Things that go Bump in the Night

30th Oct 2015

‘The ghost nowhere makes his appearance so well as with you.’

So declared the first Englishman to translate Leonore, Gottfried August Bürger’s blood-curdling tale of a bereaved fiancée inadvertently lured to her end by the phantom of her beloved. William Taylor’s praise was directed at the young Walter Scott who had been inspired by Taylor’s work to produce his own translation from the German as soon as he was able to secure a copy of the original text.

An 1896 Kirchbach illustration of Leonore

The Chase and William and Helen was Scott’s first publication, and how fitting that the subject matter echos the supernatural ballads about fairies, witches and ghosts that he would go on to collect and publish in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and later invoke in various guises in many of the Waverley Novels. Consider the supernatural tales from the days of the Covenanters ringing in the ears of Jeanie Deans as she clambers up Salisbury Crags to meet Effie’s captor in Heart of Midlothian, or the gypsy incantations and prophecies of Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering, or the visitations of the spectral White Lady in The Monastery.

In the bottom right is the toadstone amulet at Abbotsford. The stone, thought to grow inside the toad, was believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the vulnerable, particularly infants, from being kidnapped by fairies.

That Scott had a lifelong passion for the history and evolution of folk beliefs is beyond dispute. The Abbotsford Library contains around 250 works on sorcery, witchcraft and demonology dating from 1477 to 1832, from the infamous witch-hunting manual Malleus maleficarum to Bowdler’s The Devil’s Cloven Foot. His own beliefs are far trickier to pin down. Certainly he is careful not to demonstrate contempt or disregard for belief systems in a post-enlightenment world, and regards the bathos sometimes apparent in the conclusions of Gothic stories as insulting to the reader.

A stealthy step behind the arras, may doubtless, in some situations, and when the nerves are tuned to a certain pitch, have no small influence upon the imagination; but if the if the conscious listener discovers it to be only the noise made by the cat, the solemnity of the feeling is gone, and the visionary is at once angry with his senses for having been cheated…’

This particular critique appears in his prefatory memoir to the collected works of Ann Radcliffe, one of the most influential early pioneers of Gothic literature. This collection was printed posthumously by Ballantynes in 1824. This castigation seems to be directed as much towards other unnamed writers of the Gothic tradition as to Radcliffe herself, whom Scott believed for the most part to be a ‘genius’ and ‘mistress of her art.’

The novelist Ann Radcliffe; One of her best-known works is The Mysteries of Udolpho illustrated as seen on the right

For Scott, musing over the difficulty of concluding a tale of wonder in a way that satisfies the reader, he draws attention to the conundrum facing a writer of supernatural tales: the consumer is always torn between the childlike impulse to account for all unnatural occurrences, and the sheer delight of an enduring mystery, allowing the imagination to explore what remains unsaid. The phrase he uses is beautiful, so much so that it deserves to stand apart. These imaginative revellers are described as:

‘men that walk for pleasure through a moonlight landscape.’

Melrose Abbey by moonlight by J. M. W Turner

So, which appetite did Scott decide to appease in his own ghost story, ‘"The Tapestried Chamber,” one of three short stories in The Keepsake of 1829, a literary annual published for Christmas? You can read the full text of the story here. The appearance of the apparition in the chamber, slowly advancing towards the General’s bed, ghoulishly grinning all the while, really does make your skin crawl. The assessment of the night’s events in the cold light of day is particularly interesting:

Strange as the General's tale was, he spoke with such a deep air of conviction that it cut short all the usual commentaries which are made on such stories. Lord Woodville never once asked him if he was sure he did not dream of the apparition, or suggested any of the possibilities by which it is fashionable to explain supernatural appearances as wild vagaries of the fancy, or deceptions of the optic nerves, On the contrary, he seemed deeply impressed with the truth and reality of what he had heard; and, after a considerable pause regretted, with much appearance of sincerity, that his early friend should in his house have suffered so severely.

Here, there are no aspersions cast on the eyewitness testimony of the General. After subsequently recognising the old hag in a late seventeenth century portrait, we learn that the phantom is a ‘wretched ancestress,’ responsible for ‘infanticide and unnatural murder,’ very much a real entity in all her decomposing glory. I should imagine insomnia would become a common affliction in the Woodville pile after this upsetting turn of events...(!)

