Gavon's Eve by E. F. Benson
It is only the largest kind of ordnance map that records the
existence of the village of Gavon, in the shire of Sutherland, and it
is perhaps surprising that any map on whatever scale should mark so
small and huddled a group of huts, set on a bare, bleak headland
between moor and sea, and, so one would have thought, of no import at
all to any who did not happen to live there. But the river Gavon, on
the right bank of which stand this half-dozen of chimneyless and
wind-swept habitations, is a geographical fact of far greater
interest to outsiders, for the salmon there are heavy fish, the mouth
of the river is clear of nets, and all the way up to Gavon Loch, some
six miles inland, the coffee-coloured water lies in pool after deep
pool, which verge, if the river is in order and the angler moderately
sanguine, on a fishing probability amounting almost to a certainty.
In any case, during the first fortnight of September last I had no
blank day on those delectable waters, and up till the 15th of that
month there was no day on which some one at the lodge in which I was
stopping did not land a fish out of the famous Picts' pool. But after
the 15th that pool was not fished again. The reason why is here set
The river at this point, after some hundred yards of rapid, makes
a sudden turn round a rocky angle, and plunges madly into the pool
itself. Very deep water lies at the head of it, but deeper still
further down on the east side, where a portion of the stream flicks
back again in a swift dark backwater towards the top of the pool
again. It is fishable only from the western bank, for to the east,
above this backwater, a great wall of black and basaltic rock, heaved
up no doubt by some fault in strata, rises sheer from the river to
the height of some sixty feet. It is in fact nearly precipitous on
both sides, heavily serrated at the top, and of so curious a
thinness, that at about the middle of it where a fissure breaks its
topmost edge, and some twenty feet from the top, there exists a long
hole, a sort of lancet window, one would say, right through the rock,
so that a slit of daylight can be seen through it. Since, therefore,
no one would care to cast his line standing perched on that
razor-edged eminence, the pool must needs be fished from the western
bank. A decent fly, however, will cover it all.
It is on the western bank that there stand the remains of that
which gave its title to the pool, namely, the ruins of a Pict castle,
built out of rough and scarcely hewn masonry, unmortared but on a
certain large and impressive scale, and in a very well-preserved
condition considering its extreme antiquity. It is circular in shape
and measures some twenty yards of diameter in its internal span. A
staircase of large blocks with a rise of at least a foot leads up to
the main gate, and opposite this on the side towards the river is
another smaller postern through which down a rather hazardously steep
slope a scrambling path, where progress demands both caution and
activity, conducts to the head of the pool which lies immediately
beneath it. A gate-chamber still roofed over exists in the solid
wall: inside there are foundation indications of three rooms, and in
the centre of all a very deep hole, probably a well. Finally, just
outside the postern leading to the river is a small artificially
levelled platform, some twenty feet across, as if made to support
some super-incumbent edifice. Certain stone slabs and blocks are
dispersed over it.
Brora, the post-town of Gavon, lies some six miles to the
south-west, and from it a track over the moor leads to the rapids
immediately above the Picts' pool, across which by somewhat
extravagant striding from boulder to boulder a man can pass dry-foot
when the river is low, and make his way up a steep path to the north
of the basaltic rock, and so to the village. But this transit demands
a steady head, and at the best is a somewhat giddy passage. Otherwise
the road between it and Brora lies in a long detour higher up the
moor, passing by the gates of Gavon Lodge, where I was stopping. For
some vague and ill-defined reason the pool itself and the Picts'
Castle had an uneasy reputation on the countryside, and several times
trudging back from a day's fishing I have known my gillie take a
longish circuit, though heavy with fish, rather than make this short
cut in the dusk by the castle. On the first occasion when Sandy, a
strapping yellow-bearded viking of twenty-five, did this he gave as a
reason that the ground round about the castle was "mossy," though as
a God-fearing man he must have known he lied. But on another occasion
he was more frank, and said that the Picts' pool was "no canny" after
sunset. I am now inclined to agree with him, though, when he lied
about it, I think it was because as a God-fearing man he feared the
It was on the evening of September 14 that I was walking back with
my host, Hugh Graham, from the forest beyond the lodge. It had been a
day unseasonably hot for the time of year, and the hills were
blanketed with soft, furry clouds. Sandy, the gillie of whom I have
spoken, was behind with the ponies, and, idly enough, I told Hugh
about his strange distaste for the Picts' pool after sunset. He
listened, frowning a little.
