A few years ago, a story emerged about the discovery in Mount Stuart House, Bute, of a rare copy of First Folio – an early edition of the works of England’s Bard, William Shakespeare. This got me to thinking about one long-ago summer when me and my friends, Gordon Williamson and Robin Hickey, spent most of our spare time shuttling between Kerrycroy village and the big house at Mount Stuart.
Gordon and I were both 18. We had both left school when we were 16 when we started our lives as working men. Gordon had joined the Royal Navy and was by now completing his basic training and about to start specialising as a salvage diver, while I had followed in my father’s footsteps and had joined the Post Office as an apprentice telephone engineer and was about to be transferred to the head office in Glasgow. We had lived on the island for as long as we could remember and had been at school together since we were five. Robin, who was from Lizard in Cornwall, was a couple of years younger and was still at school.
Gordon’s dad was a plumber for the Bute Estate. He and his family lived in a mock-Jacobean Bute Estate house in the model village of Kerrycroy, complete with a village green, maypole, beach and view across the Clyde estuary to North Ayrshire. Robin’s dad was Lord Bute’s butler, and he and his family lived in an annexe at the rear of Mount Stuart House. Gordon’s and Robin’s houses were separated by a one-and-a-half-mile driveway from Kerrycroy village in the north through the Mount Stuart woods to the big house in the south. For one glorious late summer and autumn, that village, the big house and the road between was our playground. It was a time of dark driveways, an old uninsured 50cc Honda moped, Navy Cut untipped cigarettes, Merrydown cider and Adam and the Ants. Without us realising it, it was when we said farewell to our childhood.
The moped was the essential part of this equation. It was an old 1970s Honda designed for “the busy working woman”, had the pulling power of a drunk man with BO and halitosis, and could move as fast as a 60-year-old with sciatica. It was never going to win prizes for looks or speed, but it was almost indispensable for getting between Kerrycroy village and Mount Stuart House. All three of us would perch precariously on it as we made the trip, with one or two having to get off and walk alongside as it struggled up the occasional slight gradient. As three strapping, fit and healthy teenagers, we could have easily made the trip on foot much more quickly than by clinging to this machine… but where would the fun have been in that?
The unlit driveway leading up to Mount Stuart House goes through a thick wood with a single clearing as it passes the Chrichton-Stuart family graveyard, which is nestled on a sudden bend and affords a brief view onto the Clyde.
One night we had been at Gordon’s watching a horror film on TV, after which we all jumped onto the moped and headed up to Robin’s for some cider. It was a dark night, and all the way up the driveway the only light available was the weak beam from the moped’s headlamp. After a few hours drinking responsibly and listening to Adam and the Ants records, it came time to leave. Gordon had to take some things back to his house, meaning there was no room on the moped, so I had to start walking until he could come and get me.
Emboldened by youth and alcohol, I started down the drive in the pitch darkness. As I got deeper into the woods, the blackness grew darker still. It was so dark I could barely see my hand in front of my face. The torch I had struggled to pierce the darkness to just about reach the ground immediately in front of my feet, just enough to ensure my next step would be on tarmac and that I wasn’t heading into a ditch or the woods.
As I was walking, with just the sound of animals scurrying about out of sight and the breeze blowing through invisible trees to keep me company, I began to think that I was not alone. With one of my senses almost entirely removed, my others heightened, and my imagination began to run riot. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I noticed someone steal up beside me. I could make out a vague shape of what I thought was a person at the extreme end of my peripheral vision. This figure pulled back whenever I turned my eye towards it and would then reappear, creeping up on the other side. With the blackness getting darker, the wildlife getting noisier and the sound of waves now gently lapping onto an unseen pebble beach mixing with the rustle of the trees, I tried to up my pace. However, the light from my pathetic torch made it difficult to walk quickly while staying on the road and, in any case, even as I upped my pace, so too did my companion.
Now convinced against all reason I was not alone, I spun around and aimed my torch into the void in a vain attempt to convince my rational mind that the mixture of alcohol, darkness, waves, wind, trees and animals was causing my irrational mind to play tricks on me. However, as my trickle of light disappeared into the blackness, I was sure I saw a man suddenly crouch and fold his hands over his head as if trying to hide. My heart nearly jumped out of my mouth and, abandoning all caution, I started running as fast as I dared, only to find my companion keeping up with me in my peripheral vision, just off my left shoulder. I spun around again, shining my torch before me, only to see him crouch and fade into the night.
By now, I was approaching the clearing. I continued running, my companion by my side, and suddenly came across the gap with a Celtic cross framed by black trees and silhouetted against the silver of the estuary. At that moment, I swore I heard an owl calling. I turned and saw my companion crouch and fade again. I ran past the clearing and the graveyard as if I was Tam O’Shanter being chased out of Kirk Alloway. My companion was no longer in my peripheral vision, but in my mind, he was still behind me, and when I turned, I could swear I could see him standing at the graveyard.
At this point, I began hearing a new, yet familiar, noise. At first, it was very faint, but it grew louder with each passing step. Ahead of me, I noticed a small beam of light moving slowly towards me. The sound of the two-stroke engine was music to my ears. As Gordon approached on the moped, I summoned the courage to take one more look back towards the clearing, where I swear I could see a faint figure staring back at me.
That was the last time I walked that driveway on my own.