The Scottish Gothic is full of demons. Unlike the English Gothic, this is a rarely a case of a special case Faustian Pact with an over-reacher aiming for forbidden knowledge, illicit powers or untold years, who makes a demonic deal, signs their name to the dotted line (sometimes literally), and ends up dragged to hell in a handbasket. The Scottish Gothic represents a slightly different tradition, building on folkloric and theological roots.
While the Church of the England was a fruit of the Reformation, it was also a fruit of the Henry VIII’s desire for divorce and supremacy and kept much of its Latin style from liturgy to hierarchy. In Scotland, the Reformation hit different and the more radical Protestant Reformation sentiment of John Knox took hold in the Kirk. In 1594, in his work Terrors of the Night, Thomas Nashe noted a distinct change in portrayals and understandings of the Devil in a wider British context, noting,
The divell of late is growen a puritan, and cannot away with anie ceremonies…and will not be invocated with such solemnity as he was wont… private and disguised he passeth too and fro, and is in a thousand places in an houre.
While the Church of England later returned to more lavish ways and kept alive the ceremonial devil, conned as much from literature as from scripture, the Kirk of Scotland retained this ‘Puritan devil’ and with it a more biblical conception of Satan’s current actions in the world. The roaring lion of false prophets and false teachers, a constant threat ready to attack those weak of faith or lead people away from the true church and correct theology was a regular feature of preaching and depiction. This mixed with folkloric conceptions of the demonic as shape-changer – coming in the form of animal, man or brownie. The devil was a deceiver at heart but, unlike the English devil, he wasn’t trying to pull the wool over one master-criminal’s eyes to lead them further into sin. He worked on an equal opportunity policy of targeting everyone, everywhere, all the time. The idea of the ‘deal’ remained in witchcraft folklore but this was one of a number of manifestations of the devil and the idea of the wandering devil seeking for prey in their moment of weakness or crisis survived and thrived in the Scottish Gothic.
Let me introduce you to five eruptions of the demonic into the Scottish Gothic and we’ll pinpoint a few of the common traits of that very tricksy Scottish devil.
- The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg – 1824
Impossible not to start with one of the most famous and influential of the demonic texts in the Scottish Gothic. It is a tale of two halves with one section an account by a third party of a series of events which end in a murder and then finally the weaselling out of the murderer. The second section is the diary of the murderer himself, a diary which throws us into the mind of religious fanaticism, antinomian heresy, gradual mental breakdown and introduces us to a wandering devil who wears other people’s faces more easily that he wears his own.
The story is a wild ride from start to finish and the change in tone and perspective in the second half immerses you suddenly in what seems a totally different world. A world in which devils appear wearing your own face, tell you your theology is super rad and the logical conclusion is killing people… wait… what? The text functions as much as a critique of extreme Calvinism and the antinomian idea that if there’s double predestination (the saved are saved and the damned and damned before they’re even born with no reference to their own activities) you can do what you want with no consequences for your state of salvation. It also incorporates a trope which will become a recurring feature of the Scottish Gothic – the Demonic Double.
Doubles can serve and fulfil numerous functions which the Demonic Devil may incorporate but it can’t be separated entirely from questions of theology. While the English Gothic frequently includes a devil easily mistaken for an Angel (for the devil himself can appear as an angel of light, you know) and blurs the lines between demonic and divine, the Scottish Gothic is all about blurring the lines between human and demonic. The devil wearing our own faces forces us to confront our own duality – the old and new self, the flesh and the spirit, the corrupt and the justified. In the case of Robert Wringham that devilish double tells us all too clearly (and him if he could only hear) that he is far closer to the demonic end of any spectrum he’s part of.
While Robert might, at first, look like a special-case Faustian pact, targeted by the devil for ‘great tasks’ (as Robert thinks) or ‘great sins’ (as we’re well aware), an inset story lets us know that it’s all hubris on Robert’s part. He’s not special. He’s one of many. At one point, his servant Penpunt tells him the story of the village of Auchtermuchty, taken in, like him, by false theologies and a devil who has every intention of using doctrine to lure people to their (spiritual) deaths. Another aspect of note from this story are the more folkloric elements. While the Scottish devil rarely has a ‘true form’ which is ultimately revealed, there are several give-aways that the person or animals you’re looking at might in fact be just a little Satanic. In this case, the devils first manifest as crows and their ability to speak human languages is a bit of a giveaway that they’re not what they seem. Later, the devil disguises himself as a preacher but one lucky soul is able to save Auchtermuchty by the simple expedient of pulling up the preacher’s robes and revealing his cloven hoofs.
If you’re looking for a fascinating read, some extremely perverse theology and a thorough introduction to the devil in the Scottish Gothic, there’s no better place to start.
‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ – Walter Scott – 1824
This tale by Walter Scott is frequently found in Gothic and even Horror anthologies. It’s an inset tale from Redgauntlet and tells the story of Steenie who finds the devil on a cold dark night just waiting for him in the woods…
Poor Steenie is behind on his rents, borrows from all his friends and goes to pay only for the old Laird to die as soon as Steenie hands over the money. With no receipt from the Laird and with the money missing, Steenie is on the point of eviction and utters some unwise words… He’d go to hell itself to get that receipt apparently and, as we know, the devil is always listening ready to take a man at his word.
