A collection of classic stories by William Croft Dickinson, set in the brooding landscape of post-war Scotland, is being republished more than half-a-century after its launch in 1963. The author, historian William Croft Dickinson, uncovered many sinister tales in the course of his travels on behalf of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and every December, from 1957 to 1963, he wrote a spooky tale for the Scotsman newspaper – continuing the time-honoured tradition of the Christmas ghost story.

In the spirit of that tradition, we are delighted to publish one of Dickinson's creepiest tales. Set in a fictional stronghold that's thought to be based on Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire, it's acknowledged to be the most frightening of all his stories. So draw the curtains, light the fire, and read on ...

RETURN AT DUSK

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By William Croft Dickinson

FOR the rest of my life I shall endeavour to avoid looking into a mirror at twilight. A mirror at twilight worries me. I never know what I may see in it.

As you know, I'm Professor of Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, but in the winter of 1939-40, I was recruited by the War Office to take part in counter-espionage, and was sent with a small group to Cairntoul Castle in Mar, where powerful transmitting

and receiving equipment had been installed, with its aerial cunningly concealed in the old dovecot.

In addition to our two wireless engineers, two batmen-clerks and one cook, there were eight of us in the section. But the unlucky number 13 was avoided by the presence of Mrs Lumsdaine, the old caretaker, whom the War Office had taken over with the castle. "Mother Lum" (as we called her) kept pretty much out of our way. I could feel that she resented our intrusion into "her" castle. To get more than two words out of her was like drawing water from a stone; but to get a cold searching look whenever our ways met was as common as porridge for breakfast on a Highland croft. Actually, as I was to discover later, the old lady’s attachment to Cairntoul was simply part of that old loyalty so characteristic of the Highlands. We were aliens, but she had been born into the service of the castle, just her like parents and their parents before them, who had served and died there.

The castle was built in the shape of an L with the doorway in the re-entrant angle where it could be effectively defended from both wings. The old outer wooden door had been replaced by a modern one, but the inner "iron yett" was still there. I can tell you, I wouldn’t have liked the task of breaking in, for, even when the iron yett had been won, there was what we should now call a "baffle-wall" which put the defenders in the shadow, darkened the whole entrance, and made it impossible for more than one man at a time to gain the staircase which wound upwards immediately behind the wall.

The staircase itself was narrow – about 30 inches wide – and, being helical, was lit only at odd intervals, so that the defenders could choose the shadows to contest its passage. And only by that staircase could one get into the castle at all. The stone stairs, worn with age, led direct to the first floor, to a corner of the long Hall, with another staircase at its further end leading down again to the ground floor and to the vaulted kitchens below. In the chamber, in the shorter wing, adjoining the Hall, a newel staircase led to the second floor. Thus the main staircase had to be fought for and won, step by step, before the castle itself could be won. Altogether a thoroughly interesting old place, and one ideal for security, ancient or modern.

Our sleeping quarters were upstairs on the second floor. In the shorter wing, there was one room only, larger than the rest, which had a second door leading outside to a kind of beacon-turret. That room, called the Turret Room, was at first mine; and being one who likes to know what there may be behind doors, I had opened the second door almost as soon as I had crossed the threshold of the room. But the turret outside was empty (save for a dead bird), and, being corbelled, it was clearly impossible for anyone to reach it from the ground below, whilst even if the impossible were achieved, an iron grille which completely enclosed the turret-top would effectively prevent the climber from entering the turret and so gaining access to the room.

All these ancient precautions, as I have said, were ideal for security; and, to remain inconspicuous, we had no sentry or armed guard. Nevertheless our signallers had fixed an electric contact to the iron yett and a whole battery of bells rang throughout the building whenever that gate was opened. A further press-bell was hidden in the darkness of the baffle-wall and, on this, whenever any one of us had entered by the iron yett he gave a series of rings (the number being changed each day) so that the whole battery of bells again informed us that only one of our own number was entering our strength.

For a month or so after our arrival at Cairntoul we were kept busy for a good 16 hours out of every 24. Then came two or three slightly less busy days, and for the first time I was able to arrange for each of us, singly, to get out on to the moors to stretch his legs or, if he liked, to laze in the yielding heather. My turn came last, and for a whole afternoon I lay deep in the heather, dozing, and drawing in physical and mental rest.

