Author’s note: 2015
I wrote the following tale in 2004. Although presented as folklore*, it is a work of fiction based on a song. I wrote the story but not the song. The witch in the tale was inspired by by Nannie, the supple young witch in Robert Burns’s masterwork, Tam O’ Shanter. The characters may not be real, but the places are. You’ll find them all in South Ayrshire, a lovely part of the world when it’s not raining.
I wrote a sequel of sorts a couple of years ago. Professor McLean returns, but apart from that (and the return – or not – of the witch) it’s a very different tale. It’s called “The Luckenbrooch” and you’ll find it here.
The following is extracted from an unpublished manuscript entitled “The folklore of Ayrshire” by Professor R.B.W. McLean. It is presented here in unabridged form with the kind consent of Professor McLean.
Author’s note: Belief in the supernatural was widespread amongst the folk of Ayrshire right up to the late nineteenth century. These beliefs are preserved in the folklore of rural Ayrshire, in which the reader will find many a tale of encounters with witches, warlocks and other unworldly creatures.
One such tale concerned a man, Jock Strain, who is known to have lived, loved and worked in the early part of the nineteenth century in what was then known as Carrick.
In the following account of Jock Strain’s life, times and the folklore about him, I have quoted from a journal kept by him. I have taken the liberty of updating, as and where necessary, the dialect used in the journal to a form more readily understood by modern readers whilst, I hope, preserving the essence of the original text.
According to parish records, John (“Jock”) Strain was born on 11th December, 1775, in the village of Kirkoswald in Ayrshire. Little is known about Jock’s upbringing and early adulthood, but we do know from estate records that his father Thomas Strain became general factotum at Culzean Castle in 1783, and that Thomas, his wife and their five children moved into a cottage adjacent to the Culzean estate.
In 1805, at the age of thirty, Jock started work on a daily journal which he fastidiously maintained for the rest of his life. Jock had by that time assumed his father’s former position as general factotum to the Culzean estate. He had not taken a wife, but his journal leaves the reader in no doubt that he greatly enjoyed the company of members of the opposite sex, irrespective of their marital status or social position.
Jock seems to have been fond of a drink and was frequently to be found enjoying the delights of the inn at Kirkoswald, some two miles distant from his cottage. As he did not possess a horse, he required to travel to the hostelry on foot in order to partake of his daily libations.
On 27th February, 1820, Jock appears to have had a rather strange experience whilst returning from Kirkoswald one evening. According to his journal, “About halfway between Lagganhooly and Balvaird I espied a figure walking towards me on the path. The moon cast a good light, and as the figure came nearer to me I was able to make out that my fellow traveller was a lass. As the distance between us grew shorter still, my heart began to pound – for this was quite the loveliest sight my eyes have beheld. She was a well made lass, whom I’d judge to be in her twentieth year. Her ample bosom was barely contained by her bodice; she had raven hair which flowed down to her shoulders and her eyes were of the most sparkling green. Naturally, I was anxious to introduce myself to her, but as I made to hail her a cloud passed in front of the moon and the light failed. I called out to her but received no reply. Being a persistent sort of fellow, I took to my hunkers at the side of the path and waited for the moon to re-appear. My wait was not a long one: perhaps a minute or so but no longer than that. To my surprise, when the light returned she was no longer on the path. I called out again but still there was no reply. Fearing that she may have fallen into a ditch and struck her head, I carried out such a search of the area as the light would allow, but of the lass there was no sign. I must ask after her at the inn tomorrow.”
From subsequent journal entries, it seems that Jock’s efforts to ascertain the identity of the young lady did not bear fruit. Other, that is, than the suggestion (apparently made by some of the good people of Kirkoswald) that he had encountered none other than the much feared witch, Maggie of Carrick. Numerous entries in Jock’s journal make it clear that he did not share the belief in the supernatural held by many in the locality, and it is likely that he treated these notions with a mixture of jocularity and scorn.
