still cannot decide whether my experiences on that Halloween night were real
or just a terrible dream. Real or not they still give me nightmares fifty years
later. Let me tell my tale and you can decide for yourself.
First off, I am Rev Robert Dunbar, retired minister of The Church of Scotland.
I served congregations in several small villages in The Pentland Hills which
I had loved exploring since childhood. In 1915 I lied about my age to join
the army and served on the Western Front for most of my service. I knew fear
many times during the War but nothing had such a traumatic effect on me as
the events of 31st October 1922.
When the Great War ended I looked for inner peace and the chance to spread
it to others so enrolled at Edinburgh University to study for the Ministry.
During my vacations I walked the hills in search of the sites where Covenanters
held Conventicles, remote valleys where Presbyterian Services were held during
King Charles the Second’s persecutions. I located several such sites and envisaged
illegally gathered, but devoted groups, listening to rebel ministers who were
Part of my studies required me to write a thesis on some aspect of church
history and I settled on mine as a study of the great Scots philosopher George
Buchanan. At one stage this noted scholar was tutor to the young Mary Queen
of Scots and later to her son King James VI of Scotland. Being also appointed
the sole Lay Moderator of the Church of Scotland.* I felt he was the perfect
subject for my researches.
I spent dusty but productive hours poring through the ancient archives
in the University Library’s basement, collecting a great deal of information
on Mr Buchanan, and finally discovering there the bundle of documents which
were to lead to my night of terror.
Behind a stack of old exam papers in a remote corner I discovered a badly
damaged wooden box. On glancing through its contents I noticed Buchanan’s name
on the top sheet of the stack of papers inside so carefully carried it upstairs
to a reading area for detailed scrutiny. If only I had left it where it was!
Once ensconced at a desk I opened the old container and carefully removed the
papers it had obviously held for many’s a year.
The sheets were old and yellowed, so brittle I had to handle them with
great care. They were covered in writing in an ink, once black but now a faded
brown, and were written in old Scots with some portions in Latin. The first
page was headed with a title I’ll anglicise as.
‘To James Douglas Earl of Morton and Regent of Scotland
An Account of Recent Events at The Hamlet of Burloch in The Pentland Hills
George Buchanan, Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland
I must confess my hands shook with excitement as they held this first
page of a long report written by no less a person than the subject of my planned
thesis. What events could have taken such a distinguished Court official to
a remote settlement in my beloved Pentlands? I read on … Being conversant with
both Old Scots and Latin I read the document with ease but for your information
I will give a summary of the awful events in English and simplified Scots.
Buchanan first tells of many strange deaths and disappearances of healthy
young men and women in the Pentlands area; Roslin, Penicuik, Carlops, and Balerno
being among places which suffered from such horrific events. The news travelled
fast to Edinburgh and officials were sent to investigate but discovered nothing
of note; the deaths and disappearances continued.
A delegation of shepherds from the hamlet of Burloch then travelled to
Edinburgh and requested an audience with George Buchanan who readily agreed
to meet with them. “Mr Buchanan Sir,” said their leader, “We think we ken the
cause o’ the troubles in the places aroond us but ye mict weel no believe us.”
“Fear no tae tell me all,” responded Buchanan, “I have travelled and studied
in many countries, my experiences have taught me the benefits of an open mind.
Sit Ye aw down an’ tell me aw.”
The shepherds told of an ancient abandoned house by a small loch, on the
other side of a hill adjacent to their settlement. Known as “The House of Scott”
it had been unoccupied for as far back as local traditions could recall. One
of the group continued …
“Aye Maister Buchanan naebuddy lived thair at aw then last year efter
the snaws meltit Ah drove my flocks ower that wey an’ seed smoke cumin oot
o’ the chimneys o’ that lang deid place. Oan the wey hame at e’entide ah ganged
ower fur a closer lewk an’ an awfy funny lewkin’ man cam oot the door. A wee
fellie wi’ darkish skin an’ black black hair ‘e wiz. Ah bade ’im guid e’en,
Gawd gang wi Ye but ‘e telt me tae tak ma sheep an’ mahsel’ far awa’ frae that
place. Ah’m tellin’ Ye Ah did juist that, the hoose hud a creepy fellin’ tae
it frae then oan.”
There were several swarthy men living in the house and people in Penicuik
told visiting Burloch men how a train of pack horses led by people answering
to their description had passed through the village some weeks before, passing
on into the hills. Soon afterwards the deaths and disappearances began, healthy
people just faded away after a few days and soon returned to the care of their
Late at night swarthy men were occasionally seen in the village, one resident
even swore that when he tried to apprehend one of them he faded in a misty
cloud. Now where had Buchanan heard similar stories during his earlier travels?
