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Story | The Ghosts of Wigtown ~ Karen Campbell

11th May 2020


The Ghosts of Wigtown


History never sleeps in Scotland's Book Town. Down by the Martyrs' Stake something is in the air. A new tale of the supernatural written exclusively for Wigtown Book Festival by Karen Campbell 

It’s always dark down here, dark and dappled where the road slopes deep and a secret opens. You wouldn’t know it, if you didn’t… well, if you didn’t know it was here. But we do. All the women of Wigtown know this place.  It is quiet under the trees, where the path turns. Leaves ripple like little waves, like the waves that used to lap here, when the Irish sea met the mudflats, before rivers were tamed and shifted and our harbour became a place of land. They use it now to berth those ironwork creatures; the things they call carambulators.

- Oh come on. Please. We are not all luddites.  Must we speak as one?

- Och, here she comes - Dr Walker with her wee, roon specs and her button nose. Aye sniffing like she’s stepped in keech.

- Doctor Broadfoot Walker, don’t you mean? 

- Aye, away and boil your double-barrelled bahookie. A woman doctor? Nae a howdiewife, mind – an actual lassie that’s been to the actual university and thinks she can gie hersel fancy names. Well, I wouldna be letting her near my bits.

 - Mistress McNearney. You are well aware that I am a woman of science. And that these objects are called automobiles. Or cars. Just cars. It really is most tiresome to be always working to the lowest common denominator. Can we at least agree on one thing? Can I appeal to those of us who have been here for quite some time – we none of us are set in aspic, are we? Surely we’re able to observe the changes we all perceive. Observe and acknowledge them. Respond to them?  I mean, even poor Beitha here’s been able to evolve some deeper understanding of –

- You leave poor Beitha out of it, Mary Walker. Honestly. You’re never done picking on the puir auld soul.

~

Soul. Beitha tries the word out. She is never sure what this language means, for it bears little resemblance to her own, though she hears echoes of it from time to time. But soul is a word you can feel in your mouth. It is round and yearning - and they all know its weight. They know every nuance and glitter of it. Every whisper and moan. 

Anger is an energy. The faint mist moves. The grass is soft underfoot. Beitha has never worn coverings on her feet. Her feet never touch the grass, but there is a memory of softness, which she cherishes. It is the same softness she remembers from when they lay at night, huddled in skins around the embers of a fire. There is softness, and hardness. The hardness of her man’s spine. The hardness of these wooden slats, over which the mist is seeping. 

~

It’s not yet dawn. We’ve been milling here since the moon rose. Unless we act as one, we can’t get a shift on. Most prefer to stay within the churchyard, where the parameters are safe, and known. But some of us like to test our boundaries. We are forever testing  our boundaries. Pushing, praying that one day this thin place we inhabit will thin a little more. Will rupture and give.

Will release.

The churchyard is an awfy sad place, you know. Out here might be dangerous, but it is also thrilling. The churchyard reeks of piety. There is a great deal of emptiness, of course. And some lovely walks. Faint music from within the kirk walls on Sundays that would break your heart if you had heart to break. So, don’t mourn us for the churchyard, no. It’s peaceable enough.  But within the pockets of resistance, amongst those of us spirits who have not yet gone? Well, let’s say there can be… discomfort. The Covenanters are the worst. Aye quivering with righteous indignation. Do you know, they don’t even like their own monument? Too white and glowing, apparently. Too (whisper it) …Catholic. And they wonder why they’re still here?

Not the two Margarets, mind. Oh no; those martyred Covenanters were with us for but a moment. Goodly women, both. They made their peace long before the waters closed over their dear, drowned heads.

But it’s in their honour that we come here.

Down through the trees, then onto the boardwalk.

- Crannog.

- It’s alright Beitha. You don’t have to defend yourself to Doctor Snob.

- Bannock? Is she thinking she’s hungry? We don’t feel hunger my love. Mind? It’s just you remembering. That awful gnawing isny real.

- I think she’s saying ‘crannog.’ Is that right Beitha?

- What’s a crannog when it’s at home?

~

The wooden slats creak, though there is no feet to walk on them. Water glistens through the gaps and Beitha can almost see her face there. Her crannog was such a safe place. To think they made their own neat islands, with wooden stakes and woven rush. Hands that were once purposeful, and loved. And loved too much. And lost. She almost sees another face. But won’t, she won’t, she won’t.

~

A breeze soughs branches, the mist progresses. The light turns dark to silver as the sky yawns wide and we move and move.

To this.

The whispering stops. We slow, jostle. Are almost still, in the midst of our swirling reel.

It fair takes your breath away, this. Here, where the trees break, and the sky grows immense. Miles and miles of star-studded sky, and flat salt marshes. Tall reeds and grasses; on every side, there are great expanses of merse and the sharp, salted mud beneath. But it is the sky, the huge and domed, silent heavens, and the land opening its jaws to the distant moonlit shimmer of sea.

