A True Highland Horror Story

Last weekend my partner and I went for a drive. Our destination was Plodda Falls, a rather spectacular water feature about 15 miles west of Loch Ness, buried in the very heart of the Scottish highlands. The location was chosen partly because it was my partner’s birthday, and partly because it was on the interminable “bucket list” that all young couples seem to possess, in some form or another.

I had been to the falls once previously, a little over a decade before. I remembered nothing of the journey there, so when my partner – driving – asked if the track she’d just taken was the right one, my only recourse was to my iPhone and Google Maps.

It was the end of October, and the roadway beneath us was thick with gold and yellow and brown leaf mulch, heaped thick enough to disguise what turned out to be dozens and dozens of potholes. Our car, a silver Volve S80 borrowed from my parents, took a beating as it bounced from one gap to another – the only positive was that, though we were on a single track road, we didn’t meet any traffic coming in the opposite direction.

The online map seemed to confirm that yes, we were on the right road to the falls. To our joint surprise, the rugged track lead us to a small hamlet, a dozen or so late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses straddling the road beyond a boulder upon which had been engraved the word “Tomich.” The only sign of life were two particularly large and brute-looking bulls in one of the neighbouring fields, who raised their heads up to watch us imperiously as we drove by.

I rechecked the map. Even in the highlands, badly-maintained single-track lanes usually only lead to a single farmstead, not a village, no matter how small. But yes, the slowly pulsing blue dot on my screen reassured me. This was the way to Plodda Falls.

‘Did you see the dog?’ my partner asked. I looked up in time to catch a glimpse of what she meant. Not a living dog, but a statue, standing tall at the side of the road. I saw it only for a second, and didn’t have time to ponder it, for I was still struggling to reconcile the route chosen for us with the one I’d anticipated.

On the track led us, Tomich’s small cluster of silent dwellings giving way once more to fallow fields forests and, eventually, something else. Looming at us at the end of the track, flanked left and right by orange-dappled trees, was a ruin. It had quite clearly once been a grand house of some sort or other – its walls were stout stone, its windows tall and regular. Pillars flanked its front entrance, and two blocks of chimneys still stood overlooking the remnants of its north face. It was, however, beyond repair. Its roof and many of its interior walls were gone, rendering those dozens of windows gaunt and cyclopean as they glared down upon our approach.

Needless to say, at this point I re-checked Google Maps. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’m taken us on a wrong turn. My defence was ready-made, however, for there was the road, and the blue line reassuring us that we were on the right route. I looked back up. The track lead us to the ruin, or more specifically to a great log that had been felled across it. There was no road beyond it, not even a path or muddy tyre markings in the soil. Only tree-dotted grassland.

Feeling dismayed and, perhaps, a little apprehensive, we parked up and climbed out to catch our bearings. After a quick tyre check we approached the dilapidated house – how could we not? There it stood, silent in the autumnal damp, watching over this lonely track to nowhere.

As I approached I looked around, and was struck by further realisation. I had thought the land around the house consisted merely of overgrown fields and scattered woodland, but I now realised my mistake. The gentle undulation of the ground, the semi-regular spacing of large, individual maples and oaks – these were not abandoned farmer’s acers. We were standing in the middle of a country estate. Yes, it was overgrown with weeds, and the trees and hedges stood untended, but its shape was now obvious to me. The existence of the hamlet, Tomich, now also made sense. It was not some strangely-placed little village, but rather the small conglomeration of dwellings that so often attached themselves to grand country homes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, acting as stables and homes for the staff and servants who ran the estate.

We had, unwittingly, driven into a grand domain, now long abandoned. And there at the heart of it stood the manse.

Up close I could discern more of its ruination. Many of the foundations stood exposed, like the roots of craggy old teeth in gums that had rotted away. The inside had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature, weeds and short, hardy bushes covering what little remained. How grand had that interior once been? Drawing rooms, a dining hall, lounges, grand bedrooms, all managed by an attentive staff. What had brought about this monstrous decay? Did any now live who remembered this place before it was given over as a home for roosting crows and burrowing rabbits? And why on Earth had my map lead us right to the crumbling, open arch of its empty front door?

It was not a question we took time to ponder. We withdrew to our car, turned it around, and rode the rugged track back past Tomich and out of the estate.

We found Plodda and, in truth, enjoyed a splendid day at the falls. Only on our return did I pause to consider our strange discovery. The whole encounter had a surreal, almost dream-like quality to it. I was half afraid that if I started to dig for information, I’d find that no such house or hamlet had ever stood at the spot where we encountered them.

Yet dig I did [Nb; this is the part where, having initially unearthed and triggered the haunting, the unwitting protagonists does their research and discovers something horrifying that explains the nature of the horror]. A hunt on Google Maps unearthed both Tomich and the bleak mansion it served. The place’s name, apparently, was Guisachan Estate. It didn’t take long to find old photos of the place in its prime, and I couldn’t help but succumb to the disturbing sensation that follows when viewing black-and-white images of places and people that are all long dead and ruined. The headline that accompanied the first picture I pulled up wasn’t exactly reassuring either.

