Showing posts with label Culzean. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Culzean. Show all posts

Spooks Week: A Haunted Road


Culzean Castle 

This isn't my story, but it was told to us by the friend involved, a man of profound common sense, not to say scepticism, which made it all the more impressive. 

He and a couple of colleagues had taken a party of scouts to camp at Culzean Castle for the weekend. This was a local event and they were pretty close to home, which was just as well, because the wife of one of them was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. They had, however, hiked there, carrying backpacks, and had no other means of transport. 

In the early hours of the morning, a message came through to the Castle that she had gone into the early stages of labour. This was before the days of mobile phones, so it was a landline message. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone further, the husband decided that since it was a fine summer night, he could easily walk the few miles back to the town of Maybole, to pick up his car. Our friend said that since there was still a supervisor left behind for the youngsters he would keep him company along the road and come back to the campsite in the morning. 

If you don't know this part of the world, there is a road running to the west of the A77, closer to the sea.  Head south and it will go to Maidens and will ultimately rejoin the main road south at Turnberry where Mr Trump has his hotel. Northwards, it will take you to Ayr, but a few miles north of Culzean, at a place called Pennyglen, you can branch off towards Maybole. At night, it's a quiet rural road, and certainly the quickest way back to the town. 

Remember, this is an old road, with a violent history. Or at least the surrounding countryside has a violent history. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were two factions of the Kennedy family, the Earls of Cassilis and the Lairds of Bargany, holding sway north and south of here, and sometimes they came to blows. The feud had been long and bitter. Most notably they came to much more than blows when young Gilbert Kennedy, the Bargany heir, fell victim to an attack by the powerful Earl of Cassilis on 11th December 1601, as he rode from Ayr to Girvan, a journey of some twenty two miles. 

'He was the brawest manne that was to be gotten in ony land,' says a contemporary chronicler, in the old Scots of the time. 'of hich stataur and weel maid, his hair blakk, bott of ane cumlie feace'.  In other words, he was tall, dark and handsome. Even though he was 'feerse and feirry and wander nemble' (fierce and fiery and wondrous nimble) this was a deliberate ambush, the odds were stacked against him and he and his travelling companions were wounded or murdered. Astonishingly, he was carried to Maybole, mortally wounded but still alive, where Cassilis, in his role of 'Judge Ordinar' of the county threatened to kill him if he showed any signs of recovery. He was further transported to Ayr and died there a day later. 

If you're intrigued, you should seek out S R Crockett's The Grey Man, a novel that will tell you a lot more about that time and place. 

But - to resume our spooky tale. 

The two men were young and fit, and they were walking smartly along the road in the direction of Maybole, when they heard, somewhere in the distance, the distinctive clip clop of approaching horse's hooves. Summer nights are short in this part of the world, and the sky was already beginning to grow lighter with that liquid grey light of very early morning. The rider seemed to be coming closer. Now riders are not uncommon on these roads, although as our friend said, not usually at three in the morning. But they weren't unduly worried. They carried on walking. 

The expectant father, anxious to get home, had pulled some yards ahead. Our friend said that around the bend in the road, just ahead of him, came a tall black horse with a tall rider, swathed in what appeared to be a dark cloak. Surprisingly, he seemed to be wearing a 'slouch' hat - 'like the ones you see in the movies', he said. His first thought was to wonder what on earth somebody was doing riding in fancy dress along the back road from Maybole to Maidens. 

However, that thought quickly gave way to surprise when he saw his friend pause for a few seconds, and then quite suddenly take to his heels, run past the rider at a rate of knots and head off into the distance. He was standing stock still in astonishment as the rider calmly trotted past him. Who could it possibly be, to give his friend such a fright? 

He raised his eyes to the figure.

'As true as I'm sitting here,' he said, 'there was no face at all, no head even, between the hat and the cloak. Just a gap where it should be.'

'What did you do?' we asked.

'What do you think I did?' he said. 'I ran too. I don't think either of us stopped until we were back home in Maybole!' 

On the Beach at Culzean

This piece of writing is, if I had to define it, a prose poem. It was published under the title On the Beach at Culzean, in 2009, in the first edition of the Brownsbank Broadsheet. I don't know if there were any more editions, and soon after that, I stopped submitting small pieces of work unless I was directly asked for something, and concentrated on longer fiction and non-fiction instead. However, I came across this today while looking for something else, reread it and found that I liked it. More than that, it made me feel a little weepy. So I thought it would be nice to share it again on here. 


The black dog rushes ahead. She is more than ten years dead, but here she is, sniffing along the shoreline, her curly cockade of a tail held high. My son, in red wellies and padded jacket, is walking along the beach, squatting to examine a handful of minute golden shells, prising them up with his starfish fingers, toddler’s treasure.

