Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter, and Other Things…

Since today is the birthday of our famous bard, here’s a post I wrote originally for Mari Wells‘s blog. It was part of a series on Scottish Witches (read the others here), so of course Tam o’ Shanter had to feature…

**********

I can’t believe we’ve come to the end of this series of guest posts already. I couldn’t go without mentioning that famous son of Scotland, Robert Burns, and his epic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, written in 1791.

‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is set in Ayrshire, the area of Scotland where Burns was born and brought up. Tam is a hapless (okay, drunk) young man who comes across a coven of witches in Auld Kirk Alloway (an old kirk – surely not?), while riding home from Ayr one night. These witches are having a ceilidh, which basically means a party with music, dancing, and usually, fighting. One of them in particular catches Tam’s eye, being young and pretty – and because she’s dancing in her ‘cutty sark’, ie: short petticoat. Tam shouts words of encouragement at her from his spying place at the kirk’s window. He then gets his just desserts for this foolishness, and is chased by the witches to the bridge over the river Doon (Brig o’ Doon). As witches cannot cross running water, he escapes, but ‘Cutty Sark’ manages to pull the tail off his horse Maggie, just as she leaps across the bridge!

Moral of this tale: don’t get drunk and get distracted by ladies in short skirts. You may get more than you bargained for.

Auld Kirk Alloway

Auld Kirk Alloway

The poem is written in Scots, so can be a little hard to read for those not familiar with that language. It’s well worth a go, though. In it, Burns describes some extra-grisly trappings of a Black Mass: coffins standing open showing the dead within, and gruesome artefacts on the altar: murder weapons, and bodies of unchristened children. The Devil is also described as being present in the shape of a large black dog (he must like appearing in this form). Although at this gathering, ‘Auld Nick’ is providing the music by playing the bagpipes – a very talented dog indeed!

If you want to have a go at reading the poem, it can be found here: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/tam-o-shanter-tale It might be handy to have a Scots dictionary open as well!

The places described in the poem are real. I’ve visited all of them. Auld Kirk Alloway is a little bit spooky. My husband has seen me cross Brig o’ Doon, so he thinks I’m not a witch (ha!) But unlike the stories in my previous posts, I can’t find any evidence that a coven did meet at this kirk, or chase any drunken young men to the bridge. It seems Burns did that writerly thing of taking facts from other places, and weaving them into a fantastic story set in his home. I’m glad he did, as it’s one of my favourite poems.

Brig o' Doon

Brig o’ Doon

In my last post, I mentioned the fact that most of the ‘witches’ executed in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries were probably not performing black masses and summoning the devil at all. Many of them would be what are now generally referred to as ‘Pagans’ – worshippers of the old, pre-Christian gods. I’m not going to go into Paganism and its many branches here – that would be a whole other series of posts! Suffice it to say that many of these women and men would know how to heal wounds and treat the sick using natural remedies, and possibly a chant or two – all things the authorities were very suspicious of. Others may have been gifted with ‘second sight’ – a talent particularly prevalent in the Highlands of Scotland.

Seers had to be careful in the 15 and 1600s, as their gift could be denounced by the church as being from the devil, although Highlanders generally believed second sight to be unconnected with witchcraft. This belief, however, did not help the most famous of all, the Brahan Seer. He naively told the Countess of Seaforth what her husband was really doing on a trip to Paris, ie: entertaining other ladies. If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger. Although not tried and executed as a warlock, this did not stop the poor man being thrown into a barrel of burning tar. As his fiery end approached he accurately prophesied the fall of the house of Seaforth, and told the Countess that he would go to heaven, but she never would. So the Brahan Seer had the last word, although I don’t imagine this was much comfort as he went up in flames. Don’t tell people the truth; tell them what they want to hear – a trick most seaside clairvoyants have cottoned onto today!

I’ve really enjoyed doing this series of posts for the Witching Hour. Most of the stories have been from Central and Lowland Scotland. Talking about the Brahan Seer has made me realise how many tales of the supernatural there are from the North. So I may be back one day, with more spooky stuff from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland…

Something Wicked…

This story originally featured on Mari Wells’s blog, for Witch Month. In case you missed it, here’s the latest instalment featuring my Lochie Witches…

 

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Halloween decorations made the houses almost as festive as Christmas, Fenella thought as she walked home. It wasn’t even the day itself, yet porches were already decked out with strings of lights in the form of spiders or ghosts, giant plastic pumpkins lounged in gardens, and windows were draped with fake cobwebs. Fenella liked it. Who cared if Halloween had become fun and ‘Americanised’? It made a welcome change from her own Samhain, which was getting more intense every year.

The cloaked and hooded figure lounging in her doorway added to the spooky nature of the street. Except that Fenella hadn’t placed it there.