At this point I must come straight with you, dear reader – there is no particular haunting or horror to attend the ending of this tale, though I’m glad to say there is a twist in it. According to my research, Guisachan was built in the mid nineteenth century by Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, a Scottish businessman and Liberal MP. It was designed as a country retreat, but its construction included the eviction of, probably, over 200 local farmers (the “dark side” mentioned in the article). At some point in the twentieth century it was abandoned and fell into dilapidation, and there it might have stayed, a forgotten relic of the Victorian aristocracy, left to becoming just a few mounds of earth and broken stone in the centuries to come. Yet that was not to be, for the place and its founder still have one great claim to fame – and here comes the twist. It was Majoribanks who first bred Golden Retrievers.

It was indeed a statue of the Golden Retriever that my partner had spotted on the path into the estate. Guisachan is rightfully considered the home of one of the most beloved of all dog breeds, and every year the decrepit ruins play host to a convention that sees hundreds of the lovable animals congregate with their owners. Though ruined, the estate is watched over by the Friends of Guisachan, a large club “dedicated to the ancestral home of the Golden Retriever.”

It was certainly not the ending that I expected but, given the breed is probably our favourite, it was a welcome one all the same.

My only remaining advice would be, if you ever visit Plodda Falls, be wary of Google Maps.

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The Miracle of the Gulls

Seagull sex. There was loads of it going on as winter turned to spring. I can’t really claim to have ever given much thought to the existence of birds – certainly not Britain’s most ubiquitous coastal avian – but the sheer amount of “activity” occurring right outside my window demanded attention.

Last September I moved into a new flat with my partner. It happens to be four stories high, which means we look out over the river and much of the town. It also means we’re high enough to see a lot of bird goings-on. Gulls, crows and pigeons rule the roosts around these parts, existing in relative harmony. And spring, of course, is mating season. Sure enough, a few rudimentary nests began appearing on the rooftops surrounding us. My office afforded a prime view of three just across the street.

Now, I have to admit that when it comes to animals I’m a bit of a sap.* I don’t claim to have liked seagulls previously, but I also couldn’t help but become intrigued as I watched prospective mother and father gulls taking turns to sit upon their nests. And sure enough, by April those nests were filled with chicks. Tiny little fluffballs, their cheeps barely audible.

Now, I’m not writing this as some sort of gull evangelist. I could pile on fact like –

  • Seagulls are one of the few animals capable of drinking salt water.
  • Seagull parents mate for life.
  • Seagulls can live for 20 or more years.
  • The chicks first cheep from inside their eggs, the tiny calls audible to their parents.
  • Moromons revere seagulls for eating up the locusts that once plagued them (an event they call “the miracle of the gulls.”)
  • Gulls have a complex and highly developed repertoire for communication which includes a range of vocalisations and body movements.

I could bore you with all that, but the purpose of this is less of an RSPCA advertisement more to pay tribute to those fluffy little fighters. For the last three months I’ve watched four different groups of chicks endure all manner of struggles. From west to north there a pair we call “The Chicks”, one on a church steeple dubbed Tower Chick, one on the street corner called Corner Chick or Shy Chick (it hid a lot in the roof weeds) and one particularly big specimen named Big Chick. At first, occupying small ledges on the roofs around about, they were so small it looked as though a gust of wind might blow them to their deaths far below. Their parents took turns guarding and feeding them. They huddled together during a thunderstorm and endured rain followed by May and June heat, unprotected and exposed on their promontories.

After a month or so they acquired a more gangly, teenage-esq appearance, with long skinny legs and hunched shoulders. They began to mob their parents whenever they appeared, demanding food with faint, high cries and furious head-bobbing motions.

They also began to move around alot. That’s when the danger of perishing from exposure was replaced by the danger of perishing from mishaps. Seemingly without fear, they started traversing the sloping, somewhat unstable rooftops around them, exploring. There were repeated falls, saved only by the fact that most of the roofs have wooden boards above their guttering to stop snow cascading down onto the street during winter. These same boards caught at least one of The Chicks over a dozen times in one day. It would try to traverse the slope, invariably slip, and slide all the way to the bottom with its small wings splayed.

How they survived I have no idea – beyond, of course, the attentiveness of their parents in feeding and protecting them. At one point a number of crows mobbed The Chicks (crows, clever beasts that they are, nest inside the abandoned chimneys, rather than out on the ledges), but were swiftly put to flight.

About three months have passed since the first hatchings. The chicks, now as big as the adults and with their wings almost fully developed, recently started beating them excitedly, clearly eager to emulate their parents. Now they can fly, a fact actually celebrated by their parents with whooping shrieks. They come and go from the ledges where they were born, periodically joining a nursery flock of about 20 hatchlings that congregate down at the riverside. With this larger group, overlooked by a few of the parents, they are beginning to learn how to hunt and swim. They have quite literally flown the nest.

One thing’s for sure – I think we’ll have moved out of this flat by next spring. I’m not sure I can watch another generation of rooftop endurance games.

Below: some terribly grainy photos of the Progress of The Chicks.

