Angling Sketches

Author: Andrew Lang

The Yarn of the Black Officer

"It was about ’the last Christmas of the hundred’—the end of last century. They wanted men for the Black Watch (42nd Highlanders), and the Black Officer, as they called him, was sent to his own country to enlist them. Some he got willingly, and others by force. He promised he would only take them to London, where the King wanted to review them, and then let them go home. So they came, though they little liked it, and he was marching them south. Now at night they reached a place where nobody would have halted them except the Black Officer, for it was a great place for ghosts. And they would have run away if they had dared, but they were afraid of him. So some tried to sleep in threes and fours, and some were afraid to sleep, and they sat up round the fire. But the Black Officer, he went some way from the rest, and lay down beneath a tree.

"Now as the night wore on, and whiles it would be dark and whiles the moon shone, a man came—they did not know from where—a big red man, and drew up to the fire, and was talking with them. And he asked where the Black Officer was, and they showed him. Now there was one man, Shamus Mackenzie they called him, and he was very curious, and he must be seeing what they did. So he followed the man, and saw him stoop and speak to the officer, but he did not waken; then this individual took the Black Officer by the breast and shook him violently. Then Shamus knew who the stranger was, for no man alive durst have done as much to the Black Officer. And there was the Black Officer kneeling to him!

"Well, what they said, Shamus could not hear, and presently they walked away, and the Black Officer came back alone.

"He took them to England, but never to London, and they never saw the King. He took them to Portsmouth, and they were embarked for India, where we were fighting the French. There was a town we couldn’t get into" (Seringapatam?), "and the Black Officer volunteered to make a tunnel under the walls. Now they worked three days, and whether it was the French heard them and let them dig on, or not, any way, on the third day the French broke in on them. They kept sending men into the tunnel, and more men, and still they wondered who was fighting within, and how we could have so large a party in the tunnel; so at last they brought torches, and there was no man alive on our side but the Black Officer, and he had a wall of corpses built up in front of him, and was fighting across it. He had more light to see by than the French had, for it was dark behind him, and there would be some light on their side. So at last they brought some combustibles and blew it all up. Three days after that we took the town. Some of our soldiers were sent to dig out the tunnel, and with them was Shamus Mackenzie."

"And they never found the Black Officer," I said, thinking of young Campbell in Sekukoeni’s fighting koppie.

"Oh, yes," said the boatman, "Shamus found the body of the Black Officer, all black with smoke, and he laid him down on a green knoll, and was standing over the dead man, and was thinking of how many places they had been in together, and of his own country, and how he wished he was there again. Then the dead man’s face moved.

"Shamus turned and ran for his life, and he was running till he met some officers, and he told them that the Black Officer’s body had stirred. They thought he was lying, but they went off to the place, and one of them had the thought to take a flask of brandy in his pocket. When they came to the lifeless body it stirred again, and with one thing and another they brought him round.

"The Black Officer was not himself again for long, and they took him home to his own country, and he lay in bed in his house. And every day a red deer would come to the house, and go into his room and sit on a chair beside the bed, speaking to him like a man.

"Well, the Black Officer got better again, and went about among his friends; and once he was driving home from a dinner-party, and Shamus was with him. It was just the last night of the hundred. And on the road they met a man, and Shamus knew him—for it was him they had seen by the fire on the march, as I told you at the beginning. The Black Officer got down from his carriage and joined the man, and they walked a bit apart; but Shamus—he was so curious—whatever happened he must see them. And he came within hearing just as they were parting, and he heard the stranger say, ’This is the night.’

"’No,’ said the Black Officer, ’this night next year.’

"So he came back, and they drove home. A year went by, and the Black Officer was seeking through the country for the twelve best men he could find to accompany him to some deer-hunt or the like. And he asked Shamus, but he pretended he was ill—Oh, he was very unwell!—and he could not go, but stayed in bed at home. So the Black Officer chose another man, and he and the twelve set out—the thirteen of them. But they were never seen again."

"Never seen again? Were they lost in the snow?"

"It did come on a heavy fall, sir."

"But their bodies were found?"

"No, sir—though they searched high and low; they are not found, indeed, till this day. It was thought the Black Officer had sold himself and twelve other men, sir."

"To the Devil?"

"It would be that."

For the narrator never mentions our ghostly foe, which produces a solemn effect.

This story was absolutely new to me, and much I wished that Mr. Louis Stevenson could have heard it. The blending of the far East with the Highlands reminds one of his "Master of Ballantrae," and what might he not make of that fairy red deer! My boatman, too, told me what Mr. Stevenson says the Highlanders will not tell—the name of the man who committed the murder of which Alan Breck was accused. But this secret I do not intend to divulge.

The story of the Black Officer then seemed absolutely unpublished. But when Sir Walter Scott’s diary was given to the world in October, 1890, it turned out that he was not wholly ignorant of the legend. In 1828 he complains that he has been annoyed by a lady, because he had printed "in the ’Review’" a rawhead and bloody-bones story of her father, Major Macpherson, who was lost in a snowstorm. This Major Macpherson was clearly the Black Officer. Mr. Douglas, the publisher of Scott’s diary, discovered that the "Review" mentioned vaguely by Scott was the "Foreign Quarterly," No. I, July, 1827. In an essay on Hoffmann’s novels, Sir Walter introduced the tale as told to him in a letter from a nobleman some time deceased, not more distinguished for his love of science than his attachment to literature in all its branches.

