Thursday, April 21, 2016

Story: "The Last Immurement"

Long ago in the time of kings, many dark and bloody superstitions flourished. The Bleis Lavaret, the wolf-in-men's-flesh of France. The Chorazos Cult, reviled throughout England and Scotland for their outlandish practices. The Cult of the Bloody Tongue. Scaphism. Human sacrifice. And immurement--the walling up of the living inside some structure, whether as punishment or as a guardian for the construction.

Here, in Scotland, immurement existed as a capital punishment in the lands of some of the fiercer lairds, including one petty laird MacKay. "Black" MacKay--a great-grandsire of mine some generations removed--ruled as the last laird of Castle Seasg and the surrounding lands. As legend has it, "Black" MacKay was the last laird in all Scotland to remain openly pagan, worshiping wild old gods to his last day. And along with that worship came strange customs.

Samhain he kept, and he wore a sprig of white heather on ill-omened days. And later in life, after the last immurement, he planted rowan trees all about the keep. For aye, he was an immurer, and a notorious one at that. Many a poacher or petty thief or adulterer stood before the laird, expecting a flogging or removal of the bowfingers, only to be sentenced to live-burial. They were thrown into a dingy cell, sometimes for years, until a suitable structure began construction. At last, every bridge, every parapet, every grain-bin in his lands held a live-buried soul. He was the last immurer in Scotland--perhaps in Europe--and a prolific one. A regular petty tyrant, protected only by his isolation.

Then came Roddy MacIntyre. I first found reference to his trial in the Church's Priest's Book, an annal of births, deaths, and majors events in the lands round. At the time, I had been searching birth records of a distant member of the clan, but upon finding a first-hand account of a pre-Jacobite trial, I was intrigued.

Roddy MacIntyre, it seemed, stood accused as a warlock. (The irony of Laird MacKay prosecuting a warlock is not lost on me). MacIntyre was an itinerant shepherd employed by the Laird to watch several flocks of half-wild sheep. Shortly after the man's tenure began, sheep began to waste away, their wool falling out in clumps, their eyes sinking into pits.

Numerous clansfolk testified to witnessing MacIntyre converse with a great black wild goat, speaking in strange tongues, and cavorting about the great black altar stone which stood some miles from Castle Seasg.

Throughout the trial, MacIntyre stood silently, as if insensate. The priest chronicling events ascribed MacIntyre's stolidness to stubborn guilt. Perhaps angered by MacIntyre's refusal to speak, Laird MacKay sentenced the shepher to immurement.

Now at that time, the great Handfast Bridge lay half-complete across Rottenraw Burn. They walled Roddy MacIntyre into the central pillar of the bridge, where the cold river water ran deepest. He screamed, the priest writes, and cursed Lord and Laird, proclaiming innocence, begging mercy. His last words are recorded thus: "Ye'll be the last Laird here! At the bridge's fall, so too your line!"

"Black" MacKay paid no heed to curses and went about unconcerned. The bridge continued apace. Some weeks later, word came from Aberdeen that a great sheep-blight had spread across Scotland, originating with some sickly English sheep. Only then did the Laird begin to wear white heather.

In the Church's Priest's Book, a passage casually mentions the pagan Laird attending confession. Almost as an afterthought, the chronicler observes rowan trees being planted around the Laird's hoary keep. No mention is made of the Handfast Bridge's completion, despite its importance.

The Laird died a pagan to the end. Soon Roddy MacIntyre's first curse landed--the Jacobite Revolts began, and Laird MacKay's son chose the wrong side. Forced into exile, his claim to the lairdship was lost. Our family dwelt in Germany, then, for several generations. When I was a boy, my father brought us back to Aimrid on the Rottenraw, not as lairds but as bankers. In time my father died, leaving only myself, a bachelor prone to study.

I tell you all of this about "Black" MacKay so that you might understand my concern when the Handfast Bridge washed away in a sudden flood last fortnight. A sturdy stone bridge, obliterated by a storm which left houses in ruin.

Now you will certainly remark to yourself, "This man is a banker, surely he is not afraid of some superstition." Indeed, some months ago I might have agreed with you. But since the bridge's destruction, I have seen the gaunt figure of a man in archaic tartan, his eyes hollow and his fingers gnawed to the bone.

I have known, in my heart, it is the spirit of Roddy MacIntyre. And tonight, as I worked in the bank vault, he stood before me and croaked, "At the bridge's fall..."

The vault door is shut. It does not open from the inside and I am the only banker. Tomorrow I was to leave for Aberdeen for a fortnight. They will not look for me. I wonder if Roddy MacIntyre will join me in this lonely darkness.