Scottish ghosts - Dr Martha McGill

08 January 2020
Dr Martha McGill explores changing ideas about ghosts in Scotland since the middle ages, discovering that, from the medieval ‘revenant’ to the modern ghost tour, Scots have long sought truth, entertainment and comfort from the returning dead.

In the 1470s, the chronicler Blind Harry compiled a history of one of Scotland’s best known warriors: the ‘valiant’ William Wallace. He lauded Wallace’s lineage, legacy and military escapades. And alongside the valorising, he included some more curious anecdotes. One was about Wallace’s encounter with a ghost. 

The story begins with Wallace and sixteen of his followers fleeing from an English army. They had not got far when one of the men, Fawdon, declares he was too tired to go any further. For Wallace, this is proof enough of treachery. He draws his sword and slices off Fawdon’s head.

Wallace and his remaining followers proceed to their stronghold at Gask hall, Perthshire. But when they arrive, they hear blaring horns. Wallace sends two of his men out to investigate. They do not return. He dispatched two more men, and the same thing happens. Wallace then sends all the rest of his followers out, but the noise of the horns only increases. Finally he is forced to head outside himself. There he is greeted with a horrifying sight: Fawdon, risen from the dead, bearing his own decapitated head.

There follows a cartoonish fight. Fawdon hurls his head at Wallace; Wallace catches it and throws it back. Then the ‘aghast’ Wallace charges up some stairs, jumps down fifteen feet and runs away along a riverbank. As he glances back he thinks he sees Fawdon holding aloft a great rafter, having set the hall on fire.

The medieval revenant

The spectre of Fawdon was in the tradition of the medieval revenant. Revenants were akin to modern-day zombies: risen corpses that terrorised the living. Other Scottish stories told of dissolute men who emerged from their graves to harass their former mistresses, fight with knights or spread pestilence through communities. Some theologians speculated that revenants might be the genuine spirits of the dead. Others insisted that revenants were actually demons, animating or possessing the corpse. This was Blind Harry’s theory on Fawdon. Recalling an idea found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he noted that demons had the right to possess those who had died as traitors.

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It might be imagined that when a mysterious apparition was spreading plague or using its decapitated head as a missile, questions about its exact identity were of secondary importance. But determining whether or not dead souls could return was a prominent theological preoccupation, both in the medieval period and beyond. For Harry, identifying Fawdon as a demon demonstrated that Wallace had been quite right to think him a traitor and carry out the abrupt execution. Harry was more sympathetic to the idea of the returning dead if they served his interests: he also wrote of a monk who came back from purgatory to declare that he had seen Wallace progress to heaven, his murders decreed righteous. 

Ghosts and the reformation

The European reformation broke out in 1517; Scotland became a protestant country in 1560. In an atmosphere of religious turmoil, the question of whether or not dead souls might return took on new significance. There is no decisive biblical evidence for ghosts. The most pertinent story is that of the witch of Endor. At the bidding of Saul, first king of Israel and Judah, the witch of Endor summoned the deceased prophet Samuel to give an account of a forthcoming battle. Samuel correctly predicted Saul’s defeat and death. But witches were not to be trusted, and many theologians argued that Samuel could have been an apparition of the devil. Ghosts’ religious legitimacy thus remained open to debate, and became a point of tension between catholics and protestants in the 16th century.

Catholic culture allowed for three possible locations after death: heaven, hell and the middle ground of purgatory. Most catholic theologians agreed that if the dead could return, they did so in the fashion of Harry’s monk, from purgatory. Protestants rejected purgatory, with the 39 articles of the church of England terming it a ‘fond thing vainly invented’. For most Protestants, this also meant that the dead could not come back. Nobody would ever want to leave heaven, and nobody would ever be allowed to leave hell. Prominent 16th-century theologians, most notably the Swiss cleric Ludwig Lavater, argued that ghosts were deceptions. Sometimes they were tricks by the devil; sometimes hallucinations inspired by drunkenness or melancholy; sometimes pantomimes by fraudulent catholics. In Scotland, the sceptical position was reinforced by King James VI, who wrote in his 1597 Daemonologie that no good spirits had appeared on earth since biblical times.

This theological discourse changed the kinds of apparition stories that were recorded. Stories of haunted houses circulated – John Knox was among those said to have exorcised one – but the blame was usually placed on demons, and sometimes the witches who were thought to summon them.  Very few stories of the returning dead survive from the century and a half following the reformation. People probably did tell stories of ghosts. Ballads recorded primarily in the 19th century hint that there was an established oral tradition of accounts of dead souls coming back, usually to reveal murders or tell their loved ones to stop grieving. But educated protestants were little inclined to write down ghost stories.