Returning to Cairntoul, in the gathering twilight, I passed a few words with the others, who were busy in the Hall, before climbing the further flight of stairs to my Turret Room. I was still in a happy mood and, once in my room, I sat down on a chair, letting my mind absorb the quietness which seemed to be all around, bringing with it an air of peace so different from the work which we had just been doing and had still to do.

I had sat down on the chair in front of the table which served as a dressing-chest and over which an old mirror was hanging on the wall. Behind me was the door leading to the beacon-turret. Now, what made me look up into the mirror, I cannot say. But look up I did, and, as I looked into the mirror, I saw that the door to the turret was slowly opening. I watched that opening door like one fascinated, and, somehow, I could neither move nor cry out. Slowly the opening grew wider and wider. Then a face appeared, peering round the side of the door. In the mirror, the face seemed to look straight into mine, but in the twilight

I could recognise no features – just the blur of a face, and no more. Then the face withdrew, and the door began to close again, as slowly and as quietly as it had opened. As soon as it had shut, the sense of powerlessness immediately left me. I felt suddenly and strangely released and, jumping up, I rushed towards the door. But, halfway, I stopped. Surely I had imagined it all. Probably my nerves had become too tightly stretched with that recent spell of intensive work. After all, one could dream by day as well as by night. Still, I’d better look into that beacon-turret, if only to satisfy myself.

I took the few remaining steps, paused, and then quickly flung open the door. Nothing! This time not even a dead bird, for I had previously removed the one that had been there on my first arrival.

Wisely, or unwisely, I said nothing about my "visitor". But exactly 10 days later, when the incident was beginning to fade from my mind, I was rudely brought back to reality, or unreality, and again at twilight. Again I was sitting in front of my dressing-chest, and this time I was certainly not dreaming.

Actually I was brushing my hair before dinner, my mind alive and alert with the details of a pretty problem that had cropped up during the course of the day’s work. And, in the midst of that simple operation of brushing my hair, my hands suddenly dropped. I had noticed in the mirror that the door to the beacon-turret was again opening, as quietly as it had opened before. Again an inquiring head peered round the side of the door. But this time it did not withdraw. The door opened wider and wider. The head was followed by a body. There was a quick movement, and my "visitor" had entered the room: and I remember noting that the door seemed to swing-to and shut by itself.

Now, don’t ask me what my "visitor" looked like. I simply don’t know. Partly the twilight was deepening into dusk, so that the light was poor; but mainly I seemed impelled to look only at the face which was reflected in my mirror. And that face, or perhaps I should say the eyes, held me as though I had been hypnotised. Never had I seen such concentrated hate before, and I hope I shall never see it again. I felt transfixed and powerless, just as before. Slowly, very slowly, almost as though I was to be taken by surprise, "it" began to cross the intervening space, the eyes holding mine. That slow, deliberate closing-in was horrible. I was the victim of all the evil in the world which was now closing in for the kill.

And I could do nothing. I felt a peculiar bristling at the back of my neck. Unable to move, or even to cry out, my mind raced round and round the one question: what will it do when it reaches me? Probably everything took place in a matter of seconds, but to me the torment was protracted beyond the limits of endurance. Slowly that face approached behind me. Larger and larger in the mirror grew those awful eyes. Now I became convinced I could feel its breath upon me. A pair of hands seemed to reach out and close upon my neck. And ... and all went black.

I am told that when I was abominably late for dinner, one of the others came up from the Hall to remind me of the time. He knocked on the door of my room and, receiving no answer, looked in. For the first time in my life I had fallen to the floor in a dead faint.

When at last they had brought me round I made some kind of feeble excuse – overwork, liver, or perhaps a combination of the two. I suppose I felt too ashamed to confess that I had fainted before a ghost. For, ponder over it as I could, no other explanation seemed possible. No alarm bell had rung; no-one could reach that beacon-turret from the ground; and, above all, there was the iron grille. I spent that night dozing in front of the fire in the Hall, unwilling to return to my room. By morning I had ashamedly come to the conclusion that I couldn’t face that room again.

