I have a new short story for you today! The following was written to be read out as an ‘entertainment’ at a recent Burns Night Dinner. If you’re not familiar with the tradition of Burns Night, you can read a bit about it here. Suffice to say, it is an annual event to celebrate whiskey, haggis, the poetry of Robert Burns and all things Scottish.
So here’s my take on the tradition – Burns Night via HP Lovecraft!
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
“A Scotsman that doesn’t drink whiskey?” they always ask. “And doesn’t eat haggis? A Scotsman that doesn’t celebrate Burns Night at all? Are you sure you’re Scottish?”
They always ask, and I cannot blame them. Even my accent doesn’t show much trace of my heritage any more. I left my village in the Highlands when I was 18, heading south to England to attend medical college. Over the years my accent slipped away, and I made no attempt to get it back. It just seemed easier that way. I still honoured Burns Night in my own way though, right up until I reached the age of thirty.
“Why?” they ask, “what changed? What could you possibly have against Burns Night?” I smile, but the smile never reaches my eyes.
“You can,” I say, “have too much of a good thing.”
I last visited my ancestral home many years ago. I hadn’t been home for several years before that. After my mother had died I’d grown apart from my father. He was always pushing me, always expecting more and more from me, strictly controlling every aspect of my life. Eventually, and probably unintentionally, he simply pushed me away. But now, one January morning on the year of my thirtieth birthday, a letter found its way onto my doormat. It was from my father, inviting me home to Kilrankirk to celebrate Burns Night with him.
Why not? I thought. I hadn’t been home in so long. Maybe time and distance had mellowed my father. My grandfather was getting on in years too, and I decided it would be good to see him again before it was too late. I wrote back saying that I would be there.
A couple of days later I boarded a train at King’s Cross and settled in for a long journey. It was the winter of 1963, and the country was in the icy grip of the worst winter in decades. Hours became days as I changed trains at Edinburgh, then at two other rural stations, followed by a bus ride and at last a hike down snow choked lanes. Having to complete my journey on foot reminded me of the sense of isolation I had always felt about my childhood home. With every footfall that crunched through the snow I felt like I was taking one more step away from civilisation and into my past.
Even under the blanket of snow, I could tell that nothing had changed in the village of Kilrankirk. Welcoming lights twinkled in the windows of the houses nestled in the snowbound valley. Wooded hills reached up to the sky all around. There had never been anything for me here, not really. Kilrankirk’s horizon’s were always too restrictive.
The frozen sky was just turning a deep velvet blue as I knocked on the door of my childhood home. My father answered, the look on his face closer to relief rather than pleasure at seeing his only son home again after so many years.
“What kept you? Why weren’t you here sooner?” he asked. I was a little taken aback, but informed him of the travel delays I’d experienced in the snow, and that surely it didn’t matter, as I had made it in time for the Burns Night celebrations that evening.
After that, my father did seem to relax a little. We drank whiskey together and I swapped news with him and my grandfather. I felt a family bond that I hadn’t in a long time. The low-ceilinged cottage was just as I remembered it when I left, over a decade ago, unchanged in every detail, right down to the heirloom Scottish halberd that hung with pride over the fireplace. The smell of the fire in the hearth and the neeps and tatties cooking in the kitchen bought back a thousand childhood memories. I was questioned over whether a wife and children were an imminent prospect. “No time like the present” my father and grandfather eagerly agreed.
As the night drew on, I couldn’t help notice that my father and grandfather kept glancing nervously at the large clock on the mantle. Not only that, but even though we had drunk and eaten plenty, there was still no sign of any haggis. Eventually I had to ask if they were late for an appointment, or if we were expecting further company tonight. Perhaps a delivery of haggis?
My father and grandfather exchanged a knowing glance. They said there was an ancient Kilrankirk tradition that they wanted to take part in. Afterwards there would be plenty of haggis to eat. What was the tradition? I asked.
In reply they told me the strangest tale I had ever heard.
So it was that some time later that evening I found myself outside in the freezing cold, breath crystallising in the air before my face. The family halberd had been taken down from above the fireplace and was now gripped tightly in my gloved hands. I knew exactly why I was out here, or so I thought. My father had called it a “tradition”, but it was clearly a hazing or re-initiation of sorts. A jovial punishment for having abandoned the village and gone to live in England. I racked my brains, thinking back. Yes, I’m certain I remember something similar being done to a cousin when I was a child.
