Thursday, 9 April 2015

On April 1st I offered to write a fictional ghost story on my Facebook page.  Stories on the Original St Andrews Witches Tour are all traditional; handed down for centuries, and to mark April Fools day I thought it might be fun to write a totally made-up modern story.  I really should have thought that one through more carefully because, although I wrote it in the right order, each episode went on top of the previous one which made it read in reverse order.  Oops!

Anyway. this is a story about Isla, Ben and Bill.

The Last Bus Home

Isla's Story

I always get the last bus home from St Andrews on Friday nights.  Jamie, my fiance used to drive me home, but we split up a couple of years ago and because I don't have a car and never learned to drive, catching the bus has been my only option since then.  There wasn't anything remarkable about that particular Friday night.  Bill, the bus driver nodded at me as I got on the bus and I headed for my usual seat.

The bus jerked into motion and we slid past shops and houses.  I was the only passenger, as usual, until the  last bus stop on the very edge of town. That's where he got on.  Tall, with dark floppy hair and kind dark eyes that looked straight through me.  He was thrown into the seat across the aisle from me as the bus moved off again.  I glanced at him, then looked away quickly, in case he noticed.

Trees and houses and hedgerows slid by  as I sat in silence. I glanced sideways at him, wishing he would look over and notice me, but he just kept reading his book. I looked out of the window again. We were passing Magus Muir, where Archbishop Sharp was dragged from his coach and murdered. The road from here to St Andrews was supposed to be haunted by the Phantom Coach, though I'd never seen it.

Ironic, really, that so many people claimed to have seen a ghostly coach, yet here was I on a modern bus sitting across the aisle from an eminently fanciable guy, and I couldn't even get him to notice me.
I found that I was muttering under my breath. "Look over. Look at me. Notice me, for goodness sake. What's wrong with me?"
Then, finally, he looked...

Ben's story

What a night. Takeaway curry and a few beers with the flatmates, then a phone call from my girlfriend. She was at a birthday party in Anstruther, and did I want to come over?

I just had time to catch the last bus. I could have driven there, I suppose, but I wasn't sure I'd have passed the breathalyzser. So, bus it was. The bus stop is about a couple of hundred yards from the flat, and I got there in time to see the bus draw up.

It was just an ordinary bus. Nothing to mark it as unusual. I paid the driver, went towards the back of the bus, and sat down. Night-time bus journeys are always boring, so I got my book out of my bag and settled down to read.

You know how sometimes you feel like there are eyes boring into the back of your head? I got that feeling. After a while I couldn't ignore it any more, so I put my book down and looked around.
I wish I hadn't...

Bill's story

That Friday was much the same as any other. I was doing a late shift. The girl got on at the bus station, as usual. She's a quiet wee thing. Never draws any attention to herself. Usually sits about halfway up the bus. I don't have many regular passengers for the last bus on a Friday, but the people who catch the last bus tend to sit right at the back or just behind me.

When Ben got on the bus and picked a seat halfway down the aisle I could see him in the mirror, and I could see that Isla was giving him the glad-eye. He might not have noticed, but it was clear to me that Isla fancied him.

What was I supposed to do? I'm the seventh son of a seventh son. I have the clear sight. I didn't think that Ben would be able to see her, but I suppose after 30 years, Isla got lonely and wanted to be noticed. You see, Isla doesn't remember that she flung herself off the pier the night she was jilted, and she doesn't realise that she's dead, but the waves battering her off the rocks didn't do her any favours.
No wonder the laddie fainted when he saw her.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

It's only superstion...

Superstitions may be irrational, inexplicable and deeply personal beliefs.  They come in all shapes and sizes, from "lucky pants" worn to an interview or football match, to not stepping on cracks in the pavement or avoiding looking at the new moon through glass without turning over the silver in your pocket to ward off bad luck.

Most superstitions seem to involve warding off bad luck by ritual (turning around clockwise three times and/or spitting) or by not bringing something "unlucky" into your life or your home.  Preventative ritual might include not walking under ladders or avoiding black cats, or even refusing to have certain plants in your home.

