The intention of this column has always been to recall the forgotten or overlooked voices of horror, and what could be more at risk of being lost than our folkloric past. Part of an oral tradition, many of our oldest stories were passed from speaker to speaker, learnt by heart to entertain those gathered around fires on cold, dark nights. Many such stories began with the assurance that the tale had come to the teller straight from the horse’s mouth, or very close thereabouts. Like the urban legends that are popular today, their appeal was due to the fact they weren’t merely spun yarns. There was a grain of truth at the heart of them.
My own love of folklore has led me three hundred miles northeast of mainland Scotland to Shetland, an archipelago of over a hundred islands. Of these, fifteen are inhabited and I write this from a little croft house perched on one of them – Bressay, a tiny seven-mile stretch just off the Shetland mainland. Here modernity sits side by side with Neolithic ruins, Iron Age brochs and Norse place names. What better place to garner stories than from a land preoccupied with preserving its past. After a trip to the well-stocked Shetland library I’ve read all about shipwrecks and witches, ghostly appearances and mysterious disappearances and mythological creatures like trows (fairies that live underground) and the nyuggle (a strange water-horse that drowns its riders by galloping into the nearest loch or sea). Overwhelmingly, the stories that endure here are those with a supernatural flavour.
One of my favourites, gleaned from John Stewart’s Folklore from Whalsay and Shetland is about two brothers making the two-mile trek home through the hills. In those days there was no road but the brothers had a lantern between them to light the way. Partway into the journey they were aware of a third figure accompanying them but every time they tried to get a look, it shrank into the shadows. The brothers, though frightened into splitting up, eventually reached their destination no worse off. But when asked to describe their mysterious companion they said they had the distinct impression “it had no flesh on its bones”. What’s interesting is that when Stewart asked around about this tale, another man came forward saying the exact same thing had happened to his father and uncle when taking that lonely route along the hills.
Another similar anecdote, this time from a story ‘Feynesses and Fancies’ in Andrew Cluness’ Told Round the Peat Fire tells the tale of a man newly returned to his native Shetland, having been away for forty-three years. Despite bad weather, he decides to visit some old friends five miles away but promises his brother he will be back by midnight. Getting there isn’t a problem but on his return the weather changes dramatically. With no roads or streetlights and a driving blizzard, the man has to make his way very slowly so as not to lose his bearings and walk off the cliffs. We learn that such was the end for his nephew who had also been trying to make his way home in bad weather years before. With conditions worsening and the man’s situation becoming increasingly hopeless, he suddenly finds himself at a homestead. Inside are his old friends, an elderly man and woman, who give him whisky and get him warm. Still determined not to break his promise and sufficiently recovered, he decides to head out again. But the couple insist that a young man, who up until this point has been quietly sat among them, escorts him back. Though the rest of the journey is arduous and the weather still inclement, with the youth at his side, the man eventually makes it home safe and sound.
Except that in the morning when he tells his brother of his ordeal, we learn that the old couple that rescued him from the brink had been dead twenty-five years. And the youth, as you’ve probably guessed, was none other than his dead nephew. In both these Shetland tales, a spiritual presence seems to attach itself to lonely travellers. The stories remind me of Ernest Shackleton’s documented experience on the last leg of his Antarctic expedition, where he became convinced of an extra member in his party. The phenomenon known as Third Man syndrome refers to an unseen presence often observed during traumatic situations. Sometimes this figure is there for support, as we saw with Cluness’ story, a guardian angel of sorts. But what we might want to also consider is the importance of landscape and its impact on the mind of a traveller. Like Shackleton’s Antarctic, Shetland is renowned for its bleakness and isolation. On the same latitude of Alaska and Greenland, it is a windswept wilderness that, in the past, without roads and regular ferry crossings would have felt like the edge of the earth. Perhaps in such places strange things are either more plausible, or more likely to occur.
Cluness offers a rationalisation in his story and refers to these strange experiences as “feynesses”. When things exist outside the natural order of things, they must belong instead to the dominion of the fairies or fays. He uses the analogy of the radio, saying that, “the air in this room at this moment is full of the sound of music… but we don’t hear it unless we happen to turn the knobs yonder.” The implication is that strange things exist all around us all the time but for various reasons we are not “tuned” in to experience them. Modernity and increasingly busy lives are attributed for this lack of spiritual perception, which according to Cluness’ story is why the older generation is more superstitious and more likely to experience a feyness.
Which could account for why the remote corners of our world are more likely to harbour the unexplained, whether they are real or the result of our overactive imaginations suddenly devoid of our usual day-to-day preoccupations. These landscapes provide space in our minds to connect with our environments and with ourselves. Away from the bustle and noise of civilisation who knows what we may find ourselves tuning into. From my experience, having spent the last five days housebound due to severe gales, with darkness descending around 3pm and the wind whipping at the window panes whilst I read old folktales by the fire, I wouldn’t be surprised if trows were lurking just outside, or ghostly horses galloping towards the sea.
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