He recalled how when confined to a Lisbon monastery by the Portuguese
Inquisition for some months the ‘not unkind, but ignorant’ monks had once told
him a tale of similar events in a remote mountainous region and the steps taken
to destroy the offenders.
Promising to take matters further he contacted the new Regent Morton who
said “Juist damned superstition Geordie! Ony deaths wiz Goad’s judgements oan
sinfu’ people an’ thae disappearances is juist folks fed up wi livin’ in the
Pentlands an’ movin’ tae Edinburgh or Haddington.”
There matters remained until the young Lord Aylward rode into the hills
on his new stallion and never returned. One hill walker claimed to have seen
the young lord pulled from his horse at dusk by several swarthy men. The boy’s
father was a friend of Morton’s so action was finally taken.
Buchanan was requested to lead a troop of soldiers to the Burloch area
and investigate the House of Scott. Towards the end of October he gathered
his men and also took along Rev William Dunbar a devoted clergyman and actually
an ancestor of mine.
They rode to Penicuik where people who had seen the strange men were interviewed.
The great scholar muttered, “As I suspected” at what he learned as they rode
on into the hills towards the hamlet. Here they interviewed all inhabitants,
some of whom confirmed tales of the dark men dissolving into mists. Camp was
then made for the night.
At dawn next day, October 31st, the party rode over the hill to The House
of Scott beside its dark loch. By sunrise they had arrived and Dunbar ordered
a detachment to surround the building quietly while he and the others unsuccessfully
searched the surrounding area. He then ordered each soldier to cut a straight
wooden staff from the adjacent rowan trees and sharpen one end to a point.
Producing a large ball of red wool he had each man bind a smaller rowan
crosspiece near the top of each spike forming an ancient charm against witches.
“Ah think Ye’ll be needin’ thae things the day, yer swords micht nae work agin
thae folk,” he told his men. There was no sign of any activity from the house,
nary a sign of a smoking chimney as he approached the front door and beat on
it calling, “Open in the name of King and Regent!”
There was no response and no sounds of movement within. He pushed the
door open and entered a room holding just a large wooden table with legs made
from human femurs bound together. Around it stood eight chairs of similar composition.
Entering the adjacent kitchen they found a butcher’s chopping block, tools
of that trade, and, in the cold hearth, a cauldron containing some sort of
stewed meat. All other rooms were devoid of human presence and the house seemed
also to be empty.
Buchanan then ordered his men to clear away the reeds covering the floor
in the ghastly dining room and a trap door was discovered. The minister said
a prayer asking God to protect them then, raising this. They were assailed
by a terrible stench. The great scholar had brought many torches along and
he ordered each man to light one and follow him down the stairs they disclosed
when the trap was lifted. The flickering torchlight revealed a sight that caused
even those veterans to cringe.
It was a large vault and at one side were eight pallets of reeds, on top
of each lay a dark haired man who appeared dead. Buchanan’s fears were confirmed.
“Richt Ye are Lads. Cairy thum aw up intae the room abune us an’ we’ll soart
this oot yaince an fur aw. Git Yur croasses raidy.” This having been done,
the men were ordered to guard the bodies while their leader and a few chosen
men descended again into the vault.
It was a place of total horror! Ranged around the walls were piles of
human bones arranged by type, skulls, ribs, pelvises, many appearing to be
of great age. At one side were stacked gold and coins from many nations, clothing,
and other personal items, among them was a dagger recognised as having belonged
to Lord Aylward. His fate was confirmed.
This search had taken longer than expected however and the day was advancing.
Light was beginning to fade as the soldiers were ordered to thrust a stake
through the chest of each of the eight immobile devils among men. On impalement
each demon screamed then lay dead and still the cross topped stake erect above
Dusk was advancing as they prepared to dispose of the final monster. As
the soldier involved stood poised the creature sprang upwards screaming abuse
in a strange dialect as it tried to claw down its attacker. A veteran of many
wars he simply used the stake like a spear and all was over. Buchanan realised
the creature’s last words had been expletives in Portuguese.
Light enough remained for all the bodies to be thrown into the dark loch
the waters of which greedily accepted them. The men then returned to their
camp in the hamlet overnight and returned to the House of Scott the following
morning. A long deep pit was dug into which all the human remains were interred.
Any valuables were collected to return to the King then a great blaze was started
in that terrible vault before they returned to Edinburgh.
Buchanan ends by telling Morton “In accoardance wi’ your Oarders, the people
o’ the affected villages hae been telt we kill’t aff a den o’ robbers. Naethin’
mair. The sojers ken hoo tae hud thair tungies.”
