Tag Archives: ghost story

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 Resurrectionist

It may seem that this is the free fiction I alluded to yesterday. In fact that’ll be going up sometime next week – this is a different project, and one that could do with a little explanation before pitching in.

Last month I received an intriguing email from a Napier University publishing student. As part of her course she was required to take a prospective novel through all the stages of publication, all the way to book-on-shelf status. The problem was, she needed a novel. Apparently some online scouting for Edinburgh writers unearthed one Robbie MacNiven.

The pitch she gave me was for an 1840s paranormal horror set in Edinburgh South Bridge Vaults. I was immediately take by the idea (History! Ghosts! Edinburgh!) and she seemed like a great editing partner, so I agreed to write her a sample chapter. Her course involved submitting said chapter, along with her pitch, to her supervisors. There were nineteen other students doing the same, and only four would have their works chosen for publication. 

Alas and alac, hers was not one of the four proposals. Thus ended my latest novel-publishing scheme. But two good things did come out of it all – firstly, I now know this whole “writing platform” malarky serves some purpose. After all, she found me and plucked me from the interweb ether. Secondly, I have an opening chapter and the rough plan for a novel. I can assure you said novel won’t be getting worked on anytime soon, but it’s always nice to have stuff stored away, especially when said stuff is a gothic-victorian-based horror piece drawing inspiration from, Jekyll and Hyde, Burke and Hare and Sweeny Todd, all set in grimy 1800s Edinburgh.

It’d be a shame to lock it all away in a dark Word folder though, so here’s the first chapter! Also, all the best to Mairi and her future publishing career!

The Resurrectionist 


The wind was whipping in off the Firth when the boy arrived, cold rain scudding across the narrow, cobbled streets and choking up gutters already strangled with refuse and neglect.  

“Are you Mister Caldwell?” the young caddie asked the man who’d been waiting for him on the street corner.  “James Caldwell?”

The man nodded. “That I am.” He struck a gaunt, bat-like shape in the gloom of early evening, the frayed collar of his double-breasted coat turned up so that only his eyes showed, flint-grey from beneath the dripping brim of a battered old tophat.

“I’m Sam,” the boy said.

“Sam who?”

“Sam Healey.”

“Well, Master Healey, you know what you’re here for. Lead on.”

Sam hesitated, clawing sodden black hair out of his eyes. Normally he’d have little difficulty demanding payment from a customer, but this Mister Caldwell made him uneasy. It was a strange time to be called out and a strange place to be called to, and meeting the man he was supposed to be taking to Greyfriars kirkyard hadn’t particularly reassured him about what he was getting involved in tonight.

“You expect coin before you take me to the church?” Caldwell surmised, reading the pause correctly. “A third now, the rest when we get there.”

“Half,” Sam said, seizing his chance. “And half.”

To his credit, Caldwell didn’t argue.

“Is it far?” he asked as he scooped a couple of coins from his jacket pocket.

“Not if you’re with me,” Sam said. He beckoned his client to follow.

Caddies ran a fine trade in Edinburgh. The city was a warren, even more so since the slum-like tenements with their grimy little windows and refuse-stained walls had burst the banks of the old Flodden wall and spread south and west. The fine, wide streets of the New Town to the north were a world apart from the verminous closes and dank stairways that bristled like thick mould south of the Royal Mile. Newcomers to Scotland’s capital were unwise to to attempt to traverse the bending, fetid alleyways alone, but that was where the caddies came in – as guides and scouts, seeing those who could pay safe through the dark recesses of the old city’s underbelly.

Normally Sam would have taken a more convoluted route than was necessary. It was always best to make the customer feel as though his money was being well spent, particularly given the fact he was taking this one barely four hundred yards across the Grassmarket and up to the old kirkyard. But the shadows were lengthening and the night was filthy, rain stinging the caddie’s cheeks and glistening on the uneven cobbles. The sooner he pocketed the rest of Mister Caldwell’s money and bade him goodnight, the better.

“So what brings you to Edinburgh?” he asked, attempting to dispel the brooding presence the man was affecting.

“Business,” came the reply.Image

“You’re accent’s no from around here,” Sam dared to press. “English I’d say. Get plenty of English gentlemen visiting, though I’ll grant not many venture south o’ the Mile.”

