Tag Archives: scotland

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 Bitter City


Winter has returned to the City of Edinburgh. This morning its inhabitants woke to a fog that wreathed the Castle Crag in ethereal tendrils and shrouded Arthur’s Seat with white silence. The wind that blew in from the Firth snipped at exposed ears and cheeks and snatched yellowing leaves from gaunt bark, scattering them vindictively across streets and parks. Friends became strangers, wrapped up in gloves and scarves, coats and hats. Grey and black, the city crouched and shivered along the spine of the Royal Mile, while the sky sought to match what was below with a frost-slicked, stony quality.

To a stranger, Edinburgh would seem a grim place on a day such as this, exuding the wonderfully uncompromising, Calvinist heart that beats slowly, deep within its oldest stonework. But I have seen these same streets steaming beneath a cloudless blue sky, ruled by a midsummer sun. I have seen these bare and broken parks green and choked with grill smoke and sweat-streaked loungers. I have know long, lazy days and short, balmy nights.  In the past six years I have seen all of Dùn Èideann’s faces, and they are all fair to me. She is my home, and in today’s bitterly cold embrace I can still feel all the warmth of her love for me.

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Two Highlanders go to London

A city dying in an unconditioned hotel room, where the only layer left to tear off is sweat-soaked skin.

A city baking itself alive in long, wide, stone-clad boulevards, streets and squares. Statues rank the roadways, tortured in their postures of eternal triumph. Their brazen faces glisten as though with sweat, whilst tourists smile and snap beside them.  

Underground subways draw endless ranks down into their artificially-lit depths, their innards like those of rusting space hulks. The adverts on either side flash and change, garish screens alive. No longer mere pasted billboards, here science fiction becomes merely fiction.  Image

In the city’s depths men swarm like maggots, buffeted by the gales of rancid, rotten wind being blasted through the ribbed tunnels. The stone-and-metal innards are decaying. When Red-head and Blue-eye blow their noses the snot comes out like tar. Fingernails resemble those of a corpse by each day’s end, caked black.

Yet down here even the foul winds of a train’s screaming, aching passage become blessed relief. Above, the city passes in and out of consciousness in the unremitting heat.

Six redcoats of the Grenadier Guards come to attention. It is as though service to Queen and Country has allowed them to transcend to godhood, where human concerns like heat, sweat or fatigue no longer exist. Their sergeant barks, jabs at a white bayonet sheath, as though the ten thousand-thousand eyes watching through scorching black rails would ever comprehend the miniscule fault on display.

The streets and monuments are mammoth slabs of stone and steel, as though the greatness of the men and women which this city represents somehow requires material as well as immaterial space to house it.

And always, everywhere, the people swarm over and around and through and under, burrowing and biting and building. Six youths, smoking and laughing out of their car door seven storeys below the hotel window. A tanned lady who smiles as she picks up and hands back a stranger’s change. The foreign boy who insists he just saw the Queen of “England” in the car that drove past the palace gates. The old man asleep on the subway with warm piss running down his leg.

Millennia-old stone watches it all and says nothing. It’s seen worse. Surrounding on all sides, the new, jagged edifices of steel and glass ignore it, too absorbed with trying to look majestic as they reflect the blazing sunlight.

Feet swell, become red, blister. Each night the plughole retches, turned black with washed-off grime. The water is never cold enough. Nothing is cold enough. It’s so fucking hot.

Red-head and Blue-eye burn. The city doesn’t care. It’s burned better men and women than them. The two Highlanders do their best to ignore red-raw flesh and stare in awe at the brown waters struggling past. The clean, blue depths of the river that runs through their home seems like a half-remembered fantasy. Here, at the other end of a Kingdom, their mountain-bound village occupies a different dimension from that of this, their Greater Capital.

London was, and is, and shall always be. The stone and the maggots and the rotting wind and the baking sun know this, and now the young Highlanders do too.

They will visit again, some day.  

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