"That's curious," he said. "I know there is some dim local
superstition about the place, but last year certainly Sandy used to
laugh at it. I remember asking him what ailed the place, and he said
he thought nothing about the rubbish folk talked. But this year you
say he avoids it."
"On several occasions with me he has done so."
Hugh smoked a while in silence, striding noiselessly over the
dusky fragrant heather.
"Poor chap," he said, "I don't know what to do about him. He's
"Drink?" I asked.
"Yes, drink in a secondary manner. But trouble led to drink, and
trouble, I am afraid, is leading him to worse than drink."
"The only thing worse than drink is the devil," I remarked.
"Precisely. That's where he is going. He goes there often."
"What on earth do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, it's rather curious," said Hugh. "You know I dabble a bit
in folklore and local superstition, and I believe I am on the track
of something odder than odd. Just wait a moment."
We stood there in the gathering dusk till the ponies laboured up
the hillside to us, Sandy with his six feet of lithe strength
strolling easily beside them up the steep brae, as if his long day's
trudging had but served to half awaken his dormant powers of
"Going to see Mistress Macpherson again tonight?" asked Hugh.
"Aye, puir body," said Sandy. "She's auld, and she's lone."
"Very kind of you, Sandy," said Hugh, and we walked on.
"What then?" I asked when the ponies had fallen behind again.
"Why, superstition lingers here," said Hugh, "and it's supposed
she's a witch. To be quite candid with you, the thing interests me a
good deal. Supposing you asked me, on oath, whether I believed in
witches, I should say 'No.' But if you asked me again, on oath,
whether I suspected I believed in them, I should, I think, say 'Yes.'
And the fifteenth of this month--to-morrow--is Gavon's Eve."
"And what in Heaven's name is that?" I asked. "And who is Gavon?
And what's the trouble?"
"Well, Gavon is the person, I suppose, not saint, who is what we
should call the eponymous hero of this district. And the trouble is
Sandy's trouble. Rather a long story. But there's a long mile in
front of us yet, if you care to be told."
During that mile I heard. Sandy had been engaged a year ago to girl of
Gavon who was in service at Inverness. In March last he had gone, without giving
notice, to see her, and as he walked up the street in which her mistress's house
stood, had met her suddenly face to face, in company with a man whose
clipped speech betrayed him English, whose manner a kind of
gentleman. He had a flourish of his hat for Sandy, pleasure to see
him, and scarcely any need of explanation as to how he came to be
walking with Catrine. It was the most natural thing possible, for a
city like Inverness boasted its innocent urbanities, and a girl could
stroll with a man. And for the time, since also Catrine was so
frankly pleased to see him, Sandy was satisfied. But after his return
to Gavon, suspicion, fungus-like, grew rank in his mind, with the
result that a month ago he had, with infinite pains and blottings,
written a letter to Catrine, urging her return and immediate marriage.
Thereafter it was known that she had left Inverness; it was known
that she had arrived by train at Brora. From Brora she had started to
walked across the moor by the path leading just above the Picts'
Castle, crossing the rapids to Gavon, leaving her box to be sent by
the carrier. But at Gavon she had never arrived. Also it was said
that, although it was hot afternoon, she wore a big cloak.
By this time we had come to the lodge, the lights of which showed
dim and blurred through the thick hill-mists that had streamed
sullenly down from the higher ground.
"And the rest," said Hugh, "which is as fantastic as this is sober
fact, I will tell you later."