‘Well met by moonlight, Sister,’ the figure intoned, and then rather spoiled it by giggling.

Fenella burst out laughing. ‘Well met indeed.’ She pulled her visitor into a hug, and the hood fell back to reveal the mane of auburn hair and freckled features she knew and missed. ‘Hi, Kate.’

 

‘So what brings you here?’ Fenella sank into an armchair and took a swig of her tea. ‘And why can’t you just phone, like a normal person? Or does that Goddessforsaken town you live in not have phones?’

Kate jiggled her mug from hand to hand, perched on the edge of the comfy Ikea sofa. The room could not be more different from her own living space. Fenella favoured bright, modern fabrics and light wood. Kate’s ancient cottage was welcoming, but in a muted, faded sort of way.

‘We have the internet too, you know,’ Kate said primly. ‘Also, flushing toilets.’ She grimaced at her scalding hot coffee, but drank it anyway. ‘Oh – and vampires, of course.’

‘Yes, they do rather lower the tone of the place.’ They spoke lightly, but Fenella knew her friend was worried. ‘I take it they’re being more of a problem than usual?’

Kate had left the coven many years ago, and taken on the unofficial and unenviable job of keeping an eye on the town over the river. As well as the human population, there was a thriving colony of vampires. Thanks to Kate’s vigilance, they mostly behaved themselves. The ones that got out of line were dealt with, either by Kate herself, or one of the warrior families allied with her.

‘One of them is.’ Kate pulled a face at Fenella. ‘I’m sorry to ask you so close to Samhain – I know you’re all busy – but would the Coven let me see the books? I need a spell stronger than any I’ve got. It’s a long shot, but there might be something in there that would help.’

‘It’s not the Coven, as such, we’ll need to see.’

Kate raised an eyebrow. ‘No?’

‘No. It’s young Evie.’

‘What!’ Kate nearly spilled her coffee. ‘What the hells – she’s about twelve, isn’t she?’

‘She’s sixteen.’ Fenella was already dialling a number on her mobile.

Kate finished her drink and took her mug into the kitchen. She gazed around the modern, tidy little space, thinking of her temperamental Aga and chipped Belfast sink. But then, Fenella didn’t do much magic here. Kate needed a large, practical kitchen. When she returned to the living room, Fenella was already pulling her coat back on.

‘We’re going? Right now?’

‘Yup. Come on, if we hurry, we’ll be in and out before her mum gets in. You know she doesn’t approve of the Coven…’

Kate snorted, grabbing her cloak. ‘Which is a bit ridiculous, since she comes from a family of witches.’

‘Yes, but she never had the talent, remember? It skipped a generation and came out in Evie – in a big way.’

The two women hurried along the street. Fenella paid no attention to the Halloween decorations this time. Instead, she worried about the wisdom of introducing Evie to Kate. They were the two most powerful witches she knew, and both inclined to be solitary, in spite of Evie’s belonging to the Coven. A lot of witches found Kate a bit weird. She mentally shook herself. Kate was a law unto herself, but that was all. Maybe she would even be a good example to Evie, who in Fenella’s opinion was a bit too cocky for a sixteen year old.

They arrived at a house which as far as Kate could tell, was a carbon copy of Fenella’s, except bigger. Fenella had scarcely knocked when the door flew open, revealing a teenager in skinny jeans and a band t-shirt, fair hair piled in a messy bun on top of her head.

‘Auntie Fen!’ Evie hugged Fenella, then looked past her. ‘And you must be Kate. I’ve heard all about you.’

‘Ha.’ Kate gave a little bow. ‘I hope I live up to expectations.’

They entered the smart hallway, a polished wooden floor leading to a flight of stairs carpeted in cream. Kate couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t a practical colour at all.

Evie seemed to read her mind. ‘Mum has the house looking as unwitchy as possible.’ She scowled. ‘Because she can’t do it, it doesn’t exist. Isn’t it awful? At least Auntie Fen’s is colourful, even though it’s modern. This is the blandest house in existence.’

‘That’s enough.’ Fenella poked her niece in the arm. ‘I take it we’re heading up to your room?’

‘Come on!’ Evie bounded up the stairs two at a time.

Fenella and Kate exchanged glances. ‘She is good,’ Fenella murmured.

‘I have no doubt of it.’ Kate had sensed the power in the girl. She was already a force to be reckoned with. Kate had been too, at that age.

They mounted the stairs and followed Evie into her bedroom. In many ways it was a typical teenage cave; clothes strewn about, posters of bands on the wall. The scent of roses filled the small space. Under the window a desk held a pile of assorted books and magazines, and an iPod dock. A miniature cauldron stood next to the desk, simmering away with a mixture the colour of pea soup. Also on the wall was a fire extinguisher. Evie was practical as well as talented.