For some time I sat transfixed by the tale I had just read. Dare I put
this report in my thesis? I felt not so replaced the box where I’d found it.
The following weeks were busy as I had that thesis to complete and also
my final exams to take. Term ended in October and while awaiting results I
decided to try and locate this House of Scott and see whether the hamlet of
Burloch still existed. All was ready by 29th of October but this being The
Sabbath I had to start my adventure on the Monday. Early on that day I donned
by backpack, placed my trusted pocket Bible in my padded jacket and boarded
a bus for Penicuik.
From old records I had a good idea of where the hamlet was so soon found
myself walking the same hill tracks Buchanan and his men could have used. I
spent a pleasant rain free night in my old hooded sleeping bag. Next
morning I cooked breakfast on my trusty Primus and continued my walk. By noon
I was looking down from the hilltop to a small group of buildings in the glen
below., Burloch was still there. I walked down to the neat wee homes built
from local stone, all was peaceful and I wondered if the current inhabitants
knew anything about the troubles of the past.
I saw only one man, dressed in one of the old plaids hill shepherds had
used for centuries but his speech was educated. “Good afternoon to you, Sir.
Gawd be wi’ Ye! And whair micht Ye be oan Yer wey tae?” I introduced myself
and outlined my quest. “Hoose o’ Scott is it, Sir? Ah’d advise Ye tae gang
nae further at this time o’ the year. This is no a nicht tae gang near tae
The Hoose o’ Scott. Best tae gang back hame an’ cum back nixt week when aw’ll
I told him I was about to be ordained and had no fear of ghosts or spirits,
just of the devil’s work among men. As I turned to climb the final hill he
called out to me “Weel, Sir, gang Ye oan an’ tak whoat e’er awaits Ye. Gin
Ye git intae danger ca’ oan oor True ‘n’Livin’ Gawd fur help. Micht ‘is blaessins
gang wi’ ye this day an’ nicht.” A delightful fellow but I had my mission to
fulfil. I began to ascend towards The House of Scott.
On reaching the hilltop I looked back down on the houses of Burloch far
below then turned to inspect the glen below me. The black loch still sat stagnantly
there with its red berried rowan tree fringe. Across from it on the lowest
slope the ancient house I had come to explore still stood apparently intact.
Descent on foot took some time but by late afternoon I was approaching the
door of that house of horror; closed and the survivor of centuries of adverse
I pushed that door and it seemed to scream as it swung back on long unlubricated
hinges. Apart from some scorching on the walls all seemed intact although the
place was devoid of any furnishings. The door to the kitchen had long collapsed.
I climbed over its wreckage to find another empty room. There were three other
rooms all with connecting doors still operational but again all empty. The
last one had a second door opening to the outside.
Returning to the kitchen I located a hole in the floor with the burned
out remains of a trapdoor hanging down from a single rusted hinge. Total darkness
below but rather than old pitch torches I had a trusty Ever Ready flashlight
in my pocket. I shone it into the aperture to find the stone stairs still intact
although covered with signs of fire. The only odour remaining was a slight
smell of burning. Should I descend?
By the light of my Ever Ready I descended the blackened stairs to the
vault below. Clouds of ash dust rose from the floor, not the best place to
explore. I reluctantly returned upstairs, passed though the three rooms and
out via that other hinge screaming exit door. It was obvious that I was the
first person to have the courage to enter this cursed area since Buchanan’s
Looking around I found a pile of ash still showing portions of timber,
some metal buckles, and other indeterminate items. In the midst of the ash
pile stood the blackened remains of that cauldron, I shuddered to think what
meat it had contained. Further over a large rectangular patch of green must
mark the victims’ burial site. I walked across, knelt, and said a prayer for
the repose of those poor unknowns.
Dusk was fast falling and so was a typical Scottish rainstorm. I quickly
took shelter back in the old house and spread out my sleeping bag. Sitting
atop this, out came my Primus and I soon had food and tea organised. The rain
had stopped, a moon was rising, casting silver light all around and I sat against
the wall of the House of Scott and prepared to enjoy the beauties of a Pentlands
Moonlight shone on the rowan cluster making the trees look as though cast
from precious metal. The last day-birds sang goodnight songs as a couple of
owls started a different melody. I offered my thanks to God for the joys of
His wondrous Creation then opened my Bible at random to seek His wondrous word
which I read by the light from my electric torch.
I opened at Chapter 2 of the Book of Joel and read verse 21, “Fear not,
O land and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things” What relevance could
this text have for me on such a lovely night? Comfortably seated against the
wall I drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened by the noise of of waving foliage and saw, by moon and
starlight, the branches of the rowans writhing upwards as though trying to
pull the clouds from the sky. But those clouds were not moving at all as there
was no wind. The trees continued undulating and I seemed to hear coarse laughter.
