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Thoughts on the Black Walker of the Ford

12 May
“Rather more than a century ago, there lived at Amhulaich, in Rannoch, a miller, much addicted to the use of tobacco, and when unable to get it, was like most smokers, very short and quick in the temper. On one occasion, he ran out of tobacco, and sent for a supply by some Lochaber men, who were passing through Rannoch on their way to Perth. The mill-stream ran close to his house, and he had to cross it on stepping-stones in going to and from the mill. As he was returning home one evening in the dusk, and was about to enter the house, he heard the sound of footsteps coming to the ford.He called out, who is there? But received no answer. Being crusty for want of tobacco, and thinking it might be the Lochaber men returning, he called out a second time, very peremptorily and impatiently. He still received no answer. He called out a third time, turning down to the ford, and saying aloud, that, whether it was man or devil, he would make it answer. The thing then spoke, and said it (or he) was the Black Walker of the Ford.

What further passed between the two never transpired, but every evening after that, for a year or more, the miller left home at dusk, crossed the stream, and went to a small clump of trees about half a mile away, whence loud cries and yells were heard during the night. Before daybreak he came home, with his knife or dirk covered with blood. When examined by the light, the blood proved to be merely earth.

An attempt was made on one occasion by some young men to follow him to the rendezvous, but he became aware in some mysterious way of the attempt, and turning back warned them not to follow. It was enough, he said, for himself to go, without their periling their souls.

On the last night of his going to meet the Black Walker, such terrific outcries were heard from the clump of trees that the people of the neighbouring villages, Amhulaich and Cragganour, came to the doors to listen. It was a winter night, and next morning marks of a foot or knee were found in the snow, along with the miller’s own footsteps, as if something had been engaged in a struggle with him.

Some years after this, a man who had been away in America, entered Amhulaich Mill. The miller at the time was dressing the mill-stone, and whenever he observed the American, threw at him the pick he had in his hand, and nearly killed another, who was standing near. He told him never to appear in his presence again, that he had had enough of him. Many surmised it was this man who had troubled him before, but whether it was or not he never appeared.”

The above story appears in John Gregorson Campbell’s peerless collection of Scottish folklore Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands, published posthumously in 1902 from material gathered in the 1850s and 1860s. I would argue that it’s one of the most unusual and unnerving tales I’ve encountered in a folkloric context and for many years now, it has exercised a powerful hold on my imagination. Yet despite its unique character, not to mention its concrete location in the typically Scottish moorland landscape of Rannoch, I have not seen it referenced in any other study of Highland folklore.Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to know quite what to make of it. Later in the article I hope to demonstrate that this ambiguity is precisely the story’s strength. However, it certainly makes it hard to categorise for writers trying to produce neat anthologies for popular consumption. Although I believe it exhibits many typically folkloric tropes, the narrative does not fit comfortably into the familiar taxonomies of bodachs, fachans, urisks or the each-uisge.

Campbell himself includes the story in a chapter titled “Hobgoblins”, which he seems to use as a catch-all term for a variety of unclassifiable otherworldly manifestations, admitting in his introduction to the section: “The term bòcan is a general name for terrifying objects seen at night and taken to be supernatural”. The designation seems to have much in common with that favourite term from Yorkshire and Lancashire – boggart – which was once applied by local folk to myriad strange phenomena, from what we might now describe as poltergeist activity to degraded faerie lore.

One particularly curious facet of the narrative is the degree of verisimilitude it strives for with its introduction and coda. I’m undecided as to whether these digressions strengthen the basic narrative or are irrelevant to it. However, by offering such context, it certainly grounds the story in a familiar and concrete milieu which seems to elevate the reader’s response to more than just the “friend-of-a-friend story” impression these hoary old tales so often leave. It doesn’t come across as a story unanchored in time or place. Rather it suggests the story could be the folk memory of an actual historical occurrence.

