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Anna Jane Vardill

Relics of Popular Superstitions

The Glen of Green Spirits

The traveller who designs to visit Dunduffle must cross a bridge composed of two shattered pines laid from the edge of a table-rock to another nearly of the same height and even surface, but divided by a chasm above fifty feet in depth. Tremendous and confused sounds announce to the ear a waterfall undiscoverable by the eye in the depths of this fearful gulf. Steps hewn in the precipice with a rude ballustrade of dwarf firs and ragged shrubs, conduct the traveller who dares trust this copy of Michael Scott’s Stair in the isle of Bute, to a sudden break or angle in the rocks, from whence he beholds a broad, silent, and slumbering lake, circled by cliffs of abrupt shape but softer colour; all being tinged with purple heath-moss, or dimly seen through mists which ascend continually from this sheltered mass of water. These cliffs are indented with shallow and frequent creeks, and one romantic headland starts forward on the sight with a rude resemblance to some aged fortress broken by decay into fantastic heaps of stone. A narrow current divides it from the shore; but when dry seasons have abated the lake, the passage is easily fordable by a Highland visitor. Few, even in our exploring period, ever reach this profound solitude; and some lean sheep are all that modern farmers have been able to introduce as inhabitants on a spot, which at the era of my story shewed no signs of human visitation, except the smoke creeping from among the pinnacles of the island rock.

It was dead midnight when the witch-woman, who dwelt in a miserable hut under these pinnacles, saw a livid and meagre youth standing at the door. Her old ban-dog, the only protector of her retreat, couched shivering by her side at this spectacle, instead of springing forth with a ferocious bark, as he would have done at any human visitant. Yet Mause did not tremble, for she had a thread of flax spun by a child on Christmas eve, and a sprig of holly was near her chimney. Taking them both in her hands, she said. “In the name of the holy rood, what art thou?”—The stranger replied. “I am Tam Len, and no harm will befall thee. Give me the water-bucket which should be ready for my feet, and the milk thou owest me; and sleep in peace.” Gay Carline,[1] as Mause was usually called, cast a bolder eye at her visitor. She knew the pranks of this merry spirit with refractory maidens in Ettrick and Yarrow; and the long midnight journies he had given to meddling judges over church steeples and mountains. Therefore she deemed some civil hospitalities needful, especially as the little garden in her rocky recess had flourished marvellously under his tillage. Mause filled a wooden bason with pottage in which there were no herbs unfriendly to fairies, and placed it before Tam Len, with an apology for the absence of milk. “Hast thou no better bowl?” said the courteous spirit. She answered in the negative, but modestly expressed her content, not desiring to accept any household utensil from her associate, though she approved his agriculture, and knew that many holy women in Galloway had been safely honoured with his visits. Tam ate eagerly according to his custom, and departed, leaving the door ajar; but the good wife knew the laws of Faeryism too well to hazard a look, lest she should be transformed. Secure in a calm conscience, and a happy confidence in the “green people,” she went to her bed of dry heather, and slept till morning. Then on her first opening of the door, she beheld a crystal cup on the threshold. Some strange characters were engraved on the brim, and on the amber base, but the Gay Carline’s learning extended to nothing beyond her native language. She put it carefully in her chest, not doubting that it came as miraculously as the cup which Sir William Dunbar’s ancestor brought home from the French King’s cellar after his ride thither on an elf-horse, or the still richer cup found by the butler of Eden-hall in a fairy ring.