There was no one on the street with me, just the snow, silence and the silver light of a full moon. The snow had stopped falling for the moment, but it still clung to the village like a thick blanket. A residue of wood smoke hung in the air, but looking from cottage to cottage I could see that everyone had dowsed their fires and hidden their lamps. I was flattered with the effort that was put into this. I hadn’t realised my departure had meant so much to the village, or that they were so keen to welcome me back.
As I waited for something to happen, I inspected the family halberd. Reflecting on my childhood, I suddenly realised how strange it was that my father used to let me play with it. An oddly lax bit of parenting in an otherwise disciplined upbringing. It felt so much smaller in my adult hands now. I had always assumed it was a relatively modern replica, but looking at it in the moonlight, the wood of the shaft looked unspeakably old.
I stood around for what must have been half an hour, waiting for someone to jump out and try and scare me, but nothing happened. The warmth of the whiskey was beginning to wear off now, so I decided to take a walk around the village. Perhaps my father and his friends were sat quietly in the shadows, waiting for me to reach a pre-arranged ambush point?
As I trod carefully through the snow, I reflected on the elaborate tale my father and grandfather had told me. they had told me of the Kilrankirk Terror, a beast that reappeared every 30 years on Burns Night. A beast that, by tradition, those of our bloodline alone were honour-bound to face in battle. A beast that returned again and again every three decades – without fail – whether it was vanquished or not. I wondered what sort of threadbare monster costume my father would be wearing when he inevitably jumped out of the shadows. Probably something with a stag skull for a head I imagined. I kept a loose grip on the halberd. If, against all expectations, they did manage to startle me then I didn’t want to injure anyone with a reflexive response.
I drew to a halt. Still nothing. I slowly looked around. The only light now was coming from the full moon. The rest of the village was shrouded in darkness. I shuddered, and not from the cold. I was stood in the main street, with a view across the base of the valley and up to the pine covered hillside opposite. The snow glowed gently with reflected moonlight. The air was still, as though the wind held its breath in anticipation. My eyes roamed along the edge of the trees on the opposite side of the valley. Was that movement I saw in the shadows? As soon as it started it seemed to vanish, and my eyes struggled to focus in the dark. I heard the echoing snap of wood, the distant sound travelling far in the still night air. I shivered as I thought of the final words of the legend that my father had told me – on Burns Night in Kilrankirk, he had said, either we eat the haggis, or the haggis eats us.
Suddenly I grew annoyed with myself for being nervous, then more annoyed at my father and the other residents of Kilrankirk that this was all taking so long. While in the warm embrace of the whiskey I’d agreed to go along with this because I thought it would be over quickly. Yes, and maybe even because deep down I longed to be reintegrated with my estranged community. But frostbite wasn’t a price I was willing to pay for that privilege.
As I stood in the snow, shifting the halberd from one hand to another, my mood as black as the sky above, I heard a noise. A sheep was bleating – first one, then a second, and a third. It seemed to be coming from the small holding on the edge of the village. Maybe the ambushers had become bored themselves, I reasoned, and suddenly emerged from hiding, startling the sheep in the process. I set off at a jog, as best as I was able in the hard snow. The bleating off the sheep had reached a terrible pitch, and was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood, but I didn’t slow down, so eager was I to bring this matter to a head.
I rounded the corner at the end of the street and beheld a sight that froze my blood colder than the midnight snow. I stopped in my tracks, eyes terror-wide, the halberd slack and forgotten in my hand.
An enormous beast stood in the sheep pen, gulping down the last of the poor animals. It was massive, almost as big as the freeholder’s cottage, it’s shear size threatening to cast my sanity free and trample it into the slush. It’s great maw flexed and undulated as it minced the sheep it was feasting on, row after row of needle-sharp teeth rippling in an unholy manner. A thousand eyes of all sizes swivelled in its head, jet black and glistening in the moonlight like those of an aquatic predator. A nest of probing tentacles writhed on its back. It’s skin was dark brown and dull like ancient leather pulled unevenly over a misshaped barrel.
The Kilrankirk Terror. It wasn’t a prank. It was all true! This was some hideous Highland species unknown to science, and I clearly beheld the chieftain of that race. As I stood there, slack-jawed, one by one the thousand eyes flicked towards where I was standing until at last the largest central eye fixed me with its unblinking gaze.
