‘The Castle Guide’ by William Croft Dickinson

  27 Oct '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

‘The Castle Guide’ is a story from the collection, Dark Encounters, a book collecting the writings of William Croft Dickinson. Although better known for his academic work in Scottish History, Dickinson was a prolific writer of ghost stories, and likened by some to Scotland’s MR James. ‘The Castle Guide’ was first published in 1963 in The Scotsman newspaper.


Many years ago, in the deepening dusk of a June evening, I was strolling past the Castle of St Andrews when I noticed that, strangely, the admission-gate was still open. Attracted by the grey and sombre ruins, silhouetted against the darkening sky, I stopped at the open gate. If I were to venture inside, what strange shadows would I see? How different would those broken walls and towers appear? Sauntering down to the pend, I passed through its deep- black vault and out into the castle-close. There, spell-bound by a beauty and mystery that were enhanced by the fading light, I stood for a while motionless. Below me I could hear the rhythmic plash of the sea on the rocks that bore the castle’s weight, while the light sough of the wind could have come from the ancient stones themselves, whispering to one another their memories of the past. And soon, caught in the magic of the place, I began to give words and meaning to the sounds that came and went: ‘Beaton, proud Roman Cardinal, murdered and defiled.’ ‘Guns, French guns, breaking down block-house and tower.’ ‘Knox, John Knox, toiling at the galley’s oar.’

So I let my fancies free until, upon an instant, every fancy fled. A man, in the dress of a mid-sixteenth century man-at-arms, was standing in front of me.

Startled, I stepped back; for the man had appeared as suddenly as if the shadows themselves had formed and fashioned him. And why was he dressed like that? Then came sudden relief. I remembered that a pageant was to be held on the castle-green. I had intruded at the close of a dress-rehearsal, and here was the last of the actors about to leave. And that, too, explained the open admission-gate.

Recovering myself, I said: ‘Good evening.’ The man answered with a nod and then, in the broadest Scots I had ever heard, offered to show me the eastern block-house that had fallen beneath the battery of the French guns. Somewhat puzzled – for I knew that nothing was left of the eastern block-house, and that even its site was conjectural – and not sure that I had understood his invitation aright, I stammered politely: ‘Why, yes; certainly’; and then could have kicked myself. The man would probably be both an ignoramus and a bore. However, I would get away from him as quickly as I could. I glanced furtively at my watch. The time was five minutes to ten. I would give him until five minutes past ten, and would then make some excuse to escape.

But I had to make no excuse.

My self-appointed guide led me across the castle-green and up to the ruined eastern range. There, as soon as we had reached the wall, he began to describe in vivid detail the French bombard- ment which, in July 1547, had brought a year-long siege to an end. At times his broad Scots was beyond me, but somehow that seemed to make no difference. So graphic was his account, as he stood beside me, with his arm outstretched and his finger pointing into space, that a block-house rose up and took shape before my eyes. I sensed, rather than heard, the noise of the guns; and I saw the building slowly crumbling beneath their battery. I could even see men falling and dying as their strongpoint collapsed around them.

Suddenly his story came to an abrupt end. He turned and left me, and, as I watched him walking slowly across the castle-close, the shadows seemed to fold around him. He entered the dark places, he was lost in them, and he never reappeared.

For a moment, I felt as though I had awakened from some strange and uncanny dream. I looked again over the eastern wall. No longer did I see a block-house crumbling beneath the battery of cannons royal. Before me was only the empty space of night, while, in the near distance, I glimpsed the tall broken gables of the cathedral church.

A vague sense of wonder gave way to fear. How could it have been a dream when I had been wide-awake all the time? What had happened to me? Who had stood beside me and shown me a building that was no longer there? My fear increased. An impelling urge to escape took hold of me. I must get out! But how could I pass through that forbidding blackness of the pend? What hand would reach out to hold me back?

Bracing myself, I ran; ran as fast as I could, speeding through the pend, up the slope of the path, and out into the safety of the street. There, for a minute or two, I clutched the railings with both hands. I had no body; only my two hands that were clutching the iron railings and a heart that pounded violently.

Yet, quickly, I recovered. I began to damn myself. I was an idiot, a coward, a craven fool. Leaving the friendly railings, I walked slowly down the street, though my mind still raced with disturbing thoughts. As I neared Butts Wynd, the clocks began to strike. I looked at my watch. It said ten o’clock. Incredulous, I counted the strokes that rang through the night. Ten o’clock. Had time stood still while a ghostly guide had taken me four centuries back in time? I had looked at my watch when he first spoke to me only five minutes ago. Yet he had spoken to me for perhaps ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour. And definitely a full five minutes had elapsed since I ran in panic from the castle-close.

Perplexed and disturbed, I turned into the narrow wynd. So, trying vainly to find reason in something that was beyond all reasoning, I began to wander through the streets of the town – down North Street, up Market Street, down South Street, and on to the West Port. There, just as I had passed through the narrow archway of the Port, someone suddenly gripped me by the arm. I looked up, with a start. It was my old friend, James Davidson, who was then still in office as H.M. Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments.

‘Whither away with fast shut eyes?’ he cried.

I do not remember what answer I gave; but he looked more sharply at me, and drew me closer to him.

‘What’s wrong with you, man?’ he asked. ‘You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘I have,’ I replied, ‘in the castle-close.’ ‘A likely enough place,’ he said, gravely.

‘But, Jamie, this one spoke to me. Told me how the east block-house had been battered to bits by the French guns, and pointed it out to me as the guns were smashing it down. I tell you I saw that block-house with my own eyes, saw it gradually crumbling away, and saw the men falling and dying. And all the while time stood still.’

‘Steady, old man. Time doesn’t stand still. When did this happen? Just now?’

‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘At five minutes to ten.’ I felt his hold tighten on my arm.

‘You say you met your ghost at five minutes to ten?’ ‘Yes,’ I persisted. ‘I looked at my watch.’

‘Good God!’ I heard him mutter. ‘Why? What?’ I demanded, quickly.

‘The old custodian of the castle once told me exactly what the eastern block-house looked like, and where it had stood,’ he said, quietly.

‘But what has that to do with it?’

He paid no attention to my question, but went on, as though talking to himself: ‘And when I asked him how he could possibly know, he just looked at me in a queer sort of way and said: “I can’t tell you, sir. But sometimes, if I stand on the eastern range when night is falling, I have a feeling I’ve been there before – long, long ago.”’

I grew impatient.

‘But this wasn’t your custodian, Jamie. It was a ghost, I tell you. A ghost that came out of the shadows and returned to the shadows again. The ghost of a man-at-arms who’d taken part in the siege of 1547.’

‘I know,’ he replied. ‘But it was my custodian all the same. I’ve just come from the old man’s house. He died at five minutes to ten.’

    • Share: