Author’s Note: Often at Samhain, our Writers’ Night Out group will write ghost stories for the enjoyment of our readers. I first wrote this short story in 2006. I was actually working on another piece when I stumbled on a YouTube video that completely gave me goosebumps because I had not heard the song when I wrote the story. I will provide the link to the video at the end of the piece.
The Highlander’s Return
By Linda Monsees Stump © 2006
The cottage was all I wanted and more. Nestled in a remote glen in the Scottish Highlands, the little stone house with its picturesque thatched roof was three miles by a rough but passable track from the nearest village, where I’d stocked up on supplies. I didn’t mind the isolation, but I did hope there wouldn’t be mice in the thatch. Above the trees a hawk soared, then plummeted in a screaming dive, while over the mountains storm clouds were beginning to gather.
Mr. MacRae, the rental agent who’d picked me up in Inverness on behalf of the owner, glanced doubtfully at my wool skirt, tweed coat and heeled pumps, toward the cottage, and then back at me. “Are ye sure ye’ll be wanting to stay here then, Miss Heyburn? Ye did say ye didn’t mind the lack of modern conveniences, but it’s no exactly a holiday cottage. Mr. MacKenzie – that would be Mr. Alasdair, ye ken, no Mr. Alexander – wasna inclined to let the cottage because it’s sae primitive, and ye’ll be alone…” His voice trailed off and his sandy brows furrowed with concern.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “I can follow the road easily enough to the village, and I’ve camped alone in the Canadian Rockies – at least here I’ll not have to worry about grizzly bears!”
Mr. MacRae looked as though he were about to say something else, then instead he began unloading my supplies from the Land Rover. I picked up my suitcase and followed him inside. The cottage was built in the style of centuries past – a single room with a narrow ladder to the loft. On one side of the room away from the doorway an old double bed was pushed against the wall, covered with a thick woolen blanket of a tartan I couldn’t identify in the dimness. Two worn leather chairs flanked the fireplace and there was corner cupboard of some dark wood, a table with two chairs on one side and a high-backed oak settle on the other. There was no bathroom, only a “necessary” house about fifty yards away. Primitive was right, I thought, putting my suitcase on the settle.
My friends in London thought I’d taken leave of my senses to go to Scotland in October. The weather was unchancy at best, they said, and miserable at worst, and it was no wonder I was still single at twenty-seven if that was my idea of a holiday. I couldn’t explain what drew me to this wild corner of the Highlands; I just knew I had to go.
Mr. McRae pottered about while I stowed tea, tinned milk and soups in the corner cupboard, where I found a set of heavy old crockery, clean tea towels and even a teapot. He climbed down from his inspection of the loft, went out and came back in with his arms full of several dark, brick-like objects. “Mr. MacKenzie left peat stacked in the shed in back of the house, but I’ve brought enough in for ye to last the night. Do ye know the way of a peat fire?” I shook my head, glad that I’d thought to bring a long-handled lighter, a newspaper and a couple of commercial fire-starter logs. Mr. MacRae patiently showed me how to stack the peats to give them enough air to burn properly.
At last Mr. MacRae headed back outside. He paused beside the Land Rover. “Ye do have a mobile phone with ye, miss?” he asked anxiously. When I reassured him that I did, he produced a business card and admonished, “Now, if anything frightens ye or ye decide ye dinna want to stay, just ring me up. I’ll come and fetch ye, nae matter what time of day or night.”
“Thank you – you’re very kind, but I really don’t mind being by myself.” He nodded somewhat reluctantly in acceptance and started the engine. I watched as the vehicle bumped its way down the track and the sounds of its passage faded into the distance. The wind picked up, sharp and chill, and lowering clouds carried the promise of rain.
I was alone. The silence settled around me, peaceful after the traffic and bustle of London. Around me the majestic mountains brooded over their secrets. Far away a curlew called, and something splashed in the water of the nearby burn. Night falls quickly in the Highlands in October, and even as I watched, the sky swiftly deepened from gunmetal grey to indigo to black, the inky darkness broken only by a faint moon shrouded in wisps of cloud. A stronger gust of wind blew my hair around my face and the first raindrops began to fall.