By mid-summer the mystery girl no longer figured prominently in Jock’s thoughts, or at least those that he saw fir to record in writing. Perhaps this was due in part to his romantic wanderlust having led him into the arms of a local farmer’s wife during the spring and summer of that year. It seems, however, that the mystery girl had a further part to play in Jock’s tale, for in his journal entry for 29th August he states, “Rounding the headland at Croy bay this morning I saw the lass I met on the road a few months ago. Leastways, I perceive it to have been her. She was perhaps two hundred paces distant and running quickly in the same direction of travel as me. What grace she has! I called out to enquire if all was well with her, but there was no reply. I called at old man Wilson’s abode this afternoon to see if he knew anything of her. Alas, he had nothing for me.”
From that date through to November 10th, Jock’s journal makes reference to several further sightings of the girl. The pattern of each is practically identical to his sighting of her at Croy bay – the girl is invariably some way distant and fails to respond when he calls out to her. It seems that Jock spoke of his encounters to some of his cronies, for his journal entry of 28th October states, “McCallum told me that in all sincerity he believes my mystery lass to be none other than Maggie. He fears that she is stalking me as a wolf stalks its prey! What utter nonsense the man talks!”
The last entry in Jock’s journal is dated 10th November, 1820, and in part reads: “A most peculiar occurrence last night. I had not long returned from the inn and was going about my ablutions when I heard a lass’s voice calling my name. I went outside and walked a short way up the path but no-one was to be seen. I called out “who’s there” several times but this failed to elicit a response. As I trudged back towards the warmth of the cottage I saw a faint red glow in the woods. I thought at first that it might be a fire but there was no smell of smoke, which the wind would have blown in my direction. I can only presume that my eyes were deceived by a trick of the moonlight.”
From estate records, we know that Jock failed to report for work on the morning of 11th November. A Mr. Gillies was despatched to Jock’s cottage by the estate manager. When Gillies returned, it was with the news that there was no sign of Jock at the cottage. This must have caused some consternation, for it appears that Gillies was thereafter despatched to Kirkoswald to conduct enquiries into Jock’s whereabouts. There, Gillies learned that Jock had, as usual, visited the inn on the evening of 10th November and had set out on the return journey home at about 10.00 p.m.. He had not been seen since by any of the persons interviewed by Gillies.
At the instigation of Gillies, a party of local men was assembled. They combed the path between the inn and Jock’s cottage, but in spite of a search that lasted two days no sign of Jock could be found. An examination of Jock’s cottage did not reveal any information of significance, other than to apparently confirm Gillies’ impression that Jock had not returned to the cottage after leaving the inn on 10th November.
The estate records hold no further news of Jock until January, 1821, when a local forester reportedly found a cromack and a bonnet deep in the woods about a mile from Jock’s cottage. Several persons were prevailed upon to examine the recovered items, and all pronounced themselves satisfied that they were indeed the property of Jock Strain. The story began to spread that Jock had walked down one dark path too many, had encountered Maggie of Carrick and had been borne away by her to meet his doom.
Jock’s body was never found and as the months passed his disappearance progressively occupied less and less of the local gossips’ time. Until November, 1822, that is.
An extract from the parish records tells us that on the evening of 9th November, 1822, a miller from Maybole named Archibald McHarg was riding from Culzean to Kirkoswald. Several minutes after passing the cottage formerly occupied by Jock Strain, his attention fell upon a man walking along the path some distance in front of him. The night was cold and the path rough, but the man had neither a hat nor a walking stick.
As McHarg drew closer to the man, he called out to warn of his approach. The man immediately increased his pace, left the path and headed for a nearby cluster of trees. McHarg, bemused by the man’s odd behaviour, followed after him, continuing to close upon him. When the gap had narrowed to 30 paces or so, McHarg observed what appeared to be a faint red glow around the man. At this point, he decided that his pursuit had gone far enough and he returned to the path.
On arriving at the inn at Kirkoswald, McHarg told his queer tale to the local minister, whom he apparently knew well. It was thus recorded in the parish annals, and no doubt also came to the attention of the local populace.
Although no other such meetings are to be found reported within the parish annals, local folklore is replete with tales of winter travellers encountering a man matching the description given by McHarg. This other-worldly figure is said to be none other than Jock Strain himself, searching for the hat and cromack he lost on the last night of his life.
Home page image: public domain
* I submitted this story to the folklore section of a well-known Scottish website back in 2005. Much to my surprise, it became the most-read tale on the entire website. I never did let on that it was really a work of fiction…