. . . I Know Her For The Student Of The Cold Northern Chamber

I’m sat on this rainy day in a cafe, drinking coffee and reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales Of Terror.

The title of this post comes, not from Jekyll, but from the included gothic vampire tale Olalla, which has captivated me on this gloomy morning. It’s to stories such as this that I habitually begin to turn to around this time.

Even just out of a heatwave, and the recent cessation of the hill fires, maybe it’s the sensing of those approaching blue, irregular nights that puts me in this frame of mind.

Alexander Jansson’s illustration for Olalla.

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On This Day: The One-Armed Man

In a list of saints native to the British Isles, today is the day of Nathalan, (?-678), who legend says was a wealthy man who became a hermit near Aberdeen, in Scotland, supporting himself by cultivating his smallholding:

‘which work approaches nearest to divine contemplation.’

Couldnt have had cows, then.

Born into a noble Pictish family, he produced surplus food to help pilgrims and the needy of the area. So far so good. Saintly material.

But, when the crops failed one summer, Nathalan cursed God for the wet weather. (Seems like nothing has changed climate wise in those parts.) Full of remorse, he repented by having one arm chained to his side. The only key to the padlock he dispensed into the depths of the River Dee. He then set off on foot to do penance in Rome. At least he still had one arm free to thumb a lift in case he grew too weary.

Arriving in Rome months later, he bought a fish in the market. When he cut it open, guess what he found inside? Only the key to the padlock on his chained arm. How’s that for a divine sign of forgiveness?

On hearing of this miracle, the Pope had Nathalan made into a bishop (some say the Bishop of Aberdeen). The poor fish is never mentioned again though. Such is the fate of fish throughout history.

He returned to Scotland, (Nathalan, not the fish), establishing a second church at Coull, in the Howe of Cromar, and another at Cowie near Stonehaven.

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Cowie Kirk, originally dedicated to St. Nathalan.

 

An old Cowie rhyme states:

‘Atween the Kirk and the Kirk ford,

there lies St. Nathalan’s hoard’

His hoard or treasure is believed wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope which, according to folklore, will hang anyone uncovering it.

Think I’ll leave the spade in the shed then.

A December Mystery:The Missing Lighthouse Men

On this day in 1900: a real-life mystery. Any theories?

City Jackdaw

It is well known, I think, that people like to read ghost stories around the Christmas season, but how about a real-life December mystery?

The Flannan Isles are located thirty kilometres west of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean. Celtic monks lived on those desolate islands in isolation, until they were abandoned for a thousand years. There are the remains of a chapel there, said to have been built by the Irish monk St.Flannan. In 1895 a lighthouse was built there, to warn off ships, passing in those treacherous waters.

In 1900, a three man crew of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald MacArthur arrived for a two week posting, just in time for the hostile winter to set in.

I am not sure who is who in this photograph, but at least one of those three men is present in it, maybe the other two are, also.

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A…

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On This Day: The Wolf And The Head

On this day is remembered Edmund, (c841-869), King of East Anglia from around 855. He was killed after being taken prisoner in a Danish incursion, when he refused the Dane’s demands to denounce Christ. This seems enough to qualify the King for sainthood.
He is often depicted pierced with arrows like a bristled hedgehog as, according to tradition, his captors tied him to a tree and used him for target practice before beheading him.

According to one legend, his head was thrown into a forest, but was found safe (as safe as a severed head can be) when searchers were drawn to it by a wolf that was calling “Hic, Hic, Hic.” It was not an alcoholic wolf with the hiccups, rather the three hics meant “Here, here, here.” My wife could use a totemic wolf when hunting for her car keys.

I have read of another version of this tale, where the wolf protected the head, and it was the head itself that cried out “Hic, hic, hic.”

A talking, severed head, though? That’s way too far fetched. I believe it was a talking wolf.

The place that he was buried (that is body and head together) became a great abbey around which the town of Bury St.Edmunds grew. Nothing enigmatic about that literal place name, is there ? It is a town that I have never visited. I have been to one about twenty minutes away from where I live that is called Bury. Instead of being a last resting place of a King and Saint, rather its fame lies in the selling of black puddings.

Tourists queue here.

One last point: it can be noted how Edmund’s death is similar to the fate suffered by St.Sebastian, St.Denis, and St.Mary of Egypt.
I’m not sure if they had a wolf though, speaking or otherwise. That’s a job for Google.

 

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Halloween:Three Personal, Family Ghost Storiese

All families have their stories, and these are three of ours. Happy Halloween.

City Jackdaw

Two components of Halloween/Samhain celebrations, from both a pagan and a non-pagan perspective, are ancestors, and ghosts. So I thought I would combine the two in this post with three stories from my own family, two of them passed down, one of them recounted to me personally.

For any serious paranormal investigators out there, you can file them under the headings of Death Bed Visitation, Ghost Sighting, and Near Death Experience respectively. I am not claiming them to be true, supernatural experiences beyond all rational explanation, but neither am I dismissing them as anecdotal events that are grounded in purely biological and physical laws as we know them. I’m just passing them onto you as I received them. Make up your own mind on the cause. And the effect.

