An Argyllshire Vision

The following is from the 1875 edition of Good Words (Edited by Norman MacLeod):


I HAD often heard the late Duke of Argyll relate an extraordinary vision which had been seen about the middle of the last century by two men of the name of Bell, father and son, in the immediate neighbourhood of this place.

In looking over some old papers lately, I found an account of this vision, written in 1808, by a Mr. Bell, a writer in the burgh of Inveraray, who was the son of the younger, and grandson of the elder, of the two men who saw the vision. Mr. Bell, and the family to which he belonged, were persons of the highest respectability of character, and no doubt was ever entertained as to the truthfulness of the narrative.

I may mention that in some details the written account differs slightly from the form in which the same story was related to me, derived from oral tradition. But the locality is so accurately described, that the spot can be identified at the present day. The thorn-bush, referred to in the narrative, still exists; and though the two clumps of trees, also mentioned, were cut down many years ago, their position can be seen from the curious indelibility with which old pasture retains ghostly indications of former operations on the surface of the soil.

My father always attributed the vision to the effects of mirage. But it is a very extraordinary example of this phenomenon. Thinking it may possibly interest some of the readers of Good Words, I send the written narrative which I have found.

Copy of a Letter from Mr. Bell to Colonel Campbell, Shawfield

Sir,—As you wish to have an account of the vision which my father and grandfather saw in the neighbourhood of this place, I will now endeavour to comply with your request. I have heard it with all its circumstances, so often related by them, both when together, as well as by my father separately, since my grandfather’s decease, that I am as fully convinced they saw the vision as if I had seen it myself. At the same time, I must acknowledge that, however desirous 1 am to oblige you and Lady Charlotte, I commit the account of it to writing with some degree of reluctance, well knowing how little reliance is given by the more intelligent classes of people to a narration of that kind, and how little it corresponds with the ordinary course of causes and events.

This vision was seen by them about three o’clock in the afternoon of a very clear, sunny day in the month of June, or July, between the years 1746 and 1753. I cannot go nearer to ascertain the year.

My grandfather was then a farmer in Glenaray (which you know is within four miles of this place), and my father, who was at that time a young unmarried man, resided in the family with him. On the morning of the day above mentioned, my grandfather having occasion to transact some business in Glenshira, took my father along with him; they went there by crossing the hill which separates it from Glenaray, and their business in Glenshira being finished a little after midday, they came round by Inveraray in order to return home. At that time the road generally used from Glenshira to Inveraray lay upon the west side of the river of Shira all the way to the Garron Bridge, where it joined the high road, which leads from Inveraray to the low country by that bridge.

As soon as they came to that bridge, and had turned towards Inveraray upon the high road, being then (as you know) within view of a part of the old town of Inveraray, which has been since demolished, the ground upon which the new town presently stands, and of the whole line of road leading from it, to the above-mentioned bridge, they were very much surprised to behold a great number of men under arms, marching on foot towards them. At this time the foremost ranks were only advanced as far as Kilmalieu. They were marching in regular order, and as closely as they could move, from the point of the new town, near the quay, where Captain Gillis’s house now stands, along the shore, and high road, and crossing the river of Aray near the town at or about the spot where the new bridge has since been built. Of the rear, there appeared to be no end. The ground upon which the new town now stands was then surrounded by a park wall, and the road beyond it lay in a circular direction between that wall and the sea. From the nature of the ground, my father and grandfather could see no further than the wall; and, as the company was advancing in front, the rear as regularly succeeded, and advanced from the furthest verge of their view. This extraordinary sight, which was wholly unexpected, so much attracted their attention, that they stood a considerable time to observe it. They then walked slowly on, but stopped now and then, with their eyes constantly fixed upon the objects before them. Meantime, the army continuing regularly to advance; they counted that it had fifteen or sixteen pairs of colours; and they observed that the men nearest to them, were marching upon the road, six or seven abreast, or in each line, attended by a number of women and children, both above and below the road, some of whom were carrying tin cans, and other implements for cooking, which I am told is customary upon a march. They were clothed in red—but as to this particular circumstance, I do not recollect whether my grandfather mentioned it or not, though I know my father did— and the sun shone so bright, that the gleam of their arms, consisting of muskets and bayonets, dazzled their sight. They also observed between Kilmalieu and the salmon draught an animal, resembling a deer or a horse, in the middle of a crowd of soldiers, who were (as they conjectured) stabbing or spurring it forward with their bayonets.

