It was only a story, but still Carolyn had felt a shiver as she stood at the apex of the Brig o’ Doon and pictured the half-naked witch making a grab for Tam’s mare’s tail.
That a two-hundred year-old poem could have that effect on her was an extraordinary tribute to the power of Robert Burns’s imagination, she thought, as they drove back to Turnberry in the dying rays of an autumn sunset. With his description of the haunted churchyard, the darkened country road, it was his genius to be able to tap into the most basic of human fears in a way that was frightening and funny at the same time.
When she got home to the States she would put on her best Scots accent and read Tam o’ Shanter again to her senior English class, but this time with new feeling. She would give them a slideshow too: Alloway kirkyard, the ancient humpbacked bridge itself, the Bard’s thatched cottage, the larger-than-man-sized bronze mouse in the museum garden, and all the other marvels, too numerous to recall, that she had captured on her camera over the course of the afternoon.
If Carolyn had been asked to name the highlight of the trip so far, she would have been hard pressed. The golf, on Turnberry’s Kintyre course, had been spectacular. The hotel itself offered the warmest of Scottish welcomes and every imaginable comfort. But right now, for the high school teacher from Chicago, the visit to Alloway and Robert Burns’s birthplace was winning by a short head.
While their husbands, competitors in the business of real estate but long-standing buddies on the golf course, had gone to play Troon for the day, she and her friend Julie had left early in the rented car and taken the scenic route towards Ayr. Their first stop had been Culzean Castle, a mere ten minutes up the coast from Turnberry.
Perched like a great sentinel on its clifftop, the castle held a special attraction for Carolyn. Pronounced ‘cullayn’, it was the ancestral seat of the Ayrshire Kennedys, historically one of the most powerful families of the region. She herself had been born Carolyn Kennedy, a fifth generation American of Ayrshire descent, and she’d lost count of the number of times she’d had to explain that no, JFK’s family were Irish and no relation, but yes, there were Scottish Kennedys too. Encouraged by her husband, Tony, she had recently begun to research her Scottish ancestry, and she hoped that the visit to Culzean would help bring some of the dry historical facts to life.
As they arrived it had begun to rain. Forsaking the walled garden and deer park, the fountain court and swan pond, they’d stayed indoors and wandered the rooms and corridors, soaking up the splendour of the Robert Adam interiors, the furniture and portraits, the library and armoury and all the other treasures that befitted the home of a great and ancient family.
Carolyn would happily have stayed there all day. But Julie had understandably less appetite for Kennedy family history, however grand the setting. After a while she’d begun to look bored, so Carolyn had relented and they’d headed for Alloway, half-an-hour down the road. There the rain had stopped, the sun had come out, and the magnificent new museum, the lovingly restored birthplace, had drawn them effortlessly into the world of Robert Burns for the rest of the day.
The light was starting to fade. Carolyn had to concentrate hard on the road ahead. It had been an exhilarating trip and her mind was crammed to bursting with new experiences and information. Now she was tired and her eyelids were starting to feel heavy. What was more, she wasn’t used to driving on the wrong side of the road. Julie, who had nodded off in the passenger seat, was no help.
There was a split second of nothingness before she felt the wheel go slack in her hands, the car veer across the road. A surge of adrenalin jolted her awake again, heart pounding, as she regained control and swung back into the left-hand lane. It was all over almost before she knew what had happened.
Julie sat up, looking startled. ‘What was that?’
‘I must’ve nodded off,’ Carolyn replied sheepishly. ‘I’ve never done that before …’
She thought of what might have happened had something been coming the other way and her stomach churned.
‘You should pull over,’ said Julie. ‘Get some fresh air.’
‘But we’re almost there now. It can’t be more than a couple of miles.’
Julie said nothing for a moment, then pointed ahead.
‘Look. Coming up on the left. A car park, by those ruins.’ She gave Carolyn a sideways glance. ‘I think you should stop.’
Carolyn dutifully pulled over and turned off the engine. Silence settled. It was a relief to stop, Julie was right. She got out and gulped in lungfuls of sharp autumn air. Her pulse was at last starting to slow.
The car park was large and empty. In the field beside it sprawled the remains of some kind of large church or monastery. Whatever it was, it all looked worn and weathered and, to her eyes, incredibly ancient.
