There are some experiences I never thought I would have when coming to St Andrews; having my hands wedged in a medieval, wooden ‘thumbscrew’ was certainly something I did not foresee. Yet, this is exactly what happened to me a few evenings ago, in the dead of night, standing in front of Martyrs’ Monument on The Scores. The perpetrator of this horrible torture? None other than the ghost of W. T. Linskill’s wife, Mrs. Jessie Linskill. As she was tightening the grasp of this ancient instrument around my trembling fingers (because of the cold sea breeze, not fear, naturally) she was telling me and a gathering of tourists about the techniques used in the middle ages to make suspects confess of witchcraft. She loosened the grip on that thumbscrew just in time, I must say…
“The St Andrews Witches Tour began about 20 years ago”, said Shirley Young, the impersonator of Linskill’s late wife, who has been leading the tour for the past fourteen years. With the help of Callum, another talented actor working on the tour, Ms. Young uses the hidden corners of St Andrews as a stage where old ghost stories come back to life, and details of Scottish folklore are unveiled at the turn of every corner. When I asked about her experience in performing arts, Ms. Young laughed the remark off; “No, not at all”. A degree in history? “No, I studied communication skills. I just have a love for ghost stories and legends and folklore”.
Indeed, those are very much the main requirements for a job like this one; squeezing all that history in just a little more than an hour, while at the same time making it interesting (heart-racing, I daresay), is no easy feat. Whether or not the town is truly haunted, the costumes, setting and performance of this ghostly walk can still steal a shriek out of even the most sceptical clients. Indeed, it is difficult to stick to one’s logic when the guides of the tour itself have no limits to their beliefs. Ms. Young said that she has never seen a ghost, but has an open mind; Callum very proudly stated that he absolutely believes they exist.
For those that participate in this tour, the fun is doubtlessly assured. What about those who have been on it for so long? It seems there is very little to dislike about being a ghost tour guide; “I love everything about my job, I like every bit of it, except when it gets really cold!” Callum added that the best day to work is Halloween night; “Halloween is my favourite part of the job, because it’s just mad, we have about four tours that night. We have a fancy dress competition as well, and it’s so much fun because people get really involved in that. My favourite costume last year was the Ghost Busters”. He also mentioned that on regular nights the thing he enjoys the most is impersonating the devil, and I must say, having Satan give me an impromptu aerobics lesson, also goes into the list of things I never thought I would do.
Alongside these highlights, Ms. Young treasures the fact that her job enables her to share what she considers are key events that shaped St Andrews history, like the Reformation. Her favourite ghost story is that of Bobby, a dog that wanders around Market Street, walking six inches above the ground because he died in a snow storm. As she shares this particular legend with me, she seems drawn back to her roots; “My grandfather used to tell me that story. I like to tell it when there are children on the tour, you know, because they love pets”. Folklore is essential to the creation of this tour; Ms. Young is not impersonating W. T. Linksill’s wife for any other reason. She believes he played a major role in shaping the history of St Andrews and was the only person to really undertake a serious investigation of the supernatural in the town.
Taking advantage of my opportunity to speak with the past that night, I asked my ghostly host for some ancient wisdom; who does she think the original White Lady is? “It could be many people. It could be the daughter of King Constantine the III, or Cardinal Beton’s wife…or one of his mistresses, he had several of those”.
Halloween is fast approaching, and witches, ghosts and demons might have special acts in store for those brave enough to venture into haunted St Andrews; I recommend we all take advantage of Mrs. Linskill’s talent at narrating the steps of our supernatural St Andrean friends.
For more information on the tour, call 01334 655057