Phantoms and Forerunners: The Forgotten Tales of Island Folklore
Storytelling has always been an integral component of Island life, for, as one researcher put it, it was “the only entertainment people had” (3). And many of the stories told around the fire on those cold nights of years-gone-by were those of phantoms and forerunners.
Prince Edward Island has a long and fanciful history surrounding folklore, and the Eastern end of the Island is no exception. Folklore and ghost stories have been handed down from generation to generation, and often serve not only to entertain and frighten, but to share a warning or a lesson.
Often times these stories attempted to explain the seemingly supernatural events which occurred in the lives of ordinary people, and other times they served to assuage the deeply held fear which gripped the hearts of those brave souls who eked out an existence in what was at times a lonely and unforgiving place.
Whatever their purpose, no matter their origin, the folklore of our Island is as much a part of our cultural heritage as any song or dance, and while today these stories aren’t as common as they once were, you needn’t look far to find someone willing to dim the lights and share with you a terrifying tale from the past.
The Phantom Ship
The Phantom Ship is perhaps the most well known spectre in Island folklore. Reported to be a three masted schooner, hearkening back from the halcyon days of Island ship building, this spectral vessel will appear on the water without notice, and sails smoothly along over the waves. With sightings dating back over 200 years, observers have reported watching it for up to an hour, before it abruptly, and without warning, bursts into a spectacular display of orange flame, before sinking mournfully into the water (10).
But there is one visceral detail which adds to the macabre nature of the phantom ship, and that is the tortured nature of the souls who are witnessed to remain on board the doomed vessel. Many observers, both from sea and land, have reported watching helplessly as the flames spread across the ship, only to watch in horror as the figures of men --the sailors aboard the ship-- dash frantically about the deck before diving overboard in agony. Their cries can be heard for miles, echoing over the open water as they are burned alive, and although rescue attempts have been made, none have even been successful.
One such attempt at reaching these poor souls took place in Charlottetown around the year 1900. The flaming ship was spotted from the shore near the harbour, and a small group of brave sailors boarded a rowboat in an effort to reach the ship in time to rescue the crew on board. But incredibly, before the rowboat could reach the distressed vessel, the phantom ship vanished completely (10). A search was immediately carried out by divers, but no evidence of the ship was ever found.
And a report such as this is not out of the ordinary. Consider the following testimony from a witness of the phantom ship, who saw something much the same. As he explains, “we got up on the banks to watch. I saw smoke rising very slowly all over the deck. Then it was only a few minutes I saw men that seemed to come up from below and they were running around the deck every way. Then as they were running around I saw a low flame all over the deck. When the flames started the men climbed up the masts of the vessel. When they were about halfway up the masts the sails caught. All the sails seemed to catch at the same time. I could not see the men any more as the flames hid my view. We watched it until the flames died and everything crumbled to the deck. There was nothing left but the hull on the water, and gradually it seemed to sink lower and finally disappeared as if it gradually filled with water and sunk” (11).
And perhaps accounts such as these could be discredited on their own, but it is often the case, as occurred with the group of men in the rowboat in Charlottetown harbour described above, that the phantom ship is witnessed by many people, and for a prolonged period of time. In fact, there is even a recorded instance of the car ferry, the Prince Nova, witnessing the burning ship while travelling the Wood Islands-Caribou route between PEI and Nova Scotia.
The sight was so alarming that the ferry even diverted its regular course in order to aid the burning ship, “only to have it disappear into thin air when approached at close range” (11). This event left such an impact on the crew that in later years Northumberland Ferries staff was directed not to attempt to interfere in further rescues of the burning ship.
Many have speculated that the ship is merely an illusion, some sort of optical distortion created by wind, waves, fog, electricity, or even the moon. But as author William Hamilton points out in The Island magazine, the fact remains that countless people have seen something on the waters surrounding our Island, and that that something remains unexplained (10).
