Witch Wood, by John Buchan


The Reverend John Dennistoun, in his once-famous work, Satan’s Artifices against the Elect (written in the year 1719, but not published till 1821, when the manuscript came into the hands of Sir Walter Scott), has a chapter on the disturbances in Woodilee. In his pages can be found the tradition which established itself during the next fifty years. He has heard of the doings in Melanudrigill, but he lays no blame for them on the parish. The power of the Kirk has been sufficient to sanctify Chasehope; in Mr. Dennistoun’s pages he appears as an elder of noted piety, who was the chief mark for the enmity of the Adversary, and who was, as that Adversary’s last resort, driven crazy by hellish assaults on his person till his life ended in a fall from the rocks in the Garple Linn. There is no mention of Reiverslaw, and Amos Ritchie is treated with respect, for Amos carried his grandfather’s matchlock to Rullion Green, played a notable part in the Killing Time, was an ally of the Black Macmichael, and has a paragraph to himself in Naphtali. Mr. Dennistoun represents the trouble as a deliberate campaign of the Devil against a parish famed for its godliness, and David as an unwitting instrument. The minister of Woodilee he portrays as a young man of good heart but of small experience, unstable, puffed up in his own conceit. He records that there was a faction in the place that took his side, and that his misfortunes, justly deserved as they were, were not unlamented. He mentions as a foolish fable the belief of some that he had been carried off by the Fairies; he notes, too, without approval, the counter-legend that he had been removed bodily by the Devil.

On one matter Mr. Dennistoun has no doubts. Mark Kerr is the villain of his pages: the lieutenant of Satan, or, as many believed, Satan himself; one at any rate who was sold irrevocably to evil. Of the real Mark Kerr’s antecedents he is aware, but he is inclined to the belief that the figure that appeared in Woodilee was not Montrose’s captain but another in his semblance. He makes a sinister tale of Mark’s doings — his uncanny power over the minds of the people, his necromancy in the case of the witch-pricker, his devilries during the pest (these are explained as mere purposeless cruelties), his crowning blasphemy in the kirk, when he outfaced two godly ministers and spoke words of which the very memory made honest folk tremble. He is inclined to attribute to him also the warlockries of the Wood. When he disappeared on that April day he returned to the place whence he had come.

On this point Mr. Dennistoun reflected faithfully the tradition in Woodilee. Old folks for generations, with sighs and a shaking of the head, would tell of the departure of him who had so sorely troubled the Elect. The tale no doubt grew in the telling, and the children would creep close to their mother’s knee, and the goodman would stir the peats into a glow, when grandfather with awe in his voice recounted the stages in that journey of the lost. . . . Sandy Nicoll saw him in the gloaming moving with leaps which were beyond a mortal’s power across Charlie’s Moss. Later, at the little lonely ale-house of Kilwauk, he was observed by a drover to cross the peat-road, and the drover — his name was Grieve — swore to his dying day that beside the traveller moved a coal-black shadow. There was a moon that night, and Robbie Hogg, herd in Glenwhappen, saw the fearful twosome — man and shadow, man and devil — flitting across the braes of Caerdrochit. At one in the morning a packman, late on the road, saw the figure on the Edinburgh highway, and, though he had been drinking and was therefore a doubtful witness, remembered that he could not be clear whether it was one man or two, and had been sobered by the portent. . . .

At this point, when all that remained was an awful imagining, it was the custom of a household where the tale was told to sing with dry throats the twenty-third Psalm.

Three hours after the fuddled packman was left rubbing his eyes, two men entered the back room of a little hostelry in Leith within a stone’s throw of the harbour. The dust of moorburn and the April roads was on them, and one of the two was limping and very weary.

The only occupant of the room was a man in a great seaman’s coat who was eating a hasty meal. He rose to his feet with an exclamation.

“Mark!” he cried. “In the name of God, man . . . ”

“When does the sloop sail?”

“In the next hour with the tide.”

“The Lord be thanked! . . . You’ll have this gentleman and me as fellow-passengers, Patie . . . ”

“Wheesht, man. They ken me in this place as Jens Gunnersen, a skipper out of Denmark. . . . I’m for Bergen.”

“Bergen be it. All roads are the same for us that lead forth of this waesome land. A bite and sup would be welcome, Patie, and two ship’s cloaks to cover our landward clothes. . . . I’m for the wars again, old friend, and I’ve gotten a braw recruit, but the tale can bide till we’re on shipboard.”

But three hours later the telling had not begun. Two men with wistful eyes leaned over the stern bulwarks, and watched the hills of Lothian dwindle in the bleak April dawn.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50