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Friday, 17 April 2015

A Highland Poltergeist


Tales of haunted houses and ghosts are legion throughout the Highlands and Islands as well as throughout the world. A storyteller worth his or her salt could by telling a ghost story or other supernatural tales send shivers down an audience’s spine to such an extent that they might have found it difficult to get any sleep at night. The following supernatural anecdote was recorded by Calum Maclean from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, and transcribed shortly afterwards on the 28th of March 1951:

Dòmhnall Bàn a’ Bhòcain

Bha fear ann am Bràigh Loch Abar ris an abradh iad Dòmhnall Bàn a’ Bhòcain. Agus bha am bòcan seo timcheall air a h-uile latha. O, bha e ri meall de rudan droll. An deaghaidh dhan bhòcan a bhith treis a’ tighinn far an robh e smaointich Dòmhnall Bàn gan atharraicheadh e làrach an taighe agus gum faigheadh e cuidhte ’s am bòcan. Ach O! nuair a thàinig an latha air seo na dhol dhan taigh ùr, cò bu trainge na am bòcan. Bha na poitean a dol a-nunn agus meall de na gnothaichean a bha san taigh a’ dol ann agus cha robh duine cho trang ris a’ bhòcan. A-nise am bòcan a bha seo cha b’ e bòcan a bh’ ann airson aon latha, ach bha e ann airson fada. Agus bhiodh e oidhcheannan ann nuair a bha sluagh a-staigh san taigh. Ach cha robh iad ga fhaicinn, am bòcan. Bha iad an oidhche seo ann agus bha am bòcan fada gun tighinn. Thuirt feareigin a bha san taigh, thuirt e:
“Dè a dh’airich am bòcan a-nochd, nuair nach eil e an seo?”
Labhair am bòcan:
“Tha am bòcan ann an seo.”
“Dè chum cho fada thu a-nochd?”
“O, tha agam ri dhol treis mhath mun cuairt.”
Bha bean an taighe, a’ bhean aig Dòmhnall Bàn a’ Bhòcain, ’s e NicGriogair a bh’ innte. Agus thuirt i ris an duine:
“Cùine a bhios cogadh eile a-rithist ann?”
Cha robh e uamhraidh fada an deaghaidh Cùil Lodair. Ach thuirt am bòcan rithe:
“O nach eil thu sgìth de chogadh a NicGriogair?”
Is bha am bòcan ri meall de ghnothaichean droll. Is thuirt e, Dòmhnall Bàn a’ Bhòcain ris:
“Cùine a dh’fhaodas mi innseadh na rudan a bha thu ag ràdha rium?”
“Well,” thuirt am bòcan ris, “innsidh mi dhut an ceann trì latha mus caochail thu. Agus faoda’ tu innseadh an sin.”
Well trì latha mus do chaochail Dòmhnall Bàn a’ Bhòcain chaill e a bhruidheann agus cha b’ urrainn dà innseadh.
Ach bha triop eile a bha siud a thainig dà shagart ’un an taighe. Agus chaidh a’ bhean, thòisich i ri dèanadh biadh dhaibh, agus chaidh i a thoirt ìm a-staigh airson na chur air a’ bhòrd. Is O! cha robh a’ tighinn na tighinn na tighinn. Ach dh’athnich an sagart dè rud a bh’ ann.
“Thoir thusa a-staigh an rud a th’ agad. Chan eil nitheann air.
Bha ise a’ faicinn stùr air an ìm. Ach bha pios aig na sagairt glè mhath nach robh a leithid de rud ann.
Bha rud eile ann cuideachd. Bha dìlleachdan a’ fuireach san taigh. Agus bha am bòcan a’ smaoineachadh nach robh an dìlleachan a’ faighinn mar a bha a’ chuid eile den chloinn. Agus nuair a rachadh am biadh a chur air a’ bhòrd, bheireadh am bòcan am biadh dar beul a’ chloinn eile agus chuireadh e air truinnsear an dìlleachdain e.