A hedge ran along the edge of the car park. Behind it stood a low wooden building, a ticket office by the look of it. At one side a small gate opened onto the site. Carolyn wandered across and read the sign by the entrance:
13th century Cluniac abbey
Open 1 April – 30 September, 9.30-5.30
Property of Historic Scotland
She put her hand on the gate and to her surprise it swung open. She glanced about but there was no one to be seen. Curiosity aroused, she set off down the path towards the buildings. Julie followed her.
The light was draining fast now. Roofless ruins loomed over the deserted site, gothic arches and windows gaping emptily. There was a gaunt cluster of smaller buildings beyond the main one and at the far end a tower raised itself into the evening sky. The whole place was still and silent, as if suspended in time.
There had been monks treading this very ground eight centuries ago, she thought in wonder, living and worshipping together, feasting and singing psalms, laughing and arguing, tending their vegetables, husbanding their animals – and watching the dusk settle over the surrounding hills, just as Carolyn did now.
There was one building that still had a roof. It looked like a chapel, though the sign outside it said Chapter House. She made for the arched doorway and entered. Gloom descended at once. The space was empty but for a single central pillar which drew her eye to the elaborately ribbed and vaulted ceiling above. She stood for a moment, gazing upwards and drinking in the sense of antiquity. It was rather like being inside some huge animal, she thought.
When she lowered her gaze she was startled to see that she was not alone. Deep in the shadows opposite her, an old man was sitting in a recess in the wall. He was bent forward and appeared to be leaning heavily on two sticks, one in each hand.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I … I hope I’m not disturbing you.’
He didn’t answer, but lifted his head and looked at her. It was hard to tell in the gloom, but Carolyn had the sense of something hostile in his gaze. It made her feel as if her presence was an intrusion, at the very least.
‘I’m sorry …’ she said again, retreating towards the doorway. The back of her neck prickled as she turned and stepped outside again.
A moment later Julie’s voice rang through the silence. ‘There you are. I didn’t know where you’d got to.’
Carolyn made her way towards her friend who was waiting by the end of the main abbey building.
‘Did you see that old guy?’ she asked.
‘What old guy?’
‘There was an old guy in the chapter house.’
Julie shook her head. ‘The chapter house?’
‘The one with the roof. A kind of meeting place, I think,’ Carolyn replied.
She felt suddenly very cold. She didn’t want to be here any longer. She needed to get back to the hotel, to have a shower and relax and hear Tony’s familiar voice, telling her about his day.
‘You all right?’ Julie was looking at her in an odd way.
‘Fine,’ Carolyn forced a smile. ‘Just tired. Let’s go.’
Darkness had fallen by the time they got back to Turnberry. It was a relief to see the welcoming blaze of lights on the hill above them as they wound their way up the drive.
Everything about the place was designed to make you feel good, she thought with renewed appreciation, as they walked indoors and were greeted by one of the kilted porters with a cheerful smile and a ‘Good evening, ladies’, in that deep Scots burr that she could never hear enough of.
Logs flamed and crackled in the big open hearth, scenting the lobby with a hint of woodsmoke. A comforting hum of conversation and clink of crockery came from the large, brightly-lit Grand Tea Lounge with its broad sweep of now-darkened picture windows. Luxurious as it was, there was a genuinely friendly feel about this hotel, unlike some of the pretentious places she’d been to in her time. Perhaps that was a Scottish thing, she reflected, with a little glow of pride.
‘See you at dinner,’ she said to Julie and went upstairs.
Carolyn undressed and showered, letting the powerful jet of hot water rid her of the day’s travel stains. Then she lay on the bed in her bathrobe and closed her eyes. For a while her mind freewheeled, but little by little she found herself being drawn again back to the chapter house and the figure in the gloom. She tried pushing the image away, but couldn’t. Who was he? What had his glance signified? Why had she had felt so unnerved by him?
She sat up and opened her eyes again, seeking reassurance in her surroundings. This was undeniably the height of luxury. Everything, from the bed itself to the furnishings and spacious bathroom, was harmonious and supremely comfortable. With the daytime view, out across the links and the sea towards the island of Ailsa Craig, it had to rank as one of the best hotel rooms she’d ever stayed in.
She breathed in deeply and smiled to herself. He had probably been some old local guy taking a rest on his way home. People could get a little weird about places they felt belonged to them. And anyway, she’d just nearly wrecked the car. No wonder she’d been feeling jittery.