‘You said vampires, Auntie Fen,’ Evie was sitting at the desk, leafing through an ancient tome, pages crackling. ‘That’s all in this volume, but I didn’t know exactly what sort of spell you wanted..?’

Fenella realised she didn’t know either. She sat on Evie’s bed, moving a plush toy owl out of the way. ‘You said ‘problem’, Kate? What sort of problem?’

Kate sat cross-legged on the floor, as though she were Evie’s age. ‘No, you said ‘problem’. It’s a bit more than that – and it’s two problems. Number one: I need a stronger Sensing Spell. A vampire passed my boundaries – and I didn’t know it.’

Fenella whistled. She knew how strong Kate’s magic was. ‘That must have been a powerful vamp.’

‘She is.’ Kate’s voice indicated she didn’t want to go into that. ‘The other problem…this vamp sucked a friend of mine dry. I healed him with a Blood Spell – with my blood. I don’t know what that makes him, but that can wait. For now, I need to strengthen my ability to see what comes into the town.’

‘Wow.’ Evie was staring at Kate in admiration. ‘There’s a few Sensing and Boundary Spells in here. Do you want to take the book? I don’t need it for – er – anything, just now.’

Kate looked at Fenella. ‘Would that be okay? I don’t want to upset the Coven.’

Fenella shook her head. ‘Evie’s had the books since she turned sixteen. Let’s face it; none of the rest of us are any good with them. If she’s happy for you to take it, that’s fine.’

‘Thank you, Evie.’ Kate nodded at the young witch. Glancing at the cauldron, she asked, ‘What are you working on, anyway? Smells like there’s a Love Potion in there somewhere.’

Evie wriggled. ‘Ah, well, it’s something my apothecary suggested. To improve the – uh – Samhain spell.’

‘Good Goddess, you guys aren’t still trying to conjure him?’ Kate said incredulously. ‘Whatever for? I know you want to relive the Lochie Witches’ glorious past, but honestly..!’

Fenella was wriggling too. ‘Well, we got the Great Black Dog last year,’ she retorted. ‘So we thought we’d try for – you know.’

‘I do know.’ Kate saw the woman in Evie, vying with the girl. The woman and the witch – a dangerous combination. ‘I know what you want him for, young miss. And I’ll tell you this – as your first, he’s a dangerous choice. If he’ll do it.’

‘How dare you!’ Evie sprang to her feet, knocking over her chair. ‘I know what I’m doing – I’m not some kid!’

‘Of course you’re not.’ Fenella glared at Kate, willing her to shut up. ‘It’s just that Kate’s got some…experience…’

‘With him? How can she?’ Evie asked. ‘No-one’s conjured him for centuries!’

‘Your coven hasn’t conjured him, you mean.’ Kate rose from her position on the floor. ‘That doesn’t mean that no-one else has.’

‘Oohh!’ Evie all but stamped her foot. ‘I don’t believe you!’

The argument was interrupted by a sharp ‘Pop!’ from behind them. The three women froze, and turned to the cauldron.

Evie’s concoction, which had been simmering moments ago, was seething and bubbling now like hot lava – if lava was a sickly shade of green. As they watched, the larger bubbles grew into tendrils, reaching up from the cauldron like rotting fingers. The rose petal scent was gone, replaced by a decayed, cloying smell.

‘It’s never done this before,’ Evie said uncertainly. Her anger at Kate was forgotten. She looked at the older witch.

‘Too much power in here…’ Kate mused, approaching the cauldron. ‘Is he part of this spell already?’

‘Yes,’ Evie whispered.

‘Evie!’ Fenella was horrified. ‘You know he’s not to be invoked until Samhain itself!’

‘I just wanted to try something.’ Evie’s voice held a tinge of fear. The fingers were elongating now, reaching out to the three of them, trailing down the sides of the cauldron towards the floor. Evie squeaked and jumped back. The potion was changing from green to black. An air of menace came with the change, as though some conscious entity was behind it.

‘Oh no!’ Evie moaned as the tendrils reached the carpet, causing it to sizzle and burn. ‘Mum’s going to kill me!’

Fenella would have laughed, if the situation hadn’t been so serious. What had Evie done?

Kate, however, appeared unperturbed. She reached out – and poked one of the blackened fingers. To Fenella and Evie’s surprise, it retreated.

‘Get back in that pot, you.’ Kate said conversationally. ‘Stop trying to scare people.’

The fingers stretched and warped and shivered, then shortened until they were sliding back into the cauldron.

