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The Spirit of Tinto Hill – A story from Lanarkshire


The story that follows is one such tale‚ adapted from a ballad called The Spirit of Tintoc‚ or‚ Johnie Bell and the Kelpie‚ by Sir Alexander Boswell‚ 1803. Boswell (1775-1822) a ballad collector‚ poet and songwriter, was a contemporary and admirer of Robert Burns (1759-1796). Boswell’s ballad‚ The Spirit of Tintoc‚ is his ode to the Scottish Bard’s best known poem‚ Tam O’ Shanter.

One April evening in Lanark, a jovial crowd were gathered at the Clydesdale Inn to enjoy the fine ales and good music. Amongst the lively locals were Johnie Bell and his wife Kate McCrae, who sat downing drams, while listening to Robin Scot singing ballads and playing reels on his pipes. Robin sang about the olden days of knights and ladies, of Johnie Armstrong and the fearless Border Reivers, Tamlane and the Queen of Fairyland, rivers haunted by Kelpies and Shellycoats, and fearsome Witches and Warlocks like Katie NicNiven and the wicked Major Weir.

As the ale and spirits flowed and the atmosphere swelled with music and banter, Johnie Bell weaved his way to the bar to order more drinks for himself, Kate, Robin Scot and anyone else who’s mug needed filling. But to Johnie’s dismay he discovered that his pockets were empty and he had no money to buy another round.

Now Johnie was a tailor and earned a decent wage, but he loved to finish each day in the bar, supping a drink or two, and so he never had a penny left by the end of the week. The locals liked him well enough, but it was common knowledge that he was a tippling tailor.

Robin began to pipe a slow, mournful lament, his audience entranced by the sadness of the tune, their eyes welling with tears. Meanwhile, Johnie pleaded his case, at the bar to bonnie Rachel the Clydesdale’s more than capable landlady.

She was having none of Johnie’s nonsense and refused to sell him any more liquor, ‘No cash, no drink!’

Intoxicated by the copious amounts of alcohol already consumed and the convivial atmosphere, Johnie had a peculiar thought - inspired by a ballad that Robin had sung about the Lanarkshire hills, Johnie decided that he would sprint along the road to the top of Tinto Hill and get himself a draught of liquor for free.

The song had recited an old familiar rhyme:

On Tintock Tap there is a mist,

And in that mist there is a kist,

And in that kist there is a caup, (cup)

And in the caup there is a drap; (drop)

Tak up the caup, drink aff the drap,

And set the caup on Tintock-tap.

According to local legend there was a stone kist which contained a cup of potent libation, at the summit of Tinto, and on moonlit nights the spirits who guarded this kist, might let a person – if they took a shine to you - drink the magical elixir.

Well, Johnie Bell was ready to try. He told Kate to make her own way home, while he took Gwen, their sturdy wee Cob along to Tinto where he would drink the fabled draught and be home before dawn.

Borrowing a stout staff of rowan wood from the inn’s porch and pulling his blue bonnet tight about his ears, Johnie staggered outside to find his tethered mare. As news of his quest became known to the merry crowd, cheering friends and neighbours filled the doorway to wave Johnie Bell off on his extraordinary escapade. Hanging on to his mare’s mane, Johnie urged the pony forward, bouncing unsteadily on her back, as she trotted off up the High Street.

Johnie was soon nearing Hyndford Bridge, Gwen’s hooves thudding steadily along the muddy road. They trotted past coppices, byres and farms, while Johnie hummed the tunes that Robin had performed that evening, and Gwen’s ears twitched back and forth, as she negotiated the bends and burns along the highway.

Tinto Hill was always in sight – after all, it was the largest hill in these parts. With a cloudless sky and moonlight illuminating the whole of creation, Johnie felt confident that this was the best idea he had ever had and his adventure would lead him to a drink like no other.

Suddenly, startled by the sound of shrieks and squawks piercing the night air, Gwen stopped abruptly.

Johnie saw a spectral shape looming menacingly in the field beside the road. It looked like a gigantic creature, with a jagged head, which screeched and shook, on top of it’s enormous shoulders.

Johnie’s heart beat fast with fear, and Gwen stood quivering and shaking. The terrified tailor stuttered the first line of the Lord's prayer, ‘Oor Faither, who airt n’ hievan…’

While his spooked pony tossed her head frantically, looking for a way to escape, Johnie lost his balance, slipped sideways and landed on the ground. He managed to hang onto the reins, as she dragged him slowly back the way they’d come. He looked behind to see if the great devil was following them and caught sight of a crow taking off from the giant's shoulders.

Rubbing his eyes he stared hard at the apparition, but now, he could only see two crows, squabbling with each other on top of a haystack. He let out an almighty sigh which turned into laughter, as he realised his own stupidity.

‘It’s no a giant devil Gweny. Only a hayrick wi two noisy corbies sitting on tap ae it!’

The frightened mare snorted in protest as Johnie spoke reassuringly to her and led her back along the road.

They passed a farm, asleep and still under the night sky. Across the hillside lambs and ewes bleated to each other. There was only one more burn to ford before he would be on the grassy slopes of Tinto. Johnie fumbled to mount his mare, so that she could carry him through Spittle Burn. She let out a whinny and jumped backwards, moonlight reflected in her wild and fearful eyes. Johnie lost his grip on the reins and fell down onto his backside. Gwen bolted, galloping away back towards Lanark and home.

Cursing, Johnie picked himself up off the ground and stoated, drunkenly towards the burn. The water gushed high and fast after heavy spring rains, but the pale grey hump of a stepping stone was just visible, near the middle of the burn. Johnie propelled himself towards it.

