In a loch in the lee of a mountain in the Scottish Highlands there lives an ancient king. Banished by his people millennia ago, these days he survives on trickery, deceit... and the flesh of human men. This Halloween, a group of friends meet a stranger on the mountain trail. Together, they take shelter in a ramshackle bothy on the edges of the loch. But, are the legends really true? And will these four friends last the night? This bone-chilling tale is based on Scottish folklore, and is a Stories from the Hearth Halloween special.
In a loch in the lee of a mountain in the Scottish Highlands there lives an ancient king. Banished by his people millennia ago, these days he survives on trickery, deceit... and the flesh of human men. This Halloween, a group of friends meet a stranger on the mountain trail. Together, they take shelter in a ramshackle bothy on the edges of the loch. But, are the legends really true? And will these four friends last the night? This bone-chilling tale is based on Scottish folklore, and is a Stories from the Hearth Halloween special.
Stories from the Hearth is an immersive storytelling experience featuring truly original fiction backed by thoughtfully produced soundscapes. The aim of this podcast is to rekindle its listeners' love for the ancient art of storytelling (and story-listening), and to bring some small escapism to the frantic energies of the modern world. Stories is the brainchild of queer punk poet, environmentalist, and anarchist Cal Bannerman. Vive l'art!
Episode #15 out on Sunday 28th November (28.11.21)
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Welcome to Stories From The Hearth, the podcast for tall tales and fantastical fiction, short stories the likes of which you might once have heard a wandering bard tell, to a group of villagers, gathered around the fire. Explore the history of storytelling in bonus series The Wandering Bard, or escape your surroundings with a brand-new story, written and performed by me, Calum Bannerman, on the last Sunday of every month. Historical, romantic, science fiction, or fantasy; these are tales to transport you, doorways into another world…
Hi, I’m Cal, and if you’re new to Stories from the Hearth, there’s a few things you might like to know. This podcast is an experimental artistic space, kind of like a painter’s studio or a DJ’s headphones – it is a place where I can try new things, make art, and share it with others in the hope that it might bring some comfort, value, and escapism to their lives. It is also a means to an end; after all, it has been my dream ever since I was wee to tell stories for a living; just like the wandering bards of old, who I read about in my history books and fantasy novels. Each episode of Stories from the Hearth features a stand-alone work of fiction, performed to an immersive soundscape, which allows you to lose yourself in the tale. Usually, the stories are short enough to be contained within one episode, but a handful of them are split over two. If this particular episode isn’t your jam, don’t worry – there are heaps of stories to choose from, and no two are the same. This podcast is also a safe and inclusive space for all, which means that its stories actively embrace queerness and otherness, right alongside more mainstream walks of life. If you’re enjoying it, then please do tell your friends and review it on your favourite podcast app, Spotify, or iTunes. If you’re really enjoying it, then you can support Stories from the Hearth on Patreon and help yourself to early access, behind-the-scenes insights, bonus content, physical copies of the stories, shout-outs and much much more. Just head to patreon.com/storiesfromthehearthpodcast or hit the link down below. And speaking of shout-outs, a huge thanks to these fine folks who help make Stories from the Hearth possible: my warmest thanks to Nick, Vivian, Jen, Charlie, Rob, Sandy, Jane, Ruathy and Mully.
This month’s story is a Halloween special, designed to curdle your blood, chill your spine, and stand your hairs on end. It's based in a Scottish legend - that of the Selkie. And, if you've listened to my special bonus episode, which I released earlier this month - The Merwife of Shetland - then you are in some way prepared. And yet, could anything prepare you for the horrors within?
Now, come and gather round the fire, for I've got a story to tell. This is Episode Fourteen: The Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte. Happy Halloween...
‘Light from the window of the bothy fell as would candlelight from a cracked lantern. Spilling through narrow stonework, it cut a weak shard across the moorland, dead heather and compact pockets of last winter’s snow shying from the luminescence. Where the light petered out, the loch began. Sleek as seal skin, the surface of the water was dark and oily, a thin film of scum discolouring its edges.
‘The loch, known to those few locals who had the misfortune of neighbouring it, was nameless. It was bad luck, they warned, to name such a place. Instead, the shepherds, drovers, and crofters, who had at times slept in the bothy, simply called the murky waters: ‘His Hame’. Provided you understood you were trespassing on His land, it was said you might still pass the night in peace.’
Charlie prodded at the logs, crackling and popping in the grate, with a fractured antler he’d found on the hike earlier that day. Casually, he threw another log on the fire, and when it caught ablaze leaned in close to relight the half-extinguished joint hanging from his lips.
‘Watch yersel ya fucking clown!’ laughed his girlfriend, Nadiya, from the corner. ‘A dinnae want ma knew kecks smellin’ a’ burnt feckin’ beard!’ Charlie smirked.
‘Quicker than shaving,’ he replied dryly.
This earned a few chuckles from those around the room, not too wigged out by the heady combination of mushrooms, marijuana, and wee Maggie’s latest ghost story.
As the laughter died, and a sighing wind sank its fingers into the crumbling mortar of the group’s lodgings, Maggie continued.
‘You see, long before the bothy was left to the mercy of the elements; long before it was even built – centuries before the folk wandering this dark, mulchy corner of the world spoke English, before they spoke Gaelic even; back when those who lived close by spoke a strange, long-forgotten language, when they painted themselves in woad and kenned the land intimately – even back then, this place was already hame to a much more ancient creature.
‘The crofters of a hundred years ago didn’t invent the phrase ‘His Hame’, of course. They borrowed it from generations of folk who had come before, who had in turn learned that they, no matter how deeply-attached to the land they might be, were but trespassers when on the shores of the loch.
