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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
THE BEWITCHED CAITHNESS CROFT
A Weird Mystery of Last Century
D. B. Miller
From time to time one reads in the public press reports of what are known as poltergeist manifestations by which all kinds of household utensils and other objects fly about seemingly of their own volition. Modern scientists tell us that these manifestations mostly seem to occur when there is a young female adolescent present. Be that as it may, extremely uncanny happenings occurred one hundred and forty one years ago this month at a croft house about two kilometres up the strath of Latheronwheel.
The crofter was William Taylor, who, a few years before, had to leave his native district of Braemore, when like thousands more all over the Highlands his croft was required by the landlord for inclusion with a large sheep farm then being formed there.
The story of the supernatural visitations at William's home at Latheronwheel has been rather sketchily referred to in a booklet "A History of Latheron District" published a few years ago by Latheron Branch of the S.W.R.I. In it the author states that William Taylor was a man of great energy and resource. In order to save some of his best land from encroachment by the burn which was washing it away he built a great barricade of stones which had the effect that while it saved his own land, it put extra pressure on the opposite bank where a girdle of standing stones known as the standing stones of Guidebest wore located. As a result of this, during a great spate, one of the stones had its foundation eroded so that it fell into the burn and the circle was broken. Whether by coincidence or not it was the day that the manifestations began.
This is the true story of what happened, as told to the writer in 1936 by the late Mr. D. G. Henderson, F.S.A.Scot.. Mr. Henderson was born near where the happening occurred and knew personally, in their later life, the children of the family involved.
On this October evening in 1836 William Taylor, his wife and family and a young servant girl were seated at their dinner of potatoes and herring in the dim light of a rush crusie lamp, when the potatoes, which were stacked on a wicket basket in the centre of the table, began to behave in the strangest manner. Now and again one would rise of its own volition and lightly tap the servant girl on the arm or head, another would make a dart at the head of the house, while another would scamper along to where the baby was crooning in the cradle.
As would be imagined, William sprang to his feet and invoked the aid of the Trinity in such untoward circumstances, and the movement among the tubers stopped. William would allow no one to eat any of the potatoes which had shown signs of self movement. Dinner over, the family sat around the fire which was in the centre of the floor, and the servant girl was bringing in a basket of "clods" (broken peats) to replenish the fire when the fuel began to behave in the same manner as the potatoes, much to the consternation of the family, who rose as one man, the mother grabbing the baby, and made for the door. William, plucking up courage, went back and found things quite normal again, and persuaded the family to return to the house.
William was a piper, and when not in use, his bagpipes reposed at the "back of the couple", that is the recess on the wall top just under the thatch. The now thoroughly frightened family were again gathered round the peat fire when, without any warning, the pipes left their position with an unhallowed moan, blew themselves up into the playing position and floated around the room playing the well known march "Caberfeidh" as William never hoped to play it. The family sat transfixed by the fire until the bagpipes, having finished the tune, gently subsided to the floor.
As the pipes descended with an eerie groan the whole family again made for the door, and in a few minutes were entering the nearest house without ceremony. There they unfolded their tale, which was received as the result of too brilliant imaginations. More neighbours were informed, but no one would enter the Taylor's home that night.
Next day the house was entered and it was found that everything was as left the previous night, the bagpipes still being on the floor. The family again moved in, and for a few days matters were normal again.
In addition to being a crofter Taylor was a fisherman and had his nets stored on the tops of the box-beds in the "ben" end of the house. The servant girl on going to the "ben" end was suddenly set upon by a shower of herring nets which so impeded her passage that she could not get out of the room, and her cries for help were unavailing, as the nets were heaped behind the door. She had to be rescued by way of the skylight in the roof and the nets were all replaced in their original storage place. From there they were never again known to move by supernatural agency.
However, other phenomena continued. Chairs, stools, heather besom (a kind of home made brush), pails, and cutlery would move about the room without at any time coming into contact with persons who were present. The movement would suddenly cease, and the family became so familiar with the extraordinary phenomena that they began to accept it all as a matter of course.
One of the "men" (catechists) was sent for to banish the evil spirit, and after a long service of exorcism, during which time there were no manifestations, the godly man left for home. He had not got very far when he was laid hold of by a supernatural spirit and whirled about with such velocity that his round blue bonnet "whirled on his head like a totem", as he himself expressed it. It was then, and only then, that the mischievous unknown was roused to do its best.