It is not wonderful that poor Mause, in her dreary solitude and desolate old-age, felt rather cheered than startled by a communicant from the world she was approaching. Her youth had been familiar with all the tales and ballads that poetic superstition had preserved in the beginning of this century and she rested with too firm belief on the legends of Nic Nevin, Red Cap, Brownie, Merlin the Wild, and others, to doubt the existence of beings partly human and partly aerial, according to the system of Celtic elves. And this Tam Len, or Thomline, well deserved the appellation of “good neighbour,” by which such spirits are distinguished, as since he had visited Dunduffle, her garden had grown fertile, her stock of goats had increased, and every week a spade, a wooden keg, or some small article of useful manufacture, had been added to her hut. It is true the produce of her garden was not all consumed by herself; the supernumerary goats were found in her little enclosure of rocks in a frighted and fatigued state, as if they had been “lifted” in an ordinary way, and were often milked by other hands. But the giver was a harmless elf; his visits were short, and his close suit of seeming green leather, such as Tam Len has always worn, never met her touch. Mause ate her meal-puddings in peace, and wisely asked nothing; nor did the Green Spirit address any counsel to her till the night before Hallowe’en. On that night his visit was shorter, and his command awful. “To-morrow,” said he, “thou will need a basket of hemp-stalk and a hood of wool. Take thy place under the Imp tree where four waters meet, and thou shalt hear my brethren pass. See that thou speakest not, but when the fifth shall go by, take what he giveth thee.” Thomline, or Tam, departed as he spoke; and Mause, with some fearful recollection of the mischiefs performed on such occasions in Glenfinlas and Liddesdale, began to hesitate between curiosity and religion. She was the grand-daughter of Marion Weir, one of the heroines commemorated in the dismal days of Cameronian frenzy; and her faith in goblins was equal to her trust in the armour of truth. She had heard all the mysterious tales of supernatural agents sanctified by John Knox’s pen; and concluded finally that her acquiescence would be no profane or dangerous trial. On the eve of Allhallows, which has ever been the jubilee of fairies, Gay Carline set forth to the distant glen where the four waters met, an incident favourable to their revels, and seating herself in her blue cloak with her basket of holy hemp-stalk, awaited the procession. It came, but not, as the traditions of Ettrick forest had taught her to expect, with a train of gay palfreys jingling their silver bells, but in a long, wild, and strange medley of shapes and garments. The leader, unlike the celebrated Queen of Elf-land, had neither coral nor silk in her girdle, nor any garland on her head, but her eyes had an unearthly brightness in them, and her song was in no human language. Then followed a brown, a black, and a grey steed, nearly as the maiden of Carterhaugh is said to have seen them, each ridden by a rider of antic figure, and the last was a thin white horse, on which sat a phantom most resembling the Brown Man of the Moor, known to all ancient Scotch-women.[2] Mause trembled at the approach of this uncouth and malignant elf, but she did not forget her familiar’s command, and held out her basket to receive the promised gift. If the horseman was visionary, the gift was substantial; at least in its appearance to the eyes of old Mause when the elfin equipage had disappeared, and she opened the bundle left behind. It seemed an infant boy less than fifteen months in age, and in all the loveliness of human childhood. A strange incident!—but fairies are known to have earthly offspring, and to desire for them both Christian nurses and baptism, as has been evidenced in the Isle of Man and Inverness-shire. It lay no doubt in a charmed sleep while she returned to her hut, and there more cautiously examining its envelopements, found neither jewel nor fine linen, but a small knot of blue silk, which she untwined, and saw, as she expected, an amulet in the shape of a small shred of parchment, bearing Celtic words to this purpose.

“When bush and wall are both of whin,
Gold shall grow in Dunduffle’s linn;
Where the woodbine and gilliflowers twine,
Ye shall find a gold mine.”

