The Witches Of Bennachie

I was a 1970s child and back then on Halloween in Aberdeen we used to go guising round the houses with our friends, dressed up and carrying lanterns made of turnips, hard as iron to carve out, with real candles in them. We reeked of singeing neep. We would be invited into the houses to give our party piece: a magic trick, a song, or a joke before we were given sweets or money. And maybe we dooked for apples in a basin on the kitchen floor.

I remember one year, as a group of us traipsed around, we came to my friend’s house. She lived in a cottage which looked like it was right off a Clarice Cliff teapot. My friend’s mother invited us in. She wanted to tell us a story, so she drew us to the settee and sat us in a row. The lights were put out and only the eyes of my friend’s mother glinted green in the light from the crack under the door to the kitchen. Then her story began:

‘Last night’ she said, ‘I decided to go up Bennachie hill alone, to see the famous witches. The night was wild with a round moon but sometimes the clouds scudding across made it pitch dark. I passed through the wood at the foot of the mountain, disturbing the craws in the trees until I came to the open heather. The path grew steeper, but I went on up and up and as the mist came down I began to catch the sound of voices up ahead, harsh as the craws in the wood. Then, just before I reached the fort of the Picts, the mist swirled away, and I saw firelight up ahead. I found I was overhearing a fearsome raucous argument. There were three black silhouettes gathered there around a fire. They had not seen me, so I crept closer to watch and crouched behind a huge granite rock, kneeling on the cold bare ground. The witches were shrieking and arguing, the two with the third, until, as I watched they tore her apart and scattered the pieces around, flinging them far and near and here and there. With a thud and a thump, something hit the hard ground beside me and I cried out.’

‘At my cry the fire went out in an instant and the two remaining witches turned straight to me. By the light from the moon in the mist two pairs of eyes gleamed green. That was enough, I couldn’t take it anymore and I turned on my heel and ran down the mountain as fast as I could, jumping like Heidi from rock to rock.’

‘I hadn’t gone far when suddenly I felt something tangled around my ankles so that I nearly fell. I reached down and it was…THE WITCH’S HAIR’

 And on the settee some dry, course fibre was passed around from child to child in the darkness, we squealed as we touched it. 

‘So I shoved that into my bag and running on I tripped on something else, not a stick, not a root, heavier. I lifted it up to see, it was…THE WITCH’S FINGER’

 And a long rubbery, hairy thing went from hand to hand along the row of children on the settee. ‘YUCK!’

‘So into my bag that went too and as I stumbled on down the mountain path I kicked something that rolled away from my foot, I reached out and felt it with my shaky hand, it was…THE WITCH’S EYEBALL’ 

A cold, squishy, round orb was passed around, ‘EUGH WHATS THAT?’. But my friend’s mother continued:

‘I put it in my bag and ran on but something black lay in the swirling mist across the path and trailing from it was…THE WITCH’S GUTS’

By that same crack of light which had shown us the mother’s eyes, we kids saw something glisten in a bowl. Fingers touched it. It was warm, wormy and slimy. ‘WHAT IS IT?’ we screamed.

‘I took up a fistful of that to go in my bag and reached the foot of the hill at last. I took all of the parts home with me for you to have a feel of and I’ll never go there again.’ 

And that was the end of her story. The lights were turned on and the trick was laid bare.

A handful of straw: the witch’s hair

a peeled plum: the witch’s eyeball,

an old, wrinkly carrot: the witch’s finger,

and a bowl of tinned spaghetti: the witch’s entrails, 

all laid out on a tray. 

And my friend’s mother smiled at us with her emerald eyes.