Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the “timeslip” case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette. In the course of their ‘adventure,’ the ladies remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies’ interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers’ “classic cases”. There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today.
Before we begin, it’s worth bearing in mind that practically all incidents of this type share some intriguing common characteristics, among which I would list the following: [i] the percipient(s) may be aware, at the time of the experience, that something unusual is going on, but typically the full strangeness of the event only strikes them days, weeks or even months later; [ii] often the ‘strangeness’ that is noticed is some sort of dissociation; there may for example be an unnatural stillness. This, of course, is characteristic of various altered states of consciousness; [iii] there is almost always an immersive element to the experience. What is seen is not a ‘vision’ but an apparently real environment through which the percipient(s) can travel and with which they can, in some cases, interact – but only very rarely does that interaction take the form of actual conversation, or physical contact with a person from the supposed ‘past’. This, again, is highly suggestive of various ASCs; [iv] historical research is generally brought to bear, and some discovery is made that appears to confirm that the percipient(s) saw or heard something they should not have been able to and could not have known about. Such discoveries are, however, usually controversial and it is in any case extremely rare for such information to be actually unknown at the time the incident occurred. Generally the information is dug out of some old book or manuscript and therefore it is always possible to argue that the percipient(s) acquired the knowledge either from seeing, hearing or reading some reference to it (a common explanation in cases of ‘past life’ regression), or even telepathically. Finally, [v] very unusually, among Fortean phenomena, multiple-witness cases are commonplace in this field – indeed they are the norm. Close examination of the casebook generally shows that the percipients have discussed the case in detail amongst themselves long before it comes to the attention of any investigator, and that there has been a process of mutual reinforcement in the course of which, it is reasonable to suppose, the ‘strangeness’ of the case often becomes magnified, the witnesses become much more certain that they have experienced something genuinely inexplicable, and any rough edges in their testimony are smoothed away.
Some of these characteristics (though not all) apply to the case before us, which the solitary witness came to believe was an experience of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtansmere. This fight (popularly said to be depicted on a Pictish symbol stone, above) took place on 20 May 685 and is mostly forgotten today, though it was the Waterloo of late seventh century Scotland. The combatants were the indigenous Picts* and an invading army of Saxons commanded by Ecgfrith¶, King of Northumbria, who was by some distance the most powerful ruler in the British Isles at the time. The battle was, nonetheless, a Pictish victory, and it resulted in Ecgfrith’s death and the dispersal of his army – thus helping to secure the independence of Scottish kingdoms from Saxon overlordship.
For those alive in the 680s, it seems safe to say, Nechtansmere would have been one of the great events of the day. Nonetheless (this being the Dark Ages, after all), the battle is extremely ill-recorded. The most detailed description is given by Bede, writing in Northumbria some half a century later, though Ecgfrith’s violent end is also mentioned briefly in a couple of Irish chronicles and one Welsh one. Bede observes, in his Ecclesiastical History, that Ecgfrith “rashly led” his army north against the advice of his most trusted advisors, and that the battle occured when “the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces,” but he sadly neglects to mention even approximately where the fight took place. That detail is supplied by the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach (both compiled, according to even the most optimistic estimates, several centuries later), which refer to the battle as “Dún Nechtain”, and by Symeon of Durham who – writing in the 12th century – called it “Nechtanesmere”. The idea that the battle was fought close to a body of water is echoed in the work of the ninth century Welshman Nennius, who called it Gueith Lin Garan, or ‘the Battle of Crane Lake’, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that the likely site was identified by another noted historian, George Chalmers, who (in his Caledonia, or, an Account Historical and Topographic, of North Britain) first suggested it had been fought at Dunnichen (below right), a shallow hill near Forfar, in Angus, which shares its name with a small nearby village.
Since the precise location of the Battle of Nechtansmere is central to our enquiry, it’s worth pausing for a moment to look at the manner in which Chalmers arrived at his conclusion. Alex Woolf of the University of St Andrews, author of the most recent study of the problem, says that he ‘based his identification on early forms of the name preserved in the cartulary of Arbroath abbey; Dunnichen comprised part of the abbey’s endowment and is described there as Dunectin or Dunnechtyn, which seems definitely to stem from Dún Nechtain.’ Chalmers’s conclusion has been generally accepted by scholars ever since, and though there is no longer any sign of a loch or mere near Dunnichen, a small stone monument in the village now commemorates the events of 685.