The Wild Hunt of the Black Birds
Indelible upon the history of our Island is the belief in omens and their supernatural meanings. Many of these beliefs come from the oral traditions of the early Scottish settlers, who told these tales in the original Gaelic. The Scots believed much could be divined from the interpretation of signs, and it was widespread knowledge in Eastern Kings that “dishes rattling in the cupboard was the sign that somebody was going to die; and a picture falling off the wall was another; and if you opened the stove and the sparks flew at you… that was supposed to mean you'd hear of a death (3).
But the most ominous of signs often had a connection to birds. Some held the belief that if a bird flew in your house, that was somebody was bringing bad news to you soon (3), while others understood that a bird in the house was a sign of a loved one’s impending doom (8). And while these tales are alarming enough, a large flock of birds could be a sign of something much more sinister.
Stories are told, to this day, of an otherworldy flock of birds which was capable of transporting people rapidly, and over considerable distances (3). It was known in Gaelic as the sluagh (pronounced SLOO-ah), which literally meant “a large host or swarm”, although a more contemporary understanding might be "army". Each bird was said to represent a spirit of the restless dead, or of a sinner.
If you were caught out at night, or even in your home with the doors or windows open in the dark, the sluagh could pick you up and carry you off. In some cases, the sluagh would come to take you away to the afterlife, and you would never be seen again. Those who did survive the sluagh found themselves far from their homes, often in the wilderness, with no memory of the preceding hours, or how they came to be there (8).
Theresa Wilson of Goose River recalls the story of her grandfather’s encounter with the sluagh (3). Her grandfather was known to be a hard worker, and he slept soundly at night as a result of this. One night, after a particularly hard day in the fields, he came home and fell asleep, and when he next awoke it was morning time, and he found himself lying on the train tracks, several miles away. It was only by the vibrations of the train coming down the tracks that he even woke up at all. He was convinced that it had been the sluagh which had carried him there.
The Big Swamp in Bayfield was also said to be a haunt of the sluagh, and many people have had run-ins with this powerful force near the swamp. Ronnie Gillis was once walking through the swamp at night, when suddenly he found himself miles away with no memory of how he got there (8). In another instance, John Joe MacPhee was walking from Rock Barra to Bayfield, past the swamp, when a cold wind hit him. After that he had no memory of what happened, and when he came to his senses he found himself lost in the depths of the swamp, and it took him hours to find his way out (8).
Perhaps inexplicably, the most effective defense against the sluagh was to keep the leg of your pants rolled up at all times, as that was said to be the best way to ensure that the sluagh wouldn’t take you (3). This claim is often attested to in tales of the sluagh, and is repeated in various sources (8). Few other methods of sluagh prevention are known, however it was thought that the sluagh was thought to arrive only from the west, and one other method of preventing the sluagh included keeping west facing windows closed, especially at night.
And while these stories may strike the modern reader as bizarre, there are still those who lend credence to their veracity. The Island Narrative Program of UPEI records that some people who still, even today, wind their windows up when passing the Big Swamp in Bayfield (8), and it is still a common practice among many Islander when driving to “cross your crows”, which means to make the sign of a small cross over crows who cross your path, in order to ward off bad luck.
Ghost Candles and Will-O-The-Wisps
An ever-present part of the Island life back in those days were visions of the dead; visitations by spirits or ghosts which heralded imminent death or could foresee the future. These visions were as mysterious as they were frequent, and could appear to anyone at anytime, however night was when they were most often manifest.
One form in which the otherworldly made themselves known was through the appearance of lights, which were known at the time by their Gaelic name, the "dreag" (3). In modern terms, these visions were known as ghost candles. These lights could be fleeting or playful, and were always a clear indicator that something supernatural was afoot.