Now, a fruit-bearing determination to go to bed is, to my mind, as
difficult to ripen as a fruit-bearing determination to get up, and in
spite of our long day, I was glad when Hugh (the rest of the men
having yawned themselves out of the smoking-room) came back from the
hospitable dispensing of bedroom candlesticks with a briskness that
denoted that, as far as he was concerned, the distressing
determination was not imminent.
"As regards Sandy," I suggested.
"Ah, I also was thinking of that," he said. "Well, Catrine Gordon
left Brora, and never arrived here. That is fact. Now for what
remains. Have you any remembrance of a woman always alone walking
about the moor by the loch? I think I once called your attention to
"Yes, I remember," I said. "Not Catrine, surely; a very old woman,
awful to look at.
"Moustache, whiskers, and muttering to herself. Always looking at
the ground, too."
"Yes, that is she--not Catrine. Catrine! My word, a May morning!
But the other--it is Mrs. Macpherson, reputed witch. Well, Sandy
trudges there, a mile and more away, every night to see her. You know
Sandy: Adonis of the north. Now, can you account by any natural
explanation for that fact? That he goes off after a long day to see
an old hag in the hills?"
"It would seem unlikely," said I.
"Unlikely! Well, yes, unlikely."
Hugh got up from his chair and crossed the room to where a
bookcase of rather fusty-looking volumes stood between windows. He
took a small morocco--backed book from a top shelf.
"Superstitions of Sutherlandshire," he said, as he handed it to
me. "Turn to page 128, and read."
"September 15 appears to have been the date of what we may call
this devil festival. On the night of that day the powers of darkness
held pre-eminent dominion, and over-rode for any who were abroad that
night and invoked their aid, the protective Providence of Almighty
"Witches, therefore, above all, were peculiarly potent. On this
night any witch could entice to herself the heart and the love of any
young man who consulted her on matters of philtre or love charm, with
the result that on any night in succeeding years of the same date,
he, though he was lawfully affianced and wedded, would for that night
be hers. If, however, he should call on the name of God through any
sudden grace of the Spirit, her charm would be of no avail. On this
night, too, all witches had the power by certain dreadful
incantations and indescribable profanities, to raise from the dead
those who had committed suicide."
"Top of the next page," said Hugh. "Leave out this next paragraph;
it does not bear on this last."
"Near a small village in this country," I read, "called Gavon, the
moon at midnight is said to shine through a certain gap or fissure in
a wall of rock close beside the river on to the ruins of a Pict
castle, so that the light of its beams falls on to a large flat stone
erected there near the gate, and supposed by some to be an ancient
and pagan altar. At that moment, so the superstition still lingers in
the countryside, the evil and malignant spirits which hold sway on
Gavon's Eve, are at the zenith of their powers, and those who invoke
their aid at this moment and in this place, will, though with
infinite peril to their immortal souls, get all that they desire of
The paragraph on the subject ended here, and I shut the book.
"Well?" I asked.
"Under favourable circumstances two and two make four," said
"And four means--"
"This. Sandy is certainly in consultation with a woman who is
supposed to be a witch, whose path no crofter will cross after
nightfall. He wants to learn, at whatever cost, poor devil, what
happened to Catrine. Thus I think it more than possible that
to-morrow, at midnight, there will be folk by the Picts' pool. There
is another curious thing. I was fishing yesterday, and just opposite
the river gate of the castle, someone has set up a great flat stone,
which has been dragged (for I noticed the crushed grass) from the
debris at the bottom of the slope."
"You mean that the old hag is going to try to raise the body of
Catrine, if she is dead?"
"Yes, and I mean to see myself what happens. Come too."
The next day Hugh and I fished down the river from the lodge,
taking with us not Sandy, but another gillie, and ate our lunch on
the slope of the Picts' Castle after landing a couple of fish there.
