On the 29th of January, 1719, a Scottish gentleman, named Alexander Jaffray, Laird of Kingswells, was riding across a piece of wide and waste moorland to the westward of Aberdeen, when, about eight o’clock in the morning, he beheld – to his great alaom and bewilderment, as he states in a letter to his friend, Sir Archibald Grant, of Monymusk (printed by the Spaulding Club) – a body of about seven thousand soldiers drawn up in front of him, all under arms, with colors uncased and waving and, the drums slung on the drummers backs. A clear morning sun was shining; so he saw them distinctly, and also a commander, who rode along the line, mounted on a white charger.
Dubious whether to advance or retire, and sorely perplexed as to what mysterious army this was, the worthly Larid of Kingwells and a campanion, an old Scottish soldier who had served in Low Country wars, reigned in their horses, and continued to gaze on this unexpected array for nearly two hours; till the troops broke into marching order, and departed towards Aberdeen, near which, he adds, “the hill called the Sockett tooke them out of sight?”
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Nothing more was heard or seen of this phantom force until the 21st of the ensuing October, when on the same ground – the then open and desolate White-myres – on a fine clear afternoon, when some hundred persons were returning home from the yearly fair of Old Aberdeen, about two thousand infantry, clad in blue uniforms faced in white, and with all their arms shining in the evening sun, were distinctly visible; and after a space, the same commander an the same white charger rode slowly along the shadowy line. Then a long “wreath of smoak apiered, as if they fired, but no noise” followed.
To add marvel to the scene, the spectators, who we have said were numerous, saw many of their friends, who were coming from the fair, pass through this line of impalpable shadows, of which they could see nothing until they came to a certain point on the moor, and looked back to the sloping ground. Then, precisely as before, those phantoms in foreign uniform broke into marching order, and moved towards the Bridge of the Dee. They remained visible, however, for three hours, and only seemed to fade or melt gradually away as the sun set behind the mountains. “This will puzzle thy philosophy,” adds the laird at the close of his letter to the Baronet of Monymusk; “but thou needst not doubt of the certainty of either.”
Scottish tradition, and even Scottish history, especially after the Reformation, record many such instances of optical phenomena, which were a source of great terror and amazement to the simple folks of those days; and England was not without her full share of them, either; but science finds a ready solution for all such delusions now. They are chiefly peculiar to mountainous districts, and may appear in many shapes and many numbers, or singly, like the giant of the Brocken – the spectator’s own shadow cast on the opposite clouds, and girt with rings of concentric light – or like the wonderous fog-bow so recently seen from the Matterhorn.
Almost the same ground where the Laird of Kingswells saw the second army or phantoms, and doubtless resulting from the same natural and atmospheric causes, a similar appearance had been visible on the 12th of February, 1643, when a great body of horse and foot appeared as if under arms on the Brigmman Hill. Accoutred with matchlock, pike and morion, they looked ghost-like and misty as the skimmed throught the gray vapor about eight o’clock in the moring; but the sun breaking forth from a bank of cloud they vanished, and the geen hills were left bare, or occupied by sheep alone. Much about the same time another army was seen to hover in the air over the Moor of Forfar. “Quhikis visons,” adds the Commissary Spaulding, “the people thocht to be prodigious tokens, and it fell out owre trew, as may be seen hereafter.”
Indigestion, heavy dinners, and heavier drinking had doubless much to do with creating some of the spectral delusions of those days; and inborn superstition, together with heated fancy, were often not wanting as additional accessories, but in the gloomy and stormy autumn that preceded the march of the Scottish Covenanters into England omens of all kinds teemed to a wonderful extent of the land.
When Alaster Macdonald, so of Coll the Devastator, as the Whigs named him, landed from Ireland, at he Rhin of Ardnamurchan, in Morven, to join the Scottish cavaliers under the Marquis of Montrose, then in arms for the king, it was alleged that the hum of cannon-shot was heard in the air, passing all over Scotland from the Atlantic to the German Sea; that many strange lights appeared in the firmament; and that, on a gloomy night in the winter of 1650. A spectre drummer, beating in succession the Scottish and English marches, summoned by a ghostly conference, at the castle gate of Edinburgh, Colonel Dundas of that ilk a corrupt officer, who on being bribed by gold, afterwards surrendered to Cromwell the fortress, together with some sixty pieces of cannon.
All the private diaries and quaint chronicles of late years published by the various literary clubs of England and Scotland teem with such marvels, but the latter country was more particularly afflicted by them; omens, warnings, and predicitions of coming peril rendering it, by their number and character, extremely doubtful whether Heaven or the other place was most interested in Scottish affairs.
In 1638, fairy drums were heard beating on the hills of Dun Echt, in Aberdeenshire, according to the narrative of the parson of Rothiemay; in 1643, we hear the noise of drums and “apparitions of armyes” at Bankafair in the same county. “The wraith of General Leslie in his buff coatand on horseback, carrying his own banner with its bend azure and three buckles or, appeared on the summit of a tower at St. Johnstown.” Science now explains such visions as the aerial Morgana, produced by the reflection of real objects on a peculiar atmospheric arrangement; but then they were a source of unlimited terror.