Gay Carline no longer doubted that she was selected to act as foster mother to this fairy changeling, to whom she first offered certain herbs; but finding it expressed no elfish taste for them, she administered the pure milk of her goats, and the whole of a loaf which she found daily deposited on her threshold, of such rare whiteness and exquisite flavour, that her imagination ascribed it without doubt to the good green people, whose skill in kneading is notorious. The infant throve as if it had been fed on magic food; but on the seventh night after its arrival, while she lay awake, she saw the lean face of her friend Tam Len at the casement. But there was fern-seed scattered there, and on that account, perhaps, he did not enter. In the next hour she slept, and the face of Tam in her dream awakening her, she started up, and saw by the clear moonlight that the babe was exchanged. Instead of a fair blooming boy with large blue eyes and bright hair, she saw a new-born creature with a ghastly face, and limbs that seemed unnaturally long. These were symptoms of elfin deception, and Mause almost shrunk from her new foster-child: but the morning gift found at her door was a wrapper of the finest linen, and a mattrass of floss-silk. Gay Carline took courage, and in a few days, though it performed the functions of eating, sleeping, and even breathing, very feebly, she imagined that it became of more human aspect. Even in her prejudiced eyes, its female sex and its helplessness gave it some attraction, and by degrees it seemed beautiful. Nothing indeed could surpass the soft texture of its skin, the silvery lightness of its hair, and its perfect symmetry of shape; but when its nurse murmured or sung certain rhymes against witchcraft, she thought the infant gazed on her with eyes of singular expression. She concluded, therefore, that the body was mortal, but that a fairy soul had been breathed into it instead of its own. In the increase of the March moon, she twisted wreaths or circles of oak and ivy and having passed it thrice through these circles to disenchant it, the pious dame touched her foster-child’s brow with a cross of wood which had been dipped in St Fillan’s well. She was in this act when Tam Len appeared at the door, and sang with a gesture of strange joy the words she had found in the amulet. Mause now conceived the gold mine of Dunduffle was designed to recompense her, and determined to hazard a search, after the sanctifying rite she had just performed. Under the whin-bush beneath the appointed spot, she found with more awe than astonishment a pitcher of clay filled with gold coin. It was enough to have tempted Thomas of Ercildoune, or the Hermit of Tweed-dale himself; yet Mause forbore even to touch a doit. But the Gay Carline was a woman: she lay awake three nights meditating whether she might safely expend fairy gold without being “sodden in a brass cauldron,” like Lord Soulis at Nine Stane Rig, or beguiled like the fair Janet on Broomhill. Every week a web of fair linen, a basket of rare fish, and sometimes a keg of no invisible or ethereal spirit, was deposited on her threshold; but no good fairy had yet sent her a new cambric curch.[3] Satan, more powerful than Tam Len or John Knox, determined her to hazard one visit to the Martinmas tryst at - - - - - - - - , and there to purchase some choice snuff, a bible, and a curch. The day was fine, the purchases made with a piece of “braid gold” from the pitcher; and though her absence had been two hours in length, the infant smiled as if it had been newly fed, and its thin curls of white flossy hair had just been combed. But her punishment begun before mid-night. Tam Len suddenly entered her hovel with glaring eyes; and clasping her with hands that seemed iron-cold, leaped at once from the rocks, to which he dragged the shrieking foster-nurse, into the lake below.

There was no instant for thought or struggle. Though he dived only for ten seconds, strange sounds had begun to ring in Mause’s ears, and colours of marvellous brilliance floated before her eyes. When she emerged again from the water, they seemed to behold such wonders as the diving-bell is said to have revealed to an adventurous Manksman. She thought herself in a spacious room propped by pillars of crystal not inferior to diamonds, and walls embossed in rare figures with mother of pearl and shells of all hues. Clusters that shone in the light reflected from a lamp like the moon in the various tints of topazes, emeralds, rubies, and pearls, hung loose from the roof and on the walls: even the floor had a pavement gleaming like polished porphyry and a large jasper table stood in the centre, with a sofa near it, on which lay a woman of exquisite beauty. The dazzled and bewildered cotter remembered all she had ever heard of water-kelpies or mermaids;[4] and doubted not that she beheld either Nic Nevin herself, or the elf of Colonsay.[5] The Beauty wore round her neck a row of fine coral, which confirmed her first surmise, and Tam Len, who stood by her side, prevented all others, by commanding her to use her skill in curing the sick lady. Mause was confounded at this application to her aid, but soon perceived its necessity. This beautiful inhabitant of a palace which she supposed beneath the lake had not long been a mother, and the ravages of mortal agony were evident. “Secresy, speed, and obedience, are the price of your life!” said her strange guide, and the injunction was scarcely needful to enforce the terrors which superstition and amazement had created. She had been brought there, as it seemed, by means more than human; and the power of these beings might be unbounded in some points, though in others they depended on human aid. But that aid was vain, though Mause had more than ordinary science. The unknown lady cast looks of anguish on her new attendant and her mysterious companion; raised herself often as if to speak, and as often sunk again without power, till a sudden and quick shiver ended her existence.

