Wizard laird's dance with the devil

LOCH of Skene is a dark and forbidding place at the best of times, particularly so on cold evenings in the dead of winter - the type of weather there in Aberdeenshire that makes the waters freeze over. On such occasions those who dare venture to the lochside can gaze out at what seem like a mysterious set of curved tracks embedded in the ice. Tracks which look newly made by a coach or carriage.

Is it a trick of the moonlight? An unexplained natural phenomenon? Not according to local folklore and legend passed down over centuries by the farmers and travelling people who once populated the area. Stories were told of the sinister local landowner who was allied with the devil … those with psychic powers swear they can still feel his presence to this day.

And the tracks on the ice? A lasting reminder of the day Auld Nick himself paid a visit to his devil-worshipping friend the Wizard Laird of Skene.

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Alexander Skene, the 16th Laird, was the man the devil had come to Aberdeenshire to see. It was said the laird never cast a shadow, was followed everywhere by magpies or crows and had the power to reest, or glue, his enemies to the spot where they stood. On at least one occasion Skene was kept awake by neighbours enjoying a ceilidh. His reaction was to cast a spell on the revellers which made them unable to stop dancing - until their feet bled and they cried in agony.

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A poem written by A Gordon of Cluny, a neighbouring parish, about the mystery of Alexander Skene.

His mastery of the black arts had been learned while he was a young student at the University of Padua in northern Italy. One of the most famous seats of learning in Europe, Padua was noted for the views some of its members held on the then-controversial subjects of astronomy and necromancy. Many returned with "peculiar ideas" about the heavens and the black arts. The Wizard Laird went one step further and formed a pact with the devil.

The wizard's coachman was named Kilgour and was well used to his master's eccentricities - but nothing could have prepared him for the night the devil came calling.

Kilgour was ordered to prepare the coach and horses at midnight to transport his special guest from Skene House, the family mansion. But the laird made Kilgour promise that on no account was he to turn round and look at the stranger.

As the coach and horses sped through the dark countryside, the laird told Kilgour to take the more direct route across the Loch of Skene. There had only been one night's frost and the coachman said such a journey would be impossible - but the wizard told him not to worry, the ice was strong enough.

The night would have passed without incident had Kilgour's curiosity not got the better of him. As they were approaching the other side of the loch he did what his master had told him not to do - he turned round. What he saw terrified him. For there sat the unmistakable horned, cloven-footed figure of the devil himself - Auld Nick.

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As soon as Kilgour turned to look the ice cracked, the devil turned into a raven and flew off and the coach and horses sank to the bottom of the loch. Whether the laird and his coachman escaped depends on which variation of the tale you hear.

Sheena Blackhall, a poet and historian in north-east Scotland, spent part of her childhood in Skene and remembers local children saying that if they ran 100 times round the Wizard Laird's gravestone he would rise from the dead.

Despite his supposed deal with the devil, the laird is buried in the churchyard in the village of Kirkton of Skene. The wizard lived from around 1680 until 1724 but his activities had such an impact on the superstitious local people that, even last century, fires were lit at Halloween to keep him at bay. The author William Somerset Maugham heard the story while recovering from tuberculosis at Glen O'Dee Hospital in Banchory, Kincardineshire, and used it as inspiration for his novel, The Magician, in which evil deeds take place at Skene House.

The Skene family are said to have been a sept of the Clan Robertson. According to tradition one young clan member saved the life of King Malcolm Canmore by killing a wolf with his sgian, or knife. The king then granted him as much land as could be covered by a hawk's flight and the family received a charter in 1318 from Robert the Bruce. The line died out in the 19th century with the 20th laird, who was deaf. The reputedly cursed Skene House is now in a sad state of repair.

If you think stories of warlocks, curses and visitations by the devil are fanciful nonsense then consider the words of Stanley Robertson, a former gypsy traveller who lived in the Skene area and claims to possess psychic powers.

"The travellers say that if there is something demonic about a place, the frisson will rise up your back instead of down. That is why the hackles rise at the back of your head. And that is exactly the feeling I got when I once visited Skene House, my hackles rose and I had the feeling something very evil had taken place there."

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