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The Drummer Of Cortachy

Scary Books: Scottish Ghost Stories

What ancient Scottish or Irish family has not its Family Ghost? A

banshee--the heritage of Niall of the Nine Hostages--is still the

unenviable possession of his descendants, the O'Donnells, and I, who

am a member of the clan, have both seen and heard it several times. As

it appears to me, it resembles the decapitated head of a prehistoric

woman, and I shall never forget my feelings one night, when, aroused

from slumber
by its ghastly wailing, I stumbled frantically out of

bed, and, groping my way upstairs in the dark, without venturing to

look to the left or right lest I should see something horrible, found

every inmate of the house huddled together on the landing, paralysed

with fear. I did not see it on that occasion, but on the following

morning, as I had anticipated, I received the news that a near and

dear relative had died.

Possessing such an heirloom myself, I can therefore readily sympathise

with those who own a similar treasure--such, for example, as the

famous, or rather infamous, Drummer of Cortachy Castle, who is

invariably heard beating a tattoo before the death of a member of the

clan of Ogilvie.

Mrs. Crowe, in her Night Side of Nature, referring to the haunting,


Miss D., a relative of the present Lady C., who had been staying some

time with the Earl and Countess at their seat, near Dundee, was

invited to spend a few days at Cortachy Castle, with the Earl and

Countess of Airlie. She went, and whilst she was dressing for dinner

the first evening of her arrival, she heard a strain of music under

her window, which finally resolved itself into a well-defined sound of

a drum. When her maid came upstairs, she made some inquiries about the

drummer that was playing near the house; but the maid knew nothing on

the subject. For the moment the circumstance passed from Miss D.'s

mind, but, recurring to her again during the dinner, she said,

addressing Lord Airlie, 'My lord, who is your drummer?' Upon which his

lordship turned pale, Lady Airlie looked distressed, and several of

the company, who all heard the question, embarrassed; whilst the lady,

perceiving that she had made some unpleasant allusion, although she

knew not to what their feelings referred, forebore further inquiry

till she reached the drawing-room; when, having mentioned the

circumstance again to a member of the family, she was answered, 'What,

have you never heard of the drummer boy?' 'No,' replied Miss D.; 'who

in the world is he?' 'Why,' replied the other, 'he is a person who

goes about the house playing his drum, whenever there is a death

impending in the family. The last time he was heard was shortly before

the death of the last Countess (the Earl's former wife); and that is

why Lord Airlie became so pale when you mentioned it. The drummer boy

is a very unpleasant subject in this family, I assure you.'

Miss D. was naturally much concerned, and indeed not a little

frightened at this explanation, and her alarm being augmented by

hearing the sounds on the following day, she took her departure from

Cortachy Castle, and returned to Lord C.'s, where she related this

strange circumstance to the family, through whom the information

reached me.

This affair was very generally known in the north, and we awaited the

event with interest. The melancholy death of the Countess about five

or six months afterwards, at Brighton, sadly verified the

prognostications. I have heard that a paper was found in her desk

after her death, declaring her conviction that the drum was for her.

Mrs. Crowe goes on to explain the origin of the phenomenon. According

to legend, she says, there was once at Cortachy a drummer, who,

incurring the jealousy of the then Lord Airlie, was thrust into his

own drum and flung from a window of the tower (in which, by the way,

Miss D. slept). Before being put to death thus, the drummer is stated

to have said he would for ever after haunt the Airlie family--a threat

he has obviously been permitted to fulfil.

During one of my visits to Scotland, I stayed some days in Forfarshire

not far from Cortachy. Among the visitors at my hotel was a very old

gentleman of the name of Porter, who informed me that, when a boy, he

used to visit some relatives who, at that time, lived within easy

walking distance of Cortachy. One of these relatives was a lad of

about fourteen, named Alec, with whom he had always been the closest

of friends. The recollection of their many adventures evidently

afforded Mr. Porter infinite amusement, and one of these adventures,

in particular, he told me, was as fresh in his mind as if it had

happened yesterday.

Looking back upon it now, he said, with a far-away look in his eyes,

it certainly was a strange coincidence, and if you are interested in

the hauntings of Cortachy, Mr. O'Donnell, you may, perhaps, like to

hear the account of my ghostly experiences in that neighbourhood.

Of course I replied that nothing would give me greater pleasure, and

Mr. Porter forthwith began his story.

One misty night in October, my friend Alec and I, both being keen on

rabbiting, determined to visit a spinney adjoining the Cortachy

estate, in pursuit of our quarry. Alec had chosen this particular

night, thinking, under cover of the mist, to escape the vigilance of

the keepers, who had more than once threatened to take him before the

laird for trespassing.

