A merry Mountfield Christmas

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

The last short story I had published appeared a few days before Halloween.  I’m pleased to report that a new story of mine has just appeared in print too and has done so in time for the next big event on the festive calendar, Christmas.

 

This is appropriate since the story, called The Lights and attributed to my pseudonym Jim Mountfield, takes place at Christmas.  However, as Jim Mountfield is the name that I put on my horror stories, it won’t surprise you to hear that this is a dark take on Christmas.  In fact, The Lights owes as much to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Wicker Man (1973) and the gothic (and often macabre) fiction of Angela Carter as it does to, say, Bing Crosby crooning about treetops glistening and children listening to sleigh-bells in White Christmas (1954).

 

Incidentally, The Lights is set in a small town in the Scottish Borders, the region where I grew up, and involves a character becoming obsessed with an idealised, fantasy version of Christmas that increasingly takes root in his imagination – in contrast to the modest, mundane, small-town Christmas that’s the reality around him.  Ironically, the story appeared in print just as this news report, about Christmas getting a little more modest and mundane in the Scottish Borders, surfaced on the BBC news website.  The Borders’ council, apparently, has admitted that the Christmas trees it provides for the region’s high streets have ‘shrunk by a third compared to previous years’.

 

The Lights is featured in the December 2019 / January 2020 double issue of the webzine Aphelion and can be found here.  During the reformatting process from the original document to the website, I’ve noticed, the spaces around the dashes in the text have disappeared, making them look like hyphens (-) rather than proper dashes ( – ).  However, my partner has read the story and assured me that this didn’t make any difference to her comprehension and enjoyment of it.

 

As an extra bonus, another short story of mine that was published in Aphelion earlier this year, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf – attributed the pen-name Rab Foster, which I use for my fantasy fiction – has been picked by the webzine’s editors as one of 2019’s best.  It appears again in the same issue as The Lights and can be accessed here.

 

Strange places in the Scottish Borders 4: Thomas the Rhymer’s Eildon Hills

 

From Wikidpedia

 

The Eildon Hills are the natural landmark of the Scottish Borders.  The hills – or hill, since they’re sometimes classified as a single hill with a triple peak – rise just south of the town of Melrose, which is famous for its ruined abbey.  They are also associated with multiple legends and pieces of folklore, a few of which are mentioned on this page of Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian website: http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/6971.

 

One legend has it that the three hills were the handiwork of the supposed 13th-century wizard Michael Scot.  Originally they were one massive peak but then Scot, seemingly in an effort to stave off boredom, used his magic powers to cleave them in three.  Actually, the Michael Scot of historical reality was the most important academic figure to ever emerge from the Borders and it’s unfair that he’s mostly remembered as a medieval wizard.  (He did practise alchemy and astrology, regarded as occult subjects now, but in his day these were treated as serious academic topics.)

 

Scott, who may have been born near Melrose, was educated at the Universities of Oxford and Paris.  Later, he learned enough Arabic to be able to translate the works of Aristotle from Arabic – the only language in which they’d been preserved at the time – into Latin, thus making them accessible to the great minds of medieval Europe.  His travels took him from a post at the University of Toledo in southern Spain to Sicily, where he worked for Popes Honorious III and Gregory IX, and then to Balermo and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whom he supposedly cured of several illnesses.

 

For Scot’s modern reputation as a medieval Scottish Gandalf, we can blame Dante, who in his Divine Comedy depicted him as a wicked magician suffering in the eighth circle of hell, and James Hogg, who portrayed him as a black magician in his novel The Three Perils of Man, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote about his magical feats in the Lay of the Last Minstrel.  He has also turned up in recent fantasy novels by Michael Scott Rohan, Jane Yolen and Katherine Kurtz, and television viewers may even know him as the tetchy magician played by Peter Mullan in the children’s series Shoebox Zoo.

 

 

But returning to the Eildon Hills…  Other legends allege that the hills are hollow and inside them you’ll find either a chamber containing the slumbering King Arthur and his knights, or the realm of Elfland – Fairyland.  The latter legend ties in with the stories surrounding another 13th-century Borders man with mystical attributes, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

Thomas the Rhymer has been described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus’ because of his powers of prophecy.  Also known as Thomas Learmont of Erceldoune, the medieval name for the Borders town of Earlston, he is said to have acquired these powers whilst walking one day in the Eildon Hills.  Here, beside a particular tree – ‘the Eildon Tree’ – he came across the beautiful Queen of Elfland.  Their encounter formed the basis for the folk ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, which in modern times has been performed by such folk luminaries as Steeleye Span and Ewan MacColl.

