There are many stories of people who, for whatever reason, place curses on the living from their deathbeds. One of the most potent is said to have been placed by accused witch Giles Corey as he was pressed to death in Salem, Massachusetts on September 19, 1692; specifically on Sheriff George Corwin, who was overseeing Corey’s brutal death. George Corwin died a few years after–still a young man–of a sudden massive heart attack. It would seem, though, that the curse followed not only Corwin, but the sheriffs of Salem who came after him. Author Robert Ellis Cahill, one of those sheriffs, has said that he was forced to leave office because of a heart ailment–and so, he says, did all the sheriffs before him for whom cause of death is known.
The following story isn’t quite so dramatic, but when I ran across it recently I was enchanted by it, as a music lover, because the curse was placed in song. It comes from Dane Love’s 1995 Scottish Ghosts and begins with the old truism–it’s hard for two people to keep a secret.
The MacLeans of Brolass, in the Mull district of Scotland, had two lovely daughters of marriageable age. The two were as different as could be in temperament; Elizabeth was easily pleased, it seemed, for she married the first man who proposed to her.
Her younger sister Margaret was another story altogether. Now Margaret–unlike a certain Shakespearean character who had trouble finding a husband–was no shrew, but she flatly refused all offers of marriage. Her parents were angry about this, and frequently called her too picky and ordered her to tell them why she was so against the idea of chosing one of her numerous suitors, but she remained defiant and silent.
The aggrieved parents finally left it up to happily married, wheedling sister Elizabeth, who remained close to Margaret, to get the reason out of her. It was that simplest and most dramatic of all reasons: Margaret was in love, and with a man of whom her parents would never approve. He was a MacDonald, and, unfortunately, the MacLeans of Mull and the MacDonalds were feuding at the time. To avoid complications, and in hopes of making a life together, the Scots Romeo and Juliet were planning to elope, and never return to Mull.
Margaret swore her sister to secrecy, but Elizabeth was one of those constitutionally incapable of keeping a secret, no matter what promises she made. Her bottom didn’t touch the seat of a chair before she confided Margaret’s secret to her husband.
And, unfortunately for Margaret and her lover, Elizabeth had married a man whose bottom didn’t touch the seat of a chair before he was planning to foil the elopement.
The perfidious brother-in-law got together several of Margaret’s rejected suitors, and, on the night when the two made their way to MacDonald’s boat, planning to sail away to a new life together, the posse intercepted them. In the ensuing melee, young MacDonald was stabbed to death. Margaret, screaming and sobbing, flung herself over his corpse, but was dragged away to be taken home in disgrace. She looked back on her dead lover, calling out the dignity of the MacDonalds through her tears, then flung a taunt at brother-in-law and suitors: the conceit of the MacLeans.
Somehow, she managed to break away and ran out onto the moors. Located a few weeks later, she was taken home, but starvation and exposure to the weather had weakened her to the point of death.
On her deathbed, she sang a song in which she foretold her parents’ deaths, Elizabeth’s ruin, and bewailed the loss of her lover.
My mother’s chair is empty, empty and cold,
My father, who loved me, sleeps in death,
My sister, her promise broken, all has told;
I am without kin, without lover, I have only breath.
Sister, may ill befall all that you loved best,
May neither rain nor dew bless the soil you till,
May no child of yours want your arms in rest,
May your cattle find no food upon the hill.
I am searching the moors and the bens,
All the spots where I courted my dear,
I am searching the mountains and the glens,
But he is not here, not here. (Love, pages 175-6)
The song is haunting enough in English; in Scots Gaelic, it would never leave the ear or heart.
Margaret died within hours of singing that song, and the Doom of the MacLeans followed not long after. Her father and mother died within days or weeks of one another, it’s said of grief.
And upon Elizabeth fell the full power of that second verse.
Shortly after Margaret’s death, Elizabeth’s husband left her. Suddenly impoverished–for most likely any property she might have inherited from her parents her husband took out of the marriage–, Elizabeth lived out the rest of her days as a beggar, dying childless and alone.
They say that Elizabeth’s spirit still wanders around Brolass, a quiet shade who no doubt bears a weight of sorrow for the doom her loose lips brought down upon her.
And sometimes, people report hearing a voice singing in the area of the old MacLean home:
Margaret, still singing her curse to the empty air.
Perhaps she sings to remind people of the tragedy a secret thoughtlessly shared can cause.