Ireland

Immortal Lovers – The Leanan Sidhe by Amy Van De Casteele

When people think of fairies, the image that usually springs to mind is of a delicate ethereal being with flowing hair and a radiant gleam; an uncanny creature, ravishingly beautiful and – depending on the person – either cute and dainty, or tall and ‘perilously fair’. These beings, which humans have supposedly encountered since oral traditions began, are said to reside in an ‘Otherworld’ on the liminal boundaries of our own – a world that some hapless mortals have visited. To think of the Otherworld is to evoke images of shining beauty, of immortality, of swirling mists and dark deeds and mystical spells.

This ravishing beauty which the fairies embody (and their attendant ‘glamour’ or grammarye, their magical webs of illusion) are particularly crucial to our sense of the fairy realm. This beauty may be no more than a visual deception caused by the fairies themselves but it has led to our fervent belief in preternaturally attractive creatures with luminescent skin and eyes that shine like pieces of sky or sea glass. A form of supernatural being we could easily be seduced by, even fall in love with.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that there are many stories, throughout our British history, which speak of men and women taking fairy lovers or simply being left helplessly enchanted by the magic and beauty of a member of that “Other” realm.

Common among these tales are those which speak of the Leanan sidhe, which is often translated as Barrow Lover and denotes those beautiful fairies who take a mortal partner.

Generally these Leanan sidhe are female but there have also been stories of male fairies seducing young human women. Whatever the gender the outcome of this mortal-immortal mingling is usually the same; the mortal love object gradually becomes mad or simply sickens away and dies at a young age, after living a short, turbulent but brilliant life.

Most often the people chosen to be ‘fairy lovers’ are poets and musicians, to whom the fairy appears as a muse; a source of otherworldly inspiration.

In fact many of the great poets of the last three or four hundred years, such as Keats, Shelley and Byron, are thought to have died as a result of the attentions of a Leanan sidhe. These fairies, a sort of Celtic succubus, inspire their mortal lovers and bring them prodigious poetic or musical talent, immense creativity and a fine-tuned appreciation of beauty; while at the same time draining them of vigour, causing them to burn out way before their time. Hence Keats died at the age of 25; Shelley at the age of 19 – and Byron at the age of 36.

On the other hand renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats lived well into his 70’s – perhaps because he was well versed in folklore and so was unable to be ensnared by the beguiling beauty of the Leanan sidhe? It is a romantic notion, whether it is true or not. Yeats actually mentioned this particular kind of fairy in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland and declared that the Leanan sidhe “lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.”

Poor, doomed Keats wrote a famous poem about the perils of falling in love with a fairy: La Belle Dame sans Merci. In it he writes,

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

There follows a romantic interlude with this beautiful otherworldly being – but things quickly turn sour when the unfortunate man falls asleep and has an awful dream. In it he sees “pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!’

Horrified, the man realizes they are giving him a warning; but the final verse of the poem hints that the warning came too late, as the young mortal lover remains “in the meads”, a grim figure, “alone and palely loitering”, perhaps waiting for his fairy paramour to return. Anyone familiar with the habits of the leanan sidhe will be well aware that the only likely outcome for the unfortunate mortal is a lonely, bitter death, consumed by longing and desire for a being he can never possess.

The fate which perhaps poor Keats himself was subject to.

Because of the prevalence of premature death in poets such as Keats and some of his contemporaries, and because of the general mythology of destruction and death which surrounds them, the Leanan sidhe are classed as hostile, an evil breed of fairy. But we must not forget that there is another, less grotesque side to them too – after all, while they may cause their mortal victims to suffer from a considerably shortened life span, they do impart great stores of poetic talent and beauty, not to mention a keen appreciation of those most poignant and noble human emotions – love, longing and sorrow. If Keats and his fellow poets truly were inspired by fairy beings and carried off to an early grave as a result, the poetry they left behind stands the test of time and has surely achieved at least some form of immortality. It is arguable that the poets themselves would not have had it any other way; rather a short and gifted life than a lengthy one of literary mediocrity; this is, after all, how such intensely creative types tend to think.

As for the Leanan Sidhe, perhaps they are still among us to this day, drawn to luminously creative souls whom they both inspire and slowly destroy – while at the same time leaving us in possession of a strikingly beautiful literary and musical legacy; otherworldly in its beauty and consummate skill.