The shore is a string of pebbly and sandy curves. Arran comes and goes: a grey space, a smudge, a real place, etched against the skyline, Goat Fell cloaked in snow. The sea is audible on all but the stillest of days but in winter it is a muted roar. Closer, you can distinguish the inward rush and outward tug of pebbles beneath the waves. Agates have tumbled in, eggs that shatter against the rocks to reveal a smooth world within a world, a blue and white landscape, sea and sky preserved in stone.

The effect of the cliffs, the woods, is to shield the beaches from change, cutting them off from the land. Up there are narrow paths, leading mysteriously out of sight. Some of them thread through frosted plants and naked trees to the sea. Some of them end in nothing, nowhere, oblivion. Take care.

One winter, a canon blew down from the castle and landed on the beach. On Boxing Day, we took coffee and Christmas cake and climbed down to the empty bay, to sit on the elephantine rocks and gaze at the sea. Grey on grey. We found it half submerged in a pool of water, an intruder in this wholly wild world.


My son has shed his wellies and hooded coat, casting his clouts before may is out. He slides and slithers, exclaiming over each find: fishing net, feathers, sea glass, his voice bouncing off rocks. What creature made these holes? What’s gribble worm? What? Why? How?

In the woods, snowdrops have given place to windflowers, then daffodils, ramsons, bluebells. On the fringes of the park, there are swathes of whin that smell of coconut and dazzle the eyes. During hard times farmers pulped this spiny crop and fed it to their cattle. The whin mill was an upended grindstone, trundled along a channel, hauled by a carthorse. You can see ghostly rings in the grass, to this day. And whin is still hard to handle. Stumble, put out a hand to save yourself and there will be tears.

Down here, the shore is edged by volcanic rocks, stretched and folded back on themselves, wrinkled, with seams of white quartz. There are caves too with ancient fortifications built across, as though the earlier castle had grown upwards, a living thing, rooted in the rocks beneath. Archaeologists have found human bones here. People were born in these caves, spent their lives, died and were buried among the giant spiders that also call this labyrinth home.

On the beach, the storms have left a litter of driftwood behind, sculptures on smooth sand. Out there the air is a mixture of salt and sweet. Ailsa Craig is a sugared cake.


Picnic time. From above, you can see reefs at low tide, with cormorants and shags perched on the teeth of them. They teem with life, these pavements of rock, and the pools between: anemones, barnacles, little fishes, translucent shrimps, sea slugs. Children are exploring the reefs, teasing the anemones, briefly imprisoning creatures in jars and boxes. Look and let go, look and let go, calls the teacher.

We trek down to the beach, staggering beneath our trappings. We make a boat out of sand. My son motors to Arran and back within the hour and the sand holds up pretty well. He and his father and his grandfather commence engineering operations. They dam the burn that trickles down from the hill, dig a new channel, build a castle, divert the channel so that it forms a moat. The whole edifice is decorated with shells and white quartz pebbles.

There are swallows diving above, oystercatchers patrolling the shoreline, wagtails darting here and there. I tuck my skirt into my knickers and wade through soft salt water feeling shells between my toes, then look back and see the men in my life, grown small against the rocks, utterly absorbed in the moment and each other.

The dog follows me, splashing and cavorting. She has found a length of mooring rope, thick and prickly, but it is pinned into the shallows by a stone, and she is pulling and tugging, snuffling and sneezing as the salt water goes up her nose. Up there, behind the theatrical arc of the beach, people are walking among the scenery, wearing unsuitable shoes. You can see the odd flash of colour from a jacket or dress. There are precarious girls in high heeled sandals, tight skirts pinning their knees together.

The air smells of roses.


My son is growing fast. He wears a burgundy waterproof against the rain and a daft tweed hat that suits him, although he will only wear it here, where his friends won’t see. He has given up holding hands. But he still has apples in his cheeks, and a face like a flower, open and trusting. My heart aches for him, for all those leaps of faith which he must soon make. For the tripping and falling. For the spiny shrubs. For the picking himself up and walking on. For the narrowing of possibilities. For the disappointments and the friendships and the loves that are not me. How could it be otherwise?

Geese skein across the sky. The swallows have already gone.We stumble down the path to the sea past the boathouse with its tarry roof. The old dog with her white muzzle trots ahead of us. She comes and goes, a memory in both our heads.

Down here on Culzean beach, the familiarity of these stones, these shells, these grains of sand is comforting, our apprehensions soothed by the relentless thrust and pull of the sea. There is only now.

Behind the cliffs behind the woods there has been a change of scene. The heather is in bloom. The hill is a paisley shawl.


Please note that although you are very welcome to share this blog post, the piece itself should not be copied and shared online without my permission.