Do fiction and folklore really mix? Sometimes, while not even researching, you may come across odd snippets of information that look relevant to particular areas of interest. I recently stumbled across something while reading a short-story called ‘The Screaming Skulls’ by American author F Marion Crawford (1854-1909). It is contained in his collection Wandering Ghosts (1903) and is of interest for a few reasons. The story is a lengthy, fictionalised reboot of the legend of the actual screaming skull which inhabited Bettiscombe House in Dorset.
As a story, ‘The Screaming Skulls’ is so-so. But it interested me because it was set in Cornwall, where I now live, and contained a mention about my native county of Angus. Two of the servants are sisters who work in the house which the skull haunts are stereotyped dour Scots from Angus. This is how Crawford describes their attitude to the supernatural:
The two hard-faced, sandy-haired sisters almost smiled, and they answered with great contempt that they had no great opinion of any Southern bogey whatever, having been in the service of two English haunted houses, where they had never seen so much as the Boy in Gray, whom they reckoned no particular rarity in Forfarshire.
Now, this set me looking whether there was any ‘real life’ legends or stories of Gray (or even Grey) Boy ghosts in Angus. Nothing of the sort has come to my attention as yet, sadly. I initially thought that Crawford may have slipped a bit of genuine tradition into his story. After all, with a name like that, he surely has Scottish ancestry? But no such luck; it seems that Crawford had the audacity to make it up. I had been hoodwinked by my own expectations.
In a different category is the poem ‘John O’ Arnha’, by George Beattie of Montrose (1786-1823), which is a kind of semi-comic/supernatural Tam o’Shanter style ballad based on the boastful, partly true adventuring of an actual person, John Finlay. More about this poet and particular work in the future. Suffice it to say that it is well worth discovering.
Moving on from that, we can look at an even more subtle echo of the shadowlands, this time beautifully encapsulated in the poem ‘Craigo Woods’ by Violet Jacob (1863-1946). Here is yet another author worth rediscovering. She was a member of the landed family who lived at the beautiful House of Dun, near Montrose, and was born as Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine, daughter of the 18th laird of Dun.
Craigo Woods, wi' the splash o' the cauld rain beatin'
I' the back end o' the year,
When the clouds hang laigh wi' the weicht o' their load o' greetin'
And the autumn wind's asteer;
Ye may stand like gaists, ye may fa' i' the blast that's cleft ye
To rot i' the chilly dew,
But when will I mind on aucht since the day I left ye
Like I mind on you - on you?
Craigo Woods, i' the licht o' September sleepin'
And the saft mist o' the morn,
When the hairst climbs to yer feet, an' the sound o' reapin'
Comes up frae the stookit corn,
And the braw reid puddock-stules are like jewels blinkin'
And the bramble happs ye baith,
O what do I see, i' the lang nicht, lyin' an' thinkin'
As I see yer wraith - yer wraith?
There's a road to a far-aff land, an' the land is yonder
Whaur a' men's hopes are set;
We dinna ken foo lang we maun hae to wander,
But we'll a' win to it yet;
An' gin there's woods o' fir an' the licht atween them,
I winna speir its name,
But I'll lay me doon by the puddock-stules when I've seen them,
An' I'll cry "I'm hame - I'm hame!"
The narrator of the poem, an old man of humble origins, is obviously given voice by the middle-aged, upper class Scottish female author. Contained in the author’s Songs of Angus (1915), the poem is certainly a stunningly evocative capturing of a mood, a symbolic woodland, a shaded place between this world and possibly another. Is the ghost real or just in the narrated recollection? Violet Jacob knew the cadence of this land well and came back to Angus after being widowed and spending many years away. Was Craigo Woods really haunted or did Violet Jacob merely use it as the setting for her haunted man and his imagining of a loved one’s wraith?
There is another poem about the same place by a minor author of the 19th century, W. F. M. McHardy, ‘The Bonnie Woods o’Craigie’, which shows exactly the same spot in a more prosaic light, with none of the yearning magic:
By the bonnie woods o’ Craigo I love to wander free,
An’ down the grassy banks o’ Esk meand’ring to the sea,
To hail the cooling breezes beneath the shady trees,
An’ listen to the humming of the homeward laden bees.
To hear the linties sweetly sing all in the greenwood shade,
While the sparkling pearly dewdrops adorn ilk leaf and blade;
The glossy blackbird whistles sweet his lovely evenin’ sang,
The cushie’s coo is heard aloud the bushy firs amang;
While the other feather’d warblers lend forth their merry strain,
An’ rich-clad fields are waving with heavy laden grain;
All nature drest in full array, sae gorgeous an’ sublime –
A solace to the weary heart an’ to the troubled mind.
A fav’rite haunt to lovers true, their faithful vows to tell;
The merry laugh of sportive youth resounds thro’ woods an’ dell;
Fond parents an’ their children roam adown Saint Martin’s Den,
To gambol in their childish sports, the e’enin there to spen’.
Thou Bonnie woods o’ Craigo, to me thou’lt aye be dear;
The happy days I’ve spent near thee are in my mem’ry clear;
As long’s my strength will bear me up, I’ll hie me to thy glade,
An’ rest my stiff an’ aching limbs thy cooling shade.
As a footnote, I remember many years ago when I was researching some local folklore and got a letter from an old Scots gent in England who remembered - or thought that he remembered - some lore about some woodland that people feared to walk through in in north-east Angus. Did he mean Craigo Woods? And, if so, did the actual tradition seep or migrate into oral folklore following the publication of Jacob's poem? That would be a powerful measure of her writing indeed.