‘I know you feed off emotion,’ Kate was lecturing the dark green gunge, which had settled a bit, although it was still bubbling. ‘But feeding off a witch’s anger is dangerous, even for you. Especially three witches – the magic number. Bugger off – and if you’re about at Samhain, watch your step.’

The pea soup mixture blew a raspberry at her, then went back to simmering. Evie and Fenella stared, open-mouthed. Evie recovered first.

‘Who were you talking to?’ she squeaked. ‘Not…not..?’

Kate patted the cauldron. ‘Sorry I lost my temper. That was stupid of me. You’ll be fine, Evie. Just be careful. And remember, he’s a man, once he’s in that skin. Just a man.’

‘That’s like,’ Evie replied slowly, ‘How he’s just a dog, when he’s a dog?’

‘People give him the power.’ Kate gathered up the spellbook from the desk. ‘Because they know what he is. But on Earth, not Below, he’s just whatever form he takes. Oh, he has words, and we all know how powerful words are. But that’s all. No magic, no superpowers, nothing.’

‘What’s he like?’ whispered Evie. ‘Really?’

‘What he was like for me won’t be the same as for you. Or for your Auntie Fen. Or Nana Anne. Or any of the others. Understand?’ She and Evie locked eyes for a moment.

Fenella had had enough. ‘Evie,’ she said firmly, ‘I don’t know if what we’re planning to do at Samhain is a good idea, after all.’

Kate patted her fellow witch’s shoulder. ‘I do. It is. I wish you every success, ladies.’ She tucked the spellbook under her arm. ‘I better get back. I have someone really evil to deal with.’ She met Evie’s eyes again. ‘Evil is all here on Earth. Remember that. Thanks again for the book – I’ll get it back as soon as I can.’

Evie and Fenella looked at each other as Kate turned for the door.

‘Kate!’ Evie called. ‘Thank you – for rescuing my bedroom carpet.’

Kate grinned. ‘Have fun with him – Sisters.’ She used the Coven’s term of address for each other.

‘Tell him Katarina says hi.’

 

Thanks to William Shakespeare for the title – even if he did take terrible liberties with the story of Macbeth…

Pic courtesy of eastsidepatch.com

Pic courtesy of eastsidepatch.com

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Hi all! As promised, I’m over at Mari Wells‘s blog today, with my story for Witch Month. If you’ve read my previous witchy stuff, you’ll see some familiar faces. Less than a week to Halloween – and the magic is hotting up… 😉

Follow this link – if you dare!

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Pic courtesy of eastsidepatch.com

Pic courtesy of eastsidepatch.com

The Logie Witches

Last year I started writing short stories based around this local legend. There’s another tale coming soon, for Halloween. Meanwhile, I’ll let you be creeped out by the ‘factual’ version… 😉

 

A few miles from my home stand the ruins of Logie Old Kirk (Kirk being the old Scots word for church). Situated just outside Stirling, a church was first dedicated in this ancient parish around 1173. The ruins date back to around 1592.

In 1720, the Old Kirk was said to be used by ‘The Witches of Logie’ for their rituals. It was probably already falling into disrepair at this time. The use of churches by those practising the ‘Black Mass’ is well documented. Old, often abandoned kirks frequently appear as the meeting place for covens in Scottish folklore.

Logie Old Kirk

Logie Old Kirk

Behind the Old Kirk is the hill known as ‘Carly Crag’ or ‘Witches Craig’. Carly, or carlin, is the old Scots word for witch, or old woman (from the Gaelic cailleach). It was on Carly Crag that the Logie Witches were supposed to meet with the devil himself, who took the form of a black dog with burning eyes. He would cavort among the witches with a blue torch attached to his hind quarters. Quite why he needed a blue torch there remains unclear! Also, the Evil One was running the risk of a singed bottom, as torches and lamps burned oil at that time. Maybe, being the devil, he was impervious to flame!

Carly Crag

Carly Crag

There are several documents pertaining to this local legend:

In David Morris’s (1935) essay on the local township, he told the common story that “an elder in (the new) Logie Kirk was of the opinion that the Carla’ Craig…was haunted.” At the end of the 19th century, Morris remembered a local lady known as ‘Ailie’, who was said by many old folk to be the traditional ‘witch of Logie’:

“Sickly children were brought to her for her blessing. Occasionally people came from as far as Stirling on this errand. Her method of giving the blessing was to blow her breath on the child, and this was supposed to ward off evil. It was also said that anyone buried in Logie Kirkyard on the first day of May, Halloween, or other days of that kind, without her blessing, would not rest in his grave…”

Another legend told to Morris stated that:

“Around 1720 witches were believed to rendezvous with the Evil One who would appear in the form of a large black dog.” This is clearly the most well-known tale relating to Logie Old Kirk and Carly Crag. Again, the devil appearing in the form of a dog crops up more than once in the folklore of Scotland.