 

The ballad opens with these verses (which I’ve quoted from the website http://www.angelfire.com/sc2/scotsforindependence/history/thomas.html):

 

True Thomas lay on Huntly bank;
A ferly he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright 
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty sil’er bells and nine.

True Thomas he pulled off his cap
And louted low down to his knee:
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.

O no, O no, Thomas, she said,
That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

 

Taking a fancy to Thomas, the Queen transported him back to her magical domain within the hills for a romantic tryst.  When Thomas returned to the mortal world after what had seemed like a brief fling with the Queen, he discovered in Rip Van Winkle fashion that seven years had passed in human time.  In addition, the Queen of Elfland had given him the ability to prophesise as a parting gift.

 

This gift brought him fame and fortune afterwards.  Thomas is reputed to have foretold the death of the Scottish king Alexander III in 1296, the rise to power of Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century and the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  Such was his reputation as a prophet that even in the 18th century the Jacobites used his predictions to justify their cause in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

 

What did the future hold for Thomas himself?  Legend has it that he disappeared whilst taking another walk, with the implication that he was spirited back to Elfland – presumably by the Queen who’d so appreciated his amour the first time round.  (As his Wikipedia entry records him living from 1220 to 1298, let’s hope that he was still a spritely lover in his seventies.)

 

Like Michael Scot, the real Thomas the Rhymer was probably a notable man whose accomplishments have been obscured by fanciful legends.  In his book The Borders the historian Alastair Moffat identifies Thomas as a bard attached to the Earls of Dunbar, who owned land and a castle in Earlston.  Moffat suggests that Thomas was actually a late example of the bards-cum-mystics who populated Welsh tradition, because he lived while the cultural influence of the Britons, from whom the Welsh are descended, was still felt in the Borders.  (The Cumbric language, which like the Welsh language was an offshoot of the ancient Brittonic tongue, had only recently died out in southern Scotland.)  On the other hand, Moffat makes a case for him being ‘the earliest Scottish poet writing in English’.  Thus, he was a figure of tremendous importance in Scottish literary history.

 

Thomas the Rhymer inevitably became a literary figure himself, for example, in Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 poem The Last Rhyme of True Thomas and Nigel Tranter’s 1981 novel True Thomas.  Meanwhile, his seduction by the Elfland Queen has been a popular topic for artists as well as folk singers.  If you type ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ into Google Images you’ll find an array of Nouveau-Celtic pictures of the two lovers, with the Queen depicted as a Disney-esque princess on a white steed.

 

I should say that beautiful, elegant fairies (and for that matter, cute little ones with gossamer wings) were largely a creation of literary minds that came after Thomas’s time – see William Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In 13th-century Scotland, fairies were seriously feared by people, who regarded them as vindictive and untrustworthy.  If their appearance wasn’t monstrous, they were believed to look sinisterly not-of-this-world.  So I suspect that if the encounter ever did take place, the Queen of Elfland would have resembled Snow White’s evil stepmother, and Thomas’ reaction to her would have been less one of romantic enthusiasm and more one of terror.

 

A stone, erected originally by the Melrose Literary Society in 1923 and re-erected in 1970, commemorates Thomas the Rhymer on the lower slopes of the Eildon Hills.  It supposedly marks the site of the Eildon Tree where, according to the legend and ballad, Thomas and the Queen first met.  You can find it beside the old road, now closed to traffic but traversable on foot or bicycle, that links the A6091 above Melrose with the B6389 at Newtown St Boswells.

 

Strange places in the Scottish Borders 3: David Ritchie’s Manor Valley

 

(c) Benediction Classics

 

Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Black Dwarf begins in promisingly atmospheric style.  In 1707 two young men, farmer Hobbie Elliot and the more aristocratic Patrick Earnscliff, are returning home one evening across a desolate moor in the Scottish Borders.  At a spot on the moor reputed to have supernatural associations, they encounter a dwarf, cantankerous in nature and so strange in appearance that they wonder if he might be an apparition or fairy.  Both are curious enough to return there the next day, where they find the dwarf again and discover him in the process of constructing a hut out of the surrounding rocks and stones, having decided for some reason that this wild place is where he’s going to live.  The dwarf, Elshie – Elshender the Recluse as he’ll become formally known – is described thus:

 

‘His head was of uncommon size, covered with a fell of shaggy hair, partly grizzled with age; his eyebrows, shaggy and prominent, overhung a pair of small dark, piercing eyes, set far back in their sockets, that rolled with a portentous wildness, indicative of a partial insanity…  His body, thick and square, like that of a man of middle size, was mounted upon two large feet; but nature seemed to have forgotten the legs and the thighs, or they were so very short as to be hidden by the dress which he wore.’

