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Book of Scottish Story
The Haunted Ships

Chapter One

By Allan Cunningham

“Though my mind’s not
Hoodwinked with rustxc marvels, I do think
There are more things in the grove, the air, the flood,
Yea, and the charnelled earth, than what wise man,
Who walks so proud as if his form alone
Filled the wide temple of the universe,
Will let a frail mind say, ‘I’d write i' the creed
O` the sagest head alive, that fearful forms,
Holy or reprobate, do page men’s heels ;
That shapes, too horrid for our gaze, stand o’er
The murderer’s dust, and for revenge glare up,
Even till the stars weep fire for very pity’.”

Along the sea of Solway—romantic on the Scottish side, with its woodlands, its bays, its cliffs, and headlands ; and interesting on the English side, with its many beautiful towns with their shadows on the water, rich pastures, safe harbours, and numerous ships—there still linger many traditional stories of a maritime nature, most of them connected with superstitions singularly wild and unusual. To the curious, these tales afford a rich fund of entertainment, from the many diversities of the same story ; some dry and barren, and stripped of all the embellishments of poetry; others dressed out in all the riches of a superstitious belief and haunted imagination. In this they resemble the inland traditions of the peasants; but many of the oral treasures of the Galwegian or the Cumbrian coast have the stamp of the Dane and the Norseman upon them, and claim but a remote or faint affinity with the legitimate legends of Caledonia. Something like a rude prosaic outline of several of the most noted of the northern ballads—the adventures and depredations of the old ocean kings—still lend life to the evening tale ; and, among others, the story of the Haunted Ships is still popular among the maritime peasantry.

One fine harvest evening I went on board the shallop of Richard Faulder, of Allanbay, and committing ourselves to the waters, we allowed a gentle wind from the east to waft us at its pleasure towards the Scottish coast. We passed the sharp promontory of Siddick, and skirting the land within a stone-cast, glided along the shore till we came within sight of the ruined Abbey of Sweetheart. The green mountain of Criffell ascended beside us ; and the bleat of the flocks from its summit, together with the winding of the evening horn of the reapers, came softened into something like music over land and sea. We pushed our shallop into a deep and wooded bay, and sat silently looking on the serene beauty of the place. The moon glimmered in her rising through the tall shafts of the pines of Caerlaverock; and the sky, with scarce a cloud, showered down on wood, and headland, and bay, the twinkling beams of a thousand stars, rendering every object visible. The tide, too, was coming with that swift and silent swell observable when the wind is gentle; the woody curves along the land were filling with the flood, till it touched the green branches of the drooping trees; while in the centre current the roll and the plunge of a thousand pellecks told to the experienced fisherman that salmon were abundant.

As we looked, we saw an old man emerging from a path that winded to the shore through a grove of doddered hazel; he carried a halve-net on his back, while behind him came a girl bearing a small harpoon, with which the fishers are remarkably dexterous in striking their prey. The senior seated himself on a large gray stone, which overlooked the bay, laid aside his bonnet, and submitted his bosom and neck to the refreshing sea breeze ; and taking his harpoon from his attendant, sat with the gravity and composure of a spirit of the flood, with his ministering nymph behind him. We pushed our shallop to the shore, and soon stood at their side.

"This is old Mark Macmoran, the mariner, with his granddaughter Barbara,” said Richard Faulder, in a whisper that had something of fear in it; "he knows every creek, and cavern, and quicksand in Solway,— has seen the Spectre Hound that haunts the Isle of Man ; has heard him bark, and at every bark has seen a ship sink; and he has seen, too, the Haunted Ships in full sail; and, if all tales be true, has sailed in them himself ;—he’s an awful person."

Though I perceived in the communication of my friend something of the superstition of the sailor, I could not help thinking that common rumour had made a happy choice in singling out old Mark to maintain her intercourse with the invisible world. His hair, which seemed to have refused all acquaintance with the comb, hung matted upon his shoulders; a kind of mantle, or rather blanket, pinned with a wooden skewer round his neck, fell mid-leg down, concealing all his nether garments as far as a pair of hose, darned with yarn of all conceivable colours, and a pair of shoes, patched and repaired till nothing of the original structure remained, and clasped on his feet with two massive silver buckles.