Ireland

Fairy Gifts by Amy Van De Casteele

Taking a quick scan through human history, and its many colourful cultural beliefs, legends and mythologies, it seems clear, at least to me, that human beings simply cannot exist without fairies – or at least, not without stories of fairies.

Ever since our ancestors first began speaking about these strange creatures around the flickering flow of a cooking fire, our minds and our myths have been haunted by fairies, by their magic and by their many weird and wonderful deeds.

From Ireland’s supposed historical invasion of the Tuatha De Danann – also referred to as the Shining or Lordly Ones – to the Victorian obsession with tiny, delicate pixie beings with Tinkerbell-style wings, we have told tales, painted pictures and dreamed many a dream of these mysterious creatures.

Of course not all of our beliefs about them are as sweet and cutesy as the Victorian’s precious ‘tiny fairy’ image. In Anglo Saxon times elves were believed to inhabit our meadows, woodlands and hilltops and though our ancestors told stories of how beautiful they were elves were also treated with a healthy mixture of fear and respect. Sacrifices were made in their honour, both to appease them and ask for their aid, and pieces of iron – which they supposedly hated – were left under the cribs of new-born babies, so that the children wouldn’t be stolen away in the night and replaced by changelings. Elves were also blamed for an affliction which was known in Anglo Saxon times as ‘water-elf disease’ but was probably dropsy, and for many years our ancestors had a firm belief in ‘elf-shot’, tiny malevolent barbs shot by the elves which caused illness, lassitude and sometimes even death.

However elves and fairies could also impart good fortune as well as bad. From helping with the crops to – ironically enough – curing diseases, we believed that these magical beings could give us aid when ordinary human techniques or knowledge failed. Two famous gifts said to be imparted by fairies are those of music and literary skill. As I have written in a previous article, the leanan sidhe are ‘fairy lovers’ which legend has it imparted poets such as Keats and Shelley with uncommon writing abilities…while at the same time draining them of vitality and causing their early deaths.

Meanwhile, British folklore – particularly that of the Irish – is filled with tales of people who became able to play sublimely beautiful music after being visited by fairies or falling asleep on a fairy mound.

Many of these tales date back centuries but there is a more recent example of a talented creative soul who was said to be enchanted by fairies. This person was none other than the revered Edinburgh artist, John Duncan, who was described by a close friend (Charles Richard Gammen) as being “the Scottish Blake” and was not only a skilled painter but also a poet, scholar and mystic. Member of the Theosophical Society for almost 40 years, John Duncan not only believed in fairies but supposedly saw them on many occasions when visiting Scottish islands such as Iona. On these islands he saw “not only the Little People but the Lordly Ones”, according to Gammen.

These encounters began on his very first holiday to the beautiful isle of Iona. He was supposed to stay for a few days or weeks at most, but Duncan soon became so entranced by the stunning landscape and ‘feel’ of the island that he ended up lingering for months. He went walking alone one day through the spectacular countryside when he suddenly noticed “two figures – tall and of strange aspect” who were walking down a heather-clad hill towards him. Duncan must have known straight away that they were uncanny creatures for “their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked, and they made no sound as they passed close to him…”

The two eerie beings then simply “faded out”, and in that moment John Duncan knew that he had witnessed fairies, walking abroad in the sunshine. From that day forward “he saw other members of the Sidhe on Iona”, according to friend Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, who went on to say that, “He had so much experience of Faerie and the Lordly Ones….that he found himself losing touch entirely with the earth and his own earthly existence. So, in the end, he thought it wiser to tear himself away from that mystical, haunted Isle.”

Duncan, who became famous for his stunning artworks, which had more than a trace of mysticism about them, famously led a somewhat unusual life and some modern-day cynics might say that he was mentally unstable. After all, he openly stated that he heard ‘fairy music’ while he was painting, and he proposed to, and later married, a woman who – he believed – had discovered the Holy Grail in Glastonbury’s Chalice Well (she later divorced him).

Then again, many famous ‘Creatives’ throughout history have been thought to be mad or in some way ‘unnatural’.

One can’t help but wonder if these tragic yet highly talented figures are just more examples of the common belief that madness and genius go hand in hand – or if the fairies, with their power to both inspire and destroy, had some influence on our many tortured but brilliant (and much beloved) poets, writers and painters… Could their talents, and subsequent unhappy ends, have been partly inspired by fairies, their brilliance imparted as a fairy gift? And, if so, was it truly a gift – or (thinking of the resultant madness and premature death) something of a spectacular curse?