‘In the lee of the mountain called Beinn Nam Mic Caillte, ‘His Hame’ has sat untouched and unchanged since time began. No streams enter it, nor burns, nor rivers. And none leave. If the loch is fed by anything other than rainwater, then it shows no signs, for its waters are as stagnant and deathly as the stories which surround it. And yet, its surface does not go unbroken. Though no fish nor eels dwell here, there is one being which makes this loch its hame.
‘I say “being”, for this is no animal. No human either. It is a leftover, from days when the world was smaller, and fuller of magic.’
Davey, closely examining the palm of his right hand as its line swirled and breathed, snorted.
Maggie accepted the joint from Charlie, still by the fire, and took a long, deep drag. As she held the smoke in her lungs, she fixed her gaze on a point just over Davey’s shoulder, and cocked an eyebrow. She exhaled the purplish plume, and took another quick hit before offering the spliff up to Davey.
Davey, a big bastard with a beer belly stretching his Berghaus jacket, joiner’s trousers tucked into socks tucked into Timberland boots – epitomising a particular brand of Scottish outdoorsman – leaned forward from his seat to take the joint.
Just before his fingers could brush the sculpted paper, however, Maggie jerked her hand back, holding the thing just out of the big man’s reach.
‘Aw, come oan tae fuck!’ moaned Davey.
‘Who here… believes in magic?’ said Maggie, a rye smile on her face. She brandished the joint aloft, and the last member of the party – a timid tourist, who they’d met earlier that day near the summit of the mountain – piped up.
‘Ja, over here!’
‘Ha-ha!’ laughed Maggie. ‘Good man, Luka!’ and saying so, she half-passed, half-chucked the joint across the room. Luka the German jumped skittishly out of the way of the missile, much to the amusement of his companions. He picked the spliff up off the floor, blew the dust from it, and toked.
‘Magic,’ he said, his thick accent all the thicker for the settling smoke. The room rattled with laughter, and Maggie noticed from the corner of her eye that even the snubbed Davey couldn’t help but grin. She went on with her story.
‘When the world was smaller, and fuller of magic, there were races of beings who we might think of as being… halfway evolved. Half-animal, half-human. It was from one of these races that the being of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte came from. The thing which made its hame in the loch, was a selkie…’
Maggie let the word fill the air of the bothy, suppressing a smile as the wind hissed, and slithered in under the door, as if emphasising her point.
‘The Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte, though, is not just a selkie. For even selkies must mate and breed, travel and change, live and die. Naw. The Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte is said tae have once been a king among selkies. That is, until, in the time before Scotland was Alba, he was disgraced, dethroned, and made an outcast.
‘Of course, no one kens for sure exactly why he was, but rumours abound. According tae legend, this king of the selkies grew old and greedy. Life at sea and in Scotland’s estuaries began tae bore him, and he grew jealous when his womenfolk took human lovers. Worse still, he grew angry when human lovers took them, stealing their seal skin so that they could not return to the waters, and to their king. This particular selkie, so the story goes, decided to turn the tables on the upper world, and in time developed a taste… for human flesh.
‘His kind banished him for his gruesome malfeasance, and ever since then he’s eeked out an existence in the loch in the shadow of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte, the loch right outside this very bothy, surviving only on the human victims foolish enough to stumble across his path…’
The bothy to which Maggie referred was a single room cabin built of stone and mortar, once thatched, but now sporting a roof of crumbling slate. It looked like the kind of house a child would draw, if asked to – two Latin cross windows either side of a door, old, wooden, and flush with the stone.
Inside, huddled around the hearth’s single source of light and heat, were four friends and a stranger. The stranger, Luka Dietrich, we’ve already mentioned was met earlier that day, near the summit of the mountain. The friends, on the other hand, were a disparate group, but all the closer for it. They were joined, as they say, at the hip. The group had met in Glasgow, variously attending college, university, being from the city itself, or having escaped there, for reasons plainly obvious to the group. They had come to Glasgow from all four corners of Scotland.
To look at them was to see such unique characters you’d never in your life have put them together. And yet, whilst the pictures they presented of themselves seemed to clash quite violently, their experiences – the lives they held within – had, without a doubt, been cut from the same cloth. All four of the friends had grown up poor, surrounded by small, insular communities which promoted or suffered from bigotry, in one form or another. All four had been drawn to nature from an early age – the hills, moors, and forests of their native land offering some reprieve, some sanctuary from the council estates, tenement streets, or desolate, forgotten villages they called home. And all four had sought an escape from that life: from the prejudices and the small-mindedness which clawed and dragged and tugged at their heels, which tainted their every meal and filled their throats with a claggy, unyielding weight; which fogged their minds and, worst of all, suppressed their pursuits of self, to which each of them had always strove.
Arriving in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city – with its red-brick buildings, grey and rain-dashed streets, and never-finished construction works – they had, once the novelty had washed off, experienced a keen desolation. But then, as if by fate, they had met each other, and their lives had changed.
The group had met in an ancient pub called the Old Toll Bar, one Christmas Eve. Davey, born and bred in that great, hulking town, yet equally sequestered to his own small pocket of it, called the Old Toll his local. The others had flitted there by chance, seeking shelter from the sleet. With exceedingly cheap pints of stout on tap, and some decent music on the jukebox, the rest, as they say, was history.
Now, as Maggie, the eccentric queer with the weird, Shetlandic accent brought her strange and unnerving story to a close, she saw that the ramshackle bothy was full, as the Old Toll Bar had been all those years ago, with friends. On their faces, Davey, Nadiya, and Charlie wore bemused smiles. Only Luka the stranger carried the fearful expression which Maggie felt her tale deserved.
Presently, the German coughed through the last of the joint, and offered it to the room.
Big Davey polished off the dregs of a tinny, and crumpled it in one massive hand. He stood up, stretching and cracking, and marched over to the skinny blonde.