As good luck would have it, however, that very morning brought the possibility of change. Just before lunch a coded message came through calling away one of my team on an urgent, but fortunately lengthy, task in Holland. Taking one of the batmen-clerks with me, I moved my possessions into that providentially-provided spare room – making an excuse about an appalling draught that came from the beacon-turret.

What my team thought about my change of rooms, I do not know. But a chance meeting with Mother Lum a few days later seemed to reveal that there was a "history" to Cairntoul not unconnected with the turret and with the Turret Room. Answering my "Good morning" with an "Aye, it’s no a bad day," followed by a keen look from her grey eyes, the old body paused as though about to say more. Then apparently she changed her mind, and with the tantalising remark: "I’m hearing Black Dougal will be back then", she went on her way. Who "Black Dougal" was, she left to my imagination, and I knew it would be useless to question her. Doubtless she regarded "Black Dougal" as her own – like Cairntoul itself – and, if he were a ghost, then she was unwilling to share her ghost with other intruders who were of the solid flesh. Not unnaturally I connected him with my visitor; and, from the way Mother Lum had spoken, I gathered that to the initiated he was by no means unknown.

For a week or two nothing disturbed the even tenor of our way. Then, unexpectedly, came a message from the War Office to say that a Mr Mowat was on his way to fill the vacancy in my team. And at once the problem arose: where should we sleep him? If I were to suggest his sharing a room with one of the others when my old room stood empty, then perforce I would have to tell my tale. In the end I decided to stick to the old excuse: the Turret Room was a poor room, frightfully draughty, with a howl from the outside grille whenever the wind blew in a certain direction, and so forth and so on.

But I had reckoned without our new recruit. When he arrived, alert and confident, nothing would persuade him to double up with one of the others. There was an empty room. He had slept in far worse places than a room with a draught and a howl. He was insistent. I was halting. And, in the presence of the others, pride kept me from telling the truth.

Mowat went up to the empty room, while I made a mental reservation that I would tell him about my "visitor" as soon as I could get him alone. But although, later, I was to see him alone more than once, by then my story had paled before his own experience.

He had arrived late in the afternoon, and again it was twilight. Stupidly, I had been so intent on persuading him not to take over the Turret Room that I had failed to connect both time and place. And only when there came a strangled cry from above, did I curse myself for forgetting that upon both occasions my"visitor" had come with the dusk.

We raced to the stair and to the Room. Bursting open the door, we found Mowat lying on the floor in front of the table, almost exactly as I had been found in my "faint". He was lying on his back, with his arms spread-eagled; but it was his face that caused us to cry out. Even in the dim light we could see that it was suffused with blood, while his eyes seemed to be sightlessly staring at us with a look in which agony and terror were horribly combined.

Mercifully, Mowat was not dead, and that same night we got him into a nursing-home in Aberdeen. I decided to try to induce him to tell his tale. It was clear that if only he could unburden himself, his recovery, and particularly his recovery in mind, would not be long delayed. But the terror had bitten deep, and I daren’t tell my own tale first, lest I should only increase the torture of his mind. At long last, however, I induced him to speak, and the tale, when it came, was much the same as mine.

There was this difference, however: Mowat, terrified and powerless, even as I had felt powerless, had seen the face in the mirror; he had seen it slowly draw nearer, the hate in its eyes seeming to burn into his soul; he had felt the hands at his throat; and then, suddenly, those hands had tightened into a grip, powerful, relentless and strangling. With that, he thought he gave a cry before unconsciousness intervened.

"But what was it?" he asked me. "And how did it get in?" The only answer I could give him was to tell him of my own experience, to ask him to forgive me for allowing him to use the room, and, above all, to assure him that he had finished with Cairntoul for good.

After that unburdening, Mowat recovered quickly, and was posted direct to Southampton. Meantime, at the castle, we sedulously avoided the Room, but also we took one positive action. We smashed that mirror to fragments and, having carefully collected the fragments, we threw them into an enormous fire, specially built-up for the occasion, where we watched them melt and fuse. Later we collected the shapeless glass nodules and, with the ashes, buried them deep in the earth. Later still, I had one further brief passage with Mother Lum, but her pronouncement, far from being helpful, only increased the mystery.