Fast forward 1,265 years to 2 January 1950, and a cocktail party held 10 miles away in the little town of Brechin. This party was attended by Miss E.F. Smith, a lady then aged about 55 who was resident in the village of Letham, under Dunnichen Hill. According to her own account, Miss Smith left the party late, having consumed an unspecified quantity of those delicious cocktails. Driving conditions were extremely poor. It was pitch dark, and ‘a fall of snow had been followed by rain.’ Two miles outside Brechin, Miss Smith skidded her car into a ditch. There was, she insisted,
no question of [her] skid having been due to her fainting, or other lapse of consciousness, nor [had she been] injured in any way, or concussed. She had to abandon her car, however, and continue her journey on foot – a distance of about eight miles. Her walk was along deserted country roads in a countryside with a few scattered farms. She had her little dog with her, but, for the last two miles of the journey, she had to carry him on her shoulder; and as she neared Letham, she must have felt fairly exhausted. She also felt ‘nervous’… for she deliberately refrained from taking a commonly used, and normally welcome, shortcut, because it would have taken her out of the open country and alongside a dark, wooded area.
The apparitional experience began when Miss Smith was about half a mile from the first houses of Letham village and it continued until she reached them. The time was getting on for 2am.
[Source: Andrew MacKenzie, Hauntings and Apparitions p.163]
In Miss Smith’s recollection, the first sign that something unusual was taking place came as she approached the crest of a slope from which Dunnichen Hill became visible. Peerng ahead, she saw a groups of lights moving in the distance which, as she walked on, gradually resolved themselves into a shadowy group of figures carrying flaming torches. A little later a second phase of the experience began when she noticed a second group to her right, about a third of a mile away. The third and most dramatic stage followed
as she watched figures even closer to her, in the field, on the right, about fifty yards away, in the direction of some farm buildings which, however, were not visible in the darkness.
At this stage, the dog started to growl. Miss Smith said, ‘he was sitting on my left shoulder and he turned and looked at the lights… and I thought, next he’s going to bark.’
Continuing as fast as she could towards her home, Miss Smith left the scene and the mysterious figures behind her and went straight to bed. Only on waking in the morning did she fully recognise how strange the experience had been.
It took another 20 years for the witness’s account of her evening to be recorded by a member of the Society of Psychical Research, Dr James McHarg, a psychologist who visited Miss Smith in September 1971 – it is not stated how he heard of her experience. McHarg found the witness still able to supply a detailed account of her encounter (one wonders just how much more detailed it had become in the intervening decades), and apparently quite credible:
Miss Smith said that at the beginning of the first phase, in the distance straight ahead, she saw… ‘quite a lot of torches.’ Miss Smith felt that what she was seeing had not suddenly started but that it had already been going on when she came upon it. Her recalled reaction was to say to herself, ‘Well, that’s an incredible thing.’… Speaking about the nearest figures of all, which she watched during the third stage of her experience, Miss Smith, ‘they were obviously looking for their own dead… the one I was watching, the nearest one, would bend down and turn a body over, and, if he didn’t like the look of it, he just turned it back on its face and went on to the next one… There were several of them…. I supposed they were going to bury them.’
When asked about clothing, Miss Smith said ‘…they looked as if they were in – well, I would have said brown, but that was merely the light – anyway, dark tights, the whole way up, a sort of overall, with a roll collar, and at the end of their tunics there was a larger roll around them too. And it simply went on looking like tights until it reached their feet. I did not see what was on their feet. But they weren’t long boots.’
[Compare this description to the contemporary carving above, showing a Pictish warrior on a symbol stone at Golspie.]
… Miss Smith was asked about the torches the figures she saw were carrying. She replied ‘…they were carrying very long torches in their left hands… [the torches were] very red… Afterwards, I wondered what on earth they’d been made of – tar, I suppose. Was there tar in those days?’
