Never, never go anti-clockwise!
I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.
You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.
Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.
She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.
Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio – there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.
And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…
Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.
So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.
But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.
One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.
“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”
“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”
And this is the story she told us:
There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.
When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.
It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.
He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.
Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”
The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”
For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.
“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.
“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.
The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.
“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”
And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.
And she chased him… anti-clockwise.
That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.
Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.
There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.
Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.
Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.
But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.
Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.
In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!
“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”
If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.
The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”
“My man…” stammered Elspeth. “My man… he wanted his… grey bread.”
The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.
“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”
“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.
The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.
“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”
“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.
But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.
Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.
Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.
But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?
©Marie Marshall 2011-2020
The photograph of the ‘Grey Lady’ is indeed from Mull, but from Quinish, not Gruline. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find one from Gruline!