This.

It’s why we come here. We can’t go far, but if we weave together you can get some kind of momentum. It’s a bit like a ghostly snowball, gathering oursels, our wee wisps of self which remain, sooking together and inching forwards.

They think we’re daft, in the churchyard. Straying is most seriously frowned upon – but if you keep rooted in your six by two then you’ll never get anywhere. Isn’t that the truth? 

Aye. Yet,  maybe straying is why we’re all still here.

They never tell you. Moving seems to be one way of…hoping? Going forwards, going back – it’s all one.  As long as we can flicker. Because flickering is another kind of push. When you flicker, you are not inert. Moving, flickering, trying to see, to feel, beyond. Well, who knows what it might ignite? 

- For shame. That isna fair!

- Sorry, Jennett.

- Yes, sorry, Jennett.

Mind Black Margaret, for instance, her that used to stay in Barbados Villa in the town, ken, the one with the dark skin that had the Provost for a daddy? Remember how effortless it was for her? Douce as anything, she was. Big sad eyes in such a pretty face. Strange, silent lassie, head down, aye keeping to herself. Then one day, she starts singing. Belting out some Caribbean ditty like she owned it, the whole, glorious form of her glowing wonderful and warm. Then that was her: away. Just… away. Part of us no more.

You never know the minute. Nor the hour, nor the century.

Or the second you are gone.

Both the first time, and the last, you never know. So it’s no wonder there may be some loose ends to tidy. Some edges yet to smooth. A day of reckoning, perhaps, or realisation. We never know. Och, but see some  folk? Some of us Left Behinds? They have no dignity about them. Thon Avengers are the worst. Take Janet Dalrymple. Her, the Bride of bloody  Lammermuir. Such a showy ghost. Doesn’t need to come here at all: the woman has her own castle to haunt , over at Baldoon.  But she floats here every so often for a rest. Exhausted – she is a bundle of bright, jagged nerves. See the year those singers did Lucia di Lammermoor? Insufferable, she was. And then there’s Flaming Jennett. 

- Sorry Jennett.

- Oops, excuse me. After you, Jennett. Sorry.

We keep Jennett on the outside of us, for the heat of the rage coming off her is intolerable. And she smells of bitter ash.  They cried her witch, burned her in a barrel of tar because she was old and knew her herbs. The only time Jennett is calm is when she and Dr Walker talk about botanicals and cures.

We drift along the boardwalk, spilling, sparkling over the edges of the wooden slats. We are uncontainable. Unreal. The moon beats down, tipping every shadow with white fire. We cast no shadow. We are only shade.

At the end of the boardwalk, rising through the reeds, a long pole sits in mud. Staking its claim to where they murdered the Twa Margarets. It’s not the original stake , but a simulacrum in stone. It is exquisite torture to be here, for it is both beautiful and ugly. Some of us get riled at the stake – for the unfairness, yes – of course for the cruel and wicked punishment of two women who only loved their God. But there are other unfairnesses which pierce us too. Where is Jennett’s sculpted  tar barrel to mark her burning? Where is the white-plinthed memorial for all the witches?  Where is Doctor Walker’s statue, her that won a gold medal  and the Jean Walker prize? Or the proud column for Jessie Coupland, our only woman Provost? Where might that have stood?

An owl glides, soft, above us. We tremble at the sweep of her hunter’s wings.

Anyway, we have this place. And so this is what we have.

- There’s someone there. By the stake.

So there is. Sitting hunched, legs dangling. Head cloaked. It’s hard for us to see. Our world is bleached; viewed vaguely, through a veil. We have forgotten colour. Is it a holy man gone astray? Well, he’s very welcome - if he keeps his distance.

Because this place is ours. It’s a good, sad spot. A maypole round which we may dance, in our ghostly, mist-oiled wheel. You can’t see us, mind. But occasionally, perhaps, we are a shiver.  A shiver or a flitting blink of there-not-there at the edge of your vision, or an imprint on the land. We are a sense of sadness on the air.

The silhouette raises his arm, an arc flying, then a clatter as a rock strikes the Martyrs’ Stake.

We bridle. We fizz.

We are a raggle of raging bones. We are a maelstrom. We are ether, ethereal. Terrible.

The hooded figure straightens. Looks behind, to where we birl. Mother Moon shines her brightest. It is a lassie. How could she? 

Don’t get us angry. Have you met Peggy the Poltergeist?

Anger is an energy.

Peggy could throw a man up off his bed. But the rage consumed her, for it was pure – not tempered with sorrow like Jennett’s. There was no wrong to right with Peggy. She was just wrong.

- Will you wheest , you crabbit besoms?

- She canna hear us.

