THE MAID OF HARLAW
By Stuart S. Laing, October 31, 2016
Word Count: 5290
Rating: PG-13 for violent references, sexual themes, frightening elements, and disturbing imagery
Summary: A horror story about a family curse set in Scotland.
Over the last 300 years, a total of eleven men of the Jameson family have been found dead in, or near, the ruins of Brunstane Tower near the village of Bonaly in Mid-Lothian. The most recent death was in 2005 when the late Laird of Brunstane the Rt. Hon. Patrick Jameson, determined to prove that the supposed curse affecting his family was no more than legend, arranged for a TV crew to film him while he spent the night amid the ruins on the night of Halloween. Having survived the experiment, he drove off, only to die when his Range Rover veered off the road through Corby Wood and collided with a tree. The producer of the programme, travelling as his passenger, claimed that he had seen a woman suddenly rush in front of the car forcing the laird to swerve. Since then the entire family has vowed to be out of the country during Halloween. What follows is the most infamous tale regarding the family.
Lord Edwin Jameson, the Laird of Brunstane, emitted a low groan, his head resting on a damp pillow of fragrant, though crushed heather. As he lay supine, he tried to make sense of what had just befallen him. One moment he had been cantering along atop his bay gelding heading back towards the sprawling mass of Edinburgh, the next his horse had seen fit to rear on his hind legs and rudely deposit Edwin without any ceremony into this bed of heather where he now lay. Gingerly he opened his steel blue eyes to blink at the slate grey sky with low scudding, dark clouds filling his immediate view. With a fresh groan he carefully sat up after ascertaining that no limbs were broken and there was no immediate need for a case of the vapours. Everything seemed to be working correctly as he pushed back a lock of hair from the fine lines of his classically handsome face. Why had the damned horse reared in that manner? He thought back, desperate to make some sense of what had happened.
An afternoon’s ride in the rugged beauty of the Pentland Hills had seemed like a jolly jape when he set out a few hours earlier. That idea seemed a sight less jolly now as he cast around for some sight of his mount. There was neither hide nor hair of the beast to be found, causing him to groan anew as he unsteadily climbed to his feet to examine his riding outfit. It was wet, crumpled, but thankfully, largely intact. It was when he began to push his way through the heather in what he felt certain was the right direction that a sudden image came to him. Just before his horse reared there had been the briefest glimpse of someone immediately in his path…a young woman dressed entirely in white. His brows furrowed at the memory. Had he really seen her, he asked himself as his gaze swept the low growth of heather carpeting the hillside. What if the horse had hit her! She could have been sent sprawling in any direction.
Quickly he began to quarter the immediate vicinity of where he himself had landed. If he found her, and she was alive, he was determined to berate her in the most ungentlemanly manner for being so stupid as to suddenly stand in the path of a horse. After a fruitless ten minutes of stamping back and forth, Edwin was convinced she was no more than a figment of his mind, created by the unexpected shock of being pitched headlong into the blasted landscape.
With a scowl marring his perfect features he resumed his advance across the hillside while looking in every direction, both for some sign of anyone who could assist him, and also for the woman in white just in case he had actually seen her. All he could see were rolling hills surrounding him as he traversed the side of a bowl-shaped valley. To his left hand he could detect a narrow gap in the surrounding vista of wind-blasted grass and stunted heather, all in unappealing shades of brown and tan. “Damn silly idea!” he complained to himself, making for the gap, while the sky grew slowly darker as the wind speed began to increase in strength, bringing with it the threat of rain.
“Who in their right mind visits this blasted land in October?” Kicking angrily at a broken branch tangled amid the heather, he trampled the landscape below his now muddy boots. Pulling out his pocket watch he discovered, much to his horror, that the face was cracked and the time stood frozen at eighteen minutes to four. “Well that just about does it!” he erupted at the empty hillside. “Thrown from my horse, abandoned and alone in the middle of nowhere, and now, to add insult to injury, my damned watch is broken! You do know I am meant to be dining with the Lord Lieutenant of the Lothians this evening? Not that you care, do you!?”
