Part III. – Wraiths, 1st December, 1818, pp.13-17.

[Popular Superstitions of Clydesdale Contents]

   NO part of our national mythology appears to have made so indelible an impression on the minds of the peasantry of Clydesdale, as that which relates to Wraiths, or spectral appearances of persons yet alive. It has neither been effaced by the extending prevalence of education. or by the sceptical philosophy in which so many find it at present convenient to indulge, and it seems to have been one of the few of our aboriginal superstitions, for such now must those ancient opinions be denominated, which the worthy, but rigid Covenanters of the West, left in the undisturbed possession of their adherents’ minds. A belief in wraithly visitations, accordingly, descended almost impaired till out own times; it has been fashioned into a system, and, at this day, forms a constituent part in the creed of almost every inhabitant in the upper districts of Strathclyde. Some few, indeed, have of late begun to call the propriety of this belief in question, but it is always with a hesitation expressive of their doubtful conviction, and while the Fairies and Kelpies have almost altogether departed, and even the visible reign of his Sable Majesty appears to be drawing to a close, you will scarcely meet with a family of any extent in the upper ward of Lanarkshire in which there is not at least one member who has been honoured with seeing a Ghaist or Wraith

    Were we to search for the general diffusion and the pertinacious continuance of this belief in Wraiths, we might perhaps discover it in its having been connected with a most desirable doctrine, which receives (as some think) some small countenance from Holy Scriptures, and which the greater part of Clydesdale cherishes with peculiar fondness. The moment a child is born, one from the ranks of angelic existence is supposed to be constituted his guardian, to watch over his life, instilling good principles into his mind, preventing him from falling under temptation, and not unfrequently by his premonitions, averting dangers inevitable by human foresight, or giving notice of the approaching dissolution of his ward. Wraiths are believed either to be the apparitions of guardian angels themselves, or else to be caused by the agency of those mighty beings, circumstances, indeed, which appear to have given rise to the name; the word wraith being derived, according to Dr Jamieson, from Meso-Gothic ward-jan, or Anglo-Saxon weard-an, to guard, to keep; weard, in the latter language, also signifying a keeper. Accordingly, though regarded with fear, and their appeearance by no means desired, wraiths have never been viewed in the same light with the equivocally moral Fairies, Ghaists, or Brownies, but are considered as the kind of intimations of affectionate, but superior intelligence, who have the final happiness of mankind perpetually at heart. 

   Wraiths may be divided into two classes; first, Visible appearances of well-known persons yet living; and these are for the most part premonitory of the speedy death of the individuals whose likenesses they assume, but sometimes also, according to certain circumstances in the vision, of long life and prosperity. And, secondly, such as are premonitory of approaching danger, these seldom assuming the resemblances of any known person. Those of the first class seldom or never appear to the persons whose death they foretell; it is generally to a near relation, or some intimate friend, and then the apparition is generally beheld standing stone-still, or slowly moving away from the spectator, arrayed in a garb similar to that with which the fey individual is dressed at the moment of the vision, though sometimes this latter circumstance is omitted, in order that the spectre may assume an appearance more unequivocally prognosticative of death; such as the likeness of a corpse laid out for interment, or even the more shocking similitude of a coffin, with the head as it were of the doomed person reclining on the one side, its eyes dull and filmy, and the whole countenance cadaverously pale. Should the spectre be seen approaching, it foreshow long life to the man or woman it represents; if it be engaged in labour, it indicates that the party will become rich, living long in prosperous circumstances; and should it move past, the beholder, first retiring and then approaching, it foretells that he whose shape it has assumed shall be in imminent peril of losing his life, either from accident or disease, but will finally recover and live to a good old age. Sometimes a person sees his own wraith, and this, as far as I can collect, is prognosticative of health and happiness. 

