An Old Scottish Psychical Researcher

By Andrew Lang.



“If any Gentlemen, and others, will be pleased to send me any relations about Spirits, Witches, and Apparitions, In any part of the Kingdom; or any Information about the Second Sight, Charms, Spells, Magic, and the like, They shall oblige the Author, and have them publisht to their satisfaction.

“Direct your Relations to Alexander Ogstouns, Shop Stationer, at the foot of the Plain-stones, at Edinburgh, on the North-side of the Street.”

Is this not a pleasing opportunity for Gentlemen, and Others, whose Aunts have beheld wraiths, doubles, and fetches?  It answers very closely to the requests of the Society for Psychical Research, who publish, as some one disparagingly says, “the dreams of the middle classes.”  Thanks to Freedom, Progress, and the decline of Superstition, it is now quite safe to see apparitions, and even to publish the narrative of their appearance.

But when Mr. George Sinclair, sometime Professor of Philosophy in Glasgow, issued the invitation which I have copied, at the end of his “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” the vocation of a seer was not so secure from harm.  He, or she, might just as probably be burned as not, on the charge of sorcery, in the year of grace, 1685.  However, Professor Sinclair managed to rake together an odd enough set of legends, “proving clearly that there are Devils,” a desirable matter to have certainty about.  “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered” is a very rare little book; I think Scott says in a MS. note that he had great difficulty in procuring it, when he was at work on his “infernal demonology.”  As a copy fell in my way, or rather as I fell in its way, a helpless victim to its charms and its blue morocco binding, I take this chance of telling again the old tales of 1685.

Mr. Sinclair began with a long dedicatory Epistle about nothing at all, to the Lord Winton of the period.  The Earl dug coal-mines, and constructed “a moliminous rampier for a harbour.”  A “moliminous rampier” is a choice phrase, and may be envied by novelists who aim at distinction of style.  “Your defending the salt pans against the imperious waves of the raging sea from the NE. is singular,” adds the Professor, addressing “the greatest coal and salt-master in Scotland, who is a nobleman, and the greatest nobleman who is a Coal and Salt Merchant.”  Perhaps it is already plain to the modern mind that Mr. George Sinclair, though a Professor of Philosophy, was not a very sagacious character.

Mr. Sinclair professes that his proofs of the existence of Devils “are no old wife’s trattles about the fire, but such as may bide the test.”  He lived, one should remember, in an age when faith was really seeking aid from ghost stories.  Glanvil’s books—and, in America, those of Cotton Mather—show the hospitality to anecdotes of an edifying sort, which we admire in Mr. Sinclair.  Indeed, Sinclair borrows from Glanvil and Henry More, authors who, like himself, wished to establish the existence of the supernatural on the strange incidents which still perplex us, but which are scarcely regarded as safe matter to argue upon.  The testimony for a Ghost would seldom go to a jury in our days, though amply sufficient in the time of Mr. Sinclair.  About “The Devil of Glenluce” he took particular care to be well informed, and first gave it to the world in a volume on—you will never guess what subject—Hydrostatics!  In the present work he offers us

“The Devil of Glenluce Enlarged
With several Remarkable Additions
from an Eye and Ear Witness,
A Person of undoubted

Mr. Sinclair recommends its “usefulness for refuting Atheism.”  Probably Mr. Sinclair got the story, or had it put off on him rather, through one Campbell, a student of philosophy in Glasgow, the son of Gilbert Campbell, a weaver of Glenluce, in Galloway; the scene in our own time, of a mysterious murder.  Campbell had refused alms to Alexander Agnew, a bold and sturdy beggar, who, when asked by the Judge whether he believed in a God, answered: “He knew no God but Salt, Meal, and Water.”  In consequence of the refusal of alms, “The Stirs first began.”  The “Stirs” are ghostly disturbances.  They commenced with whistling in the house and out of it, “such as children use to make with their small, slender glass whistles.”  “About the Middle of November,” says Mr. Sinclair, “the Foul Fiend came on with his extraordinary assaults.”  Observe that he takes the Foul Fiend entirely for granted, and that he never tells us the date of the original quarrel, and the early agitation.  Stones were thrown down the chimney and in at the windows, but nobody was hurt.

Naturally Gilbert Campbell carried his tale of sorrow to the parish Minister.  This did not avail him.  His warp and threads were cut on his loom, and even the clothes of his family were cut while they were wearing them.  At night something tugged the blankets off their beds, a favourite old spiritual trick, which was played, if I remember well, on a Roman Emperor, according to Suetonius.  Poor Campbell had to remove his stock-in-trade, and send his children to board out, “to try whom the trouble did most follow.”  After this, all was quiet (as perhaps might be expected), and quiet all remained, till a son named Thomas was brought home again.  Then the house was twice set on fire, and it might have been enough to give Thomas a beating.  On the other hand, Campbell sent Thomas to stay with the Minister.  But the troubles continued in the old way.  At last the family became so accustomed to the Devil, “that they were no more afraid to keep up the Clash” (chatter) “with the Foul Fiend than to speak to each other.”  They were like the Wesleys, who were so familiar with the fiend Jeffrey, that haunted their home.

