons wholly unfounded on fact she gave a great deal of trouble to a positive stranger. Now there was literally no sense in these proceedings. Such is ghostly evidence, ever deceitful!
‘It’s not good,’ says Mr. Law, ‘to come in communing terms with Satan, there is a snare in the end of it;’ yet people have actually been hanged, in England, on the evidence of a ghost! On the evidence of the devil, some other persons were accused of theft, in 1682. This is a remarkable instance; we often hear of raising the ghostly foe, but we are seldom told how it can be done. This is how it was done in February, 1682, at the house of the Hon. Robert Montgomery, in Irvine. Some objects of silver plate were stolen, a maid was suspected, she said ‘she would raise the devil, but she would know who the thief was’. Taking, therefore, a Bible, she went into a cellar, where she drew a circle round her, and turned a sieve on end twice, from right to left. In her hand she held nine feathers from the tail of a black cock. She next read Psalm li. forwards, and then backwards Revelations ix. 19. ‘He’ then appeared, dressed as a sailor with a blue cap. At each question she threw three feathers at him: finally he showed as a black man with a long tail. Meanwhile all the dogs in Irvine were barking, as in Greece when Hecate stood by the cross-ways. The maid now came and told Mrs. Montgomery (on information received) that the stolen plate was in the box of a certain servant, where, of course, she had probably placed it herself. However the raiser of the devil was imprisoned for the spiritual offence. She had learned the rite ‘at Dr. Colvin’s house in Ireland, who used to practice this’.
The experiment may easily be repeated by the scientific.
Though Mr. Law is strong in witches and magic, he has very few ghost stories; indeed, according to his philosophy, even a common wraith of a living person is really the devil in that disguise. The learned Mr. Wodrow, too, for all his extreme pains, cannot be called a very successful amateur of specters. A mighty ghost hunter was the Rev. Robert Wodrow of Eastwood, in Renfrewshire, the learned historian of the sufferings of the Kirk of Scotland (1679-1734). Mr. Wodrow was an industrious antiquarian, a student of geology, as it was then beginning to exist, a correspondent for twenty years of Cotton Mather, and a good-hearted kind man, that would hurt nobody but a witch or a Papist. He had no opportunity to injure members of either class, but it is plain, from his four large quarto volumes, called Analecta, that he did not lack the will. In his Analecta Mr. Wodrow noted down all the news that reached him, scandals about ‘The Pretender,’ Court Gossip, Heresies of Ministers, Remarkable Providences, Woful Apparitions, and ‘Strange Steps of Providence’. Ghosts, second sight, dreams, omens, premonitions, visions, did greatly delight him, but it is fair to note that he does not vouch for all his marvels, but merely jots them down, as matters of hearsay. Thus his pages are valuable to the student of superstition, because they contain ‘the clash of the country’ for about forty years, and illustrate the rural or ecclesiastical aberglaube of our ancestors, at the moment when witchcraft was ceasing to be a recognized criminal offence.
A diary of Wodrow’s exists, dating from April 3, 1697, when he was but nineteen years of age. On June 10, 1697, he announces the execution of some witches at Paisley: seven were burned, among them one, Margaret Lang, who accused herself of horrible crimes. The victim of the witches burned in 1697 was a child of eleven, daughter of John Shaw of Bargarran. This family was unlucky in its spiritual accidents. The previous laird, as we learn from the contemporary Law, in his Memorialls, rode his horse into a river at night, and did not arrive at the opposite bank. Every effort was made to find his body in the stream, which was searched as far as the sea. The corpse was at last discovered in a ditch, two miles away, shamefully mutilated. The money of the laird, and other objects of value, were still in his pockets. This was regarded as the work of fiends, but there is a more plausible explanation. Nobody but his groom saw the laird ride into the river; the chances are that he was murdered in revenge,—certain circumstances point to this,—and that the servant was obliged to keep the secret, and invent the story about riding the ford.