The beast howled, an insane sound that no mortal man could hear and ever hope to forget. It haunts my dreams still. The beast began to move towards me, slowly picking up speed on its four stubby legs. Clearly it had selected me as its next meal! I stumbled back, mind blank, my gaze fixed firmly on its largest central eye and the hungry glint within. It gained speed, smashing through the sheep pen fence as though it wasn’t even there. I continued to stumble backwards in the snow, making very little progress. It would be on me in moments!
As I looked into that huge eye, an incongruous memory wormed its way into my thoughts. I remembered a patient that I had treated with a shard of metal lodged in his eye. He had lost his sight, that couldn’t be helped, but I remember being amazed that he hadn’t been killed. Another half an inch and the metal would have penetrated into his brain, killing him stone dead.
And with that, a desperate idea formed in my mind. Suddenly I realised the family halberd was still in my hand! My grip on it tightened, my actions driven by shear panic rather than bravery or resolve. The beast loomed over me, rows of teeth undulating in a way that made me nauseous to see. It’s downwashed stink made me gag, the scent of meat and the musk of an apex predator.
I thrust the halberd upwards, spike first, trusting that this unholy creature followed some aspects of natural law; hoping that there would be a hole in the back of its eye socket where the optic nerve entered; praying that this last desperate gambit would be enough.
The weight of the beast’s charge drove it onto my weapon. The spike sunk deep. The creature roared in agony and rage. I set my feet firm, but had no more hope of stopping it than a tree does of halting an avalanche. Miraculously the ancient wood of the halberd shaft held true and I slide back through the snow, holding onto the weapon for dear life.
At last the metal of the spike bit deep enough to strike something vital. The great bulk of the beast spasmed and it’s legs collapsed under it, bringing it down as an undignified pile of hot meat and twitching muscle in the snowy streets of Kilrankirk.
I furiously yanked the halberd back and forth, trying to cause as much damaged as possible, but I needn’t have bothered. The beast had expired. After a desperate minute of stabbing and levering the weapon deeper into the eye socket, I finally sat down in the snow and vomited in terror.
Suddenly the previously dark and silent street was alive with light and noise. The residents of Kilrankirk emerged from hiding, throwing shutters wide to let light out into the street, banging pots and pans together in celebration. Somewhere, someone started playing the bagpipes. This wasn’t a noisy outburst of relief that the beast had been defeated, this was something that they were expecting. As my father and grandfather helped me to my feet and pressed a whiskey into my hand, the other villagers set about the great beast, hacking and dicing great chunks of meat from its flank, retrieving the minced sheep from it’s gullet, chopping and sawing all the while, shovelling it into pre-prepared sheep’s stomachs, preparing a vast store of haggis. Enough to last for years.
“Why?” I asked my father as I cast the whiskey aside, “why didn’t you tell me sooner…?” He fixed me with a steady gaze.
“Why didn’t I tell you of the beast? That only those of our bloodline are tradition-bound to face it on behalf of the village?” he asked, his blue eyes looking like granite in the moonlight, “Would you have believed me? Would you have stayed? Would you have come back this Burns Night?”
I had no answer for him.
The villagers stayed up late into the night, feasting on the fresh haggis, drinking and reciting poetry. They laughed as they ate at great wooden tables in the street, scooping hot chunks of meat into their mouths and savouring the taste. The feast was lit only be burning braziers and the moon. Shadows flickered and danced among the feasters, which when combined with the unholy origin of the meat and the incessant piping, gave the whole celebration the air of demonic banquet. I wanted no part of it, instead retiring to my bed, trying my best to fall asleep and ignore the laughter and music drifting in from outside.
I slipped away the next morning, leaving my father’s house without a word in the grey light of dawn, circling the long way around the village to avoid looking at what was left of the monstrous corpse. Wearily, I began my long trek back to civilization through the snow.
So that is why no haggis or whiskey will ever pass my lips again. The smell and taste are far too potent reminders of that night. I have not answered my father’s letters since, nor have I returned to Kilrankirk. And yet one day I know I must, drawn back there by tradition. The years drift by like snowflakes in the night. I now have a wife and a son. Every time I look at him I know that the day is coming when he too must take up that ancient halberd that I abandoned in the great eye of the Kilrankirk Terror.