“An erudite observation,” Caldwell said. Sam gave up, wondering what erudite meant. Mysterious Mister Caldwell could keep his secrecy, so long as he parted with his money.

As it turned out mysterious Mister Caldwell had a friend. There was someone waiting for them at the kirkyard’s gates.

“Thought you weren’t coming,” the figure said as they approached. “It’s getting late, and you ken I’d rather no do this in the dark.”

“My carriage threw its axil leaving Leith,” Caldwell said. “I elected to walk.”

“Brave of you in this weather.”

“This won’t wait.”

The second man grunted. He wore a short, well-cut coat and riding breeches, and would have effected a wealthier air than his shabby, grim companion had it not been for the age of the garments – even the failing light couldn’t hide how badly faded and patched they were. He wore no hat, and his curly red hair was as soaked as Sam’s. His face was lean and angular, with a crooked mouth that seemed at its most comfortable adopting a sneering expression.

“Couldn’t find your own way?” the man asked, his eyes settling on Sam.

“If you’d come and met me as we agreed I wouldn’t have needed this young man’s services,” Caldwell replied.

“How much did he charge you?” the man said, still looking at Sam. “Too much I’d wager.”

“No more than’s fair!” Sam said, bristling with all the indigence of youth.

“Aye, and who’s the one who judges fairness?”

“Enough, Jasper,” Caldwell said. “We have work to be getting on with. Like you said, it’s getting late.”

“This is the kirkyard,” Sam said, gesturing at the black iron gates. “I’ll have the other half of my payment now, sir.”

Caldwell obliged, but a worn glove on the boy’s shoulder stayed him before he could slip away with his earnings.

“What would you say if I offered tripled that sum, Master Healey?”

Sam hesitated, meeting Caldwell’s stoic grey eyes.

“Go on, sir.”

“I’ll require direction to my lodgings once my business here is concluded,” Caldwell said. “On Nicolson Street. We won’t be long.”

Sam’s eyes darted from Caldwell to the darkness looming beyond the graveyard gates.Image

“Four times as much,” he said. “With respect, sir, I’m cold, wet and tired, and I don’t want to know what manner of business you have in there.” The man Caldwell had referred to as Jasper let out a humourless bark of laughter.

“The lad kens a fool when he sees one, James!”

Caldwell nodded, his eyes unreadable. “Very well. Quadrupel it is. You may stay here if you wish.”

“I’m not hanging around out here on my own,” Sam said. “If I can’t come with you, I’ll bid you sirs goodnight.”

For an instant he thought he caught a flash of annoyance in Caldwell’s steady gaze, but it was gone as swiftly as it had appeared.

“Very well. Stay close.”

Sam had never been to Greyfriars, and nor did he intend to return. The old graveyard was the largest and oldest in Edinburgh, a sloping maze of derelict crypts and crumbling tombstones. Gravel crunched underfoot as the three interlopers passed the looming gates, climbing uphill past the dark bulk of the kirk itself. The rain had eased off, and a damp vapour hung in the night air, catching in the back of Sam’s throat. He coughed, the sound echoing away through the graveyard, lost and unwelcome.

“Bit of a macabre place for a meeting,” he said, throwing a glance over his shoulder. The slick gravestones seemed to leer back, cracked smiles and wet, mossy glares slithering like the icy rainwater down the boy’s back.

“It’s a macabre business we’re dealing with, Master Healey,” Caldwell said, ignoring the caddie’s twitching.

“Corpse-digging,” Jasper added, grin as crooked as the headstones surrounding them.

“Apprehending corpse-diggers,” Caldwell corrected before Sam could take fright. There were many things a caddie would do for real coin, but being complicit in body theft generally wasn’t one of them.

There came a clattering sound from one of the mausoleums to their left, a dull echo of stone striking stone.

“What was that?” Sam said, nearly grabbing onto Caldwell’s coattails.

“Ghouls and ghasts,” the man said, his tone dismissive. “They infest places like this.”

“Ghouls?” Sam replied, looking from one man to another. “Ghasts?”

“Mere men,” Jasper said. “Vagrants. Flesh, blood and bone.”Image

“Nothing a fleet young man like yourself couldn’t outrun,” Caldwell said. “Provided they didn’t catch you unawares.”

“It’s what you can’t run from that should make you afraid, wee laddie,” Jasper leered.