Another account of the belief in witchcraft and animistic pre-Christian rites on the crag came from Charles Rogers (1853):

“About the second decade of last century, there lived in the parish of Logie several ill-favoured old women, to whom the reputation of witchcraft was confidently attached. They were believed to hold nocturnal dialogues and midnight revels with the Evil One, and Carlie Crag was regarded as one of their places of rendezvous. Satan, though he was believed to appear to them in various forms, was understood, in his interviews with the dreaded sisterhood, to appear most frequently in the aspect of a large shaggy dog, in which form it was alleged he had repeatedly been seen by the minister.”

I first heard the story of The Logie Witches when visiting the Witches Craig Caravan Park, where I was testing a new tent, believe it or not! I wondered how the park had got its name, and this led me to the local legend, and my explorations of Logie Old Kirk and the Carly Crag. Do the kirk, and the crag, feel spooky? A bit. Do they feel evil? No. The Old Kirk is now overlooked by several modern dwellings, though they do not detract much from its isolated location. There are several interesting gravestones in the Kirkyard, featuring masonic symbols and the macabre skull carvings which are common on grave markers of this era. There is now a new Logie Kirk, built in the early 1800s and still in use, closer to the nearby caravan park and visible from the modern road. The Old Kirk is further up into the hills, shrouded by trees, so it can’t be seen from the roadside.

Macabre gravestone

Macabre gravestone

I used the tale of The Logie Witches as inspiration for a short story, The Summoning, featuring a modern day version of the coven. I played around with the locations of the various landmarks a bit (artistic licence!), as I thought it would be funny if my witches had to contend with the road and the caravan park. I then wrote The Potion Mistress as another little spin-off.

The crag is a fine site for ritual magic, and its associated devil-lore may simply derive from Pictish shamanistic practices, remains of which have been found across the Scottish hills. These rites survived longer in the remote areas of Scotland than in other parts of Britain. On the other hand, maybe witches did indeed meet with the devil there. Maybe they still do..?

(References: Morris, David, B., “Causewayhead a Hundred Years Ago”, in Transactions of the Stirling Natural History and Archaeological Society, 1935. Roger, Charles,” A Week at Bridge of Allan”, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.)

The Potion Mistress

So…Halloween is fast approaching. This flash fiction story was originally written for a Creative Writing course assessment, last year. As one of the characters will be popping up again in a new tale on Mari Wells‘s blog later this month, I thought I’d remind you about our precocious Lochie Witch… 😉

**********

The shop bell rang, jangling her aching bones as well as her ears. Abigail narrowed her eyes, assessing the girl as she entered. Her customer was pretty, but unlike many, had taken no particular care with her appearance. Fair hair scraped up into a messy bun, no make-up, no jewellery, yet she carried herself with immense confidence. This young lady was good at something, and knew it. Abigail wondered what it was.

The girl approached, pulling a piece of paper from her bag. She regarded Abigail the way they all did: not seeing her, just a person behind a counter.

“I need these.” The girl held out the paper. “Do you stock them?” Abigail slid her glasses down from where they were holding her frizz of hair back. She took the list and peered at the tiny writing, then turned to the shelves behind her. “We have them all,” she answered over her shoulder. “I’ll just be one moment”. Might as well get the hard-to-reach one out of the way first. Pulling the ladder towards her, she climbed painfully onto the first step.

“Umm…” Her customer sounded less sure of herself. “Can I give you a hand?”

“I can manage,” Abigail snapped, then winced. Mother wouldn’t be pleased if she lost a customer due to being touchy about her – condition. “Sorry.” As she reached for the jar, she couldn’t help thinking: my hands work fine, thank you very much!

“So does your sarcasm.” Abigail fumbled the container in shock, then caught it. Dismounting the ladder as fast as she dared, she faced the young woman. “How did you hear that?”

“You might as well have screamed it.” The girl was looking at Abigail properly now, her mouth twisting in amusement. She held out her hand, an old-fashioned gesture. “I’m Evie.”

“Abigail.” They shook hands. Abigail placed the jar in front of Evie. “Do you want to check this?”

Evie removed the lid, and the scent of roses filled the air. “Mmm, wonderful. Yes, that’ll do nicely. You said you had the other ingredients?”

“I do.” Abigail collected the other two jars. Evie sniffed the second one in approval. The third one, she opened and dipped a finger towards. A single drop rose from the jar and landed on her finger, like a raindrop falling the wrong way. Evie blew on the liquid, and Abigail watched it dissolve into a million sparkling fragments, blue-black like the sky of a storm, before they disappeared. Now she knew what her customer was.

