Saturday, 19 December 2015

Ghostliness in Victorian Dundee

What did restless people do for a quick fix of thrilling entertainment before mobile phones, the internet, television, even the wireless?  If you were of a particularly mischievous mind (possibly bordering on the criminal), you might have fancied dressing up as a supernatural being and scaring poor night-time travellers half to death.  Step forward the ‘phantom’ whose exploits were reported in ‘The Courier’ on Tuesday, January 16, 1883.
   This ‘ghost’ seemed to focus its attentions on the area between the Hawkhill and Blackness Road, particularly favouring the old, worked out Blackness Quarry (between Ure Street and Wilkie’s Lane, which the current Bellfield Street now transects) which was a kind of wasteland with a few dotted stables and wooden sheds.  The apparition was variously described, but most witnesses agreed it conformed to the standard Victorian supernatural stereotype:  a tall, amorphous dark and cloaked figure, with a slouch hat which concealed its undoubtedly hideous features.  The figure haunted the quarry area, gliding silently around in a sinister way and principally appearing to stray bairns and timid auld wives who happened to be wandering about in the hours of darkness.  In common with the phenomenon of mass hysteria which later affected the area around Craigie Quarry in the 1920s, the rumour of the haunting spread from children and old women to the whole population of the neighbourhood.  Soon the area was in a state of ‘chronic excitement’.  ‘Women became afraid to leave their houses at night either to go to the wells for water, or to their cellars for coal,’ the newspaper reported. Come the New Year and the ghost, or someone pretending to be him, followed one lady home and impertinently asked if she had any Hogmanay drink left in her house for him. 
   Next, one Sunday night, there was a massive explosion like a gunshot in the quarry.  Sceptics said it came from the London steamship docked in the River Tay, but a woman whose house adjoined the quarry swore that the concussion happened right under her window and that it shook her whole house.  Things reached a head on the following Saturday when a staid old couple walking home were alarmed to see a grim and solitary figure standing in a dark lane.  They hurried home and locked themselves in.  The next night an Irish ex-policeman, who was cynical about the unreal origins of the spectre, was sitting by his own fireside when a friend rushed in and said that the apparition was in the lane.  He opened his shutters and peeped out, seeing a huge dark figure leaning against a wooden paling.  The man grabbed his poker and rushed out to confront the figure, shouting out a demand to know who he was and what he wanted.  This was too much for the spirit, who fled through a gate into the quarry, splashed through a quagmire and vanished.
   The following evening a hapless gentleman on an errand of mercy got lost in the narrow lanes near the quarry and was spotted by some local women.  Encouraged by the recent bravery of the ex-policeman, they spotted and followed the gentleman, soon joined by other women and men.  Someone raised the cry, ‘That’s the man! Look up his sleeve; he has got a pistol there.’  The man protested his innocence, but the mob was angry.  Luckily the ex-policeman appeared and said that the creature he saw was twice as big as this unfortunate man.

   ‘The benighted gentleman was then set on his way rejoicing,’ ‘The Courier’ reported.  ‘Since then the “Quarry spectre” has disappeared from that neighbourhood.  Probably a wholesome dread of Paddy and the poker has induced him to abandon his nocturnal rambles.’