Even as Hugh had said, a great flat slab of stone had been dragged on
to the platform outside the river gate of the castle, where it rested
on certain rude supports, which, now that it was in place, seemed
certainly designed to receive it. It was also exactly opposite that
lancet window in the basaltic rock across the pool, so that if the
moon at midnight did shine through it, the light would fall on the
stone. This, then, was the almost certain scene of the
Below the platform, as I have said, the ground fell rapidly away
to the level of the pool, which owing to rain on the hills was
running very high, and, streaked with lines of greyish bubbles,
poured down in amazing and ear-filling volume. But directly
underneath the steep escarpment of rock on the far side of the pool
it lay foamless and black, a still backwater of great depth. Above
the altar-like erection again the ground rose up seven rough-hewn
steps to the gate itself, on each side of which, to the height of
about four feet, ran the circular wall of the castle. Inside again
were the remains of partition walls between the three chambers, and
it was in the one nearest to the river gate that we determined to
conceal ourselves that night. From there, should the witch and Sandy
keep tryst at the altar, any sound of movement would reach us, and
through the aperture of the gate itself we could see, concealed in
the shadow of the wall, whatever took place at the altar or down
below at the pool. The lodge, finally, was but a short ten minutes
away, if one went in the direct line, so that by starting at a
quarter to twelve that night, we could enter the Picts' Castle by the
gate away from the river, thus not betraying our presence to those
who might be waiting for the moment when the moon should shine
through the lancet window in the wall of rock on to the altar in
front of the river gate.
Night fell very still and windless, and when not long before
midnight we let ourselves silently out of the lodge, though to the
east the sky was clear, a black continent of cloud was creeping up
from the west, and had now nearly reached the zenith. Out of the
remote fringes of it occasional lightning winked, and the growl of
very distant thunder sounded drowsily at long intervals after.
But it seemed to me as if another storm hung over our heads, ready
every moment to burst, for the oppression in the air was of a far
heavier quality than so distant a disturbance could have accounted
To the east, however, the sky was still luminously clear; the
curiously hard edges of the western cloud were star-embroidered, and
by the dove-coloured light in the east it was evident that the
moonrise over the moor was imminent. And though I did not in my heart
believe that our expedition would end in anything but yawns, I was
conscious of an extreme tension and rawness of nerves, which I set
down to the thunder-charged air.
For noiselessness of footstep we had both put on
india-rubber-soled shoes, and all the way down to the pool we heard
nothing but the distant thunder and our own padded tread. Very
silently and cautiously we ascended the steps of the gate away from
the river, and keeping close to the wall inside, sidled round to the
river gate and peered out. For the first moment I could see nothing,
so black lay the shadow of the rock-wall opposite across the pool,
but by degrees I made out the lumps and line of the glimmering foam
which streaked the water. High as the river was running this morning
it was infinitely more voluminous and turbulent now, and the sound of
it filled and bewildered the ear with its sonorous roaring. Only
under the very base of the rock opposite it ran quite black and
unflecked by foam: there lay the deep still surface of the backwater.
Then suddenly I saw something black move in the dimness in front of
me, and against the grey foam rose up first the head, then the
shoulders, and finally the whole figure of a woman coming towards us
up the bank. Behind her walked another, a man, and the two came to
where the altar of stone had been newly erected and stood there side
by side silhouetted against the churned white of the stream. Hugh had
seen too, and touched me on the arm to call my attention. So far then
he was right: there was no mistaking the stalwart proportions of
Suddenly across the gloom shot a tiny spear of light, and
momentarily as we watched, it grew larger and longer, till a tall
beam, as from some window cut in the rock opposite, was shed on the
bank below us. It moved slowly, imperceptibly to the left till it
struck full between the two black figures standing there, and shone
with a curious bluish gleam on the flat stone in front of them.
Then the roar of the river was suddenly overscored by a dreadful
screaming voice, the voice of a woman, and from her side her arms
shot up and out as if in invocation of some power.
