THE farm of Beanscroft is in the parish of Fenwick. During the dark years of the persecution the moors and mosses of Fenwick proved excellent hiding ground for the Covenanters, and not seldom were they explored by the dragoons of Dalziel and of Claverhouse in search of the secreted Presbyterians. The minister, Mr. Guthrie, a divine of much mingled faith and fervour, was ejected from his charge with all the rudeness of military despotism by the Archbishop of Glasgow. One of Fenwick's best-known sons was Captain Paton of Meadowhead, for whose life General Dalziel claimed and obtained the good offices of the King; and saved from the scaffold, he would have been but for the inhumanity of Bishop Paterson, who retained his pardon in his own possession until after his execution. Another was John Howie, of Lochgoin, the author of the "Scots Worthies." In the churchyard reposes the dust of at least three of the martyrs to the stern rigour of the times.
With memories like these, it may be supposed that superstition could not be a characteristic of the parish. As it happens, however, creed and confession have remarkably little to do with the shaping of popular beliefs in the presence of the powers of darkness. These beliefs have come down from times immemorial; and, though they are now all but, if not altogether, extinct, they have not reached their end without maintaining a long struggle and a tenacious grasp.
It was towards the close of last century that Beanscroft became haunted. There was nothing either about the building itself or the tenant to indicate any special reason for the attachment to the farm of the spirits of evil. The farmer was a worthy man, douce and quiet, who went statedly and steadily about his life's work. He looked after his kye, he sowed his corn, he tilled his fields, he stacked his harvest, he went to kirk, and market, and fair, like his neighbours, and he was fairly well to do. He had a son, a trifle ambitious in his way, but not, apparently, ambitious beyond what was legitimate and right. The neighbours said he was upsetting., because he dabbled in chemistry, but, inasmuch as they would have said the same thing had he shown a predisposition to surgery or to theology, their opinion was not a matter of much consequence. And the rest of the family were after their kind.
The farmer was a Presbyterian and a staunch adherent of the kirk, and, though in a general way he had an unformulated belief in witches and bogles, and other fearsome things, he was solemnly assured that they were not permitted, and could not be permitted, by the overruling Power above, to disturb the lot and the life of such as he. But his faith was rudely assailed.
Mysterious noises were heard in the house and out of it, and nobody could account for them. In the dead of night, when the household slumbered, sleep was banished by moaning and groaning, by the thumping of heavy articles of furniture, by strange creaking sounds, by the rattling of delf, and the banging of fire-irons. What could it portend ? The farmer lay a-bed and listened, and his wife lay and shook with fear. Such things had never occurred at Beanscroft before, and when in the mornings the family assembled around the breakfast table, their faces told of the mingled emotions awakened by the ghastly visitations of the night watches. The eldest son undertook to discover the origin of the sounds, and more than once kept vigil; but when he was on duty the spirits refrained from their manifestations, and so nothing came of his attempt to unravel the secret.
Growing bolder with their immunity from identification, the spirits extended the scope of their manoeuvres. They not only moaned and groaned, but they shrieked and yelled in unearthly vocalization. Their screams rent the night air, and ofttimes, when the farmer had sunk into a deep slumber, there fell upon his ear such horrid screeches that he was fain to cover his head with the blankets ere taking time to assure his spouse that there was no danger. Worse still, on more than one occasion, when he had the courage to rise and look out of the window across the steading, he beheld flashing lights, sometimes in the barn, sometimes in the byre, and sometimes in the stable. Nor were the lights always of the same hue. They alternated red, blue, and white; and, though these represented a combination quite national and patriotic in its character, the tenant of Beanscroft found no consolation in the fact. The manifestations went on it intervals for a considerable time, and all the country-side discussed the cantrips of the Beanscroft deil. The farm-servants resident in the house refused stoutly to remain in such uncanny quarters, and took their leave ; and the peasant who had occasion to pass that way at night gave the farm a wide berth, and even put their fingers in their ears lest they should hear, borne on the night wind, an echo of the sounds they so much dreaded.