“You’re a witch.” Abigail could scarcely believe it. “A real one. But you’re so…”

“Young?” Evie’s eyes seemed to look right inside Abigail. For the first time, someone saw her. “You’re an apothecary. A real one. And you’re too young.”

“I’m sixteen!” Her voice was defensive. It always was. “Mother can’t manage anymore…and I’m better than her, anyway. At making…stuff. I just can’t get around the shop as fast.”

“What’s wrong with your legs?” Evie asked bluntly. Abigail liked her for that. No pussyfooting around the subject.

“Spina bifida. They thought I might never walk at all.”

Evie nodded.

“My grandmother told me about this place. She said it was the best. I think she knew your mum well – back in the day. Gran said, if the daughter’s half as good as her mum you’ll be all right. Looks like that’s true.” Evie replaced the lid on jar number three. “Why are you so surprised to see a real witch? I thought you’d get loads of us in here.”

“No,” snorted Abigail. “Lots of people who think they are – or want to be. Girls – women – wearing pentagrams or moon symbols and carrying tarot cards. Or the ones who want to know how to stay beautiful or catch some man…” She trailed off, knowing what was in the jars in front of her. The makings of a bona-fide love potion.

“It’s not what you think.” Evie reached for her purse as Abigail measured the ingredients into stoppered vials. “You know what next Thursday is? Sorry, of course you do!” She amended as Abigail glared. “Well…the coven’s going to have another go. I think this is what’s been missing. This is the first year I’ve been allowed to read the books, but I’m really good at doing this – stuff.” They shared a conspiratorial glance.

“The sisters sent me here to get the missing ingredients. I’m glad they did. You know your stuff – like what these are for. Hopefully, this time we’ll succeed.”

Abigail stared at her, then the penny dropped.

“The Sisters?” she exclaimed. “You’re one of the Lochie coven? Then that means you’re going to…”

Evie nodded. “On Samhain. At the Old Kirk. This year we’ll do it.” Her face took on a wistful expression.

“We’ll conjure – him.”

*********************

If you’ve read The Summoning (if you haven’t, why not? Go and read it now!) you’ll know who Evie is trying to conjure, and in what form. Will she succeed? Wait and see…

The Old Apothecary Shop by Olivier le Queinec

The Old Apothecary Shop by Olivier le Queinec

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

The cauldron is being stirred once again. I’ve sent Sam the Bengal Cat out to look for frogs, newts and other ingredients I need. Unfortunately, he’s the most incompetent familiar in the world, so I’m likely to get leaves, seeds, and drinking straws (don’t ask).

October is the Witching Month over at Mari Wells‘s blog, and I’m preparing a tale of covens, spells and other strange things. We’ll meet some of the Lochie Witches again, as well as Kate, a solitary witch who featured in my serial for Mari’s Vampire Month. Who knows, maybe a vamp or two will sneak in..?

Thank you William Shakespeare for the title of this post. I will undoubtedly be stealing lines from you again in weeks to come, William. That also goes for Messrs. Burns and Pratchett. And possibly Ms. Rice.

To warm my lovely readers up, I’ll be featuring stories old and new in September, with witches, vampires, and those unfortunates who meddle with them. Let’s go back to the beginning, when we first met the Lochie Witches… 😉

*************

The Summoning

The witch could see the caravans through the trees. They were an incongruous background to the activities taking place in the ruins of the old Kirk. She pulled a face. Legacy was all very well, but she sometimes wished their rituals happened in a different location. After all, it seemed wrong to summon the Evil One not a hundred metres from shower blocks and chemical toilet sheds.

“Stop daydreaming, Sister!” The voice cut through her thoughts. Aunt Aileen, brandishing a large wooden ladle, broke through her reverie and brought her attention back to what The Sisters were doing. They all called each other Sister, although none of them actually were. They were all related, albeit sometimes distantly – connected by their ancestry, going all the way back to the famous Lochie Witches of the 1700s. Those witches, however, had not had to contend with a busy road on one side and a caravan holiday park on the other. Back then, the Kirk had been remote and hidden amongst the trees at the foot of the Crag. Now, tourists roamed the grounds by day, although admittedly, there were not too many of them braving the Scottish weather at this time of year. At night, there was always the chance that a gang of lads and lassies from the nearby town would want to use the place for drinking or shagging or both.