I turned and went back into the cottage, dropping the bar against the wet night. The peat fire was burning nicely, and I poured water into an iron pot and suspended it over the fire, then made myself some tea. After a late lunch in Inverness, I wasn’t hungry for dinner, so I opened a packet of shortbread and had a piece with my tea.
Deciding to make an early night of it, I undressed, washed my face and brushed my teeth, banked the fire and crawled under the covers. The ropes supporting the feather mattress creaked a little as I shifted my weight. The sheets had the line-dried freshness that no tumble-dry can replicate; the wool blanket was soft from wear and smelled faintly of herbs. The sounds of wind and rain lulled me to sleep.
It was a battle cry that woke me, a bloodcurdling, primal sound that seemed to echo through the glen. I lay frozen with fright for several moments, my heart thudding like a cannonball in my chest. Through the shutters I saw lightning flash; then a few seconds later came the rumble of thunder. In a land as old and legend-shrouded as this, it was all too easy to imagine the sounds of ancient battles on a stormy night. A vivid imagination was one thing, I chided myself, this was quite another. Just as I came to that sensible decision, I heard it again.
“Tulach Ard!” The words were Gaelic, and I recognized the war cry of Clan MacKenzie. The sound made me think of the battlefield at Culloden, which I’d visited only the day before during my stopover in Inverness. Standing on the bleak, windswept moor, hearing a piper playing a lament, I rested my hand on one of the clan markers. Looking down, I saw the words “CLAN MACKENZIE” chiseled into the stone and wanted to weep. I doubt anyone could stand on that killing ground and not be moved by the sheer courage displayed by the highlanders in the face of incredible odds on that April day in 1746.
I tried to convince myself that it was a product of my subconscious, simply conjuring auditory remnants of a battlefield pilgrimage. And yet, there were no re-enactors on Culloden Moor during my visit, only the lone piper by the cairn. Uneasily I recalled Mr. MacRae’s comment about Alasdair MacKenzie’s reluctance to let the cottage.
All right, I thought briskly. Perhaps this Alasdair MacKenzie had had second thoughts and, rather than simply tell me he didn’t want to rent the place, decided to frighten me away. “I don’t scare that easy, MacKenzie,” I said aloud. The sound of my own voice was blessedly reassuring. Though I lay waiting tensely in the darkness, the strange cry was not repeated. After a while, my eyelids drooped again and I slept.
This time it was a whisper that woke me. “Morag?”
No, I thought, keeping my eyes tightly closed. I am not going to let my imagination run away with me. I tried to will myself back to sleep.
“Morag, mo chridhe.” My eyes flew open. The unfamiliar name and the Gaelic endearment spoken in a hoarse whisper that carried all the ache of love and longing brought me fully awake.
The faint glow of embers from the peat fire lit the room. The door that I’d barred from the inside stood open to the storm and lightning flashed in the distance. Thunder growled over the peaks. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood over my bed. His russet hair was long and he wore a belted plaid pinned at the shoulder with a bronze brooch in the shape of a strangely familiar stag’s head. His once-white full-sleeved shirt was stained dark on one side with what appeared to be blood. He wore a basket-hilted sword and a dirk sheathed at his belt and he looked quite capable of using them. He leaned toward me and very gently touched my cheek. His hand was big and calloused…and very cold.
I gasped. Any thought that I was only dreaming vanished with the shock of his touch. I sat up, clutching the tartan blanket to my breast, and drew breath to scream.
The hand that caressed my cheek went at once to his sword hilt, and then dropped to his side at the sight of me. “A Dhia!” he muttered fiercely. The scream died in my throat. The man looked as shocked as I must have, though I could hardly pose a threat to him. Standing, I’d barely come up to his shoulder, and I had no weapon. He spoke again, but not in Gaelic this time. “Dinna fear, lass – I’ll no harm ye. What’s your name?”
