I am writing this week’s article from a place far from Newfoundland, but which feels very much like home. For the past week, I have been in Scotland, first at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh, and now at the Orkney Storytelling Festival.
Last night, I sat in the cosy library living room of Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir in Kirkwall, with a purring cat and the coal fire burning in the fireplace. All night, friends, festival volunteers, and storytellers drifted in and out, sharing stories. As the evening wore on, it was down to five of us, and before too long, people started sharing ghost stories.
Tom Muir told a great local ghost ship story, which incorporated many elements which were familiar to me from one of my favourite Newfoundland ghost ship stories, the tale of the Isle of Skye, a schooner from Holyrood.
Newfoundlanders love to tell stories, and ghost ship stories have always been a part of that. We have a great tradition of folk beliefs here in the province, and many communities have ghost ships, but the Isle of Skye is one of my favourites.
In a nutshell, the story is about a family of fishermen. The father and brothers, in their schooner, were set to leave Holyrood for the coast of Labrador. The youngest son became ill, and they waited as long as they could, but eventually set sail, not wanting to miss the fishing season.
The son, once his father and brothers left, gradually recovered his health.
One night after the end of the fishing season, the youngest brother looked out into Holyrood harbour to see the Isle of Skye returned. He told his mother to put on the kettle, and rowed out to meet his family. When he got out onto the water, however, he found that the Isle of Skye had vanished.
Days later, word came into town that the Isle of Skye had been lost with all hands in a storm, around the time the brother had seen the ghost ship.
There are a couple of links between shipwreck stories and ghost ship stories. I think at one level, ghost ship stories arise from the tragedy of the wrecks, and incomprehensibility of tragedy in general. Disasters on a large scale, such as that associated with a shipwreck, where multiple lives are lost at once, are harder to understand than an individual death. It is difficult to understand why such an event would happen. Associating the event with a ghost story makes the event larger than life, more momentous, and places the story outside of the regular occurrences of daily life.
Phantom ship stories, like a lot of ghost stories, are a means of ensuring that oral history is passed from one generation to the next. Even something as momentous as a wreck will lose emotional or sentimental value as the story passes from generation to generation, and as stories lose value or relevancy, they stop being told.
However, when a historical story, such as a shipwreck, is linked to a supernatural experience which might continue into the present, that story is much more "tellable."
Many ghost ship stories are anniversary type stories, with the ghosts returning each year at the time of the wreck.
This means that the original bit of history is recycled every year, and the anniversary is remembered.
The Isle of Skye story takes this one level further. Not only did people claim to see the ship on the anniversary of the wreck, but it was also claimed that it was seen as a token, or forewarning, of a coming storm. The ship functioned in the same way as other Newfoundland legends of “weather lights” — ghostly lights seen on the water in advance of a storm.
If you know of a ghost ship or weather light story from anywhere in Newfoundland, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.