For some people, however, superstition can be a fixed point that is difficult to avoid.  Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present "triskaidekaphobia", otherwise known as "fear of the number thirteen" to those of us fallible mortals who can't actually pronounce the word.  Ask me about  fear of the number thirteen and I will tell you that I laugh at triskaidekaphobia.  So does anyone in earshot when I try to pronounce the word.

In Italy, thirteen is considered to be a lucky number.  In many countries it's a number with no special relevance, lucky or unlucky.  In fact the number thirteen doesn't seem to have any importance in Britain until the seventeenth century.  So how did it get its bad reputation?

Some say that the number thirteen is considered to be unlucky because of its association with the Last Supper.  That's also probably where the superstition arose that if thirteen sit down to a meal, the last person to rise from the table will die within the year.

There are also thirteen lunar cycles, and therefore thirteen menstrual cycles in a year.  The Christian church also believed that a witches coven needed thirteen members to be effective.  Perhaps the association of the number with both the natural and the supernatural is why the number is considered sinister by some and the reason why some buildings don't have a thirteenth floor and some streets don't have a house numbered thirteen.

Triskaidekaphobia is disturbing enough for some people, but when the thirteenth of the month falls on a Friday anxiety levels can go through the roof. The day is named after Frigga, Norse goddess and wife of Odin.

Tradition says that Friday is an unlucky day to start a journey or a venture.  Seafarers would often refuse to set sail on a Friday and, even today, many people will try to avoid driving, flying or any unnecessary travel on a Friday.  Some people will even stay in bed all day to avoid bad luck.  If you're this fearful, what you're suffering from is "parakevidekatriaphobia " or "friggatriskaidekaphobia", but it's easier to say "fear of Friday the thirteenth".

On, the other hand, if you don't mind Friday the thirteenth, there's nothing like a ghost tour to defy the fates...

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ghosts and Giggles

I very rarely manage to write anything on this blog in July or August.  I'm usually busy with family matters or other projects in those two months and, besides, July and August are the height of the tourist season which means the Original St Andrews Witches Tour is haunting the streets of the Home of Golf and there are phone calls to be made and answered, emails to be sent and costumes to be maintained.

Summer is also the time of year when new "jumpers-oot" learn to make a haunting impression on tourists; a time of year that can be really enjoyable or incredibly stressful for me, or often both at the same time.  I'm often asked what qualities a good jumper-oot needs.  The first one has to be a pulse.  Real ghosts are just so unreliable.  Vital signs aside, the ability to run at a brisk jog-trot at very least is necessary, as is imagination, but the absolutely essential quality in a good jumper-oot is a sense of humour.  Nothing will come together without that. After all, walking about town in a maxi dress needs a certain panache to carry off the look, especially if you're a guy who's over six foot tall and sporting a beard.

Everybody's first tour is a little nerve-wracking.  They wonder if they will remember the route, the cues, what they're supposed to do.  And so do I.  Everybody makes at least one mistake on their first tour, and it's my job to step in and make it look as if that's the way things are meant to be when it does happen.  Add to the mix the fact that the tours take place on the streets of St Andrews where truly strange things can (and do) happen, and it's very much a case of "expect the unexpected".

Strange things?  Well, several years ago I approached Martyrs' Monument to tell a story about the persecution of witches and noticed three figures sitting on one of the benches that used to be at the base of the monument.  It looked as if there was a woman in a tweed coat and a headscarf with a young man (students?) either side of her.  This was in November, and it was dark.  I led the twenty-or-so Scouts on the tour to the base of the Monument to tell the tale before I saw that the "woman" was wearing a duck mask under the headscarf.  I never did find out why but, whatever the reason, the Scouts stared at her unblinkingly for the next four or five minutes before I could finish my story and move them on.

Martyrs' Monument was a scene of consternation another time when the fire alarm went off in Patrick Hamilton Halls just as I approached the Monument.  My jumper-oot realised with horror that the fire point where people would gather was... yes... right next to the Monument, and he was desperately trying to tell people to "shhhh" so he could hear his cue.  I think the answers he got that night were pretty robust.  He did hit his cue, though.

There was also the night on the Bow Butts when I looked at one of the windows across the road and realised that four Santas were dancing in a circle in somebody's living-room.  To my eternal shame, I got the giggles and forgot what I was saying.