If the dress of the old man was rude and sordid, that of his granddaughter was gay, and even rich.

She wore a boddice of fine wool, wrought round the bosom with alternate leaf and lily, and a kirtle of the same fabric, which almost touching her white and delicate ankle, showed her snowy feet, so fairy-light and round that they scarcely seemed to touch the grass where she stood. Her hair—a natural ornament which woman seeks much to improve—was of a bright glossy brown, and encumbered rather than adorned with a snood, set thick with marine productions, among which the small clear pearl found in the Solway was conspicuous. Nature had not trusted to a handsome shape, and a sylph-like air, for young Barbara’s influence over the heart of man ; but had bestowed a pair of large bright blue eyes, swimming in liquid light, so full of love, and gentleness, and joy, that all the sailors, from Annanwater to far St Bees, acknowledged their power, and sung songs about the bonnie lass of Mark Macmoran. She stood holding a small gaff-hook of polished steel in her hand, and seemed not dissatisfied with the glances I bestowed on her from time to time, and which I held more than requited by a single glance of those eyes which retained so many capricious hearts in subjection.

The tide, though rapidly augmenting, had not yet filled the bay at our feet. The moon now streamed fairly over the tops of Caerlaverock pines, and showed the expanse of ocean dimpling and swelling, on which sloops and shallops came dancing, and displaying at every turn their extent of white sail against the beam of the moon. I looked on old Mark the Mariner, who, seated motionless on his gray stone, kept his eye fixed on the increasing waters with a look of seriousness and sorrow in which I saw little of the calculating spirit of a mere fisherman. Though he looked on the coming tide, his eyes seemed to dwell particularly on the black and decayed hulls of two vessels which, half immersed in the quicksand, still addressed to every heart a tale of shipwreck and desolation. The tide wheeled and foamed around them; and creeping inch by inch up the side, at last fairly threw its waters over the top, and a long and hollow eddy showed the resistance which the liquid element received.

The moment they were fairly buried in the water, the old man clasped his hands together, and said—

"Blessed be the tide that will break over and bury ye for ever! Sad to mariners, and sorrowful to maids and mothers, has the time been you have choked up this deep and bonnie bay. For evil were you sent, and for evil have you continued. Every season finds from you its song of sorrow and wail, its funeral processions, and its shrouded corses. Woe to the land where the wood grew that made ye? Cursed be the axe that hewed ye on the mountains, the bands that joined ye together, the bay that ye first swam in, and the wind that wafted ye here! Seven times have ye put my life in peril; three fair sons have ye swept from my side, and two bonnie grand-bairns; and now, even now, your waters foam and flash for my destruction, did I venture my frail limbs in quest of food in your deadly bay. I see by that ripple and that foam, and hear by the sound and singing of your surge, that ye yearn for another victim, but it shall not be me or mine."

Even as the old mariner addressed himself to the wrecked ships, a young man appeared at the southern extremity of the bay, holding his halve-net in his hand, and hastening into the current. Mark rose, and shouted, and waved him back from a place which, to a person unacquainted with the dangers of the bay, real and superstitious, seemed sufficiently perilous : his grand-daughter, too, added her voice to his, and waved her white hands; but the more they strove the faster advanced the peasant, till he stood to his middle in the water, while the tide increased every moment in depth and strength.

"Andrew, Andrew!” cried the young woman, in a voice quavering with emotion, "turn, turn, I tell you. O the ships, the haunted ships!" But the appearance of a fine run of fish had more influence with the peasant than the voice of bonnie Barbara, and forward he dashed, net in hand. In a moment he was borne off his feet, and mingled like foam with the water, and hurried towards the fatal eddies which whirled and reared round the sunken ships. But he was a powerful young man, and an expert swimmer: he seized on one of the projecting ribs of the nearest hulk, and clinging to it with the grasp of despair, uttered yell after yell, sustaining himself against the prodigious rush of the current.

From a sheiling of turf and straw within the pitch of a bar from the spot where we stood, came out an old woman bent with age, and leaning on a crutch.