Singapore

Fairy Roses, Fairy Rings by Amy Van De Casteele

Fairy roses, fairy rings, turn out sometimes troublesome things” – William Makepeace Thackeray
The inhabitants of Great Britain have been telling tales of elves and fairies for hundreds if not thousands of years. Known as ‘the little people’, the ‘Fair Folk’, the Sidhe and many other names besides, these mysterious creatures have fascinated us throughout our history and continue to do so even now, in this technological age when so many myths and legends have been reduced merely to dusty pages in forgotten books.
While fairies and elves are varyingly portrayed as being helpful, sweet, pure, mischievous and even malicious, one of the most enduring motifs in tales of the fairies is that of hapless mortals being whisked away to Elfland to join in the fairy revels. On the surface this sounds like an enchanting prospect but legend has it that in the land of the fairies time is much more fluid than in our mortal realm and can flow much faster or even stop and stand stock still. As a result, when these unfortunate humans are returned to their homes, they often find that in the “real world” time has galloped onwards and perhaps a hundred years have passed and everyone they once knew – including all their loved ones – are dead.
One of the most famous accounts of a mortal being taken away to Elfland is that of True Thomas, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, who encounters the beautiful Queen of the fairies riding on a milk-white steed. Mistaking her at first for the Queen of Heaven, Thomas consents to ride away with her and is shown “three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell and to her own world”. Finally she bestows upon him a gift of “even cloth” and “shoes of velvet green” and, lastly, a tongue that cannot tell a lie – hence his later nickname of True Thomas. He is then returned to the mortal realm where he is blessed with the gift of foresight and becomes a prophet, predicting among other things the Scottish triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and the defeat of King James IV at Flodden.
Many poems and ballads have been made about the predictions of True Thomas and his supposed encounter with the Queen of the elves. In real life not much is known about him besides his predictions and the fact that his name was probably Thomas of Erceldoune and he was born in or around 1220. No one is really sure how he died but there are two differing versions of events; one says that he was the victim of a political killing; the other more mystic tale states that he lives on still in the Eildon Hills and will rise again one day, just like King Arthur or that other famous prophet, Merlin.
Another famous “real life” tale of a person being whisked away to Fairyland – in this case, for all eternity – is that of the minister and Gaelic folklorist Robert Kirk, who penned the rather iconic A Secret Commonwealth (of Elves, Fauns and Fairies) back in 1692. A dedicated scholar, devoted husband and minister of Balquhidder and then his hometown of Aberfoyle until his death, Robert published a few other Gaelic works and oversaw the printing of the Gaelic Bible which was published in 1690, but it was his work on folklore and fairies which has brought him most renown. The reason for this is partly the work itself but also the romantic and rather haunting mystery surrounding his death.
Robert Kirk passed from this world on May 14 1692 at the relatively young age of 48; his body was found on the slopes of what was known as the “fairy hill” above the village of Aberfoyle. Although there is a grave and a tombstone with his name on it in the churchyard it is rumoured that no corpse is interred there; that, in fact, Robert Kirk’s body was spirited away to Fairyland where he will dwell for all eternity and serve as chaplain to the Fairy Queen. This seems an ethereal and very romantic notion; however a darker version of the story says that the fairies took him because they were angry at how he had betrayed their secrets, and another equally disturbing rumour is that the fairies imprisoned him in the lonely Scots pine which stands atop the hill, echoing the fate of the Arthurian mystic Merlin, who was also held captive in such a way in the forest of Broceliande.
It is even said that the spirit of Robert Kirk appeared both to his pregnant widow and to his cousin, begging them to free him from Fairyland, and later Colin Kirk, the unfortunate folklorist’s eldest son, stated that his father came to him in dreams and told him that he could be saved if a child was christened at the Aberfoyle manse and a dirk stuck into his chair. Unfortunately it seems that this has never been achieved and local people say that if you cross the bridge to go up the fairy hill where he died you will feel a heavy weight riding on your back – the poor lost spirit of Robert Kirk himself, clinging to your mortal flesh, still desperate to be rescued from his eternal captivity.
Of course there are many fairy tales and fictional accounts of people being stolen away to Elfland but these reports of true-life encounters with the Fair Folk are enough to give us pause, to send shivers rippling down our spines and raise the fine hairs on the back of our necks. While the “abduction” of Thomas the Rhymer and Robert Kirk took place centuries ago, there have been more recent stories of strange vanishings, such as the 1960’s case of the little boy from Govan, who was walking home along the road with his brothers when suddenly he disappeared as if into thin air – he hasn’t been seen since.
Whatever you believe – or don’t – about the Fair Folk there is no doubt that humans remain fascinated by tales of these fantastic creatures; perhaps within us all there is some ancestral yearning for a connection with the mystical, making the idea of a sojourn in Elfland seem desirable despite the inherent otherworldly quality of this place; the element of danger and death. Whether it is a real place or not, Fairyland will continue to haunt our dreams and imaginings for many years to come.
Scotland

