The Haunted Tree of Auchencairn

It is raining, absolutely pissing down in the committed resolute implacable way that rain tends to fall during the Scottish summer holidays. 

Covid 19 is sweeping the world and thus most of Indoors is closed and Outdoors is still merrily raining, raining, raining.  I try desperately to think of something to do, somewhere to go and remember that last year we drove around looking for a haunted tree and failed to find it. It seems a good idea to repeat the exercise again. 

Last year, when following the vague instructions online of how to get to Ringcroft of Stocking, the site of a now vanished farmhouse, home to an early example of a poltergeist and marked by the eponymous tree, we singularly failed to find it as I just presumed finding a tree would be easy. It wasn’t so we just had a fight about it instead and came home. This time, I am armed with better knowledge and directions than the whole of the internet can provide me. 

This time I have the expert directions of a dead man. Malcolm Maclachan Harper’s ‘Rambles in Galloway’ was published in 1876  and one chapter describes his trip from Castle Douglas to Auchencairn, the small village where the unfortunate farmhouse, the evil entity and the hard to find tree resided. What better way to spend a surprisingly cold wet August afternoon than following his directions and seeing the modern word through old Galloway eyes? 

It turns out that due to the rural nature of Dumfries and Galloway, very little has actually changed although a full size plastic skeleton on a grass verge bids us farewell from Castle Douglas with a hand painted sign in creepy manic writing  ‘Wear a mask or die’. 

Castle Douglas used to be the epitome of your granny’s sitting room, cosily old-fashioned with the occasional forays into tweeness and always the smell of something nice cooking. Conservative with a small c. Now Sanitation Stations and skeletons to remind you of the post-apocalyptic dystopia that awaits you if you fancy going for a nice scone.

What would Malcolm Maclachan Harper think? I’m beginning to feel a bit jealous of the dead old man.

‘’We are now walking leisurely through the sunlit glen, admiring, as we proceed, the attractions of early summer. The road is delightful, and a choir of birds are chanting their songs in the woods and hedges as we pass. Thriving plantations crown the precipitous hills on both sides, and contrast beautifully with the grey and bald rocks of Screel towering above them.’

We, meanwhile, are struggling to see the sights he mentions through the fug and churning windscreen wipers of the steamed-up car. It is very pleasing to find out though that the village of Polnackie Malcolm describes as ‘having a drowsy appearance’, STILL has a drowsy appearance. It also boasts a pub where a double Gordons can be purchased for three pounds. An old sailing boat lies in the harbour, a site that Malc himself may well have witnessed. 

“Proceeding onwards, to Castlegower, we observe the remains of a vitrified fort to the left; almost directly opposite, on the right, is Gelston Castle, at a short distance from the road, and finely situated on a rising ground tastefully laid out with trees. It was erected by the late Sir William Douglas, and being a comparatively modem building, possesses no historical interest.”

That’s what you think Macolm. In ‘Witchcraft and Superstition in The South West Region of Scotland’ (1911) some old research is not so benign.  

The following extract from a rare and fascinating work, The Book of Galloway (1745), possesses two points of much interest. It includes the prophetic utterings of a witch called Meg Macmuldroch at the “cannie moment” when Sir William Douglas of Gelston, whose name is so intimately associated with the creation and development of the town of Castle-Douglas, was born:—

“And anon as she came to the burden of her prophecy, pointing her quivering fingers to the sky, and repeating the following words with much emphasis:—‘I looked at the starnies and they were in the right airt. It was full tide, and bein’ lown and in the deid howe o’ nicht, in Sandy Black’s fey, I heard the sough o’ the sea and the o’erswak o’ the waves as they broke their bellies on the sawns o’ Wigtown. There was a scaum i’ the lift; the young mune was in the auld mune’s arms, that was bad and guid—bad for the father, guid for the son; and as sure as the de’ils in the King’s croft o’ Stocking,  here’s my benison and malison, mak’ o’t what ye wull.

‘Grief and scaith, the faither to his death;

Thrift and thrive to the bairn alive.’”

I’m not quite sure what it all means  but it doesn’t sound good, especially for the auld mune. 

And I strongly suspect Meg is referring to our destination when she mentions ‘King’s Croft o’ Stocking’. 

We continue Malcolm’s journey, stopping to see the mentioned  Orchardton Tower, a rare example of a round tower, dating back from the 1400’s and with a colourful history involving long-lost heirs, kings, imprisonment and evil uncles that most places older than a Costa Coffee in Scotland take for granted. This story is unusual for Scotland as according to Malcy, it has a happy ending, not the normal spectacular sound of smiting, curses, bloodshed and confusing religious betrayals continuing for centuries that are more commonly expected in noteworthy Scottish buildings. 