"I heard the voice of that lad Andrew Lammie; can the chield be drowning, that he skirls sae uncannily?” said the old woman, seating herself on the ground and looking earnestly at the water.

"Ou ay," she continued, " he’s doomed, he’s doomed; heart and hand never can save him ; boats, ropes, and man’s strength and wit, all vain!. vain! he’s doomed, he’s doomed !"

By this time I had thrown myself into the shallop, followed reluctantly by Richard Faulder, over whose courage and kindness of heart superstition had great power ; and with one push from the shore, and some exertion in sculling we came within a quoit-cast of the unfortunate fisherman. He stayed not to profit by our aid ; for when he perceived us near, he uttered a piercing shriek of joy, and bounded toward us through the agitated element the full length of an oar. I saw him for a second on the surface of the water ; but the eddying current sucked him down ; and all I ever beheld of him again was his hand held above the flood, and clutching in agony at some imaginary aid. I sat gazing in horror on the vacant sea before us ; but a breathing-time before, a human being, full of youth, and strength, and hope, was there: his cries were still ringing in my ears, and echoing in the woods ; and now nothing was seen or heard save the turbulent expanse of water, and the sound of its chafing on the shores. We pushed back our shallop, and resumed our station on the cliff beside the old mariner and his descendant.

"Wherefore sought ye to peril your own lives fruitlessly,” said Mark, "in attempting to save the doomed? Who so touches these infernal ships never survives to tell the tale. Woe to the man who is found nigh them at midnight when the tide has subsided, and they arise in their former beauty, with fore-castle, and deck, and sail, and pennon and shroud ! Then is seen the streaming of lights along the water from their cabin windows, and then is heard the sound of mirth and the clamour of tongues and the infernal whoop and halloo, and song, ringing far and wide. Woe to the man who comes nigh them!”

To all this my companion listened with a breathless attention. I felt something touched with a superstition to which I partly believed I had seen one victim offered up ; and I inquired of the old mariner—

"How and when came these haunted ships there? To me they seem but the melancholy relics of some unhappy voyagers, and much more likely to warn people to shun destruction, than entice and delude them to it.”

"And so," said the old man with a smile, which had more of sorrow in it than of mirth; "and so, young man, these black and shattered hulks seem to the eye of the multitude. But things are not what they seem : that water, a kind and convenient servant to the wants of man, which seems so smooth, and so dimpling, and so gentle, has swallowed up a human soul even now ; and the place which it covers, so fair and so level, is a faithless quicksand out of which none escape. Things are otherwise than they seem. Had you lived as long as I have had the sorrow to live; had you seen the storms, and braved the perils, and endured the distresses which have befallen me; had you sat gazing out on the dreary ocean at midnight on a haunted coast ; had you seen comrade after comrade, brother after brother, and son after son, swept away by the merciless ocean from your very side; had you seen the shapes of t`riends,doomed to the wave and the quicksand, appearing to you in the dreams and visions of the night; then would your mind have been prepared for crediting the strange legends of mariners; and the two haunted Danish ships would have had their terrors for you, as they have for all who sojourn on this coast.

"Of the time and cause of their destruction," continued the old man, " I know nothing certain ; they have stood as you have seen them for uncounted time ; and while all other ships wrecked on this unhappy coast have gone to pieces, and rotted, and sunk away in a few years, these two haunted hulks have neither sunk in the quicksand, nor has a single spar or board been displaced. Maritime legend says, that two ships of Denmark having had permission, for a time, to work deeds of darkness and dolour on the deep, were at last condemned to the whirlpool and the sunken rock, and were wrecked in this bonnie bay, as a sign to seamen to be gentle and devout. The night when they were lost was a harvest evening of uncommon mildness and beauty: the sun had newly set ; the moon came brighter and brighter out ; and the reapers, laying their sickles at the root of the standing corn, stood on rock and bank, looking at the increasing magnitude of the waters, for sea and land were visible from St Bees to Barnhourie.

