By C. G. Leslie
Monday, 3rd August 1846
I think of you always. I felt it important to record my thoughts if only to explain in my own mind the perils we seem destined to suffer on this quest. Of course, Dr. Johnson makes the same promises he brought to our house: promises of treasure, of the pagan gold, of riches which will finally allow me to give you the life you truly deserve. At the moment, that treasure seems a lifetime away, still buried in the ancient cairns of the Scottish highlands, but, each day, we get closer.
We have travelled for days, although it feels more like weeks, through this God-forsaken country. Our journey, which started well enough in a fine carriage in Edinburgh, has since been reduced to, first, an old cart and now, a pair of roughshod Highland ponies. These animals look almost as miserable as the land we are traveling through. A land of brown, wind-blasted heaths and seemingly-constant rain that serves to further slow our journey through these deserted bogs. On occasion, we have taken shelter in the vast forests that skirt the edge of the bogs, but even here, travel is made difficult by way of fallen limbs and the twisted trunks of the ancient Pine trees. These forests contain the further threat of wild animals, wolves and such, dangerous animals best avoided, according to our guide.
We have met few people in these wild lands, but those we have seen have been of the most pathetic and surly demeanour. Perhaps we will find a friendlier type as we venture further north. Our guide informs us that tomorrow, we will cross the last of the Highland mountains and reach the vast plains of Caithness. The name translates as the “Land of the Cat” and is our ultimate destination on this quest. It is in that place that our treasure awaits, the home of the cairns.
Tuesday, 4th August 1846
Johnson worries me today. He has asked me to stay close to him and the guide, a surly Highlander called “Mackenzie”, at all times. It does not appear to be the wild beasts of this land that concern him, rather, the increasingly wild appearance of the human inhabitants.
Earlier we passed what could generously be described as a settlement, but really was nothing more than a collection of stone and earthen walls with rough thatched roofs that seemed to be scattered in a random fashion, built without particular plan or purpose.
These dwellings are known as “black houses”, deriving that colour from the peaty sods that are used to construct them. The occupants also seem to have acquired a similarly black-stained appearance, tainted with the grime of the place. Presumably, the peat from the fires has permanently stained their rough skin. Indeed, often, only the whites of their eyes showed any life as we passed. Often, they would line the tracks that ran past the dwellings as if begging, but they made no sound or gesture, just stared. Mothers appeared to be ancient crones, who pushed their bedraggled children behind them as we passed, glaring at us with vacant expressions from low doorways.
Only one ventured to speak, an even-older woman, with wispy white hair covering her dark, deeply-fissured face. She conversed with Mackenzie, who told her of the purpose of our journey. What followed was an angry exchange, a grumbled collection of words in the Gaelic language, and then she spat at Mackenzie, who pushed her away, leaving her sprawling on the ground. The others gasped and rushed to help her. For a moment, I thought we would be attacked, but the old woman shouted out again and then laughed; the others only continued to stare. Our guide would not initially reveal the meaning of the old woman’s words, but when pressed, he told us that it was a curse, something along the lines of: “Only dark will the travellers see, if golden light they seek.” It was after this that Johnson issued his warning and I started to worry just how much these local folks might be at odds with our search.
As we travelled on, I quizzed Mackenzie on the matter. He insisted that the locals are deluded into believing the Cairns are the home to some pagan elder gods and can act as portals to underworld cities where these gods live. Dr. Johnson was quick to dismiss this nonsense, insisting that this was merely a ploy to keep the treasure secret and hidden for themselves.
Huddled on the back of this grey pony, with further rain falling from the darkening skies, I can only hope he is right, but this place has an ominous air. The more time we spend here, the more unwelcome I feel.
Wednesday, 5th August 1846
Today, we reached the first of the cairns. What strange, pagan places these are. Johnson took measurements with a compass and chain, and I assisted him, but my eyes were constantly drawn to the structures, which seem to hold some kind of magnetic attraction. Really, they are nothing more than a roughly circular collection of sizable boulders stacked into a vague dome shape. Grey and foreboding, the stones are covered in lichens and moss so that they have taken on the same hue as the surrounding landscape, dull-grey-and-green.
To the West of the mound is a projecting tunnel-like structure which Johnson declared was the entrance. We were keen to explore the inner chamber, our months of planning aimed at achieving this goal, partly fuelled by scientific curiosity but also by the thought of what riches may lie within.
Johnson first set upon this quest after some fellow explorers unearthed a golden treasure trove from within a similar structure, which was the resting place of some great and noble chieftain, and his goods. That was from a much smaller, Lowland cairn. These Caithness Cairns are among the largest known, yet remain unexplored. Their inaccessibility provides some protection, but Johnson was determined to get here first and, after I had been told of the potential rewards, so was I.