Still grumbling loudly to the world in general, Edwin pushed onwards through the gap in the hills to find a sheep path meandering down towards a long expanse of woods, stretching across the land below him. Just visible in the far distance stood the smoking, grey mass of the city of Edinburgh. At least six miles as the crow flew, he reckoned with a fresh scowl. Only the distant sound of a steam train’s whistle convinced him he was still in the year 1885, and not cast backwards to some more primitive time; such was the emptiness of the land around him. He began a fresh round of complaints while the wind, with an eerie howl, buffeted him as a swirl of rain blew around him from the steadily darkening sky threatening the swift onset of night.
With the wind continuing to increase in strength, Edwin pushed on into the shelter of the trees while the light slowly seeped from the day. Amid the trees he was sheltered from the rain but had to endure the endless soughing of branches as they clashed and battled against each other, shedding leaves to add to those already carpeting the floor beneath the scant canopy. Edwin found fresh cause to complain about being in Scotland in October. A time when anyone with any sense would be safe, dry and warm in the salons of London, mixing with the cream of society, rather than stumbling about a dark forest where visibility was reduced to a few yards as night relentlessly laid claim to the day.
An unseen force grabbed Edwin’s foot to send him pitching headlong once more to the ground along with a shriek of purest fear. With his heart racing in his chest, he kicked out at the evil hand which held him only to realise, much to his chagrin, that his attacker was no more than a root standing free from the leaves and soil about it. Sitting on his knees, Edwin released a long, slow sigh before climbing to his feet again, brushing the dirt and leaves from his increasingly soiled outfit. All the while the world was filled with the endless noise of the wind rushing through the trees so loudly that it reminded him of trains passing each other in Kings Cross Station. Oh how he wished he was there right now. With a resigned sigh, his feet reluctantly advanced, this time with a hand held before him to ward off unseen trees in the near total darkness.
Somewhere before him there was suddenly a light. Someone was out there with a lantern. “Hello!” he called as he, almost without any conscious thought, moved towards the light bobbing and weaving between the trees. “Hello there. Wait for me!” he cried, although he knew that his words were carried away on the wind long before they reached whoever it was that travelled through the noisy darkness. Heedless of the risk of injury, Edwin hurried after the light bearer, but no matter how hard he pushed his pace, no matter how many times he felt the sting of low branches catch his face, the light remained resolutely distant. Quite unexpectedly he emerged from the confines of the trees to see the stark outline of a tall tower house standing in a circular clearing in the heart of the woods.
A distant roll of thunder added to the cacophony of noise created by wind and rain while the person bearing the lantern entered the ancient-looking house. For a moment he stared at the architectural relic thinking that no one had thought to live in such an outdated home for decades, if not centuries. He knew his own family had once held just such a tower house as their seat of power back in the mists of time, when they had risen to power at the side of James V. The family had long since abandoned such rustic living amid these very hills for the more palatial surroundings provided by a town-house in Edinburgh’s New Town. Not that they spent more than a week or two there each year. Home was most assuredly London these days and had been since his ancestors had moved south following the Act of Union in 1707. As grim and unwelcoming as the tower house looked to his uncertain gaze, it was still a more promising alternative to remaining outdoors as thunder crashed again and the rain fell heavier on his hatless head. Drawing in a steadying breath, Edwin hurried after the light bearer, and the faint outline of the door they had left invitingly ajar as though expecting him to follow.
Pushing the door open, Edwin found himself standing at the foot of a narrow staircase winding upwards. With no other direction to take, he climbed the worn steps, while the sound of the storm outside gradually faded to little more than background noise. The stairwell was black as coal, but with his hands stroking the smooth stone on either side, Edwin felt confident he would soon be warm and fed. He happily took the steps each in turn until seeing the outline of a door illuminated by a bright light from within the room behind it. When he reached the door his manners returned to him. Knocking gently upon the ancient wood he tried to make himself as presentable as possible under the circumstances.
