Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Natural Mysteries of the Land

When the Scots took over Angus from the Picts in the ninth century they found a province filled with strange things which could not easily be explained.  The anonymous Irish scribe who compiled his version of the Historia Brittonum enumerated the wonders of the land, and among them was Glen Ailbe in Angus, where a mysterious shouting was heard resounding in the hills every Monday night.  Nobody knew what made the noise, but it could only have been the fairy people who lived in the mountains and fields.  That terrifying sound may have long ago ceased to resonate, but another place where strange sounds are still sometimes heard is Lunan Bay, one of a number of British beaches where the sand is supposed to 'sing' on occasion. Whether this has a plausible geological cause is yet to be determined.  But even silence can sometime be sinister and there are certain place which have - and may always have had - a bad reputation for reasons forgotten or never known.  The mountain named Mayer, which rears above Glen Doll, is a frequent target for hill walkers because of its immensity.  But some people have reported feeling very uncomfortable there.  One woman walker stated that nothing would ever compel her to walk alone on that mountain.

    Place-names showing the presence of the Fair Folk are as elusive as the race itself.  True, there is an Elf Hillock in Glen Clova, but it is a very modest mound.  One gets the feeling that most of the supernatural traffic in ancient times by-passed Angus altogether.  The first major north-south glen to the west of the county is Glen Shee, the glen of the fairies.  People in Strathmore used to believe that fairy men sometimes abducted human babies and conducted them to their caverns beneath the Sidlaw Hills.  One theory says that the first element in the name Sidlaw is sidh, 'fairy', but more prosaic souls may prefer to believe that the element stands for 'seat' (the second part of the name is the Old English law, 'hill').

    Supernatural beings, fairies and other, infested the conspicuous hills until recent times.  Perhaps the most impressive otherworldly hills are the White and Brown Caterthuns, north of Brechin, each crowned with a massive native hill fort.  The stronghold on the Brown Caterthun was the successor of that on the White Caterthun, and was likely constructed after Agricola's Roman legions withdrew in the first century.  Locals believed that a witch carried the stones used to build the Caterthuns.  But her apron string broke as she flew through the air and one stone landed in a field, becoming a standing stone.  People in Menmuir parish said that the fairies inhabited a huge cave under the Caterthuns.  Early in the 19th century a couple from Tigerton had a baby which sadly began to waste away. Gossips at first insisted that the mother had bewitched her child, then other wisdom prevailed.  It became obvious that the afflicted bairn was a changeling; the mortal boy having been stolen by the Caterthun fairies.  To test whether the child was in fact fairy or human, he was held over a whin fire. If he had been of fairy stock he would have flown at once to his native realm under the hills.  But the baby merely screamed as he received a slight burn, proving his mortality.

    A well on the west side of the White Caterthun was rumoured to contain a kettle filled with (fairy?) gold.  Another kettle, brim full of silver, lay somewhere on the Hill of Wirran, to the north.  This latter treasure has been fleetingly glimpsed from a distance, but nobody has found it yet.  The eventual finder may be unluckier than he or she reckons, for they will be magically transported to another dimension and be forced to toil until Doomsday.  At the end of the world the person will be consigned to eternal lamentation.  Cairns near the top of the Hill of Wirran mark the graves of suicides, buried here so their spirits would not haunt the habitations of humans.  The last unfortunates to be buried here were a man and a woman, who died between 1750 and 1780.
    Another hill with an eerie reputation was Turin Hill, near Forfar.  Turin's fortified summit encampment enclosed a massive seven and a half acres.  It features in an old Angus curse:

                                       Deil ride to Turin on ye
                                       for a lade o sclates!

    Here, Satan was credited with carrying the materials for the ancient fort.

    Another witch, who was flying over Carmyllie, carelessly dropped her burden.  This was the famous Cauld Stane o Carmyllie, which marks the boundary between the parishes of Carmyllie and Rescobie.  Also known as the Girdle Stane, it may be the 'Grey Stone' mentioned in records about 1280.  Its odd name comes from the fact that it sued to revolve three times every morning at cock crow to welcome the heat of the rising sun.  A folklorist might be tempted to conjecture that this is a distorted memory of a time when people once danced around the stone in a pagan rite.

    Carmyllie, like the Caterthuns, was a notorious hot spot for weird traditions.  An ill remembered tale speaks of a castle which entirely sank into the ground.  Carmyllie Hill had its own crock of gold, sometimes seen but never grasped.  In 1838, a 'fairy hillock' was excavated on the hill.  A huge, two ton boulder was unearthed, along with some metal rings.  The under side of the stone had an imprint on it shaped like a foot mark, which locals took as conclusive proof that the Good Folk revelled nightly on the hill.  Since then, many  'foot prints' have been found in quarries north of the hill and seem, sadly, entirely natural formations.

    Other ancient remains were also treated with supestitious dread.  A shot cist grave was accidentally uncovered by peat cutters at Arsallary in Glen Esk.  They quickly repaired it, for they knew they would never cut another peat if the grave was desecrated.  Souterrains - also called earth houses or weems - were stone lines underground passages built by the Picts in the early centuries A.D. They may have been used as storehouses, or as places of refuge, but they were later abandoned.  The Gaelic newcomers to the county linked them with the otherworld.  Many of the fifty or so souterrains in Angus are clustered at a number of sites.  Airlie has traces of seven of them, six of them around Barns of Airlie. Once there was a croft at Barns which was terribly plagued by fairies.  Every morning the housewife found that the ashes from the fire had vanished during the night.  One day, as she was making oatcakes on the grate, one of them fell into the fire.  The cake did not burn, it disappeared.  The terrified woman ran out of the house and told her neighbours.  They quickly tore down the haunted cottage and found that the hearthstone was actually the roofing slab of a souterrain.  Lifting up this slab, they found below an enormous pile of shes and a number of mouldy oatcakes - but no fairies.

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