To complete the confusion, the cattle, which were invariably tied up carefully at nights, were found to be loose in the mornings. No mortal fingers had untied the ropes that were round their necks. The knots were intact and untouched, but the ropes themselves were severed in the middle, and that, too, without the aid of a knife. This completed the farmer's despair, and he forthwith called in the aid of the clerical power.
There is no formula in the Presbyterian Church for the exorcising, of demons, and, in the circumstances in which the goodman of Beanscroft was placed, all that could be done was to have "worship" made by the minister of the parish. That dignitary came specially out to the farm and "engaged." He gave out, and then acted as precentor, when the assembled family sang, two double verses of a psalm. He read a chapter from the Bible, and he prayed for the desired relief at considerable length. He also had his tea, an invariable accompaniment in the country to the visit of the minister.
But to no purpose. The ropes by which the cattle were fastened were treated as before. Still the Beanscroft deil routed and ranted. The night air was made hideous as hitherto by the groans and the moans, by the shouts and the cries, by the yells and the screeches of the haunting spirit, or by the tribe of ghosts who held high carnival in the house and in the farm offices. The farmer grew wan and pale, so did his wife, and so, too, did every member of the family, with the exception of the eldest born son. He remained bold and unquenchable in his threats to unearth the weird secret; and in the dead of the night, when aroused by his father at his own request and informed that the kye were loose, he had still the courage to sally forth alone and enter the byre.
Now, there resided in those days in Kilmarnock, a man whom Burns has consigned to the keeping of posterity. His name was John Goudie. He was an advanced thinker. He lived before his time, and, like all men of similar character and independence, he was regarded by the orthodox as dangerous and heterodox. He had his doubts about the personality of the Devil. He cared not a straw for ghosts or ghouls, for witches or fairies, and he was ready at all all times to court wordy encounter and to endeavour to explain away mysteries in a very everyday and distinctly worldly fashion. Burns described John Goudie as the "terror of the Whigs."
Here was a chance to expose the hollowness and the mockery of his unorthodox views, to convince him first hand that there was a deil, and a very potent, mischievous deil, too. A heaven-sent opportunity to convert the scoffer, or else bring him to confusion or turn his pretensions to ridicule!
Accordingly, Goudie was sent for. He was at first unwilling to come, because, as he said, it was none of his business to satisfy superstitious people that their superstitions were groundless; but when it was represented to him that refusal would be interpreted as the expression of a knowledge that he was unable to put his own beliefs and theories to the test, he deferred to the request, and went. The farmer was glad to see him. He had some sort of faith in the "terror of the Whigs." In ordinary circumstances he would rather not have had anything to do with John Goudie, but the circumstances were not by any means ordinary; and when Goudie arrived, in company with two friends, he was ready to stock him unsolicited with the fullest possible information. One of the philosopher's companions was the Rev. Mr. Gillies, of Kilmaurs, the other Mr. Robert Muir, wine merchant, Kilinarnock. Goudie listened patiently while the farmer detailed at length the whole story from the date of the first manifestation down to the cantrips of the previous night. Did he suspect nobody? No, he suspected nobody. Had he offended anyone likely to take out his revenge in such a fashion? No, he was guileless of offence. Had anybody any motive in frightening him out of the farm? No, none whatever. The premises were duly inspected, the scene of the noises of the watches of the night that ought to have been silent, the windows from which the corruscating fires lit by spirit hands floated athwart the darkness, the ropes by which the cattle had been tied, and which had snapped asunder without visible agency.
Goudie's attention was rivetted on the ropes. Here was tangible proof of something. But of what? That was the question. Before answering it, the philosopher requested that all should leave the room, with the exception of the two companions he had brought with him and the farmer himself. His wish complied with, he held up the ropes, and a smile lit up his countenance.