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*In order to catch a mouse in my uni flat I once sat up in the dark with an upturned bin, a pole normally used for window-shutter opening, and a half-eaten pot of Dominos garlic dipping sauce (the bait). I duly caught the little creature, but then became so distraught at its own apparent distress that I named it Percy and let it go.

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Dad’s VE Day

Today is Victory in Europe Day, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the European theatre of the conflict. I’m lucky enough that my dad, at the time a young child, still remembers that day. Especially in times like these, personal stories can mean so much;

“I remember a clear, sunny morning. I woke up in one of those alcove beds and there was a guy standing at the sink we used for washing up the dishes over by the window, and he was standing stripped to the waist, a pair of braces hanging down, and he was shaving. He turned round and looked at me and said “hello son” and I didn’t know it then, but that was the end of the war. One of these guys got me up on his shoulders and took me outside and there was a great long line of military vehicles, it was amazing. He lifted me up onto a tank or armoured car and let me play with the gun, it was brilliant. And then they all disappeared.”

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My Decade in Writing

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Originally this was a twitter thread that I thought I may as well post on here too. For context, in January 2010 I was 17 and halfway through my final year of high school. Becoming a professional writer was a dream away.

In my first year at Uni I published my first short story, “Heavenbloom,” a science fantasy ebook set on an atmos-world that definitely wasn’t inspired by the Storm Hawks TV series. It was with a tiny online publisher, Books to Go Now, and I think I got about $5. Needless to say, I immediately wrote a sequel, “Heavenfall.”

Cue several years of touring the tiny non or token-payment presses that constantly seem to spring up and wither away online. In my three remaining years of undergrad I had nine short stories and a novella published, mostly anthologies (the novella was online only). I earned about $550.

Then in March 2015 I wrote to Black Library. I’d been entering their open submission windows since I was 13, so a decade of trying. To my shock, they took me onboard. I wrote “Deathwatch 4: Redblade,” my first piece with a pro publisher.

My first novel, Legacy of Russ, came out in 2016. Six more followed, up to Scourge of Fate this year, plus two audio dramas, a novella and nine short stories.

This year has been about diversification – I’ve written the narrative and dialogue for a digital game, one non-fiction history book for Osprey Publishing (with another contracted for) and my first novel for a non-BL publisher, Aconyte Books. I’m hoping to keep exploring all those different avenues.

In short if the 2020s are anything like the 2010s then I’ll be very happy indeed. No sanctimonious “writing advice” beyond keep trying. That really is key. Read and write. There are no shortcuts, but if you do those two things constantly you’ll get to where you want to be.

Oh and Happy New Year!

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A Writing Year in Review

It’s the time of year when writers tend to pause and take stock. Clichéd though that may be, it’s as good an excuse as any to  discuss the work I’ve been undertaking for the past 12 months.

The last year of the decade has been one of diversification. In March I started working with video game developer Hi-Rez Studios, providing both the plot and narrative/dialogue for their latest mobile game, SMITE Blitz. I had previously written a novelisation for a video game (Dawn of War III), but this was the first time I had worked on a game directly. Getting to write about stuff like Zeus accidentally marrying Loki while fighting his daughter Athena was great fun, and the technical experience of the writing taught me a lot. I hope I can make further inroads into the digital gaming industry.

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In April I approached Osprey Publishing with a suggestion for a new book in their Elite series, looking at British Light Infantry during the American Revolution. For those who haven’t heard of them, Osprey are a leading publisher of military history and non-fiction, and I grew up avidly reading their books on famous soldiers and campaigns. Getting to write for them is another of the many privileges I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in recent years. At the moment the book is in its final editing stages, and I’m about to begin work on a second volume that deals more broadly with the battlefield tactics of the American Revolution.

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In the autumn I signed on with Aconyte Books, a newly-launched publishing house affiliated with gaming giant Asmodee. Since then I’ve written a short story for the universe of KeyForge (part of the Tales from the Crucible anthology, due for release in June 2020) and a novel set in the high fantasy realm of the Descent: Journeys in the Dark board game. Exploring these new settings has been great fun, as has been working with the Aconyte team. Hopefully the adventures will continue into 2020 and beyond.

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The past year has been busy but exciting. Besides writing, I finished up and submitted my PhD (though I’ve yet to sit the viva). I also moved away from Edinburgh, the city I’ve lived in for over nine years and a place that I love more dearly than anywhere else. Leaving was difficult, but it was time to start a fresh chapter of my life, and I haven’t had a moment of regret since. I’m sure I’ll be back some day.

The 2010s in general were an excellent decade – at the start of 2010 I was 17 and looking forward to going into my first year at University. In the last weeks of 2019 I’m 27, with two degrees and a third, hopefully, on the way. Even more importantly (to me, anyway), I’ve achieved a childhood ambition by working as a full-time author.

Looking ahead, hopefully 2020 will continue to expand my writing base and tackle fresh projects. High on the list is completing my own sci-fi novel, which my poor agent has been waiting on now for nearly a year! There are other top-secret projects either already underway or about to begin, but they must remain under wraps for now. It’ll be worth the wait though, that I promise!

In closing, I’d like to saw a huge thank you everyone reading this and to everyone who has supported by fledgling career so far, whether by buying books, following me on social media or just offering general encouragement. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

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