fought in the trenches in the final year of The Great War and survived the German
bombings of Clydeside in World War II. Yet my most terrifying experience took
place during my mid-teens in the peaceful Scottish Borders village where I
grew up. It would teach me of the strange fancies that can dominate our allegedly
rational minds …
But to my tale …
It was October 31st, 1911; Halloween, but in ancient times the Celtic
Festival of Samhain when the dead allegedly returned to be among their loved
ones. Four of us sixteen year olds sat in the cosy warmth of the village pub
trying to convince ourselves the beer tasted great.
In those days age was no barrier to drinking in small places like Mortonkirby.
Archie, Jimmy, Angus, and I sat by a blazing fire vying with one another to
empty our pint glasses. Actually, there should have been another companion
with us. As the beer took effect our talk turned to sad memories of our old
school pal Brian and the sad news just heard.
Always smiling, mischievous, and full of life until last year he had started
to get sluggish and easily tired. Soon he started coughing up blood, then losing
weight fast. He was admitted to Peebles Infirmary, and we visited him when
we could but each time we did he seemed to be getting worse. He had the dreaded
TB for which there was no real cure at that time, a death sentence for a laddie
I had been drinking with Jimmy and Angus when Archie came into the pub
looking grim, “Bad news, fellahs … Ah just learnt that poor Brian died yesterday
morrnin’. His body’ll be brought back here, an’ they aw think the funeral’ll
be the moarn.”
Although we had expected that Brian would die soon, the news still came
as a shock. Angus finally said, “Aye, well, that means the poor laddie’ll be
laid oot in ’is coffin in the chapel the night.” Our wee village’s sole asset
was its huge graveyard that served to inter the dead of neighbouring villages
as well as our own. In its centre stood a small open chapel where pre-internment
services could be held and coffined bodies laid overnight, on a plinth surrounded
by candles. Here Brian would spend his last few hours above ground in line
with old local tradition.
Saddened by the news we drained our glasses. I said, “Time to go I think.”
We stood up ready to leave when Angus suggested. “We’ll be walkin’ past
the cemetery onywey. So we can look in through the railings tae see if there’s
light in the chapel. Whoat dae yew say tae that, Willie?” “Least we can dae,”
I answered. We left the warmth of the pub for a dark, cold, Halloween night
To make things worse, a biting wind howled through branches of the trees
that writhed in protest. We gallant young lads also protested at the freezing
weather as we walked towards the graveyard. Wasn’t too long before we reached
the spiked steel railings. We could see very little in the gloom apart from
some flickering lights some distance inside. “Aye, that’ll be poor Brian for
sure,” muttered Angus. We tried the gates. They were locked.
A couple of beers can make a young lad do crazy things, and they prompted
me to say, ‘Fellahs, how’s aboot us gawn intae the cemetery tae say oor fareweels
tae Brian?” “Whoat?! Ower thae spiky palins? Ah’m no that daft,” said Jimmy.
“No me anaw,” said Angus, and Archie said the same. “Naw, naw! We dinna need
tae go ower the palins. Ye ken as weel as Ah dae that maist o’ the place is
surroonded by a big wa’. We can easily climb ower that.”
“Go in thair in the dark?!” said Archie, “Dinna fancy daein’ that. Far
too creepy fur me.” “Whoat are you lads made o’? Are ye just feardie gowks
efter aw? Thair’s naethin’ in thair that can dae ye harm. Cum oan ower the
wa’ an’ see Brian fur the last time. Whae’s cumin’ wi me?”
The railings merged into the main wall of the cemetery, I walked round
the corner to a sheltered spot and the other three followed me. Jump up, grab
the top of the wall, and over. We landed on the turf inside the graveyard,
found one of its many gravel paths and walked towards that distant flickering
light. The effects of the beer were easing off. I began to wonder whether this
had been such a good idea,
It was creepy, and that howling wind did not help. We were in a very old
portion of the cemetery. As we stumbled among the gravestones I thought of
the many drowning victims buried here over the years. The River Till has claimed
many’s a victim and still manages to collect the occasional one even worse
than the larger River Tweed.
An old local verse ran through my head …
“Tweed says tae Till,
‘Whoat maks ye rin sae still?’
Says Till tae Tweed, ‘Ah micht be sma’,
But whaur ye droons yin man ah droons twa’”
Did the dead really walk among the living at Halloween? We were surrounded
by numerous corpses. It got just a wee bit scary. We trudged on along the ill-defined
path guided by the crunch of gravel under foot. That chapel seemed to be a
long distance away. Would we never get there? Should we go back now? But the
other three walked with me I dare not show fear, anyhow there were no such
things as ghosts.
After what seemed to be an age we finally arrived at the chapel where
candles flickered around an open coffin on the plinth. We crept over to pay
our last respects to our friend. BUT … in the coffin lay an old woman in a
black dress! As I stared at the corpse her face seemed to writhe and grimace.
Probably just an illusion caused by the candles … but what if …?
My companions also seemed to find the body in the chapel scary so as one
we turned and crunched our way along the gravel path back to the wall. I was
rear man in the file of nervous youths. We all walked as fast as darkness would
allow. Then clouds over the moon eased enough to give us dim light for guidance.
We strode along towards the wall. But what was that noise behind me? A
faint crunching of gravel … but my friends were ahead of me. Without stopping
I turned my head and saw the woman from the chapel following us! At least one
of the others also must have seen this as we all broke into a run. Behind us
the gravel crunched at a faster pace, we were too scared to yell in fear, just
kept running. The wall loomed ahead thank heaven, would we make it? Behind
us and close now a voice rang out!
“WHOAT THE HELL ARE YOU NYAFFS DAEIN’ IN MA SIMMITURY?!”
That did it. All started yelling; seems Angus even managed to wet himself.
It was a man’s voice and it sounded sort of familiar. The moon broke through
the cloud cover to reveal our pursuer. It was Mr Jamieson, the cemetery caretaker.
He herded us back to his wee house in the grounds.
He knew us well from church and pub. We explained what we were doing at
night in the graveyard. “Naw, naw, ladies, puir wee Brian’s no due here till
2nd November. That wumman ye saw is auld Mrs Garriock frae Newmarch. Lived
a godly life. Died at a guid auld age. The bogle ye thocht ye saw wiz me. Ah
saw ye in the dark and came ower tae see whoat ye wiz up tae. Rest wiz yer
He sat us down by his fire. “Ye’ve had a richt fleg an’, tho’ ye’re a
wee bitty young fur the whisky, ah dinna think a wee dram’ll hairm ye the nicht.”
Aye, Mr Jamieson was a very decent man. He even unlocked the cemetery gates
to let us out after we had calmed down.
So that’s my tale this Halloween. Never forget that sometimes the brain
can make you see that which is not what it seems.