This particularity produces a narrative tension with the details of the strange and unexplained occurrences themselves, undercutting their perceived reality whilst simultaneously reinforcing its credibility. It is a device often employed by literary ghost story writers, who so often impress upon the reader the veracity of their tale by placing it in the mouth of a hardened sceptic and introducing certain qualifiers. As M.R. James once remarked, “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable”.

The technique is so classically employed here that I would not rule out its addition being poetic license on Campbell’s part. Firstly, it presents the miller as a man addicted to nicotine and suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal, which suggests the whole episode may be some fevered hallucinatory experience. Admittedly the vicissitudes of nicotine withdrawal are rarely so dramatic but nonetheless, it insinuates the idea of the miller as an unreliable perceiver. Yet at the same time it fails to convince, for although it may account for the first meeting, that still leaves the subsequent nocturnal activity unexplained.

Secondly there is the coda in which many years later the miller assaults a man lately returned from America. Again, this prosaic explanation for such peculiar events fails to satisfy the reader but this otherwise unnecessary appendage to the story reinforces the authenticity of the tale by providing a veneer of historical realism. A good storyteller would not conclude a yarn with such a deflationary explanation, yet it is precisely the sort of speculation which would arise in the local gossip pertaining to an actual event.

Such realism is unusual as otherwise the story seems to have all the hallmarks of what we might refer to as a “folkloric haunting”, by which I mean those instances in which an apparition is well-established in the folk-memory of a community but which rarely have specific sightings ascribed to them. Examples in this category include headless horsemen, white ladies and phantom black dogs. Often in these cases everybody knows that a particular locale is supposed to be thus haunted but firsthand witness reports of an encounter with the wraith are conspicuously lacking.

Folkloric hauntings tend to be symbolic rather than literal and often they are corrupted remembrances of older traditions, some of which may be pre-Christian in origin. For example, in an article for Folklore entitled The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland, Jane C. Beck opines that this figure has “been degraded from a form of mother goddess to a kind of fairy and finally to a ghost”. White ladies are often associated with pools or rivers and it does not stretch credulity to suggest that they may represent the vestiges of an earlier belief in the tutelary spirit of sacred waters.

This is relevant because the basic narrative of the Black Walker of the Ford displays traits which we may recognise as typically folkloric. In particular, it invokes the concept of liminality which is so often an attribute of ancient folk traditions. The liminal zone exists at thresholds and boundaries, a “betwixt and between” state detached from the demarcations of our everyday reality. To the pre-modern modes of thinking such regions were the point at which the “other world” intersected most tightly with our own and where its was possible to cross from to the other, hence why so many folkloric hauntings are found at liminal sites.

The story of the Black Walker at the Ford embodies liminality in at least three distinct senses. To start with the least obvious or integral example, at the first encounter the miller himself is arguably in a liminal state of consciousness. His experience of nicotine withdrawal places him in a intermediary state, neither one of intoxication nor one of sobriety. Again the altered state of consciousness produced by nicotine or its withdrawal is far from pronounced, but such attention is drawn to the miller’s predicament that the reader cannot help but draw some implication from it.

Secondly, all the principle events in the drama occur at twilight – the miller first meets the Black Walker at dusk (technically defined as the later stages of twilight) whilst subsequently it is the hour at which he embarks on his nocturnal peregrinations – and that transition period between sunset and night has long been recognised as an important liminal phase in time. Whilst darkness is symbolically considered the proper time for devilish powers, the association between the supernatural and the twilight in particular is firmly established and phrases such as the “twilight zone” remain familiar idioms.

However, the most apparent and important manifestation of liminality is geographical. Water-crossings such as fords are the classic liminal region; an explicit representation of the “no-mans land” of the threshold. Indeed, the water-crossing motif signifies a kind of double liminality for not only does it connect two discrete areas of land but it traverses a space which is part of neither and which is always impermanent, always uncertain. Running water is the very embodiment of the ambiguity and flux at the heart of concept of liminality.

