So, what if Magic were … real?
So some friends and I were having lunch at the weekend and we got talking, as you do, about horror films and such. (Everyone else does this, right?)
We were focusing on our incomprehension about the local communities in stories where there’s a long history of haunted happenings (the vicious murder that resulted in this angry ghost took place in 1647, for example) and why no one in the local communities ever seems to know what’s going on or have dealt with it.
Like, humans are a lot more astute than that and even if they don’t know what may be causing the problem, they will learn to avoid it if necessary. The Romans didn’t know what malaria was, but they knew if they built their cities near swamps then the people who lived there became really sick really quickly… so they just didn’t build their cities next to swamps. If there’s a wood next to your village that people walk into and never walk out of, you can absolutely bet that people are going to pick up on that pretty quickly, especially in a largely intransient population like rural areas. Oh sure, in modern times it’s easy to write a bunch of characters who dismiss such supernatural occurrences as superstitious nonsense, but the plain hard fact is that if there is a problem which directly affects you living right next door, you’re not going to cling to that idea for very long.
From there it just seemed natural to talk about what we thought people’s reaction today really would be to finding out that ghosts were real or stumbling across magical objects.
Would the news report on it, or ignore it as being too weird to publish in a professional newspaper? Obviously if there was something visible that showed up on camera then YouTube would be full of shaky phone-footage of it and the comments’ section would be filled with people trying to work out the trick. But what if it wasn’t? Because we all know that if there aren’t pictures, it never happened right? What would it take for the science community to show up and try to figure out if everything they assumed about the world was wrong?
This got me thinking and then I remembered that in some way I did actually know what would happen! Because I lived through a small instance of this happening and I will always remember what it felt like and how people reacted.
So, in the interests of writers everywhere who struggle with the idea of what people would do in the face of real-life magic, I want to tell you all a story from not so long ago. A story of people realising that something was amiss in their community and refusing to just leave things to continue. Because it seems that when there’s evil magic afoot, the result is that someone, somewhere, will eventually call in a solution.
This is the story of how the people of Carlisle made themselves a magic stone and then wondered if they’d cursed their whole city by accident.
It is also a true story.
The Cursed Stone of Carlisle
The year was 2001 and to celebrate the New Millennium, the local museum of Tullie House and Carlisle City Council commissioned and erected a granite sculpture; a great polished stone engraved with the words of a 16th century curse. For in that time the lands all along the border between England and Scotland were ravaged by clans of reivers who stole all they could and burned what they could not take, were blackmailers and highwaymen. They were daring people, who evaded capture by the law, and to this day many tales are told of their exploits, both good and bad.
But you can well imagine that such people were not looked kindly upon by the Church, who often lost precious bibles, chalices and plate to those thieving hordes. And in the year 1525 the Archbishop of Glasgow, a man by the name of Gavin Dunbar, finally lost his patience. He placed a curse upon the Border Reivers, and commanded that it be read aloud in every parish of the borderlands, so that all would hear and know that the curse had been cast.
Pretty spooky stuff.
Then along come artists Gordon Young and Andy Altman, who turn this terrible curse into a beautiful piece of artwork. It gets installed, with much ceremony in the under-ground entrance to Tully House, and then…
I feel that BBC Cumbria’s article at the time best summarised what came over the next five years:
“Livestock herds around the city on the border with Scotland were wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, there has been a devastating flood, factories have closed, a boy was murdered in a local bakery and Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league.” [Full article]
Reporter Tanya Gold, from the Guardian, said it was like a “Universal horror film… or a Hammer lesbian-vampire tale” (which incidentally is remarkably specific, Tanya…). Either way, there was a definite sense that something was horribly wrong in the City of Carlisle since the Curse Stone was erected.
Small wonder, for many of the people living in the city of Carlisle are descended from strong reiver families; the Armstrongs, the Gordons, the Elliots and Bells, the Grahams, the Littles and the Ridleys. In the light of this fact, you kind definitely see the logic of these concerns. If the curse was placed on reivers and their families, then a whole city full of their descendants is one hell of a Risk Assessment fail!
