A strange sight greets the walker in Craiglockhart Dell. A rounded boulder stands alone beside the path, incongruous amongst the bushes.
I’ve passed it many times whilst walking Rosa, but it was only during my research on Professor MacIntyre that I discovered its origin, and why it lay there in the glen below Redhall House.
The Devil’s Testicle
Three days before Christmas: the longest night of the year.
Peter Nisbett sat on a log looking down into the Water of Leith flowing at his feet. It was gloomy in the Dell, shadows and shapes of grey his only companions. Flurries of snowflakes jigged around him in the air, like mocking sprites of ice, touching him on the cheek before dissolving in a tiny laughter of cold. From the end of his hazel branch fishing rod a string dangled down in the water, but he held no hope: the trout in this river were too canny to be fooled by this bait. Peter pulled his cap close over his eyes, wrapped himself in his patched jacket as tightly as he could, but still the cold seeped into him. No hope. The Mill upstream had closed its doors one last time, what else could he do now? He scratched idly at the bark of the log with his knife, marking out a shape of a heart. At home, his wife Jenny would be waiting, feeding his young baby daughter, Molly. Ah, sweet Molly. Peter could not remember when he had been as happy as when his wife held up his daughter for the first time for him to hold. “I’ll look after you,” he had promised the tiny form wriggling in his arms, “with all my love and might.”
Now, he wasn’t sure he would even be able to find food for the table. And it was soon to be Molly’s first Christmas.
He heard the sound of horses, and a carriage. That must be the Winter Solstice Ball at Redhall House. The Water of Leith curled its way through its own little glen and down here Peter was safe from prying eyes. Up there, the grand house of Redhall was a beacon, shining in the darkening gloom.
A tinkle of voices drifted down to Peter on the banks below; also hooves and big carriage wheels crunching into the gravel of the long drive; a closing of the big oak doors to keep the chill out and the warmth in. Peter was back alone with his thoughts in the silence of the night. One day, he thought, one day, I’ll be welcome through those doors, with Jenny on one arm and Molly on the other.
“And why not?”
A voice from behind Peter made him jump up hurriedly: he dropped his rod into the water with a splash.
“Everyone has dreams, do they not?”
“Sir,” Peter said, turning to face the voice, “I was simply resting my feet on my way home to my wife and child.”
“Peter Nisbett, isn’t it?”
“Sir,” Peter snatched the cap of his head and looked down at his boots, scuffed but stout.
The stranger stepped closer. Even as the darkness gathered around him Peter could see brogues, polished and gleaming at the end of the neatest pair of check trousers. Peter looked up.
“How do you know me?”
The stranger smiled, but did not reply to the question. Instead, in a voice as rich and thick as a winter dumpling he said: “Peter I can help you, if you want.”
Peter stared at the gentleman stranger’s face, larch-brown skin, a moustache and beard trimmed with the precision of a watchmaker’s hand. His eyes gleamed in the firelight.
Peter turned around. A small, neat fire crackled beside the log enclosed in a perfect circle of stones.
“Let’s sit down and warm our bones, Peter.”
And they sat, side by side. The stranger stretched out his hands to the fire, close enough to stroke the flames, caressing them as you would stroke a cat.
No one spoke. Peter was too frightened to speak. He sat as still as stone, his thoughts as frozen as the mud under his feet. Another horse and carriage drove up the drive high above their heads.
“One day, you will be welcomed there, yes with Jenny your lovely wife on one arm and Molly, your delightful daughter on the other. You shall swagger in, as proud as any man could be.” The stranger examined his fingers. Peter noticed the nails were finished to shallow points.
“Who are you sir?”
“I thought you would never ask. You know me already, I am sure, heard all about me.”
Peter slowly shook his head.
“Oh yes, every Sunday morning, you listen dutifully at the Kirk, hear all about my exploits and adventures. The best and most exciting parts of the story, the chapters that everyone really want to listen to. And do you know something, young Peter Nesbitt? They are all true.”
At this the stranger rested his hand on Peter’s arm. “And I can help you.”
No,” Peter said. “No-one could help me. Not even the Devil.” Even in the depths of his fear, deep down in the pit of despondency where his soul crouched, perhaps sparked by the peculiar warmth of this unearthly fire, something sparked like a struck flint. Peter drew in a large breath and said: “if you are the Devil.”