The daughter of Bargarran’s successor and heir was probably a hysterical child, who was led, by the prevailing superstition, to believe that witches caused her malady. How keen the apprehensions were among children, we learn from a document preserved by Wodrow. An eminent Christian of his acquaintance thought in boyhood that an old woman looked crossly at him, and he went in dread of being bewitched for a whole summer. The mere terror might have caused fits, he would then have denounced the old woman, and she would probably have been burned. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in his preface to Law’s Memorialls (p. xcii.), says that Miss Shaw was ‘antient in wickedness,’ and thus accounts for her ‘pretending to be bewitched,’ by way of revenging herself on one of the maid-servants. Twenty people were finally implicated, several were executed, and one killed himself. The child, probably hysterical, and certainly subject to convulsions, was really less to blame than ‘the absurd credulity of various otherwise worthy ministers, and some topping professors in and about Glasgow,’ as Sharpe quotes the MS. ‘Treatise on witchcraft’ of the Rev. Mr. Bell. Strangely enough the great thread manufactories of Renfrewshire owed their origin to this Miss Shaw, aided by a friend who had acquired some technical secrets in Holland. She married a minister in 1718, and probably her share in an abominable crime lay light on her conscience. Her fellow-sufferer from witchcraft, a young Sandilands, son of Lord Torphichen (1720), became a naval officer of distinguished gallantry.
Wodrow does not appear to have witnessed the execution at Paisley, one of the last in Scotland, but he had no doubt that witches should be put to death. In 1720, when the son of Lord Torphichen exhibited some curious phenomena, exaggerated by report into clairvoyance and flying in the air, nobody was punished. In spite of his superstition in regard to witches, Wodrow (September 20, 1697) sensibly explains a death-wraith by the anxiety of the lady who beheld it. He also, still in the diary, records a case of second sight, but that occurred in Argyleshire. It will be found, in fact, that all the second-sighted people except some ministers during the sufferings (and they reckoned as prophets) were Highlanders. Considering his avidity for ghost-stories, it is remarkable that he scarcely ever receives them at even second hand, and that most of them are remote in point of time. On the other side, he secures a few religious visions, as of shining lights comforting devout ladies, from the person concerned. His narratives fall into regular categories, Haunted Houses, Ghosts, Wraiths, Second Sight, Consolatory Divine Visions. Thus Mr. Stewart’s uncle, Harry, ‘ane eminent Christian, and very joviall,’ at a drinking party saw himself in bed, and his coffin at his bed-foot. This may be explained as a case of ‘the horrors,’ a malady incident to the jovial. He died in a week, In vino veritas.
Lord Middleton’s ghost-story Wodrow got from the son of a man who, as Lauderdale’s chaplain, heard Middleton tell it at dinner. He had made a covenant with the Laird of Babigni that the first who died should appear to the survivor. Babigni was slain in battle, Middleton was put in the Tower, where Babigni appeared to him, sat with him for an hour by the clock, and predicted the Restoration. ‘His hand was hote and soft,’ but Middleton, brave in the field, was much alarmed. He had probably drunk a good deal in the Tower. This anecdote was very widely rumored. Aubrey publishes a version of it in his Miscellanies, and Law gives another in his Memorialls (p. 162). He calls ‘Babigni’—’Barbigno,’ and ‘Balbegno’. According to Law, it was not the laird’s ghost that appeared, but ‘the devil in his lykness’. Law and Aubrey make the spirit depart after uttering a couplet, which they quote variously.
For a haunted house, Wodrow provides us with that of Johnstone of Mellantae, in Annandale (1707). The authority is Mr. Cowan, who had it from Mr. Murray, minister of St. Mungo’s, who got it from Mellantae himself, the worthy gentleman weeping as he described his misfortunes. His daughter, Miss Johnstone, was milking a cow in the byre, by daylight, when she saw a tall man, almost naked, probably a tramp, who frightened her into a swoon. The house was then ‘troubled and disturbed’ by flights of stones, and disappearance of objects. Young Dornock, after a visit to Mellantae, came back with a story that loud knockings were heard on the beds, and sounds of pewter vessels being thrown about, though, in the morning, all were found in their places. The ghost used also to pull the medium, Miss Johnstone, by the foot, and toss her bed-clothes about.
