Linlithgow sits on the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Mary Queen of Scots was born in its palace. We lived there for a couple of years when I was a kid. I think I was 13 when we went on the ghost walk. The walk was the brainchild of a local history teacher, Bruce Jamieson, so it was meticulously researched. The Herald reviewed it a few years later. Nearly 25 years on his stories have stuck with me. There was the man decapitated by a kick from a horse. I still remember where that happened. There were the children who died skating on the loch (a couple of months later I thought for a minute I’d sledge into it – the 3′ (plus?) drop onto a cleared pavement that day prevented that but might be how my L5/S1 disc first got damaged). There were the graverobbers who were caught out by the body they were robbing. There was Burke and Hare, using the canal to take bodies back to Edinburgh. There was the child murdered by her father in the stone dovecote (which was on the route between our house and my best friend’s). He said it was because he couldn’t afford to feed her.
There were many more. Linlithgow is an attractive place with an impressive history but it inevitably included a lot of suffering and death. A bound book was available on the tour. It told all the stories and even contained an invoice for all the items bought to burn a woman at the stake for witchcraft. I don’t remember how the book wound up in my hands. Maybe I just thought it’d be uncool not to read it. Maybe I was thinking of impressing other kids with the stories. Once I had it I began to hate it though. I couldn’t admit it. I was 13 after all. It got to the point where I buried it under a load of other things at the bottom of my wardrobe. At first it was in with some school exercise books there but when I needed to pull an old book out for some reason I’d come across it. It ended up not just under the box of books but under a carpet remnant under the box of books. It stayed there for years.
I wasn’t scared of ghosts though. The stories were sad and spooky in the dark but they weren’t what got to me. What I really feared was more mundane, I think. People. The things they do to each other, most of all in the name of their country or religion and/or under the protection of the law. It’s the actions of the State that got to me. It still is. It’s capital punishment and torture and the seemingly never ending methods dreamed up to interrogate, punish, test, set an example to others and satisfy the public bloodlust. It’s the things human imaginations can dream up to hurt others. What really got to me about that book was the woman who burned at the stake and the petty bureaucracy that kept records of how much it cost to kill her. I don’t remember the details of what happened to her before she was killed but it’s a safe bet she was tortured to try to get a confession.
To this day, I can’t even handle simulated execution and turn away from the sight of a noose or hangman’s cross on tv. I can still see others I’ve seen in museums over the years and in pictures. I can watch gruesome crime dramas like The Tunnel but I can’t get the image of Shaun Ryder and others twitching at the end of their ropes in Malcolm McClaren’s Ghosts of Oxford Oxford Street film out of my head and that was over 20 years ago (4od’s got the film by the way).
My biggest fear isn’t ghosts, monsters or witches. It’s the darkness in humanity which makes society say that cruelty and vengeance are acceptable. It’s the baying mob. Not just the people who would line the streets to watch. For most of our history most of them had no say over what punishments could be meted out. They may have taken pleasure in the spectacle but they weren’t writing the laws. They weren’t even voting for the people who did. We don’t execute people anymore in the UK (although apparently it’s a lark to celebrate it if the executed person’s infamous enough), let alone sell off pieces of the executed person’s body as souvenirs after they’re dead, but my greatest fear is we’re not so very far removed from those days. Today the Guardian reported on the murder of Bijan Ebrahimi , who was beaten, dragged into the street and set on fire because his neighbours (wrongly) believed him to be a paedophile. A quote says that the people chanting “paedo” have to live with the fact that he was innocent, rather than that mob justice should simply never happen.
So much of our history revolves around fear and prejudice: fear of and prejudice towards women who educated themselves so that they could help others; different races, religions and cultures; mentally ill people; even poor people. In addition to the regular functioning of the criminal justice system, the worst crimes committed in the UK were committed by the State: the torture and killing of women, Jews, Catholics and Protestants (depending on which way the wind blew), political dissenters. And then there’s the arrogance and violence of the State’s actions in pursuit of (and to cling on to) colonial power. My innate revulsion towards all of these things probably goes a long way to explain why human rights matter so much to me. I need a legal system I can trust to prevent us repeating history. I fear the State that says the means justify the ends, leaders (political and religious) who believe absolutely in the rightness of their actions, indoctrination of a public which stands aside and lets things pass, the society which values retribution and the underlying pettiness and nastiness that lie in the hearts of people who would have turned in their own neighbours to face the violence of the State. I don’t fear ghosts.