“You tell me, Peter Nesbitt. I help you in this life, I help you help Jenny and Molly, then you can decide whether I am devil or angel.” A curl of smoke rose in the air from the fire, formed a question mark, hovering above the bright yellow flames.
“Conjuring tricks, is all I’ve seen so far. The real Devil can do better than that.”
The stranger flicked his wrist, long fingers waving. A large brown trout leapt out of the water, and landed on Peter’s lap, twitching, glistening.
“Your supper, Peter Nesbitt.”
“A trick. Or luck. I’ve been due a bite.” Peter stuffed the trout into his canvas bag, next to his tin of tobacco, now sadly empty.
The stranger smiled. “You would have me do something more…dramatic?”
“I’ve heard,” said Peter, “that the Devil can change his size at will, becoming as small as a mouse— smaller even. If you are the devil, you can show me that.” Peter kept his hand on the tin in his bag as he spoke.
“I thought you were better than that, Peter Nesbitt. You think to trick me into your tin.” The stranger laughed. “Why not. Why not indeed. It’s a long night ahead of us—let’s see you try.”
There was a blaze of crimson light as bright as the sun. Peter watched in fascination as the stranger shrank quickly, gleaming waistcoat, brogues, hat and all, until he was a tiny figure sitting on the log, ready to be placed into the doll’s house Peter one day planned to make for Molly. Peter laughed. How he laughed. He creased over in two, laughed until he hurt to draw breath. The tears rolled down his cheeks, he pressed at his sides, and laughed some more.
The stranger looked up. “You find this funny, Peter Nesbitt?” His voice was small, childlike.
Peter roared again. Tried to speak, but failed.
The little face frowned. Peter pointed, but still no words were released between the laughs.
“Enough of this, Peter Nesbitt.”
The stranger started to shimmer, his shape changing. “Now see my true form.”
Peter’s laugh stopped in mid-roar. Fast as lightning he reached out and grabbed the squirming shape tightly in his hand, picked up his knife from his side in the other hand.
“I’m not so low as to take tricks from the devil,” he cried.
The stranger grew quickly, too quickly for Peter to contain him in his fist. The stranger’s body grew, turned an angry red, horns appearing on his head, his clothes dissolved away, and a tail began to curl around, flicker. Peter clung on tightly, even as the shape grew into a distortion of a man.
“You will take up my offer, Peter Nesbitt; think of Molly.”
“Oh I am sir, but no matter how much you grow I will not take your charity.”
The stranger grew as tall as a man. Peter hung on. He grew, grew as tall as the tallest tree in the woods. Peter held tight, the smell of sweat and brimstone choking him. The devil shook his greasy body, Peter slipped, even as he looked down at the trees of the dell. He slid down and grabbed what he could to stop him falling down to the winter-hardened ground below.
Above, the devil let out a mighty cry that shattered the peace of the Edinburgh night.
“Let go! Let go!”
Peter realised that he swung from one of the Devil’s own testicles, still swelling.
In a moment, he reached up with his other hand with the knife, and flashed hard. The devil screamed, Peter dropped. A cascade of devil’s blood and who knows what fell with him and he landed, senseless on the floor of the woods.
It was daylight when Peter woke. The light of dawn touching the tree tops. He shivered, tried to sit up. His bones ached. He sat back against an enormous round rock. The morning light twinkled on the river, and Peter recalled his night. A small roe deer on the opposite bank looked across as Peter groaned. The deer skipped noiselessly away. Peter stood up. Looked at the rock, the shape of a fat pebble the size of a large bull. That wasn’t there last night. He touched it. The rock was smooth, and warm, though the heat was fading. Peter recoiled and stepped back, dreading to think what it was. His boots crunched, and he skidded, landing hard on his rear. Peter grabbed at what he has slipped on. In his hands he held bright, shining stones, each the size of a plum, red as blood. Red as rubies. Peter remembered the blood pouring from the devil. All around Peter was a pool of bright, red rubies.
One day, he knew, he would take Molly and Jenny to the ball.
This tale, by the way, is in “Professor MacIntyre is Missing!” Volume 1 of New Myths and Legends of Edinburgh. Available from Amazon and other online bookstores. There’s a printed version of this volume available too: use the contact form for details.