‘Al take that, pal. Danker shoon!’ Then, turning to Maggie, he said: ‘That it then, Mags? Ye’ve brought us aw on a med hike up the back erse a’ the Highlands tae stay owernight in a hauntit bothy? Fuckin’ braw!’ Davey’s laugh startled poor Luka even further, and Maggie rolled her eyes.
‘It’s no haunted ya eejit. Haunted would imply a ghost story, and ma story’s not a ghost story.’
Charlie, still staring transfixed into the belly of the fire, as his drug-addled brain contorted the flames and sparks, animating Maggie’s story in rich orange and furious white, spoke, without breaking concentration.
‘C’mon, Mags, have ee gone soft in the heid?’ He snorted. ‘Ee dinnae really believe aw that guff, div ee?’
Nadiya poked her boyfriend in the side, her subtle gesture immediately lost beneath Charlie’s melodramatic yowl.
‘Whit did ee dae that fur?!’ he exclaimed.
‘Just wheesht, would ye,’ replied Nadiya. ‘Nae need tae take the piss.’
‘I wasni–’ but Charlie’s protests were silenced with another jab to his ribs.
Davey, still standing next to the quietly observant German, put an intoxicated arm around the boy’s shoulders. Luka visibly strained under the weight.
‘What dae you make of all this, my European friend?’ slurred Davey, in a dialect as close to “proper English” as he could make it.
Luka Dietrich stood about six or seven inches taller than Big Davey Fae Ibrox. He wore his hair in a mess of golden curls, wound tightly to his scalp but wildly assembled all the same. A cut which would have looked clumsy and unkempt on anyone else. The rest of him, however, made up for the unruliness of his locks. He was clean shaven, his skin smooth and unblemished – no spots nor visible scars – and his cheekbones were high and pronounced. His lips were thin, contrasting eyes a little larger than average, with piercing irises, Aryan blue and unreadable, sat between fluttering sets of fair and fine eyelashes.
Luka wasn’t particularly muscular, but he was evidently fit, his unbranded hiking gear hugging slender limbs and a belly free of fat. His hands were milk white against the blue of his knitted jumper, veins of a similar blue readily visible between the taught and bony knuckles. Between his fingers the skin grew thinly, yet more abundantly than normal, rising almost to the middle knuckle between digits.
All in all, a textbook example of what unworldly Scotsman Davey Crooks thought of, when he thought of a German.
The room had grown quiet, anticipating Luka’s response. The lad’s eyes betrayed a slight lag between the hearing and comprehension of Davey’s question, but after a while, he answered.
‘Well, I think Maggie tells a very good story. I certainly would not wish to encounter this… how do you call it?’
‘Selkie’, answered the room.
‘Ja. Selkie. It sounds quite unpleasant,’ continued Luka, his tone considered and respectful. ‘How does your… selkie look like, Mags? May I call you Mags?’
‘Of course you may, pal,’ answered Maggie, wearing a proud grin. She turned to the rest of the room. ‘At least someone around here appreciates a good story!’
‘Selkies, Luka, hell… that’s a good question! Y’see, selkies can take any number of forms, especially thisselkie. Maistly, they look like seals, right? When they’re in the water – oot taa sea or in a loch or a river or whatever, they look jist like seals. In fact, you can hardly tell a selkie and a seal apart… until they step on land.’
‘And ee ken this… how?’ piped up Charlie, earning another rib-prod from Nadiya, whose only major complain about her boyfriend was his incessant need to bicker with her best pal.
‘Ah told you, Chazza man, I’ve been here before.’
‘Aw so ee’ve seen ‘um have ee? This selkie king?’
‘Am just tryin’ taa tell ma–!’ began Maggie, but her simmering frustrations were soothed before they had time to boil, thanks to an interjection from the German.
‘What happens then?’
Maggie shot Charlie a triumphant look.
‘Well, whenever a selkie steps on tae land, they’re forced tae shed their skin. Their sealskin, that is. At which point they taak on daa skin o’ a man or wuman.’ As the mushrooms and marijuana seeped deeper into Maggie’s bloodstream, her native Shetland dialect started cropping up more and more. Stoned, but not oblivious, Maggie caught the struggled look in Luka’s narrowing eyes. She cleared her throat and shook herself a little, like a wet dog emerging from the sea.
‘Sorry pal. What ah mean to say, is that a selkie is forced to take on the appearance of a human when they step on dry land. Maist selkies, given they are half man, half beastie, have their ain human likeness, like. But not this selkie. Like a told you earlier, this selkie was banished by his folk. Well, legend has it that when he was banished they took his human skin frae hum, in an attempt to confine him to the water for all eternity, so as he could nivver again trouble human folk.
‘Problem is…’ Maggie stopped to sip from her water bottle.
The water tasted to her like liquid crystal, the microscopic bubbles bursting on her tongue, her tongue like a causeway at hightide. Her eyes grew wide as she pulled the bottle away from her to inspect its contents. The water inside sloshed and swirled like ocean waves. She gyrated the bottle in her hand, forming a mini-whirlpool inside, and laughed euphorically.
Charlie, the only seasoned user in the room, grinned, despite himself.
‘Everything just tastes better, eh, Mags?’ he said, chuckling. By his side, Nadiya relaxed a little.
Maggie shook herself again, in the same canine fashion, and searched for the frayed end of her story. Luka, sober but for a few puffs of the joint, reminded her of her place.
‘Right, aye. Thanks Luka. Problem is… those who banished him hadn’t taken into consideration the curiosity of people. Left alone, the Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte might well have lived a sad, solitary life, and died in the waters of the loch. Problem is: he wasn’t left alain, alone, pardon moi.’
‘That’s French, Mags.’
‘Shut it, Charlie.
‘You see, no matter how many terrible tales have been told about this place, people continue to come here – just look at us! Here, despite it all.’
‘Here because you dragged us aw kickin’ an’ screamin’, Maggie, ya absolute nonce!’ protested Davey.