A Haunting Trip Doon the Watter by M J Steel Collins

The Glasgow Fair isn’t quite the event it used to be. Nowadays, it means only a few days off for Glasgow workers from the daily grind. But a few short decades ago, it saw thousands of happy workers leave the city in droves to enjoy what was for most the only proper holiday they got all year. And a holiday, in the days before the package trip abroad, meant catching a boat from the Broomielaw and sailing down the Clyde to one of several towns and villages dotting the islands and mainland coast of the Clyde estuary as it opens out into the sea.
In many cases, several families would head off to the likes of Dunoon or Arran for the entire summer, and were joined at the weekends by the workers in the family, who couldn’t afford to take the entire summer off. The Glasgow Fair and going ‘doon the watter’ really took off; benefitting working class families in the late 19th century when workers were given paid holidays. The exodus from Glasgow each July became a huge event, with the city train stations and docks bustling with several excited families armed with everything they needed for a wee break by the sea.
By the 1970s, air travel became more accessible and affordable, with many opting to take in the delights of Benidorm rather than Rothesay. The steamers down the Clyde eventually were phased out. The only one left plying the old routes today is the Waverley paddle steamer. Whilst the holidaying Glaswegian might be a lesser spotted creature in the Clyde estuary, denizens of another worldly nature are plentiful, as the following shows…
Greenock, Inverclyde
 
In 2012, the then Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service (now the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service) received a request from a paranormal group, Darkside Paranormal, to investigate the Service’s heritage centre, a disused Victorian fire station in Greenock. Strange stories abound of the old station, with some trades people refusing to work alone in certain rooms.
The museum, in Wallace Place is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a small boy who died during the 1920s after falling from the fire master’s flat.
Gourock, Inverclyde
 
The Kempock Stone, at 49 Kempock St in Gourock has long been linked to superstition and witchcraft. The land on which it stands has a permanent ban on any building being erected there. Standing at 7 feet tall, the stone looks something like an old woman and is believed to be an old altar to the god Baal, or ancient battle memorial.
There was a tradition amongst sailors and other folk who worked at sea that Granny Kempock controlled the elements, and fishermen used to leave the stone offerings to ensure good weather.
In 1662, several women, including 18 year old Mary Lamont, were the main characters in a witchcraft case involving the stone. They were accused of trying to throw the stone into the Clyde to endanger shipping and attempting to use magic to pilfer milk. Lamont herself apparently confessed to dancing with Auld Nick himself round the stone. Needless to say, they were all executed.
Ghosts are still believed to dance around the stone on some evenings.
Millport, Isle of Cumbrae
 
A reliable source has it that staff at the Lady Margaret Hospital in Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae has had some interesting ghostly encounters, mainly of the apparitions of elderly ladies in their nighties. One in particular seems fond of the toilet. The hospital, founded in 1900, was once a fever hospital, where patients with infectious diseases were sent.
The Garrison in Millport was the site of a public ghost hunt in 2011, carried out by the Scottish and UK Paranormal Association. The Garrison, built in 1745, today it operates as a community venue, incorporating the GP surgery, museum, library and cafe. A newspaper report at the time states that some interesting phenomena had already been recorded on prior paranormal investigations carried out by the Scottish and UK Paranormal Association, and that it was hoped ghost walks could be operated in the building in future. The Garrison, located in the centre of Millport was the former home of the Earl of Glasgow.
Ardentinny, Cowal
One of the rooms in the Ardentinny Hotel is reputedly haunted by children who have woken occupants during the night.
Gairloch, Wester Ross
The site of some interesting cryptozoology; a monster which sounds like Nessie’s bad tempered cousin was reported by fishermen in 1918. They encountered a beast rising 30 feet out of the water, which then charged at them. Prior to this, circa 1527, sources have it that a rather angry creature emerged from the loch, attacking a hunting party and killing three of them.
Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute
Another Scottish water beastie, this time seen traipsing across the beach by a dog walker in 1962, before disappearing into the sea, leaving footprints, a malodorous scent and a traumatised dog.
The Isle of Arran, Firth of Clyde