Over a few tours, jumpers-oot find their own way of doing things to make people on the tour scream and laugh.  By the second or third tour they are usually enjoying their work.  Such was the case with Jamie.  Hi, Jamie, if you're reading this!  Jamie was very shy when he started as a jumper-oot.  A quiet, polite boy who you would never imagine could want to frighten anybody.  Jamie got through his first tour without a mistake until the very last "jump-oot" when he came out of an alley dressed as the Beast and wearing a snake-head mask.  He did what he was supposed to do, and then ran off.

I started to laugh, and couldn't stop.  I couldn't stop laughing long enough to say my lines, couldn't see for tears of laughter.  In fact, I could barely stand for laughing.  It must have been over a minute before I could compose myself enough to explain to the baffled tour what I found so funny.  Just out of sight of the group, the alley Jamie ran down had a dog-leg turn.  Jamie knew this, but his view was limited by the mask, and, perhaps because of nerves, he had run off and straight into the wall.  The long snout of the mask had stopped him from hurting himself, but he had bounced off the wall with an audible, if muffled "Oof!"

By the time Jamie finished working on the tour and moved on to other things he had changed from that quiet boy to somebody who could control an audience, but every time I think of him I remember that "Oof!" and smile.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

A play that was first performed in 1540 before King James V of Scotland and his Queen, Marie de Guise might be presumed to be too staid for modern tastes, but the performances of A Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace this weekend gave the lie to that presumption.

A Satire of the Three Estates was written by Sir David Lindsay of the Mount.  Sir David Lindsay owned land at the Mount near Cupar.  The Hopetoun Monument (shown below) is on this land.
Given that the 16th century was a time of deepening religious unrest in Scotland, it might be fair to expect the play to be mealy-mouthed and sanctimonious, but it is most decidedly neither of these.  Nor is it filled with "thee"s and "thou"s.  Although Auld Scots can be difficult to read, it springs to life when spoken aloud and most Scots will understand what David Lindsay was trying to say without too much effort.

The"three estates" of the title are the clergy, the nobility, and everybody else, and the play raises questions  as pertinent to politics in Scotland today as it did then.  The blog for the production can be found here 

Beautiful weather at Linlithgow Palace on Sunday was a decided bonus to this outdoor performance, and even the parliament of crows in the trees hit their cues on time.  Far from being staid and stuffy the performance was hilariously earthy and bawdy in parts and, at others it held a mirror to the state of politics today.  Eight hours flew past in a whirl of Vices, Virtues, political commentary and fart gags until, sunburnt and happy, the audience went home.
The last performance (of the Interlude) will be on Thursday, June 13th at Stirling Castle.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Martyrs' Monument has stood on the Bow Butts on the Scores in St Andrews since it was first erected in 1842/3, a needle-like structure inscribed with the names of the Scottish Protestants who met with a martyr's death for their beliefs.  Patrrick Hamilton in 1528, Henry Forrest in 1533, George Wishart in 1546 and Walter Mill or Mylne in 1558.

A century and a half of exposure to the rain, wind and salt air, however had left the monument badly eroded, however, and a restoration fund was set up two and a half years ago.  Six months of hard work by skilled masons took place before the monument had its re-inauguration ceremony yesterday.
St Andrews Pipe band led guests to the bandstand 
It was a gloriously sunny, but very windy, day. Provost Jim Leishman welcomed those who came along on behalf of Fife Council and thanked those involved  in the restoration project.
Rev. Dr. Ian Bradley spoke of the history of the martyrs in St Andrews and how the Martyrs' Monument came to be built almost four centuries after Walter Mylne's death and two students from the University of St Andrews, dressed as early martyrs, barefoot and carrying bundles of wood, joined the party on the bandstand.  Dr Richard Holloway spoke of the meaning and significance of martyrdom in today's society, and then Rev. Rory MacLeod and Rev. Dr Andrew Kinghorn led prayers of reconciliation, and the event ended with a lone piper's lament

Friday, 1 March 2013

The most attractive village in Scotland?

This is the village of Ceres, which lies roughly three miles from Cupar and seven miles from St Andrews.  It has been called the most attractive village in Scotland.  I haven't seen all the villages in Scotland, but Ceres is certainly very pretty.  It nestles in a dip in a small valley and spreads below you as you follow the road to the right cresting the hill from Cupar.