[Source: Ibid pp.165-7]
Now, all this is very interesting, not least because it is very clear that, by the time Dr McHarg arrived on the scene, Miss Smith had long come to the conclusion that she had somehow witnessed groups of Pictish warriors of the late seventh century. No other explanation for the experience seems to have been considered by her, and the psychical researcher Andrew MacKenzie, writing up the case, merely observes: ‘It was assumed that the scene Miss Smith described concerned the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere.’ Miss Smith herself freely admitted that she was aware of the battle, and knew that it was supposed to have been fought near her home village. (This is not surprising – most of the inhabitants of Letham, one imagines, were aware of this.) She insisted, however, that she knew nothing of the specifics of the fight, nor of its precise location, nor of the Pictish dress and equipment of the day.
Dr McHarg, in analysing the experience, trod with considerable caution around the background to the whole affair – he asked no impertinent questions about how much Miss Smith might have drunk at her cocktail party, or whether her intake of alcohol had contributed to her crash, merely offering a brusque assurance that, in any case, an eight-mile walk would have ‘sobered her up’. Nor, since Miss Smith was not a patient, did McHarg feel able to question her regarding her health or mental state, though he did note that ‘I detected nothing of a medical (i.e. neurological or psychiatric) nature to suggest temporal lobe epilepsy or any relevant clinical condition.’ He also felt confident that the case was neither a fraud nor a hoax, though he gave no reasons whatever to back up that conclusion, and one is left with the rather definite feeling that he simply considered a woman of Miss Smith’s age and genteel background incapable of such deceit. McHarg did consider the possibility that the whole experience was a false memory of some sort, produced by long musing on some trigger event. His research, however, inclined him heavily to a third conclusion, that the experince had been real – and, furthermore, that it had most likely been a genuine instance of retrocognition, one that had probably occured in some sort of altered state of consciousness. (It was surely noteworthy, he remarked, that Miss Smith had been more worried about the possibility that her dog might begin to bark, and wake the village, than she had been frightened or intrigued by the bizarre scene she was witnessing.)
McHarg’s reasons for accepting Miss Smith’s experience as a genuine instance of retrocognition boils down to a couple of essential points. One concerns the flaming ‘torches’ that the figures seen that night were carrying, and which the witness supposed must have been dipped in tar – though, looked at closely, it is plain that there was a very great deal of assumption in the doctor’s thinking:
At the time of the interview McHarg assumed that Miss Smith meant that it had been the flames of the torches that had been unusually red, but she may equally have meant that it had been their shafts. Enquiries revealed that torches in Scotland used to be made from the resinous roots of the Scots fir which, in their natural state, do indeed have a distinctive red colour which would perhaps be enhanced by torchlight. Such roots would have been available at Nechtansmere, for Dunnichen Hill was crowned then, no doubt, as it is today, with the Scots fir of the Caledonian forest.
[Source: Ibid p.167]
McHarg’s second point, though, seems far more solid, for it concerns the activity of the ‘Pictish warriors’ reported by Miss Smith, and particularly the way in which, the witness concluded,
the nearer figures carrying torches were… quite obviously skirting the mere, because they didn’t walk, from where I was looking, straight across to the far corner of the field, they came round…
This deviation can be seen on the map McHarg prepared of the site [above], where it is shown by an arrow curving around the north-east lobe of the mere.
McHarg seemed to be on especially firm ground here – at least so far as Andrew MacKenzie was concerned – because the little local loch, presumably once known as Nechtansmere, had – it will be remembered – drained centuries previously and been turned into farmland. No local knew exactly where the lake had been, and its likely contours were effectively disguised by the gently rolling nature of the landscape. Only a few years earlier, however, during the unusually wet winter of 1946-7, floods had partually refilled the ancient lake, and Dr FT Wainwright of Queens College Dundee – then one of the leading authorities on Dark Age Scotland – had taken the opportunity to map the vanished loch, a task he undertook with the aid of aerial photography. As MacKenzie points out, his results, published in Antiquity in 1948, ‘clearly showed a finger of the loch projecting in a north-easterly direction, round which people moving towards the east would have had to skirt.’