“Come in, sir,” a distinctly feminine voice called out. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The door opened to his touch to reveal a large, square chamber cramped with heavy, old- fashioned furniture and heavy tapestries on the walls. A single narrow window showed the now torrential rain lashing against the glass, while the wind howled in the chimney. Two chairs sat before a roaring fire on the far wall. In one chair could be seen the shoulders and head of the hostess who did not turn to welcome him. She simply said, “Come in, take a seat. This is not a night to be lost and alone.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” he replied, hurrying through the shadow-haunted room and closer to the fire. Resisting the urge to warm his hands in the heat of the dancing flames he stood several feet from where she sat to offer her a formal bow. Straightening his spine he took his first look at his hostess and felt the breath catch in his throat. She was beautiful. No, she was beyond the simple word, beautiful. That word was nowhere near enough to describe the vision of exquisite female perfection he found himself gaping at. From her waist-length raven black hair, alabaster skin, green eyes and ruby lips, she had a presence that commanded complete and instant adoration.
“Sit down,” she repeated in the tones of a common girl of the land. It was the only thing which jarred with the very image of female beauty. What did it matter how she sounded, when she looked like that, he mused. His own fiancée awaiting his return back in Edinburgh was completely overshadowed by this mysterious woman,
Taking the offered seat, his tongue felt thick and useless in his mouth while he stuttered out an explanation for his sudden arrival.
“Aye, these hills and woods can be dangerous, sir,” she offered with a lift of one corner of her sculpted lip. “I can tell you have not been paying attention to your history. No local would dare enter Corby Wood, especially on this of all nights.”
“This night?” he replied stupidly while his eyes continued to devour every inch of her. The white dress she wore looked like something his grandmother would have worn, he considered. Perhaps such old fashioned attire was still in vogue here?
“Aye, sir. All Hallows Eve, or Samhain as the auld ones once called it.” Again that faint, half-smile twitched on her lips. “Any local would tell you that Corby Wood is to be avoided like death itself on this night.”
“Really?” Edwin chuckled. “Fortunately I am not some credulous rustic, my lady, who quails at old fairy stories, I assure you. I am quite sure that neither of us have anything to fear from the night, no matter what the date may be.”
“Aye? Perhaps you could be half right,” she smiled. Her head tilted to one side as her green eyes examined him. He revelled in the examination, confident that it would not be long before she was smitten with his good looks. “You look like your great-great-grand-father. Did you know that?”
Edwin’s brows rose in surprise. “I do? How do you know something like that? Do you have an old portrait of the rogue here? I have heard he was quite a gadabout in his day,” he laughed.
The smile never left her face as she shook her head. “Allow me to introduce myself, sir. I am Sarah Bonillo, although the locals usually call me by another, less common name, but never to my face. Or at least, never twice. Have you heard of me?”
“Unfortunately not, my lady… Well I had best call you Miss…? Yes, Miss Bonillo,” Edwin chuckled. “Yes, I have noticed that the local rustics do have a propensity for labelling their betters with pet names. Damned cheeky of them, really, don’t you think?”
“I think they know their own minds better than you or I, Lord Brunstane.” Sarah sat slightly forward allowing the dancing flames to illuminate her face in highlights and shadows. “Do you wish to hear an old story?”
Edwin nodded slowly. Suddenly he did not feel quite so confident of his charms. Something seemed wrong, he felt, but what that was remained unclear. “Miss Bonillo,” he said in a reedy voice. “You seem to know me, although I am sure that I would most assuredly remember ever having the pleasure to meet you before.”
That same smile played on her lovely lips as she sat back in her chair, casting her largely into shade. “No, we haven’t met. In fact, most men only ever meet me once.” There was something in the inflection of her voice, something that seemed both joking and threatening that sent a shiver down Edwin’s back.
