The notion of the undead, or even zombies, perhaps seems like a modern phenomenon, brought about by horror movies and TV shows such a George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead. But folklore and belief show that this is far from the case. Popular culture has also made the terms undead and zombie seem interchangeable, bringing to mind an image of a shuffling, mouldy reanimated corpse, perhaps calling for brains to the more comically inclined, or merely groaning incoherently, as it shambles along in a pack of similarly revived cadavers. The zombie trope has even been reimagined in films like 28 Days Later and World War Z as a virus that reduces victims to a rage filled state.
A look through folklore and folk belief reveals that the idea of the undead is one that goes back centuries. Popular culture has taken it into its own with a large dollop of creative licence, and in the end led to quite a bit of confusion that needs untangled, when being brought back into the realm of folklore. Yes, even something that twists and weaves like folklore, in some cases appears to have it’s limits. So in unravelling the popular horror stereotype, where better to begin than with the term ‘zombie’ itself.
Setting the scene: Zombies, Revenents and Vampires in folk tradition
The idea of a zombie originated in Haitian folklore, first appearing the 17th or 18th centuries. Mike Mariani, in an article for The Atlantic, explores how the contemporary horror trope has wholly removed it from its harrowing origins. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, that started in 1791 and led to independence in 1803, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Dominique. Slavery was endemic, and life short and harsh for the slaves brought in from Africa to work in plantations. Mariani writes:
“The zombie archetype, as it appeared in Haiti and mirrored the inhumanity that existed there from 1625 to around 1800, was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation.”
Mariani continues, describing how slaves believed they would be freed from the drudgery and harshness of their life through death, upon which, their spirits would return to lan guinée, where they would be free. Suicide, common amongst the slaves, meant that they were unable to reach this utopian afterlife, and their spirits would be trapped in their undead bodies, left to roam the plantations. This notion was then absorbed into Voodoo and redefined, where zombies were reanimated corpses, revived and used by bokor, a voodoo sorcerer, who might use the zombie to carry out a variety of tasks, reflecting, says Mariani, Haiti’s slave past.
Many entities, which today we might recognise as undead, can be found in traditions across Europe, for instance, the belief that the dead could emerge from the grave to torture or otherwise interact with the living. Tales of such beings, dubbed revenants, could be in the British Isles right up to the Middle Ages; in Irish mythology, they were called neamh mairbh. In general, revenants would return to right a wrong. They could also spread disease amongst humans and livestock, and in some tales, sucked blood.
Indeed, the story might involve the community congregating to the grave of the suspected revenant, exhume it, and find the corpse within suffused with blood, leading to steps being taken, such as the corpse being beheaded, burnt, chopped up or staked through the heart. This is, of course, reminiscent of what we today recognise as vampires, though that term only entered the English lexicon in 1732. The notion of a vampire-like revenant appears more common in Eastern European folk traditions; there have been skeletons found over the years on the Continent that appear to have been dealt with as suspected vampires, having been beheaded, staked etc. One example was found on the notorious Italian island of Poveglia, near Venice, where a skull was found with a stone forced between its jaws.
In Icelandic folk tradition, we find the draugr, (plural draugar) a creature with many similarities to the renevant. These are described by Lisa Morton as reanimated corpses that would emerge from their burial barrows to ‘interact physically with mortal kin’. She quotes an article by N.K Chadwick, in which draugar are described as emerging during the night, though sometimes might appear during the day should mist fall. Those encountering them go into a trance like state (again echoes of the vampire tradition), and might find a ‘gift’ has been left behind, guaranteeing a future visit.
The Undead in Scottish Folklore
So what of the undead in Scottish tradition? The influx and settling of peoples from all across Europe, bringing their practices and beliefs has led to diverse influences shaping Scottish folklore, from Irish to Scandinavian traditions. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the undead has shambled their way into Scottish lore. Vampires are rather few and far between unless you are looking at more contemporary tales, such as the vampire legend of Glamis and the Gorbals Vampire, both of which have featured previously in these pages. But certainly, there are tales of reanimated corpses to be found in older traditional folktales. One, which comes across more as an impressive tall tale, rather than folklore is “The Sutor Of Selkirk”, found, according to the Electric Scotland website, in the Book of Scottish Story: Historical, Humourous, Legendary, Imaginative by Standard Scottish Writers published by Thomas D Morison in 1896. The author is anonymous, though it’s more than likely a piece of fiction strongly influenced by folk traditions. It certainly appears to fulfil the role of folklore to act as a warning or lesson, in this particular case, against the evils of gossip and greed.
