Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland

Why in the Age of Enlightenment, a time of “sober rationalism”, did ghost stories flourish in Scotland? Martha McGill’s new book examines this apparent contradiction and the reasons behind it, one of which saw ghosts as a way to help stem the spread of atheism.

In the 1780s, the antiquarian Francis Grose visited Spedlins Tower in Dumfries. There he encountered a local woman with a curious story. She avowed that during the reign of Charles II (1660–85), a man called Porteous was accused of arson. The baronet Alexander Jardine imprisoned Porteous in Spedlins Tower. Soon afterwards, Jardine went to Edinburgh and forgot about his prisoner. By the time he remembered, Porteous had starved to death, despite gnawing off one of his own hands. Thereafter, Spedlins Tower was haunted by Porteous’s ghost. The family’s chaplain used the power of a bible to confine the ghost to a pit, but when the bible was taken to be rebound, the ghost became ‘extremely boisterous’. The woman finished by avowing that should the bible again be removed, ‘no consideration whatsoever would induce her to remain there a single night’.

From the point of view of historical accuracy, this is a pretty dubious story. Seventeenth-century ministers believed that apparitions were demons, and that exorcisms ought to be conducted through fasting and prayer, not rituals with bibles. However, by the 1780s the Scottish church was less concerned with policing the supernatural beliefs of the populace, and it was becoming possible to print outlandish stories such as Porteous’s. The first chapter of my book spans the Middle Ages to the late seventeenth century; after that, I focus on the years from 1685 to 1830. This was the Age of Enlightenment, a period usually associated with the rise of sober rationalism. It was also a time when ghost stories flourished.

I began researching ghost stories about eight years ago, after coming across some letters on early-eighteenth-century ghost sightings in the National Library of Scotland. Since then I’ve looked at hundreds of other sources, including church and court records, pamphlets, diaries, periodicals, philosophical or theological treatises, ballads, poems, plays and novels. There are plenty of books out there collating Scottish ghost stories, but mine is the first to take an academic angle and discuss these stories in relation to broader historical trends.

Ghost stories make good material for historians because they evolve over time. In the medieval period, there was no consensus among theologians as to whether or not ghosts existed. But people still talked about them. There were ghosts who returned from Purgatory: one well-known example was the Frenchman Gy de Thorno (or Corvo), who had indulged in unconventional sexual behaviours with his wife, and needed more monks to pray for him before he could make it to Heaven. And there were revenants, or risen corpses, who came fresh from the grave and attacked the living. A deceased monk from Melrose Abbey took to stalking his former mistress, grumbling and growling, until another monk chopped him up with a battleaxe.

After Scotland’s Reformation (1560), ghost stories were explicitly rejected by ecclesiastical and lay authorities. King James VI himself wrote that apparitions were actually demons. But some stories survived, and in the late seventeenth century, ghosts had a revival. At the time, Cartesianism was becoming dominant in university teaching. This worried some ministers and philosophers, who felt that Descartes’s dualistic system of mind and matter undervalued spiritual entities. Still more alarming was the perceived atheistic materialism of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. Ghosts were a bulwark against atheism: they demonstrated the existence of an immortal soul, and often proved willing to chat about the afterlife. So it became more acceptable to record ghost stories, provided that the ghosts were sturdy Christian moralists.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, philosophers and physicians increasingly reconfigured ghosts as hallucinations, dreams, or symptoms of mental disorders. At the same time, the rise of gothic and romantic literature meant that ghost stories spread rapidly. Fear of ghosts became fashionable, particularly among women; it was a sign that one was possessed of a refined, delicate sensibility. Ghosts themselves became more emotive. The unfortunate Porteous is one example; another is Pearlin Jean. Jean was a French nun who was betrayed by her cold-hearted Scottish lover. After meeting her death under the wheels of his carriage, she haunted his house – and in a masterpiece of emotional blackmail, she appeared in pearlin lace, ready to walk down the aisle. There also emerged accounts of hale and hearty Highland ghosts who escorted their descendants to the afterlife, or duelled with unsuspecting travellers. These stories interested writers such as Walter Scott, who used them to market Scotland as a haunted nation.

Ghosts thus reflect evolution in religion, natural philosophy, national identity, and relations between different social groups. At the same time, they reveal something enduring in human nature. Ghost stories are about the fear of death, nostalgia for the past, a desire for social justice, a need for community identity, and – above all, perhaps – a fascination with magic and mystery. The development of science has given us a better understanding of the invisible forces at work around us, but humans have persistently woven ghosts into the shadows of the graveyard or the mist on castle ramparts. By taking these stories seriously, my book aims to better understand the changes and continuities involved in our progression towards modernity.


This guest post was written by Martha McGill, who completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh.

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