Death Bed Visitation

My Gran had a sister named Margaret who, being eleven years old, was three years younger than my…

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A December Mystery:The Missing Lighthouse Men

It is well known, I think, that people like to read ghost stories around the Christmas season, but how about a real-life December mystery?

The Flannan Isles are located thirty kilometres west of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean. Celtic monks lived on those desolate islands in isolation, until they were abandoned for a thousand years. There are the remains of a chapel there, said to have been built by the Irish monk St.Flannan. In 1895 a lighthouse was built there, to warn off ships, passing in those treacherous waters.

In 1900, a three man crew of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald MacArthur arrived for a two week posting, just in time for the hostile winter to set in.

I am not sure who is who in this photograph, but at least one of those three men is present in it, maybe the other two are, also.

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A vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, passed the island around midnight on December 15th, and noted that the light was not to be seen, but this information was not shared until subsequent events became known. Its return visit, scheduled for the 20th, was cancelled due to adverse weather. On the 26th, the Hesperus arrived at the island, and when there was no sign of anyone on the island to greet them, blew its steam whistle, sounded its siren, and then fired  a rocket, all of which elicited no response.

Relieving keeper Joseph Moore went ashore and found the lighthouse deserted.

He later said that he knew only too well that something serious had occurred. The outer door and gate were closed. Inside, the fire had gone out, the ashes stone cold. Everything was in its place. The pots and pans had all been washed up that day by the duty cook.The beds were unmade and the clock was stopped. The only sign of anything amiss was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. He went back to the landing stage and reported what he had found, and returned with two other crew members. A search of the island turned up no sign of the missing men.

Two days after Moore’s discovery, the Northern Lighthouse Board sent Superintendent Robert Muirhead to investigate. He examined the lighthouse logbook, finding that the last entry was made on the 13th of December. An entry for the 14th, and part of the 15th, had been made on a chalk slate, ready to be later transferred into the log. There was nothing after that date. So what had happened on that day, the 15th of December? Whatever it was, it must have took place between the chalk slate entry on the 15th, and midnight of the same day, when the passing Hesperus crew had noted that the light on the island was not shining.

Muirhead proposed that all three men had gone outside in a storm to secure equipment, and had been taken by a giant wave. The board accepted this explanation, and the families of all involved grieved for their loss.

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But doubts have been expressed about this theory. For one thing, it would have had to be a wave of record size to have reached the men, if the men were where it is thought that they were when, and if, the wave took them. A documentary programme featured a weather re-analysis of that day, back in 1900, showing that there were severe gales around the Flannan Isles, but not a storm or hurricane to produce a wave of such magnitude that would have been required to cause such a tragedy. But there is always a possibility of a rogue wave, many of which have been recorded before. There were signs at the lighthouse of storm-inflicted damage, but the log makes it clear that this occurred earlier.

In Muirhead’s report, he noted that the wet weather gear of two of the keepers was missing. MacArthur’s was still on its peg. A code of rule is that lighthouses should not be left unattended, someone has to man it at all times. So it seems MacArthur had stayed behind while the other two men went outside. Had he seen a rogue wave about to hit, ran out to warn his colleagues, but ended up sharing their same, fatal, fate? Had such a wave taken all three men? This scenario would explain the overturned chair, but not the closed outer door and gate.

Some people have questioned whether the isolation, cooped up together in the difficult conditions, had caused one of the men to snap, killing the other two. Was it MacArthur, going out to kill the other two men? There was no sign of a weapon, or blood, or MacArthur himself. Would he have thrown both bodies into the sea, and then jumped to his own, watery, death, the light on the island being extinguished after the lives of the crew?

Other theories have been offered, of varying credibility, including sea monsters, and the obligatory alien abduction. Some say that the island is cursed. History tells of bones being found on the island, and tales tell of a race of small people who used to live there long before the holy men. Moore himself found small bones while being stationed there, and somehow a connection is made between a curse and these pygmy-like former inhabitants.

Fifty years before the lighthouse was built, three hundred men had died in the rough seas surrounding the islands. Perhaps this was the reason for the lighthouse to be built in the first place. When it was being constructed the foreman died, and not long after the disappearance of the three men another keeper died when he fell from the tower.

That is five men dead in the space of four years.

Moore himself was spooked by the island, understandably, really, by what he found. And what he didn’t find.

His son later told a writer that his father didn’t like the islands, and didn’t want to be there. The night before he discovered that the keepers were missing, he did not sleep well. He was convinced that he saw the boathouse on fire from his window, but on investigation found that it was just his imagination. He later took this as a portent for what happened. He would say that what happened on the island was very strange, and, on later consideration, believed that ‘we are all cursed in some way.’

Whatever happened on that island on the 15th December, 1900, we will never know. The island, and the ocean, don’t appear to be giving up their secret anytime soon.

