Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Black Soul Gang

For Halloween, our resident archivist Neil Bristow, delves into the dark notebooks and diaries of Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes...

A night such as tonight - when the wind rattles the slates and whistles through the keyhole - brings to my mind tales best told among friends around a warm fireplace.

But this All Hallows Eve finds me alone; a pipe in one hand and a generous dram in the other, my eyes running over the shelves, looking for a particular well-thumbed tome.

And then I hear it - the chatter of voices, and the familiar clip clop of two legged hooves, charging down the lane. An almost frantic knock on my door wakes me from my library wanderings, and draws my eye to the clock. The hour is late. But still they have come. The gang is here.

I open the door, greeted by a sight of 6 young boys, not one of them over 12 years old. And in a tradition as ancient as the oaks blowing in the wind, they announce themselves with a song.

"Soul! Soul! for an apple or two;

If you’ve got no apple, pears will do,

Soul! Soul! for your soul’s sake,

Pray good mistress, a Soul Cake!

An apple, or pear, a plum or a cherry, 

Or any good thing to make us all merry. 

St. Peter was a good old man, 

And so for his sake, give us one.

None of your worst, but one of your best, 

So God may send your souls to rest. 

Up with your kettles, and down with your pans, 

Give us a Soul Cake and we’ll be gone!”

Their masks are crude, their guises tatty and ragged - just as it should be. I meet their ritual with my end of the bargain, distributing to them each an autumn apple from my barrel, and send them on their way into the gloomy night.

As they rattle down the lane, they give me pause for thought. They know the ritual. They know their part. But meaning has given way to indulgence, and we are perhaps all poorer for it.

They call it galoshans. But as I return to the fireside, my eyes fall on the tome I was searching for earlier and I recall the darker origins of the phrase.

They have not gone galoshans. They have gone a souling. And I read on with some hesitation; the tale of the Black Soul Gang….

Long ago, not too far from the cobbled streets of Greenock (or perhaps further than the tale recalls), there was a village high up on the moor. Here the old folk might still recall, if asked, the tale of Old Tam Cole, or the Bell That Rings Neath the Knowe. Good tales for telling, but neither as somber as the most well known fable in village - that of the Soul Gang.

In those days, on All Hallows Eve, Soul Gangs would go from farm to farm performing the souling plays of old, begging as they went for ale and the odd morsel of food. A favorite of this particular gang was the death and resurrection play, of which I recount a small excerpt for your amusement.

"We are one, two, three good hearty lads, and we are all in one mind,
we have come a-souling , good nature to find,

And if you will give us one jug of beer,
We will not come a-souling, till this time next year.

Step down in your cellar, and see what you'll find,

There is ale, rum, gin and brandy, and all kind of wine,

And if you will give us one jug of beer,”

We'll not come a-souling, till this time next year.”

Now on one particular occasion, they came to the door of Old Farmer Lindsay.

The gangs chief banged heavy on the door, ringing his bell and announcing himself;

'Open this door and let all our brave and gallant actors in,

I am Beelzebub,

On my shoulder I carry a club,

In my hand a dripping tin,

Ring ting ting.'

Lindsay, a superstitious man was known for his miserly ways, and when met with boys of the Soul Gang, he parted with tradition and parleyed their chorus with a heavy slam of his farmhouse door.

Not content with this response, the Soul Gang took their vengeance - sneaking into Old Lindsays barn, they helped themselves two a barrel of cider. A breach of the ancient rules of Soul Gang - they had taken what was not freely given, and had damned themselves in the process.

A broken bargain on both sides is ill for all parties; and as they made their way across the moor, the wind whipping their ragged guises, they may not have heard old Lindsay whispered a curse upon them; “if they take something of mine, I shall have something of theirs."

And cursed they were. For as the hour waned, one by one the boys of the Soul Gang found themselves lost in the mists of the moor. And with each step they took, they wandered further from the path. Calling out to one another, they tried in vain to find their way; but slowly, and with a somber inevitability, one by one they were lost to the mire.

In years to come, villagers would not venture out along on All Hallows Eve. And all among them would swear that when the mist descended upon the moor, and the air was silent and still, you could hear the ringing bells of the Black Soul Gang; seeking their way back from the hinterland; a warning to keep trust with tradition, lest you loose your soul and perhaps more.

I closed the tome, returning it to its rightful place on the shelf. And as the last em
bers of my fire dimmed, I was sure I could hear the faint sound of a bell, carried on the mist. 

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