‘Ho, Davey my man,’ chirped up Nadiya, ‘enough ae the nonce patter, eh? She’s a dyke, no a paedo.’
‘Pansexual!’ corrected Maggie, ‘and ah don’t thinkn you should be using terms like–’
‘We’re sound with… whatever,’ interrupted Nadiya. ‘Ken, whatever yer sexuelle Neigung is, eh Luka pal?’ Then, turning to Charlie with a wink. ‘There’s some German for you, son.’
Luka looked utterly perplexed, all the more confused for the sudden inclusion of the German for ‘sexual proclivity’ breaking up a barrage of nonsensical Scots.
‘Wheeeesht, yous!’ shouted Maggie. ‘Ye dinnae think ah’d hev brought ye here if ah didnae think it wis safe, do ye?’ The group looked unconvinced. ‘Anyways, Luka, as ah was saying. As I was saying, the problem is that the selkie wasn’t left alone. There was always someone too curious not to come here, after hearing his story. So, before long, he’d gathered a fine wardrobe of human skin. Pictish warriors, Irish priests, Roman centurions, peasants, farmers, English reivers, boys, men, old men, Proddies, Fenians, wandering poets, landowners, Jacobites, Covenanters, the odd pissed-up junkie on a soul-searching hiking trip, their train bound outta the bottom a’ Leith walk,’
Charlie snorted approvingly at the reference. Big Davey took a second, then another, then finally laughed, so loudly he caused Luka to jump.
‘Ha-ha! Lit Train–’ he began.
‘Yes, Davey’ said Maggie, cutting him off. ‘Like Trainspotting. So, you see Luka, he’s got skins of all manner o’ men whae were stupid enough to cross his path. Some o’ the skins are too old now, tae wear without arousing suspicion. He’s a clever bastard mind. A king of his kind. Some o’ them have just outgrown his tastes in fashion, though still he keeps them around, weighted to the bottom of the loch by the bones of their previous occupiers.
‘Fact o’ the matter is, Luka mein Freund, there’s no way of knowing what the Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte will look like from one day to the next. His disguises are how he’s evaded capture all these years, how he lures his victims, makes ‘em feel safe and sound before he nabs thur birthday suits.’ Maggie laughed at her own joke. ‘Rumour has it, he likes the feel of foreign flesh the best…’
Luka, rolling another joint, stopped. He looked down at the half-crafted spliff, wondering whether sharing another smoke with this bunch of tripping Scots was such a good idea after all.
Big Davey tightened his hold around the German’s shoulders.
‘Ho! Mags! No on, mun. Yer scaring the poor lad. Christ on a bike, yer scarin’ me!’
Maggie looked from Davey to Charlie to Nadiya, then back to Davey and Luka.
‘Aye, c’mon Mags,’ said Nadiya, ‘let’s just enjoy the trip, eh?’ Her face, framed by a dark green hijab chosen specifically to match her hiking outfit, betrayed more than just a sincere desire to carry on with the hallucinogenic journey. As Mags studied the face of her best friend, she worried that perhaps she had pushed the story just a little too far.
Charlie, seasoned tripper and Maggie-sceptic though he was, also looked disconcerted.
Charlie Moffat was of the short and plump variety, his ginger hair the colour of carrots, his eyes the green of carrot tops. Though not conventionally attractive, he had an air about him – a dry wit and a confidence of character, not flashy, just self-assured – which nevertheless made him quite pretty in the right eyes. As it happened, Nadiya Jalal had such a set of eyes. They made an intriguing couple. Nadiya – a brash Ayrshire lass, born to Iranian migrants; strikingly handsome, with small chestnut eyes and one hell of an arse – and Charlie – native of a small, very white, very rural town in the Scottish Borders, with a doughy body currently a deep shade of lobster, a scraggly beard hiding a double chin, which was threatening to find a third if he wasn’t more careful with the Jaffa cakes and Irn-Bru, and no arse worth mentioning.
The disparity between the pair could be most succinctly summarised by Big Davey’s signature catchphrase: “A canni fuckin’ wait ti see the nick a’ your bairns, mun.”
It was the group’s firm belief that when Davey said this, he was picturing a ginger newborn in a burka, presumably believing that women of Arabic heritage knitted their children baby-sized hijab in the womb.
Sensing that his girlfriend’s trip was taking a turn for the paranoid, Charlie spoke up.
‘Right, enough o’ this ghost-story pish. It’s aboot that time o’ the night ti gaun an’ hiv a look at the stars, ah hink. Trust iz, if eev nivver seen the stars on mushies, eer in fer a treat.’
‘Sounds good, Charlie ma boy,’ agreed Davey, vocalising the accord of his nodding companions.
As the fire roared, tension in the cabin began to dissipate. Lifting themselves gradually out of their various states of inebriation, the group began to slip back into half-dried walking boots, pulling on knitted bonnets and applying the requisite mosquito repellent as they did. For those who had indulged, the psychedelic mushrooms had begun the climb towards their zenith, and the buttery firelight on the walls seemed to radiate warmth and goodwill. Outside, an owl hooted, and the friends laughed, as if that sound was the funniest thing in the world. Nadiya even laughed until she was buckled over, which got Charlie going. The rest fell like dominoes. Big Davey Fae Ibrox took a long swig from his bottle of tonic and held it in the air like William Wallace, brandishing the head of the Sheriff of Lanark.
‘Here,’ he said, barely containing his giggles, ‘Buckfast makes ye fuck fast. Ahh-ha-ha-ha-ha!’ The eyes of the company glistened with tears of mirth, and even Luka, though not tripping, thought the stupid wordplay hilarious. As the laughter faded, the friends finished readying themselves for their trip outside, and in their minds began dreaming of how wonderful the stars were going to look.
It was then that there came a knock at the door.
‘Nope! No a fucking chance,’ proclaimed Davey, prizing the tentative mollusc of silence from its rock with a voice like a diver’s knife.