In the tale, a shoemaker, or ‘sutor’, by the name of Rabbie Heckspeckle in the Scottish Borders town of Selkirk, is more interested in showing off his capacity for nosiness and gossip, rather than actually getting down to his craft, much to the chagrin of his wife. To accommodate his day job and busybody activities, Heckspeckle rises well before dawn to make his wares. One morning, he is working on an order, when a strange personage enters the workshop and takes a liking to the shoes Heckspeckle is making for the local Exciseman. In order to prevent the Exciseman losing his new footwear to a stranger, Heckspeckle offers to make shoes for the visitor, to be finished the next day. This is agreeable, and the stranger promptly vanishes just before dawn. Heckspeckle gets down to work, even eschewing the day’s local gossip to get the order finished in time, much to the surprise of his neighbours.
The next night, the stranger returns for his shoes is satisfied, pays Heckspeckle and leaves. This time, Heckspeckle is quick enough to follow the mysterious figure, finding himself in the local graveyard, where the figure sits down at a grave and vanishes. Heckspeckle marks the grave with one of his tools, and the next day, accompanied by others in the community, exhumes the grave, to find the skeleton within wearing the newly made shoes. Figuring that a corpse has no need for such a thing, Heckspeckle removes the shoes, and the corpse is laid to rest again, albeit under a reinforced coffin lid. Then comes the twist: Heckspeckle’s wife hears him sing as usual as he sets about his work, then a terrified scream, the sound of a struggle and sudden silence. She finds the workshop in disarray, follows some interesting footsteps to the grave, where there are further signs of a struggle. The terrified woman flees and returns later with her fellow townsfolk, who dig the grave up. Inside, the skeleton is again wearing the shoes, clutching Henspeckle’s nightcap, and the coffin lid has been torn off. It is a tale worth reading in full (see below).
Another tale comes from the Skye folklorist Otta Swire in her book The Outer Hebrides and their Legends:
“Once a most terrible thing happened in South Uist; the dead in its churchyards all received from somewhere a horrible sort of half-life, left their graves and spread over the Island. No one knew what they sought or what their powers were, nor how the whole thing came about. The newly buried were not so alarming – they looked much as they had in life – and many knew them, but those who had been long in the earth were horrible beyond words. There was at that time no priest on the island, and the terrified people decided to leave their homes to the half-dead and take to the sea. But there was not boat space for all. While the elders were debating on the sea rocks, watched by the gibbering inhabitants of the graveyards, a cock suddenly appeared on a cottage roof. Rising on his toes, he crowed loudly three times and, behold, all the half-dead vanished to their graves, never to return.” (quoted page 170, Scottish Tales of Terror, edited by Angus Campbell)
You can see Swire seems to have rather relished this particular story! Another story comes from Inverness, told by the storyteller, Stuart McHardy in Tales of Loch Ness. This time, the undead are somewhat more benevolent, though that probably depends on what side you’re on. The tale goes that during the English occupation of the Highlands in the aftermath of the final Jacobite rising, the English soldiers stationed by Inverness that the town was to be torched. On the first attempt, the soldiers were met with an unlikely surprise – the dead from the Inverness graveyards had risen and blockaded the road, threatening a fight if the soldiers tried to get by. The soldiers unsurprisingly backed off. A further attempt to torch the town was made, but on arrival, it appeared that Inverness was already aflame, so the soldiers left it to its fate, and were stunned later to find that the town was in fact unmarked by fire.
Voodoo: The Truth Behind The Myth by M J Steel Collins, Ghostly Aspects https://ghostlyaspectsfolklore.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/voodoothe-truth-behind-the-myth-by-m-j-steel-collins/
The Sutor of Selkirk on Electric Scotland The Sutor of Selkirk http://www.electricscotland.com/books/story/story5.htm
“How America Erased the Tragic History of the Zombie” Mike Mariani The Atlantic 28 October 2015 http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/how-america-erased-the-tragic-history-of-the-zombie/412264/ accessed 07/11/2016
“Haitian Revolution 1791 – 1804” Blackpast.org http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804 accessed 07/11/2016
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenant accessed 07/11/2016
Vampire Folklore, Mysterious Britain http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/vampire-folklore.html, accessed 07/11/2016
Book of Scottish Story, Electric Scotland http://www.electricscotland.com/books/story/ accessed 07/11/2016
‘Poveglia – The Most Haunted Place On Earth’ http://www.micahackerman.com/blog/poveglia-the-most-haunted-place-on-earth accessed 07/11/2016
Campbell, Angus (Edited) (1972) Scottish Tales of Terror London, Fontana Books
Davies, Owen (2007) The Haunted: A Social History Of Ghosts Basingstoke, Palgrave
McHardy, Stuart (2009) Tales of Loch Ness Edinburgh, Luath Storyteller
Morton, Lisa (2015) Ghosts: A Haunted History London, Reaktion Books Ltd