Water also held an especial fascination for the pre-modern mind beyond its perceived liminality. There is no doubt that animistic cultures regard water as profoundly sacred, an unpredictable force which can both nurture and destroy life on a whim. British folklore abounds with water spirits, especially as the personification of treacherous stretches. Across northern Britain, the kelpie or dobbie was always ready to drag the unwary riverside traveller to a watery grave, whilst more localised examples include Crooker, the malevolent genius loci of the River Derwent in the Peak District, or Peg O’ Nell who claimed a sacrifice every seven years for the River Ribble in Lancashire.

There can be no doubt that water crossings in particular have been a focus for supernatural belief over the ages and in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts Owen Davies opines, “The bridge acted not only as a practical, physical crossing point but also as a spirit access point”. This idea of the bridge or ford as a common gateway is supported by a survey of hauntings connected to water by Janet and Colin Bord in their seminal study of British water lore “Sacred Waters”, over a quarter of which occurred near bridges.

That our ancestors regarded water-crossings as places where one required protection from supernatural forces is evident in the discovery of the archaic stone carved head motif on many bridges. The image of the head possessed an apotropaic function in many pre-modern cultures, especially Celtic and descendant traditions. The symbol persisted in the South Pennines for many centuries and notable 18th Century examples can be found at Agden Bridge in South Yorkshire or on the aqueduct over the River Calder at Hebden Bridge.

The ubiquity of such belief suggests that not only were water crossings perceived as liminal zones – threshold locations which pressed close against the Otherworld and could be used as a portal to it – but also that the potency of water itself was frequently anthropomorphised into elemental figures. The bridge or ford was not just a boundary in space in the same manner as gateways or crossroads; water itself was fundamentally supernatural. The traveller on the crossing would be beset by the Otherworld on all sides and hence such places presented profound spiritual as well as physical danger.

With these themes in mind, it is not difficult to recognise the Black Walker as a manifestation of the tutelary spirit of the ford, both a guardian at the threshold and the personification of the constant threat represented by the river itself, demanding obeisance from those bold enough to cross. What the Black Walker demands of the miller is never revealed but in the image of his return from nightly visits to that copse with a knife covered in something that appears to be blood but is revealed as earth, there is a hint of strange rites and transubstantiations to appease Otherworldly powers.

Yet whilst it is possible to make sense of the narrative by identifying such folkloric tropes, much of the story’s hold over the imagination derives from precisely its enigma and ambiguity. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet Sacheverell Sitwell and used by the writer Robert Aickman to preface a collection of his own frequently impenetrable weird tales, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.

By failing to reveal what passes between the Black Walker and the miller at their first meeting, or exactly what transpired during those nocturnal visits to the wood, the story allows our imagination to rove freely over the possibilities. It demands of us a cognitive state which John Keats described as “negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

But ultimately by refusing to provide any explanation the story forces us to confront the terrible insinuation of things that cannot be imagined, a final irresolvable uncertainty which is more unnerving than anything we can conceive. As Aickman himself comments “The ghost story draws on the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; it need offer neither logic nor moral… (it) does not close a door and leave inside it another definition, a still further solution. On the contrary, it must open a door… and at the end leave it open, or possibly ajar”.

Tales which achieve this are not just disposable bedtime stories to scare the credulous. By confronting us with the prospect that final explanations might always elude us, they undermine the comfortable categories and structures of our cosmology and emerge as a fundamentally existential form; an invocation of the angst we feel when comprehension forsakes us and we’re forced to grapple with the infinite, clamouring possibilities exposed in its absence, a time when Keats’ negative capability is most essential to our psychic survival.

In preserving its essential mystery, a narrative such as the Black Walker of the Ford forces us to cross the boundaries of understanding and reveals the liminal spaces of our own being, beyond truth and fiction, cause and effect, right and wrong, beyond all the codes and systems of thought that confine us. And once there we begin to recognise that our existence is full of liminal zones, territories where ambiguity and uncertainty forever reign, which we cannot help but traverse and traffic with whatever strange entities might also have found access there.

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