‘The Drowned Rose’ – Extract from TALES FOR TWILIGHT

  22 Oct '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Tales for Twilight offers a spine-tingling selection of unnerving tales by writers from James Hogg in the early nineteenth century to James Robertson, very much alive in the twenty-first. Scottish authors have proved to be exceptionally good at writing ghost stories. Get a taste for the chilling tales within with this extract from George Mackay Brown’s story, ‘The Drowned Rose’, where a new schoolmaster encounters an apparition on campus…

‘Thank God for that,’ said Donald Barr. He brought a chessboard and a box of chessmen from the cupboard. He blew a spurt of dust from them. ‘We’d have grown to hate each other after a fortnight, trying to warm each other up with politics and island gossip.’ He arranged the pieces on the board. ‘I’m very glad also that you’re only a middling player, same as me. We can spend our evenings in an amiable silence.’

We were very indifferent players indeed. None of our games took longer than an hour to play. No victory came about through strategy, skill, or foresight. All without exception that first evening were lost by some incredible blunder (followed by muted cursings and the despairing fall of a fist on the table).

‘You’re right,’ I said after the fourth game, ‘silence is the true test of friendship.’

We had won two games each. We decided to drink a jar of ale and smoke our pipes before playing the decider. Donald Barr made his own beer, a nutty potent brew that crept through your veins and overcame you after ten minutes or so with a drowsy contentment. We smoked and sipped mostly in silence; yet fine companionable thoughts moved through our minds and were occasionally uttered.

‘I am very pleased so far,’ I said after a time, ‘with this island and the people in it. The children are truly a delight. Mrs Sinclair who makes the school dinner has a nice touch with stew. There is also the young woman who visited me briefly last night. She was looking for somebody else, unfortunately. I hope she comes often.’

‘What young woman?’ said the minister drowsily.

‘She didn’t say her name,’ I said. ‘She’s uncommonly good looking, what the teenagers in my last school would call a rare chick.’

‘Describe this paragon,’ said Donald Barr.

I am no great shakes at describing things, especially beautiful young women. But I did my best, between puffs at my pipe. The mass of black hair. The wide hazel eyes. The red restless laughing mouth. ‘It was,’ I said, ‘as if she had come straight into the house out of a rose garden. She asked for Johnny.’

Something had happened to the Rev. Donald Barr. My words seemed to wash the drowsiness from his face; he was like a sleeper on summer hills overcome with rain. He sat up in his chair and looked at me. He was really agitated. He knocked the ember of tobacco out of his pipe. He took a deep gulp of ale from his mug. Then he walked to the window and looked out at the thickening light. The clock on the mantelshelf ticked on beyond eleven o’clock.

‘And so,’ I said, ‘may she come back often to the schoolhouse, if it’s only to look for this Johnny.’

From Donald Barr, no answer. Silence is a test of friendship but I wanted very much to learn the name of my visitor; or rather I was seeking for a confirmation.

Donald Barr said, ‘A ghost is the soul of a dead person who is earth-bound. That is, it is much attached to the things of this world that it is unwilling to let go of them. It cannot believe it is dead.

‘It cannot accept for one moment that its body has been gathered back into the four elements. It refuses to set out on the only road it can take now, into the kingdom of the dead. No, it is in love too much with what it has been and known. It will not leave its money and possessions. It will not forgive the wrongs that were done to it while it was alive. It clings on desperately to love.’

‘I was not speaking about any ghost,’ I said. ‘I was trying to tell you about this very delightful lovely girl.’

‘If I was a priest,’ said Donald Barr, ‘instead of a minister, I might tell you that a ghost is a spirit lost between this world and purgatory. It refuses to shed its earthly appetites. It will not enter the dark gate of suffering.’

The northern twilight thickened in the room while we spoke. Our conversation was another kind of chess. Yet each knew what the other was about.

‘I hope she’s there tonight,’ I said. ‘I might even prevail on her to make me some toast and hot chocolate. For it seems I’m going to get no supper in the manse.’