Looking over the dark waters of the lake I saw a dense mist rising from the
surface and drifting towards the shore and to me.
Vaporous tendrils spread in my direction and the main mass came ever closer.
Again I heard laughter and strange words within the growing fog and as it came
closer I seemed to see figures moving within it. The rowans contorted even
more as the cloud drifted ashore and moved in my direction. Grabbing torch
and bible I ran for the house, entered, and closed the door.
Outside I could now hear other noises including scratching at the door
which I leaned strongly against to hold closed. Could I keep it secure until
morning? There were chuckles outside and thin tendrils of dense fog eased underneath;
more followed creating an ever growing cloud of evil menace. Soon it began
to surround me and I saw wraithlike forms within reaching towards me as the
cloud began to fill the entire space.
I ran towards the first of the three interconnected doors and held that
fast, nothing more from the other side then the chuckling began again as did
the misty flow in the crack below the restraining portal. Slowly but inexorably
the tendrils once again became a cloud of chuckling wraiths as they filled
this space as well. I rushed through the connecting door to the second room,
this door seemed to be a tighter fit in its frame. I pushed against it in despairing
hope as much thinner tendrils began to gain access. Shining my torch around
the room I saw something I had missed during my earlier inspection. Leaning
against the wall near the door of the third connecting room was a wooden stick
with bark still attached. One end was sharpened into a spike and on the other
was a crosspiece held in place by faded red wool. Looking back at the cloud
it had fully entered the room and I felt icy fingers touch my hand. I grabbed
the cruciform spike, ran through into the third room, and firmly closed its
The evil chuckling ceased, being replaced by hideous laughter. Misty tendrils
again began to fill the room but now I had a weapon against this evil. As the
cloud gathered inside my final refuge I could clearly see eight wraithlike
forms inside it all reaching in my direction. Raising my stick cross uppermost
I thrust it at the fiends yelling, “Get Ye Hence!” Tendrils spread around my
supposed weapon and it crumbled to dust. I was trapped. In my growing panic
I had forgotten the final exit door to the outside. Recalling it now through
my fear I ran through it, yet again closing the door. It was still night, could
I manage to reach the hill? I turned but the cloud was already before me. I
could now clearly see swarthy black haired men inside grinning at me as they
reached in my direction. Tendrils surrounded me and I realised I was being
pushed towards the dark waters of the loch. The trees kept writhing in the
I stood quaking with terror on the shore as the mass moved to engulf me
then at last I recalled the parting words of the elderly man at Burloch and
the text I had read before sleep. Pulling out my bible I held it before me
and called, “To my True and Living God I call for help!” I tried to move along
the shore but the mist kept following my every movement, even worse I now saw
another dense shining mist emanate from the old mass grave.
This second shining cloud came rushing towards me, was this my final moment?
It swung rapidly past me towards the cloud of evil wraiths which it swamped,
whirling all around it. Inside I seemed to see many people, men, women, even
children in combat with the great evil. The trees stopped their convulsions
and the shining cloud moved back towards the ancient grave then dispersed.
There was no sign of the evil wraiths but I seemed to hear gentle innocent
laughter as the new cloud dispersed. I knelt and gave thanks to God, staggered
back to the house wall and fell into an exhausted sleep against it. I slept
deeply until noon next day and awoke to the sounds of running water. The dark
loch was no more, its water was now crystal clear and a stream had burst from
below the hill to run through it. All feelings of evil had vanished and birds
sang joyfully. I returned up the hill and walked as fast as I could in time
to get a late bus from Penicuik to Edinburgh.
Looking back from the 1970s when cynicism and loss of faith are the norm
I reflect on those earlier days wondering whether my experience was just a
nightmare influenced by Mr Buchanan’s report or did I actually undergo this
terrifying experience. Two things convince me it was real. The first? On returning
back to Burloch I found, not intact wee houses but clumps of moss covered ruins.
That was what induced me to flee on to Penicuik so quickly. And who was the
delightful elderly gentleman who advised me to stay away from The House of
Scott and what to do if I was endangered? That had me confused for years until
I visited The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh’s Queen Street.
There I saw a painting created by Arnold Brockenhurst in 1581 showing the standing
figure of a narrow faced bearded gentleman. Memory may have confused me but
I recognised the subject as my elderly advisor, the portrait was of no less
a person than George Buchanan.
It was not until the year 2004 long after Rev Dunbar’s passing that Ms Alison
Elliot was appointed second Lay Moderator of the Church of Scotland.