Some years ago I wrote a book about Ayrshire folklore. As an historian whose life is spent perusing arid manuscripts, I enjoyed whiling away evenings delving into tales of kelpies waiting by quiet loch shores to lure lonely travellers to their doom, of warlocks playing the devil’s music on demonic pipes at Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk and of witches stealing the souls of the unwary on Carrick’s ancient byways.
Not, of course, that I believed a word of them: in the real world – our world – superstition has long since been consigned to the file marked ‘hokum’. Rationality prevails.
Sometimes, though, strange things happen – events that can challenge a man’s modern, techno-centric views and cause him to lie awake wondering if there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the clinical, mathematically pure philosophies of the 21st century. For me, this epiphany came as the result of a letter I received from a young man I did not know.
All I can do is present the letter for you to read and invite you to draw your own conclusions. So, without further ado…
“Dear Professor McLean,
My name is Eric Andersen. You don’t know me, but we have a mutual acquaintance, Alan Hartman. I hate to trouble you, but Alan thinks you might be able to help me make sense of what I’m about to tell you. Frankly, I need someone’s help and would very much appreciate any assistance you can offer. Alan is willing to vouch for me. You’ll find his phone number at the end of this letter should you wish to call him before reading on.
A few weeks ago I came across the ruins of an old cottage deep in the woods at the Culzean estate. There was nothing much to see – just a few walls and some moss covered rubble. I was about to walk on when something metallic caught my eye: a silver, heart-shaped brooch. I put it in my pocket and walked to the estate office, only to find that it had closed for the day.
One evening, about a fortnight later, I was walking home when I was hailed by a young lady whom I’d just walked past. I stopped and turned around. She was striking – slim, with long dark hair and vivid green eyes. She asked me if I knew where Napier Road was. I told her that I was heading in that direction – a lie, but I was captivated by her beauty and wanted to spend at least a few minutes in her company – and that she was welcome to walk there with me.
As we walked, I noticed that she was very graceful and poised. I asked if she was a dancer. She laughed and told me that she liked to dance but, no, she wasn’t a dancer. When we reached the top of Napier Road, she thanked me and went on her way.
In the days that followed I thought of her a lot. I even drove down Napier Road at night in the hope of seeing her, but without success. About two weeks later, I was standing outside a nightclub when a hand lightly touched my shoulder. I turned my head and my eyes met hers. She said that she’d been passing and had seen me. She was warm, friendly and all smiles. I told her my name and she said that hers was Margaret – Maggie to her friends. I’d had a bit to drink and that gave me enough courage to ask her out. She said she’d like that but her job took her all over the country and that she worked unusual hours. She wouldn’t be back in Ayr until the following Saturday, when she would be working at a function at Culzean. She didn’t finish till midnight but would be happy to meet up after that. I told her that was fine and that I’d drive out to Culzean and pick her up.
I didn’t sleep well for the next few nights. This was partly because I was excited about the date but mostly because of the strange dream I was having every night. The dream was always the same. I’d be walking alone down a dark forest path. There was no noise except for the crack of twigs under my feet. Then, suddenly, a red glow would appear, small and distant at first but drawing ever nearer to me. The closer it got, the colder the air would become. I would run till I felt my chest was about to burst, and when I could run no more I’d turn to face the light. The trees on either side of me would be aglow but in the centre, where the source of the light should have been, there would only be blackness. A voice, old and crackly, would call my name and something hard and gnarled would reach out of the void and pull me towards it. And then I’d wake up, heart pounding and bathed in sweat.
When Saturday came, I set off for Culzean in plenty of time to get there by midnight, but an accident on the by-pass blocked the road for well over an hour. I couldn’t let Margaret know I’d be late, as I didn’t have her phone number. It was nearly 1.00 a.m. when I arrived at Culzean. It was a warm night and I’d opened the driver’s window to let some fresh air in. As I drove into the estate, I thought I could hear music – folk music, it sounded like – coming from a little way off. Then, all of a sudden, the music stopped. When I reached the east park, where Margaret had said the function was to take place, there was nothing: no marquees, no vehicles, no people. I checked out the rest of the estate in case the function had been moved, but still there was nothing to see. Everything was eerily silent. I turned the car round and headed back out of the estate. As I neared the exit, I thought I saw a faint red light amongst the trees. I blinked and it was gone.
The following Monday, I telephoned the Culzean estate office. The office manager politely informed me that there hadn’t been any functions at the estate the preceding weekend. I felt sick, hurt, and humiliated. I wished that I could meet Margaret again to ask her why she had deceived me, but I didn’t have any means of tracing her. All I had to go on was her first name, and who was to say she’d been truthful about that. I tried to put her out of my mind, but found myself driving around the town most nights, hoping to catch sight of her. I needn’t have bothered. She came to me.
Two nights ago, I was walking home. It was bitingly cold and the streets were quiet. As I approached an alleyway, Margaret stepped out in front of me. She told me that she’d been looking for me. Her voice was cold and hard, not at all like the previous times I’d met her. I was unhappy that she’d deceived me and told her so. She said that she’d been there, waiting for me. I asked her why she was lying to me again. I was angry and wanted to say more but decided that it would be best to just walk away. I had walked about 10 yards when she said that she wanted me to give her the brooch. I stopped and turned but she was gone.
