Ballantrae is a village on the south-west coast of Scotland. It is in South Ayrshire. Ballantrae is famous as the setting for the novel The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1889. In the distance can be seen the magnificent uninhabited island of Ailsa Craig. Formed from volcanic remains it is some ten miles from the Scottish coast and rises to a height of 1,110 feet.
As Robbie walked from his home in the village he looked out across the sea towards the Ailsa Craig, but the mist had shrouded the small island. It felt strange not to see it looming in the distance so dominant is it on this part of the Scottish coastline. Robbie had finished work early today the 31st October. He had arranged to meet up with some friends in the evening to celebrate the night of Halloween. However, with time on his hands until then, he decided to use this opportunity to take some exercise and wander around the many paths that made this area such a ramblers paradise. Ballantrae is sometimes referred to as the gateway to Carrick. Carrick is a name derived from the Scottish Gaelic word Carraig meaning rock or rocky place. It is a district that was part of the old Kingdom of Galloway. This Kingdom is associated with the same Norse-Gael world of Isle of Man, Hebrides and Dublin. These old Norse colonies and the Vikings that had settled there had been subject to Gaelicization. They had integrated into Gaelic society and adopted the language and customs of the Gaelic people who lived in these lands.
As he walked through the village he stopped to say hello and pat the noses of two horses who were standing by the gate of a field underneath the ruined Ardstinchar Castle. Robert gazed up at this once proud fortress that had been built in the fifteenth century by Hugh Kennedy one of the sons of Sir Gilbert Kennedy of Dunure. He was known as “Friar Hew” as he was a fully-ordained Dominican priest. He had left his monastery in Ayr to serve with the Scots army in France in the Hundred Years War. He was Joan of Arc’s Scottish Captain at the Siege of Orleans and beyond. Robbie was fascinated by the history of the castle and had tried to find out as much about it as he could. It was hard to imagine that the remains that stood above him, which as he watched were being slowly enveloped by the autumn mists, could hold so much history within its ruined walls. Mary Queen of Scots had visited this castle. If only its walls could speak he thought, they must have many secrets to tell. Anyway, he needed to keep going he wanted to walk south across the River Stinchar and then follow the river to the coast.
Nobody else seemed to be around on this cold, still, damp day as he stopped on the bridge and looked into river that flowed below. A blanket of mist seemed to be rising from it like the steam from a witches cauldron. Robert could see that all around him the fog was closing in, creating an eerie atmosphere that was well suited to the night of Halloween. He wondered how many people who now celebrated Halloween around the world really knew that its roots were Celtic in origin. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain was the start of the old Celtic New Year. A time when the end of the harvest came and people prepared to enter the dark unpredictable days of winter. Pre-Christian and with origins that were hidden deep in history going back to the days of the Celtic pantheon. It was a time when they made offerings to the gods and the rituals of fire, dressing up, lanterns and giving of food, so much part of Halloween today, has come down in one form or another through the ages from those pagan ceremonies.
Robbie shivered, maybe it was the thought of Halloween and its ghostly traditions that caused this. More likely it was the damp mist laden air and he decided to walk on and get warmed up again. He had a habit of daydreaming at the best of times, particularly on these solitary walks. Ballantrae was steeped in history; events and people from its past seemed to reach out to him and stimulate his imagination. His friends would joke when they saw his eyes stare into nothing, lost in some far off thought, “he’s off again, which planet are you on now Robbie?”, he would laugh as well, it was just part of his character after all. Robbie crossed the bridge and took a path that led towards the coast along the River Stinchar. The river starts its journey in the Galloway Forest Park nearly 34 miles away and then flows out into the sea of the outer Firth of Clyde estuary at Ballantrae. As Robbie continued on his walk the mist was thickening quickly until it reached a point where he could only just see the path in front of him. He was not worried by it, he knew the route well. It would take him underneath Burnbank and towards the raised shoreline of Dounan.
Robbie stopped – he thought he could hear the sound of footfall. Somebody else walking perhaps? Although he was a little surprised in that there were few people walking this path at this time of year; particularly when the mist was so heavy. However, he was certain he could hear the sound of footsteps, but knew that the fog could distort sound so he dismissed it and walked on. He could hardly see anything in front of him now and stopped again. Voices, he could hear voices. He strained to work out in what direction they were coming from; somewhere ahead he was sure. Some instinct made him cautious and he walked on as quietly as he could. No doubt about it, there were voices and he must be getting nearer to whoever it was because they were growing louder. They were male and speaking in a language that was not immediately familiar to him. He was able to speak Scottish Gaelic so knew that it was not that.
Instinctively Robbie thought that he should try and keep his presence hidden from this group. Nevertheless, his curiosity made him want to find out more. So he quietly crept forward. In the distance he could make out the yellow flickering glow of flaming torches struggling to pierce the now dense fog. Robbie felt drawn towards them, just like a moth is compelled to fly in the direction of a light on a dark night, no matter where it might lead. It was then that he started to see the shadowy figures of people. They seemed to be standing in a group and arguing with each other. As far as he could see there were at least eight of them. Moving closer through the undergrowth that bordered the path Robbie was taken by surprise as he started to see what they were wearing. Men dressed in leggings under long woollen tunics and cloaks that he could see were fastened by large brooches. Women as well, he could see two, with long dresses that looked like silk and necklaces of stones that even on this dour day managed to reflect the light of the flames.
