First Footing - a tale for Burns Night - by Frances Cooper
Greetings, to all those celebrating Burns Night this week, north and south of the border!
My main passion is with crime fiction. I have been writing for three years now and have just completed the third book in my murder-mystery trilogy – pausing along the way to try my hand at various genre and styles, stimulated into diversity by my local writing group.
This particular tale was inspired by a stroll down ‘memory lane’ during the festive season. New Year was important in our household and I was aware of the Scottish tradition of ‘First Footing’, in which some dark ‘stranger’ would cross the threshold after the stroke of midnight to bring good fortune for the coming year.
My ancestors came from a little village a few miles from Loch Ness, famous for its legend of the monster within its depths. I knew little of my Celtic origins as a child, apart from the stories I’d been told of the haggis – wee, shy creatures that lived in the sporran trees. To me, Scotland was, and always will be, a romantic land of mist and mystery.
This is a deviation from my usual style and I hope you enjoy this simple tale. Is it real – or is it just fantasy? I’ll leave you to decide.
Reading Note: You may require a coffee and at least 2 biscuits before you start. Chocolate is optional.
The jagged remains of Urquhart Castle stood sentry over the main body of the Loch, undefeated by the elements and the relentless passage of time. As I turned to the north, the wind scraped my hair back from my face, stinging my cheeks and the tips of my ears with its icy ferocity.
It had been a mild autumn that had turned abruptly into a harsh winter, scarring the earth with a sudden ground frost. I had stayed in the Highlands to discover the romance of the place, with every intention of developing my artistic talent. As the mist curled across the hills, I raised my camera to my eye to capture the rapidly changing mood of the Loch, rippling darkly in the glen below. Here, the native heathers, calluna vulgaris, carpeted the hillsides with their straggly sprays of small purple flowers, colouring the landscape with their pastel hues.
The clouds, tattered remnants, misty white, were moving fast, driven on by the high winds. My hair blew across the lens, obscuring my view and I lowered my camera to take in the bleak magnificence of the vista, before turning my back on the deep water and heading back up the path, my leg muscles aching with the steep climb.
As I approached the stone cottage, laid deep into the bank, I couldn’t avoid seeing the bright yellow digger, perched at an angle against a pile of rocky earth where the builders had abandoned it last November. With New Year now staring me in the face, I felt forced to do something, anything, to justify its presence there.
It took only moments to start it up. The protest was symbolic and having done more in five minutes than the builders had done in a month, I switched off the contraption, feeling well-satisfied with my efforts. I looked at the foundations, set like blunt teeth in the earth, a neat row of stones which had provided the first footings for the walls above and guessed that they must have been laid some time before the eighteenth century when the land was granted to the very first crofter.
The locals had assailed me with tales of the history of the croft but I had put it down to some fanciful gossip that had grown exponentially over the years. According to legend, the ghost of a highlander returned every New Year’s Day to claim back his land, lost after the Highland Clearances, and seek revenge for some distant conflict. Those that didn’t grant him entrance across the threshold, so they said, would be most murderously slain...
As the afternoon sun began to warm me, I took a pickaxe and hacked away at the remains of the old pig sty, prising the cornerstone out by thrusting my spade under it. As it rolled away, a piece of strong card caught my eye. It was a photograph, the edges dampened by the melting frost, and I hurried inside to examine it more closely under the electric light.
It held the faded image of a highlander, swaddled in thick green and blue tartan, his kilt down to his knees, secured by a wide leather belt, and a length of plaid was thrown over one shoulder above a roughly woven white shirt. He was staring straight at the camera - his face framed by long dark curls topped with a blue bonnet edged in tartan. The photograph was inscribed – ‘Donald Duncan, 1785’.
I shivered a little, convincing myself it was just the cold and not the presence of some restless spirit passing through the house. Ice had now formed on the inside of the windows, crazing the thin panes of glass as it cracked with the heat of the fire. I put the photograph on the mantel and studied the strong determined features staring back at me. It was an anomaly. If I hadn’t found it myself in the first footings of the building, I wouldn’t have deemed it possible.
Could someone have captured the image of this ghost of a man, I wondered? There were elements in the background that looked very like the room I was standing in. I put the thought from me and changed into my nightdress, fastening a cardigan loosely at my breast, and poured enough whisky into my hot chocolate to cause me to slump peacefully into a chair, as the sun finally fell away below the horizon.
Hours later, I awoke with a start, my throat dry and the logs now gone to ash in the grate. The air chilled me and I moved my shoulders to chase the shivers from my back. It was dark, with hardly a sliver of moonlight crossing the room. I scarcely dared to turn my head, letting my eyes probe the deep shadows which masked the remote corners of the room.