One foot reached the smooth rock, but the other missed and down he went face-first into the burn. Spluttering he surfaced; the cold water shocked him momentarily back to his senses and Johnie began scrambling and flailing towards the opposite side. An enormous boom of something big hitting the water, followed by a hissing noise, made Johnie Bell’s blood freeze. He turned to look at the disturbance. The hairs on his head stood up on end as he saw the ferocious face of a Water-Horse, a Kelpie, rearing up from out of the swell. With nostrils flaring, the animal screamed as it brought it’s wide open mouth down onto the dumb-struck man. The Kelpie’s huge teeth gleamed white, as it bit into Johnie’s jacket and held him fast.

Johnie saw his life flash before his eyes. Never in a million years had he thought it would end this way - dragged into a Kelpie’s underwater lair and drowned by the demon Water-Horse!

But, as unexpectedly as the Kelpie had surfaced, so a wizened old man appeared on the bank, beside Johnie – it was the Brownie from Fallburn Farm. Hearing the commotion the wee old, night-worker had hurried out from his barn to see what was going on.

Now Brownie’s can be helpful or spiteful, but this particular Broonie was annoyed at how many lambs the Kelpie had taken into the burn, so he decided to help this pathetic man caught in the creature’s grip.

Broonie grabbed Johnie’s free shoulder and whistled into his ear, ‘Chant Cockatrice and Gallowlee three times and Kelpie will have no power over you.’

Johnie spluttered water from his mouth and yelled the words for all he was worth.

‘Cockatrice and Gallowlee,

Cockatrice and Gllowlee, you have no power over me.

Cockatrice and Gallowlee, set me free!’

The Kelpie emitted an unearthly scream, as he let go of Johnie. The charm had broken the horse's supernatural powers. He slashed the air with his huge front hooves and rolled his eyes angrily, before plunging back down beneath the currents.

Johnie crawled out of the burn, turning to thank the little old man, but the Broonie had already disappeared into the night, back to the safety of his farm.

Johnie Bell stood on the lower slope of Tinto Hill, bruised, shaken and dripping wet, he needed a drink more than ever now, so on he went.

Stumbling, falling and occasionally crawling on his hands and knees, the determined tailor slowly ascended the steep hillside. The moon shone silver light over the rocks and bushes which Johnie repeatedly tumbled over, until he finally reached the top. As he pulled his bruised and weary limbs up to the cairn of boulders on the summit of Tinto, the ground beneath him began to tremble.

A surge of hot air accompanied by sparking red flames rose from the cairn. The hillside glowed with sinister shadows which to the petrified tailor, looked like leaping demons.

A cloud of glowing amber mist fell from the sky and enveloped the exhausted man. He collapsed onto a rock gasping for breath, while thunder claps shook the hill.

From out of the burning mist, a bolt of lightning struck the ground. Johnie covered his eyes from the heat of the unnatural inferno, but a commanding voice called out, making Johnie Bell sneak a look through his fingers in horror.

There stood a tall spectre dressed in a flaming cloak. Her hair burned like a halo of sulphur. She raised a finger towards him. ‘I am Stilla, guardian of  this sacred hill and I do not tolerate human fools. You should not be here mortal, what do you want?’

Johnie held tightly to the rowan stick and pushed himself up onto his feet.

‘I am Johnie Bell a Lanark man and tailor of renown, I’ve come to claim a cup of liquor from the kist of Tinto Tap.’

Stilla, Queen of the cairn, laughed scornfully at the impudent man. Raising her own staff of burning thorn, she swirled it through the mist, shooting a bolt of flame at Johnie. The fumes and smoke sent him backwards, head over heels. He grabbed up his fallen bonnet, cursing the witch under his breath. He saw that she was poised ready to cast another dart of hell’s fire at him, so Johnie shouted out for all he was worth ‘Gallowlee and Cockatrice, be off foul creature!’

Stilla screamed and shrank away form Johnie. Seeing the powerful effect of these words upon her, he waved his rowan stick and yelled again ‘Cockatrice and Gallowlee, Cockatrice and Glallowlee…’

With each call of the cantrip spell, she shrivelled smaller and her flames flickered and died.

‘Cockatrice and Gllowlee.’ He sang triumphantly one final time.

Stilla became nothing more than a mirage of mist which slithered and poured back down between the cracks in the cairn. An eerie ochre glow pulsated through the fissures of the rocks and with the sound of stone grating and grinding upon stone, a huge cauldron arose from the ground.

A devil appeared arising from the steam of the giant cooking pot, the Genie of the Kist. His wild hair shone crimson with embers and his eyes burned like red-hot coals. This wicked creature stank of burnt cinders and roasting flesh. He cracked a sharp toothed grimace at Johnie and held up a human skull which seemed strangely alive. The spirit removed the top of the skull and with one of the Devil’s own cast-off horns, dipped inside the hapless head to stir its brains about. The skull grinned zombie-like at Johnie.

Azure and scarlet steam arose from the pot and Johnie’s senses swam in delirium, as he sniffed the pungent elixir from the kist.

Suddenly, the lid of the cauldron exploded skyward, the devil shrieked with delight as a chalice full of broiling liquid rose up from it’s depths.

Johnie Bell leapt forward and grabbed the glowing cup. The Genie and kist vaporized before his eyes and all around sparks and hot winds blew furiously about him.

Johnnie raised the goblet of mysterious malt into the air and toasted the spirits of the hill. ‘Slàinte mhath (slange var) all you Weird Sisters!’ Then he supped the liquid, as greedily and quickly, as he could. Shimmering ash spiralled all about him, while the moon cast shadows reeling over the ancient landscape.

Johnie did not return home to Kate that night. Gwen, their mare, was found grazing in St Kentigern’s Kirkyard the next morning, but no-one saw Johnie Bell again and what became of the tippling tailor of Lanark is still a mystery to this day.

By Allison Galbraith

Image: InkyX 

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