As Shaw writes, one example of these lights occurred when a father was walking home, late at night, after finishing his work on a neighbour’s farm. The road was dark and black, the sky clouded overhead, and he was surprised by the sudden apparition of a small, floating ball of light which hovered over his shoulder. The light stayed with him, following home, and the father knew with increasing dread that something was to fear beyond his own farm gate. To his dismay, when he arrived home, he discovered that his young son had died that very evening, and the light of the dreag, thought to be the spirit of the little boy, had guided him home.
Another example of this was witnessed by an entire family. Early one winter morning, the family, consisting of a mother, a father, and their son, were gathered around the table in the kitchen eating breakfast. This was long before sunrise, and everyone at the table was startled when a sudden flash of bright light shone in the kitchen window, illuminating all three of them, before fading away as suddenly as it had come. Their son had been ill for some time prior, and the father took this to be a sign of the boy's impending doom.
The son recuperated nicely, despite the omen, and the father was relieved, until he himself took ill only a week later and suddenly died. The family was grief-stricken, and not long after the burial the mother too contracted pneumonia and passed away, leaving an orphan son, the lone survivor of the vision of the bright light (3). Such a spectacle was so compelling, so convincing, that even the Reverend attested that it could only have been a forerunner, some otherworldly act of intervention (3).
Another instance of a ghost candle occurred in the Glen, and was witnessed by Roderick MacPhee, father of Nellie Roddie, who claimed to have seen a "ball of fire". According to the story, “one night, Roderick was at a card game in the Glen when a large fight broke out. Getting scared, Roderick left for home. As he was leaving, he saw a large ball of fire that started to follow him. He ran faster and the ball followed him quicker. The faster he ran, the faster the ball came after him. As he rushed in the house door, he slammed the door shut and the flaming ball disappeared. He believed the ball to be the devil, and also believed the devil to be in the cards.” The connection between the devil and playing cards was a common one, and in those days card games were believed to be a sin (9).
Ghost candles weren't the only way in which spirits made themselves known, however. Many supernatural sightings more often took the form of visions, ghostly apparitions, or visitations, which were known as forerunners, as they were said to "foretell" something about the future. And while many people reported experiences with forerunners, some people were more attuned to these visions than others. One such person, Donald MacDonald, of Bear River, was known for his glimpses of these apparitions and omens, and would often make dire predictions based upon what he saw. He was a man plagued by the supernatural, and would often report that he could not even sleep in his own home, as the dishes in the cupboard would rattle and the stove-lids would shake in their places (4).
In one often told example of Donald’s visions, when he was leaving the home of his neighbours, Joe and Julia Gaudet, he stopped abruptly on the deck, and skirted around the perimeter of the verandah, avoiding some unseen obstacle in his way. When questioned about it, he said that he had just walked around a coffin. This message struck fear into the hearts of those around, and it was only days later when Joe’s brother Aeneas was tragically killed in a work accident. The wake was held in Joe’s home, and when the pallbearers, Donald included, were carrying the casket into the house, they were forced to set it down in order to make adjustments to the door to allow it to fit. They set it on the deck, in the very place where Donald had seen it lying days earlier (4).
In another instance, Donald stopped what he was doing as he stood out in the yard, and those around him asked what was going on. Sombrely he reported that he had just witnessed a funeral procession go by, and that death was to be expected. Sure enough, not even a week later, a neighbour, young Sarah Gallant took ill and died, and her funeral procession passed by the house, just as Donald had predicted it would (4).
Another example of a forerunner, this time from near Naufrage, foretold the death of a young child in a family of MacDonalds. For several nights in a row Mrs. MacDonald had been having difficulty sleeping. Her youngest child, only an infant, wasn’t well, but she admitted that this wasn’t what was keeping her up. The problem, she revealed to her husband after several sleepless nights, was the noise she continued to hear outside the bedroom window, late at night. It was a hollow, wooden, thumping noise, but when she would peer out the window she could see nothing. Her husband assured her that it was of no consequence, but still it weighed heavily upon her mind.