I found my voice. “Kelsey. Kelsey Heyburn. Who are you?”
“Iain Lachlan MacKenzie.” Now I knew why the stag’s head on his brooch looked familiar. I’d seen it on the MacKenzie clan badge in a souvenir shop in Inverness. There was a hint of amusement in his voice as he added, “Ye’re sleeping in my bed.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Instead I looked at him more closely. He couldn’t have been more than thirty, but his eyes were hollowed with weariness and pain had etched deep lines in his face. The stain on his linen shirt was blood. “You’re hurt!”
He followed my gaze. “Ye canna help me, Kelsey.”
I stared at him, stricken. “But you ought to see a doctor. I could call –” I thought of my mobile phone and wondered if I could get him to hospital without a car.
“Too late for that, the bloodybacks’ll be following me. Is she dead, then?” There was such sadness in his voice that it tore at my heart.
“Is who dead?”
“Morag. My wife.”
“I have no idea. I don’t know anyone called Morag. There was no one in the house when Mr. MacRae brought me here.” Was that why Alasdair MacKenzie hadn’t wanted to let the place? Because the previous tenant had left, and he knew her husband would come looking for her? For he had come, armed to the teeth, badly hurt and obviously in some kind of trouble.
“The house was empty?”
I nodded, adding quickly, “I’m not trespassing – Alasdair MacKenzie said I could stay here.”
Iain smiled grimly. “Then Morag got away, and the bairn wi’ her. Cumberland’s men willna find her now.” Cumberland’s men? I stared at him, confused. The only Cumberland I’d ever heard of was the Duke of Cumberland, who commanded the English army at the ill-fated battle of Culloden…over two hundred and fifty years ago.
I swallowed hard and pushed the tangle of dark hair from my face, which I’m sure must have gone chalk-white, because Iain turned toward the door and said, “I only thought to come home and find Morag – I didna mean to frighten ye, Kelsey. I give ye my word I’ll no harm ye, even if ye are a Sassenach. I dinna make war on women and children.” He spoke of war as an immediate thing, and the shadows in his eyes told me he had seen its horrors up close and very personally. There was no reason why I should believe the promise of a large, fierce, bloodstained highlander – but I did.
“Iain, wait.” My fear gone, I slipped out of bed, shivering a little in my cotton nightdress. “Sit by the fire and I’ll make some tea.” He hesitated and I added, “It is your hearth, after all.” Iain eased his tall frame into one of the leather chairs and stretched his long legs toward the banked peats. He closed his eyes but I didn’t think he slept. Following Mr. MacRae’s instructions, I coaxed the fire back to life and swung the iron cauldron over the flames. I closed the door and slid the bar back into place. When the water came to the boil, I made the tea and let it steep. I stirred sugar into a mug for Iain, then poured a cup for myself.
“Iain?” I touched his hand and his eyes opened, the clear, deep blue of a Scottish loch. “The tea’s ready. Are you hungry? I could heat up some soup for you, and I’ve bread and butter. There’s shortbread, too.”
He smiled and the blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “’Twill do nae good for me now, lass, but I thank ye.” He cupped his hands round the mug and sighed with pleasure. I put the plate of shortbread between us and sat down in the other chair. We sipped our tea and ate the buttery shortbread in companionable silence.
At last he rose. “I’ll no compromise ye, lass. I’d best go – I dinna want ye hurt.”
I put up a hand to stay him. “You gave me your word you wouldn’t harm me. I give you mine – take your rest in your own bed and I’ll stand watch. I promise I’ll wake you if anyone comes hunting you.” There was much I didn’t understand of this rough-hewn stranger, but I couldn’t fear him.
“Ye’d do that for me after I nearly made ye swoon wi’ fright?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
I had to look up, but I met his deep blue gaze directly. “Yes, I would. You didn’t mean to frighten me and I’m not – frightened now, I mean. You’re tired, you’ve been hurt. Go on, Iain, it’s all right, really.”