"The sails of the two vessels were soon seen bent for the Scottish coast; and with a speed outrunning the swiftest ship, they approached the dangerous quicksands and headland of Borranpoint. On the deck of the foremost ship not a living soul was seen, or shape, unless something in darkness and form resembling a human shadow could be called a shape, which flitted from extremity to extremity of the ship, with the appearance of trimming the sails, and directing the vessel’s course. But the decks of its companion were crowded with human shapes; the captain, and mate, and sailor, and cabin boy, all seemed there; and from them the sound of mirth and minstrelsy echoed over land and water. The coast which they skirted along was one of extreme danger; and the reapers shouted to warn them to beware of sandbank and rock ; but of this friendly counsel no notice was taken, except that a large and famished dog, which sat on the prow, answered every shout with a long, loud, and melancholy howl. The deep sandbank of Carsethorn was expected to arrest the career of these desperate navigators ; but they passed, with the celerity of waterfowl, over an obstruction which had wrecked many pretty ships.

"Old men shook their heads, and departed, saying, ‘ We have seen the fiend sailing in a bottomless ship; let us go home and pray :’ but one young and wilful man said, ‘ Fiend! I’ll warrant it’s nae fiend, but douce Janet Withershins, the witch, holding a carouse with some of her Cumberland cummers, and mickle red wine will be spilt atween them. ’Od, I would gladly have a toothfu’! I’ll warrant it’s nane o’ your cauld sour slae-water, like a bottle of Bailie Skrinkie’s port, but right drap-o’-my-heart’s-blood stuff, that would waken a body out of their last linen. I wonder whaur the cummers will anchor their craft?’

"‘And I’ll vow,’ said another rustic, ‘the wine they quaff is none of your visionary drink, such as a drouthy body has dished out to his lips in a dream; nor is it shadowy and unsubstantial, like the vessels they sail in, which are made out of a cockle-shell, or a cast-off slipper, or the parting of a seaman’s right thumb-nail. I once got a handsel out of a witch’s quaigh myself ;—auld Marion Mathers of Dustiefoot, whom they tried to bury in the old kirkyard of Dunscore ; but the cummer raise as fast as they laid her down, and naewhere else would she lie but in the bonnie green kirkyard of Kier, among douce and sponsible folk. So I’ll vow that the wine of a witch’s cup is as fell liquor as ever did a kindly turn to a poor man’s heart; and be they fiends, or be they witches, if they have red wine asteer, I’ll risk a droukit sark for ae glorious tout on’t.’

“‘Silence, ye sinners,’ said the minister’s son of a neighbouring parish, who united in his own person his father’s lack of devotion with his mother’s love of liquor. ‘Whisht! Speak as if ye had the fear of something holy before ye. Let the vessels run their own way to destruction : who can stay the eastern wind, and the current of the Solway sea? I can find ye Scripture warrant for that : so let them try their strength on Blawhooly rocks, ; and their might on the broad quicksand. There’s a surf running there would knock the ribs together of a galley built by the imps of the pit, and commanded by the Prince of Darkness. Bonnily and bravely they sail away there; but before the blast blows by they’ll be wrecked; and red wine and strong brandy will be as rife as dyke-water, and we’ll drink the health of bonnie Bell Blackness out of her left foot slipper.’

"The speech of the young profligate was applauded by several of his companions, and away they flew to the bay of Blawhooly, from whence they never returned. The two vessels were observed all at once to stop in the bosom of the bay, on the spot where their hulls now appear: the mirth and the rninstrelsy waxed louder than ever; and the forms of the maidens, with instruments of music and wine-cups in their hands, thronged the decks. A boat was lowered; and the same shadowy pilot who conducted the ships made it start towards the shore with the rapidity of lightning, and its head knocked against the bank where the four young men stood, who longed for the unblest drink. They leaped in with a laugh, and with a laugh were they welcomed on deck; wine cups were given to each, and as they raised them to their lips the vessels melted away beneath their feet ; and one loud shriek, mingled with laughter still louder, was heard over land and water for many miles. Nothing more was heard or seen till the morning, when, the crowd who came to the beach saw with fear and wonder the two Haunted Ships, such as they now seem, masts and tackle gone; nor mark, nor sign, by which their name, country, or destination, could be known, was left remaining. Such is the tradition of the mariners.”

End of Chapter One

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