By Chris Hammond
Geoff Holder is the author of numerous books detailing the weirdest and most wonderful aspects of the British Isles. From ghost stories to urban myths and quirky tales, he’s comprehensively uncovered Scotland’s strangest local legends. So, when we wanted to know a little bit more about odd occurrences for this off-kilter look at our country, we knew exactly where to turn to.
I suppose Scotland is famous for its indigenous monsters like Loch monsters and the Kelpie. But your books touch on less ‘native’ creatures like vampires. What are the weirdest tales you’ve stumbled across?
“There are so many! How about a fully organised search for a water monster on Skye in 1870? Dozens of local people trawled a loch looking for a water-horse, which is a kind of shapeshifting demonic creature commonly found in the supernatural folklore of the West of Scotland. I investigated this story for ‘The Guide to Mysterious Skye & Lochalsh’, and I can tell you, that loch is a wee bit small for a monster that likes to drown and then eat its victims (although water-horses cannot digest hearts or lungs, as those organs always float to the surface after the killing). They didn’t find the water-horse, but when the net snagged on something underwater, everyone ran away through fear of having actually caught the monster.
Or there’s the story of how hundreds of schoolchildren invaded a graveyard in Glasgow in 1954, hunting a Vampire with Iron Teeth. I investigated this for the ‘Paranormal Glasgow’book. The creature had supposedly killed and eaten two little boys. The police were called, the hunt made the national press, and it even contributed to the political movement to ban ‘corrupting’ works like American horror comics – despite the fact that none of the Gorbals kids involved had ever seen such a thing. This is also the only time, by the way, that the Westminster Parliament has debated the actions of a vampire. “
And the Jacobites were heavily connected to the supernatural too?
“Researching ‘The Jacobites and the Supernatural’, it became clear that from 1689 to 1746, the Jacobite adventure in Scotland, England and Ireland was deeply implicated in paranormal beliefs. I found multiple examples of prophecy, omens, predictive dreams, retributive ghosts, folk magic, witchcraft and second sight – not to mention cases of divine intervention and alleged pacts with the Devil.
One of the characteristics of the period was the notion that monarchs could heal the skin disease known as scrofula, or ‘The King’s Evil’. It’s an idea linked to the concept of mana, the sacred power that some special people possess by virtue of their kingly or priestly status. The Hanoverian kings like George II would have nothing to do with what they saw as ridiculous superstition, but Bonnie Prince Charlie found that if he conducted the ritual of healing, people accepted him as a legitimate king.
And of course Jacobite supernaturalism is very much still with us, in the form of reports of hauntings from battlefields such as Glenshiel in the Western Highlands, Killiecrankie in Perthshire and Culloden by Inverness.”
How do you find the majority of your information? Are members of the public ever in touch about local legends or details of their own unusual experiences?
“When I’m writing a book I usually place appeals in the local press, asking for people to get in touch with their own experiences. This often works wonders – both ‘Paranormal Perthshire’, which came out in 2011, and ‘Haunted Dundee’, which will be published in 2012, are chock-full of such personal accounts, most of which have never seen the light of day before, at least in print. People also write in spontaneously via my website and there’s a form there they can fill in with the details. And of course I get told stories all the time when I do talks and book signings. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who shares these experiences with me – it’s a great plus of the job.
Other than these personal contacts, I tend to work on my library tan. Newspapers, academic journals, dusty old books, collections of ephemera – the more the merrier. I’m a stickler for everything being properly referenced, so that readers can check whether I’ve been fair and accurate to the accounts of supernatural or folkloric events.
Finally, I visit all the areas I write about. My patented research method of ‘wandering round and accidentally bumping into things’ is a guaranteed route to the surprising and strange. “
Having written about cities like Glasgow and Aberdeen, do you find a difference in the historical superstitions and tales from city to city?
“Every city has shared factors – such as large cemeteries, which tend to promote certain kinds of stories, or a core of older buildings around which tales of ghosts tend to circulate. Other than this, I found that Glasgow had a higher rate of both urban legends and what you might call ‘murder myths’ – the folklore of murderers, prisons and public executions – while Aberdeen appears to be thronged with spectres both ancient and modern. “
Most people who think about strange things in Scotland immediately think of haunted Edinburgh and the Loch Ness Monster. Are there any areas of the country packed with strange tales which are perhaps unfairly ignored?
“Dundee definitely. Hardly any supernatural books even mention the city, but when I was researching ‘Paranormal Dundee’I came up with so much material I had to produce ‘Haunted Dundee’as a second book. And I also think the north-east is not given its due. Working on ‘The Guide to Mysterious Aberdeenshire’, I found that the county has more stone circles than anywhere else in Scotland, and it also has a significant amount of fairylore, which is something you don’t get in the cities.
Personally I have a weakness for the peculiar things you come across on islands. Researching ‘The Guide to Mysterious Arran’I came across mysterious columns of pebbles and ceramic masks sited on remote beaches. What are they for? I have absolutely no idea.
Honestly, anywhere you go in Scotland, there is weirdness a-go-go.”
Do you think that Scots take their myths and legends more or less seriously than those living elsewhere in the UK?
“I’ve written about northern England as well, and to my mind I see little difference – and, being Welsh, I can vouch for a continuing vein of mysticism and myth in the Land of My Fathers. Perhaps things are not the same in the Home Counties, but I wouldn’t know. “
If you only had a day in Scotland but wanted to do and see as many unusual things as possible where would you head to and what would you take in?
“Iona. Black magic murder, Dark Ages Christian supernaturalism, ancient graveyards, great medieval crosses, strange gargoyles, fairies, Viking ghosts, seal shapeshifters, a youth-rejuvenating holy well, and a saint who was buried alive and then returned from the dead, having visited Heaven and Hell. And the island is only two miles long. “
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment? Can we expect more books on Mysterious Scotland from you?
I’ve just put the finishing touches to ‘Haunted St Andrews & District’, which will be out in 2012 and is my 23rd book. The same year will see the publication of ‘Haunted Dundee’ and ‘Paranormal Cumbria’, both of which are on the presses. There’s a book on poltergeists in the offing, and I’m about to start work on a novel and a film script. Take a look at www.geoffholder.com for more stuff and nonsense about what I’m up to.
This feature is part of our Scotland Uncovered Supplement. For more articles like this check out the February Edition of Scotcampus or check back online with us over the course of the next four weeks.