To gain access to the spinney we had to climb a granite wall and drop

on the other side--the drop, in addition to being steep, being

rendered all the more precarious by reason of the man-traps the

keepers were in the habit of setting. When I got astride the wall and

peered into the well-like darkness at our feet, and heard the grim

rustling of the wind through the giant pines ahead of me, I would have

given all I possessed to have found myself snug and warm in bed; but

Alec was of a different 'kidney'--he had come prepared for excitement,

and he meant to have it. For some seconds, we both waited on the wall

in breathless silence, and then Alec, with a reckless disregard of

what might be in store for him, gently let himself drop, and I,

fearing more, if anything, than the present danger, to be for ever

after branded as a coward if I held back, timidly followed suit. By a

great stroke of luck we alighted in safety on a soft carpeting of

moss. Not a word was spoken, but, falling on hands and knees, and

guiding ourselves by means of a dark lantern Alec had bought

second-hand from the village blacksmith, we crept on all-fours along a

tiny bramble-covered path, that after innumerable windings eventually

brought us into a broad glade shut in on all sides by lofty trees.

Alec prospected the spot first of all to see no keepers were about,

and we then crawled into it, and, approaching the nearest burrows, set

to work at once with our ferrets. Three rabbits were captured in this

fashion, and we were eagerly anticipating the taking of more, when a

sensation of icy coldness suddenly stole over us, and, on looking

round, we perceived, to our utmost consternation, a very tall keeper

standing only a few yards away from us. For once in a way, Alec was

nonplussed, and a deathly silence ensued. It was too dark for us to

see the figure of the keeper very distinctly, and we could only

distinguish a gleaming white face set on a very slight and

perpendicular frame, and a round, glittering something that puzzled us

both exceedingly. Then, a feeling that, perhaps, it was not a keeper

gradually stole over me, and in a paroxysm of ungovernable terror I

caught hold of Alec, who was trembling from head to foot as if he had

the ague. The figure remained absolutely still for about a minute,

during which time neither Alec nor I could move a muscle, and then,

turning round with an abrupt movement, came towards us.

Half-dead with fright, but only too thankful to find that we had now

regained the use of our limbs, we left our spoil and ran for our lives

in the direction of the wall.

We dared not look back, but we knew the figure followed us, for we

heard its footsteps close at our heels; and never to my dying day

shall I forget the sound--rat-tat, tat, rat-tat, tat--for all the

world like the beat of a muffled drum.

How we ever managed to reach the wall I could never tell, but as we

scrambled over it, regardless of man-traps and bruises, and plunged

into the heather on the other side, we heard the weird footsteps

receding in the direction of the castle, and, ere we had reached home,

the rat-tat, tat, rat-tat, tat, had completely died away.

We told no one a word of what had happened, and a few days after,

simultaneously with the death of one of the Airlies, we learned, for

the first time, the story of the Phantom Drummer.

I have little doubt, Mr. Porter added, in conclusion, that the

figure we took to be a keeper was the prophetic Drummer, for I can

assure you there was no possibility of hoaxers, especially in such

ill-omened guise, anywhere near the Cortachy estate.