- No one can ever hear us. Mistress  McNearney is straining as she always does; torn between here and her eternal trail to the tall chimneys over the hill. The old Wigtown prison, of which she, and her mother before her, was matron, dominates its skyline, just as it dominates her. Some nights, we can travel further and faster than we ever mean – it is a random, stop and start endeavour. If we bicker, we set up a right cloud of stour – but then we pull apart. Yet there are nights, lovely, kind nights where we are as one, fair whirling past shuttered windows and sleeping streets. Those are the nights we can be immense. Those are the nights we let Mistress McNearney peer in through the windows of the prison, and call to be let inside. There are cells to be cleaned, prisoners to be fed. Grates to be blacked, broken glass to be swept. Belts to be removed. Belts and scarves and hanging things. A noose to be cut. Always that dammed noose to be cut – and they never let her in, though she cries and cries to them to save the girl. 

It is a turnkey’s job to be careful of hanging things. But Mistress McNearney was a houseproud woman, so devout to her scrubbing that her charges could be left alone for hours.  So now she shouts out her voiceless pleas, to save a lass long gone.

Another stone hits the stake.

- Is that no sacrilege?

The figure pulls back her hood. She is young. On that boiling cusp of girl to woman, but there is none of that soft, curious joy about her that we remember when we were wee. Do we remember? Was it a joy?

- It’s easy to romanticise, says Dr Walker.

- Aye, it is that. Mistress  McNearney’s voice is low.  Before you know what you know.

A pile of rocks rest by the girl’s thigh. Her countenance is blotched and anguished. Moonlight shines on tear-washed skin. Even though we can’t see clearly, it’s plain the lassie is distraught. 

- What will we do?

- Sister Agnes would know what to do.

Sister Agnes is a wonder. Comes all the way from Whithorn – it seems she can flit wherever she pleases. We don’t see her much. We think she visits many places. In life, she tended the pilgrims seeking solace at St Ninian’s shrine, bringing all their boils and disease. She once washed the feet of King Jamie. Even when she got ill herself, Agnes stayed to nurse those sicker than she. Then she stayed again, after she died –to try and rescue some licentious monk’s soul. There were a lot of them about, apparently.  Licentious monks.

- Aye. D’you mind thon orgy at Glenluce? Was there no a wizard involved?

- Can we focus on the job in hand, please? On the patient?

- She’s no your ‘patient’, Doctor Walker. She’s a wee, scared lassie who’s lost her way.

Haven’t we all? The owl has returned. Is watching us, from the highest of the trees. Minerva’s familiar. What a star, eh, is Sister Agnes ? Choosing limbo, to save another’s soul. Sister Agnes isn’t showy. Rumour has it she’s friends with St Medana herself (ken, the wifie that keeps poking her own eyes out?)

- Can we stop being coarse, please? Coarse and crass?

- Maybe the lassie’s a criminal? Mistress McNearney is animated once more. Maybe she’s on the run, and hiding here? We could seize her now, march her to the jail – I have a lovely cell prepared. Spotless so it is. You could tek your dinner off the flair.

- Will you spare us from your awful pride, Mistress McNearney? Pride in taking dirt from a floor? Good God, d’you think that’s the entire span of womankind’s achievements?  Dr Walker is spinning fast ; there is a risk we will split asunder.

- Stop your caterwauling, both. Have mercy on our ears.

- Mercy? It’s Flaming Jennett skraiching now.  Nae yin ever showed me mercy. No when I gret and screamed, not yin o them stayed their hauns. All eager to bid me burn.

- Hush now, Jennett. Hush. Life is never fair. Not for the like of us. 

Skelly Hilda takes Jennett – well, passes through her as we are all constantly a-dance; the two shapes of them ducking and tucking until they are on the furthest reaches of us.  Outwith the body of the kirk, so to speak.  An English maid, is Hilda. Lovely lassie - from the court of Devorgilla. We call her Skelly Hilda on account of her cross-eyes. (Due to being throttled by one of Devorgilla’s men.) Oh – you’ll not know that story. Nobody does. No actual body does. Ken Sweetheart Abbey? Manky Cow Abbey more like. Skelly Hilda was a Balliol. Did not like the idea of her kinsman’s heart being paraded like a relic. So she filled Devorgilla’s wee kist with the heart of a calf, and asked another Balliol to take King John’s own heart home. But you cannot trust a Balliol. Poor, betrayed, skelly, throttled Hilda.  Her grief is quenching Jennett’s anger, the two of them hissing slightly, like steam.

- Pride?  Mistress McNearney is off, roaring and greeting. I’ll give you pride. Aye thinking you’re better than us all, Doctor Walker. Pride is a sin. Call yourself an educated woman? 

Poor Beitha recoils from the noise, she seems to float away from the rest of us, yet the gentle motion is enough to drag us with her. Closer, closer to the lassie.