His big hands gripped my shoulders and I felt the strong clasp of his fingers through the cotton of my nightdress. He bent his head and his lips touched my forehead, very lightly. I don’t know how long we stood there, but I was conscious of the feel of his linen shirt beneath my hand, the wool of his plaid against my cheek.
He released me and I smoothed the sheets, picking up the blanket to cover him. “Ye keep it. I’ll do, lass, I’ve my plaid.” He loosed it from his shoulder and sat down on the bed; somewhere in my mind it registered that the ropes should have creaked, but I didn’t hear them. He lay on his back, fully dressed, without unbuckling his sword belt. I knew instinctively that he’d slept many a night with his weapons ready to hand. I tucked the woolen folds of his plaid around him. “Ye’re a bonnie lass, Kelsey,” he murmured, “and may God bless ye for your kindness.”
His eyes were closing as I smoothed the hair from his brow and laid my palm against his cheek. “Sleep, Iain. I’ll watch over you. You’re home now, and safe.” I don’t know what made me say it, but they were the right words. The lines of tension eased from his face and his lips curved in a smile. Quietly I pulled the chair near the bed and curled up in it, covering myself with the tartan blanket.
Through the night I watched over him, barely conscious of time passing, aware only of the gallant highlander sleeping in my bed. The peat fire burned down to embers. Then, as the first shafts of sunlight pierced the gaps between the shutters, I stretched limbs cramped from being curled in the chair. I glanced back at the bed, hoping my movement hadn’t awakened Iain.
He was gone.
I blinked. The door was still barred from within, but Iain had quite simply vanished. I flung off the blanket and frantically searched the cottage, even climbing to the loft; but he was nowhere to be found. Shaken, I stared at the bed. The long impression of Iain’s body was there in the feather mattress, and the indentation of his head on the pillow. I didn’t want to put into words, even to myself, what I already knew in my heart. Shivering, I wrapped the blanket round me like a shawl, realizing that it was in the same tartan as Iain’s plaid, only the colors were more vibrant. Iain. The room seemed somehow empty without him. Mechanically I built up the fire again and put water on to boil. I made tea and took it outside, where I found a seat on a flat rock overlooking the burn. The storm had passed and the glen looked beautiful in the morning light. But for the insubstantial evidence of Iain’s presence, I could almost believe I had imagined the events of the night before.
I turned, startled, nearly spilling my tea. He strode toward me, his plaid swinging as he walked. The kilt was of the modern variety, and his russet hair fell only to his collar, but the height and broad shoulders were the same, as was the bronze stag’s head brooch that pinned the plaid. The cup wobbled in my hand and I put it down on the rock.
“I’m sorry if I startled you.” The blue eyes that gazed into mine with concern were those I remembered from the firelit cottage. I couldn’t speak. “I’m Alexander MacKenzie – I believe you corresponded with my father.”
“Alexander MacKenzie?” I repeated, studying his face. The accent was educated, but the soft Highland burr was there nonetheless.
He grinned. “In the baptismal registry it’s Alexander Iain Lachlan MacKenzie –but most people call me Alex.”
The sound of the names I had heard pronounced in just that deep voice only last night gave me a strange feeling of vertigo, of a world shifting out of my control. “I’m Kelsey.”
“Are you sure you’re all right? Rob MacRae was worried about you up here all alone. He thought you might have been frightened in the night and asked me to check on you.”
“Thank you, it’s very kind of you – and please thank Mr. MacRae for me, but I’m fine. The cottage is lovely.”
Alex MacKenzie raised a quizzical brow. “I love the place, but most people would disagree with you – it hasn’t even got running water!”
I shook my head. “I can’t explain it, but it’s perfect. Whoever built it loved it here.”
Alex gave me a searching look. “Aye, well, it was built by my many-times great-grandfather, Iain Lachlan MacKenzie.” The blue eyes sharpened and I was sure my face gave away the fact that I recognized the name. “He built the cottage for his bride. Their son Alexander was born here – as you can see, family names carried down through the generations. It’s because of Iain that we’ve never modernized it.”