And the translation goes something like the following:


Donald Ban of the Bogle

There was a man in Brae Lochaber called Donald Ban of the Bogle. And a bogle haunted him very single day. Oh, he was up to all lots of bad things. After the bogle had been haunting him for a while Donald Ban thought that he would change his residence so that he could finally get rid of it. Oh but when it came to flit to the new house no one was busier than the bogle. The pots and all manner of items from the house were being shifted over but no one was as busy as the bogle. Now this bogle was no overnight phenomenon but was there for the long haul. He would be there night after night when folk were at home. But there weren’t aware of the bogle. One night they were at home but the bogle was late. Some member of the household said:
“What’s happened to the bogle tonight since he’s not here?”
The bogle replied:
“The bogle is here.”
“What kept you so long tonight?”
“Oh, I took a good while going around.”
The goodwife, Donald Ban of the Bogle’s wife, was a MacGregor. She asked her husband:
“When will there be another war?”
It was not long after Culloden. And the bogle said to her:
“Aren’t you tired of war, MacGregor?”
And the bogle was up no good in many other affairs. Donald Ban of the Bogle said to him:
“When may I be allowed to tell of those things that you told me?”
“Well,” the bogle said to him, “I’ll tell you that three days before you die and then you may relate those things.”
Well three days before Donald Ban of the Bogle died he lost his power of speech and was unable to relate those things.
Another time a couple of priests visited the house. And the goodwife began to prepare food for them and she went to take butter in to put on the table. And it didn’t appear for ages and ages. One of the priests knew what had happened.
“You take in what you have. There’s nothing on it.
She saw that the butter was sullied but the priests bit was fine and there was nothing wrong with it.
There was one other thing. An orphan lodged in the house. And the bogle thought that the orphan was not getting his fare share as the rest of the children. When the food was placed on the table, the bogle used to take the food from the other children’s mouths and would place it on the orphan’s plate.


As can readily be seen, Donald Ban’s attempts to escape the bogle were on in vain. But rather than a ghost or bogle the story is perhaps best interpreted as a malicious spirit or poltergeist. It fits rather well with a noisy ghost or supernatural being which is responsible for physical disturbances such as loud noise or throwing objects. Many accounts of poltergeists describe movement or levitation of objects, such as furniture and cutlery (and in even ploughs), or noises such as knocking on doors or widows. It is also claimed that they are capable of physical interactions such as pinching, hitting or biting people.  Poltergeists seem to be a world-wide phenomenon and occupy a particular niche in folk culture, and have traditionally been described as troublesome or evil spirits who haunt a particular person rather than a specific location. Nevertheless, such a definition does not take into account all the aspects of Donald Ban’s bogle for it allegedly had the ability to speak and also was capable of charitable acts as may be seen in other versions of the above story.