This, at first glance, seems to be precisely the sort of hard evidence a psychical researcher craves. Miss Smith was absolutely adamant that she had neither read nor even heard of Wainwright’s paper before she had her experience, and McHarg was equally convinced that no one but the most practised map-reader could have accurately transposed the contours of his map to the ground as it appeared on the night of 2 January. Yet – by his own estimation, at least – Miss Smith had accurately placed the north-east lobe of Nechtansmere as it would have been in 685. This, the good doctor thought, was evidence that something paranormal had occurred, though whether that was retrocognition or merely telepathy (in the form of psychically acquired knowledge of an unread paper) he would not hazard. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that – as his map clearly shows – the theory also requires the Northumbrian army invading Pictland to have been approaching Dunnichen from the north, the wrong direction.
That, anyway, is where the matter rested for a further quarter-century, Miss Smith’s vision at Dunnichen Hill seeming at the very least an interesting curiosity. Some progress was made with possible alternate explanations during this time – a book entitled Hypothermia and Cold Stress, published in 1986, introduced McHarg’s account (in my opinion almost certainly correctly) into a discussion of ‘the effects of cold and stress on cerebral function’ – pointing out, as McHarg conspicuously did not, that the entire experience might have been sparked by an hallucination, and that whether or not Miss Smith was drunk on the night of her experience, she almost certainly would have been rendered dangerously cold and completely exhausted by the shock of her accident followed by an unanticipated eight-mile walk in temperatures that must have been at or below zero, the last two miles of which were completed while carrying her dog. It was only recently, however, that a much more fundamental objection to the reality of Miss Smith’s “vision of Nechtansmere” was raised. This occurred – though Alex Woolf quite possibly does not know it – when he published a short paper in the Scottish Historical Review which argued that King Ecgfrith’s final battle must have been fought not beneath Dunnichen Hill, but at another site in the Cairngorms, miles to the north.
Woolf’s argument, which has met with an extremely favourable reception among historians of Dark Age Scotland, is based on simple geography. Surely, he suggests, no informant of Bede’s even remotely familiar with the terrain around Dunnichen, Angus, could describe the low, rolling hills there as ‘inaccessible mountains’, nor suggest that any cleft between them was sufficiently vertiginous to conceal a lurking Pictish army. And, as Woolf points out, there is in fact a second site in Scotland whose modern name derives, as does Dunnichen’s, from the ancient Dún Nechtan of the Irish annals: Dunachton, in Badenoch, on the shores of Loch Insh.
Woolf’s argument is that the geography of Dunachton fits Bede’s description almost perfectly. It is a known Pictish site – an inscribed stone dated to the 6th to 8th centuries was discovered close by the church there in the nineteenth century – and the earliest surviving mention of the place (which dates to the 1380s) mentions the existence of a ‘chapel of Nechtan’ in the vicinity that could well have lent its name to the local loch. Dunachton, furthermore, lies at the foot of three passes which cut between mountains that rise to 1,100 metres [right], and which are vastly more suitable as likely ambush spots than the rear of modest Dunnichen Hill. The new site is also so much further north of the established centre of Northumbrian power than it much easier to imagine the luckless Ecgfrith’s advisors taking alarm at the idea of sending an expeditionary force to such a place.
Accepting Woolf’s persuasive arguments, however, still leaves us with the problem of what Miss Smith actually experienced that night in January 1950. The answer to that question is: a fantasy, surely, sparked by a hallucination or a simple misperception, exacerbated by exhaustion and incipient hypothermia, fuelled by local knowledge of the battle tradition, and embroidered on, most likely, over two decades before the witness ever encountered Dr McHarg – during which time, as Miss Smith freely admitted, she had located and read Wainwright’s influential paper.
All of which, I must say, is a shame.
* Readers of 1066 And All That will remember that “the Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa.” As the book’s authors, Sellar and Yeatman, stress, “It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).”
¶ Who was, of course, say Sellar and Yeatman, one of the “wave of Egg-Kings found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Egg-breth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable – except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Egg-beard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”
Lloyd, Evan. Hypothermia and Cold Stress (Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1986) pp.136-42.
McHarg, James. ‘A vision of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere, AD 685′. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 49 (December 1978) pp.938-48.
____________. ‘A vision of Nechtansmere’. Scots Magazine January 1980 pp.379-387.
MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions (London: William Heinemann, 1982) pp.161-70.
______________. Adventures in Time (London: The Athlone Press, 1997) pp.104-05.
Woolf, Alex. ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’. Scottish Historical Review 85(2), 2006, pp.182-201.
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