A poem, Flannan Isle, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, told from the perspective of Moore and the two colleagues he went ashore with, ends this way:

Like curs a glance has brought to heel,

We listen’d flinching there:

And look’d, and lookd, on the untouch’d meal,

And the over toppled chair

 

We seem’d to stand for an endless while,

Though still no word was said,

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,

Who thought on three men dead

 

Halloween:Three Personal, Family Ghost Stories

Two components of Halloween/Samhain celebrations, from both a pagan and a non-pagan perspective, are ancestors, and ghosts. So I thought I would combine the two in this post with three stories from my own family, two of them passed down, one of them recounted to me personally.

For any serious paranormal investigators out there, you can file them under the headings of Death Bed Visitation, Ghost Sighting, and Near Death Experience respectively. I am not claiming them to be true, supernatural experiences beyond all rational explanation, but neither am I dismissing them as anecdotal events that are grounded in purely biological and physical laws as we know them. I’m just passing them onto you as I received them. Make up your own mind on the cause. And the effect.

Death Bed Visitation

My Gran had a sister named Margaret who, being eleven years old, was three years younger than my Gran. One day, around 1924, the sister was in Queen’s Park, which is a public park in Harpurhey, Manchester. In a built up area, this was one of the few green spaces that families could visit to escape the bleak, polluted streets of the industrial, run down city suburbs of the time. While she was there, like so many others, Margaret drank water from one of the water taps. Who could have foreseen that such a casual act was to cost her her life, as in doing so she caught diptheria.

She soon became very ill, and her family gathered around her bed as her condition worsened. In those days it seemed that so many people died at home, as opposed to the modern custom of removing the act of death to hospices and hospitals. As she became weaker, and her end drew near, she suddenly reached out, her arms spread before her, and exclaimed “I’m coming, Mama!” looking into the empty air above her bed. With those final words, Margaret died.

On the day of her funeral, in the manner of how so often life’s occurrences can be perverse, a letter arrived informing everybody that poor Margaret had passed her eleven plus at school. While other young scholars throughout the country were being congratulated on their achievements, Margaret was buried in the same grave as her parents.

Ghost Sighting

One day, sometime after 1927, my teenage great aunt came flying recklessly down the stairs of her home, in such a speed as to risk life and limb. Her stepfather, (who had married her mother, now deceased, after her real father was killed in the First World War), was sat at a table downstairs and startled by the girl’s sudden, breakneck flight.

“Whatever’s to do?” he asked the frightened girl.

“I’ve just seen my Mam!” she exclaimed.

Her stepfather said “Don’t ever be scared of your mother. She loved you and would never harm you. What was she doing?”

My great aunt went on to tell him that she had saw her mother just standing there, looking at her, while shaking her head. She never spoke, nor attempted to speak. Perhaps she would have done if the girl had not bolted in fear.

Not long after this episode my my great aunt’s stepfather died. My great aunt, as so often happened in those days, abandoned her education to become a mother figure to her siblings. She always said afterwards, when recounting her extraordinary occurrence, that she thought that the reason her mother’s apparition was shaking her head was because she was aware that her widowed husband would soon be joining her, and could foresee the life of struggle that lay in store for her eldest daughter, having such responsibility and struggle thrust upon her at such a young age.

Near Death Experience

Around a year before my Dad’s death in 2003, he was sat watching the tv at home in the lounge. The video player on the shelf beneath the tv was connected to another television in the bedroom upstairs, and my brother had put a football cassette in the video player and then gone up to watch it.

After a while my Dad began to struggle with his breathing, in pain (it transpired later that he had had a heart attack), he reached for his inhaler to try and find relief, but on taking a few puffs found it did not work. Barely able to move and desperately wondering what to do next to summon help, he thought that his only hope lay in if he could manage to turn the video player off so my brother would come downstairs to see why his viewing had been interrupted.

He reached for the remote control, struggling to breathe, then suddenly-he was gone.

He said that he was no longer in the room, but ‘somewhere else’. Surrounded by pink-tinged cloud, he was aware of people being around him though he couldn’t see them. Then, up ahead, he saw the figure of a man. He told me “I’m not saying it was Jesus. But it was a man with a beard, and his skin looked like he was Mediterranean. My language was terrible-if God would have been there he would have struck me down. I was saying ‘You can **** right off! I’m not ******* coming! you ****!’ “

All the while that my Dad railed at him, the man just faced him, smiling silently, until the figure moved his head at an angle to look behind my Dad, looking beyond him, a puzzled expression on his face. My Dad then ‘shot backwards’ and found himself back in his armchair before the tv. But stood beside him now was his father, my granddad, who had died ten years previously. His father said “Don’t worry, I will see you again one day, son.” To which, still in fate-fighting character, my Dad replied “Not for a ******* long time you won’t!”

At that point my Mum walked in through the front door, took one look at my Dad’s ashen, stricken face, and remarked “Have you had a wash today?”

There you go: all families have their stories, and these are just three of ours.

Happy Halloween to you all. Keep the light on.