A folio of Apparitions and Wonders preserved in the British Museum, records that at Durham, on the 27th of September, 1703, when the even sky was full serene and full of stars, a strange and prodigious light spread over the northwestern quarter, as if the sun it self was shining; then came streamers which turned into armed men ranked on horseback, J. Edmonson, the writer of the broadsheet, adds: “It was thought they would see the apparition better in Scotland, because it appeared a great way north; the same,” he continues, gravely, “was seen in the latter end of March, 1704, and the battle of Hochstadt followed it.”
This must refer to the second battle fought there, which we call Blenheim, when Marshal Tallard was defeated and taken prisoner by Marlborough. But this wonderful light which turned to armed men at Durham was outdone by a marvel at Churchill, Oxfordshire, where (in the same collection) we find that, on the 9th January, 1705 four suns were all visible in the air at once, “sent four signs unto mankind,” adds the publisher, Mr. Tookey of St. Christopher’s Court, “and having their significations of the Lord, like the handwriting unto his servant Daniel.”
In 1774, a man named D. Stricket, when servant to Mr. Lancaster, of Blackhills, saw one evening, about seven o’clock, a troop of horse riding leisurely along Souter Fell, in Cumberland. They were close in ranks, and ere long quickened their pace. As this man had been sharply ridiculed as the solitary beholder of a spectre horseman in the same place the preceding year, he watched these strange troopers for some time ere he summoned his master from the house to look too.
But ere Sticket spoke of what was to be seen, “Mr. Lancaster discovered aerial troopers,” whose appearance was plainly visible to his as to his servant. “These visionary horsemen seemed to come from the lowest part of Souter Fell, and became visible at a place called Knott; they moved in successive troops (or squadrons) along the side of the Fell till they came opposite Blakehills, where they went over the mountain.” They were two hours in sight; and “this phenomenon was seen by every person (twenty-six in number) in every cottage within distance of a mile.”
During the middle of the last century, a tollkeeper in Perthshire affirmed on oath, before certain justices of the peace, that an entire regiment passed through his toll-gate at midnight; but no such force left any town in the neighbrhood, or arrived at any other, or in fact, were ever seen any where but at his particular turnpike, the whole story was naturally treated as a delusion; though the Higlanders sought in some way to connect the vision with unquiet spirits of those who fought at Culloden – for there, the peasantry aver, that “in the soft twilight of the summer evening solitary wayfarers, when passing near burial mounds, have suddenly found themselves amidst the smoke and hurly-burley of a battle, and could recognize the various clans engaged by their tartans and badges. On those occasions a certain Laird of Culduthil was always seen amidst the fray on a white horse, and the people believe that once again a great battle will be fought there by the clans; but whom, or about what, no seer has ventured forth to predict.”
Shadowy figures of armed men were seen in Stockton Forest, Yorkshire, prior to the war with France, as the Leeds Mecury and local prints record; and so lately as 1812, much curiosity and no small ridicule were excited by the alleged appearance of a phantom army in the vicinity of hard-working prosaic Leeds, and all the newspapers and magazines of the time show how much of the story amused the skeptical, and occupied the attention of the scientific.
It would appear that between seven and eight o’clock in the evening of Sunday the 28th of October, Mr. Anthony Jackson, a farmer, in his fourty-fifth year, and a lad of fifteen, named Turner, were overlooking their cattle, which were at grass in Havarah Park, near Ripley, the seat of Sir John Ingilly, when the lad suddenly exclaimed, “Look, Anthony, what a number of beasts!”
“Beasts? Lord bless us!,” replied the farmer, with fear and wonder, “they are men!” And as he spoke there immediately became visible “an army of soilders dressed in white uniforms, and in the center a personage of commanding aspect clad in scarlet.” These phantoms (according to the Leeds Mercury and Edinburgh Annual Register) were four deep, extending over thirty acres, and performed many evolutions. Other bodies, in dark uniforms now appeared, and smoke, as if from aritillery, rolled over the grass of the park. On this, Jackson and Turner, thinking they had seen quite enough, turned and fled.
Like the spells of the Fairy Morgaina, which were alleged to create such beautiful effects in the Bau of Reggio, and which Fra Antonio Minasi saw thrice in 1733, and “deemed to exceed by far the most beautiful theatrical exhibition in the world,” science has explained away or fully discovered the true source of all spectral phenomena; the northern aurora was deemed by the superstitious, from the days of Plutarch even to those of the sage, Sir Richard Baker, as portentous of dire events; and the fancies of the timid saw only war and battle in the shining streamers; but those supposed spectral armies whose appearance we have noted were something more, in most instances, than mere deceptio visus, being actually the shadows of realities – the airy reproductions of events bodily passing in other parts of the country reflected in the clouds, and imaged again on the mountain slopes, or elsewhere, by a peculiar operation of the sun’s rays.