A Scottish story for Halloween.
Listen to Tom reading the story here: https://anchor.fm/tom-morton4/episodes/Strange-Tales-from-Thin-Places-Spite--All-Hallows-Eve-ek6tgv
As published in the October 2020 edition of Discover Scotland Magazine.
So, great attempts, heroic ventures shall
Advance my fortune, or renown my fall.
James Graham, Earl of Montrose
Rock opened his eyes, briefly uncertain where he was, sleep fading as the electronic voice announced that the train had halted at Culrain, next stop Invershin. He’d warned the conductor that he might fall asleep, and that he wanted to get off at Culrain, a request stop on the Far North Line, like Invershin. They were close together, he knew, these tiny stations, Culrain in Ross-shire, Invershin in Sutherland, only the Kyle of Sutherland at its narrowest separating them.
It was quarter past noon on the 31 October. Halloween. All Hallow’s Eve, when the dead are remembered, when their spirits and those of the fairies and trows and devils and small Scottish gods come out to play. He laughed at the thought. All that childhood guising for sweeties, nuts, fruit and cake, performing poems and skits, dooking for apples, dressing up as everything from ghosts and witches to television personalities. Demons. Sometimes the same thing. He remembered his schoolmate who would year on year dress up as Rolf Harris doing his three-legged ‘Jake the Peg’ skit. Evil lurked. The too-welcoming single-man households. The money offered. The past.
Now he was alone and dressed only as himself. Just Rock, or Rock as hiker, hillwalker, climber, solitary autumn camper. He hauled his rucksack from the luggage rack, and stepped onto the platform. Above him, Castle Spite soared, a gothic monstrosity, vast and baleful, black and forbidding in the dull, still Highland autumn. Deserted, despite the stories of its sale as a private residence, the planning applications for a swimming pool, holiday lodges in the grounds. Carbisdale Castle, to give it its proper name. Most recently the pride and joy of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, until it became too much of a financial drain. The price had kept falling until finally, somebody was unable to resist one of the grandest and most publicly visible castles in the Highlands.
It was, he thought as he walked out of the station, settling the loaded backpack onto both shoulders, truly gargantuan and impressively horrible. Awful, as in inducing awe. He dredged his memory. The Walking Guide to the North East Highlands had taken a certain glee in its description: Built in 1907 for Mary Caroline, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland after a dispute over the will of her late husband. She was mistress turned second wife, paid off with a fortune by the Duke’s eldest son to get out of the family, out of their lives. She went a few hundred metres across the Kyle of Sutherland, into Ross-shire, where she decided to build a castle which would put the extravagant spires of Dunrobin, seat of the Sutherlands, in the shade. That mammoth clocktower had faces on only three sides. The Countess had determined that only blank whinstone would be shown to anyone looking at the Carbisdale clock from the east. She would not even give Sutherland the time of day. And so Carbisdale was given its local name: Castle Spite. And spiteful to the last, it was. Mary Caroline died before she could move in.
It was a strange part of the world. He’d been here before, staying at Carbisdale on his way north by bike, during a leisurely version of the end-to-end, Land’s End to John O’Groats. He remembered the flimsy chipboard partitions cluttering the castle’s oak-panelled interior. The statues reputedly stolen from Dunrobin and never returned. The peculiar atmosphere which changed from room to public room, reputedly designed originally so that each reflected a period of Scottish history. The crowds of youth hostellers drinking in the Invershin Hotel, owned by an American couple who had formerly worked in Hollywood, and had cases of vintage costumes they encouraged visitors to dress up in. There had been, he recalled, bacchanalian singing and dancing on the footbridge between Invershin and Carbisdale, young tourists dressed as Guinivere, Merlin the Magician, Wyatt Earp, Pocahontas. When he left early next morning he passed an abandoned fez lying on the road outside the hotel.
Dressing up. If there was a day for it, then surely it was Halloween. But there was no-one around as he checked the Ordnance Survey app on his phone and began walking east, first through the smattering of houses comprising Culrain village, and then onto the forestry track which led east through a plantation of trees, Castle Spite looming high above him to the right.
He was eating a supermarket sandwich lunch just past Lochcoire, where the trees gave way to open moor and the ruggedness of this least visited of Scotland’s landscapes became apparent. There was only about 40 miles here between Scotland’s eastern and western coasts, but it was some of the most unforgiving, loneliest landscape in Europe. The fertile straths had been infamously cleared of crofters for the sake of sheep in the 19th Century. The Sutherlands again. The moorland and hills were bleak and barren above the regimented forestry plantations, but isolated hunting lodges had been built in the most unexpected corners. There was trout, grouse, snipe, salmon and deer in season, and money to be made from people who wanted to kill them. Some of them even ate what they caught or shot.