Unfortunately, the entrance to this cairn was thoroughly blocked. It appeared the tunnel has collapsed and it would take a team of men many days to excavate it. Johnson vowed to return here at a later date, but was happy to move on, knowing even-larger cairns await. The lure of exploring these other structures, the fabled Grey Cairns of East Caithness, gave us hope. We feel much closer now. We have not travelled all this way to be defeated by rock and earth. Johnson declared we should move on. Tomorrow, we head for the Grey Cairns.
Thursday, 6th August, 1846
Today, we saw the grey swell of the North Sea through the occasional gaps in the mist. Surely, that means we have travelled as far north as this land will allow us.
We have travelled into a barren, wasted place. The wind howls across the treeless landscape, pushing the rain horizontally before it. It bites and stings as it hammers and chisels at our exposed faces, freezing the skin where it lands.
Friday, 7th August, 1846
We reached the Grey Cairns today, but have yet to explore them. On setting up camp, we discovered that someone has been trying to sabotage our efforts. Much of our equipment is damaged and neither I nor Johnson can explain this. We have kept a constant watch on our things. Only ourselves and Mackenzie have been near them. Our money is untouched, but many of our vital supplies and delicate pieces of equipment are damaged beyond repair. It is our food which is of most concern, Much of it appears to be rotten today, yet it was fresh yesterday.
Johnson flew into a rage when he saw his precious surveying instruments destroyed. He demanded that Mackenzie travel to the nearest settlement and obtain new supplies of food. We will have to manage without the equipment, although it may jeopardise our rigorous scientific examinations. We are to wait here and make a start on the excavation with the few tools we have left. I must admit I will be happy to get this over with. I am becoming increasingly unsettled; things in this place just do not seem right. I cannot rationalise this fear, but this primeval landscape seems to provoke primeval feelings within me. It is clear we are not welcome in this place.
Saturday, 8th August 1846
Our guide has not yet returned and we now fear he may never be back. The rogue is probably glad to be away. Johnson insisted on continuing the excavation today, but this morning, an even-stranger occurrence took place.
Our camp is in a slight hollow separated from the cairns by a small stream. The cairns, being on a slight rise, allow a view of the entire surrounding area.
It was with some surprise, then, that on arrival at the cairns, I happened to glance back at our meagre camp, only to see an old woman bent over the campfire. A rough, brown plaid covered her head and shoulders, but she appeared to be barefoot.
I called across to the camp, attracting Johnson’s attention, but gaining no acknowledgement from the old woman. We both rushed back across the stream. It was only a short distance, but on arrival, we found the camp empty. Tents, ponies and supplies were untouched, but the remains of our campfire were covered in some sort of dark liquid which, on closer inspection, appeared to be blood. Whether human or animal, one could not tell. The old woman had vanished.
This land is so flat and barren that we can see for miles in all directions and yet, there was no trace of our uninvited guest. Only the congealing blood confirmed that we had indeed witnessed this strange event.
Sunday, 9th August 1846
The guide is surely not coming back, of that I am certain, although Johnson maintains hope. Whether by accident or design, his disappearance is unsettling, not least because we still require someone to show us the way out of this place and our remaining food supplies are almost finished.
I have tried to persuade Johnson that we should abandon this venture, but he will have none of it. He thinks we will gain access to this new cairn quickly. It appears to be intact. Only the slabs protecting the entrance need to be removed.
We have been working throughout the day with mallet and chisel, loosening the entrance slabs. I feel sure that we will break through in the morning. We cannot work through the night, as our supply of fuel for the lanterns has been lost. We face an unsettling night in the dark of this seemingly haunted place.
Monday, 10th August 1846
It is morning and I have not slept. Throughout the night, our camp was once again invaded by unknown intruders. I first awoke to the sounds of our supplies being thrown against the tent, but when I rushed outside, the only person there was Johnson. He had heard the same sounds. No trace of an intruder could be found. This pattern was repeated throughout the evening and sleep was out of the question. We resorted to sharing a tent, glad of each other’s company in the ominous darkness, separated from the invisible intruders only by a thin piece of burlap.
I hope today is our last in this hellish place. If we can just release the final stone and gain the treasure, we can happily leave it to the devils who built it.
Johnson and I are both still in shock, but I felt I had to record the events of this afternoon as a written testimony, should anything happen to us and should we not return. After our sleepless night, we rushed through our sparse rations, in order to get to the cairn quickly and on with our task.
Yesterday, we had loosened all the stones, leaving just a single giant slab of coarse, grey rock barring the doorway to the entrance. We both pulled and heaved at this monstrous rock until, eventually, it fell forward and landed with an enormous crash at our feet. A great rushing sound accompanied this as air entered the chamber, but we were both left stunned by what was behind the giant slab. There, within the previously sealed entrance, sat the detached head of Mackenzie, our guide, staring back at us.