Next, at first hand from Mr. Short, we have a death-wraith beheld by him of his friend Mr. Scrimgeour. The hour was five a.m. on a summer morning, and Mr. Scrimgeour expired at that time in Edinburgh. Again, we have the affair of Mr. Blair, of St. Andrews, the probationer, and the devil, who, in return for a written compact, presented the probationer with an excellent sermon. On the petition of Mr. Blair, the compact fell from the roof of the church. The tale is told by Increase Mather about a French Protestant minister, and, as Increase wrote twenty years before Wodrow, we may regard Wodrow’s anecdote as a myth; for the incident is of an unusual character, and not likely to repeat itself. We may also set aside, though vouched for by Lord Tullibardine’s butler, ‘ane litle old man with a fearful ougly face,’ who appeared to the Rev. Mr. Lesly. Being asked whence he came, he said, ‘From hell,’ and, being further interrogated as to why he came, he observed: ‘To warn the nation to repent’. This struck Mr. Lesly as improbable on the face of it; however, he was a good deal alarmed.
Lord Orrery is well known in ghostly circles, as the evidence for a gentleman’s butler being levitated, and floating about a room in his house. It may be less familiar that his lordship’s own ghost appeared to his sister. She consulted Robert Boyle, F.R.S., who advised her, if Orrery appeared again, to ask him some metaphysical questions. She did so, and ‘I know these questions come from my brother,’ said the appearance. ‘He is too curious.’ He admitted, however, that his body was ‘an aerial body,’ but declined to be explicit on other matters. This anecdote was told by Mr. Smith, who had it from Mr. Wallace, who had it from ‘an English gentleman’. Mr. Menzies, minister of Erskine, once beheld the wraith of a friend smoking a pipe, but the owner of the wraith did not die, or do anything remarkable. To see a friendly wraith smoking a pipe, even if he take the liberty of doing so in one’s bedroom, is not very ill-boding. To be sure Mr. Menzies’ own father died not long after, but the attempt to connect the wraith of a third person with that event is somewhat desperate.
Wodrow has a tame commonplace account of the Bride of Lammermoor’s affair. On the other hand, he tells us concerning a daughter of Lord Stair, the Countess of Dumfries, that she ‘was under a very odd kind of distemper, and did frequently fly from one end of the room to the other, and from the one side of the garden to the other. . . . The matter of fact is certain.’ At a garden party this accomplishment would have been invaluable.
We now, for a change, have a religious marvel. Mrs. Zuil, ‘a very judicious Christian,’ had a friend of devout character. This lady, being in bed, and in ‘a ravishing frame,’ ‘observed a pleasant light, and one of the pleasantest forms, like a young child, standing on her shoulder’. Not being certain that she was not delirious, she bade her nurse draw her curtains, and bring her some posset. Thrice the nurse came in with posset, and thrice drew back in dread. The appearance then vanished, and for the fourth time the nurse drew the curtains, but, on this occasion, she presented the invalid with the posset. Being asked why she had always withdrawn before, she said she had seen ‘like a boyn (halo?) above her mistress’s head,’ and added, ‘it was her wraith, and a signe she would dye’. ‘From this the lady was convinced that she was in no reverie.’ A similar halo shone round pious Mr. Welsh, when in meditation, and also (according to Patrick Walker) round two of the Sweet Singers, followers of Meikle John Gibb, before they burned a Bible! Gibb, a raving fanatic, went to America, where he was greatly admired by the Red Indians, ‘because of his much converse with the devil’. The pious of Wodrow’s date distrusted these luminous appearances, as they might be angelical, but might also be diabolical temptations to spiritual pride. Thus the blasphemous followers of Gibb were surrounded by a bright light, no less than pious Mr. Welsh, a very distinguished Presbyterian minister. Indeed, this was taken advantage of by Mr. Welsh’s enemies, who, says his biographer Kirkton, ‘were so bold as to call him no less than a wizard’. When Mr. Shields and Mr. John Dickson were imprisoned on the Bass Rock, and Mr. Shields was singing psalms in his cell, Mr. Dickson peeping in, saw ‘a figure all in white,’ of whose presence Mr. Shields was unconscious. He had only felt ‘in a heavenly and elevated frame’.
