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Allan Martin The Book of Names

An iScot Chfirstmas Ghost Story

MY PLANE followed the darkness as it lowed westwards over Europe. I’d let Riga at 7 pm, and by ten I’d be back home in the depths of Ayrshire. What might happen then I did not know.

But the story started several months before that. When I retired as Professor of History at the Unfiversity of Falkirk, I decided to go back to my roots. My great-grandfather had worked in the shoe factories in Maybole before moving to Glasgow to seek his fortune. I’d only ever passed through that area, but I’d recently inherited, from a greataunt, a cotage not far from the town, near the village of Kirkmichael. I sold of my lat in Falkirk and moved in.

My great-aunt had never married, and had lived in the cotage, where she had been born, her whole life. Her mind had been perfectly sharp right up to her final illness. When I visited her in hospital not long before she died, she whispered to me, “You’ll get the cotage, David. I know you’re one for old things. I think there are some boxes up in the lot you might want to have a look at.”

That was how I learned about the Book of Names. In one of the boxes was a brown envelope containing a sheaf of paper, perhaps twenty or so sheets, thin yellowish paper, both sides covered in close packed writing, a crabbed hand in blue-black ink. A note on the envelope explained: “A History of Ayrshire by Rev Josiah Renton.” Mr Renton was back up the family tree somewhere; he was the minister of Kirkmichael in the mid-1800s.

I spent a day reading his history. It wasn’t a completed work by any means, simply rough drats of the first three chapters. A search on the internet told me no such work had been published. Perhaps this had a been a project begun and then abandoned, maybe he had died before bringing it to a conclusion.

Chapter 3 dealt with the mediaeval period. I hadn’t realised there had been a priory at Kirkmichael, a satellite house of the Abbey of Crossraguel. Its Cluniac monks were known as ‘black monks’ from the colour of their habits, so when Mr Renton mentioned the ‘black book’ I assumed it was so-named after the Cluniacs. Here’s what he wrote:

Most of the other monks perished with him when they found the doors of the chapel, in which they were celebrating mass, had been bolted from outside

Local legend, still current on the lips of the most ancient inhabitants of these parts, tells of the ‘Black Book of Kirkmichael,’ also known as ‘The Book of Names.’ This tome is said to have been compiled by a monk during the midfourteenth century, as plague raged outwith the bounds of the priory. In the book, the anonymous author wrote down and expatiated upon all the names of the saints, the angels, and even of witches and demons. According to local lore, the prior, being so affronted by the contents of the book, decreed it to be burnt, and ordered its author blinded to prevent his writing anything further. But the book was never found; legend has it the monk had buried it within the consecrated ground of the kirkyard. It was the prior instead who was burned, when a terrible fire engulfed the priory. Most of the other monks perished with him when they found the doors of the chapel, in which they were celebrating mass, had been bolted from outside. Only the blind monk survived, confined in his bare cell on the periphery of the priory’s domain. A blind man locked in his cell could not be held responsible for the conflagration. Yet there were suspicions of his culpability. It was said that a dark figure had been seen by the chapel door by a lay brother working in a field nearby. He was too far off to identify the figure, but described it as short and squat with long arms and big hands. The tale tells that the blind monk now wanders the earth, plagued by guilt at the burning of his brothers, seeking some way of freeing them from their torment.

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About iScot Magazine

Celebrate good times c’mon! iScot celebrates its 4th birthday and what better way than a bumper 136 page cornucopia of articles, short stories, science, history, movies commentary, puzzles and much much more