Nadiya elbowed the big man in the ribs, her furrowed brows telling him to shut up, her forehead dappled with sweat.
Charlie’s brows travelled to meet his hairline, his eyes wide and his pupils wider. He squeezed Nadiya’s hand and stubbed out the latest in a succession of joints on the stonework of the bothy’s windowsill.
Maggie Skellister dropped her jaw to the ground. To her, the knocks at the door had rippled through the room in visible waves, like those left by a pebble, skimmed across water. She watched the last of them now as two lines collided in the corner, and echoed back along the wall. As they passed over and through her, her eyebrows undulated in rhythm, and she thought that in that moment she knew exactly who was stood on the other side of the door.
Luka Dietrich, straw-blonde brows knitting toward each other as he attempted to make sense of the terror gripping his present company, said rather loudly:
‘Are we not going to answer that?’
Luka’s question was met with a chorus of angry, fearful eyes.
Once more, there three knocks at the door.
Nadiya could hear the thud of her heart, the thrum of blood as it coursed through her ears.
‘Deutschland! You silly bastard!’ scorned Davey, barely louder than the whispering wind.
‘Just a bad trip, you’re just tripping,’ whispered Charlie to Nadiya, her head buried in his shoulder, but her boyfriend’s voice was missing its usual self-assurance.
Maggie, on the other hand, found that she was not in the least bit scared. In fact, the soundwaves of the beckoning knock felt to her warm, like a dram of whisky in the dead of winter, or the succulent heat of summer sun on Scottish skin. Before she knew what she was doing, she was on her feet, her hand outstretched toward the piece of string which sufficed for a door handle.
Davey blocked her way.
‘You high!?’ he asked.
Maggie just smiled and went to push past him. Davey stepped in front of her again, this time gripping her bicep with all the inhuman strength of a man raised on fritter rolls, pizza crunches, and tonic.
Maggie, red-headed and imbued with the characteristic fieriness of her ginger kinfolk, met Davey’s physicality with an uncommon calmness. She took the big man’s wrist between thumb and forefinger, and spoke gently.
‘You’re not really scared of a ghost story, are you Crooks?’ Her question was calculated, teasing in manner unlike her.
Davey, intelligent, but less emotionally astute than the average man (which isn’t saying a lot), cycled slowly through a few possible retorts. Maggie watched as his face betrayed each thought. Eventually, stumped, he released his grip on Maggie’s arm, and stood aside.
His pals Charlie and Nadiya could do nothing but look on, gobsmacked, frozen in place.
As if in a dream, it seemed to Maggie that the door to their small abode pulsated with light – the light of evening sun on a changing tide, of an aquarium’s observation room, dark but for those marching quarter notes of gold. As there came another knock at the door, she heard the sound as if it were muffled, underwater. She saw it, too, the impression of the visitor’s mitt somehow visible on her side of the wooden frame.
Gliding to the door, Maggie took hold of the fading green string, and pulled. The swollen wood of the door scraped noisily through grooves long-worn into the stone of the floor.
Light from the bothy spilled roaring into the night, and met the silhouette of a sunken figure, standing in the doorway.
The bothy’s residents stood transfixed.
The thing in the doorway drew its cloaks about itself, its face concealed amongst them.
Only the fire continued unphased, though had the party paid better attention, they might have noticed it burn a little faster, a little brighter.
It was Luka the German who was once again the first to speak.
‘Hallo,’ he said, and the introduction of sound caused Davey, Charlie and Nadiya to jump. ‘Would you like to come in? We have a little whisky.’
The eyes of the room turned slowly back to the figure outside.
It seemed at first not to react, but as their vision adjusted to its shadowy mass, th perceived a slow, deliberate bowing motion; a concession, perhaps.
‘You must be cold,’ said Maggie to the newcomer, though indeed she relished the cool chill of the night on her exposed forearms, fancying she could feel its fingers exploring her skin.
Again, the figure bowed, though whether it did in recognition, or respect, or out of sheer habit, she did not know.
As the figure stepped inside, the rest of the group stepped away in tandem, pushed by the magnitude of its presence. Luka was first to snap from his reveries, and turned to look for the whisky bottle. Maggie gestured for the figure to take a seat by the fire.
It followed her finger with its eyes, two marbles of drowning obsidian. Slowly, the figure turned back to Maggie, then to a corner of the room. There, the party saw, as if for the first time, a dank and dreary nook shelved into the back wall of the bothy. Somehow, not one of them had noticed this nook before. Certainly, they would have remembered it if they had, for just to look at it singed the nostrils. The stonework in that corner had long ago been lost to the dark, congealing mould of damp rot, and now its seat was a living gallery of moss and fungi, fed by a steady trickle of fetid water which seeped in through a crack in the ceiling.
The visitor looked back to Maggie, and in its lustrous pupils she felt herself falling, weightless and free, her mind expansive and expanding, intoxicated, taken. Her friends watched as she fawned, nodding her consent.
Slowly, this hunchback of furs trudged over to the corner of the bothy, its footsteps slapping on the stone, leaving small puddles in its wake.
As it passed them, Davey, Charlie and Nadiya recoiled at the stench. The smell wafting from the folds of the thing’s overcoat arrested the senses. It stung their nostrils like ripe onion, caused their eyes to water. It was heavy and languorous, like it might clog the pores and slicken the skin with its grease. To each of the hikers, the aroma smelled a little different. It had the lingering quality of tuna brine, and the acridity of freshly cut chili peppers; it was underscored, too, by a squalid dampness, like that of the nook toward which it was headed, and all these notes were mashed together with the repugnance of newly laid excrement.
Luka frowned as the figure lumbered by him. Holding out a glass of whisky as welcomingly as he could, he watched the figure reach out a hand, before seeming to suddenly change its mind. The look in its eyes made Luka’s hair stand on end.
