Interview: Ghost Walks – The Happy Hangman

Scotland is rich in history and folklore and there are many ways to discover the history of a town or city. For a different perspective, we tracked down ‘The Happy Hangman’, to find out how his audiences are simultaneously educated and entertained in an entirely eerie experience.

Firstly, please introduce yourself…

 My name is David Kinnaird, I’m an actor and author, working in the ‘Living History’ field of the Scottish heritage industry. I have also been writing and performing the Stirling GhostWalk – usually in the gruesome guise of the Burgh’s 18th century ‘Happy Hangman’, Jock Rankin – since its inception in 1990.

Ghost walks seem to be increasing in popularity. Why do you think that is?

A combination of factors, really. The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of popular interest in local history and the supernatural, and, of course like to be entertained. The chills and chuckles offered by these kind of performances allow locals to re-connect or rediscover aspects of their towns’ histories and mythologies, and give visitors a unique introduction to locations, characters and stories which is significantly different to those offered by mainstream tourism.

Do you get a specific type of person on a ghost walk?

Not really. Some people come for the stories, others because they are interested in history or sight-seeing, and others because they are simply looking for live entertainment with a difference. That applies to tourists and domestic audiences alike – and I’m glad to say that our trade is split fairly equally between the two. The tour itself changes depending on the audience: focusing on comic tales for kids’ groups, historical context for schools’ or overseas parties, and so forth.

We’re not trying to prove or disprove the veracity of Stirling’s ghost stories – I’m an actor and a writer, not a paranormal investigator – but we try to respect all perspectives. That, I think, has broadened our appeal, allowing us to endure for so long.

Do you think ghost walks are a good way to learn about the history of a place? If so, why?

Most certainly.

The stories a town tells about itself, its enduring myths, reveal a great deal about the character of the community. These tales often arise from histories which are, in their own way, as fascinating or bizarre as the legends they inspire.

Stirling was the ‘Key to Scotland’: the flood plains around the Forth dividing north from south until the 18th century, and as a strategic site it became a battleground, a Royal Burgh and the favoured seat of the Stuart kings. It played a major part in every major military, religious and political conflict in Scottish history, and was a powerful Merchant town. With such a busy, bloody and divisive history it would be very odd if it WASN’T such a rich source of stories.

We try to offer a mix of fact and fantasy, and after a quarter of a century are still finding new tales, or new twists on old stories. These stories are a local resource – the cultural currency of the community – and we enjoy a lot of local support for keeping them in circulation, using comedy, drama and good old-fashioned storytelling.

My involvement in the show prompted The History Press to ask me to write two books about the darker aspects of Stirling’s history, ‘Haunted Stirling’ and ‘Auld Stirling Punishments’.

Stirling Ghostwalk - David Kinnaird as The Happy HangmanEvery city seems to have a spooky tale to tell, but what makes Stirling a great place for a ghost walk?

Old Town offers the back-drop of the Castle, 16th-century ruins, 17th and 18th-century townhouses, a Victorian prison, and, of course, the gloriously gothic Holy Rude graveyards – locations which really add to the atmosphere of the stories.

It was this unique historical mix which saw Stirling chosen to host the Scottish Paranormal Festival, at Hallowe’en 2014 – for which the Happy Hangman was ‘poster boy’.

We’re particularly intrigued by the section on your web site, ‘Tales from the Stirling Ghost Walk’. Which is your favourite story?

That really depends on the audience. I find some new tale every year, and a new script is performed each summer, so I have plenty to choose from. Some of these legends exist in multiple forms, and  my favourites tend to be those tales which can be adapted for comic or dramatic effect, depending on circumstance – or which offer the opportunities to be told from different perspectives. I often ‘rotate’ different versions of the most malleable tales on the ‘Tales’ section of the GhostWalk website for precisely that reason.

One of my favourite tales is that of Blind Alick Lyon – an early 19th-century preacher who allegedly battled the Devil on the Ladies’ Hill, to save the souls of drunkards who had scorned him for his pious ways. Alick was a historical figure, trumpeted as an exemplar of Christian virtue by the Temperance movement – a remarkable feat for a drunken beggar! Accounts of his death and his demon-battling legend evolved within his own lifetime, because people preferred a dramatic fiction to grim reality. Sometimes we’ll present this story using the facts of the story for comic effect,, sometimes we favour diabolic fantasy, or offer accounts of the story from the viewpoint of Alick, the drunkards, or even the Devil – disturbed by a mouthy drunk while he’s having a snooze on the hilltop.

What is the strangest thing you have uncovered in all your time doing Ghost Walks?

Well, we’re a performance-based tour rather than Ghost-Hunters, so we’re not looking for paranormal experiences, though we have encountered many a thing going bump in the night, as the Back Walk – the line of the Mediaeval Burgh Wall which circles the Old Town – is a local ‘Lovers’ Lane’.

I regularly discover surprising new stories. One I’m still researching, on and off, is that of ‘The Millhall Ghost’, a phantom which allegedly tormented local miners in the months following the General Strike, in 1926, and resulted in armed mobs prowling the streets in search of the ghoul – though what they planned to do if they found the ghost, I’m not sure! Despite its notoriety at the time, the tale was all but forgotten until I discovered mention of it in the papers of local journalist Alf Reilly. It’s most likely nothing more than a case of mass hysteria, but even so, it tells us a lot about the people of Stirling during a troubled time in its history.

It is discovering odd little gems like this which sustains my interest, and hopefully I’m able to convey something of my enthusiasm to my audiences through performance.

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