“I’m glad – I hope no one ever changes it.”
Alex went on almost deliberately, “Iain, along with many others of the clan, rallied to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s standard in the Rising of the ’45.”
I said quietly, “I thought perhaps he might have.”
“Ye’ll have heard the battle cries, then.” Alex’s voice was matter of fact. I nodded. “That’s why Rob MacRae was worried about you. In the months after Prince Charlie’s defeat, those who escaped the aftermath of Culloden hid in the mountains. When the folk in the glen first started hearing the yells in the night, they thought one of the MacKenzie men had run into the dragoons. The words were clearly audible and recognized as Tulach Ard, which is the battle cry of our clan. It was still heard many years later, by then they reckoned it was a ghost.”
“What happened to Morag?” I had to ask.
“How did you know of Morag?” Alex demanded sharply. “Did Rob mention her?” I shook my head. He answered, “When the Duke of Cumberland’s men came through, the folk in the glen fled north. Morag argued against leaving. She’d promised Iain she’d wait for him. But his brother Alasdair – I told you the family names got carried down – persuaded her for her son’s sake to go north with the rest of the family. Morag never returned; I guess at some point she learned the truth. Iain was killed at Culloden… he never came home.”
I couldn’t speak for the lump in my throat. I turned away so that Alex couldn’t see the tears that welled in my eyes.
But Alex MacKenzie was nothing if not perceptive. “Damn!” he swore softly. “I’m sorry, Kelsey. I didna mean to make ye cry.” He offered a clean white handkerchief, and I noticed without surprise that the monogram was embellished with the stag’s head of the MacKenzie badge.
I shook my head. I got the words out with difficulty. “Iain did come home.”
“Last night? Tell me about it.”
I told him. When I’d finished, I said shakily, “I know it sounds impossible – I could hardly believe it myself.”
Alex cleared his throat. “Aye, well. I believe ye,” he said huskily. Under strong emotion, his accent was the broader Scots of Iain’s. “The way ye described him fits the period, and from all I’ve been able to learn of him, that’s just what he’d have done.”
“Then you don’t think I’m daft?”
“Not at all.” He hesitated, and laid a big hand very gently on my shoulder. “If you must know, I think you brought him home.”
I stared at him. “Me? Why do you say that?”
“Look at it. We’ll never know for sure, but Morag promised to wait for him… Though he was killed at Culloden – you said you saw the great bloodstain on his side – his spirit tried to come home to her. She wasn’t here, she’d gone north. The cottage has been empty ever since, though the family always kept it in repair. Last night Iain found you here. You weren’t Morag, but you were kind to him and you tried to help him. I think you gave him the peace he needed for his spirit to be at rest.”
The tears spilled over onto my cheeks. Alex seemed to understand. He didn’t say anything, just drew me into his arms and held me. I’d never seen him before this morning, but somehow it felt perfectly natural to be in his embrace.
At last, I looked up to see Alex studying me; the look in his blue eyes made my heart turn over. I realized suddenly that I was still clad only in my nightdress with the MacKenzie tartan blanket wrapped around me. I felt my face flame. He touched my cheek gently, and I felt the echo of Iain’s touch the night before. But this wasn’t a ghost in a firelit night, this was the light of day and Alex was real. “Kelsey? I know I’m moving fast, but it’s right and I think you feel it too – it’s time the MacKenzies come home to the glen.”
I laughed up at him, suddenly full of happiness. “You know full well that there’s no stove, but I could manage some tea and toast if you’ll build up the fire.”
Hand in hand we walked to the cottage. Alex grinned at me and disappeared inside.
I lingered in the doorway, my palm against the sun-warmed stone of the cottage Iain had built. I could almost feel the big highlander beside me. “Go in peace, Iain Lachlan MacKenzie,” I whispered at last. “I will remember you.”
And now…here is the link to the video of the song “Ghosts of Culloden” sung by Scottish singer Isla Grant. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EavpIelNHZ4