With little regard for her friends, Maggie left the door ajar, wedged on the uneven flooring, and followed the figure further into the room. She inhaled deeply as its odour washed over her, closing her eyes, relishing the stench.
The thing finally reached the bothy nook, and lowered itself to the seat. More relaxed now than it had initially seemed, it leaned back, the downy growth of fungus squelching beneath it, and turned its face up to trickling water. It sighed, then, and as the tension in the room seemed momentarily want to wane, the door to the swung shut with a bang.
The party jumped. Davey screamed. Luka dropped the whisky glass to smash on the stone floor. It was a moment before they realised that with the exit of night, so too had the being’s stench left their nostrils. Nadiya tentatively removed the cloth of her hijab from over her nose, and clenched Charlie’s bicep until her knuckles turned white.
Nobody else moved.
The adrenaline of fight or flight coursed their bodies, sometimes negating the effects of the psychedelic mushrooms, sometimes confusing and distorting them even further – accelerating the twisting vortexes of colour and sound, heightening the sensation of dissociation.
The presence of the newcomer, though frightening, seemed to all non-negotiable. It was as here as, they supposed, unquestioningly, it had always been. As the weary light fro the fire flickered, each member of the group saw something different, resting in the horrid nook.
According to later statements, this is what they saw.
To Charlie and Nadiya, the visitor assumed the guise of an old man; an ancient man, wrinkles etched into skin as deep as trenches or valleys, the skin itself grey with age. The old man was wrapped in layer upon layer of fur, heavy with moisture, all navy black and thick, with hairs long and matted. His hood covered most of his face, but where light broke the shadows, they saw that the man wore a long, silvered moustache, threadbare and pointed, his eyes glazed with cataracts above a nose flat and wide. The couple were afraid of the old man, who sat so perfectly still, but they were curious, also.
To Maggie Skellister, there were no words which could have done justice to the harmony achieved between colour and light, shape and shadow, softness and definition, which surrounded the figure. It seemed to Maggie that with each slight inflection or movement of the creature’s massive frame, it took on a different image. At once a woman of graceful amplitude, her black hair curling over naked bodice, whilst simultaneously a spirit of the forest, deep green and lustrous as the leaves of a rhododendron. In one instant a massive raven, perched on the stonework in a riot of heaving feathers, its beak hooked and trembling with speech; in the next, a living statue of obsidian marble, polished and yet somehow worn, hewn of one perfectly large block, as fluid in preserved movement as the giant spiders of of Louise Bourgeois. And no matter the incarnation, always those eyes: unbroken black, as endless as the universe, as captivating as the night sky, their gaze locked with hers, opening a channel of thought which communicated unspeakable love. To Maggie the being was Narcissus, and she the reflective pool.
For big Davey, on the other hand, who was the most inebriated of the group, the thing in the watery hole visibly shuddered with energy, the sound of which roared in his eardrums like waves against the cliffs. As such, its outline was blurry, impermanent. It was a mass of ugly, turgid fur, short black hairs curly and wet, shoulders hulking above the contorted musculature of its frame. It seethed. Horned and horny toothed, it was a great bull, an ox, a boar with gills and fins and blubber which sloughed from it to pile on the floor in inky pools of melted black. From its sunken nostrils poured jets of condensing steam, and as the beast turned its eyes from Maggie to him, he felt the strength in his muscles falter. Its gaze was that of ivy to a tree, not just hungry, but boastful, greedy. Davey felt that the machinery in his chest could not maintain this eye contact for much longer, and yet he could not look away. He turned sheet white by the light of the fire.
And then there was Luka, the German. Luka, who had not partaken of the hallucinogens. To Luka, the thing in the nook was – quite clearly – a seal.
Or, at least, now that it had moved into the light, it was clear that it was no human. Its head was smooth and bald, greying blue in hue. On its face it wore a set of silvered whiskers, a stubby snout and eyes bulging and devoid of colour, which reminded Luka of the deepest sea. Its body was too large to be that of a seal’s, but then so too was it overlarge for a grown man. Luka could not tell whether the sleek fur draped over its shoulders was a part of it, or not. Though it clearly walked on two feet, Luka surmised that those feet probably did not resemble his own. Certainly, the hand which had reached out toward his proffered whisky had been more paw, than hand: large and webbed and fingerless. Just a seal, thought Luka, in a daze.
But then the seal looked at him, and in his heart he heard the whisperings of a thousand lost sons.
The air in the bothy was still, lying heavy in the lungs of the campers. Few dared even to breathe, for fear of attracting the attention of the newcomer. Few except Maggie, who had moved silently to stand by its shoulder.
Slowly she reached out, trembling fingers imagining what they might feel, what they might discover among the lines of the being’s many faces.
Then suddenly, the thing spoke.
‘There will be time for that later, Maggie Skellister.’
Its voice seemed to come from every corner of the room. Mild, it betrayed little emotion or character, yet still it was… captivating. Ancient, without doubt, and weighted with the wisdom of many lives.
‘Your menfolk are frightened.’
‘I told them your story,’ replied Maggie, her voice stirring her friends from their trance.
‘Is she speaking to–’ began Nadiya, feeling faint.
‘It is a frightful story,’ said the Selkie of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte, a hint of playfulness in his voice. ‘And will they pose a problem?’
Maggie thought about this for a second, ignoring the mounting confusion of her friends who, she suspected, were not privy to the selkie’s words.
‘No problem,’ she said at last. ‘They cannot tell truth from fiction.’
‘Are you sure?’ The selkie looked not at Maggie but into her, and she felt the tug of treachery in her chest. Her treachery, the treachery of one who has knowingly jilted a lover. In her peripheries, she caught sight of Luka, pulling his phone from his pocket with trembling hands.
‘Shit,’ she cursed. ‘I… I’m so sorry. I forgot. Him. He… wasn’t supposed to be here.’
‘He can see me, did you know that?’