‘Sir Robert soon married Miss McClellan, a niece or near relation of the last Lord Kirkcudbright, and took up his residence at Orchardton, where he continued, while he lived, the ornament and delight of the country, uniting all the gentlemanly dignity of the old school with the bland and graceful gaiety of foreign manners.’ 

 The tower, despite being in the middle of nowhere, is roped off with a sign saying that due to Covid 19, no access is permitted but one can however scan a QR code to look inside. I don’t like modern times. 

‘Near to Potterland a few old hollies and ash trees mark the site of an ancient chapel, dedicated to St. Merinus, called Kirkmirren. There was also a burying-ground here, traces of which are still discernible.’

Nothing remains of this portal to the past apart from a house named Kirkmirren, nothing online to be found either, just a few words from a forgotten old book to tell us that people lie under the ferns and trees in this glen, forgotten to everybody, no traces discernable now apart from a name of a self-catering holiday home. I want to look for signs of death  but the over-abundance of verdant gleefully alive nature, vivid wet all encompassing green covers everything, climbs vitally upwards and over, nothing to see here anymore apart from the sudden sense of your  invisible eternal mortality.  

‘Proceeding onwards, we shortly afterwards pass the lodge and entrance-gate to Orchardton House, which is finely situated near the Bay of Orchardton, and commands a series of delightful hill, park, and sea views. The wood-work of the present roof of this house was taken from the old castle of Kirkcudbright.

Now this innocuous sentence brings the pleasant ramblings of Malcolm kicking and screaming into the harsh light of the modern age. From the BBC Website-

Orchardton Castle owner’s £5 raffle branded ‘unfair

A woman has been rapped by the advertising watchdog for offering a Scottish castle as a raffle prize – but giving the winner a cash prize instead.

Susan DeVere set up the contest after she failed to sell Orchardton Castle, near Auchencairn, Kirkcudbrightshire.

However, cash giveaways were offered when ticket sales were too low.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the competition was not “administered fairly” – a ruling disputed by Mrs DeVere.

Somehow, I fail to find much sympathy for the millionaire Mrs DeVere whose quasi-tragic pity face  appears in the article along with many pictures of her beautiful expensive well-appointed  home. 

What would Malcy have thought of such modern shenanigans? 

‘at the top of Collin Brae, is the site, marked by a few old fir trees, of the Ringcroft of Stocking, where the famous ghaist of Rerrick spirit played its unearthly pranks’

Now here we are, not at the end of Malcolm’s ramble but a point to stop and ponder the above sentence, the sentence on which this chapter hangs. 

The Famous Ghaist of Rerrick 

Malcolm, I presume would have also seen the single desolate tree, the last of the magical number of three remaining whereupon it is said (no-one ever says who it was who actually said it and the reasoning and knowledge behind it) that when the last one dies, the ghost will return. 

On this road, finally found due to Malcolm’s words from beyond the grave ( and also a Rightmove listing of a house on the same road) is a good haunted tree, all hunched over by the might of the Galloway wind, desolate and depressed. According to some accounts, a few stones remain of the cursed farm but due to the weather and plague conditions it does not seem seemly to go climbing over gates looking for cursed remains near a decrepit tree whose demise will cause an evil Satanic thing to emerge from Hell again. This is 2020 after all and I am dyspraxic. 

The story of the Rerrick apparition/ghaist/ghost/poltergeist ( the names for such things move with the times) starts in 1695 with Andrew MacKie, a stonemason and his family. In true 1695 form, a visitation from the devil is written in such convoluted impenetrable form that witchcraft and Satanism becomes somewhat of a demanding chore to read. The title of the dense pamphlet  alone might hint at the style in which the contents are written. 

“A TRUE RELATION OF AN Apparition, Expressions and Actings, OF A SPIRIT, Which Infested the House of Andrew Mackie in Ring-Croft of Stocking, in the Paroch of Rerrick, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, in Scotland. By Mr. Alexander Telfair, Minister of that Paroch: and Attested by many other Persons, who were also Eye and Ear-Witnesses”

A very simplified version of the story is that the farm in question (allegedly along with some neighbouring properties but have found little to support this) was suddenly bombarded by a malevolent entity who started its crimes by unbinding  the cattle, raising one by a ‘taut tether of hair’. There’s some stuff beforehand  about a witchwife, a tooth being burnt to stop some sort of unnatural trouble and some clothes of a dead woman and previous tenant  that may or may not were given to her family after her death by the MacKies but I am not a 17th century Val Mcdermid sadly so fuck knows if they have any relevance. 

So the normal naughty poltergeisty fun begins, stone throwing on the Sabbath, fires starting, ‘crook and pot-clips’ vanishing ( pot and handle) then being found in the previously searched attic, then it ups the ante with a ghostly hand and a face worryingly like Donald Trump appearing. 