Indecisiveness seemed to grasp him then. Should he put aside his sudden nerves and act like a man, or would he slink off into the storm like a frightened child? Squaring his shoulders, he said as firmly as he could, “More fool them, in that case, my lady. You promised me a story?”
“I did indeed,” Sarah replied, shifting comfortably in her seat, allowing the flames to be reflected in her eyes so they blazed as though containing the fire within them for an instant. “It is a story you should find interesting, Lord Brunstane. It concerns your family, after all.”
He swallowed down his nerves. “Really? How terribly droll. Well, I must confess that this may make losing my horse and stumbling about in the dark seem worthwhile.”
“Yes, I am sure it will.” Sarah continued to openly gaze at Edwin without any trace of social etiquette or propriety. “Our story, and I do mean ours, begins almost one hundred and eighty years ago.” As she spoke the storm outside continued to grow in strength, a distant flash of lightning flickered beyond the window followed a few seconds later by the roll of thunder, while the rain crashed against the window like thrown pebbles. Sarah seemed unaware of the storm while she sank deeper into the shadows of her chair. “Aye, my lord, it was on a night just like this that our story takes place. Back then when people still believed that witches could cast a spell on them, and fairies still came from below the hills to snatch away the unwary, there lived in the hills not far from here a young woman renowned for her beauty.
Every man in the area tried to win her heart; Cottar, shepherd, blacksmith, collier and farmer, all took their turn in trying to woo her. She rejected their every offer, content to live on her own terms in a small house on the very edge of Corby Wood. Rumours of her beauty spread all across the land, and folk began to call her the Maid of Harlaw. It was said that her heart belonged to a man lost at sea. Or to the devil himself!” She shrugged slightly with a low chuckle. “People need to know a reason why they cannot win the heart of a woman. If they don’t know the true reason they will invent one.”
“Yes, that is very true,” Edwin agreed with a nod. “But you said this story involves my ancestors?”
“That I did, so listen well. The man who was the Laird of Brunstane at that time heard the rumours and decided that he must see the Maid of Harlaw for himself. He and several of his retainers rode to her simple cottage and demanded she present herself to them. By then she was well used to having men turn up without invitation on her threshold, so she stood before them. All agreed that they had never seen a bonnier lass in all the land. Laird Brunstane decided that she must become his mistress, for he was already married. And beautiful as the maid was, she was common born and not fit to be considered as a wife for a man such as he. The Maid of Harlaw told him that she had no desire to be any man’s mistress and told your ancestor to be on his way…”
For a split second the whole interior of the room was illuminated brilliantly by a tremendous flash of lightning. In that single instant Edwin saw the room laid before him but could not comprehend what he saw. The fine furnishings and tapestries had vanished to be replaced by broken and charred ruins while the air seemed thick with the stink of burnt wood. As soon as the darkness returned to the room so too did the familiar vision he had witnessed when he had first entered. Once again the tables, chairs, rugs and wall hangings were all in place, although he was sure that the reek of burning still lingered in his nostrils.
“You look troubled,” Sarah said with a bedevilling half-smile. “As though you have seen a ghost.”
He shook his head firmly. “It was just a trick of the light, my lady. Please, continue your tale. I am keen to hear what my noble ancestor made of the lovely maiden’s refusal.”
Her dark eyes, sparkling with the reflection of the fire, watched him closely as though reading his innermost thoughts. “This house is old, my lord. It is on nights like this that it remembers just how old it is and the will to hold its stones together grows weak. Aye, that is one of the reasons why the locals know better than to set foot within the borders of the woods which surrounds this house.” While she spoke, Edwin became aware of a slow metallic scratching. Tearing his eyes unwillingly from her perfect face, he focused on the door he had entered through. Even in the semi-darkness he could see that a screw securing the door handle was slowly unscrewing itself.
“That can’t be real?” he said, staring goggle-eyed at the sight before him while getting to his feet.
“Sit down,” she commanded harshly. “You have to hear the rest of my tale before you leave.” One hand pointed firmly at his chair and almost unwillingly he found himself retaking his seat while the scratching continued. A moment later he heard the distinct sound of the screw falling to the wooden floor.