Mrs. MacDonald soon found something else to fret over, for only a day or two later her infant baby died. Sadness and grief overwhelmed the home as funeral preparations commenced. Up in the bedroom, the weeping mother prepared her baby’s body, while outside her husband constructed a child-sized coffin, the saddest of things. He had only just finished the coffin when he picked it up to carry it inside, but he stumbled as he went, falling forward and knocking the coffin against the side of the house. The clatter that ensued --the hollow, wooden, thump -- was enough to make Mrs. MacDonald’s blood run cold, for it was the exact sound which had been keeping her awake each and every night. The child was quickly buried, and the sound was never heard again.
Fairies have played a role in Island folklore since the first settlers arrived here, something that perhaps bears testament to early settlers' roots in Scotland and Ireland. Fairy Hill, located in Gowan Brae, was once thought to be home to the largest tree on the Island, and fairies are still said to be found in the spring on the Hermanville road near Naufrage. But unlike the typical image of fairies found in popular stories, the fairies on the Island have rarely been known to be kind, and the stories most often shared are dire tales of warning, of punishment or mischief at the hands of these tiny creatures.
The Glen was infamous for fairies, and this is noted even by the Province of Prince Edward Island in their archive of scenic wood roads (3). Wooded areas were known to be haunts of these fairy-folk, and their voices and laughter would echo through the forest, often being mistaken for that of a child. Curious children who lived nearby were taught to pay no notice to these voices. Those children who didn't heed their parents' warnings and followed the voices were led deeper and deeper into the woods until they were hopelessly lost; such was the fairies' aim.
One well known tale of the trouble caused by fairies that of a man who lived in the Glen, who claimed that fairies had gotten into his barn. They began to pull tricks and play mischief on him, to the point that he had no other means of eradicating them, and so in desperation he set fire to the barn. It burned away in a blaze of flames and smoke, but to his dismay the fairies then appeared inside his house. He again tried what methods he could, but could find no way to rid himself of their presence, and sadly burned his own house in order to rid himself of his tormentors (1). He even burned his outbuildings and tool sheds, leaving nothing standing in his attempt to get rid of them. In the end his only recourse was to abandon his property altogether, whereafter he was taken in by Harry Dixon, in the Baltic (1).
The fairies were known as tricksters, it was said that the best way to rid one’s self of them was to outdo them at their own game, and to beat them in a trick. One such method of escaping the fairies that has been attested to up East, was to run across the rows of a potato field. The fairies, being so small, couldn’t climb over the furrows, and would instead have to run up and down the rows, zig-zagging back and forth, leaving enough time for anyone to escape (1).
Not all encounters with fairies were wicked, and on a kinder note there is the story of Togany the Fairy. As the story goes, there was an early settler named Peter MacPhee who had staked his claim in Rock Barra. His property had a beautiful little spring on it, with no need for a well, and Peter would draw his water from this spring. One day, when he was down at the spring, he fell asleep, and later awoke to the sound of piping. To his surprise, a fairy had climbed out of the spring and was piping music for Peter. The fairy told the man that his name was Togany (Toganaidh in the original Gaelic), and agreed to teach the music to Peter, who could also play the pipes (1,2). Peter rushed home, returned with his pipes, and the little creature taught him what came to be known as Togany’s Reel.
This was many years ago, and unfortunately the spring which once was the home of the fairies has now dried up, however they say that the remnants of Peter’s cabin, little more than post holes, can still be found (1).
Another instance of a Prince Edward Island “fairy” comes to us a from an article in The Island magazine, which has reprinted an earlier article from the Examiner of 7 January 1893. This story surrounds the case of “Kelly’s Fairy”, as the creature was known at the time. It takes place in a pioneer village in King’s County, where a young couple, by the surname Kelly, gave birth to a son who was perfect in every way. The family was normal and happy, the child was healthy and rosy, and the Kelly parents spared no kindness or affection towards the boy, who was their greatest treasure in life.