“Enough of that,” Caldwell said. “This is the one.”

The three came to a halt outside a mausoleum lying along the kirkyard’s north wall, its black stone gleaming coldly in the light of a rising sickle moon. Its heavy, iron-studded door lay ajar, the lock smashed.

“Is there enough light for you to work with?” Caldwell asked Jasper.

“Not inside,” Jasper replied. “But I don’t need to go inside to ken what we’re dealing with.”

“It’s as we feared?” Caldwell asked. Jasper had bent to examine the lock’s remains, face inscrutable in the dripping darkness.

“Aye,” he said with what sounded like a hint of relish. “This door wasn’t broken into. Judging by the damage, it was smashed from the inside.”

“From the inside,” Same echoed, feeling his stomach knot. “What does that mean?”

Caldwell said nothing, but Jasper turned back to face them.

“It means, wee laddie, that we’ve got ourselves a resurrectionist.”

To Be Continued? 



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ATTACK OF THE SUBTLE TITLING! Yeah, I try (stress, try) to charge people for my stuff as much as possible but let’s face it, I’m nothing like a bigshot, and I love writing for much, much more than just the cash. I’ve written this for Edinburgh University’s free creative writing publication, the Inkwell, and since Halloween is drawing near I thought I’d stick it up here as well. So if you’ve got 5 minutes and you fancy some predictable-ending spookyness…

A Kingdom of Snow

January 6th, 1871

Dear Mister Hill,

I’m afraid I find myself quite at a loss when it comes to your son. I fear I must retract my offer of assistance, for I have now spoken with Master Hill on three separate occasions and each time he has maintained the same absurd story. I very much doubt it will hold with Judge Skinner, and I am not much inclined to have a plea of insanity on my record. As for the fate of poor Master Rourk, even your son’s tall tale fails to make mention of his current whereabouts. We can only pray that he is in safe hands.

I am as ever your humble and ob’dnt servant,

E. W. Sharpe

January 11th, 1871

Dear Mister Sharpe,

I deeply regret your decision not to take on my son’s case. I’ve had Samuel repeat the events as he told them to you and enclose them – as transcribed by Wiggins – with this letter. I hope it might illuminate something that escaped your notice in the previous tellings. The events surrounding that fateful journey are somewhat hard to believe, but I assure you that the hangman’s noose is anything but an abstract concept. I must urge you once more to consider representing my son.

Yours faithfully,

S. Hill snr

P.s. The place mentioned, Sudbury Hall, was indeed built by the Archbishop of the same name in the mid 14th century. Of its whereabouts though I am at a loss, for the records show that it was torn down in the reign of Henry VIII, some 300 years ago.

A Transcription of the Account of Samuel Hill, jr,

By what other means can I possibly convince you? I have no idea where Harry is or what fate befell him that night. I can only tell you what I saw. God knows, I struggle to believe it myself.

As you’re doubtless aware, Harry Rourk and I were overjoyed to be invited to Miss Bennett’s for Christmas. Her gatherings are the talk of the country from Hull to York, especially among anybody who fancies themselves a person of import at the University. Harry and I swore that we’d not depart her house without having made the acquaintance of a few fellows who could assist us professionally once our studies were concluded.

We set out on December 19th, he and I alone in a hired cab. The journey began well enough, but as we climbed into the uplands the weather took a turn for the worse. After a few leagues the snow compelled us to pause. I’ve not seen its like before or since – it was as though a great grey veil had been cast all about us, and the snow came so fast and thick that one flake was quite indiscernible from the next.

I admit, Harry was all for turning back. I managed to convince him to press on, with the condition that we would pause at the first household we found.

That household in question was a grand one indeed – sturdy timbered, its windows shuttered, as indifferent to the snow heaping its thick thatch as a great bull who stands out in the field with all manner of birds alighting upon its broad back. As the track carried us by I noted the imprint of wheels in the snow leading the way we had come. As they were not yet covered I assumed them to be fresh, yet remembered passing neither man nor beast earlier.

I said that it would be wise to go a little further, since it was likely whoever owned the place had just departed. Harry, however, had already brought the cab into the front yard and dismounted. You’ll recall his study of history, and his powerful fascination with all past things. He soon uncovered a signpost that identified the place as one Sudbury Hall.

“I’ve never seen so well-preserved a set of timbers,” he said, approaching the aged structure.

