Of Things Wraithlike and Most Uncanny: Lowlands-L’s Crypt
Of Things Wraithlike and Most Uncanny: Lowlands-L’s Crypt


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Nightmare in the House of Scott

by Thomas Mc Rae

I 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 often masked.

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
December 1573’

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 Maker.

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 the body.

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 be weel.”

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 weather.

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 visit.

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 night.

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 door,

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 windless sky.

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.

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