Writing

Between This World & The Next

The sgeulaiche - bards and storytellers - enchanted their listeners with tales of murdered princes, epic battles, guilty monks and lovelorn maidens, their restive spirits wandering flagstones and forests in search of solace. Many of the stories can still be heard today in Irish pubs, beside the fire on a cold Scottish night, and even retold under different guises in modern media. These mysterious stories, real or imagined, have become hallmarks of Celtic storytelling and myths. Visitors to Celtic lands now hope to see "wee folk," and remnants of giants and Druids. But the most commonly seen manifestation of Celtic lore are the ghosts; Green Ladies and phantoms have been seen and photographed as they traverse halls, moors, and churches in the mist-enshrouded lands of the Celts, where a bloody history has left open a world of restless souls.

Legendary heroes are among the most common ghosts of castles: William Wallace supposedly haunts Ardrossan Castle in Ayrshire; a figure with an arrow in one eye, believed to be Harold Godwineson, the English king defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066, has been seen at Battle Abbey in East Sussex; and Henry the VIII, Elizabeth the I, George the III, and Charles the I are all said to haunt the Royal residence of the Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.

The image most often conjured to mind when thinking of Celtic ghosts is that of the lone bagpiper, playing heroic songs to boost morale before a battle. Such is the tale of a piper of the clan MacDonald who was sent to spy on the Campbell clan, who had a long-running feud with the MacDonalds. When the purpose of the piper was discovered, the Campbells locked him in a tower where he played a song of warning that carried to his waiting clansmen. The MacDonalds, hearing the piper's music, knew they were in danger and returned to their homes. Upon realizing what the piper had done, the Campbells beat the piper and dragged him to the kitchen where they cut off his fingers to prevent him from ever playing the bagpipes again. The piper died of his wounds and his ghost can be seen on many a wind-swept, stormy night. The Malcolm family bought the castle in 1792 and said that bagpipe music often drifted from the tower. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the castle was renovated. Found buried beneath the kitchen floor was a skeleton - minus its fingers.

Unresolved feuds are one of the more popular ways ghosts come to haunt a place. Dunphail Castle in Moray, the hereditary home of the Comyn clan, was the location of a quarrel that bestowed the castle and nearby area with its ghosts. The Comyns and the Morays argued for years regarding who held the hunting rights for Darnaway Forest, which straddled the two clans' properties. The issue brought about a battle that the Morays won by forcing the Comyns to retreat to Dunphail Castle. The Morays burned with castle with the Comyns inside and then took the heads of the Comyn soldiers and displayed them on the castle's battlements. To this day, headless ghosts roam the castle and forest, the crash of swords echo against the castle walls, and disembodied heads have been seen both in the surrounding area and in the castle itself.

Ghosts not only take up residence in castles, but haunt pubs and hotels as well. The Brushmakers Arms, a pub in Upham, England is haunted by a man called Mr. Chicket, a patron who was robbed and murdered while visiting at the pub centuries ago. He appears as a shadow seemingly searching for his money. An ancient hotel called The Mermaid Inn might be the most haunted pub in England. In the Elizabethan Room, "lucky" visitors might see the specters of several men doing battle, smugglers killing each other, and ghostly duelers. The Ring o' Bells in New Lane, Middleton, Greater Manchester, England sits on the site of a Druid temple. The pub is haunted by the ghost of a knight named Edward, who, in one story of the phantom, threw a stone at a landlord in the pub's cellar.

Battlefields are, by far, the most haunted sites in the Celtic lands. Culloden Moor, the site of the last pitched battle on British soil, is home to the spirits of hundreds of Highland warriors, befitting a scene of much bloodshed and slaughter. Ghostly soldiers appear on the anniversary of the Battle every April 16, when the battle cries and sounds of fighting have been heard. A specter of a tall Highlander with an inconsolable expression whispers the word "defeated" when encountered. One of the more frightening tales is that of a woman from Edinburgh who, in 1936, lifted a length of tartan that marked a Jacobite grave. Beneath the plaid was an apparition of a dead Highlander.

Ancient ghosts, whose misery in life still lingers to this day, can be seen at several locations throughout Celtic lands. At Dunnichen Hill, the site of the Battle of Nechtansmere in which a Pictish army defeated Northumbrian warriors in 685 AD, a faction of ancient men carrying torches has been seen. A ghost ship seen off the coast of St Ives, Cornwall, is part of another story of a woman who carries a lamp, wandering the shore in search of her baby who was lost in a shipwreck; in Windsor Park, Berkshire, a phantom Huntsman-called Herne the Hunter-wanders the town. There are two stories as to his origin: in one, he is the spirit of a royal huntsman who killed himself; in another, he is all that is left of a Celtic god.

These stories are a remnant of a strong-willed and superstitious race who believed that the dead did not always rest in peace, that business left unfinished resulted in directionless souls doomed to wander the scene of their biggest regrets for all eternity. Celtic storytelling is based on an oral tradition where a tale is passed from person to person, from clan to village to city, from generation to generation, with little deviation from the original source: somebody, standing in a castle, moor, or forest, saw something human - but not quite - that they couldn't explain and devised methods of protecting their families from a world that could not always be seen.