The largest island on the Firth of Clyde, which is heaving with the ethereal:

Lochranza is at the northern tip of the Isle of Arran, replete with a loch with a small island and a ruined castle. The area is reputed to be where Robert the Bruce landed in 1306 when he arrived in Arran during his quest to win back the Scottish crown.
Lochranza also has fairy legends attached to it. In one, a local midwife was collecting the harvest with her neighbours when they came across a yellow frog. Someone was about to kill it when the midwife stopped them, feeling the frog was supernatural. Later, a young boy on a grey horse appeared to the midwife, informing her that she had saved the life of the Queen of the Fairies, who was in the habit of disguising herself as a yellow frog. The midwife was offered safe passage to fairy land and ended up as the Queen’s personal midwife.
Many legends are associated with the Machrie Moor Stone Circle, which rates with Stonehenge as one of the best in the UK. One of the many origin myths behind the circle is that it was created by a group of fairies flicking pebbles onto the moor below from the summit of Durra-na-each. There are several other stone circles to be found on the Isle of Arran.
Brodick Castlesits on a prominent spot on Arran and has an extensive history, and was in the Hamilton family for hundreds of years. It was occupied by Cromwell’s troops during the 1650s and has been attacked several times down the years. The castle has been added to over the years, and in 1958, became the property of the National Trust for Scotland. There are three supernatural tales associated with the castle.  The Grey Lady is believed to be the ghost of a plague victim, when it struck Brodick Castle. Peter Underwood writes that she has been seen by several staff members, presumably in the days before the castle was owned by the NTFS. She was seen on several occasions by ‘a psychic house keeper’ and a butler reported seeing her apparently stopping to talk to a tradesman one morning as he worked in the castle. The Grey Lady haunts the older part of the building.
Another ghost is of a man clad in green and wearing a wig, who haunts the library. A white stag has also been seen on several occasions when a member of the Hamilton family dies.
Rothesay, Isle of Bute
 
Rothesay Castle is a medieval castle, starting life as a wooden Norse stronghold, when the area formed part of the Norse Kingdom. Like many self respecting Scottish castles, it’s seen a fair few skirmishes, including several sieges by the English. The castle was restored by the Third Marquess of Bute in 1872 and 1879. It came under state control in the 1950s, and these days is operated by Historic Scotland, though still owned by the Stuart family.
The castle is haunted by a Green Lady, who dates back to the castle’s Norse days, when it was attacked by Vikings in the 13thcentury. A Lady Isobel, sheltering there saw her entire family slaughtered by the invading forces. One of the Vikings wanted her as his wife. But she was having none of it and killed herself.  Her greenish figure has been spotted several times on the castle tower and parapet.

Curiously, the Isle of Bute is the subject of a curse. The graveyard in Rothesay has a gravestone, which tells of a man who brought his family to the island to escape from a Cholera outbreak in Glasgow during 1900. Unfortunately, the entire family succumbed to Cholera on Bute and as a result, the man cursed the island.

Special thanks to Dr Patricia Barton, Claire Collins, Alex Henderson and James Campbell for their help in the compilation of this article.

Scotland

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?

More information:
America

The Cultural Vortex – American Ghosts by M J Steel Collins

As someone who writes a lot on Scottish ghosts, one of the things that interest me is how they are viewed by people from other countries. One group in particular that seems to be fascinated by hauntings in Scotland are the Americans, judging from the number of US documentaries made on the subject and the awe in which US ghost enthusiasts have for Scotland’s ghosts.

