The Nature of The Scottish Ghost Story by M J Steel Collins

Anyone who’s looked at ghost stories will notice after a while that they are of a finicky nature. Once you think you’ve got the tale pinned down, you discover it has at least one other version, or more. It certainly keeps the folklorist busy, but it is important to document the differing accounts as they arise, mainly as it shows how the story has developed over time. One thing I have learned to do, which is perhaps similar to what a paranormal investigator does, is not to accept a story at face value. The one thing where investigating ghosts and documenting their tales diverges is that when it comes to the story, the question of whether or not ghosts exist goes out the window. It is the story that matters.

Scotland has been described as the most haunted country in the world; truth be told, it is probably an even tie with Japan, but it can’t be denied that the ghost story is an important part of Scottish culture. This became clear to me back in university whilst doing my dissertation on ghosts and hauntings. The one thing that stood out was the story and the way in which it could change.

This sent me on an investigation on how ghost stories came about in Scotland. One of the key things that stuck out was the storytelling tradition. Before literacy became widespread, and obviously in an age when much of the population wasn’t glued to a flat screen TV, laptop, or such similar device, storytelling was the main form of entertainment. In fact, even getting caught up on current affairs was done by way of the ballad. It goes even deeper, if we take social theorist Walter Benjamin. Storytelling to him was a way of sharing experience, each teller putting their own impression with each recounting of a tale, giving it the various quirks and asides as the story was passed down. However, following the First World War, the increased dissemination of information meant that storytelling declined to be replaced by media.

Now we need to side step a little and have a look at legendary novelist, Sir Walter Scott. Some credit him with creating the modern Scottish ghost story. It is down to him that we have this romanticized view of the misty highlands, the ruined Scottish castle, and more importantly, the wistful, occasionally malevolent ghost. It has been said that Scott found the present ever so slightly dull, so he jazzed things up a little. In doing so, he also gave us the romanticised Scottish past. A little of Scott adding a part of himself to the telling of the Scottish experience a la Benjamin? Perhaps.

Taking Scott’s romantic notion of Scotland out of the equation and just looking at Scottish history in general, it’s fair to say that the Scots did make a habit out of doing nasty things to each other, just as the Scots and English appeared to hack chunks out of each other during their various skirmishes. This has given rise to the vast majority of Scottish ghost stories. The many ghost stories accredited to Glamis and Edinburgh Castles testify to this. It may be safe to say that ghost stories play a huge role in bringing Scottish history alive. Much of the Edinburgh Ghost Tour is made up of a huge slice of history, and the ghost story doesn’t make much sense without the historical context.

Benjamin is right in that the large dissemination by media has reduced oral storytelling – the main way in which we learn about ghost stories is via websites, blogs, podcasts, books, magazines, newspapers and TV shows. It’s no wonder we are saturated and that several ghost stories have umpteen different versions! The stories, like Chinese whispers, also change with each retelling; perhaps it’s the one thing from Benjamin’s theory that survived into the modern era. Scotland is an absolute minefield for the modern ghost story too. Edinburgh is arguably the main hive of Scottish tales, as seen by the healthy industry it has in ghost tours. That’s not to say other Scottish towns and cities aren’t coming out from under Auld Reekie’s shadow; Glasgow is starting to be given more recognition for haunting stories, and Dundee, Aberdeen and Paisley aren’t short of a few. Some of these places are beginning to spawn their own ghost tours. Mostly Ghostly in Dumfries and Galloway also do a sterling job running ghost tours around the area.

On a final note, Walter Benjamin would probably be heartened to know that traditional storytelling has been making a comeback in recent years, probably part of the wider scene of people getting back to their cultural roots. Storytelling in particular is rather important; it was after all the original means of sharing knowledge when culture was based on the oral, rather than written word. It also helps to bring places alive to people who may not otherwise engage with them. A castle on its own is just a castle, but throw in a few stories, it becomes so much more. An example of this can be seen in the Storyteller in Residence project at Crookston Castle in Glasgow, the ghost stories of which incidentally are scarcely recognised. Perhaps ghost tours can be viewed as a modern development of traditional storytelling?

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