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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Celtic Ghosts: Spooky Tales from Scotland

Ghosts are an integral part of Celtic life.
Ghosts are an integral part of Celtic life.

Grey Ladies without hands. White Ladies with gloved hands. Headless horsemen riding through dark lanes and bodiless heads floating through haunted woods. Phantom trains, ghostly re-enactments of bloody battles, and Green Ladies galore haunting castles throughout the countryside. Scotland’s folklore is packed with spooky tales of those who refuse to stay dead. Ghosts are an integral part of Celtic culture. And not just at Halloween (or Samhain when family ghosts are actually invited back home for dinner). Celtic folk tradition has all sorts of rituals, charms, and other magic to deal with mischievous or malicious spirits, plus plants and herbs which help keep ghosts from rising from their graves. Celtic culture even has midwives for the dying to ensure that souls pass safely—and peacefully—into the Otherworld and that they stay there. This week’s post is just a small sampling of the abundant ghostly tales Scotland has to offer.

The Old Tay Bridge

While many people dismiss ghost stories as products of creative imaginations mixed with quite natural things that go bump (or woo-oo!) in the night, most have roots in historical fact. The Old Tay Bridge Ghost Train is an example. Its origins come from a real-life disaster. Built during the Victorian Age, the railroad bridge over the Firth of Tay connected Wormit, a town in Fife, Scotland, with the city of Dundee. In 1878, when it was built, it was the longest bridge in the world, spanning 2 miles and standing at 88 feet above the water. The Tay Bridge appeared to be an engineering masterpiece. No one foresaw the tragedy which would occur only a year later.

The new Tay Bridge, Dundee side, at twilight.
The new Tay Bridge, Dundee side, at twilight.

On the night of December 28, 1879, a terrible storm was raging. Despite gale force winds of 80 mph, the bridge remained open to traffic. At 7:13 P.M., a train started across the bridge from the Wormit side. It was due to reach the Dundee end by 7:19. The bridge was so narrow that only one train could travel its tracks at a time so signal men were placed at each end to control the traffic. As the train made its way towards Dundee, battered by the storm’s winds, the signalman on the Wormit side suddenly saw a bright flash followed by complete darkness. He tried to contact the signal cabin at the Dundee side but all communication had been severed. The prolonged lack of the train’s appearance on the Dundee side caused concern and, finally, a locomotive foreman named John Roberts volunteered to investigate. He crawled across the span, battling wind and rain, until he drew near the center. Then he discovered the ghastly reason for the train’s disappearance: the center of the bridge had collapsed, plunging all 70 passengers plus the engineer and crew into the swirling waters of the Tay.

A new bridge was built next to the collapsed one. Each year since, however, on the anniversary of the disaster, people claim to see a phantom train crossing the Tay in the spot where the old bridge existed. Then, they say, screams can be heard as the train plummets into the dark waters.

 water. Each year, on the anniversary of the disaster, a phantom train is seen riding above them where the old track would have been then plunging into the water at the site where the bridge collapsed.
Posts from the Old Tay Bridge poke out of the water. Each year, on the anniversary of the disaster, a phantom train is seen riding above them where the old track would have been then plunging into the water at the site where the bridge collapsed.

The Glencoe Massacre

The mass slaughter at Glencoe is a legendary tale of treachery, betrayal, and an unforgivable violation of the Celtic code of hospitality. The Campbells and the MacDonalds are two of the most powerful Scottish clans. They were rivals who sometimes worked together and even intermarried—as long as it was to their mutual advantage. But an event happened in 1692 which would ever more instill in the MacDonalds a distrust (or for some, a hatred) of Campbells. (To be fair, I’ve read a version of the Glencoe Massacre which claims the Campbells were not at fault, that they did what they did on orders from the king. But that perspective comes from a Clan Campbell website and, after all, regardless of what the king may have ordered, the Campbells did the deed). Here’s the story:

First, a little political context: the Campbells were fierce supporters of the English king, William of Orange. The MacDonalds supported the deposed Stuart (therefore Scottish) king, James II. King William sent out an edict that all of the chieftains of the rebellious highland clans either sign an oath of loyalty to him by January 1, 1692 or their clans would face punishment “to the utmost extremity of the law.” Alasdair MacDonald (aka Maclain), chieftain of the Glencoe MacDonalds, resisted signing the oath until the last moment. On December 31, 1691, he set out for Inveraray to have his signing witnessed (per orders) by the Sheriff. Inveraray, though, was Campbell territory. The Campbells accosted and detained Alasdair for a day. When he finally arrived at his destination, the Sheriff wasn’t there. He had gone on a trip. When he returned a few days later, the chieftain signed the oath and the Sheriff attested to the signing, but to no avail. The late oath-taking was rejected.