The Minister, with a few of the gentry, heard of their unholy friendship, and paid Campbell a visit.  “At their first coming in the Devil says: ‘Quum Literarum is good Latin.’”  These are the first words of the Latin rudiments which scholars are taught when they go to the Grammar School.  Then they all prayed, and a Voice came from under the bed: “Would you know the Witches of Glenluce?”  The Voice named a few, including one long dead.  But the Minister, with rare good sense, remarked that what Satan said was not evidence.

Let it be remarked that “the lad Tom” had that very day “come back with the Minister.”  The Fiend then offered terms.  “Give me a spade and shovel, and depart from the house for seven days, and I will make a grave, and lie down in it, and trouble you no more.”  Hereon Campbell, with Scottish caution, declined to give the Devil the value of a straw.  The visitors then hunted after the voice, observing that some of the children were in bed.  They found nothing, and then, as the novelists say, “a strange thing happened.”

There appeared a naked hand and an arm, from the elbow down, beating upon the floor till the house did shake again.  “The Fiend next exclaimed that if the candle were put out he would appear in the shape of Fireballs.”

Let it be observed that now, for the first time, we learn that all the scene occurred in candle-light.  The appearance of floating balls of fire is frequent (if we may believe the current reports) at spiritualistic séances.  But what a strange, ill-digested tale is Mr. Sinclair’s!  He lets slip an expression which shows that the investigators were in one room, the But, while the Fiend was diverting himself in the other room, the Ben!  The Fiend (nobody going Ben) next chaffed a gentleman who wore a fashionable broad-brimmed hat, “whereupon he presently imagined that he felt a pair of shears going about his hat,” but there was no such matter.  The voice asked for a piece of bread, which the others were eating, and said the maid gave him a crust in the morning.  This she denied, but admitted that something had “clicked” a piece of bread out of her hand.

The séance ended, the Devil slapping a safe portion of the children’s bodies, with a sound resembling applause.  After many months of this really annoying conduct, poor Campbell laid his case before the Presbyters, in 1655, thirty years before the date of publication.  So a “solemn humiliation” was actually held all through the bounds of the synod.  But to little purpose did Glenluce sit in sackcloth and ashes.  The good wife’s plate was snatched away before her very eyes, and then thrown back at her.  In similar “stirs,” described by a Catholic missionary in Peru soon after Pizarro’s conquest, the cup of an Indian chief was lifted up by an invisible hand, and set down empty.  In that case, too, stones were thrown, as by the Devil of Glenluce.

And what was the end of it all?  Mr. Sinclair has not even taken the trouble to inquire.  It seems by some conjuration or other, the Devil suffered himself to be put away, and gave the weaver a habitation.  The weaver “has been a very Odd man that endured so long these marvellous disturbances.”

This is the tale which Mr. Sinclair offers, without mentioning his authority.  He complains that Dr. Henry More had plagiarised it, from his book of Hydrostatics.  Two points may be remarked.  First: modern Psychical Inquirers are more particular about evidence than Mr. Sinclair.  Not for nothing do we live in an age of science.  Next: the stories of these “stirs” are always much the same everywhere, in Glenluce, at Tedworth, where the Drummer came, in Peru, in Wesley’s house, in heroic Iceland, when Glam, the vampire, “rode the roofs.”  It is curious to speculate on how the tradition of making themselves little nuisances in this particular manner has been handed down among children, if we are to suppose that children do the trick.  Last autumn a farmer’s house in Scotland was annoyed exactly as the weaver’s home was, and that within a quarter of a mile of a well-known man of science.  The mattress of the father was tenanted by something that wriggled like a snake.  The mattress was opened, nothing was found, and the disturbance began again as soon as the bed was restored to its place.  This occurred when the farmer’s children had been sent to a distance.

One cannot but be perplexed by the problem which these tales suggest.  Almost bare of evidence as they are, their great number, their wide diffusion, in many countries and in times ancient and modern, may establish some substratum of truth.  Scott mentions a case in which the imposture was detected by a sheriff’s officer.  But a recent anecdote makes me almost distrust the detection.

Some English people, having taken a country house in Ireland, were vexed by the usual rappings, stone-throwings, and all the rest of the business.  They sent to Dublin for two detectives, who arrived.  On their first night, the lady of the house went into a room, where she found one of the policemen asleep in his chair.  Being a lively person, she rapped twice or thrice on the table.  He awakened, and said: “Ah, so I suspected.  It was hardly worth while, madam, to bring us so far for this.”  And next day the worthy men withdrew in dudgeon, but quite convinced that they had discovered the agent in the hauntings.