   One of the best authenticated instances of a wraith foreboding approaching death appearing in our day, is the following, which I have heard related by Mr G—, at present a respectable manufacturer in Glasgow, and a gentleman of undoubted veracity. One beautiful moonlight night, as he was undressing himself to go to bed, whither his wife had retired a few moments before, chancing to cast his eyes towards the window, he thought he saw the figure of his aged mother standing motionless in the air on the outside, arrayed in a flannel bed-gown. Its back being rather turned towards him, he distinctly perceived the profile of its face, which, with a calm and fixed eye, looked eastwards, while its left hand, raised to a horizontal position, steadfastly pointed in the same direction. he immediately called to Mrs G—, who, upon looking, beheld the same appearance, preserving one unvaried posture. Being a dweller in the second storey, the gentleman knew that it could be nothing which was supported by the ground; and possessing rather a bold and determined mind, he went to the window and threw up the sash, in order to examine whether it might not be some deception caused by clothes, or any other object hanging down from an upper window. Upon his approach, the apparition vanished; and after the strictest search which the nature of the circumstances permitted, he could discover nothing which could possibly be considered as the cause of so remarkable an occurrence. Lost in thought, he retired towards the middle of the room, which he had no sooner reached, than the same likeness presented itself again, and continued in its former position, till Mr G— overcome, leaped into bed, and buried himself under the clothes. On the morrow, strict investigation was made among the neighbours, but none of them had had any clothes hanging over their windows the preceding night, and the whole remained involved in mystery till about noon-day, when tidings arrived that last night Mr G—’s mother departed this life, having gone to be in tolerable4 health overnight, and next morning being found a corpse. Upon inquiry, Mr G— learned that his mother, when found dead, was dressed in a flannel bed-gown, of the very same pattern with the one which her wraith presented, and that her head was reclined upon her left arm, the one with which the vision had pointed, in the direction of her abode, in the parish of Cambusnethan, which lies due east from Glasgow. 

   It would be easy to multiply stories concerning these unearthly visitations, – the whole district is full of them; but, in order to get the most authentic information, on the 2d of September I called at the dwelling of a most respectable old woman, whom in my infancy I had often heard tell strange tales of spirits and diablerie. Upon my pretending to doubt the existence of wraiths, and seriously asking whether or not the story of her having seen one was really true, she seemed hurt at my unbelief, and, checking her spinning-wheel, she turned her wrinkled but benevolent countenance full upon me, and, stretching out her long and withered arm, thus began the following narration, in which I shall preserve as much of her own language as I can recollect. 

  “I ken fu’ weel it is now the fasson for ilka bit callan that has been twae years at the college to carp at the belief in apparitions, as gin it war a thing impossible wi’ Providence to command or allow a spirit till appear. I believe nae mare nor ye do a’ the daft-like ranes whilk are tauld anent kelpies and fairies: but here am I sittand on the very lip o’ the grave, an auld grey-headit body, at the years o’ seventy-twae; and at my time o’ life whae waud daur to tell a lee? Our milkhouse, whilk stude on the side of a dentie burn, and was ane o’ thae auld vowts whilk the Pechs biggit langsyne, had wa’s sae doons strang that ane waud hae thocht it micht hae stude to the last day; but its found had been onnerminit by the last Lammas-spait; the gudeman fillit up the slap, and, as we a’ thocht, made the wa’ braw an’ sicker, but alack, we war sare mistane; an’ hadnae an e’e mare tentie nor our ain been bendit upon us, our lives boud till hae payit for our want o’ care. It was in a cauld blae hairst day, at dayligaun, I mind it weel, as weel as I mind thestreen, that I, an’ my youngest dochter, wi’ the hird-lassie, (the lave war a’ on the rig,) gade to milk the kye; the hird, wha was at the byre a thochtie afore us, cam rinnan’ back, cryan’ that a lang white woman waudnae let her in. I bad her gae back for a daft halock, tellan’ her that skeech horse saw mony bogles. I then enterit the byre, an’ we sat down to milk but ony molestation. We had nearly dune, the hird was settan’ by her currie, my dochter was milkan’ at her last cow, and I had gane into the milkhouse, a whilk enterit frae the byre, to teem a hannie-fu’ o’ milk, whan I heard my dochter cryan’ out “O mither, mither!” I flang the hannie frae me, flew into the byre, an’ claucht her just as she was sinkan’ in a swoon. The lassie and I bure her to the appen furth, an’ had hardly won to the lone, whan down cam the wearifu’ milkhouse, an’ the haill enn’ o’ the byre neest it, wi’ an awsome rummiss, dingan the cheese-rack, boins, curries, an’ hannies, a’ to smash. Three ca’s an’ twa hannies, a’ to smash. three ca’s an’ twa queys war brainit; an’ it was a waesome thing to hear the wee bits o’ saikless moakies mainan’ in the deadthraws. My dochter was lang awa’, but whan she cam again, she tauld us, that sae sune as I enterit the vowt, a’ the kye stoppit chowan; their cud, and gied a dowf en’ eeriesome crune; which, garran her look about, she perceivit my very likeness sittan’ milkan’ at the cow I had that moment left. She bangit up, screechan’ wi’ perfect terror, whan a dwaum cam owerher heart, an’ she saw nae mare.” – “I’ll never doubt,” continued my informant, “while I hae breath to draw, that it was my Guardian Angel come to save my life, an’ the lives o’ my bairn an’ worthy servan’, in that wanchanchie hour. An’, O sir, gin ye had come through as mony trials as I hae dune, an’ fochten as mony fauchts wi’ this wearie warld, an’ seen as clearly as I hae dune the weakness o’ sinfu’ flesh, ye waudnae lichtlie the faith of a puir auld friendless widow-woman, whae believes that it is nowther aneth His gudeness, nor contrare to His wise Providence, to send His angel to warn those of their danger whae plant their hope in His name.” 

