Some of the best spooky stories ever told, in my humble estimation, come from Scotland. I admit to some bias in favor of Scots ghost stories, for Scotland is one of my ancestral homes, although, alas, I am descended not from the Highlanders but from Lowland merchant stock—and on the wrong side of the blanket at that!
Still, I love tales from the Highlands, those misty mountains, where ghosts have always roamed, their tales told in whispers. The story of the curse that killed Duncan Campbell, the laird of Inverawe, is quite possibly my favorite of them all.
Inverawe Castle, Duncan Campbell’s family seat, was in the western Highlands, on the banks of the River Awe. On a stormy night in 1747, so the story goes, he was summoned by a thunderous knocking at the gates of the castle. Hastening to let the visitor in, he was confronted by a complete stranger.
The stranger asked him for sanctuary, for he had killed a man—in a fair fight, forced on him, he insisted—and the authorities were after him. He made Duncan Campbell swear on his dirk—that small but deadly knife beloved by Highlanders, on which their most solemn oaths were sworn—that he would not allow harm to come to him.
Duncan took the stranger in, sheltering him in a distant part of the castle. Not long after his arrival, more knocking announced the authorities, who told Duncan that the stranger had killed Duncan’s cousin, Donald, in the fight. Duncan should have either turned the stranger over then, or sent them on their way and gone and taken blood vengeance for his cousin. But he had sworn by his dirk, and honorable man that he was, he was bound by that oath to protect the guilty man, so he did neither.
The rest of his night was hideous, for he was visited by the ghost of Donald Campbell, who told him, over and over, “Blood calls out to blood, cousin. Shield not my murderer!”
In the morning, Duncan Campbell threw the stranger out of Inverawe, escorting him to a nearby cave and telling him that he would be back the following day to give him clothes, money and food to make his getaway. And for a second night, the ghost of Donald Campbell came to him, with its insistent wail, “Shield not my murderer!”
When Duncan reached the cave the next day, the stranger was gone. He was never seen in those parts again.
Donald Campbell was, however. That night, he came to Duncan again, with these words: “So you have let my murderer go. I will have my vengeance yet, though. You will not see me again—for now. I tell you this—farewell, cousin, till we meet at Ticonderoga.”
And he was gone.
Now Duncan Campbell, in addition to being a Highland chief, was a soldier in the army of King George II, a member of the Scottish 42nd Regiment of Foot, the legendary Black Watch. For years, when he was with his brother soldiers, Duncan would, if prompted, tell the story of his cousin’s murder and the strange name of the place where Donald told him they would meet again.
None of them had ever heard of Ticonderoga, but Duncan swore he would avoid it like the plague.
In 1756, war broke out. European historians call it the Seven Years’ War; in American history we still refer to it as the French and Indian War, a fight between the French and British crowns for possession of lands in North America. The Black Watch was sent across the sea and into battle in 1758, and Duncan Campbell, who had risen to the rank of major in the regiment, went with them.
The Black Watch, under the command of James Abercromby, was one of the units deployed to attack the French Fort Carillon, built at a narrows on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Not until they were within sight of the fort did Campbell’s brother officers tell him what they had known for days: the French called the fort Carillon, but their Iroquois allies had another name for it.
In English, it means “place built at a narrows”, unsurprisingly; to Duncan Campbell, it meant death.
The night before the Black Watch marched into battle, the ghost of Donald Campbell appeared to Duncan for the last time. This time, he said, “I will have vengeance, cousin. Your life for my murderer’s.”
Battle was joined on July 8th, 1758. The French, under their remarkable general the Marquis de Montcalm, were able to beat back the attack with the help of the Iroquois. Many were dead or wounded on the British side, among them Duncan Campbell. His wound was minor; he expected to make a full recovery, and joked that Donald had been wrong—he wasn’t going to die at Ticonderoga after all.
But the wound, in the absence of modern medicine, turned septic, and ten days later, Duncan Campbell died of blood poisoning.
Cousin Donald at last had his vengeance.
I first read the story of Duncan Campbell, the laird of Inverawe, in a Ripley’s Believe It! Or Not! anthology sometime way back in the 1970s. The story was said to have been preserved in the regimental history of the Black Watch, but was lost at sea when the archives were being transferred from North America back to England in the 1770s. However, it exists in many other sources—the most interesting of which is Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Ticonderoga”, published in a volume called Ballads in 1890. Stevenson for some reason changed Duncan and Donald Campbell’s last name to Cameron, but otherwise the tale is quite straightforward.
Am I the only one who free associates Caesar’s ghost in the Shakespeare play, telling Brutus “till we meet at Phillippi”? Hmmmm. . .