Outwith the literature, there are two tales of supernatural occurrences here at Abbotsford during Scott’s lifetime that are worth exploring in the light of this discussion. The first is relatively well-known and goes some way to explaining why Abbotsford often sneaks on to the lower rungs of the ‘most haunted’ lists in Scotland.

In April 1818, work was still underway with the first extension to the Cartley Hole farmhouse, creating the original Study, Armoury, Dining Room and Conservatory (now lost). The cabinet-maker George Bullock had been engaged to create the fixtures and fittings, and indeed it was Bullock who had persuaded Scott to fit up one of these new rooms as a dedicated Armoury for his ever-growing collection of armour, weaponry and ethnographic objects from around the world.

Section of the Abbotsford Armoury

On two consecutive nights at the end of April that year, Mr and Mrs Scott were woken at 2am by what sounded like heavy furniture being dragged across the floor in the Armoury below their sleeping quarters. On the second night, Scott crept downstairs, brandishing the Killiecrankie broadsword of his great-grandfather, Beardie, to find nothing amiss. In his letter to Daniel Terry of April 30th, 1818, he recounts events of the nights before and dismisses ghostly interventions in light of the fact that the house is 'exposed' during the period of building work. Scott was as yet unaware that as his letter landed with the Terrys in London, news was breaking of Bullock's sudden death in the early hours of the morning. From this point onwards the presence of the cabinet-maker's spirit at Abbotsford will be felt, making itself heard during periods of renovation and restoration. At least we don't have a malevolent ghost; at least not one that we know of...

The second incident is related in the memoranda of Mr. J. L Adolphus, English lawyer, author and a friend of Scott, and interestingly it is a story that J. G. Lockhart suggests Scott did not encourage bringing up in conversation. When he does recall the episode of encountering Byron's ghost in the medium of print during the course of his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, he uses the thin veil of writing in the third person although the setting is unmistakably Abbotsford:

" Not long after the death of a late illustrious poet who had filled, while living, a great station in the eye of the public, a literary friend, to whom the deceased had been well known, was engaged during the darkening twilight of an autumn evening in perusing one of the publications which professed to detail the habits and opinions of the distinguished individual who was now no more. As the reader had enjoyed the intimacy of the deceased to a considerable degree, he was deeply interested in the publication, which contained some particulars relating to himself and other friends. A visitor was sitting in the apartment who was also engaged in reading. Their sitting-room opened into an entrance -hall, rather fantastically fitted up with articles of armour, skins of wild animals, and the like. It was when laying down his book, and passing into this hall, through which the moon was beginning to shine, that the individual of whom I speak saw, right before him, and in a standing posture, the exact representation of his departed friend, whose recollection had been so strongly brought to his imagination. He stopped for a single moment, so as to notice the wonderful accuracy with which fancy had impressed upon the bodily eye the peculiarities of dress and posture of the illustrious poet. Sensible, however, of the delusion, he felt no sentiment save that of wonder at the extraordinary accuracy of the resemblance, and stepped onwards towards the figure, which resolved itself, as he approached, into the various materials of which it was composed. These were merely a screen, occupied by great-coats, shawls, plaids, and such other articles as usually are found in a country entrance-hall. The spectator returned to the spot from which he had seen the illusion, and endeavoured with all his power to recall the image which had been so singularly vivid. But this was beyond his capacity ; and the person who had witnessed the apparition, or, more properly, whose excited state had been the means of raising it, had only to return into the apartment, and tell his young friend under what a striking hallucination he had for a moment laboured."

Portrait of Lord Byron. He died in 1824 aged only 36, probably of septicaemia.

The rationale here is that the phantom is nothing more than a figment of the imagination, summoned up through our very own literary's friend's choice of highly suggestive reading material on that dusky autumnal evening. Scott was no stranger to the concept of optical illusion and will discuss this at length elsewhere in the Letters, his rational study of the occult published in 1831. He was an associate and neighbour of Sir David Brewster, author of Letters on Natural Magic, a treatise on how science had been manipulated by religious and political authorities to delude and scaremonger.

Brewster was also the inventor of the kaleidoscope and an authority on the trickeries possible through light and false perspective. However, the eyes remain easier to trick than the ears. I wonder if Scott attributed the same rational explanation to the hammering and thumping he heard during the witching hour of April 28th and 29th 1818. Something tells me otherwise...

I hope you all have a thoroughly horrible Hallowe'en.

Thanks for reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

Like most sites this site uses cookies : By continuing to use our site you are agreeing to our cookie policy.close & accept