Leslie Irving, a local man and editor of a Christian publication Bound Together gives a chilling idea of what the city was facing: “There is absolutely no doubt,” he said, “that when Dunbar laid the curse he did it in absolute sincerity. He wanted harm to come to the Reivers. The stone was created to attract tourists but what has it attracted? A baby held by his mother had his throat slashed in the town centre a few years ago. The man who created the project died. The man who opposed the project died. The only high-ranking Christian to speak out – the Bishop of Lancaster – died. The Archbishop of Glasgow died.”
Finally, it seems, enough was enough. In 2005, the amazingly-named local councillor Jim Tootle demanded that the 14-ton stone be removed and destroyed. As Councillor Tootle (never not calling him that) declared; “[s]ince the millennium project, there have been several disasters reaching biblical proportions. Many groups and individuals warned the council that the placing of a non-Christian artefact, based on an old curse on local families, would bring ill luck to the city.” [Full Article]
Local religious leaders were equally sure that something needed to be done. The Rev Kevin Davies, the vicar of Scotby and Cotehill with Cumwhinton, was adamant that the stone be destroyed;
“Clearly, the council holds matters spiritual in such trivial regard that it can cheerfully commission the equivalent of a loaded gun and regard it as a tourist attraction,” he wrote in his parish magazine. “Its spiritual violence will act like a cancer underneath the fabric of society. I don’t think anyone in their right mind could argue that this is what Cumbria needs just now.” [Full Article]
Now, Carlisle City Council were not thrilled by the idea, not least because removing the stone would, as the leader of the City Council, Mike Mitchelson explained, have “cost several thousands of pounds,” at a time when the city was already repairing the damage from the flooding.
Gordon Young’s response to the suggestion that his work had brought doom upon his home city was rather more passionate: “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”
For a while, it seemed that things were at a stalemate. There really were no good answers – do you spend time and money removing and destroying a piece of public art you spent a good deal of grant money erecting in the first place not four years before or do you take the chance that magic is real and you are in its evil presence? The people of Carlisle are a practical lot; if there’s a problem in front of you then don’t sit around pretending it’s not there. You get on with things and fix it. But how?
Thankfully all was not lost! For a compromise was proposed; the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, rode in to the rescue, and broke the deadlock. A Man of God had placed this curse upon his people, and a Man of God could just come in and fix it!
“I understand that it is a piece of history and it is reasonable for it to be known about, but words have power and in as much as the curse wishes evil on people it should be revoked,” the Bishop said. “If it has to stay I would prefer a blessing to offset it. We can’t treat it as just a joke. People have differing views about spiritual power and its capacity to do evil, but I am sure that it is a real force.”
(Incidentally, does anyone else think that, in times of crisis, it is encouraging to know that the Church has apparently carefully hung onto all the old protocols for ‘We May Have An Evil Curse, Where’s The Undo Code?’)
With the backing of many denominations of Christian churches, Bishop Dow wrote to the Archbishop of Glasgow and requested that he come down to Carlisle to perform an exorcism on the stone. And indeed an exorcism was eventually performed, after which things did seem to settle down, and the stone has been allowed to stay.
But what was that curse which Gavin Dunbar placed upon the Border Reivers?
The brave and bold among you may read it here, but take heed, for who knows what dangers may await you…
The Bishop’s Curse
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
“I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds. I (bring ill wishes upon) their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock. I (bring ill wishes upon) their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.
“May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
“May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.
“May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.
“May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.
“May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorra and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins. May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and opression.
“May all the plagues that fell upon Pharoah and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.
“May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharoah and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.
“May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.
“May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.
“May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absolom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.
“May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Olifernus, making war and savagery upon true christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.
“And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.
“I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth. I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled / subjugated by this curse.
“I forbid all christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.
“I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.
“I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.
“I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead (rosary); of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be christian people, while this curse is in effect.
“And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world. And their candle (light of their life) goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.”