But to turn things around, one thing which fascinates me is the American ghost story. There are a number of factors that make US ghosts stand out. First, historically, America is almost like a teenager in comparison to Scotland. There are some ghosts in Scotland that were already creaking with the centuries by time the USA came into existence as a country in its own right. The way in which the States is crawling with ghosts, boasting in some cases, ‘the most haunted house in the world’ – Villisca Axe Murder House, kind of creepy, but I raise you Glamis Castle, my friends – is rather intriguing in such a young country.

I wonder if American sense of history comes into it. I admire the way in which Stateside buildings newer than my tenement block are granted historical protection, are cared for and loved, whilst over here it seems de rigueur to demolish what are frankly, brilliant 300 year old buildings for the sake of another bloody car park or office block that is probably going to lie empty. Ghosts seem to play a huge factor in this. Quite a few of America’s old haunted places boast ghosts, which seem to be the centre piece – take The Whaley House in San Diego for example. Then there are the numerous prisons and asylums, such as Moundsville Penitentiary and Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which are lovingly preserved and restored, whilst over here in Glasgow, the asylum section of the old Govan Poorhouse, now the Southern General, has been demolished in the name of development. We Scots could probably learn a thing or two from the States on protecting our built heritage.

But the thing that stands out the most when it comes to America’s spooky stories is the way in which they have been influenced by the cultures of those who have emigrated there and the indigenous cultures. For instance, Chris Woodyard, in his book The Ghost Wore Black describes the tale of a banshee heralding a death in Indiana, whilst Michael Norman in his ‘Haunted America’ series features the odd tale of a Wendigo, of First Nation folklore. Then there are the ways in which African cultures have permeated that of America; in terms of the supernatural, just take one look at the development of Voodoo in Louisiana.

At the same time, there are ghost stories which can probably be classed as pure American, with little to do with imported memes from different cultures, other than the fact that a ghost is something that gets around. Take, for example, the stories of miners killed in hideous accidents, of which there are many throughout the States, ghosts of the Civil War, and rather glamorously, ghosts of famous Hollywood actors and actresses, such as Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Presidents aren’t shy about getting in on the act. Abraham Lincoln famously haunts the White House, while more recently, the ghost of Ronald Reagan is reportedly haunting his old ranch in California (or perhaps it was just Obama he was haunting in the 2012 Presidential Election campaign!).

Still, the cultural syncretism of American ghost stories is worthy of note, yet it doesn’t seem to get much mention in collections. Troy Taylor and Jeff Belanger don’t appear to consider it; Michael Norman pays little heed to it, being more interested in just telling the tale. Chris Woodyard is the only person I have seen really comment on it. In The Ghost That Wore Black, he goes into great detail of where in the world the ghostly influence of the story at hand comes from. He mentions the Black Shuck, banshees of course (Irish, not Scots), Springheel Jack, and Native American entities to name a few. American paranormal writers would do well to take heed. One of the things I think is important in recounting Scottish ghost stories is to look at where it comes from, be it a folkloric entity, such as a fairy, or some nasty character from the past, like ‘Bluidy’ George Mackenzie. Given the cultural tapestry that makes up the country, I’d say this is vital in America. Then we can see where a ghost may have come from, rather than just accepting its existence (or not) at face value. There is probably far too much emphasis on gaining scientific evidence to prove a haunting, whilst the cultural origins that have led to the development of the story are equally as fascinating.

Portugal

Benfica and the Curse of Bela by Michael S Collins

For someone who has been dead thirty-three years, Bela Guttman is a very bitter man.

Jon Arnold

Benfica are one of the most successful football clubs in the world. They have won their domestic Portuguese league thirty-three times, and the Portuguese Cup twenty-four times. Alongside European success in the distant past, it stands as one of the most glittering trophy cabinets in Europe, and many are jealous of that success. Yet, if you ask folk who work for the club, a sinister shadow lurks over them, which prevents greater success on a continental stage. For Benfica, they claim, are cursed.

But to get to the curse, we need to go back to the start. No, not as far as 1904, when a bunch of students formed this club. In the 1950s, Benfica had risen from that humble beginning to become a sporting institution (they have teams in many sports, includibg basketball and hockey, not just football) in the background of Salazar’s Portugal. They had high hopes of winning the European Cup, but come short against unstoppable Real Madrid in 1957.