Ay, ay," he laughed-and the words are strictly his own "I see the deil has no had muckle to do this while, I think ; his whittle has been gey and sair rusted."
"What do you mean ? " inquired the minister.
Just this, that these ropes have been eaten through by aquafortis."
The farmer assured him that he knew of no aquafortis being on the premises.
"That may be," replied Goudie, "but there may be aquafortis on the premises without your knowing anything about it" That the farmer had to admit.
"But what," asked he, "has the aquafortis to do wi' the screeches, an' the howls, an' the lichts? "
"Nothing whatever," was the philosopher's answer, further than this, that the man who applied the aquafortis could howl and screech and yell as muckle as he liked, an' licht the flames, too, that ye saw. Depend on't," he added, the whole thing is the work of one man."
At Goudie's special request the farmer, the minister, and the wine merchant bound themselves to secrecy concerning the revelation concerning the aquafortis, and the farmer, stiffened in his courage by the cool, matter-of-fact way in which the Kilmarnock sage discussed the whole affair, agreed himself to keep watch and ward and try to discover the offender.
The other inmates of the dwelling were led to understand that nothing had been revealed, and that night the family retired to rest as usual. The farmer, however, did not long court repose. When all was quiet he rose, and, slipping quietly out, secreted himself in the barn. It was an eerie situation. There was a good, full moon sailing in the sky, and in at the windows it darted its rays, making the place comparatively light to the hiding agriculturist in the shadow of the corner where he had taken his stand. He was frightened. When it was daylight, and when he was sitting in a comfortable room surrounded by friends, his courage had been high, but now he began to think that the Kilmarnock philosopher's wit and wisdom might after all have played him false, and that at any moment some terrible apparition might arise by his side, or in the moonbeams in front of him, and reveal its proclivities after a fashion that might seriously alarm him.
While he waited and watched he heard a light foot without. The door was cautiously opened, and a figure entered. And that not the figure of a visitant from the dim beyond, but one that he knew very well. The farmer's waning couraue came back to him in an instant. For flesh and blood he had no nervousness; and now that he recognized the man standing in the barn, it was all he could do to prevent himself from rushing upon him and administering corporal punishment.
The amateur ghost-manufacturer put his hand up to his lips, and, using it as a sort of trumpet, he made the silence ring with his cries. They were really very terrible cries. Practice makes perfect ; and, having now for some considerable time been in steady training, the man was capable of producing at will such a succession of sounds as suited the various grades of horror, or suffering, or despair. He laughed wildly in addition, and though the watcher knew right well the voice, the memories of that cachination made him feel distinctly eerie.
The vocal manifestations closed, the Beanscroft deil was about to proceed to further exhibitions of his skill, when his career was suddenly arrested by a half-smothered but distinctly angry and forcible ejaculation from the dark corner.
The idea that evidently rushed into his mind was that he had called up a reciprocal and genuine spirit, and, possessed with this suggestion, he stood helpless and quaking on the barn floor. But his dread was speedily turned into another channel when the farmer stepped out of his seclusion, and laid lustily a heavy walking-stick across his shoulders. His cries were not simulated, indeed they were very real. The spirit in pain never uttered more ear-piercing yells than he did when he felt the weight of the avenging rod, and he lost no time in effecting his escape and rushing headlong into the house, whither he was hotly pursued by the angry farmer, and where he was compelled for the next round hour to listen to such a lecture as he had never heard before.
The Beanscroft deil was the farmer's eldest son. He had wanted to frighten his sire out of the farm, and to take up the lease in his stead, and he had resorted to this extraordinary method of effecting his purpose.
Scorned at and ridiculed at home, he became at the same time the butt and the jest of the country-side, and, covered with confusion, he not only fled the parish, but left Scotland altogether, never to return. John Goudie, the Kilmarnock savant, was held in high repute for his share in the transaction, and himself hugely enjoyed the result of his practical exorcising of the Bcanscroft Deil.