The tale is too long to be given completely. Briefly, a Captain M., on St. Valentine’s day, 1799, had been deer-shooting (at an odd time of the year) in the hills west of D-. He did not return, a terrible snowstorm set in, and finally he and his friends were found dead in a bothy, which the tempest had literally destroyed. Large stones from the walls were found lying at distances of a hundred yards; the wooden uprights were twisted like broken sticks. The Captain was lying dead, without his clothes, on the bed; one man was discovered at a distance, another near the Captain. Then it was remembered that, at the same bothy a month before, a shepherd lad had inquired for the Captain, had walked with him for some time, and that, on the officer’s return, "a mysterious anxiety hung about him." A fire had also been seen blazing on an opposite height, and when some of the gillies went to the spot, "there was no fire to be seen." On the day when the expedition had started, the Captain was warned of the ill weather, but he said "he MUST go." He was an unpopular man, and was accused of getting money by procuring recruits from the Highlands, often by cruel means. "Our informer told us nothing more; he neither told us his own opinion, nor that of the country, but left it to our own notions of the manner in which good and evil is rewarded in this life to suggest the author of the miserable event. He seemed impressed with superstitious awe on the subject, and said, ’There was na the like seen in a’ Scotland.’ The man is far advanced in years and is a schoolmaster in the neighbourhood of Rannoch."

Sir Walter says that "the feeling of superstitious awe annexed to the catastrophe could not have been improved by any circumstances of additional horror which a poet could have invented. But is there not something more moving still in the boatman’s version: "they were never seen again . . . they were not found indeed till this day"?

The folklorist, of course, is eager to know whether the boatman’s much more complete and connected narrative is a popular mythical development in the years between 1820 and 1890, or whether the schoolmaster of Rannoch did not tell all he knew. It is unlikely, I think, that the siege of Seringapatam would have been remembered so long in connection with the Black Officer if it had not formed part of his original legend. Meanwhile the earliest printed notice of the event with which I am acquainted, a notice only ten years later than the date of the Major’s death in 1799, is given by Hogg in "The Spy," 1810-11, pp. 101-3. I offer an abridgment of the narrative.

"About the end of last century Major Macpherson and a party of friends went out to hunt on the Grampians between Athole and Badenoch. They were highly successful, and in the afternoon they went into a little bothy, and, having meat and drink, they abandoned themselves to jollity.

"During their merry-making a young man entered whose appearance particularly struck and somewhat shocked Macpherson; the stranger beckoned to the Major, and he followed him instantly out of the bothy.

"When they parted, after apparently having had some earnest conversation, the stranger was out of sight long before the Major was half-way back, though only twenty yards away.

"The Major showed on his return such evident marks of trepidation that the mirth was marred and no one cared to ask him questions.

"This was early in the week, and on Friday the Major persuaded his friends to make a second expedition to the mountains, from which they never returned.

"On a search being made their dead bodies were found in the bothy, some considerably mangled, but some were not marked by any wound.

"It was visible that this had not been effected by human agency: the bothy was torn from its foundations and scarcely a vestige left of it, and one huge stone, which twelve men could not have raised, was tossed to a considerable distance.

"On this event Scott’s beautiful ballad of "Glenfinlas" is said to have been founded."

As will be seen presently, Hogg was wrong about "Glenfinlas"; the boatman was acquainted with a traditional version of that wild legend. I found another at Rannoch.

The Highland fairies are very vampirish. The Loch Awe boatman lives at a spot haunted by a shadowy maiden. Her last appearance was about thirty years ago. Two young men were thrashing corn one morning, when the joint of the flail broke. The owner went to Larichban and entered an outhouse to look for a piece of sheepskin wherewith to mend the flail. He was long absent, and his companion went after him. He found him struggling in the arms of a ghostly maid, who had nearly murdered him, but departed on the arrival of his friend. It is not easy to make out what these ghoulish women are—not fairies exactly, nor witches, nor vampires. For example, three shepherds at a lonely sheiling were discoursing of their loves, and it was, "Oh, how happy I should be if Katie were here, or Maggie, or Bessie!" as the case might be. So they would say and so they would wish, and lo! one evening, the three girls came to the door of the hut. So they made them welcome; but one of the shepherds was playing the Jew’s-harp, and he did not like the turn matters were taking.

The two others stole off into corners of the darkling hut with their lovers, but this prudent lad never took his lips off the Jew’s-harp.

"Harping is good if no ill follows it," said the semblance of his sweetheart; but he never answered. He played and thrummed, and out of one dark corner trickled red blood into the fire-light, and out of another corner came a current of blood to meet it. Then he slowly rose, still harping, and backed his way to the door, and fled into the hills from these cruel airy shapes of false desire.

"And do the people actually believe all that?"

"Ay, do they!"