‘ I casting my eyes thither, perceived a little white hand and arm, from the elbow down, but presently it vanished… and a friend of the said Andrew Mackie’s said, he saw as it were a young man, red faced, with yellow hair, looking in at the window ; and other two or three persons, with the said Andrew his children, saw, at several times, as it were a young boy about the age of fourteen years, with gray cloths, and a bonnet on his head, but presently disappeared ; as also what the three children saw sitting by the fire-side.’

This case is unusual in the amount of people said to have seen, heard or felt the entity and the entity’s cheery antipathy towards them all. 

‘Aprile 3rd, it whistled several times, and cryed Wisht, wisht. This is attested by Andrew Tait. Upon the 4th of Aprile, Charles Macklelane of Colline, landlord, with the said Andrew Mackie, went to a certain number of ministers met at Buttle, and gave them an account of the matter, whereupon these ministers made publick prayers for the family ; and two of their number, viz. Mr Andrew Ewart, minister of Kells, and Mr John Murdo, minister of Corsmichael, came to the house, and spent that night in fasting and praying; but it was very cruel against them, especially by throwing great stones, some of them about half an stone weight. It wounded Mr Andrew Ewart twice in the head, to the effusion of his blood ; it pulled off his wigg in time of prayer, and when he was holding out his napkin betwixt his hands, it cast a stone in the napkin, and therewith threw it from him. It gave Mr John Murdo several sore strokes, yet the wounds and bruises received did soon cure. There were none in the house that night escaped from some of its fury and cruelty. That night it threw a firie peet amongst the people ; but did no hurt, it only disturbed them in time of prayer. And also in the dawning, as they rose from prayer, the stones poured down on all who were in the house to their hurt. This is attested by Mr Andrew Ewart, Mr John Murdo, Charles Macklelane, and John Tait.’

Clearly the Rerrick ghost was not of your simpering White Lady types and would have been more at home joyriding a stolen BMW down the A75. I bet it loved the wig pulling off during prayer bit most. Classic poltergeist. 

It continues its merry mayhem with old bloody fleshy  bones found in old parchment, more fires, more stonings, showing particular fury when the people in the house were at prayer or on the Sabbath. 

I like this extract in particular.

‘ Aprile 8th. In the morning as Andrew Mackie went down the closs, he found a letter both writen and sealed with blood. It was directed on the back thus : 3 pears tpo ftall paue to repent a net it toeH, and within was written: £33 o be to tpe SotttanD Kepent antj taft teaming for tljc Door of haurn ar atl RrBf ban asainst tfjr J am Cent for a roaming to tijc to fllee to BOB jet troublt fballt rpis man be for tuentj Baps a 3 rpent repnent opent acotfantj ot els toro

 (ball. In the midle of the day, the persons alive who lived in that house since it was built, being about twenty-eight years, were conveined by appointment of the civil magistrate before Colline, myself, and others, and did all touch the bones, in respect there was some suspicion of secret murder committed in the place; but nothing was found to discover the same.’

This ghost has surely excelled itself in inventing and excelling in every Hollywood bad ghost movie/book ever and in 1695! 

It continues its B Movie/Stephen King novel tropes by shouting vengeance and warning of a  terrible judgement from God then more house burning and child lifting commences until after a quick happy foray throwing mud, grabbing people and burning a sheep house, suddenly vanishes. I think we have all had a neighbour like the Rerrick poltergeist at one time or another. 

There is an excellent explanation of why the poltergeist behaved as it did on the website ‘Jardines Book of Martyrs’ where the author surmises a possible reason for the unnatural activity, chiefly that it was a useful tool to keep people god-fearing and religious in a time when the authority of the Church was beginning to wane and thus this ‘haunting ’ was produced by the minister to keep his flock in fear. 

Many of the witnesses were closely related or linked and the author of the pamphlet, the local minister Telfer  is keen to relate that he wrote his pamphlet to challenge ‘the prevailing spirit of atheism.’ You will note if you read the whole pamphlet, the significance of the Sabbath, the time when the evil spirit was particularly forceful. Telfer constantly urged people to pray against such evil and at a time when the churches’s power may have been considered to be waning. The publishing of such an exciting terrifying haunting in such a isolated rural area may indeed have led to more fearful prayer as people wondered what that strange banging sound was, gathered their children close and began to pray against the insurmountable invisible evil that was now so clearly a true threat to themselves and their loved ones. Nothing inspires loyalty like terror. 

Let us head back, well forwards  to the gentle ramblings of Malcolm as he heads off towards  Auchencairn. No need for such detail in Malcolm’s world, here is a man who wishes to look at what is in front of him, the beauty and the botany of Victorian Galloway lies before him and it is a splendid day for a ramble. 

‘The pleasure of a rural ramble is greatly enhanced by the sight of these old dwellings, now almost all that remain of our recollections of the brusque, honest-hearted, and dignified Galloway squire, of gaiter, ruffles, and hose…  so free from sham and display, unappreciated amid the glitter, varnish, and unreality of modem times.’

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