The coven was the bedraggled remnants of those witches of the 18th century. Not for the first time, Fenella found herself wishing that more of the female line had died out. If they could no longer gather thirteen witches, then she wouldn’t be freezing her arse off on Samhain, trying to summon Auld Nick with fragments of ancient spell books, and a coven consisting of seven senior citizens, three working mums, two singletons and a precocious fourteen year old who was enjoying it all a little too much. Every year they tried to replicate what their infamous ancestors had done, and every year nothing happened, apart from Nana Anne setting her dress on fire and her cousin Jess falling over a tree root and twisting her ankle. Until last year, when the spell might be said to have worked. They had indeed conjured “auld Nick in shape o’ beast” – to quote a famous poem – except the beast in question was a large black beetle. The only reason that they knew the beetle was the Evil One was by the mark on its carapace. It had waved its antennae at them reproachfully and then spent the rest of the night sitting on Evie’s shoulder, much to the teenager’s delight. It hadn’t seemed inclined to do anything else – but then what could he do as a beetle? The 18th century coven had summoned him in the form of a huge black dog, which was much more the thing. Apparently the great hound had roamed the hills all night, terrorising locals and sheep, until the dawn sent him back Below.

Nana Anne stated she was positive she knew which part of the spell had gone wrong and this year they would succeed – properly. Fenella put her thoughts to one side and, at Aunt Aileen’s frantic ladle-waving, returned to the circle of Sisters around the cauldron. The potion was complete and being stirred by the three most senior coven members: Nana Anne, Nana Evelyn (her niece Evie’s namesake) and Aunt Aileen. It was the job of the others to chant the spell, ensuring that the last word was spoken at precisely six minutes past seven. Fenella had often wondered about the significance of that time, but it was in one of the spellbook fragments that had survived unscathed and was very definite. The hour – or six minutes past – was fast approaching. She joined hands with her other Sisters and, at a nod from Nana Anne, started to chant. At the exact same moment, the three witches in charge of the cauldron changed direction with their ladles and stirred counter-clockwise.

The skies above darkened further, if such a thing were possible during a Scottish autumn. Angry clouds gathered overhead and the wind picked up, whistling round the old stone walls of the Kirk and sighing through the trees. The surface of the liquid in the cauldron became as shiny as glass, and even with the stirring of the ladles the massing clouds were reflected in it. The wind was howling now, sounding like the mournful cry of a dog, and Fenella’s scalp prickled. This felt different to the last time, sure enough. There was a…presence, that was the only word she could think of…to the storm, an intensity that she hadn’t encountered before. She chanted with more purpose, her voice stronger and clearer. The others had felt it too, even young Evie, whose face had lost its this-is-fun-because-I-shouldn’t-be-doing-it look and taken on a determined expression. As the climax of the spell was chanted and the ladles made their last turn counter-clockwise, the clouds reached down from the sky, tendrils of grey searching like groping arms in the dark until they found their target – the cauldron. The link that formed between the liquid and the clouds looked like the tornado from The Wizard Of Oz, except for the colours contained within it. The blue-black of the night sky vied with the steel grey of the clouds and the glassy texture of the potion, which itself flashed all the colours of a prism as the column spun faster and faster. Fenella twisted her wrist, not letting go of her Sister’s hand, and sneaked a glance at her watch. They had finished the chant at exactly six minutes past seven. Just as she looked back at the column, it collapsed in on itself, swirling into nothingness in the bottom of the cauldron. There was a single crack of thunder overhead, but no rain fell. Instead, the ensuing silence was absolute. Hardly daring to breathe, the Sisters all leaned forward, but cautiously, in case a massive hound jumped out of the cauldron at any moment.

This, unfortunately, did not happen.

What did happen was that from the cauldron came a short, sharp bark.

Evie was the first one to move forward. Letting go of her Sisters’ hands, she stepped forward three paces and peered over the edge. Her face broke into a massive grin.

“Has it worked?” Nana Anne asked eagerly – far too eagerly for a ninety-year-old woman, Fenella thought. And what a stupid question! If they had indeed conjured the huge black dog of legend, it should have bounded out of the cauldron at the precise moment that the column disappeared. There was no room in there for anything larger than – oh no – surely not…

“Well,” Evie said slowly, “It’s kind of worked…” She reached both arms into the cauldron. When they came out, they were holding a black dog.

A little black dog.

There was a moment of stunned silence. On the one hand, it was a dog. This was a definite improvement on last year. On the other hand, Auld Nick wasn’t going to be doing much terrorising this year either. He looked like…

“I think he’s a Scottie,” Evie said hesitantly. “That’s good, isn’t it? I mean, we are a coven of famous Scottish witches.” Fenella groaned.

“I suppose it is him?” asked Nana Evelyn. She stepped round the cauldron, careful of any treacherous tree roots, and stood beside her granddaughter. Smoothing the dog’s fur back, she checked behind his ear. Sure enough, there was the mark. “It’s him. Well. Sisters, we must congratulate ourselves. This is a step forward from last year.” The dog wriggled. Evie put him down on the overgrown floor of the Kirk. Once again, Auld Nick glared up at them with a reproachful expression. Being a dog this time rather than a beetle, it was much more effective. The Sisters hung their heads, not wanting to meet his eyes. All except Evie, who seemed oblivious to the undercurrents running between the little dog and the older coven members. She scooped him back up and cuddled him. He wriggled a few times, then gave up, barked his sharp bark again and licked Evie’s face with a long pink tongue. She giggled.

