IT was a dark and stormy night – at least, it feels like it must have been. James Pringle and his hounds returned to Buckholm Tower on the hillside above Galashiels following a successful hunt, not of beasts but of Covenanters.

Most of the Covenanters who had gathered on Ladhope Moor escaped, but two fell behind. Geordie Elliot, once a servant at Buckholm, fell from his horse.

His son, William, refused to leave his side. Pringle wanted to execute them on the spot, but was convinced to interrogate them instead. They should have been taken to the Tolbooth in Galashiels but Pringle decided to take matters into his own wrathful hands.

With father and son thrown in the tower’s cellar, Pringle set to drinking alone. Old wounds opened up the more he filled his cup – had not Elliots murdered his ancestor during the reiving days of the previous century?

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Yes, they had. Pringle lurched down to the cellar, entered, and locked the door behind him. Servants heard screams, then silence. Pringle emerged, shut and locked the door, and went back to his cup. No more sounds came from the cellar that night.

A visitor arrived at Buckholm the next morning. Isobel Elliot had come seeking her husband and son. Pringle led her to the cellar, opened the door, and ushered her in.

Her anguished cries echoed through Buckholm’s halls – there were Geordie and William impaled through the chin from meat hooks suspended from the vaulted ceiling. Isobel’s sorrow turned to fury.

She stood to face her family’s butcher and wished him to be hounded as he had hounded her beloved. A change took hold in Pringle from that day. Often his servants would rush into his quarters on hearing frenzied screams to find him fending off some invisible foe.

Returning from hunts, he would race to the tower’s door and frantically pound on it, as though chased by the devil himself. Before long, Pringle died – by all accounts, in agony and dread.

To this day, on the anniversary of his death in June, his spectre is said to flee across the moor towards Buckholm, pursued by the sound of baying hounds.

Long after Christianity officially overtook the old ways in Scotland, belief in an “invisible polity” beyond human reckoning persisted.

The same family that fervently prayed at Mass or Holy Communion would avail themselves of the local healing well when a person fell ill and leave offerings around the house for the resident broonie. The co-existence of what we may term the “supernatural” with the mundanities of everyday life was considered common knowledge well into the 18th century.

The hellhound is one of the most ubiquitous mythological creatures of terror in history. In varying forms they have struck dread into the hearts of Classical Greek heroes, Viking chieftains, 17th-century witch hunters, and just about every culture and period in between.

In the Highlands and isles, the cu sith or fairy dog runs swift and silent across the hills at night.

Its bark is louder and deeper than those of any mortal dog – fail to find shelter before hearing it a third time, and it will drag you by its jaws to hell.

All this talk of the “supernatural” sits uncomfortably with the modern tendency to retroactively explain or excuse such stories through a scientific lens.

We relegate them to the realm of folklore, certain people in the past were simply ignorant of some phenomenon or not sincere in their beliefs. However, attempts to find a “rational explanation” miss the mark. Instead of seeking an answer to the how, it is far better to try to understand the why.

An old anecdote speaks to the drastic change in Borders society from the 16th to the 17th centuries. When a Papal delegate visited Liddesdale in the Middle Ages, he noticed there were no churches anywhere. Bewildered, he asked a local, “Are there no Christians here?” “Na,” replied the man, “oo’re aa Elliots and Armstrongs.”

The 16th century Borders were a place where the reverence of any higher ideals regularly came second to allegiance to reiving families and the system of raiding and blackmail which sustained them.

Religion was still at the heart of daily life, but the realities of lawlessness meant that more often than not, bodily survival often came before spiritual or moral purity.

By the early 17th century the days of the Border reivers had passed. Kinship, though still important, was eroded as the main source of identity.

The Reformation and the violent division between Catholics and Protestants filled this gap, while also reframing the question of individual’s identity in terms of their journey to salvation.

No longer could it be assumed that just because you shared an extended family with someone they would be on your side.

All across Scotland, communities and families were torn apart along unforgiving lines. Tellingly, the battle cry of the Covenanters was: “Jesus and No Quarter.”

Slaughter and discrimination went both ways, and the effect this upheaval had on the collective psychology of early modern Scotland, especially the Lowlands, was as incalculable as it was traumatic.

These divisions were written into the landscape over older ones, with ancient places given new meanings.

One such place is Brotherstone Hill, eight miles east of Buckholm Tower, where two standing stones face each other upon a hillock.

They embody the tragic tale of two brothers brought to blows over their beliefs. In their youth, these brothers parted and went abroad to make their names.

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Returning several decades after John Knox’s sermons shook Scotland to its core, they met by chance upon this hill.

Failing to recognise each other, they debated the pressing theological questions of the day. One retained his Catholicism, while the other’s travels swayed him to the new doctrine of Protestantism.

As they talked, their disagreements grew until steel was drawn. A mother lost two sons that day.

When their bodies were found, some of the older folk recognised them. Local tradition says they raised two stones to mark the spot where brother killed brother in the name of religion.

Never mind that the stones had actually been raised more than 3000 years earlier. Communities impress the central narratives of their time into the lands they inhabit, changing and re-imagining these stories as the world changes around them.

Perhaps this goes some way to explain how “impossible” events, such as the spectral hellhounds in pursuit of Pringle, become just as real as the tower of Buckholm itself.

The story is a microcosm of the times it sprang from: a moral binary between the innocent prisoners and the cruel laird.

An act of shocking violence that tears a family apart. A curse uttered to hold power to account, ending in otherworldly retribution carried out by spectral versions of the same beasts Pringle used to chase his victims.

Indeed, Pringle’s posthumous moniker is the “De’il o’ Buckholm”, embodying evil and ultimately being undone by the consequences of his own fell deeds.

It is both morality tale and a checklist of the anxieties of its age. If that’s not a “rational” basis for a story, hellhounds and all, then what is?