At first I could catch none of the words, but soon from repetition
they began to convey an intelligible message to my brain, and I was
listening as in paralytic horror of nightmare to a bellowing of the
most hideous and un-nameable profanity. What I heard I cannot bring
myself to record; suffice it to say that Satan was invoked by every
adoring and reverent name, that cursing and unspeakable malediction
was poured forth on Him whom we hold most holy. Then the yelling
voice ceased as suddenly as it had began, and for a moment there was
silence again, but for the reverberating river.
Then once more that horror of sound was uplifted.
"So, Catrine Gordon," it cried, "I bid ye in the name of my master
and yours to rise from where ye lie. Up with ye--up!"
Once more there was silence; then I heard Hugh at my elbow draw a
quick sobbing breath, and his finger pointed unsteadily to the dead
black water below the rock. And I too looked and saw.
Right under the rock there appeared a pale subaqueous light, which
waved and quivered in the stream. At first it was very small and dim,
but as we looked it seemed to swim upwards from remote depths and
grew larger till I suppose the space of some square yard was
illuminated by it.
Then the surface of the water was broken, and a head, the head of
a girl, dead-white and with long, flowing hair, appeared above the
stream. Her eyes were shut, the corners of her mouth drooped as in
sleep, and the moving water stood in a frill round her neck. Higher
and higher rose the figure out of the tide, till at last it stood,
luminous in itself, so it appeared, up to the middle.
The head was bent down over the breast, and the hands clasped
together. As it emerged from the water it seemed to get nearer, and
was by now half-way across the pool, moving quietly and steadily
against the great flood of the hurrying river.
Then I heard a man's voice crying out in a sort of strangled
"Catrine!" it cried; "Catrine! In God's name; in God's name!"
In two strides Sandy had rushed down the steep bank, and hurled
himself out into that mad swirl of waters. For one moment I saw his
arms flung up into the sky, the next he had altogether gone. And on
the utterance of that name the unholy vision had vanished too, while
simultaneously there burst in front of us a light so blinding,
followed by a crack of thunder so appalling to the senses, that I
know I just hid my face in my hands. At once, as if the flood-gates
of the sky had been opened, the deluge was on us, not like rain, but
like one sheet of solid water, so that we cowered under it. Any hope
or attempt to rescue Sandy was out of the question; to dive into that
whirlpool of mad water meant instant death, and even had it been
possible for any swimmer to live there, in the blackness of the night
there was absolutely no chance of finding him. Besides, even if it
had been possible to save him, I doubt whether I was sufficiently
master of my flesh and blood as to endure to plunge where that
apparition had risen.
Then, as we lay there, another horror filled and possessed my
mind. Somewhere close to us in the darkness was that woman whose
yelling voice just now had made my blood run ice-cold, while it
brought the streaming sweat to my forehead. At that moment I turned
"I cannot stop here," I said. "I must run, run right away. Where
"Did you not see?" he asked.
"No. What happened?"
"The lightning struck the stone within a few inches of where she
was standing. We--we must go and look for her."
I followed him down the slope, shaking as if I had the palsy, and
groping with my hands on the ground in front of me, in deadly terror
of encountering something human. The thunderclouds had in the last
few minutes spread over the moon, so that no ray from the window in
the rock guided our search. But up and down the bank from the stone
that lay shattered there to the edge of the pool we groped and
stumbled, but found nothing. At length we gave it up: it seemed
morally certain that she, too, had rolled down the bank after the
lightning stroke, and lay somewhere deep in the pool from which she
had called the dead.
None fished the pool next day, but men with drag-nets came from
Brora. Right under the rock in the backwater lay two bodies, close
together, Sandy and the dead girl. Of the other they found
It would seem, then, that Catrine Gordon, in answer to Sandy's
letter, left Inverness in heavy trouble. What happened afterwards can
only be conjectured, but it seems likely she took the short cut to
Gavon, meaning to cross the river on the boulders above the Picts'
pool. But whether she slipped accidentally in her passage, and so was
drawn down by the hungry water, or whether unable to face the future,
she had thrown herself into the pool, we can only guess. In any case
they sleep together now in the bleak, wind-swept graveyard at Brora,
in obedience to the inscrutable designs of God.