My father, who had never seen an army before, naturally put a number of questions to my grandfather—who had served with the Argyllshire Highlanders, in assisting to suppress the Rebellion in 1745—concerning the probable route and destination of this army, which was now advancing towards them, and the number of men of which it seemed to consist. My grandfather replied that he supposed it had come from Ireland, and had landed in Kintyre, and that it was proceeding to England; and that, in his opinion, it was more numerous than the armies on both sides at the Battle of Culloden. My father having particularly remarked that the rear ranks were continually running forward in order to overtake those who were before them, and inquiring into the reason of that circumstance, my grandfather told him that that was always the case with the rear, that the least possible obstacle stopped and threw them behind, which necessarily, and in a still greater degree, retarded the march of those who were behind them, and obliged them to run forward till they gained their own places again. And he therefore advised my father, if ever he went into the army, to endeavour, if possible, to get into the front ranks, which always marched with leisure and ease, whilst those in the rear were generally kept running in the manner he had seen.

My father and grandfather were now come to the thorn-bush, between the Garron Bridge and the gate of the deer park, and at the same time the van of the army had advanced very near to that gate, which you know is but a very short distance (I believe not above a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards) from the thorn-bush, and as the road forms into a right-angled corner at that gate, and the front of the army being then directly opposite to them, they had, of course, a better opportunity of observing it minutely than they had at first done. The vanguard, they then observed, consisted of a party of forty or fifty men, preceded by an officer on foot; at a little distance behind them, another officer appeared, riding upon a grey dragoon horse. He was the only person they observed on horseback, and from his appearance and station in the march, they considered him as the commander-in-chief.

He had on a gold-laced hat, and a blue hussar cloak, with wide open sleeves, all lined with red. He also wore boots and spurs; the rest of his dress they could not see. My father took such particular notice of him, that he often declared he would have known him perfectly well, if he had ever seen him again. Behind this officer, the rest of the army marched all in one body, so far as they observed, but attended by women and children, as I mentioned above.

My father’s curiosity being now sufficiently gratified, he thought it was high time to provide for his own security. He represented to my grandfather that it was very probable these men, who were advancing towards them, would force them to go along with them, or use them otherwise ill; and he therefore proposed that they should both go out of their way, by climbing over the stone dyke which fences the deer park from the high road, observing that the spot where they then were was very convenient for that purpose, as the thorn-bush would help to conceal them from their view while going over the dyke. To this my grandfather, objecting, said, that he was a middle-aged man, and had seen some service, he did not believe they would give any trouble to him; but he told my father, as he was a young man, and that they might probably take him along with them, he might go out of their way as he thought fit.

Upon this my father leaped instantly over the dyke, he then walked behind it for a little time in the direction of the Garron Bridge, and when he had got about half way, he turned up towards the clumps of trees in the neighbourhood of the Bridge, believing that he was then out of the reach of pursuit, should any be attempted. But when he arrived near the clumps, he looked back to observe the motions of the army, and whether any person attempted to follow him, but he found, to his utter astonishment, that they were all vanished. Not a soul of them was to be seen.

As soon as he recovered from the surprise which this extraordinary scene had occasioned, he returned to my grandfather, and cried out, “What has become of the men?” My grandfather, who seems not to have paid much attention to them after my father left him, then observing that they had all disappeared, answered with an equal degree of astonishment, “that he could not tell.”

As they proceeded on their way to Inveraray, he recommended to my father to keep what they had seen a profound secret, adding, that they would make themselves ridiculous by mentioning it, for that “no person would believe that they had seen a vision so extraordinary.” At the same time he told him, that though he (my grandfather) might not live to see it, my father might probably live to see the vision realised.

This conversation was scarcely ended, when they met one Stewart, an old man, who then resided in Glenshira, going home, and driving a horse before him. This, as they believed, was the same animal they had observed before, surrounded by a crowd. My father, notwithstanding the admonitions he had just received, was not able to contain himself. He asked Stewart what was become of the people who were travelling with him? Stewart, not understanding the drift of the question, answered that nobody had been in company with him since he left Inveraray, but that he had never travelled on so warm a day, that the air was so close and sultry he was hardly able to breathe, and that his horse had become so weak and feeble, he was obliged to alight and drive him before him.

The account I now send you of this vision was not only communicated by my father and grandfather to me, but was also communicated by them to many others in this, place and neighbourhood soon after it happened; it being scarcely possible that so extraordinary an occurrence should be long concealed. It is no doubt extremely difficult to account for it upon the ordinary principles which regulate human events, but no person acquainted with my father and grandfather ever supposed that either of them was capable of inventing such a story; and, accordingly, as far as I can understand, no person to whom they told it ever doubted that they told anything but the truth.

My grandfather died several years ago.. My father only died within these two years,, but neither of them saw their vision realised, although, indeed, my father had strong expectations of seeing it a few years before his death, particularly at the time of the Irish Rebellion, and of the last threatened invasion of the French.

It may not, perhaps, be improper to add that upon the day on which the vision was seen, neither my father nor grandfather had tasted anything stronger than milk; so that, whatever was the cause of the impression made upon their imaginations, it could not be owing to any intemperance.

I shall be extremely happy if this little story can contribute in any degree to your own or Lady Charlotte’s amusement; and am, with due respect, Sir,

Your most obedient and humble servant, Archibald Bell.
Inveraray, November 8th, 1808.