In days gone by the village boasted several mills and there was coal mining close by, but today it is a dormitory town for people who work in Cupar, St Andrews, Perth and Dundee.

Nowadays it boasts a few local shops such as Hand Made Home 
Ceres Butchers
and Lunardi Gallery

Also Griselda Hill Pottery  which makes the famous Wemyss Ware pottery

Hostelries in the town are the  nineteenth-century Meldrums Hotel and the Ceres Inn which overlooks the Bow Butts, or village green.

Directly opposite the Ceres Inn , next to the antique shop, is a statue known locally as "The Toby Jug".  It is believed to represent the Reverend Thomas Buchanan, who was the last church provost in 1578, and just uphill from the Toby Jug is Fife Folk Museum

Across the road from the Bow Butts is the Bishop's Bridge, so called because Archbishop Sharp used it regularly when going between Kennoway and St Andrews.  He would have crossed this bridge on the 3rd May 1679 on his way to Magus Muir where he would be pulled from his coach and murdered in front of his daughter.

   Opposite the Bishop's Bridge is the Well House and its pump.

The Bow Butts has the name because that is where the youth of the town practised their archery skills in the 14th century.

Ceres is most famous for its free Highland Games which are said to be the oldest in Scotland.  The charter to hold the Games was awarded by Robert the Bruce in recognition of the villagers' suport in the Battle of Bannockburn on 24th June 1314, almost 700 years ago now, and the games have taken place every year since then except in time of war.

The war memorial facing the road in front of the Bow Butts is not a memorial to the soldiers of World Wars One or Two, however.  It is a memorial to the men of Ceres who marched away in 1314 to the Battle of Bannockburn, a battle which would shape how Scotland would be governed.


Most attractive village in Scotland?  Why not come along to the Ceres Games on the last Saturday in June and decide for yourself?

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Happy Hogmanay!

You'll notice that I didn't wish you a happy New Year in the title of this post.  That's because it's unlucky to wish somebody a happy New Year until after the Bells on January 1st.  The Bells, for those of you who aren't familiar with the expression, are not referring to the whisky but are the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new at midnight between December 31st (Hogmanay) and January 1st (Ne'erday).

Hogmanay is traditionally associated with memories and endings.  Ne'erday is associated with new beginnings.  This is why people try to pay off any debts and attempt to finish any ongoing projects before the Bells; it allows them to begin the New Year with a clean slate.  In most towns people will gather at the Mercat (Market) Cross while a piper prepares to "pipe in" 2013.  After that has been done the crowd will wish each other a happy new year before dispersing to visit friends.

In Scotland we prepare for the New Year by cleaning the house.  That might be because it's considered unlucky to welcome the new year with a messy house but, more pragmatically, it's more likely to be because of the First Foots.  No, I don't mean First Feet; I mean First Foot.  The First Foot is the first person to set foot across your threshold after the Bells,bringing the New Year and its luck in with him or her.  The luckiest First Foot will be a dark-haired man, the least lucky a red-haired woman.  Don't get annoyed with me about that; I don't make up these superstitions. 

Tradition says that your First Foot should bring you a gift of oatmeal, coal or herring to bring plenty into your household and, for the same reason, you should ensure that all purses and pockets have a coin in them and that your food cupboards are stuffed full.  This symbolises a year of plenty ahead and makes sure that you have something to offer to family or friends who visit you during the New Year period.

Your First Foot will also bring gold (in the form of whisky) into your house and it is only good manners to accept a drink from them and offer one back, which, of course, leads to a party with singing and, occasionally, dancing.  This party may last an hour or may go on for a day, but the first song sung is usually "Auld Lang Syne".

Foodstuffs offered to First Foots may well include oatcakes, shortbread and Black Bun.  You may be familiar with the first two but not with Black Bun.  It is a very heavy and rich fruit cake encased in a pastry crust which may be used to sop up excessive alcohol or, alternatively, makes a useful doorstop.  It is an acquired taste... 

New Year celebrations may well go on for a couple of days and you will be wished a "Happy new year" by strangers you pass in the street.  Don't worry too much about traditions or superstitions (or even resolutions).  Just have a happy new year... when it comes.