‘You’re not scared?’ said Donald Barr from the window.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not frightened of that kind of ghost. It seemed to me, when we were speaking together in the schoolhouse last night, this girl and I, that I was the wan lost one, the squeaker and gibberer, and she was a part of the ever-springing fountain.’

‘Go home then to your ghost,’ said Donald Barr. ‘We won’t play any more chess tonight. She won’t harm you, you’re quite right there.’

We stood together at the end of his garden path.

‘Miss McKillop,’ I murmured to the dark shape that was fumbling for the latch of the gate.

‘Sandra McKillop,’ said Donald, ‘died the twenty-third of May this year. I buried her on the third of June, herself and John Germiston, in separate graves.’

‘Tell me,’ I said.

‘No,’ said Donald, ‘for I do not know the facts. Never ask me for a partial account. It seemed to me they were happy. I refuse to wrong the dead. Go in peace.’

There was no apparition in the school-house that night. I went to bed and slept soundly, drugged with fresh air, ale, fellowship; and a growing wonderment.


The days passed, and I did not see the ghost again. Occasionally I caught the fragrance, a drift of sudden sweetness in the long corridor between kitchen and parlour, or in the garden or on the pebbled path between the house and the school. Occasionally a stir of cold went through the parlour late at night as I sat reading, and no heaping of peats would warm the air again for a halfhour or so. I would look up, eagerly I must confess, but nothing trembled into form and breathing out of the expectant air. It was as if the ghost had grown shy and uncertain, indicated her presence only by hints and suggestions. And in the classroom too things quietened down, and the island pupils and I worked out our regime together as the summer days passed. Only occasionally a five-year-old would whisper something about Miss McKillop, and smile, and then look sad; and it was like a small scattering of rose-petals. Apart from that everything proceeded smoothly to the final closing of books at the end of the school year.


One man in the island I did not like, and that was Henrikson who kept the island store and garage, my neighbour. A low wall separated the school garden from Henrikson’s land, which was usually untidy with empty lemonade cases, oil drums, sodden cardboard boxes. Apart from the man’s simple presence, which he insisted on inflicting on me, I was put out by things in his character. For example, he showed an admiration for learning and university degrees that amounted to sycophancy; and this I could not abide, having sprung myself from a race of labourers and miners and railwaymen, good people all, more solid and sound and kindly than most university people, in my experience. But the drift of Henrikson’s talk was that farmers and such like, including himself, were poor creatures indeed compared to their peers who had educated themselves and got into the professions and so risen in the world. This was bad enough; but soon he began to direct arrows of slander at this person and that in the island. ‘Arrows’ is too open and forthright a word for it; it was more the work of ‘the smiler with the knife’. Such-and-such a farmer, he told me, was in financial difficulties, we wouldn’t be seeing him in Quoylay much longer. This other young fellow had run his motor-cycle for two years now without a licence; maybe somebody should do something about it; he himself had no objection to sending anonymous letters to the authorities in such a case. Did I see that half-ruined croft down at the shore?

A few moths were out, clinging to the stones, fluttering and birring softly on the kitchen window. I turned and went in without saying goodnight to Mr Henrikson.

And as I went along the corridor, with a bad taste in my mouth from that holy old creep across the road, I heard it, a low reluctant weeping from above, from the bedroom. I ran upstairs and threw open the door. The room was empty, but it was as cold as the heart of an iceberg, and the unmistakable fragrance clung about the window curtains and the counterpane. There was the impression of a head on the pillow, as if someone had knelt beside the bed for a half-hour to sort out her troubles in silence.

My ghost was being pierced by a slow wondering sadness.

Editor Alistair W. J. Kerr was born in Scotland. His father was an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who later became an academic. Alistair studied History and Law at the University of Edinburgh and later became a civil servant. He is the editor of Dark Encounters: A Collection of Scottish Ghost Stories (Polygon, 2017).

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