Maggie stared blankly at the creature.
‘Who is he?’ the selkie asked.
Maggie’s answer was immediate.
‘A stranger. A hiker. Nobody.’
Luka heard her and began tapping at his phone even more urgently.
‘And has he eaten of the earth?’ Maggie knew that the selkie king meant the mushrooms.
She hesitated before answering, shame feeding her heartache.
‘…No, I… I’m sorry, I… he didn’t want–’
‘His vision is clear, and he has seen my true form, Maggie Skellister,’ pressed the selkie, his words deliberately hard.
Maggie felt suddenly close to tears; her words stuck fast in her throat. But then the selkie softened again.
‘Would you like to see me, too, Maggie?’
Now, like falling snow, the shapeshifting selkie settled quietly into its natural shape – that which Luka had seen – revealing itself to the intoxicated Shetlander, who wept to see the beauty of the seal-man. Around his sleek and watery body her mind, clear now, saw the ripples his presence sent along the fabric of reality. The earthly form the selkie took sent shivering waves of prismatic light toward the fringes of the ether, and as they passed through Maggie she tingled with lust.
Whilst their pal conducted her strange, one-sided conversation with the grotesque stranger, Charlie, Nadiya and Davey shook themselves free of their petrification.
Davey would still not turn his gaze back to the black beast, all smoke and horns, but at least now the thought of it did not completely freeze him to the spot. He saw Luka, taller and blonder than ever thanks to the strengthening effects of the mushrooms, doing something with his phone. His mouth dry and sticky, Davey finally found his voice.
‘Whit ye… whit ye upti… Luka, pal?’
Luka looked ill. The weed had fully caught up with him, and now the sober region of his mind was drowning. He turned to Davey, who did not look too good himself.
‘I try to phone someone but…’ Luka shook his head, ‘no service.’
Davey cursed, thought a moment, then tiptoed toward his bag. From it, he produced his final tinny of Tennent’s. Cracking it open, he slurped the golden nectar down loudly, draining half the can in a single go. The big man sat back down in his seat, bemused and bewildered, and allowed the lager to wash his anxieties away. Luka choked back a sob.
‘Just a trip. Just a bad, bad trip.’
In the other corner of the room, back by the struggling fire, Charlie rocked on his heels.
‘Just a bad, bad, bad trip. Just a trip.’
Nadiya squeezed tighter on his arm and he looked up into her eyes, saw the worry there.
‘Just a trip, baby. Just a trip.’
‘Char,’ whispered Nadiya, ‘this canni be a trip, man. Jist look at that fuckin’ hing.’
But Charlie would not be deterred.
‘Trust me Nadiya Jalal, it’ll pass, just gotta… just gotta… gotta keep…’ but he trailed off.
Confused, high, and still far from sure what in hell was actually going on, Nadiya mustered her courage. She turned to Maggie, stood just inches from the strange old man with the white whiskers, the pair’s eyes locked, neither of them blinking.
‘Mags?’ said Nadiya. ‘Mags, are you… talking to him? Is he talking, Mags? Mags,what’s he saying?’
But Maggie no longer had ears for anyone but the king, resplendent on his throne of emerald and burnished silver. She was the king’s court, his emissary, his advisor and his herald. And the king had further questions for her. Questions about the German boy.
‘Did he come alone?’
‘Will he be missed?’
‘I… I don’t know.’
‘Will you miss him?’
‘Then will you deal with him for me, Maggie? For us?’
The selkie reached out his paw and lightly touched the back of Maggie’s hand.
‘Then you were lucky to meet him on the path. Your friends will no longer be needed.’
His paw was soft and warm, slick with the mossy dampness of the nook. Five claws, cold and smoothed to a scalpel-point gently grazed the Shetlander’s skin. Though the touch lasted only a fraction of a second, it filled Maggie Skellister with a joy she could not have previously known was possible. Up her spine shot an icy thrill of pleasure, and in the flesh behind her stomach moved the machinery of life.
Maggie had known of her desire since first she’d laid eyes on the old king, last summer, on a hiking trip with her parents. In fact, it was they who’d told her the old Shetlandic folktale in the first place: of the Merwife of Unst, and of the selkie king, banished from his kingdom. It was they who, despite their Christian aversion to pagan lore, had insisted that they go looking for the loch in the lee of Beinn Nam Mic Caillte.
And there, in the dark, unmoving waters, the king had revealed himself to her. There he had come to her, in a vision in her sleep, hauntingly beautiful with eyes like the petroleum tails of magpies.
She recalled waking in the mid night, her bedding damp, her body quivering.
She recalled the ache she’d felt for the selkie then, and the desperation to sate it.
But never could she have guessed the euphoria which his actual touch would invoke. And how could she? His touch was transcendent. As their skin met, time flattened, and through its wafer skein Maggie saw all of the life her king had lived, all of the lives he had made one.
She saw moons rise and fall, weeping among the heather, to rise again in burning globes of orange, yellow, ivory white. She saw mountains march, rivers ebb, huge unyielding glaciers carve valleys from the land like her father had whittled trinkets from wood. She saw burning starlight roar and erode, fading above the neon glow of expanding cities. She saw the landscape awash with mighty pine and oak, burn and fall and crumple into barren hillsides, then come alive again in purple heather. She saw the bothy – her bothy, his bothy – built up layer by layer; watched its buttery light flick on and off a thousand times, so fast it twinkled like the light of a distant planet. She watched it fall into disrepair.
And through it all she saw the water of the loch, perfectly still, deeper than sunlight, never growing, never shrinking; and, feeling drawn, she allowed herself to be pulled beneath the surface.
Then, as quickly as it came, the vision vanished, as the selkie withdrew his paw.
Maggie Skellister gasped for breath, a sob in her throat. It was all she could do not to wail. Her heart had been broken in two.
‘Patience, my love’ whispered the selkie. ‘Our time is close.’