I was more than a little freaked out by what she had said, as I’d not told her about the brooch. I didn’t sleep well that night. I had another dream. I was back in the forest. It was a cold, dark night. A silver chain hung round my neck and the brooch dangled at the end of it. In the distance there was a red light. It was moving quickly, heading right at me. I turned and ran, but the light was too fast. Soon, I was enveloped by a misty red glow. A voice – harsh and old – called out to me, telling me that I should have returned it. I could neither move nor speak. A figure came towards me. It was her, but she was old – very old. Her face was craggy and covered with boils. She smiled a toothless smile, and a bony hand reached out towards my chest.
I woke up with a start. The sheets were soaked, and it felt like an express train was running through my head. The next morning I removed the brooch from the drawer where I’d been keeping it – to be honest, I’d forgotten about it until Margaret mentioned it to me. That afternoon I called my old history teacher, Alan Hartman. I told him I’d found a brooch and wanted to know what it was. I described it to him and he was able to identify it right away. He told me it was almost certainly a luckenbrooch. He said they were common until about two hundred years ago and that they took their name from the stalls from which they were sold – ‘luckenbooths’ – in Edinburgh. They were supposed to protect the wearer from evil, but there was an old superstition, which Alan found amusing, that if a luckenbrooch was given to an evil spirit it increased their powers many times over. I agreed to meet Alan the next day so that he could see the brooch for himself.
That evening, as I was pulling the blinds shut, I thought I saw Margaret walking down the street. She had her back to me but I felt very uneasy. I shut the blinds, closed the windows securely and propped a chair behind the door before going to bed. I didn’t get much sleep that night – every time I drifted off I had the same dream as the night before, only even more vivid.
When I met Alan this morning, he confirmed that I had indeed found a luckenbrooch. He noticed that I looked pale and asked if I was unwell. I told him the whole story, just as I’ve set it out here. When I finished, he said that I should speak to you. He said that you’ve got a particular interest in folklore and that you might be able to help restore my peace of mind. He tried to phone you on his mobile but couldn’t find your number on it, so he took me along to your house instead. We rang your doorbell, but there was no answer.
After Alan and I parted, I was walking home when I heard Margaret’s voice behind me. She demanded that I give her the brooch. I don’t mind admitting that I was so scared I took to my heels.
I’m going to go away for a few days, as I’m too afraid to stay at home right now. I’ve scribbled my mobile number at the top of the page. Please call or text me once you’ve read this. I’ll be more than happy to pay you for your time – I just want to get this sorted out and get back to my old life.
The letter arrived when I was away on a business trip. It lay unread in my mailbox for two weeks before I returned. After reading it, I phoned Alan Hartman. He told me that Eric Andersen is a straightforward, honest and decent young man. I asked him if he’d heard again from Eric. He said he hadn’t but had presumed that Eric and I had spoken and that all was well. After speaking to Alan, I tried to call Eric. His phone was switched off so I sent him a text asking him to call me. I got no reply. I tried to phone Eric again several times over the next few days but his phone remained unavailable. I assured myself that he’d merely made an error when writing down his phone number, and that all was indeed well.
Something kept nagging at the back of my mind, though. This morning, I went to Eric’s flat. There was no answer when I knocked on the door, and I could see a heap of unopened mail on his hall floor. I had just started to walk away when a middle-aged woman came out of an adjacent flat. “Are you looking for Eric?” I nodded. “I’ve not seen him for, oh, it must be more than a fortnight. His car’s still there, though.” She pointed to a red Ford that sat, covered with leaves, a little way further up the street. “Was there any message for him?” she asked, rather too enthusiastically for my taste. “No, thank you. I’ll try again in a day or two.” I turned away from her and started down the garden path. “You’d best try of an evening, then. I’m sure he was at home last night. I wasn’t being nosy but….it seemed a bit odd, you see.” I stopped. “If you don’t mind me asking, what was odd?” “Well,” she said, “It was just after midnight. I’d been at the theatre and was walking down the path when I heard muffled voices. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but they definitely came from within Eric’s flat. When I walked past his door a few seconds later, the voices were gone, but I could see a faint red glow through the glass. I was worried that it might be a fire, but I couldn’t smell any smoke. It’s not like him, but I suppose he must’ve gone to bed and left the TV on.” She smiled, but her eyes told a different story.
I called Eric’s employer this afternoon. It took all of my powers of persuasion to get any information about Eric from the HR manager. Eventually, though, he told me that Eric had neither been seen nor heard of for about three weeks. That was most unlike him, although he had been a little down of late. He’d tried calling Eric and had written to him but to no avail.
If this was just a case of a young man who had gone AWOL then I wouldn’t be writing this. There’s more than that to it, though –the name “Maggie”, Eric’s description of her, the place where the brooch was found and the red glow all put me in mind of a local legend about a man who mysteriously vanished nearly two centuries ago.
And there the trail and this story both end. I know I should phone the police, but what would I tell them? I couldn’t tell the truth. Lord only knows what they’d make of that. At best, they’d probably just write it off as the ravings of an ageing, eccentric academic with too much time on his hands. And even if I did report it, would it help Eric? If I’m right then he’s beyond any help that I or the police can now give him.
I hope I’m wrong and that Eric has just gone away to work through whatever has been troubling him. That’s what Eric’s employer thinks, and it must surely be the answer. Look at the alternative: a two hundred year old witch alive and walking the streets of Ayr. That’s impossible, isn’t it?
I wish I was still so sure about that.
Ayr, 6th October, 2011
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