That was over for the season. There was no risk of stumbling on a bunch of hooray Henrys in full, armed, drunken panoply. He wanted the loneliness, the isolation. Needed it. There was a task to perform. Rock had no mission to conquer summits, and anyway none in the vicinity were sufficiently elevated to claim the title even of Grahams (more than 600 metres or so). Still, it was best to stay off the peaks such as Meal Dheirgidh, 506 metres, or Sidhean an Radhairc 396, as his intention was distance, at least at first. Distance from other people.
And as luck would have it, having seen not a soul since leaving the train, it was as he munched his coronation chicken, bought in the Inverness Marks and Spencers, that a voice behind him said. “And a very good day it is. I wonder if I may join you for a moment?”
Rock was sitting on a small pile of stones, one of two on the edge of the forest, gazing up at the grey sky and the browns, reds, golds and fading-to-grey mauve of the heather. Found on the top of a mountain these would have been obvious summit cairns, but their presence here - evidently very old, covered in lichen - was strange. He turned to see an elderly man in worn but serviceable tweeds, wearing ghillie brogues, plus fours and a fishing-fly badged cap. He was carrying a gnarled walking stick but looked sprightly enough not to require it. The voice was high, lilting and local, not posh, but as is often the case in the Highlands, utterly classless. “Of course.” Rock made a gesture, opening his hand, the crust of the sandwich between two fingers. The man perched on the second cairn, clearly unaffected by the stiffness of old age. He would be about 70, Rock thought. But there was a youthfulness about his movements.
“From one coast to another, is it?. There’s a perhaps better route further south. The road from Ardgay to Croick, and then the stalkers’s track along Strath Cuileanach. If that more gentle landscape lies to your taste.”
“Oh, well, this is fine. I wanted to see Castle Sp...Carbisdale, and then just wander for a couple of nights in the hills. On my own. Just getting away from London for a day or so.”
“From London on the sleeper?” Rock nodded.”Ah, well this time of year things can be deceptive on the hills. The stalking’s over, of course, but mists and cloud can come down and disorientate even those most familiar with the terrain.” The man paused. “I wonder if you might spare me a cup of tea? I see you have a flask with you. Or perhaps...something stronger?”
The duties of Highland hospitality. Rock thought of the small bottle hidden deep in his backpack. Dismissed the idea. Then opened his old Stanley flask and poured a second cup to match his own, which he topped up. “Of course.” He handed it over. “Sugar and only a little milk, I’m afraid. I had it made up in Inverness. A cafe in the market. The way I take it. Strong.”
“Just the way I like it. And may the just blessings of the day fall upon you. My name is Finn. And you?”
“Rock. As in the stone.”
“Indeed. Well, may your strength endure and your rest be eternal and of your own choosing.” Finn sipped thoughtfully. “Castle Spite. You know about the dear lady. What a sadness that was, and is. On this day of all days, it’s as well not to be staying in the castle itself. Deserted as it is. If she was ever to return and try to gain...entry, then I suppose today would be the day. I hope some light and life is brought back to it soon. It was a joy to hear it ringing to the music of young folk. But alas, no longer.”
“This day,” said Rock. “Halloween.”
“Oiche Shamhna, in the old traditions. When the spirits of the water, land and air come to make small requests of those bound by the flesh. And yes, the dead too.” An impish grin came over the old man’s face. “And here we are in the place of the dead. These stones we sit on so nonchalantly? We recline above the bones of the Great Montrose’s hapless Orcadians. The Battle of Carbisdale.” Rock held himself back from flinching. It suddenly seemed essential not to reveal what he knew about that last flicker of the great romantic Montrose’s greatness. Who was this creature? Finn’s face was the colour of peated whisky, creased with hundreds of fine lines which seemed to indicate several lifetimes of laughter. Cruel laughter, though. The curl in Finn’s lip had an element of the vicious about it.
“Well, thank you for the tea. Walk safely now.” And with an ease which was somehow breathtaking, Finn rose to his feet, waved at Rock in a curious, almost sanctified gesture, a blessing, turned and made his way back into the forest. Padded, Rock thought. In a moment, he had vanished.
Rock walked for the next four or five hours, his old Brasher boots long adjusted to every contour of his feet so that blisters were never a problem. The stalker’s tracks and paths gave way to bare rubble, heather, moss and stone. His knees began to hurt after the third hour, and to his annoyance the Ordnance Survey app on his phone stopped working. The hills. The rocks. No signal. Though the maps were supposed to have been downloaded. He had the Landranger paper version in his rucksack but couldn’t be bothered unpacking to look for it. He could remember some of the names. Gaelic. Pronunciation was another matter. The small peak to his right looked like An Sidhean and the big one ahead, twice the height, like Bhein Ulbaidh. His watch had a compass built in, but he had never quite managed to master it. Too dependent on the iPhone.