The Carline looked at the ghastly remains with stupid surprise, as if she still questioned the mortal nature of her patient; and when the seeming master of the mansion commanded her in a stern and hollow voice to prepare the body for its grave-clothes, her terror became unspeakable. She was now left alone with it and though she well knew all the ceremonies of a lyke-wake or death-watch night, Mause could not guess how far they were appropriate to one of whose christianity she doubted deeply. And a woman thus circumstanced, even in a bolder age, might have been pardoned, if, like Mause, she had paused to guard herself first from evil by tasting the full bowl of wine on the table. Then approaching the dead lady, she carefully untied the knots in her hair, supposing them as usual, a token of witchcraft, and had it been in her power would have opened the door to give the departed spirit a free passage home. Finding it firmly closed, she seated herself in increased terror at the foot of the couch; and as she sang the simple rhyme taught by Scotch custom, her fascinated eyes dwelt on the corpse till it seemed to frown. Twice or thrice a deadly moan from some unseen person mingled with her own chant; and once a human voice not far distant repeated, in a melancholy accent, “Binnorie—O Binnorie!”[6] These words are connected in a northern peasant’s ear with very doleful ideas; and Mause had not courage to move again, except to reach the goblet of wine, near which she had wisely taken her seat. The voices in her ears, and the spectacle before her eyes, sank all into the misty confusion of a deep sleep, from whence she awoke to find herself quietly deposited in her hovel.

The dryness of her present apparel proved she had not been brought under water as before, and its texture also proved her adventure had been no dream. She still wore the petticoat of scarlet cloth and embroidered boddice which had been given to her by Tam Len last night in exchange for her wet garments, now rolled in a bundle beside her. She viewed herself in them with strange admiration, which the screams of her half-famished changeling interrupted; and other sounds, still more disturbing, claimed her attention. These sounds were the heavy footsteps and rough song of a man in a pedlar’s attire, half leaping and half wading towards the hollow square of rocks which her hovel filled. “Good be wi’ ye’re door-stane, lucky!” said he, as he crossed it without waiting for the ceremony of an invitation, and before she had time to do more than attempt to hide her rich raiment by wrapping herself in her blue cloak. The chapman sat down beside the three cross wands which supported her kail-pot over a few dead embers, and asked for a good-will cup. Such visits and demands from wandering chapmen were common then, as they still remain; but this man’s countenance indicated no common tramper. His large loose coat hung to his heels without defining his shape; his hair was coarse, and singularly matted over eyes whose black diamond brightness agreed ill with its murky yellow. Pistols were hid under his pack, and an air of command shewed itself more forcibly by contrast with his grotesque apparel. He turned his prying eyes round the Carline’s hut with fierce greediness, till they rested on the infant in her lap; and having drank to her “roof-tree,” he added, “Where gat ye that water-lily, lucky? It’s no like the gay goss hawk ye gat fra’ Dougal Caird.”[7] Mause trembled at that name. Dougal Caird was at that period one of the boldest, handsomest, and most dexterous of the gipsy tribe in Scotland, and practised the various trades of tinker, fortune teller, and free-booter, to the terror of all sober men and solitary women. She answered, with the courtesy naturally suggested by her fears, that he stood in her presence, and professed she had never seen the canty callan. Dougal, as she supposed her visitor to be, relaxed his grim, yet youthful, features into a kind of smile, and settled himself more familiarly by the ingle. He offered her sundry baubles from his pack, shrewdly glancing at her holiday attire, and told merry tales of village scandal. Mause thought anxiously on her pitcher of gold, and cast a meaning eye at her door stone; but the sky darkened suddenly, the wind rose, and torrents of rain descended. The Caird seemed to repose on her hospitality; and stirring up the blazing peat, began that plaintive ditty, called Lord Maxwell’s Good-night. He sang the last verse twice, with a sad and earnest expression; and pausing as if he waited for an echo, repeated the burthen of his song distinctly—

“Adieu, Dumfries, my ain dear place!
 Till I come o’er the sea;
Adieu, my ladie and only joy,
 I may not stay with thee.”