The clock told me it had just gone midnight. The old year had passed away unlamented, heavily pregnant with unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and the New Year had arrived quietly as I slept, resplendent in a black velvet gown covered in tiny twinkling stars. I went to the window to greet it and heard a dull rap on the front door. Clinging to the notion that it was probably some local lads out to scare me, I threw open the door, preparing to repel any intruder with no more than a few harsh words...
There he stood. The rugged features hardened by the Highland winters, swathed in tartan, broad-shouldered with dark curls blowing around his face as the wind caught them. I stepped back, wondering what to say, watching his kilt swirling about his knees as his body filled the small door frame.
He stretched out one hand towards me, his fingers tightly closed around a small black object. It was a piece of coal. A curious gift from the tall, dark stranger who had crossed centuries to stand in my doorway on the first day of the New Year. I hesitated to accept it, still stunned by the unreality of his presence. The long-standing tradition of ‘first footing’ was still prevalent in these parts and my hand trembled as I took the token of good fortune from his grasp. I hadn’t expected him to speak and the deep tones of his Scottish burr took me by surprise.
“What’s a bonnie wee lassie like you doing up here all alone? I thought you’d be awa’ to the celidh.”
I pulled my cardigan tighter around me, suddenly feeling the vulnerability of the situation. He had crossed the threshold before I could reply and brushed past me to go to the fireplace, throwing a couple of logs into the grate and re-kindling the fire with remarkable ease. He turned to warm the back of his kilt against the flames and caught sight of my camera sitting on the table.
“You’d be wanting to take a photo of me.” He said.
I dumbly reached for the camera, my thoughts suddenly thinking on the provenance of such a rare event. No-one would believe it. He took up a stiff pose, with one arm resting on the fireplace and the other hand on the hilt of his dirk - putting his right foot, clad in a laced-up leather pump, on the hearth. The silver brooch at his shoulder glinted as he tilted his head down, a deep frown shadowing his face. I checked the image on my camera and printed it out to reassure myself that I hadn’t imagined it.
He immediately relaxed his pose and sat down in the high-backed chair close to the fire, knees apart, the kilt sagging between them, above a pair of muscular calves. I couldn’t stop staring at the knife, tucked into his right sock, and wondered what fate might have befallen me if I hadn’t allowed him entrance on this, of all nights.
He reached for my bottle of whisky, still open on the table, and took a deep swig, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. With the firelight flickering across his face, I was sure I could see a slight twinkle in his eye. I knew little about ghosts but had never come across one that could down the best part of a 10 year-old malt with so much vigour.
"What do you want?" I could hear my own voice, weak and quivering, as I asked the question.
“They say, you've been looking for romance.” He tilted his head to one side and those deep brown eyes scattered all thoughts that I, like his photograph, could end up in the foundations of the building.
“Donald Duncan?” I challenged him.
“Aye, that I am!”
He didn't look a day over thirty. I'd always thought age was immaterial, but this was ridiculous. I stared at him, trying to get my brain to accept what my eyes were telling me.
"Aye!” He glanced at the photograph of himself on the mantel that I had dug from the foundations of the building, before adding, “But I've heard that everyone uses an old photograph of themselves nowadays...and nobody gives their real age...do they, Mary McTaggart?”
I was startled that he knew my name. Although I’d been six months in the Highlands, I’d spent so much time looking through the narrow aperture of a lens at the barren rolling hills that I had seen little else. I blushed. In my rare and disastrous attempts at internet dating I had, to my everlasting shame, reduced my age by a good five years. How could he possibly have known?
Duncan was a common enough name north of the border and I struggled to think where I might have seen him. He was the absolute personification of the iconic highlander, represented in photographic images everywhere that I had been. Maybe, somehow, that image had become imprinted on my subconscious mind.
“Are you real?” I heard myself say. His eyes went to a tourist information brochure, laid on the table beside him.
“There’s some folk as won’t believe there’s a wee monster in the Loch, unless they see a photo of it.”
I suddenly felt a glimmer of understanding. They say ‘seeing is believing’...and there he was, in the photograph I had just taken, in my hand. Yet how real was a photograph? Had I unwittingly created this image of the man that I wanted to see?
The days passed, and weeks quickly turned into months. It wasn’t the last time Donald knocked at my door - nor left after midnight. When the builders returned, I laid his picture into the first footings of the new extension for some future incumbent of the property to find, perpetuating the legend that it was inhabited by the spirit of some disenfranchised highlander.
Whether it was real or not, I was certain that there would always be romance in these banks and braes...for those who were willing to dig deep enough to find it.