   Among the more important wraithly interpositions, one, in which Scotland was deeply concerned, is reported in the traditions of Clydesdale to have happened to Wallace Wight himself, saving the life of that illustrious man. 

   About a furlong below the Stonebyres-lin, there lies in the middle of Clyde a huge rock called the Carlin Stane, well known to anglers, as remarkably fine trouts are found beneath its ledges, and the pool in which it is situated is much frequented for the purposes of bathing. It has obviously been disjointed from a lofty crag on the right bank of the river, which the circumjacent peasantry report to have been caused in the following manner. Wallace, while a youth, was employed in herding his father’s horses, which he used often to drive to pasture upon Nemphlar Braes, by the side of Clyde. He had a peculiar pleasure in strolling about the magnificent cataract of Stonebyres, and in placing himself in dangerous but heart-thrilling situations upon the brinks of the enormous precipices which at that place wall in the boiling river on every side. The mass which now forms the Carlin Stane, formerly projecting from the opposite rock, and considerably overhanging its base, formed a desirable station to Wallace, from whence the venturous youth could contemplate the unrivalled scenery around, or look down upon the “bloody” Clyde wheeling and foaming in the misty gulf below. Wallace is reported to have excelled in all athletic games, particularly in putting the stane, and several matches having taken place between him and the English, who at that period held the Castle of Lanark, in which the youthful hero was uniformly victorious, his antagonists conceived against him the most mortal envy, and determined to cut him off. For this purpose, not daring to attack him openly, they, in the night-time, undermined his favourite station on the rocks of Clyde, almost detaching it from its supports, and left it in so ticklish a condition, that it could not fail to give way beneath the foot of any person who might tread upon it, and precipitate him into the tremendous deep below. next day Wallace, as was his custom, drove his horses to Nemphlar Braes, and was proceeding to take his usual station on the rocks, when, to his surprise, he perceived that it was preoccupied by an aged woman of venerable aspect, who forbad his nearer approach by an aythoritative wave of the hand. Wallace stood still, when the figure rose, and appeared to be employed in carefully examining the ground around the platform, particularly where it joined the rocks. The hero, at once perceiving that this was a spectral apparition, approached no farther that day, but drove home his horses before nightfall. On the morrow, however, reproaching himself for his timidity, he determined to examine the rocks and linn, with which he now conceived something supernatural to be connected, He directed his steps to the spot at an early hour. Upon his arrival he again found, as formerly, the venerable old lady seated on his favourite station, who again authoritatively waving him back with her hand, arose and retired behind a thicket. In an instant she returned, accompanied by another spectre, in the exact likeness of Wallace himself. Utterly confounded, the youth stood rooted to the spot, and perceived his spectral similitude proceed, seemingly with great caution, to a certain distance from the projecting platform, whence he appeared to dash a huge stone which he bore in his hand with all his force upon the beetling rock. Both spectres vanished, and Wallace imagining that he understood the meaning of the vision, lifted a huge rocky fragment and proceeded carefully forward, minutely examining at every step the ground, which he soon discovered to have been newly turned over, till he arrived at the spot whence the spectre threw the stone, thence, collecting all his strength, he dashed the one w2hich he carried upon the overhanging crag, which instantly gave way, and fell with a dreadful plunge into the weel below. Thus was the life of Scotland’s champion saved by his country’s guardian genii, the Wraiths of Clydesdale. 

   Other wonderful stories are still current in the traditions of this district relative to Wallace and the Carlin Stane; but I fear they are too outrageously poetical for the languid imaginations of modern readers, – who are scared with such adventures as those of Ulysses in the Cyclops cave. The spot, however, has ever since been famous in the annals of our popular superstitions, and especially became a favourite haunt of the Mermaids, for according to the old ballad, 

“The Mermaid sat on the Carlin Stane, 

A-kaiman’ her gowden hair, 

The May ne’er was in Clydesdale wide 

Was ever half sae fair.” 

   I shall most probably transmit by next month the conclusion of this lengthened paper on Wraithly superstition, and, in the meanwhile, I am your obedient servant. 

C. T. C. S.

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