And then, with a wink, the bothy fell into darkness.
The search for the two missing hikers enters its third day, today. Maggie Skellister, 28, and Luka Dietrich, 34, a native of Germany, were last seen camping with friends Nadiya Jalal, David Crooks, and Charlie Moffat in the Scottish Highlands, on a Munro known to locals as the Mountain of Lost Sons. A mountain with a reputation for unsolved disappearances.
The friends, who were the first to report the persons as missing, are currently being held in custody as suspects, in a case Police officials suggest may be rife with foul play. The arrests were made after the three suspects provided wildly varying accounts of their night spent with the missing hikers. Toxicology reports indicate that high levels of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin were found present in all three of the suspects’ bloodstreams – a drug known to induce psychosis: a dissociative state in which individuals are unable to determine what is real and what is not.
Following the failure of mountain rescue divers to locate any evidence beneath the waters of the mountain’s largest lake, the search has since turned to the moorland around the summit.
Earlier, we spoke once again with the family of Maggie Skellister. We learned of a previous trip Miss Skellister had made to the region, on a family holiday in the Summer of 2021. Mrs Skellister told our reporters that her daughter was already familiar with the area, and was an experienced hiker. As such, Mrs Skellister believes her daughter Maggie could not have become lost. The family of Luka Dietrich declined to give statement.
Pressure mounts on Police Scotland to locate Maggie Skellister and Luka Dietrich, or extract some more reliable information from the suspects in custody.
Those in the area around Beinn Nam Mic Caillte are urged to come forward if they have any information pertaining to the disappearances.
In other news, a dramatic increase in seal sightings in the River Thames has brightened up the morning commute considerably. According to one financial sector worker, the sight of their bobbing heads and shining eyes has him actually looking forward to going to work…
Light from the window of the bothy falls as does candlelight from a cracked lantern. Spilling through narrow stonework, it cuts a weak shard across the moorland, blooming heather and soft pockets of winter snow shying from its luminescence. Where the light peters out, the loch begins. Sleek as seal skin, the surface of the water is dark and oily, a thin film of scum discolouring its edges.
Plunge beneath the surface, and you would be fooled into thinking the loch was empty – too still and stagnant to host life. It is deep, deeper than your lungs could take you, and yet nothing rises from the depths. No bubbles of air, no animal matter, no plant life, nothing.
But your eyes deceive you, for the loch is fuller of life than you could possibly imagine. Many lives, in fact, comprise the silty mulch on the bed of this lagoon, tethered there by time, and the will of the loch’s inhabitant.
Out of reach of the sun’s rays, in the furthest depths of those waters, there abides an ancient king. His throne is made of a thousand skins, which he would wear to fool you, trick you, entice you into his lair, his watery kingdom.
Legend has it that he once surfaced in his true guise, mottled fur battle-scarred, and soft-grey to the touch, black snout wet, and pretty with whiskers, his flippers and paws padding at the peaty earth. He came then for a woman, and made her his queen. And, as the story goes, with her by his side his thirst for human flesh was at long last quenched, so enthralled were they with each other’s beauty, wisdom and cunning.
On the banks of a mountain called Beinn Nam Mic Caillte lies a loch by a bothy, and every year bouquets of wildflower are laid, in memoriam, by the door of the crumbling hut. And every year those mournful flowers soon disappear. And every year, come summer, if you’re lucky enough, you might just see petals floating atop the still surface of the loch; and if you look close enough, hard enough, you might even see them rise from the depths, as if the world were inverted, and they were snowflakes, fallen from the clouds.
Thank you for listening to Stories From The Hearth. Special thanks this month go to my good pal, Ali Begg, for help with the pronunciation, grammar, and spelling of the Gaelic for 'Beinn Nam Mic Caillte', which means 'The Mountain of Lost Sons'. Without him, it would have meant something very different; or, indeed, nothing at all. With today’s story, I wanted to try my hand at horror. I've never really written horror, and maybe that shows. I definitely tried to weave a little bit of comedic relief into the story as well, and I also tried to write something close to the heart. I often try to write things as fantastical as worlds into which I can escape, as well as worlds into which you can escape. But, for this one I wanted to write something that was familiar to me, namely: hiking and camping with friends, and friends who are these kind of ridiculously exaggerated Scottish characters. I wanted to also do something that was a bit of a bottle episode, too, all happening in this one location, with real focus on the characters themselves; especially that of the Selkie king, once he comes in. I really wanted to create a sense of menace around this distortion of how he is perceived by the various characters I'd created. Of course, I had to chuck in some drug use, too, for what good is a Halloween story if not one in which the heroes are too inebriated to do anything about it. And, that obviously comes into play at the end there, too, when the broadcaster uses their mushroom use to kind of blame them - and by the police to kind of blame them - for Luka and Maggie's disappearance.
I really hope you liked today's story. I had a lot of fun writing it. I'm really glad I got to do something horror-themed, because I really do love Halloween. My partner and I have spent this month watching classic Halloween movies, decorating the apartment, and being as spooky as we can. In fact, if all goes to plan, this morning I should be very, very hungover right now, after a Halloween party out in Glasgow. Perhaps you are too, and that's why you're here: getting a good story to soothe that hungover head of yours.
Thank you for listening to this month’s Story From The Hearth. If you liked what you heard, please do subscribe, and share this podcast with friends, family, and anyone you know who could use just a half-hour’s respite from the chaotic energies of the everyday. You can also now rate podcasts on Spotify, so if you’re listening to it there, why not drop us some stars. If you wish to support the podcast, please head to my Patreon by hitting the link in the description. Similarly, you can check out the podcast’s Instagram, Twitter, website and email address via the links below. Story episodes are released on the last Sunday of every month. Additional episodes in The Wandering Bard historical mini-series will pop up from time to time. Until next we meet around the fire, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to Stories From The Hearth.