“He seems to like Evie,” Aunt Aileen remarked, as dog and girl proceeded to romp around the Kirk grounds, chasing each other, the one barking, and the other laughing. “He did last year, too. I wonder what that means?”

“Sisters!” Nana Anne’s voice, surprisingly strong, cut through all their thoughts. “I agree with Sister Evelyn. It is another step forward. I will study the text fragments and next year, I am sure we will succeed and bring forth Auld Nick in his true beast shape. And perhaps after that, we will do what our predecessors never succeeded in doing, and bring him forth in the ultimate form.” There was a pause as everyone considered the implications of that. From the woods, the excited barks of a small dog were heard, mingled with Evie’s shouts. Fenella wondered if she should make sure they were all right, and then decided she was worrying needlessly. Nobody else would be in the woods at this time of night in this weather. As a Scottie dog, the Evil One couldn’t do more than bite a few ankles anyway. And her niece was still too young to be of any danger. Fenella suspected, however, that when Evie came of age she was going to be a witch to be reckoned with. After all, they hadn’t succeeded in conjuring Auld Nick at all until last year – the first time Evie had been part of the coven. And on both occasions he seemed to prefer Evie’s company… Fenella resolved to bring this up at the next meeting. For now, let the Sisters revel in their nearly-success, and let Evie romp around with her new playmate.

“I expect he’s catching rabbits, or something,” cousin Jess remarked to Fenella, as they each sipped a mug of mulled wine to the background of whooping and excited barking. “Not quite sheep, but still… Must be boring, being cooped up Below. Bet he’s glad to get out in the world for a bit, even as a Scottie dog.” Fenella giggled, and then bit the laugh back. The older coven members wouldn’t approve, but now the drama of the ceremony was over, it all seemed ridiculous once more. Grown women in a freezing ruin, trying to summon the devil for a night of – what? If they ever truly succeeded, what were they going to do with him? Well, obviously, she and Jess…and maybe one or two of the others…but Nana Anne? Aunt Aileen? Fenella suspected that if Auld Nick did ever appear in all his glory, the coven would be seriously depleted, as several of the older members would die of a heart attack.

In the woods, Evie and her canine companion had ceased exploring the undergrowth and were now resting on a grassy bank, sheltered by the trees. Evie lay on her back, the little dog lying on her chest, gazing into her eyes. The young witch broke eye contact for a moment to stare up at the inky black sky through the bare branches above. Then she met the dog’s eyes again.

Her gaze was far more than that of a teenage girl.

“I’m sorry you’re not a huge hound,” she said. “I’m sure if I looked at the texts I could work it out, but they won’t let me until I’m sixteen, and that’s two years away. Mind you, they are getting better at figuring stuff out. I’m sure you’ll be a big dog next year. But that’s not the ultimate aim, is it?” The dog panted at her in that smiley way that dogs do, and licked her face again.

Evie smiled back. “The year after next, then. I’ll be sixteen – of age. They’ll let me read the spells. I’ll figure it out, and persuade them to try my suggestion. I can be very persuasive. Some of them didn’t want me in the coven last year, at thirteen, but I convinced them. So I’ll get my way, and then…” She paused to savour the delicious thought for a moment. So did her companion, his eyes sparkling and his tongue licking his lips – although he might have just been thinking about rabbits – or sheep. Evie doubted it, though.

She knew what witches had always really summoned the devil for.

“I’ll conjure you in the form of a man”.

(Apologies to a local legend for playing around with it, and being creative with the location of various landmarks. This was originally going to be a much darker story, but it went off in a different direction. I think the ending promises darker things to come, however…)

“Weel done, Cutty-sark!” And in an instant all was dark…

I couldn’t leave a series of posts on Scottish witches without mentioning The Bard, could I? I’m not even going to ask you where the above quote comes from, as it’s glaringly obvious once you’ve read the piece.

There’s also a little bit about a famous Highland Seer. I may do more on him in the future…

By the way, last week’s quote was indeed from Mr Terry Pratchett – ‘weel done’ to those who got it right. Said by Nanny Ogg, in the book ‘Wyrd Sisters’.

So follow the link to my final guest post for Mari Wells (sob).

Read more: Mari Wells: The Witching Hour – The last of Karen’s Scottish Witches…

Pic courtesy of artteasemagazine.com

Pic courtesy of artteasemagazine.com