Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Kirk Alloway Witches by Robert Burns

(from Tales to Enthrall, Arnold Dawson, editor; London:Richards, n.d.)

Burns's well-known poem "Tam O'Shanter" was writtten at the request of Captain Grose for his book on the "Antiquities of Scotland."  When persuading Burns to contribute this poem he also asked for some notes on the legends and antiquities associated with Alloway Kirk, in response to which request Burns wrote to him narrating the recollections here printed, on which the poet had founded his famous poem.

Among the many witch stories I have heard relating to Alloway Kirk, I distinctly remember only two or three.

     Upon a stormy night, amid whistling squalls of wind and bitter blasts of hail -- in short, on such a night as the devil would choose to take the air in -- a farmer, or farmer's servant, was plodding and plashing homeward with his plough-irons on his shoulder, having been getting some repairs on them at a neighbouring smithy.

     His way lay by the Kirk of Alloway; and, being rather on the anxious look-out in approaching a place so well known to be a favorite haunt of the devil, and the devil's friends and emissaries, he was struck aghast by discovering through the horrors of the storm and stormy night a light, which, on his nearer approach, plainly showed itself to proceed from the haunted edifice.

     Whether he had been fortified from above on his devout supplication, as is customary with people when they suspect the immediate presence of Satan, or whether, according to another local custom, he had got courageously drunk at the smithy, I will not pretend to determine; but so it was, that he ventured to go up to, nay, into the very kirk.  As luck would have it, his temerity came off unpunished.

     The members of the infernal junto were all out on some midnight business or other, and he saw nothing but a kind of kettle or cauldron, depending from the roof, simmering some heads of unchristianed children, limbs of executed malafactors, etc., for the business of the night.  It was in for a penny, in for a pound, with the honest ploughman; so, without ceremony he unhooked the cauldron from off the fire, and, pouring out the horrible ingredients,  inverted it on his head, and carried it fairly home, where it remained long in the family, a living evidence of the truth of the story.

     Another story, which I can prove to be equally authenic, was as follows: --

     On a market-day in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway Kirkyard, in order to cross the River Doon at the old bridge, which is about two or three hundred yards further than said gate, had been detained by his business, till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour, between night and morning.

     Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the kirk, yet, as it is a well-known fact that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road.  When he reached the gate of the kirkyard, he was surprised and entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old Gothic window, which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty blackguard master, who was keeping them alive with the power of his bagpipe.

     The farmer, stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly descry the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood.  How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say, but that the ladies were all in their smocks; and one of them happening, unluckily, to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled, that he involuntarily burst out, with a loud laugh, "Weel luppen, Maggie wi' the short sark!" and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed.

     I need not mention the universally-known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream.  Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the River Doon was so near, for, notwithstanding the speed of his horse, which was a good one, against he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge, and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing, vengeful hags were so close at his heels, that one of them actually sprang to seize him; but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse's tail, which immdiately gave way, at her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning, but the farmer was beyond her reach.

     However, the unsightly, tail-less condition of the vigrous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature's life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.

     The last relation I shall give, though equally true, is not so well identified as the former two with regard to the scene; but as the best authorities give it for Alloway, I shall relate it.

     On a summer's evening, about the time Nature puts on her sables to mourn the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy, belonging to a farmer in the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway Kirk, had just folded his charge, and was returning home.  As he passed the kirk, in the adjoining field, he fell in with a crew of men and women, who were busy pulling stems of the plant ragwort.  He observed that as each person pulled a ragwort, he or she got astride of it, and called out, "Up, horsie" on which the ragwort flew off, like Pegasus, through the air with its rider.

     The foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest, "Up, horsie!" and strange to tell, away he flew with the company.  The first stage at which the calvacade stopped was a wine merchant's cellar in Bordeaux, where, without saying "by your leave," they quaffed away at the best the cellar could afford, until the morning -- foe to  the imps and works of darkness -- threatened to throw light on the matter, and frightened them from their carousals.

     The poor shepherd lad, being equally a stranger to the scene, and the liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk; and when the rest took horse he fell asleep, and was found so the next day by some people belonging to the merchant.  Somebody that understood Scotch, asking him what he was, he said such-a-one's herd in Alloway; and by some means or other getting home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous tale.

Here's Burn's poem, "Tam O'Shanter":

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