Enter, in 1959, Bela Guttman. A Hungarian Jew who had won the Hungarian league title either side of a Second World War in which he spent hidden away from Hitler so well people still aren’t sure where he got to, Guttman had already gained a reputation at that point for mercurial success and a history of relationships souring. A man who had gained and lost a fortune in the Wall Street Crash, after leaving his native Hungary earlier due to an anti-Semitic leader. He also was not unknown for his random moments of eccentricism; as early as 1924, he responded to his own view that the Olympics hotel was not suitable, by hanging dead rats from the rooms of the Olympics officials. When people would ask his age – he was near 60 when he took over at Benfica – he would reply “24”. And his method of scouting players might not pass modern scrutiny; he discovered Eusebio, Benfica’s finest player, after a discussion at the local barber shop with a retired Brazilian international! He had a belief in the supremacy of the manager which has signs in the modern day Jose Mourinho, and installed a clause in all future contracts that he couldn’t be sacked if his club were top of the league, after that happened in Milan.

I never minded if the opposition scored, because I always thought we could score another.”
Bela Guttman

Not wary of courting controversy, he had even moved to Benfica from their bitter rivals Porto!

Some while ago, he said, Lucchese, then for a brief while a Serie A team from the beautiful Tuscan city of Lucca, were on their way by train to play the mighty Juventus in Turin. On the journey their manager, poor fellow died. The directors were thrown into a panic. How could any Italian team take the field without a manager on the bench? In desperation, they phoned all over the peninsula until they had found a manager, who arrived just in time to sit on the bench. Lucchese then proceeded against all the odds to hold Juventus to a draw, and the players carried the new coach off the field on their shoulders.”
Guttman’s anecdote about managing, told by Brian Glanville

Guttman was to lead Benfica to great success, but their greatest success together came in Europe. In 1961, they became the first side to win the European Cup not named Real Madrid. (Though not the first team to beat Real, that honour fell to their long time political, philosophical, theological, sociological and footballing nemesis, Barcelona.) In 1962, in the final they came up against Real themselves, and beat them to make it two European Cups. With a fine manager, and some great players – Eusebio and Mario Coluna, Benfica and Portugal captain to name but two – the future looked rosy for Benfica.

And so Bela Guttman asked for a pay raise. To be fair, he had every right to given his success, and had he been managing in the modern game, he’d have been making millions before you could say “Special One”. [And unlike Mourinho, Guttman was a proponent of the Danubian School of football philosophy, so maintained a healthy 4-2-4 attacking formation throughout his career…]

The Benfica board turned him down, and Guttman left the club.

And at this point, he is alleged to have put a curse on the club.

Never in a hundred years will Benfica ever be a European champion.”

Now, an alleged curse is one thing. What does it take for people to begin believing in it?

In 1963, they got to the European Cup final again. Despite taking the lead, they fell behind 2-1 and lost to AC Milan. Another final in 1965, and this time the loss was to Milan’s city and stadium sharing rivals, Inter. In 1968, another final, and in extra time at Wembley, and believing certain referee decisions had gone against them, Benfica went down 4-1 to Matt Busby’s Manchester United, undone by the majestic talents of George Best and Bobby Charlton. Famously, despite having the dogged Nobby Stiles marking him, Eusebio broke free of the United defence to find himself one on one with the goalkeeper… and the most natural goal scorer in Europe missed the most gilt edged chance of his career. It was 1-1 then, would have won the game. So three European finals in quick succession, and the manner of the third turned some minds.

Then in 1983, a UEFA Cup final. Hey, Guttman didn’t specify the smaller European trophies, just a European Cup. Benfica had manager Sven Goran-Eriksson, already with a fine reputation (though he was later to win the Italian title and manage England) and a great team. They are facing Anderlecht, with all due respect, not one of Europes shining lights. (Forever eccentric, Anderlecht of Brussels in Belgium are one of the handful of teams who have both won a European group stage 100% and lost one 100% in their history!) A nice way to take the pressure off, but Anderlecht won 1-0 at home, and drew the game in Portugal, and suddenly it was 4 lost finals.

In 1988, another European Cup final, against novices PSV Eindhoven of Holland. This time surely. Goalless game after a sterile match in which Benfica, perhaps done in by the ideas of curses and player suspensions, played ultra defensively. Every penalty was scored, so sudden death in the shootout came into play, and it was Benfica who missed. Five lost finals.