How did Beitha manage that?  Daft, silent Beitha with naught but a glaikit stare?

~

Beitha is close enough to touch. Beitha can see her own face, reflected in the young woman’s eyes. Eye after eye after eye it goes, far inside to the root. Beitha tingles. Afraid to look, for she knows what she will find there. 

~

The weeping girl rests herself now, against the Martyrs’ Stake. It’s a pose that should be relaxed, but it’s not. There is a bag there, one of those sacks you can carry on your back, and she opens it. We surround her, like nosy, fluttering ducks. There. There is the source of her stones – she carries a pile of rocks inside her bag. From an inner pouch, she removes a small bottle. Dr Walker chills. We feel it, all of us, the cold creeping shock of grief.

- Barbiturates.

Oh, what can we do, what can we do? Are  we not all educated women, in our way? We know so many things, this great, shifting sum and breadth of us. Yet what can we do? We know the magic of love.  We know the loneliness of the grave. We know the thrift of making do, of making good. We know the ache of silence when a man says clever words he stole from you, and you stand there, mute in your place.  We know unfinished business. We know the thirst for revenge. We know the kindness of a stranger, the cruelty of the hearth. We know this lassie is hurting. We know the whole world bleeds. We know the trust of a smile. We know the gentleness of hands on a dying brow, of the laying out and the lying in. Oh aye– we ken the pain and power of childbirth. Some of us know the shame of it too.

~

Beitha feels this knowledge in a rush, it is bright and clever as it cleaves her, setting her apart from the rest of them.  It is hers alone to feel. She holds the girl’s eyes in her own, and shares her pain, for it is Beitha’s pain too, and she lets it flow, all the words she has suppressed and never heard and always known, all the guilt she bears and has borne and will bear, for this is why she cannot leave. She knows that now, its clarity awakes her. And she can see the colours, hear the sounds. Beitha sat here once, when the sea flowed and the moon was up. When her man no longer wanted her, nor the baby in her belly. When she strung herself round with rocks, and fell forwards and backwards and down.  How can she make them understand?

Beitha has the strength of all her mothers.

~

Daft auld, ancient Beitha. What is she doing? We are all entirely discombobulated. Like a banshee, she is, flitting and surging, shepherding us into one almighty cauldron; we are streaking past oursels, round and round, faster and faster, with the crying lassie in the centre of us; her and the Martyrs’ Stake are the only points to cling to in our unravelling, bubbling world. She is crouched over, the lassie, cradling her stomach like it is something lost, and – suddenly – we feel her ache. It shoots through us, tightening, expanding, and we are dragged all around, and in and through her, poor Beitha on her knees, holding fast to the lassie and staring into her eyes as we lift her up and hold her in our arms. Mother Moon is fading, the sun is coming fast, and all at once, we see. Just for a beat, we can see. We see the pinks and rose-gold. We see the tentative blue, the shots of violet and the amber spears. For an instant, we can smell the merse, smell life, and oh we are hungry – hungry and glad that we had it. Life. Hungry for this lassie to want it too.

Then, just as suddenly, our frenzy stops. As the sun washes warmth across the Martyr’s Stake, we recede. Quiet now. More peaceable. Even Jennett’s stopped her crackling for the moment. The lassie is rubbing her eyes. We none of us breathe. (Well, we can’t.) What have we done to her? She unfurls herself, stiff.  Stands up, holding onto the stake. We see her blink, as if she is seeing what we saw. We did, didn’t we?  Did we see those glorious colours?

Slowly, the lassie lifts her bottle of pills.  The sun is pushing up on the horizon, and we are growing dimmer. We must return, to our kirkyard and our rest. But, oh, what is she doing? 

- Stop pushing me!

- Ach, but can you see?

The lassie is replacing the bottle,  into her rucksack of rocks. And she is swinging out her skinny arm, is throwing it forwards. Forwards goes the rucksack, forwards and back and down into the marshy mud, where it sinks. 

And we find we are rushing backwards – but where is Beitha, our daft ancient Beitha? 

- Look! Over there, on the boardwalk!

Briefly, as we retreat, we catch a glimpse of the whole, glorious form of her. Glowing wonderful and warm. Then that is Beitha. 

Away. 

Just… away. Part of us no more. 

We coil and sift. Shift and drift, back to the churchyard. To the stillness of another day. 

Anger is an energy.  But faith, so is love.

*****

ABOUT KAREN CAMPBELL

Karen Campbell is the author of seven novels, most recently The Sound of the Hours, Rise and This is Where I Am, all published by Bloomsbury Circus. Her previous books include The Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadowplay and Proof of Life. A graduate of Glasgow University's Creative Writing Masters, Karen also teaches creative writing. She lives in Galloway.


Copyright Karen Campbell 2020. All rights reserved. Photograph OF THE MARTYRS STAKE: Colin Tennant.







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