A Ghost Story
During a tour of the Scottish Highlands in 1976 I was looking for "Haunted Ground," a place that may have recorded the appearance of a ghostly apparition. In one case, I got a dose of the mystical, more than I bargained for.
I became interested in many of the over 10,000 stone circles in the United Kingdom. This was attributed to the influence of Paul Caponigro's work on the subject. I had worked with him during a workshop prior to my trip. Having spent the first part of my sojourn in Cornwall, England, photographing the abandoned tin mines and some stone cairns, I found myself taking the night train north to Aberdeen. I was going to spend some time with a friend who was at the University working on a Ph.D. under the auspices of a Fulbright Fellowship. My routine was to load up 100 rolls of film and go out for a few weeks until that film was exposed. I would then use the University's darkroom to roll my film onto a master spool and reload my cassettes for the next walkabout.
On this particular trip, I boarded British Rail on the way to Inverness and traveled by bus and boat to the Hebrides. We sailed as the last remains of the sun fell upon the small seaport of Ullapool. Upon my arrival at night, the dock was full of relatives and well wishers gathered there to meet a group that had taken part in a Celtic musical competition on the mainland. There was singing as the ferry slipped up to the pier. I almost imagined it was for me. I walked to the hotel in the dark feeling a little lonely. The next day was Sunday; I couldn't do much but photograph in the town of Stornoway as all transportation was suspended until the next morning. Monday brought a new awakening. I rented a car and toured the island finally making arrangements to spend a night in a Bed and Breakfast in Callanish. I checked in to my room and then I met an English couple who was doing amateur research into the standing stones. I went with them on one of their expeditions and made some photographs. I returned late, which worried Mrs. McLeod, who thought I might have fallen into a bog.
Mrs. McLeod fed me that night a dark reddish congealed-fat-and-onion-in-the-shape-of-a-hamburger-thing I later learned was blood pudding. It was fried and it wiggled on my plate as I ate it with relish. After supper Mrs. McLeod told stories and legends concerning the standing stones just down the lane from where I was staying. She said that no one visits these places at night. There were tales of human sacrifice, children most of all. She called the first stone at the end of the lane the Weeping Heel where mothers would wait and lament the child lost to the Druids' knife. Her daughter refused to accompany me to the site. I took a flashlight and walked down the dark lane.
I navigated the gate and walked down the long avenue of stones staring at me from both sides. The Callanish stones are called the Scottish Stonehenge and are cruciform in shape, with an enclosed circle resembling a Celtic cross. In the center of the circle is the main stone, a slightly curved, granite slab; a twenty foot monolith. Once reaching the center there was no need for the flashlight. I held on to that cold stone with both hands and looked up into that black void and a sky full of stars. I then heard a flapping sound like the beating of wings and cries that sounded like wild geese. It was distant at first but then became louder and closer. I was immediately filled with fear and anxiety. I found myself bolting from that cold circle of stones walking quickly from whence I came.
In the relative safety of Mrs. McLeod's living room, I told of my experiences. She said there were no wild geese this time of year. This only added to my discomfort. I didn't sleep well that night. I thought I heard someone or something creeping around the house and ever so softly trying to open my door, which I had locked. The next morning, there was the ever-present blood pudding for breakfast. I decided to leave the island as soon as possible; my fear was running high. The morning rains came blowing the wet sideways as it peppered my face and skin. I didn't rest comfortably until I reached my new hotel on the island of Skye many miles away that evening.
Being there, in the world, bearing witnessing to the event or place is the single most important aspect of being a photographer. There can never be too much a price paid for experience. My memoirs in the medium have taken me to many exotic places. From skid row in Los Angeles to the Highlands in Scotland, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, the American West, and most recently, the Civil War Battlefields. These are the things that last. These are the things that no one can ever take away.