A clairvoyant dream is recorded on the authority of ‘Dr. Clerk at London, who writes on the Trinity, and may be depended on in such accounts’. The doctor’s father was Mayor of Norwich, ‘or some other town,’ and a lady came to him, bidding him arrest a tailor for murdering his wife. The mayor was not unnaturally annoyed by this appeal, but the lady persisted. She had dreamed twice: first she saw the beginning of the murder, then the end of it. As she was talking to the mayor, the tailor came in, demanding a warrant to arrest his wife’s murderers! He was promptly arrested, tried, and acquitted, but later confessed, and ‘he was execut for the fact’. This is a highly improbable story, and is capped by another from Wodrow’s mother-in-law. A man was poisoned: later his nephew slept in his room, and heard a voice cry, ‘Avenge the blood of your uncle’. This happened twice, and led to an inquiry, and the detection of the guilty. The nephew who received the warning was Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, ancestor of Sir Walter Scott’s friend.
We next have a Mahatma-like tale about Cotton Mather, from Mr. Stirling, who had it from a person who had it from the doctor’s own mouth. Briefly, Cotton lost his sermon as he was riding to a place where he had to preach. He prayed for better luck, and ‘no sooner was his prayer over, but his papers were conveyed to him, flying in the air upon him when riding, which was very surprising’. It was, indeed! Wodrow adds: ‘Mind to write to the doctor about this’. This letter, if he ever wrote it, is not in the three portly volumes of his correspondence.
The occurrence is more remarkable than the mysterious dispensation which enabled another minister to compose a sermon in his sleep. Mr. James Guthrie, at Stirling, ‘had his house haunted by the devil, which was a great exercise to worthy Mr. Guthrie,’ and, indeed, would have been a great exercise to almost any gentleman. Details are wanting, and as Mr. Guthrie had now been hanged for sixty years (1723), the facts are ‘remote’. Mr. Guthrie, it seems, was unpopular at Stirling, and was once mobbed there. The devil may have been his political opponent in disguise. Mr. John Anderson is responsible for the story of a great light seen, and a melodious sound heard over the house of ‘a most singular Christian of the old sort,’ at the moment of her death. Her name, unluckily, is uncertain.
A case of ‘telepathy’ we have, at first hand, from Mrs. Luke. When in bed ‘a horror of darkness’ came upon her about her daughter Martha, who was in Edinburgh. ‘Sometimes she began to think that her daughter was dead, or had run away with some person.’ She remained in this anxiety till six in the morning, when the cloud lifted. It turned out that Martha had been in some peril at sea, but got safe into Leith Roads at six in the morning. A clairvoyant dream was also vouchsafed to Dr. Pitcairn, though ‘a Jacobite, and a person of considerable sense,’ as Wodrow quaintly remarks about another individual.
The doctor was at Paris when a friend of his, ‘David’ (surname unknown), died in Edinburgh. The doctor dreamed for several nights running that David came to him, and that they tried to enter several taverns, which were shut. David then went away in a ship. As the doctor was in the habit of frequenting taverns with David, the dreams do not appear to deserve our serious consideration. To be sure David ‘said he was dead’. ‘Strange vouchsafments of Providence to a person of the doctor’s temper and sense,’ moralizes Wodrow.
Curiously enough, a different version of Dr. Pitcairn’s dream is in existence. Several anecdotes about the doctor are prefixed, in manuscript, to a volume of his Latin poems, which was shown to Dr. Hibbert by Mr. David Laing, the well-known historian and antiquarian. Dr. Hibbert says: ‘The anecdotes are from some one obviously on terms of intimacy with Pitcairn’. According to this note Robert Lindsay, a descendant of Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, was at college with the doctor. They made the covenant that ‘whoever dyed first should give account of his condition if possible’. This was in 1671, in 1675 Lindsay died, while Pitcairn was in Paris. On the night of Lindsay’s death, Pitcairn dreamed that he was in Edinburgh, where Lindsay met him and said, ‘Archie, perhaps ye heard I’m dead?’ ‘No, Roben.’ The vision said he was to be buried in the Grey Friars, and offered to carry Pitcairn to a happy spiritual country, ‘in a well sailing small ship,’ like Odysseus.. Pitcairn said he must first see his parents. Lindsay promised to call again. ‘Since which time A. P. never slept a night without dreaming that Lindsay told him he was alive. And, having a dangerous sickness, anno 1694, he was told by Roben that he was delayed for a time, and that it was properly his task to carry him off, but was discharged to tell when.’ Dr. Hibbert thinks that Pitcairn himself dictated this account, much more marvelous than the form in which Wodrow received the story.