It was what else that the men had on that really caught his eye. For each was wearing a metal helmet, and around their waists was a thick leather belt. From this hung a sword. This was not the first time that Robbie had seen such dress. He had been to many festivals were Viking societies performed and were dressed in the exact same way. This part of Western Scotland had very strong links with the Vikings. Indeed the Vikings had been a significant factor in the history of these lands. With the Islands of the Firth of Forth, Hebrides and Isle of Man forming the significant Kingdom of Mann and the Isles from the 9th to the 13th centuries. But this was no historical pageant. These people were on their own, in a mist laden landscape. Their voices only interrupted by the River Stinchar gently lapping at its banks and the waves of the sea rhythmically rolling the pebbles back and forth on the nearby shore of Dounan.
Robbie felt fascinated by the whole scene. It was always in his nature to try and look for logical explanations and he tried now. Of course he could have just stood up, made himself known and found out what they were doing there by just asking. But this was not going to happen, because he felt very uneasy. Wouldn’t anyone else in his position feel some fear? The shadowy figures before him shrouded in the mist, the odd way that they were dressed, all of this in a remote lonely site. If that wasn’t enough he could hear the aggression in their voices. It was clear that they were engaged in some form of dispute with each other. Voices growing louder, face to face, their anger seemed to escalate with each passing second. Robbie felt his anxiety grow and so it was not really a surprise when he saw the confrontation become physical. He could not tell who was fighting who, all of the men seemed to be involved in one big brawl.
It was at this point that Robbie felt he should go. He had stumbled across this scene by accident and just did not want to be part of it. They had already seemed to him like phantoms from a bygone age. Manifestations that had no right to intrude into his world; or had he intruded into theirs? Then he heard the sound off a sword being drawn, then more until he saw that they all had weapons at the ready. Clashes of metal, grunts then cries of pain. He looked in horror as he saw one of the figures grab his chest and could see the blood soaking through his tunic. As he fell to the ground the others continued slashing and stabbing at each other until another man went down. Robbie by this stage was frozen in fear and watched as one after the other had fallen injured or dead and the last two men remained in combat. This was all too much for him, he felt sick at witnessing this carnage. Turning to creep away he tripped over a fallen branch and fell heavily onto the path gasping with the impact.
Robbie knew he would have to get up quickly and get away from this place. As he stood he could sense that something had changed. Looking around he saw that the two men had stopped fighting and were both staring in his direction. Slowly at first and with swords drawn they moved towards him. He ran, but close behind he could hear the sound of their feet. Were they gaining on him? Half stumbling he looked around to see how close they were just as an axe passed close by his head and stuck in the trunk of a tree next to him. No need to look back now – just one aim; escape. He ran and until he heard the sound of the traffic coming along the road that passed through Ballantrae. Clambering over the wooden-stile from the path to the road he ran across the bridge into the village. He did not stop until he got home.
The whole experience had been like a nightmare and seemed so unbelievable. That was exactly why he did not tell anyone; who would believe him? When he joined his friends that night in the village pub to celebrate Halloween, they must have noticed he was unusually quiet:
“What’s the matter?” Fiona said. “You don’t seem yourself tonight.”
“Oh I’m OK” he replied “must be a bit tired, I went for a walk this afternoon. Along the River Stinchar under Burnside towards the sea.”
“Must have been very foggy there the mist was so thick today” Fiona said. “Always find that place a bit spooky at the best of times. Suppose its the story of all those skeletons they found down there.”
“What do you mean?” Robbie was taken aback by this.
“Well,” Fiona said, “towards the end of the nineteenth century some skeletons were uncovered down near Dounan shore where the river flows into the sea. They think they were Norse in origin. No more is known.”
Douglas, another friend who had been listening to the conversation said “I know what you mean Fiona, it can be a bit strange down there at times, especially when the mist comes in. You know even the name of the River Stinchar is steeped in mystery. I read that it is thought to come from old Gaelic: ‘Staing Aos Ath Irr’ meaning ‘The River of the Sacred place of the Druids’.”
Robbie said nothing to his friends of his experiences that day. They celebrated Halloween by the warmth of the pub fire telling tales of the supernatural and ghost stories. None could instil the level of fear in Robbie that he had already felt that day.The next morning the mists had cleared and Robbie returned to the place where he had seen the fight. There were no bodies of course, there was no blood on the ground and he didn’t expect to find any. But as he looked he saw the glint of metal. There on the ground was a brooch of gold. Perhaps Norse-Celtic in design of the type used to secure a Viking cloak. He picked it up and cast it into the River Stinchar; a gift for the gods of the river he thought. What emerged from the mists of the river that night needed to be returned. As he walked back along the path by the river, he did not notice the tree he passed had the mark of an axe cut deep into its trunk. Nor did he hear the soft sound of the footsteps that were following him.