The Ghost Story in Scotland

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Within a decade of publishing what might be considered the first modern Scottish ghost stories, Walter Scott and James Hogg turned their attention to widespread doubt about the form. While Scott is willing to accept “that those who relate [ghost stories] on their own authority actually believe what they assert”, he concludes his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) by arguing that any such story is suitable only for the youthful individual and the youthful nation (Scott 1868: 352). Not only are “tales of ghosts and demonology […] out of date at forty years and upwards”, but even “the present fashion of the world seems to be ill suited for studies of this fantastic nature” (ibid., 398). Scott, as David Punter influentially notes, is interested not in “mythologising about the past” but rather giving new vitality to “the actual myths of the past” (Punter 1996: 141). As such, ghosts and other supernatural tropes in Scott’s work are simultaneously defamiliarized and historicized, as a way of foregrounding both his immersion in a particularly Scottish literary and folkloric tradition and his originality. As Ian Duncan notes, Scott establishes a persistent association between the national and the uncanny or supernatural (Duncan 2001: 70). Yet ghosts, Scott cautions, must be treated with special caution. He emphasizes as early as 1801 that ghost stories and other accounts of the marvellous are “ill-timed & disgusting when not managed with moderation & ingrafted upon some circumstances of popular tradition or belief” (quoted in Robertson 1994: 65). The ghost story must always be grounded in a particular local or national tradition and belief system, and cannot be presented naïvely. Hogg takes up this challenge in his 1830 Blackwood’s story “The Mysterious Bride”, which opens with the claim that a “great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts […]. Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade, and […] is trying to throw cold water on the most certain, though most impalpable, phenomena of human nature” (Hogg 2012: 155). Both writers, like their contemporaries, are expressly concerned with the derivation and authenticity of ghost stories, whether in oral or textual form: the ghost story is not a simple recounting of supernatural events, but an enquiry into its own manner of telling. Over the next two centuries, the Scottish ghost story is continually marked by a focus on the nature of its transmission: it is used to highlight the relation both between oral and written communication and individual and collective perception.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook to the Ghost Story
EditorsScott Brewster, Luke Thurston
Place of PublicationAbingdon, UK
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-315-64441-7
ISBN (Print)978-1-138-18476-3
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2017

Publication series

NameRoutledge Literature Handbooks


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