“It makes Miss Bennett’s abode seem quite shoddy,” I admitted, following him reluctantly. I could tell he was set to explore the place.

He knocked at the front door, a big iron-studded thing. There came no answer. With the snow blanketing everything it seemed as if we were locked in some soundless vacuum. Harry was soon trying the handle.

“Wait,” I hissed as I heard a latch click. “You cannot simply –” But he was already slipping over the threshold. I sighed and followed, determined to curb his scholarly inquisitiveness before it saw us both arrested for trespassing.

Right behind Harry, I didn’t so much as glimpse where we found ourselves before the door banged shut, plunging us into darkness. I cursed, certain I’d been holding it ajar. Wanting light to illuminate our present state, I fumbled with the handle and pulled the door open once more. The light I found was very different from what I had expected.

Though this was manifestly the front door we had just entered through, what it led back to was not the snow-bound yard. Before me lay a room, spacious and baronial, its high roof oak-beamed, its floor spread thick with rushes. A great hearth burned to my left, and the flames picked out a heavy-set table heaped with what could only be described as the grandest of feasts.

You may think I had strayed into some dream or waking fancy, or that I had struck my head from something. Harry recovered altogether more swiftly than I. He stepped into the chamber and, shaking his head in a sort of slow wonderment, began pacing around the table. He touched nothing, but examined each and every item with the kind of awed reverence I have come to expect from a student such as he.

Any one of a multitude of words of disbelief I could have uttered then, but a more pressing matter assailed me. From beyond the walls of that strange place I caught the sound, growing louder, of hooves and harness. I fancied the carriage whose tracks I had spotted earlier had returned.

“Harry, we need to go,” I whispered. He was gazing intently at a silver goblet.

“Harry –“ I said, but I was once more arrested. Now came the slam of a door, and the sound of footsteps approaching me from behind. I wanted to turn, but was unable to do so and hold the heavy door – the front door – open.

“For God’s sake –” I managed, but it was too late. The footsteps stopped, right behind me, and I felt a sudden grip on my shoulder. I yelped and rounded, and in that moment lost my hold on the latch. The door slammed shut, and the timbers around me shuddered.

Darkness once more. I let out a long, slow breath. Of whom – or what – had accosted me I could sense nothing. The hand on my shoulder had gone, and there was no presence before me. I reached back, finding the latch and pulling the door open again. I uttered Harry’s name as I turned, determined now to be gone from this unnatural place.

Yet before me lay only the open yard, and a kingdom of snow smothering everything with silent, absolute authority.


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It be fangs and claws for you my ked, should sunfall shroud you here

Here in the UK we don’t do really do “Halloween” like our colonial brothers in the US, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate a bit of the macabre now and then. Hell, we Brits practically invented gothic spookiness. So the fact that I’ve got a wee ghost story coming out in World Weaver Press’s Spectre Spectacular anthology today is a nice pre-Halloween touch to my writing (mis)adventures.

*** And now, a special broadcast from our sponsors http://www.amazon.co.uk/Specter-Spectacular-Ghostly-Tales-ebook/dp/B009FE6YPC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348680296&sr=8-1  ***

Of my seven published or soon-to-be published shorts five are horrors, varying between slasher and supernatural to good old vampire bashing. Oh yeah, I’m a werewolf kinda guy. I grew up in the Highlands, okay? I can’t not be. We’ve got spooky Gaelic were-tales aplenty up in our heathenish northern lands, the title of this post alone is from a nursery rime. Nursery! No wonder my Halloween costume last year (above) was *awesome.*

My newly published short, Little House at Bull Run Creek, isn’t a hairy-moonlighting-monster type chiller though, just a good old spook spectacular. Set during the American Civil War, it sees a troop of US cavalry cornered by Confederates in an abandoned old house near Bull Run Creek. The odds look grim, but the rebs on the outside aren’t half the problem – what’s still “living” inside could yet undo them all…

So anyway, I’ll be doing a guest post elaborating on my spooky Scottish upbringing over on WWP sometime soon. In the meantime  please excuse both a lack of posts and a lack of any form of wit in the posts that do make it online – I’ve got classes to the left of me, coursework to the right, and I’m stuck in the middle with you. Best hope I don’t undergo the transformation whilst you’re still around…

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