I Can’t Believe He Just Said That – A Very Short Story

This story is dedicated to my friend, Colin Coke, the artist and Son of Cornwall, who shares with me a fondness for such confections.

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In late 1701, Archibald Campbell, the recently created 1st Duke of Argyll, was dealing with a rather tricky family problem. Archibald had handily switched allegiance from James II to William of Orange a few years earlier and was now the King’s principal advisor on all things Scottish. He had made a brilliant marriage with Elizabeth Tollemache, daughter of a Baronet, and together they had three children, the eldest of whom, John, was the source of their concern.

John had celebrated his 21st birthday in October 1701 and had set about earning the reputation of a profligate with imagination and vigour. He had become a regular patron of the fashionable gaming tables of Edinburgh and in short order had racked up debts in excess of 10,000 guineas – a small fortune at that time. Most of the markers held against this debt were in the possession of James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton, Scotland’s first peer and a bitter rival of the Argylls. John swore to his father that Hamilton was a practiced card sharp, particularly at Quinze, an early form of ’21’, and produced witnesses to back up his version of events.

This placed Argyll in a cleft stick. He was angry with John but had to support him. But he didn’t want to be indebted to Hamilton who he loathed and with whom he was battling for the favour of the King. What to do? His first recourse was to the powerful Morton family to act as honest brokers and see if a settlement could be negotiated. Hamilton rejected this approach out of hand and let it be known around the court that the Argylls were near bankruptcy and keeping ‘dubious company’. In so doing, Hamilton unwittingly provided his enemy with the inspiration he needed.

The Argyll family had long been rumoured as being adherents to ‘the old religion’ and it was this practice that Hamilton had hinted at. Archibald, seeing an opportunity to resolve both his son’s debt and his rivalry with Hamilton sent his factor, James Donald, to find the woman known locally as Hecate, a disciple of the witch, Jane Wenham, to see what might be done.

A week later Argyll met with Hamilton, ostensibly to negotiate, but quickly left the meeting with a handkerchief he had spirited away from his adversary. The handkerchief was taken by Donald to Hecate. In the weeks that followed, James Hamilton fell into a deep and melancholy malaise and did not venture from his bed. His family talked of visitations each night from ‘demons and faeries’ that railed and shrieked at Hamilton and accused him of ‘corrupting innocent youth’ in the cause of ambition. No treatment or hiding place could halt the spectral appearances. Finally, the rapidly wasting Duke, heeding the advice of his priest, relinquished all debts owing to him, including those owed by John, and miraculously it seemed, began to recover his health.

Of course, the kinsmen, servants and supporters of both the parties would gather in the inns and gossip about these events and the likely causes of James Hamilton’s ‘possession’, epiphany and subsequent recovery. There was much talk, too, of Archibald Campbell’s dalliance with ‘the horned one’ and his use of the black arts to free his son from debt. And that speculation reverberates even today in the Highlands where you may still hear the  adage that ‘Demons are Argyll’s best friend.’

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