Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Jamesian adventure

As you may know if you have visited my blog before, I am a great fan of the ghost stories of M.R.James. One of my favourites is A Neighbour's Landmark - not everyone's choice perhaps, but I find it peculiarly creepy. 

The ghost is first introduced by means of an excerpt from a book that the narrator has been reading in his host's library, thus:

"When I turned over to a Letter from a Beneficed Clergyman in the Country to the Bishop of C —— r, I was becoming languid, and I gazed for some moments at the following sentence without surprise:

‘This Abuse (for I think myself justified in calling it by that name) is one which I am persuaded Your Lordship would (if ’twere known to you) exert your utmost efforts to do away. But I am also persuaded that you know no more of its existence than (in the words of the Country Song)

That which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.’

Then indeed I did sit up in my chair, and run my finger along the lines to make sure that I had read them right. There was no mistake. Nothing more was to be gathered from the rest of the pamphlet. The next paragraph definitely changed the subject: ‘But I have said enough upon this Topick’ were its opening words."

Of course, later in the story the narrator discovers at first hand how terrible the crying of the ghost is. 

I'm afraid I can't offer a story quite as spine-chilling as his, but my latest adventure in exploring old churches and their graveyards does have some similarities with it. Recently, I visited the ruined church of St. MacKessog near Auchterarder here in Perthshire (see photo above). I blogged about my visit afterwards, and later about some other details I had discovered from ferreting about in the old books in the local library. 

One of the books I used was a facsimile of Alexander George Reid's book Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn, published in 1899. I found the information about St. MacKessog's that I had been looking for, but naturally I perused the rest of the book, which has some interesting tales of local history including witch burnings! And thus I came across the chapter intriguingly titled The Terrible Parish.  

There is, it appears, a "Country Song" about the parish in question. Reid tells us, "Little Dunkeld was commonly held to be the "Terrible Parish" in Scotland referred to in the old rhyme; but the real locality is that of the parish of Kinkell, in Strathearn, the mistake in identity having arisen in the similarity of names. The lines are as follows: -
'Was there e'er a parish, a parish, a parish;
Was there e'er a parish as that o' Kinkell?
They've hangit the minister, drooned the precentor,
Dang doon the steeple, and drucken the bell.' 
The explanation given of the circumstances which gave rise to the rhyme is that the minister had been hanged, the precentor drowned in attempting to cross the Earn from the adjoining parish of Trinity-Gask, the steeple had been taken down, and that the bell had been sold to the parish of Cockpen, near Edinburgh."

Reid relates that the minister in question was Mr. Richard Duncan, who had his degree from the University of Edinburgh on 2nd July 1667, was licensed by the Bishop of that Diocese on 10th April 1673, and ordained minister of Kinkell between 16th September and 11th November 1674. 

For the first few years everything appears to have gone well, but then Mr. Duncan got himself into difficulties over the maintenance of the church along with that of Trinity-Gask. Both required rebuilding , but some of those required to contribute towards the cost were failing to do so. Meanwhile, Mr. Duncan complained to the Synod that some ash trees growing in the churchyard had been cut down and the wood sold to pay for a new bell, without his agreement.

At a subsequent Synod meeting in 1681 the elders of the church seem to have got their own back by making complaints against Mr. Duncan, "representing his gross ignorance in re-baptising a child, and other gross, rude, and scandalous offences and misdemeanours". It ended with his being deposed from his position, but much worse was to come.

On June 6th 1682, Mr. Duncan was found guilty of murdering his own illegitimate child by a servant girl named Catherine Stalker, and condemned to death. The baby's body had been found buried under the hearth stone in his house. It is said that a last-minute reprieve was obtained, but the messenger arrived twenty minutes too late. The minister had been hanged.

The story goes that Mr. Duncan declared his innocence right up to the end, and said that as proof of it, after his execution a white dove would land on the gallows - and "this, accordingly, took place."

The other disasters listed in the song are also supposed to have really taken place. The minister who officiated at Trinity-Gask also had to appear at Kinkell every other week, and it was on one such occasion that the precentor drowned whilst crossing the river Earn. 

Meanwhile the church at Kinkell remained in a ruinous state for some time after Mr. Duncan's death. Eventually it was rebuilt, but without the steeple, which was presumably demolished when the ruins were levelled for the rebuilding. 

Reid says that the church bell was cast on the continent in 1680 for the parish of Kinkell, but was moved to Cockpen by 1708. It was first hung in the old parish church of Cockpen (later ruined) and then moved to the new church about a mile away in 1820. In Reid's time at least, it was still in use there. 

Of course, having read all of this, I was desperate to see the church itself! Once again a ruin, it nevertheless has entries on the websites of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (Canmore) and the Corpus of Scottish Medieval Parish Churches. All the same, it would be quite possible to drive past it a hundred times and never notice it was there. 

The church lies between Innerpeffray and Auchterarder, but is set back from the road and hidden from sight on one side by a residential house and on another by trees overhanging a stream. If my daughter and I had not known precisely where to look, we probably wouldn't have seen it at all. Anyway, find it we did. We took a lot of photographs and explored the site as thoroughly as possible. 

The church itself is very overgrown with ivy, although it is more visible than St. MacKessog's because in places the ivy is dead and brown:  

The interior has been divided into three parts, two of which are just about accessible if you don't mind ducking under some obstinate tree branches; the third, at the east end, is sealed off and the interior can only be glimpsed through a small window on the south side:

No matter how much you try to crane through the window, it is not possible to see the east wall. My daughter and I thoroughly creeped ourselves out by wondering what had been sealed up in there, and whether there might be someone or something standing there silently, just out of sight! 

If you would like to see the full set of photographs, they are on my Churches I Have Visited page on Facebook. I'll be making another trip to the library to see whether the graveyard inscriptions have been recorded in the Monumental Inscriptions book. I am particularly interested in this grave:

It appears to be the only one on the north side of the church (though there are plenty on the south side) and this did make me wonder whether it might be the grave of a suicide, since these were sometimes buried on the north side of churches (when they were allowed in the churchyard at all). I may, however, be putting two and two together and making about sixty-three...



  1. Genuine creepy stuff. And perhaps you might write a story linking all these, which would challenge (if not surpass) 'The Calvary at Banska Bystryca'.

  2. I do think one of these abandoned churches would make a fabulous setting for a spooky story!

  3. The overgrown church has a rather beast-like aspect... shades of EF Benson's 'Negotium Paerambulans' perhaps (

  4. Funnily enough my husband said exactly the same thing when he saw the photos! Curiously hairy-looking, isn't it?