The wind changed. It had been behind him, now it moved to the west, as if someone had thrown a switch. Cloud was coming in. Then the peaks vanished. Just like that. As he walked in what he hoped was a westerly direction, he saw wisps of what looked like smoke gathering around his feet, the heather and sphagnum moss, viewed from head height, seeming like a miniature forest catching fire and drowning at the same time. Quite suddenly he was cold, clammy and could see nothing ahead of him at all. Highland mountain mists were like that, he knew. Dangerous. It would be wise to stop moving, to bivvy until the fog passed, but for whatever reason, perhaps because this trip was not really about being sensible, or moderate, or wise, he blundered on for a half an hour or so, until the ground beneath his feet became dry and stony, and his shins bumped into a large rock. It was flat topped, about the shape and size of a chest, or a coffin, he thought. He sat on it, took the flask of tea from the side pocket of his pack and poured what was left. As he drank the tea, lukewarm now, never hot to start with, he heard something. At first he thought it was a radio, his phone on BBC Sounds. But when he pulled it out to look, it was black and lifeless. Dead.
The voice was somehow both clear and muffled, distant yet close by.
“Not far now. Not far to go and we will gather there, with our cousins and brothers and sisters and prepare for the judgement of the Lord on our evil ways, and receive the just punishment for our sins. Do not tire, children, do not be afraid. Even in the mists of confusion and disappointment we shall be guided by the Lord to our destination. Do not let go of my hand. Never let go
Then it was a low whisper, a panting, an out-o-breath murmuring.
“Children, where are you? I have lost you. Why did you let go? Why did you let go? You will starve. We will all starve.” And then nothing, not even the cry of birds or bleating of sheep. There was a heavy, blanketed quality to the silence. Rock could feel his heart beating in his chest, and listened for its reassuring thump. It was steady, not painful. But he couldn’t hear it beating. I have lost my own heartbeat, he thought, I can feel it but it is making no sound. I am deaf to myself. Fear? There was no fear, as such. A kind of resignation. He shrugged off the rucksack, opened it. The important items were buried far down, wrapped in oilcloth. The whisky and the vessel and the weapon. But this was not the time. Not yet. He unrolled the bivvy bag, noticing that his hands were shaking. He had a three-quarters length Thermarest which he placed on the ground next to the boulder, and then he crawled into the bivvy and lay looking at the grey wash of nothingness. He closed his eyes.
He dreamed. He was guising. Halloween, his last year of primary school, going round the housing scheme in Saltcoats, three of them. Him as Captain Scarlet, Fergus as a ghost (simple sheet over head) and Jamesie as Rolf Harris, again, Jake the Peg. The days of neepy lanterns, no pumpkins. Long before that American import, trick or treat. Not a dream. A memory. They were armed with a list of approved addresses. There was this one house, this house they had been told never to knock on the door of, where Mr Barnet lived. But that night they were full of bravado, and they did. Again and again, no-one coming to the door. Until eventually a dim light went on in the porch and a figure shuffled towards them. The door opened. There was a terrible pain in his throat.
***. ***. ***
Finn put the gralloching knife carefully away in its sheath after wiping it carefully on the heather and bracken. He had packed the meat in the meagre pieces of clothing he had found in the rucksack, wrapped the lot in the bivvy bag, now rather stained, and loaded them into Rock’s rucksack, bagging his other possessions for retrieval later. Flask, stove. Some unappetising instant meals. Water in a plastic bottle. A pistol. An old pistol, ancient, even. Flintlock or whatever. But oiled and functional There were containers for powder and flints. Lead balls, shining and newly cast. Not the oddest thing Finn had found on the hill. Another sentimental tourist intent on doing away with himself. No, more than that, even if the man called Rock hadn’t realised it himself. He had saved him from trouble in various forms. And it was appropriate. After all, this was All Hallow’s Eve, this Oiche Shamhna, when the dead walked, and sometimes stopped walking.
“Did you think a little tea would make you safe? Did you think I could be so easily appeased?” Ignorant, the man had been ignorant of his purpose. For if whisky had been offered, if the uisge beatha, the water of life had been poured. Finn would have had to accept it. If the quaich had been used, even accidentally for its true purpose, in this landscape, and offered to the likes of him...
It was made of polished stone, ancient beyond time, mounted in silver and gold, crusted with stones that seemed malevolent in their dullness: ruby, quartz, emerald. Finn held it, making sure his palm was covered with oilcloth, recognising its power, paying a silent tribute. Then he rewrapped it and placed it carefully in the rucksack, on top of the meat.
The mist was clearing now. Not that it mattered. He knew the way. He began the walk to his cave, hidden behind old willow bushes on a face of Bheinn Ulbaidh, and as he walked, his gait changed and the tweed seemed to stretch, tear and rot from his back, which humped and lowered as his arms lengthened and grew stronger, darker, hairier. Soon the children would be fed. Their sustenance was everything. Almost everything. Winter was on its way
This is an excerpt from Tom’s multimedia work-in-progress Spite, first part of the Quaich saga. In print, as a podcast and with music, video, artwork and location events. It will go live in 2022.