She sighed and reached for the TV remote control, then settled back on the bed again, thinking about the evening ahead. Tonight, their last at the hotel, they were dining at the chef’s table.
By the time she had finished her starter, a plate of pan-seared scallops that literally melted in her mouth, and downed half a glass of crisp white Burgundy, Carolyn had put the whole thing behind her. This was private dining with a difference – the difference being the view from their small dining room through a floor-to-ceiling window directly into the controlled bustle of the kitchen, all copper and stainless steel, white uniforms and little islands of flame.
Martin, the genial executive chef, came in to present the menu to them in person. He told them about the local produce used and the way it had been prepared, and explained how things had changed since people had become concerned about sustainable sourcing.
After he’d gone they ate in silence for a while, captivated by the atmosphere, the activity in the kitchen beyond. Carolyn had to admit that the feeling of privilege and exclusivity was irresistible.
‘I was reading that Culzean guidebook just now,’ said Julie. ‘Seems your ancestors weren’t beyond the odd dirty trick.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Carolyn.
‘There was this Gilbert Kennedy, the headman at the time, in fifteen-something. He decided he wanted to get his hands on the land at Crossraguel. The guy in charge of the abbey wasn’t a monk, he was some kind of official called Alan Stewart, and he wasn’t playing ball. So your man Gilbert simply had him kidnapped and roasted his feet over a fire until he signed the papers. Stewart was crippled for life. He complained to the king but nothing happened.’
‘You could always try that when you come up against a tough nut, Mike,’ said Tony.
The others laughed, but Carolyn’s mind’s eye filled with the image of the old man and his sticks.
A moment later she felt Tony’s hand on her arm. ‘You all right?’
She hesitated, then smiled. ‘I’ve got to tell you all, I had kind of a strange experience today ...’
They listened in silence. When she’d finished, Tony was the first to speak.
‘He seemed hostile, you said. Why do you think that was?’
At least he was taking her seriously, thought Carolyn, thankfully.
Across the table Julie widened her eyes and screwed a finger at her temples. ‘Dohh ... because you’re a Kennedy, honey. Why else? That old guy must have gone to his grave hating the Kennedys with every fibre of his being.’
Mike laughed. ‘But surely you don’t believe in all that, Carolyn? You, the English teacher? There’ll be an explanation. There always is. Let’s ask Martin - he’s from round here. I expect he’ll know.’
Martin looked puzzled and shook his head. ‘No. I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘But I’ll ask one of the lads. Johnny, our kitchen porter. He’s been here since the days of steam.’ He disappeared into the rear of the kitchen.
A couple of minutes later he was back. ‘Seems there’s old Tam, a certain – gentleman of the road. Well known around here. He comes and goes. Sometimes he’s here, sometimes he isn’t. Harmless old guy. Though no one seems to remember him having sticks.’ He smiled. ‘Mystery solved …? Bon appetit, anyway.’
That didn’t explain the fact that the gate had been unlocked, either, thought Carolyn to herself, turning her attention now to the rack of lamb in front of her. It was pink and succulent, the accompanying glass of Chilean Merlot perfectly rich and plummy. The conversation turned to the food and Crossraguel was soon forgotten.
After dinner they went through to the bar for a nightcap. When, later, they paused at the top of the stairs to say goodnight to one another, they were all in agreement that they had just had one of the great dining experiences of their lives.
Next morning after breakfast they left for Glasgow. Mike drove and Julie sat in the front with him. It was a clear morning and as they passed the abbey, bathed now in sunshine, Carolyn was tempted to ask Mike to stop. She didn’t, but the ruins held her eye until the car rounded a bend and they were lost to view.
Had she seen a ghost? The rational part of her mind said No, of course not. It had just been old Tam, an eccentric tramp who resented other people intruding on what he considered his personal space. But ... there was another part of her that was not nearly so certain; a part, in fact, that was intrigued, almost glad at the thought that she might have been offered a glimpse through some kind of crack in time.
She turned to Tony. ‘I want to come back,’ she said. ‘There’s something here for me – maybe it’s Robert Burns, maybe it’s Culzean – Kennedy family stuff, maybe it’s even to do with Crossraguel. I don’t know ... but it feels like this trip has just been the start of a journey.’
‘We’ll come back, then,’ he said.
She smiled. ‘Good. And when we do it’s got to be Turnberry.’
He nodded and squeezed her hand. ‘Where else would it be?’