THE following interesting Lochaber story is an abstract of two printed Gaelic versions, the first of which appeared in the Gael, vol. vi. p. 142 (1877), to which it was communicated by D. C. Macpherson, and the second in the Glenbard Collection of Gaelic Poetry, by the Rev. A. Maclean Sinclair, p. 297 ff. (1890). The latter was got from an Old Lochaber tailor, whose grandfather had personal experience of the supernatural being which figures in it.
Rather more than a century ago there died in Lochaber a man named Donald Bán, son of Angus (Domhnall Bán mac Aonghais), but better known as Donald Bán of the Goblin (Domhnall Bán a’ Bhócain), from his experiences with a Bócan, or goblin, which were well known to all the district. Donald was the last of the hunters of Mac-mhic-Raonuill, and belonged to the house of Keppoch, being according to some the son of Angus Odhar, son of Gilleasbuig of Keppoch. He lived at Mounessie and Inverlaire in Glenspean, and his wife was of the MacGregors of Rannoch.
“It was on the hill that Donald first met with the Bócan,” but who the Bócan was no one ever knew, and Donald never told it, if he knew it himself. Of course there were good guesses at it. Some believed it to be a “gille” of Donald’s, who was killed at Culloden. Donald himself was present at that battle, and in making his escape was wounded in the leg, and so captured, but released after trial. One incident of his prison-time is mentioned which contains a curious touch: “While he was in prison he had a dream; he saw himself, Alastair Mac Cholla, and Domhnall Mac Raonuill Mhóir drinking together. This Donald was the man of whom it was said that he had two hearts. He was taken prisoner at Falkirk, and executed at Carlisle.” The reason for identifying the “gille” with the Bócan was that on one occasion he had given to a “thigger” (fear faighe) more than pleased his master, and in the quarrel that followed, the gille said, “I will be avenged for this, alive or dead.”
Whatever he was, or whatever may have been his reasons the Bócan nearly ruined Donald by the mischief he did him. He destroyed all the food and injured the members of the household. The butter in particular was always dirtied by him. One time Ronald of Aberardair undertook to bring the butter clean to table, by holding his bonnet over it, and carrying his dirk in his hand, but it was dirtied all the same. At night they could get no sleep for stones and clods that came flying about, “The Bócan was throwing things out of the walls, and they would hear them rattling at the head of Donald’s bed.” Mr. John Mór MacDougall, the clergyman, slept a night or two in the house, but the Bócan would not come while he was there. The tailor’s grandfather, Angus mac Alister Bán, had a different experience. “Something seized his two big toes, and he could not get free any more than if he had been caught by the smith’s tongs. He could not get moved. It was the Bócan, bugt he did nothing more to him.” High and low were witnesses to the pranks which this spirit carried on, but not even Donald himself ever saw him in any shape whatever.
So much did Donald suffer from his attacks that he finally decided to remove to another house, in hopes that the visitations would cease. He took everything with him except a harrow (cliath chliata), which he left at the side of the house, but before they had got far on the road the harrow was seen coming after them. “Stop, stop,” said Donald, “if the harrow is coming after us we may as well go back again.” So he returned, and made no further attempt to escape from the visitations. What he harrow had to with it is left unexplained.
The Bócan had a particular spite against Donald’s wife the “Nic Ghriogair.: The night he parted with Donald he went on the roof of the house, and cried, “Are you asleep, Donald Bán?” “Not just now,” said Donald, “Put out that long grey tether, the MacGregor wife,” said he. “I don’t think I’ll do that to-night,” said Donald. “Come out yourself, then,” said the bocan, “and leave your bonnet.” The good-wife, thinking that the bocan was outside and would not hear her, whispered in Donald’s ear as he was rising, “Won’t you ask him when the Prince will come?” The words, however, were hardly out of her mouth when the bocan answered her with, “Didn’t you get enough of him before, you grey tether?”
The Rev. Mr. Sinclair’s version gives a still more curious account of what took place at the Bócan’s last visit. “The last night that the Bócan came he was saying that such and such other spirits were along with him. Donald’s wife said to her husband, ‘I should thing that if they were along with him they would speak to us.’ The Bócan answered, “They are no more able to speak than the sole of your foot.” ‘Come out here, Donald Bán,’ said the Bócan. ‘I will,’ said Donald, ‘and thanks be to the Good Being that you have asked me.’ Donald was going out, and taking his dirk with him. ‘Leave your dirk inside, Donald,’ said the Bócan, ‘and your knife (sgian) as well,’ Donald went out, and he and the Bócan went through Acha-nan-Comhachan by night, and on through rivers a birch-wood for about three miles, till they came to the river Fert. When they got to this the Bócan showed him the hole where had hid plough-irons while he was alive. While Donald was taking the plough-irons out of the hole of the two eyes of the Bócan were putting more fear on him than anything else he ever heard or saw. When he got the irons, they went home to Mounessie, himself and the Bócan, and parted that night at the house of Donald Bán.”
Donald had more connections with the supernatural world than this. A cousin of his mother was said to have been carried away by the fairies, and one night Donald saw him among them, dancing as hard as he could. He was also out hunting in the year of the great snow, and at nightfall saw a man on the back of a deer ascending a great rock. He heard the man saying, “Home, Donald Bàn,” and wisely took the advice, for that night there fell eleven feet of snow in the very place where he had intended to stay.
While Donald was troubled with his strange visitant, he composed a hymn which has been preserved by tradition. Though it gives but little information on the main point, it goes to prove the fact of the hauntings so far as proof can be asked for, and the following literal translation will show how Donald himself regarded the affair.

The Hymn of Donald Bán of the Bócan.

O God that createdst me so helpless,
Strengthen my belief and make it firm.
Command an angel to come from Paradise
And take up his abode in my dwelling,
To protect me from every trouble
That wicked folks are putting in my way;
Jesus that didst suffer thy crucifixion,
Restrain their doings, and be with me thyself.

Little wonder though I am thoughtful —
Always at the time when I go to bed
The stones and the clods will arise —
How could a saint get sleep there !
I am without peace or rest,
Without repose or sleep till the morning;
O thou that art in the throne of grace,
Behold my treatment and be a guard to me.
 
Little wonder though I am troubled,
So many stories about me in every place,
Some that are unjust will be saying
“It is all owing to himself, that affair.”
Judge not except as you know,
Though the Son of God were awaking you;
No one knows if I have deserved more
Than a rich man that is without care.
 
Although I am in trouble at this time,
Verily, I shall be doubly repaid,
When the call comes to me from my Saviour
I shall receive mercy and new grace;
I fear no more vexation
When I ascend to be with thy saints;
O thou that sittest on the throne
Assist my speaking and accept my prayer.
 
