This story is taken from THE LITTLE GIANT BOOK OF “TRUE” GHOST STORIES (1998) by Arthur Myers, Margaret Rau, and John Macklin. Told for true and dated to the year 1900, it has far, far older roots.
Scotland has a long history of stories of witchcraft. One such tale begins in December of 1900, on the Isle of Skye, when a pregnant woman named Margaret Fraser woke from a nap to find three elderly women, complete strangers to her, sitting over the crib of her year-old third child, Morag, a beautiful little girl.
Bewildered at first, Margaret shook off the fog of sleep when she realized that the three women were plotting to take her baby girl away!
The first one said, “Come. Let us take this one.”
Margaret’s breath caught. Then she heard the others disagreeing with the first old hag. “You’ve taken so many from this house already,” said one.
Margaret didn’t quite understand that comment; her older children were healthy and well-grown, and it appeared that the one yet to be born would be the same. The third woman gave an evil laugh. “Why not place a curse on the bonnie lass instead?”
Margaret watched as the first woman thought that over, then grinned. “A good idea,” she said.
She picked up a block of peat—that bog-sod that, dried, can smolder and create a goodly amount of heat when placed on a fire—and dropped it onto the fire, chanting a bit of doggerel verse: “When this peat is burnt away, that child will lie beneath the clay.”
And, as stealthily and uncannily as they had come, the three women simply vanished.
Margaret rushed over and grabbed the block of peat from the fire, unmindful of the smoke it produced or of the burns she got in the process. She dumped it into a pail of water, smothering the flame that had begun to catch at one corner. When it was cool enough to handle safely, she wrapped it up tightly in rags, then locked it in a chest, hidden safely away, so she thought, in a far corner of the house.
She would have done better, perhaps, to bury it in the ground, or chuck it into the sea.
Morag, thus saved from the witches’ curse, grew up to be a lovely, intelligent, hardworking young woman. When she was twenty, she and a childhood playmate, looking at each other as adults and finding love in each other’s hearts, were engaged to be married.
On Skye, it was the custom for the bride not to attend church from the day of her engagement till the day of her wedding, when she would enter as a maiden and emerge as a wedded wife. So it was that, one Sunday not very long before that happy day, Morag was left home alone while her parents and siblings attended church.
It was that day that she found the locked chest. It had always been there, but she had never taken any particular notice of it before. On this day, though, something of the dark magic that chest concealed must have taken hold of her, and she brought it out of its corner and used a screwdriver to force it open.
She was surprised to find that it contained nothing save a rag-wrapped bundle. When she unwrapped it, there lay a block of peat, old and very dry by now, and burnt on one corner.
She could not fathom why on earth such an object would be locked up.
And so, with the house a bit chilly and this being obviously good fuel for the fire, she tossed the block into the fireplace. It caught up quite merrily.
Morag, though, didn’t enjoy the heat. She sat down abruptly, feeling deathly cold and suddenly, mortally terrified. Something was wrong. She was having trouble breathing, and could feel her heart slowing.
Her parents arrived home shortly thereafter to find the peat burnt to ashes, and their beautiful daughter dead.
Told for true or not, this story comes from an almost unimaginably old motif: the pre-Homeric Greek myth of the hero Meleager. His story is more than thirty-five hundred years old. The best modern retellings of Meleager’s life and death come from Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY: TIMELESS TALES OF GODS AND HEROES (1940), and Nigel Spivey’s SONGS ON BRONZE: THE GREEK MYTHS MADE REAL (2005).
There is a very similar story from Norse mythology, about a hero called Norna-Gest; it is told in the SAGA OF OLAF TRYGGVASSON, stories about an historical Scandinavian king composed circa AD 1300 by an unknown poet.