Leaving a solitary Jacobite vision, for a true blue Presbyterian ‘experience,’ we learn that Wodrow’s own wedded wife had a pious vision, ‘a glorious, inexpressible brightness’. The thought which came presently was, ‘This perhaps may be Satan, transforming himself into an angel of light’. ‘It mout or it moutn’t.’ In 1729, Wodrow heard of the ghost of the Laird of Coul, which used to ride one of his late tenants, transformed into a spectral horse. A chap-book containing Coul’s discourse with Mr. Ogilby, a minister, was very popular in the last century. Mr. Ogilby left an account in manuscript, on which the chap-book was said to be based. Another ghost of a very moral turn appeared, and gave ministers information about a case of lawless love. This is said to be recorded in the registers of the Presbytery of Fordoun, but Wodrow is vague about the whole affair.
We next come to a very good ghost of the old and now rather unfashionable sort. The authority is Mr. William Brown, who had it from the Rev. Mr. Mercer of Aberdalgie, ‘as what was generally belived as to Dr. Rule, Principal at Edinburgh’. Such is Wodrow’s way, his ideas of evidence are quite rudimentary. Give him a ghost, and he does not care for ‘contemporary record,’ or ‘corroborative testimony’. To come to the story. Dr. Rule, finding no room at an inn near Carnie Mount, had a fire lit in a chamber of a large deserted house hard by. He went to bed, leaving a bright fire burning, when ‘the room dore is opened, and an apparition, in shape of a country tradesman, came in, and opened the curtains without speaking a word’. The doctor determined not to begin a conversation, so the apparition lighted the candles, brought them to the bedside, and backed to the door. Dr. Rule, like old Brer Rabbit, ‘kept on a-saying nothing’. ‘Then the apparition took an effectual way to raise the doctor. He carried back the candles to the table, and, with the tongs, took doun the kindled coals, and laid them on the deal chamber floor.’ Dr. Rule now ‘thought it was time to rise,’ and followed the appearance, who carried the candles downstairs, set them on the lowest step, and vanished. Dr. Rule then lifted the candles, and went back to bed. Next morning he went to the sheriff, and told him there ‘was murder in it’. The sheriff said, ‘it might be so,’ but, even if so, the crime was not recent, as the house for thirty years had stood empty. The step was taken up, and a dead body was found, ‘and bones, to the conviction of all’. The doctor then preached on these unusual events, and an old man of eighty fell a-weeping, confessing that, as a mason lad, he had killed a companion, and buried him in that spot, while the house was being built. Consequently the house, though a new one, was haunted from the first, and was soon deserted. The narrator, Mr. Mercer, had himself seen two ghosts of murdered boys frequently in Dundee. He did not speak, nor did they, and as the rooms were comfortable he did not leave them. To have talked about the incident would only have been injurious to his landlady. ‘The longer I live, the more unexpected things I meet with, and even among my own relations,’ says Mr. Wodrow with much simplicity. But he never met with a ghost, nor even with any one who had met with a ghost, except Mr. Mercer.
In the same age, or earlier, Increase Mather represents apparitions as uncommonly scarce in New England, though diabolical possession and witchcraft were as familiar as influenza. It has been shown that, in nearly forty years of earnest collecting, Mr. Wodrow did not find a single supernatural occurrence which was worth investigating by the curious. Every tale was old, or some simple natural cause was at the bottom of the mystery, or the narrative rested on vague gossip, or was a myth. Today, at any dinner party, you may hear of bogles and wraiths at first or at second hand, in an abundance which would have rejoiced Wodrow. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe vainly brags, in Law’s Memorialls, that ‘good sense and widely diffused information have driven our ghosts to a few remote castles in the North of Scotland’ (1819). But, however we are to explain it, the ghosts have come forth again, and, like golf, have crossed the Tweed. Now this is a queer result of science, common-sense, cheap newspapers, popular education, and progress in general. We may all confess to a belief in ghosts, because we call them ‘phantasmogenetic agencies,’ and in as much of witchcraft as we style ‘hypnotic suggestion’. So great, it seems, is the force of language!