O God, make me mindful
Night and day to be praying,
Seeking pardon richly
For what I have done, on my knees.
Stir with the Spirit of Truth
True repentance in my bosom,
That when thou dost send death to seek me,
Christ may take care of me.
 
Donald’s troubles, although connected with a genuine Celtic goblin and presenting one or two peculiar features, are evidently of much the same class as those described in the narratives already mentioned in the foot-notes, and which have been heard of even down to our own day. Had there been any one at the time to write down all that was heard and seen, the story might have been much fuller, but all the characteristic details of such occurrences are there. The apparent want of sufficient reason for the persecution. the manner of carrying it out by destroying property, injuring persons, and throwing things about, the impertinent answers given by the spirit, and its displaying its tricks to all and sundry in broad day-light, are an exact parallel to the troubles of Gilbert Campbell in the story of the “Devil of Glenluce.” How far self-deception or human mischief entered into these occurrences is a problem for the investigator of ghosts. In the case of a similar Icelandic story, narrated in 1750 by the Sheriff Hans Wium, who was an eye-witness to the reality of the events, there was a suspicion that they were brought about by a young man who was said to have learned ventriloquism abroad. This might explain the conversations which the invisible one kept up with the sheriff and others, but can scarcely account for some of his other feats, such as throwing the door off its hinges into the room.
It is possible that such tales may be the historical descendants of the more impressive ghosts of antiquity. A figure like Glám in Grettis Saga is not after all far removed from the Bócan; their origin and behaviour are much the same, and a good many points of resemblance might be made out. In that case the later ones are very degenerate specimens; but there is something of mystery about Donald Bàn's persecutor that makes him a rather superior member of his class.

For the sake of completeness (and comparison), the following rendition of the tale was given by Alexander Stewart in his A Highland Parish or The History of Fortingall (1928):

Rannoch and Lochaber have given us many strange ghost stories, one of the best known of which is that of Domhnul Ban a Bhocain, or Fair Donald of the Spectre. Domhnul Ban was a Macdonald of Lochaber, and had fought at Culloden on the side of the Prince. From that time onwards he was subjected to some mysterious influence. Stones and mud were thrown at him by an unseen agency, and on occasion an apparition was seen by him. The persistence of these ghostly attentions almost distracted him, and at last, in order to escape him, he emigrated to America. For a time the change of scene brought him relief, but after he had been in America some time, one day, while he was walking through an American town, the apparition met him in broad daylight. Much depressed that his pursuer had found him again, and thinking there was no escape from his unwelcome attentions, he returned to this country, but he was still followed by his adversary.
At last, so goes the story, Donald summoned up sufficient courage to address the riochd or wraith, and to enquire why he thus insisted on following him everywhere. To this came the reply that the sole purpose of this persistent pursuit was to get an opportunity to speak to him and tell him something on which depended his own peace in the abode of shades. “I belonged to Rannoch,” continued the wraith. “I fought by your side at Culloden and I fell, but you escaped. I fixed on you as the right man to convey a message from me to person still living, whose interest it is to hear it. Hence my constant pursuit of you. Before joining the Prince’s army, I got the loan of a plough from a neighbour. Uncertain as to the result of the Rising, I hid the plough beside the Innerchadden Burn. If you will tell this man where he will get his plough, I will not trouble you again.” He gave the man’s name, and Donald conveyed the message and enjoyed a peaceful life for the remainder of his days. Donald, a pious, prayerful man, composed a Gaelic hymn, which appears in Macdonald’s Gaelic Bards. In it, after giving praise to God for having hitherto preserved him, despite the fact that he had been threatened with sticks and stones, he implores the protection of angels. “I am at this time under much anxiety.” Some say that I must have done wrong, and that therefore I am pursued everywhere.”

References:
W. A. Craigie, ‘Donald Bán and the Bócan’, Folk-lore, vol. VI, no. 4 (1895), pp. 353–58
John G. MacKay, ‘Domhnull Mor a’ Bhocain/Big Donald of the Bogle’, An Deò-Gréine, leabh. XVII, earr. 10 (1922), pp. 152–56
Abrach [Donald C. Macpherson], ‘Donull Bàn a’ Bhòcain’, An Gàidheal (May, 1877), pp. 142–43
Alexander Stewart, A Highland Parish, or, The History of Fortingall (Glasgow: Alex. MacLaren & Sons, 1928), pp. 336–38
SSS NB 7, pp. 655–57

Image:
Plough Iron