 

Once settled on the moor, Elshie keeps to himself, remains curmudgeonly towards his neighbours, and quickly acquires a reputation for having supernatural powers.  Despite his unsociability, however, he prescribe cures for the various illnesses that local people succumb to – though as he explains to the good-natured Earnscliff (the neighbour he’s most tolerant of), he doesn’t see these deeds as acts of kindness.  Rather, he says, he’s inadvertently causing mischief because, revived and restored, those people are free to create more misery for all around them.  Elshie’s cynicism is borne out when one of the folk he’s cured of illness, the lawless Willie Graeme of Westerburnflat, known too as the Red Reiver, razes Hobbie Elliot’s farmhouse, drives away his livestock and carries off his sweetheart.

 

And that’s as good as the novel gets, unfortunately.  Thereafter, it becomes bogged down in a sub-plot involving another set of characters living in the district, the weak-willed Richard Vere, Laird of Ellislaw, his virtuous daughter Isabel and the villainous Sir Frederick Langley, who has designs on Isabel.  Vere and Langley are Jacobites conspiring to put James Stuart, the Old Pretender, on the throne with the help of a French invasion fleet.  Elshie, meanwhile, comes to look on Isabel with considerably more kindness than he does other human beings and it’s he, highly improbably, who rescues her from Langley’s clutches.  Scott adds a final and feeble twist about Elshie’s true identity that sadly undoes the uncanny atmosphere he’d managed to build in the book’s opening pages.  Elshie was much more interesting when he was a potential, and grumpy, apparition.

 

It’s well-known that Scott had a real person in mind when he created the character of Elshie.  Indeed, he says so in the novel’s introduction.  Born in 1740, David Ritichie was ‘the son of a labourer in the slate-quarries of Stobo’ in the Borders county of Peeblesshire.  He was ‘bred a brush-maker at Edinburgh’, but ‘wandered to several places, working at his trade, from all which he was chased by the disagreeable attention which his hideous singularity of form and face attracted wherever he came.’  One particular deformity he had were his feet, which were too misshapen for ordinary shoes and had to be bound in cloth.

 

Ritchie eventually returned to his home county, where he set about building a cottage ‘upon a patch of wild moorland at the bottom of a bank on the farm of Woodhouse, in the sequestered vale of the small river Manor’.  Ritchie was obviously as stubborn and disdainful of human protocol as the fictional Elshie was.  Although the land belonged to Sir James Naesmith, Ritichie didn’t bother to ask him for planning permission and his cottage was ‘placed there without right or leave asked or given.’  However, Scott recorded that Naesmith, bemused by Ritchie’s audacity, ‘readily sanctioned the harmless encroachment’.  When the cottage was finished, its doorway was only three-and-a-half feet high.

 

And that was where Ritchie spent the rest of his life.  He cultivated a handsome garden by his cottage and always seemed willing to accept charitable donations and manual help from his neighbours, though out of typical bloody-mindedness he was loathe to thank them for their generosity.  Because of his appearance and reclusiveness, ‘some of the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children, in the neighbourhood, held him to be what is called uncanny.’  Scott himself managed to visit Ritchie – Bow’d Davie as he was known to the locals – in 1797.  He died in 1811.

 

The Manor Valley, whose entrance is a mile or two west of the town of Peebles, remains one of the most scenic and unspoilt valleys in the Scottish Borders.  A little way into it stands a handsome kirk and David Ritchie’s grave is easily found in the kirkyard – it’s off the right-hand end of the building as you come through the gate and is marked by a prominent headstone that’s possibly taller than its tenant was when he was alive.

 

 

Woodhouse Farm is still there, further up the valley – you soon encounter it after you venture along the road signposted for Manorhead.  More modern cottages stand near the farmstead now, ‘at the bottom of a bank’, which might have been the site of Ritchie’s miniature abode.

 

 

Unfortunately, on the day that I headed down the Manor Valley to take some photographs to accompany this entry, the weather was dismal and the light had the texture of used dishwater.  Grey and smudgy though they are, however, these pictures should indicate that the place hasn’t changed much since the days when David Ritchie used to tend his garden, terrify the children and look upon his normally-proportioned neighbours with ill-concealed contempt.