That is the boatman’s version of Scott’s theme in "Glenfinlas." Witches played a great part in his narratives.

In the boatman’s country there is a plain, and on the plain is a knoll, about twice the height of a one-storeyed cottage, and pointed "like a sugar-loaf." The old people remember, or have heard, that this mound was not there when they were young. It swelled up suddenly out of the grave of a witch who was buried there.

The witch was a great enemy of a shepherd. Every morning she would put on the shape of a hare, and run before his dogs, and lead them away from the sheep. He knew it was right to shoot at her with a crooked sixpence, and he hit her on the hind leg, and the dogs were after her, and chased the hare into the old woman’s cottage. The shepherd ran after them, and there he found them, tearing at the old woman; but the hare was twisted round their necks, and she was crying, "Tighten, hare, tighten!" and it was choking them. So he tore the hare off the dogs; and then the old woman begged him to save her from them, and she promised never to plague him again. "But if the old dog’s teeth had been as sharp as the young one’s, she would have been a dead woman."

When this witch died she knew she could never lie in safety in her grave; but there was a very safe churchyard in Aberdeenshire, a hundred and fifty miles away, and if she could get into that she would be at rest. And she rose out of her grave, and off she went, and the Devil after her, on a black horse; but, praise to the swiftness of her feet, she won the churchyard before him. Her first grave swelled up, oh, as high as that green hillock!

Witches are still in active practice. There was an old woman very miserly. She would alway be taking one of her neighbours’ sheep from the hills, and they stood it for long; they did not like to meddle with her. At last it grew so bad that they brought her before the sheriff, and she got eighteen months in prison. When she came out she was very angry, and set about making an image of the woman whose sheep she had taken. When the image was made she burned it and put the ashes in a burn. And it is a very curious thing, but the woman she made it on fell into a decline, and took to her bed.

The witch and her family went to America. They kept a little inn, in a country place, and people who slept in it did not come out again. They were discovered, and the eldest son was hanged; he confessed that he had committed nineteen murders before he left Scotland.

"They were not a nice family."

"The father was a very respectable old man."

The boatman gave me the name of this wicked household, but it is perhaps better forgotten.

The extraordinary thing is that this appears to be the Highland introduction to, or part first of, a gloomy and sanguinary story of a murder hole—an inn of assassins in a lonely district of the United States, which Mr. Louis Stevenson heard in his travels there, and told to me some years ago. The details have escaped my memory, but, as Mr. Stevenson narrated them, they rivalled De Quincey’s awful story of Williams’s murders in the Ratcliffe Highway.

Life must still be haunted in Badenoch, as it was on Ida’s hill, by forms of unearthly beauty, the goddess or the ghost yet wooing the shepherd; indeed, the boatman told me many stories of living superstition and terrors of the night; but why should I exhaust his wallet? To be sure, it seemed very full of tales; these offered here may be but the legends which came first to his hand. The boatman is not himself a believer in the fairy world, or not more than all sensible men ought to be. The supernatural is too pleasant a thing for us to discard in an earnest, scientific manner like Mr. Kipling’s Aurelian McGubben. Perhaps I am more superstitious than the boatman, and the yarns I swopped with him about ghosts I have met would seem even more mendacious to possessors of pocket microscopes and of the modern spirit. But I would rather have one banshee story than fifteen pages of proof that "life, which began as a cell, with a c, is to end as a sell, with an s." It should be added that the boatman has given his consent to the printing of his yarns. On being offered a moiety of the profits, he observed that he had no objection to these, but that he entirely declined to be responsible for any share of the expenses. Would that all authors were as sagacious, for then the amateur novelist and the minor poet would vex us no more.

Perhaps I should note that I have not made the boatman say "whateffer," because he doesn’t. The occasional use of the imperfect is almost his only Gaelic idiom. It is a great comfort and pleasure, when the trout do not rise, to meet a skilled and unaffected narrator of the old beliefs, old legends, as ancient as the hills that girdle and guard the loch, or as antique, at least, as man’s dwelling among the mountains—the Yellow Hill, the Calf Hill, the Hill of the Stack. The beauty of the scene, the pleasant talk, the daffodils on the green isle among the Celtic graves, compensate for a certain "dourness" among the fishes of Loch Awe. On the occasions when they are not dour they rise very pleasant and free, but, in these brief moments, it is not of legends and folklore that you are thinking, but of the landing-net. The boatman, by the way, was either not well acquainted with Marchen— Celtic nursery-tales such as Campbell of Islay collected, or was not much interested in them, or, perhaps, had the shyness about narrating this particular sort of old wives’ fables which is so common. People who do know them seldom tell them in Sassenach.


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Chicago: Andrew Lang, "The Yarn of the Black Officer," Angling Sketches, ed. Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941 and trans. Miall, Bernard in Angling Sketches Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2023,

MLA: Lang, Andrew. "The Yarn of the Black Officer." Angling Sketches, edited by Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941, and translated by Miall, Bernard, in Angling Sketches, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Lang, A, 'The Yarn of the Black Officer' in Angling Sketches, ed. and trans. . cited in , Angling Sketches. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2023, from