Glencoe, Scotland.  Here, in the 17th century, the Campbells violated the Celtic code of hospitality and murdered their Clan Donald hosts.
Glencoe, Scotland. Here, in the 17th century, the Campbells violated the Celtic code of hospitality and murdered their Clan Donald hosts.

Unbeknownst to Alasdair (who had returned home), the royal order went out to cut down the MacDonalds of Glencoe “root and branch.” In response, Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon sent his soldiers to Glencoe. When they arrived at the MacDonalds’, they pretended to be friendly, weary soldiers in need of accommodation. Alasdair Maclainn, adhering to the Celtic code of hospitality, took in the over 100 soldiers, housed, and fed them. For 12 days. In the wee hours of the morning, on February 13, 1692, the Campbell soldiers began slaughtering the MacDonalds as they slept in their beds. As the household awakened to this horrific violation of hospitality (you don’t kill your host!), many MacDonalds managed to flee into the glen and the nearby mountains, but died from the bitter cold. Inside the castle, Alasdair plus 33 men, 2 women, and 2 children of the clan were murdered by the Campbells. Their screams are said to echo through the castle today and the cries of those dying from exposure can be heard in the glen. A less supernatural reminder of the treacherous and bloody deed can be seen on the door of a Glencoe inn. The sign reads: “No Campbells.”

Fyvie Castle: The Weeping Stones and the Green Lady

Fyvie Castle in Aberdeen, Scotland, is a medieval fortress. Among its building blocks are three stones which frequently are wet while all the stones surrounding them are dry. The three stones are located in three different locations of the castle and no one has discovered the reason for their odd “weeping.” However, a fortune-teller named Thomas the Rhymer visited the castle in the Middle Ages and declared that the stones had been taken from a sacred burial spot. He then predicted that, until the stones were returned to their rightful place, no male heir would inherit the castle.

Fyvie Castle in Aberdeen, Scotland is reportedly haunted by Lilas Drummond aka The Green Lady.
Fyvie Castle in Aberdeen, Scotland is reportedly haunted by Lilas Drummond aka The Green Lady.

This curse seems to have affected tragically the life of Lilas Drummond whose ghost is said to haunt Fyvie Castle. Because of the dress she always appears in, she has become known as the Green Lady. In the 17th century she married the then-owner of the castle, Sir Alexander Seton. The couple had five children, all of them girls. This upset Alexander who began an affair with Lilas’ cousin. In 1601, Lilas died. Some say she died of grief but another version of the story is that her husband locked her up and starved her to death for her failure to produce an heir.

Shortly after Lilas’ death, Alexander married her cousin but they had no peace on their wedding night. They were disturbed by moans and heavy sighs coming from right outside the bedroom window. This was odd since the bedroom was three floors up. The next morning, when Alexander opened the window, he found a name etched into the stone wall: Dame Lilas Drummond. This name, as well as the weeping stones, can still be seen by visitors to the castle.

Incidentally, to this day, Fyvie Castle has never been inherited by a male heir.

The Dog Suicides of Overtoun Bridge

The final story of this short survey of Scottish ghosts is a bizarre mystery which persists to this day. Built in 1895 and reputedly haunted, Overtoun Bridge is located in West Dunbarton, just west of Glasgow, Scotland. There has been a high incidence of dogs jumping from this bridge to their deaths in the rocky gorge 50 feet below. Over 300 “doggie suicide” attempts (some papers say 600) have been reported since the 1960s alone. At least 50 dogs have died, and many who survived have gone back for a second try. All of the dogs have leaped from the same side of the bridge and, reportedly, from the same spot. While a theory has been floated that the odor of mink is a reason why the dogs jump off the bridge, no solid explanation for the deaths has been established. However, people from the area have proposed a Celtic-appropriate possibility. They say the area is a thin place, a spot where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin enough to see through and even pass through. They contend that spirits are luring the dogs into the Otherworld. In Celtic mythology and folklore, dogs are guides to the Otherworld so, from a Celtic point of view, this theory would make sense. An alternate explanation given by folks from the area is that the dogs see the ghosts on the other side of the veil and (pardon the pun) are spooked by them into leaping off the bridge. Whatever the cause, the site now has a warning sign which reads: “Dangerous Bridge. Please keep your dog on a lead.”

Overtoun Bridge, West Dunbarton, Scotland is believed to be a thin place where this world and the Otherworld connect.
Overtoun Bridge, West Dunbarton, Scotland is believed to be a thin place where this world and the Otherworld connect.

To find out more about thin places, read my post here.

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