I had been living in Strathard for about ten months when I first met Rob. I was out on the dam, looking up at the stars, secure in the knowledge that I was alone, when a voice quite clearly and rudely addressed me;
“What in the name of blue blazes are you doin’ here?”
I turned to see a ghostly figure, dressed in a great kilt and bearing a sword at his hip, long hair and beard well kept but flowing freely, advancing toward me from the southern end of the dam.
I had never seen a ghost before and indeed I was not sure that I was seeing one then either. My first reaction was that I was the target of an elaborate practical joke; the sassenach, having relaxed into his new life in the glen, was now to be tormented by Scots jokers pretending to be ghostly highlanders. I shook my head and blinked, trying to banish the shade with reason, but it was no use, there he stood, or more correctly floated about three inches above the dam’s stones. He glared at me fiercely and his body language was quite plain; I was meant to feel threatened and no mistake.
In the end I had to accept that this visitation was not going to end as abruptly as it began and that I probably needed to answer the ghost’s question, so I tried to banish my bemusement that I was actually going to talk to a ghost and answered:
“I live here, just down there in fact that small house, just below the dam.”
I pointed to the small white house that my family were all sleeping in. There was a low gentle light emerging from a couple of windows, but on the whole the place was dark and quiet.
“I do not remember that place… Nor any Englishman out of uniform roaming free in this glen.”
Came his halting reply. It occurred to me that something odd was going on, if for no other reason than this ghost sounded for all the World like Liam Neeson and was not in fact speaking either Gaelic or even old-fashioned English with a Scots brogue, where his mode of dress and evident dead-ness would have perhaps demanded that he were a little more in keeping with the eighteenth century. He seemed confused suddenly, shaken from his former confident bluster, and I saw him examining his hands, as if he seemed to mark how insubstantial they were; as if he were conscious that perhaps he was the one out of place.
We stood there, looking at one another for a few moments more, and then he spoke again;
“Ah, I seem to have forgotten myself again. I’m dead you see. Sorry to have bothered you, but I saw you here and for a moment I was taken back to when I was a breathing man, and I would never have suffered a stranger to pass so close to my home in the night.”
It was a shocking admission. On the one hand I did not know a thing about ghosts, but I had rather expected that they rarely knew what they were, let alone be so matter-of-fact about their odd state of lingering activity. On the other hand I had not really considered how out of place I was in so many ways. My family and I were settling in nicely to life in Scotland, but for all of our distant connections with the land we were now calling home, neither my wife nor I were well versed in the history of the Highlands, and yet here I was meeting it. I decided to take the opportunity for what it was, and settled into the idea of talking to the ghost.
“That’s alright. I don’t suppose it can be easy being a ghost, watching the World go on and being unable to take part in it as you once did. Did you live around here in life then?”
The ghost nodded and relaxed, appearing to slip into a mode that was familiar to it, one of acceptance and awareness, a “yes, I am a ghost and now I am going to talk to this living person here, because that is all I have and at least they can see me” type of demeanour.
“Not many folk can see me you know? I don’t know what it is that marks out those that can, but most of the living would never have heard my initial outburst as you did. I should introduce myself, you may find you have heard of me, others have that I have met over the years. I am Rob MacGregor, sometimes known as Rob Campbell or Rob Roy. I was Laird of Inversnaid at the turn of the eighteenth century, then outlawed in conflict with the Duke of Montrose. Like I say, you may have heard of me.”
I imagine I looked quite comical, flapping my jaw, soundlessly in the moonlight. I mean, sure, any ghost is going to claim to be the ghost of Rob Roy, but he was believable, if nothing else. I was still having trouble with the lilting Irish brogue of Liam Neeson every time that he spoke, but he certainly had the look of the late great clan chieftan, cattle rustler, blackmailer and all round delightful scoundrel, so I was poised to believe him utterly.
“Yes, I have heard of Rob Roy MacGregor, everyone has. Just one question though, why are you not speaking Gaelic?”
At this the ghost laughed, his face softening and his features seeming to transform into a much softer, warmer countenance.
“I am, it’s something about the ghost situation. You hear what I am saying in the way most likely to make sense to you, if I tried to speak to you in my halting English you would hear the speech of a child. I speak as I did and whomsoever I meet hears me in their own tongue, in their own way. If you were from the low countries you would hear me in Flemish or Dutch, France in French and so on.”
I nodded, that made a lot of sense; what point would there be in being a ghost if no one could ever understand you.
“So, Englishman, what is your name?”
I settled down on the low wall on the west side of the dam and took a deep breath;
“I am James Inderwood, a very great pleasure to meet you, Sir.”
I answered as I effected a solemn, but token bow.
“Well met then, James Inderwood. Forgive my initial ill humour, as I said I forgot myself and my condition. As you might imagine it is a lonely lot to haunt the land for as long as I have, so I ought to treat those that I meet from the living world with a little more civility. Alas being a ghost is not always a rational estate. Tell me, Sir, what brings you out into the darkness on a night such as this, while your family sleeps in your bothey o’er yonder?”
I decided not to be offended by his calling our very nicely converted shepherds’ cottage a bothey;
“Well, to be honest with you Rob, may I call you Rob?”
He nodded his assent
“To be honest with you, I was having trouble sleeping, and it’s come to be my custom when sleep will not take me that I wander up here and look at the stars until the fresh night air starts to make me drowsy and then I take myself away inside again. I suppose it goes back to when I used to smoke and I would do that outside, so as not to make the children breathe the stuff in, and now even without the habit I find that the night air is calming. That, and I love to look up at the heavens and marvel at the stars.”
His smile widened and I was struck by the odd notion that I was having a human moment with a spirit, with the unquiet soul of a man who lived and died under the same stars, in the same glens, but three hundred and more years before.
I took a moment to take his form in once again, to appraise it more closely, and based on the little I knew about his history I had to assume that he was haunting the glen in the mode that he had adopted in the time after the Duke of Montrose had declared him outlaw, when he and his family had been kicked off his land in Inversnaid and he had waged his own private blood feud against Montrose in response to what many would agree was poor and unjust dealing. I screwed up my courage and decided to ask him about that time, after all who would not want to know about high adventure, love, betrayal and blood in the highlands of the early seventeen hundreds.
“Rob, I hope you don’t mind me asking, and tell me if you do, but what was it like to be on the run from Montrose and harrying him, his men and his property after the wrongs he did you and your family?”
He fixed me with a stern look, but nodded and seemed agreeable to tell me the tale. I settled back against the stones and prepared myself for a story.