Mrs. Taylor's spinning wheel now proceeded to dance a reel with a three-legged pot, while the milk dishes rose and soared around the room, but were not broken when they came down on the flagstone floor. Another very noticeable feature was that no article ever rolled into the fire which was open on all sides. A large wooden dish known as a "lefter" rose from a bench on which it was set and endeavoured to get out at the lum (the hole in the roof by which the smoke escapes). The causeway stones which paved the common entrance of the byre and kitchen turned over in their places and after sundry movements would noiselessly subside in any promiscuous fashion and had to be relaid.
The barn instruments were affected also. The flail, the bere-beater, and other implements would take aerial journeys, falling lightly near where the servant lass would happen to be, but never doing her any harm. At night the bed-clothes would rise and subside again, the sleepers being powerless to keep them in position.
A still more striking instance of the uncanny was that William, while resident in the uplands of Braemore like all his fellows there indulged in the now obsolete rite of distilling his own "mountain dew", and had brought his still with him. Finding that it was too risky to indulge in this practice in Latheronwheel where there was a resident exciseman who lived only a kilometre away, William had buried his utensils in a specially dug pit, where they had lain since coming to the strath. These he was astonished to find lying exposed to public view on the surface of the open field shortly after the manifestations began. In Latheron W.R.I's history of the district the author tells how the distilling equipment came up in the amazed presence of John Reid the local exciseman and then disappeared just as mysteriously when John was away getting help for its removal. This differs from Mr. Henderson's account.
The Rev. George Davidson, minister of the parish, hearing all kinds of stories about the episode up the glen and especially of the way the catechist had been treated by the powers of darkness, decided that William's still was of better quality than usual and produced more potent spirits than the crude liquors usually produced in the strath. He decided to pay a visit to William's home, and once and for all put a stop to this "tomfoolery" that was disturbing his parish.
Arriving at the house, he entered the doorway to find the good wife busy at the churn. On seeing the minister she at once left the churn to get him a chair. As she did so the churn rose and making straight for the minister struck his reverence and then gently dropped to the floor without spilling any of the precious cream. After this very practical demonstration the carefully prepared admonitions which had been revolving in his mind no longer seemed suitable for the occasion, and instead of scoffing he remained to pray. Being a level headed gentleman, he first questioned all the older members of the family separately and then spent several days in visiting the neighbouring families and examining them very closely on what they had seen. He took a note of the proven facts and later compared them with a similar, but much more malignant manifestation in the uplands of Aberdeenshire. The movements of the various articles in the Aberdeenshire case were of similar nature, but there anyone struck was injured in an equal or greater degree than if he or she had been struck by the same article normally thrown.
The whole affair created great and widespread speculation. The family themselves recalled that a year or two previously a beggar woman and her young daughter had visited Braemore where the Taylor's servant lass had then resided with her parents. The two young girls had quarrelled and fought, the beggar girl getting the worst of the encounter. The beggar woman poured anathema after anathema, curses and malevolence against the girl and her parents. Was the trouble the direct result of the maledictions of the beggar? The people of Braemore had no doubt that it was.
But in Latheronwheel, the residents knew of a much more real cause. The circle of standing stones which had been broken as a result of William's efforts to save his precious land along the banks of the burn however unintentional was the cause of it all. The powers which guard these ancient monuments were offended, hence the visitations!
After a time the trouble completely faded away. The servant lass duly married and reared a large family and her descendants are now all over the world. William Taylor or his wife and family did not suffer any serious loss of gear or length of days. William lived until he was over ninety years of age, and when the first of his children died the average age of the family was seventy six years.
In 1936 the records of the Rev. George Davidson (a native of Buckies, Thurso) were believed to be still extant, but he always disliked the matter being referred to. At the time (1936) there were people still alive who knew Mr. Davidson intimately but Mr. Henderson never heard of anyone with whom he discussed the interesting case, a case the details of which were common knowledge of all the older people in the district in Mr. Henderson's boyhood days. Mr. Henderson knew intimately the two brothers and a sister of the minister who were however never reluctant to speak of the affair. He also knew the baby in the cradle when he was eighty years of age as well as a younger brother and sister.