But they had not!

On the other hand, Scott (who had seen one ghost, if not two, and had heard a “warning”) states that Miss Anne Robinson managed the Stockwell disturbances by tying horsehairs to plates and light articles, which then demeaned themselves as if possessed.

Here we have vera causa, a demonstrable cause of “stirs,” and it may be inferred that all the other historical occurrences had a similar origin.  We have, then, only to be interested in the persistent tradition, in accordance with which mischievous persons always do exactly the same sort of thing.  But this is a mere example of the identity of human nature.

It is curious to see how Mr. Sinclair plumes himself on this Devil of Glenluce as a “moliminous rampier” against irreligion.  “This one Relation is worth all the price that can be given for the Book.”  The price I have given for the volume is Ten Golden Guineas, and perhaps the Foul Thief of Glenluce is hardly worth the money.

“I believe if the Obdurest Atheist among men would seriously and in good earnest consider that relation, and ponder all the circumstances thereof, he would presently cry out, as a Dr. of Physick did, hearing a story less considerable, ‘I believe I have been in the wrong all the time—if this be true.’”

Mr. Sinclair is also a believer in the Woodstock devils, on which Scott founded his novel.  He does not give the explanation that Giles Sharp, alias Joseph Collins of Oxford, alias Funny Joe, was all the Devil in that affair.  Scott had read the story of Funny Joe, but could never remember “whether it exists in a separate collection, or where it is to be looked for.”

Indifferent to evidence, Mr. Sinclair confutes the Obdurest Atheists with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, with the young lady from Howells’ “Letters,” whose house, like Rahab’s, was “on the city wall,” and with the ghost of the Major who appeared to the Captain (as he had promised), and scolded him for not keeping his sword clean.  He also gives us Major Weir, at full length, convincing us that, as William Erskine said, “The Major was a disgusting fellow, a most ungentlemanlike character.”  Scott, on the other hand, remarked, long before “Waverley,” “if I ever were to become a writer of prose romances, I think I would choose Major Weir, if not for my hero, at least for an agent and a leading one, in my production.”  He admitted that the street where the Major lived was haunted by a woman “twice the common length,” “but why should we set him down for an ungentlemanly fellow?”  Readers of Mr. Sinclair will understand the reason very well, and it is not necessary, nor here even possible, to justify Erskine’s opinion by quotations.  Suffice it that, by virtue of his enchanted staff, which was burned with him, the Major was enabled “to commit evil not to be named, yea, even to reconcile man and wife when at variance.”  His sister, who was hanged, had Redgauntlet’s horse-shoe mark on her brow, and one may marvel that Scott does not seem to have remembered this coincidence.  “There was seen an exact Horse-shoe, shaped for nails, in her wrinkles.  Terrible enough, I assure you, to the stoutest beholder!”

Most modern readers will believe that both the luckless Major and his sister were religious maniacs.  Poverty, solitude, and the superstition of their time were the true demon of Major Weir, burned at the stake in April 1670.  Perhaps the most singular impression made by “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered” is that in Sinclair’s day, people who did not believe in bogies believed in nothing, while people who shared the common creed of Christendom were capable of believing in everything.

Atheists are as common as ghosts in his marvellous relations, and the very wizards themselves were often Atheists.

NOTE.—I have said that Scott himself had seen one ghost, if not two, and heard a “warning.”  The ghost was seen near Ashestiel, on an open spot of hillside, “please to observe it was before dinner.”  The anecdote is in Gillis’s, “Recollections of Sir Walter Scott,” p. 170.  The vision of Lord Byron standing in the great hall of Abbotsford is described in the “Demonology and Witchcraft .”  Scott alleges that it resolved itself into “great coats, shawls, and plaids”—a hallucination.  But Lockhart remarks (“Life,” ix. p. 141) that he did not care to have the circumstance discussed in general.  The “stirs” in Abbotsford during the night when his architect, Bullock, died in London, are in Lockhart, v. pp. 309-315.  “The noise resembled half-a-dozen men hard at work putting up boards and furniture, and nothing can be more certain than that there was nobody on the premises at the time.”  The noise, unluckily, occurred twice, April 28 and 29, 1818, and Lockhart does not tell us on which of these two nights Mr. Bullock died.  Such is the casualness of ghost story-tellers.  Lockhart adds that the coincidence made a strong impression on Sir Walter’s mind.  He did not care to ascertain the point in his own mental constitution “where incredulity began to waver,” according to his friend, Mr. J. L. Adolphus.


This is taken from Adventures Among Books.





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