Swallowing down the nervous lump in his throat he forced his eyes back towards her while the next screw began its own slow extraction. “The door…” he said weakly, now no longer wanting to see what was happening behind him. “What is going on? Is this some Halloween trick dreamt up by my friends? Damned clever of them I have to say, but it is no longer amusing.”
“A Halloween trick?” Sarah chuckled slowly. “That is what Laird Brunstane said he and his companions desired when the Maid of Harlaw had scorned them. They thought it would be a fine trick to play on her to kick down the door to her cottage and drag her out into the yard. The laird said that she would be his mistress, whether she liked it or not. He had his men put torches to her home and forced her to watch as all she owned was consumed by the flames. Now she had no choice but to come with him. He would give her a room in his own home. His wife would think her no more than just another servant, but her only job would be to warm the Laird’s bed. She was horrified and broke free from those who held her.
With a speed born from fear she fled into the hills, but the Laird and his men were mounted. They chased her down all too soon. Oh she fought like a demon but they overpowered her. She was terrified they meant to force themselves upon her. The Laird would not allow that though. No, she was to be his, and his alone. With her hands tied with a rope, she was forced to walk behind his horse down into Corby Wood. All too quickly they reached the Laird’s mighty tower where they crowded around her. No’one could know that they smuggled her inside with much laughter and ribald comment, as I dare say you can imagine.”
Edwin nodded, both gripped by her story and the knowledge that something was very, very wrong with the situation he found himself in, as the second and third screws fell in turn from the door. Even while Sarah spoke he could see a crack slowly spreading across the wall behind her. Another tremendous flash of lightning again lit the room. This time his gaze swept the room to see that the burnt furnishing had been reduced to little more than ash as though years had passed since he last saw their ruin. Worse yet, against the far wall were what he was sure were the slumped bodies of at least four men who had not been there before. When darkness crashed back he was on his feet and snatching a burning brand from the fire to stride beyond Sarah to look for them.
While he swung the torch about, Sarah laughed brightly. “Oh do sit down, my lord. You are seeing things. There are no corpses to be found here.”
“How do you know what I saw?” he demanded angrily, moving back to stand over her with the burning wood held over her head. “How? I didn’t tell you what I saw. Are you a witch?”
Again her laughter filled the room while dust drifted down from the ceiling above. “A witch? No, I am no witch you foolish man. Now, please, be seated. I need to tell you the rest of our story.”
Feelings of anger, fear and disbelief seem to fill his body. For a moment longer he stood over her as though prepared to strike at her with the burning brand before his shoulders sagged. He tossed the wood back into the fire and retook his seat. As he sat he noticed that the armrest was covered in a thick layer of dust which he was sure had not been there a moment before. The crack in the wall was now almost wide enough to allow the gusting wind to find access through, while the shadows seemed darker and more menacing than they had when he had entered the chamber.
“So your ancestor forced the maid into his house. She was put in a small room down in the cellar where his wife would be unlikely to ever find her. The Maid of Harlaw demanded that she be released. The Laird just laughed. She threatened to have the law come and arrest him for kidnapping her. Again he just laughed louder and said that this was the finest Halloween jest he had ever heard of. He locked her in that small room promising to return later to make her his mistress. And the Laird did indeed return expecting to take his pleasure with her. Sick with fear, she grabbed a knife from his belt and held it, not to his throat but to her own, saying she would rather die than allow herself to be used by him. He just laughed again, invited her to destroy herself if that was her wish.
She wept while the very heavens outside seemed to be trying to pull down the tower, as though trying to release her from where she was held. Wind howled, rain poured and thunder crashed all around. The Laird jumped forward to wrestle his dagger from her hand. In the struggle the blade pierced her heart…” Sarah fell silent, a single tear rolling down an ashen cheek. However, her voice was as firm as steel as she said, “as she felt her blood pour from her, she vowed that no member of the Brunstane family would ever again sleep peacefully within the walls of that tower. She vowed to haunt them from their home and make sure that they could never again think to treat an innocent person as a pawn in a cruel game.”