The sweet and well-known melody fixed Mause’s ear; but between the dismal sighings of the wind, another voice seemed to rise. The waves beat tumultuously against the little pile of rocks now entirely insulated, and the mournful sounds heard among their clamour were like the shrieks of sinking sailors. The Caird ran to the door, and climbing on the highest rock, saw a light floating among the waters. Yet it was not on any mast or eminence, and presently it glided past the edge of the isle, and sunk in the dark waters. Mause saw it distinctly, and even Dougal confessed its semblance to the corpse-lights that rise and float where unhappy travellers have perished. The cries had grown fainter till they ceased; and the storm itself began to sleep. It was “mirk midnight,” but Dougal continued to walk on the isle of rocks till morning’s light shewed him a human body bound to a plank of oak stuck upright in a creek, which the swell of the current had covered more than ten feet deep. The swell had now subsided—Mause sprang across, and beheld the body of Thomline, dead and bleaching in the wind. At this spectacle, easily explained by the shattered boat which lay among the hollows, the Carline remembered his shrieks for succour, probably while he lashed himself to the last plank, and she wrung her hands with bitter moanings over her benefactor. The Caird listened eagerly to her confused tale of the dead lady and the house beneath the lake, which her loquacious agitation could not conceal: but insisted on endeavouring to trace them. It was in vain she reminded him of water-kelpies, of a Bishop of Galloway whose body was half changed to glass by their enchantments, and of a Dumfries-shire gentleman carried off on one of their white nags. The adventurous gipsey held her arm with a firm hand, and his pistols in the other, till he walked round all the windings and creeks of the Glen. No inlet betrayed a human habitation, but a peculiar agitation of the waters discovered what is called a deep “pot of the liun.” The receding current left the edges of this cauldron bare; and Mause, whose curiosity began to struggle with her superstitions, pointed out an opening to which it might be necessary sometimes to dive under the shallow water. She hesitated to accompany him farther, and he paused himself, till a touching sight determined them. A child sat under the narrow arch feeding a starling, which cried in a shrill tone, “Binnorie!—O Binnorie!”—This unfortunate boy had been already two days alone, waiting for him who would return no more, and had shared his last morsel with his favourite bird. No doubt remained. The adventurers entered, and climbed the ascent hewn in this cavern, till it brought them to a higher chamber, now lighted only by a crevice in the side, which shewed the rich incrustations of spar and stalactite on its roof. The table remained, and the lonely sofa covered with white linen. Mause’s unknown companion raised it slowly, and saw the young and beautiful Countess of Cassilis, whose elopement from a fond husband with a gipsey youth had been long ascribed to witchcraft. It was the Earl himself who now looked upon her. Hoping to redeem his only son, he had come disguised to this glen, guided by the track of the gipsey gang with whom he suspected Mause of confederacy. But Tam Len, the real Dougal Caird, only profited by the aged Carline’s superstition to supply his unsuspected retreat with milk and vegetables, and conceal his visits even from his tribe. Lord Cassilis gave generous pity to the fate of his unhappy wife as he removed her from the solitary chamber in the gipsey’s cave to the grave he dug for her himself near Mause’s cabin. Nor did the good Carline forget to cover it with the gilliflowers and bush of woodbine due to those who die in travail. The heir of Cassilis went home with the father from whom he had been stolen: and his half sister, born in guilt and misery, remained under the care of Mause, whose recompense was the pitcher of broad gold pieces, one of which, when it was spent at the tryste, first led to these discoveries. The gold mine of Dunduffle is now only the burial place of Dougal Caird and Lady Cassilis, still visible perhaps in the Glen of Green Spirits.


(To be continued)

  1. A good old woman. 
  2. Poor Mause was less fortunate than the Manksman (mentioned by Waldron) who saw above a dozen fairy horses well mounted, and of the best kind, for fairies disdain ponies. 
  3. A matron’s cap or hood worn in Scotland. 
  4. She might have remembered the Nun of Drybergh, who dwelt fifty years in an unseen retreat. 
  5. The tales preserved in the Advocate’s Library, dated 1680. A kid’s foot and a left shoe might have been useful on this occasion. 
  6. The burden of a song sung in tradition by a deceived fair one. 
  7. A vagabond Pedlar or tinker. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 75, January 1819, pp. 9-14