Whoever murdered Mackenzie must also have another access to the chamber and this surely means they will also have taken any valuables within. I fear our lives are in grave danger. Has this whole venture been worthless?
I argued with Johnson that we must leave this place immediately, but he will not give up without first examining the interior of the chamber. I cannot leave him. We must stay together for both our safety and sanity. We will, therefore, proceed with the examination of the chamber at once, and then we can leave this place with all haste.
A remarkable thing: All may not be lost; the treasure is real and apparently intact. Johnson, having first removed the pallid visage of our guide, was able to crawl into the chamber’s passageway. Inside, he found three gold coins, a gold brooch and a quite-magnificent golden plaque, engraved with a most peculiar carving. The image was of some beast that resembled part-sea creature and part-winged reptile. It certainly looked like nothing of this earth.
We remain puzzled, however, as Johnson is convinced there can be no other entrance to the chamber. So, how did Mackenzie’s murderer gain access? Unfortunately, the light faded before we could reach the inner chamber. We must hold out for one more night.
Tuesday, 11th August 1846
I am alone. This, I am sure, will be my final journal entry. Johnson, still perplexed over the cairn, returned hours ago to seek access to the inner chamber. He has not returned. I have searched the area around the cairn and called down the dark tunnel, but there is no trace of him. Neither sight nor sound. I am a coward, I know. I should crawl into the cairn to search, but I cannot. I dare not. Instead, I have packed up the few belongings we have left. It is now 12:30pm. If he does not return by 2:00pm, then I must leave. I must seek a path to the nearest settlement before darkness reaches this land again.
Monday, 24th August 1846
The memories of that desolate place have left me shaken and haunted, but I am now safe. I have gained rough passage on a fishing boat sailing from the harbour of Wick. Of my journey from the cairns to that town I can remember little and explain even less. I am only glad to be on my way home, alive. I have, of course, informed the authorities of Johnson’s disappearance and Mackenzie’s murder, and left a forwarding address for any news.
Tuesday, 25th August 1846
It appears that dreadful place has not finished with me, yet. Since leaving dry land, I have been haunted by strange sights and sounds. Once, when shaving, I saw in the mirror the face of the old crone who cursed us on our journey. I could clearly see her ravaged features and I now suspect it was her we saw at the camp, although how or why she was there, I cannot rationally explain. Since that first glimpse, I have seen her reflected throughout the ship, always just over my shoulder, always as if about to reach out and grab me.
Following more terrible nightmares and visions, I could take no more and have thrown our “treasure” overboard. I cannot rationalise my fears, but am sure that our adventure crossed some unknown boundary into a place where men should not venture. I wish to be rid of any trace of that journey.
It will only be a few more days till I see you, my dear. My heart yearns for your comforting touch. I pray you will forgive my demeanour and hope that you will understand from my writings the trials and difficulties I have faced and, seemingly, am fated to face again in my dreams.
Dear Mrs. Collins,
Please find enclosed the journal of your sadly departed husband. As promised when we met, I have conducted a thorough search of the fishing vessel and have interviewed all of the crew.
The only new information that has come to light is that from three crewmen who remember seeing your husband on the evening he went missing. He was apparently involved in an argument with another man who matched the description of the missing Dr. Johnson. None of the crew can remember seeing this man on board before or after the sighting, and no subsequent trace can be found of him anywhere.
Finally, we have made a thorough search of the area your husband described in his journal, but I am afraid the description was inaccurate. On arrival at the designated cairn entrance, we found it to be sealed. All appearances suggest that it has been like this for a significant time. There is no indication of any recent attempt to open the entrance or any evidence of foul play. We have, as yet, been unable to contact Mr. Hamish Mackenzie or Dr. Johnson to continue our investigations.
I can assure you that every effort will be made to progress this investigation. My colleagues in Wick are making a thorough examination of all the surrounding towns and their occupants in an attempt to seek further information, but so far, none has been forthcoming.
In the meantime, deepest sympathies.
Sgt. T.R. Mackay
P.S. Your husband’s belongings have been dispatched by courier. It may be some comfort to know that these include some significant gold pieces matching the description of those described in the journal.
Bio: Colin Leslie lives and works in the Scottish Highlands, but, despite these beautiful surroundings, his true love is the horror genre. Colin runs a horror blog called “The Black Abyss” (www.blackabyss.co.uk ), where he reviews and interviews the good and the bad, the old and the new, in the horror literary world. All that reading has recently rekindled a writing passion and “The Grey Cairns” is his third published short story.