In 1990, Benfica reached another European Cup final, against Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side, one of the finest regarded in Europe. This time, Benfica were underdogs. (And owed a fortuitous handball to eliminating the much more fancied Marseille side in the Semifinals!) Benfica’s manager at this point was their previous tormenter, Sven-Goran.

But the words of Guttman hung in the air. Eusebio, long retired but still an ambassador for Benfica and Portuguese football, went to the grave of Bela Guttman (who had died in 1981) and prayed to Guttman for mercy, kneeling before his grave in Austria.

Well, for a while, it might have seemed it had worked. Benfica had all the pressing against Milan, their keeper held Marco Van Basten (Milans scorer extraordinaire) at bay, and had a number of chances but just couldn’t get the ball in the net. Then, Frank Rijkaard scored midway through the second half, and it was 1-0 Milan. That was the score at full time.

Guttman had not been appeased, clearly.

In 2013 and 2014 they have reached two more European finals, in the Europa League. In 2013, they took on Chelsea, dominated the proceedings, and lost 2-1 with the final goal coming in the last seconds of injury time. On the 14th May 2014, they took on Sevilla, overwhelming favourites to finally end the Curse of Bela, and yet couldn’t find a way past the Spanish defence and crumbled in the penalty shootout.

The current score, if you are keeping count at home, is Bela Guttman 8, Benfica 0.

Football curses aren’t unique to Benfica. Derby County removed a Romani settlement to build their new stadium in 1896. A curse on the FA Cup was allegedly placed on Derby, which enough folk began to believe in after they reached three finals (and six semifinals) in quick succession, losing each time. Before their FA Cup final in 1946, officials from Derby County met with the descendents of the removed people to beg forgiveness. During the final, at 1-1, the ball burst. A sign from elsewhere they’d been forgiven? Derby went onto win 4-1, the curse broken, and rarely spoken of again.

A similar curse in similar circumstances was alleged to have fallen on Birmingham City from 1906 to 2006. Manager Barry Fry once even peed in all four sections of the ground to try and ward off the curse. One might equally state though, that is more likely Birmingham City failed to win anything, because they were rubbish. Hibernian of Edinburgh, one of Scotlands biggest football clubs, have failed to win the Scottish Cup since 1902, and no one seriously claims they are cursed, except by the continued laughter of other football fans.

Though with Hibs, and more talk of Romani curses (were they walking around the countryside, randomly placing curses on football teams they found had interesting names in their Sports Almanac?) as they lost 10 Scottish Cup finals since that 1902 victory, the event seems psychological in nature. That said, they even got some nuns to wash their strips before the 2012 final, hoping for some Holy intervention, and lost 5-1. Clearly God was busy, has a great sense of humour, or was a Hearts fan.

I don’t really believe in curses. I do however believe that people who believe in being cursed are likely to fall into self-prophecy. And to be honest, I kind of get the impression Guttman knew that too. Benfica wont continue to lose because they are cursed. They will continue to lose because they think a long dead manager is cursing them. As seen by their finest player praying at the grave, and them mentioning it each European final, Benfica football club seem to believe in the curse. And that trickles down into each successive manager and player. Benfica have even unveiled a statue to their former manager outside their stadium, to no avail on the curse front.

“”Every year when Benfica plays in the Europe they try to get rid of the curse. Any time that Benfica play near Guttmann’s grave, somebody will take flowers. It hasn’t worked.”

Jose Carlos Soares (journalist) to CNN

Ah, but the devils in the detail. For Guttman was also to have claimed “no Portugese side would win two European Cups” in the same hundred years. Porto, clearly not caring for curses, won the European Cup in 1987 and 2004. Rather than the ghostly influence of a bitter Hungarian, one might suggest the ghastly influence of a well placed mind game.

Guttman died, aged 82, in 1981. Both Eusebio and Mario Coluna died the year this was written (2014).

In the last decade (barring 2009) Benfica have been one of the most recurringly successful sides in Europe not to win a European trophy. Barring the aforementioned 2009 debacle, they have reached the last 16 at worst in European competition since 2004. They have reached seven quarterfinals, three semifinals and two finals. They keep meeting a final roadblock, the fates seeming against them. Maybe it’s psychological.

Maybe it’s the ghost of Bela Guttman making sure his old score is settled, even now.

But if so they shouldn’t worry too much.

After all, only forty-eight years left to go…