But all that changed one October morning when, against the better intentions of his wife, Mr. Kelly persuaded her to leave the child alone in the crib while they worked out in the field to bring in the harvest of potatoes. When they returned to the house around noon, the parents were surprised to find that their child had taken on a visage of distemper, that he looked sour and puckered, as if he had become calamitously ill. Mrs. Kelly did all that she could to comfort the child, but it was to no avail; this callous and crooked disposition settled permanently over the child, despite all her efforts to the contrary. It was as if he was a completely changed creature.
Word soon spread of the misfortune of the Kelly family, and rumor began to spread that the child which Mrs. Kelly held in her arms was not in fact her own, but that it was a changeling; that her true child had been taken away by the fairies and this creature had been left in its place. Mrs. Kelly wished not to believe it, but even she was unable to entirely dispel the doubt that the rumours had sown. And so, the child soon came to be known as Kelly’s Fairy.
As if this weren’t tragic enough, Mrs. Kelly’s husband, the child’s father, soon took ill and before long he had been swept into an early grave, leaving behind a widow and a disturbed child. As the child grew, it was all that Mrs. Kelly could do to provide for her child and keep a home, and it was only through the goodwill and pity of her neighbours that they were kept from starvation. The charity of visitations, however, was more infrequently offered, for as Kelly’s Fairy grew he became violent, explosive, and angry. He was behave as if possessed, with emotions ranging from fury to feckless, leaving his mother at her wit’s end.
This continued until the boy was nineteen years of age, when he suddenly sickened and died. Word spread rapidly that Kelly’s Fairy was no more, and whether out of concern or curiosity, the entire countryside turned out to the wake, in hopes of seeing the fairy boy. The body was laid out in the little home, as was the custom at the time, and neighbours flooded in from near and far.
The Fairy’s corpse proved to be a fearful sight indeed, for just as he had lived a harsh and aberrant existence, so too had he died. His body had been withered and angular, and try as the widow may, she could not straighten her son’s body entirely, even in death. As a result, he lay in wake with hunched shoulders and bent knees, a frightening visage for all those who sought him out.
One such neighbour, a large Irishman known only in the records as ‘Terence’, was called by curiosity to see the body, but as he made his way to the wake he took the time to stop in at the tavern and have more than enough to drink, ensuring that he would be plenty warm and watered by the time he arrived. As he walked the rest of the way to the wake the crisp autumn air permitted him to keep his wits about him, but once he entered the small little home of the widow, sweltering with the heat of dozens of bodies, the liquor struck him fast and firm, and it was all he could do to keep on his feet.
Being a good Catholic he removed his hat and made his way to the body of the boy, but the liquor proved to be too much for him. He was jostled, only slightly, from behind, and before he knew it he had taken a spill and had tumbled onto the corpse. The force of the Irishman falling onto the body did what no one else had been able to, and forcefully set the fairy’s legs straight. This had the unfortunate result, however, of sending a shock through the seized sinews of the legs and torso, resulting in the boy’s upper body spring upward in response, to the horror of those gathered. And, as if this weren’t enough, those wicked gases which are known to accrue in the body of the recently deceased, having been trapped by the boy’s previously angular composure, were suddenly released in a horribly putrid wave of exhaust, escaping in such a way so as to sound like a final damning curse from the seemingly reanimated corpse.
Those who were gathered howled in fright and fled from the little home, but there were none so terrified as Terence, who flung the corpse away, screaming “Mother of God, I’ve brought Kelly’s fairy alive again!” (5). Events such as this were more than any tiny settlement could handle, and so a coffin was hastily constructed, and the boy was buried that very night, in the dark, so that by the time the sun rose the next morning, there was nothing but a small burial mound to remind the world of Kelly’s fairy.
To learn more about the history, culture, and folklore of Prince Edward Island, join us on our Harbour History Tour, experience our Red Red Tour, or join us for one of our story-telling events.