Poor old Mr. Porter! He did not long survive our rencontre. When I

next visited the hotel, some months later, I was genuinely grieved to

hear of his decease. His story had greatly fascinated me, for I love

the solitude of the pines, and have myself from time to time witnessed

many remarkable occult phenomena under the shadow of their lofty

summits. One night, during this second visit of mine to the hotel, the

mood to ramble came upon me, and, unable to resist the seductive

thought of a midnight stroll across the bracken-covered hills, I

borrowed a latchkey, and, armed with a flask of whisky and a thick

stick, plunged into the moonlit night. The keen, heather-scented air

acted like a tonic--I felt younger and stronger than I had felt for

years, and I congratulated myself that my friends would hardly know me

if they saw me now, as I swung along with the resuscitated stride of

twenty years ago. The landscape for miles around stood out with

startling clearness in the moonshine, and I stopped every now and then

to drink in the beauties of the glittering mountain-ranges and silent,

glimmering tarns. Not a soul was about, and I found myself, as I loved

to be, the only human element in the midst of nature. Every now and

then a dark patch fluttered across the shining road, and with a weird

and plaintive cry, a night bird dashed abruptly from hedge to hedge,

and seemingly melted into nothingness. I quitted the main road on the

brow of a low hill, and embarked upon a wild expanse of moor, lavishly

covered with bracken and white heather, intermingled with which were

the silvery surfaces of many a pool of water. For some seconds I stood

still, lost in contemplating the scenery,--its utter abandonment and

grand sense of isolation; and inhaling at the same time long and deep

draughts of the delicious moorland air, unmistakably impregnated now

with breaths of ozone. My eyes wandering to the horizon, I detected,

on the very margin of the moorland, a dense clump of trees, which I

instantly associated with the spinney in my old friend Mr. Porter's

story, and, determining that the renowned spinney should be my goal, I

at once aimed for it, vigorously striking out along the path which I

thought would be most likely to lead to it. Half an hour's brisk

walking brought me to my destination, and I found myself standing

opposite a granite wall which my imagination had no difficulty in

identifying with the wall so well described by Mr. Porter. Removing

the briars and gorse prickles which left little of my stockings whole,

I went up to the wall, and, measuring it with my body, found it was a

good foot taller than I. This would mean rather more climbing than I

had bargained for. But the pines--the grim silence of their slender

frames and gently swaying summits--fascinated me. They spoke of

possibilities few could see or appreciate as I could; possibilities of

a sylvan phantasmagoria enhanced by the soft and mystic radiance of

the moon. An owl hooted, and the rustling of brushwood told me of the

near proximity of some fur-coated burrower in the ground. High above

this animal life, remoter even than the tops of my beloved trees or

the mountain-ranges, etched on the dark firmament, shone multitudinous

stars, even the rings round Saturn being plainly discernible. From the

Milky Way my eyes at length wandered to the pines, and a puff of air

laden with the odour of their resin and decaying brushwood decided me.

I took a few preliminary sips of whisky, stretched my rusty limbs,

and, placing one foot in a jagged crevice of the wall, swarmed

painfully up. How slow and how hazardous was the process! I scratched

my fingers, inured to the pen but a stranger to any rougher substance;

I ruined my box-calf boots, I split my trousers at the knees, and I

felt that my hat had parted with its shape for ever; and yet I

continued the ascent. The end came all too suddenly. When within an

ace of victory, I yielded to impulse, and with an energy the desperate

condition of my skin and clothes alone could account for, I swung up,

and--the outer edge of the wall melted beneath me, my hands

frantically clutched at nothingness, a hideous sensation of falling

surged through my brain, my ears and eyes filled to bursting, and with

a terrific crash that seemed to drive my head and spine right through

my stomach, I met the black, uprising earth, and lost consciousness.

Providentially for me, I had pitched head first into a furze bush

which broke the fall, otherwise I must have met with serious injury.

As it was, when I recovered my momentary loss of consciousness, I

found that I had sustained no worse harm than a severe shaking,

scratches galore, and the utter demolition of my clothes! I picked

myself up with difficulty, and spent some time searching for my hat

and stick--which I at length discovered, lodged, of course, where one

would least have thought of looking for them. I then took close stock

of my surroundings, and found them even grimmer than I had

anticipated. Though the trees were packed closely together, and there

was much undergrowth, the moonbeams were so powerful and so fully

concentrated on the spinney, that I could see no inconsiderable

distance ahead of me. Over everything hung a solemn and preternatural

hush. I saw shadows everywhere--shadows that defied analysis and had

no material counterparts. A sudden crashing of brushwood brought me to

a standstill, and sent the blood in columns to my heart. Then I

laughed loudly--it was only a hare, the prettiest and pertest thing

imaginable. I went on. Something whizzed past my face. I drew back in

horror--it was a bat, merely a bat. My nerves were out of order, the

fall had unsteadied them; I must pull myself together. I did so, and

continued to advance. A shadow, long, narrow, and grotesque, fell

across my path, and sent a thousand and one icy shivers down my back.

In an agony of terror I shut my eyes and plunged madly on. Something

struck me in the face and hurled me back. My eyes opened

involuntarily, and I saw a tree that, either out of pique or sheer

obstinacy, had planted itself half-way across the path. I examined its

branches to make sure they were branches, and continued my march. A

score more paces, a sudden bend, and I was in an open space,

brilliantly illuminated by moonbeams and peopled with countless,

moving shadows. One would have to go far to find a wilder, weirder,

and more grimly suggestive spot. As I stood gazing at the scene in

awestruck wonder, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine trees,

and moaning through their long and gloomy aisles reverberated like

thunder. The sounds, suggesting slightly, ever so slightly, a tattoo,

brought with them vivid pictures of the Drummer, too vivid just then

to be pleasant, and I turned to go. To my unmitigated horror, a white

and lurid object barred my way. My heart ceased to beat, my blood

turned to ice; I was sick, absolutely sick, with terror. Besides this,

the figure held me spellbound--I could neither move nor utter a sound.

It had a white, absolutely white face, a tall, thin, perpendicular

frame, and a small, glittering, rotund head. For some seconds it

remained stationary, and then, with a gliding motion, left the path

and vanished in the shadows.

Again a breeze rustled through the tops of the pine trees, moaned

through their long and gloomy aisles, and reverberated like thunder;

rat-tat, tat, rat-tat, tat--and with this sound beating in my ears,

reaction set in, and I never ceased running till I had reached my