While Steenie doesn’t descend to any sulphurous pits, he does enter the old castle, filled now with the dead feasting. This is where demonic narratives and fae folklore cross over in the story. He’ll be able to leave … as long as he follows the rules that no-one actually told him. Does he get out? Well, you’ll have to read it and see!
‘Markheim’ – Robert Louis Stevenson – 1885
‘Thrawn Janet’ – Robert Louis Stevenson – 1881
I know there are two here but I couldn’t choose between them so I’ll give a brief introduction to both.
‘Markheim’ was written not long before Jekyll and Hyde and can legitimately, I think, be seen as a precursor that draws our attention to the theological content of Jekyll and Hyde itself. Now, I know I am a theology hound and you may be rolling your eyes and thinking I could make anything theological and, well, you’re right but the theological content of Jekyll and Hyde is right there on the page. Have a look at this short video essay if you don’t believe me.
‘Markheim’ is the tale of the eponymous protagonist who commits a murder and begins to ransack the house of his victim only to be confronted by a stranger who has an eerily familiar face… The story uses the trope of the Demonic Double, with Markheim instantly identifying his interlocutor as Satan himself, but plays with it. As with Justified Sinner, there is an emphasis on correct interpretation of the figure but we aren’t judging Markheim, as we do Robert, for failing to see something so obvious to the reader. Rather, we are placed alongside Markheim, attempting to interpret this stranger, his purpose and role. Is he a devil? An angel? A double? And why is he there? To spur Markheim on to greater crimes or to force him to repentance by pushing him to face the logical conclusions of his theological sophistries and easy excuses? You decide!
‘Thrawn Janet’ draws more closely from folklore than ‘Markheim’. A new Minister comes to the glen, full of book learning and o’er proud, and the devil finds the crack in the façade and worms his way into the Minister’s house and life. Borrowing from frequent racialised depictions in Scottish folklore of the devil as a Black man (sometimes a man in black), we see the devil wandering around as he is wont to do. However, he doesn’t set out to tempt the Minister with theological sophistries, rather the sudden appearance and disappearance of the stranger forces the Minister to confront some uncomfortable facts about his servant ‘thrawn’ (or twisted) Janet.
As I have already noted, there is often some giveaway in the devil’s disguise which allows him to be identified by the discerning. In 1664, Alexander Pitcairn noted in his Spiritual Sacrifice that
There be some who affirm, that Sathan is so limited, as to the maner of his apparition, that he cannot assume the perfect shape of man… if we did not observe and could discern all his wiles and designs, we might see so much deformity in him, and so much crookedness in his best motions, as might make us say, surely the finger of Sathan is there.’
Physical deformities and infirmities become therefore the potential sign of demonic influence. Thrawn Janet, with her head permanently twisted to one side after an attack the day before moving into the manse, is one who is thus demonically marked and we learn by the end of the tale that Janet had never lived in the house. The devil has inhabited her body and the end of the story finishes with her twice dead corpse hanging from a nail and the Minister confronting his own pride and lack of discernment.
An aside here but this tale has always had a somewhat personal note for me as Janet’s symptoms (head permanently twisted to one side) are the markers of the condition that I have – spasmodic torticollis. If anyone is wondering whether I am, in fact, possessed, I can promise I’m not. Honestly. You can believe me.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye – Muriel Spark – 1960
You may be familiar with Muriel Spark through the book and film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but this novella is one of my favourites. The tradition of the demonic continues in the Scottish Gothic outside of its original theological, historical and cultural context, becoming a recurring and important feature of the genre. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a classic example. Set in Peckham, rather than anywhere near Scotland, it is still recognisably drawing from that Scottish Demonic history with its ambiguously demonic protagonist Dougal Douglas/Douglas Dougal.
Erupting into the factory life of Peckham like a whirlwind of chaos, Douglas is a hard figure to decipher and interrupt. Who he is, why he’s there, what his aims are and even what he is are all up for question. While the lives of everyone around him descend into a maelstrom of betrayal, murder, and confusion, he watches on gleefully and enigmatically, eventually leaving as suddenly as he came and leaving little more than questions and wreckage behind him.
The Testament of Gideon Mack – James Robertson – 2006
This book owes, and acknowledges, a debt to Justified Sinner. Like its predecessor, it contains a framing narrative, presenting the papers of the demon-seer as a found manuscript. Gideon’s fate though is even more opaque than that of Robert Wringham.
Far from a religious zealot, the Reverend Mack is a Minister beset by doubt who has never perhaps truly believed but lives out his life as a minister of the Kirk, going through the motions. Things start to go wrong, or rather get strange, when he finds an oddly mobile monolith in the woods. Things only get worse when he falls down a gorge, waking days later with no memory. And then the memories start to come back… memories of a man living down there. Or not a man. Memories of conversations and revelations and actions which change his world and world view forever. Whereas Robert Wringham’s theology is faulted but not faith itself, with the devil appearing as an unquestioned ‘baddy’, Robertson’s novel confronts us with a far more ambiguous and sympathetic Satan. In the figure of the mysterious stranger we find united something of the Scottish tradition and the subversive potential of the Satanic found elsewhere – Lucifer as rebel and revolutionary. Although perhaps rather a jaded one by the time Gideon Mack meets him.
We’re just scratching the surface here of demonic tales but hopefully these introductions give you a bit of context and a few places to start looking. Happy reading!