I had come back from visiting Mowat in Aberdeen. Meeting her outside the iron yett, I said cheerfully: "Well, Mr Mowat seems to be progressing famously now."

"Mowat, did ye say?" she cried with a wild look in her eyes. "A Mowat is it? May heaven save him!" And with that she hobbled away.

* * * * *

Early in June 1940, the War Office suddenly decided to disband my team. We left Cairntoul and, in the urgency of new tasks, the mystery of Black Dougal and the Turret Room gradually lost its hold and became a bad memory and little more.

With the end of Hitler and the surrender of Japan, I returned to the humdrum labours of my Anthropology Department; and yet it was here, in the academic peace of the University of Edinburgh, that I learned what had previously been denied.

Henderson, of the History Department, asked me to give a lecture to his mediaeval students and, during the course of the conversation, I happened to mention that I had been stationed for a while at Cairntoul in Mar.

"Did you see the ghost of Black Dougal?" he asked. I pride myself that I didn’t start. "Why?" I said. "Is the castle haunted?"

"It’s supposed to be," he answered, cautiously, "and with one of the best authenticated ghosts we have."

The story I got from Henderson was roughly this: Some time about the middle of the 16th century, when the Mowats of Cairntoul and the local branch of the Camerons had been long at feud, an attempt was made to end the feud by a Mowat-Cameron marriage. So Mowat of Cairntoul married the daughter of Cameron, but, after a week or so, when the Camerons had gone home, Mowat brutally strangled his wife and then sent defiance to the Camerons. I should add that Mowat was supposed to be mad, but naturally the Camerons were paying no attention to that. They turned out to a man, and they were wiped out to a man, and nary a footing did they get on that staircase. Wiped out to a man, yes; but there was a young brother to the murdered bride – a boy, Dougal, then about six years old. And upon Dougal fell the whole burden of a new and a more bitter feud. As he grew up, the boy, and then the man, nursed his revenge – and so came the name Black Dougal, from the hate that burned in his eyes.

But there was little chance for Black Dougal in the Mowat country, unless he went there by night; and by night the mad Mowat sat and laughed in the Turret Room where he had strangled his bride. Yet mightn’t that give Black Dougal his chance? One night, in the gathering dusk, and the manner of it no-one knows, Dougal made that impossible climb up the castle wall, right up to the beacon-turret, only to be beaten at the end by the overhang of the turret’s corbelling. Struggling to breast the corbelling he fell – a sheer 40 feet at least – and was killed outright.

At that Mad Mowat only laughed the louder. But, within a week, he had caused an iron grille to be made to enclose the open turret at its top. Within another week, he was found dead in the Room – strangled, as there he had strangled his bride.

And now you know why never again will I look into a mirror at twilight. There is, however, one further point which makes it all more puzzling still. I’m convinced that no-one could climb that outer wall to the beacon-turret.

Yet one of our signallers, an honest, sober, and thoroughly unimaginative fellow, had other views. It appears that about the time when we were rushing upstairs, after hearing Mowat’s strangled cry, this signaller was walking back to the castle after making some adjustment to the aerial in the old dovecot. Happening to look up to the turret, he was astounded to see a man hanging there by his hands. Then, to his horror, the man dropped like a stone.

For a second our signaller stood still. Then he ran forward as fast as he could. But, to his astonishment, the climber, who should have been killed outright, picked himself up, ran round the corner of the castle, and out into the open country beyond.

With a shout (which, of course, in our own preoccupation we didn’t hear) the signaller went in pursuit. Doggedly, in the gathering darkness, he followed his man. Before long, he could see him only against the light in the sky. The man came to a small hill, breasted it, stood silhouetted for a moment on the top, and then disappeared down the other side. In turn our signaller breasted the hill but, when he came to the top, his quarry was nowhere to be seen.

Admittedly it was dark; and admittedly a man might easily

take cover in a fold of the ground. But later I was to discover that the Cameron country started on the far side of that hill.

This is an edited extract from Dark Encounters by William Croft Dickinson, published by Polygon, £9.99