Ghosts of pre-history are scarce. Most of them, one presumes, are so old that they have become
worn out. The Devil is the exception that proves the rule.
I have never met a man who has seen a Druidic ghost under the standing stones of
Stonehenge on a lonely night of moon and stars, but I know of a strange, incredibly ancient
grove of gnarled and witch-like oaks in an old park meadow at the back of a little manor-house
on the edge of the Essex marshes. The church is tiny, forlorn and derelict. When I knew it first
some of the window-panes were of horn. The nearby heronry is in a little wood surrounded by
double moats. And in the park at the back of Hall and church where the line of ancient oaks are
planted as to pattern, there was, the legend says, once a Druid altar where blood ran.
I have had the shooting on that remote, marshland estate for many years. I have crossed
that old, small park under the moon, in snow-mist, in bright sunlight and in the glimmer of dawn.
It has an atmosphere like that of no other place I know of. It literally smells of pre-history. But I
have never seen a ghost of a Druid or of any man of Ancient Britain.
I know a pictish broch on a high moor above Donside in Aberdeenshire built like a great
stone beehive. There dwelt the Little Men, the Picts, long before Scottish history was written. I
would not care to sleep in that broch alone.
We may count the Pixies of Cornwall and Devon and the fairies of elsewhere not so
much as prehistoric people since they belong to all time, but when one speaks of prehistoric
ghosts one thinks of spectres of the Ancient Briton, the little Pict creeping through the heather,
the dark Girvii of the Eastern fens and the rest of the tribesmen of pre-Roman days and the
lower, more brutal types, of mankind who were their predecessors.
I know a lonely island called Vallay, across a wide, seaweed-strewn strand of sand and
shining pools off the coast of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. On that island stands a great
empty house, alone with the winds and the booming surges. In the heart of the island is a hollow
where you will see the ruined walls and downcast stones of beehive-shaped dwellings.
There I have shot curlew and golden plover, wild duck and the grey geese, and seen the
raven hunt the tide-line and the golden eagle pass over, lordly in the high sun. Vallay is a rare
place for wild birds and wild beauty. There are sheep upon it and cattle, wild-eyed as hawks.
Once a rich man, something of a hermit, lived in that great house which now stands empty. One
day he was drowned and his body was cast up on the rocks. Since then no one has lived in the
A year or two back, when I was shooting on Vallay, I said to the gamekeeper and the
ghillie with him:
'The tide's right. The geese will be in soon. There are thousands of duck out at sea
waiting to come in to the lochan. We'll stay for the flight and go home by the moon.'
They refused point-blank. Two strong Hebridean men who would round up a bull, climb
a mountain, walk the bogs and moors all day, launch a boat in an Atlantic blow and think nothing
of climbing up to an eagle's eyrie. But the thought of an hour of dusk, let alone full night, on
Vallay terrified them. Not once, but several times, politely but firmly, they hustled me off the
island and across the sands to North Uist long before the sun had set.
'Is it the ghost of the drowned laird?' I asked them. It was not. They confessed in the
end that 'the auld people, the wee men' came out of those ruined stone beehives under the
moon. Not for a handful of five-pound notes would they stay a night on Vallay. The ghosts of
pre-history walked there.
Here and there, particularly in downland country and in ancient woodlands, you will
come across places which have more than a hint, more than a whisper, of Diana and her nymphs,
of the ancient gods of Rome.
My lamented friend, the late Patrick Chalmers, that graceful poet of gun and rod who
knew and loved the corners of forgotten England, wrote, in one of his enchanting verses, of the
wind in the pine tops:
Its song was of wayside alters (the pine-tops sighed like the surf),
Of little shrines uplifted, of stone and scented surf,
Of youths divine and immortal, of maids as white as the snow
That glimmered among the thickets, a mort of years ago.
All in the cool of dawn, all in the twilight grey,
The gods they came from Italy along the Roman way.
But, alas, on ancient hills and in Druidic groves, on hill-top camps and moorland brochs,
on Badbury Rings and Arbor Low, on Avebury Downs and by classic streams:
The alter smoke it has drifted and faded afar on the hill;
No wood-nymphs haunts the hollows; the reedy pipes are still;
No more the youth, Apollo, shall walk in the sunshine clear;
No more the maid, Diana, shall follow the fallow-deer.
Nymphs and fairies, Picts and pixies survive as charming beliefs seen by few,
immortalized by poets.
No one sings a song to the Ancient Briton, yet he was a triumph of survival. He lived in
a land hideous with wolves. His only weapons were flint-tipped arrows, a flint axe or a bronzeshod
spear. He was a master of the art of survival. Wolves, those grey forest skulkers, 'the
witches' horses,' who galloped under the moon, were not his sole enemies. We cannot say,
within a thousand years, when the Stone Age merged into the Bronze Age, but it is probable that
the man of the Bronze Age had to fight not only the grey wolves of the forest who swept down
upon his flocks, more terrible than the Assyrians in purple and gold, but against the brown bear,
shambling from its cave. It is possible even that cave lions and sabre-toothed tigers made his life
a private hell.
We do know that the Bronze Age man could tame and ride a horse, bare-backed and
possibly without bit or bridle. Even more incredible, he tamed the giant aurochs, bos
primigenius, that vast shaggy animal who dwarfed the American bison of today. That much we
know from Lydekker.