As if in response to her words, thunder crashed overhead. Before Edwin’s horrified eyes a whole section of wall tumbled out into the night, taking with it a large section of roof, leaving the room exposed to the full brunt of the storm. Sarah sat unmoving while wood and stone poured down from the ruined tower.
“We have to leave!” Edwin screamed in a voice thick with terror. He plunged across the room which seemed to sway beneath his feet like the deck of a ship. To his utter horror the door would not open, the handle had joined the screws on the floor. No matter how hard he dragged at the wood it would not budge. “Help me!” he shouted towards Sarah who looked at him in amusement.
Slowly she got to her feet. Behind her the chair decayed as though the span of decades had been reduced to mere seconds. Even as she walked towards Edwin, the tower itself seemed to scream in pain as more sections of wall, roof and even floor tumbled downwards in clouds of dust which were whipped away by the howling wind and lashing rain now pouring across the width of the chamber. As she approached him, Edwin’s back was pressed so hard against the door it was if he was attempting to force himself to pass through the hard wood. Even as he blinked rain from his eyes he stared in horror to see that not a drop of rain had touched her as she smiled into his petrified face.
“You have yet to hear the end of my tale, sir,” she said softly. Despite the noise of tumbling masonry and savage weather her words reached him easily as she reached out to lay her hand to his chest above his heart. Even through his thick riding jacket, waistcoat and shirt he could feel the bone chilling coldness of her fingers seem to reach deep within him. “The poor girl kept her word. Not a single night went by after her death that the family were not woken from their sleep by noises that none could explain, and shadows that seemed to follow them wherever they went. Within a year the Laird had abandoned his home never to return.”
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Edwin squeaked in a voice higher pitched than an excited girl. “You are the Maid of Harlaw!”
“Correct,” Sarah smiled as her hand squeezed his chest.
Lord Edwin Jameson, the Laird of Brunstane emitted a low groan. Slowly he opened his eyes and for a moment struggled to make sense of his surroundings, for he awoke to find himself perched on a narrow ledge of crumbling stone more than sixty feet in the air. Around him stood the broken walls of a long ruined tower house. The fallen walls far below were covered with decades of grass and weeds leaving only the single tall corner where he now sat in a state of anxious fear while the wind whipped around him. The events of the previous night came crashing back then and he almost screamed again. “Be rational, man,” he tried to tell himself. “This is the age of Reason, not the dark ages of superstition. There has to be a rational explanation!”
He chanced a look downwards from his narrow ledge to see no obvious route to descend, although if he had climbed up here, it followed that he could climb down. “I must have hit my head harder than I thought when I fell off that horse,” he said in an attempt to reassure himself and make some sort of sense of the previous night’s events. A blow to the head had to be the reason for his strange dream, he nodded. Nothing else made any sort of sense. Ghosts and tumbling towers? Stuff and nonsense. All he had to do was find a way down to the safety of the ground far below him and then make his way back to Edinburgh. He would be catching the first available train back to London and vowing never to return to this place with its strange dreams and stranger people.
Carefully he got to his feet and gazed out across the clearing where the ruined tower stood. Nothing moved but the grass blowing in the breeze. Beyond the ring of trees, the hills of the Pentlands rose towards the blue-grey sky. On the slope of those hills a single figure could be seen clad in white. For a horrified moment Edwin was sure it was the devilish woman from last night until good sense, and the presence of sheep around the figure, told him it was a shepherd in a white smock. Laughing at his own foolishness and certain it had all been nothing but a dream he bellowed out ‘Hello‘ and waved his free arm in the hope of attracting the distant man’s eye.
“He won’t hear you,” a voice whispered in his ear, causing him to release his grip. As he fell from the tower his last vision, before he met the broken stones far below, was of the beautiful face smiling down at him in triumph.