A fictionalised account of the life of Elspeth Buchan the 18th century Scottish cult leader and religious lunatic who persuaded her obsessed followers to leave their families and homes to join her on her doomed pilgrimage. Elspeth promised them an escape from death and the shackles of monogamy. The Buchanites were persecuted for promiscuity and blasphemy, imprisoned and hounded across Scotland. The community, which held all its goods in common, and was a hotbed of rivalry and lust, is infiltrated by a spy who informs the authorities of their wickedness. Eventually Elspeth is murdered by her rival who absconds to America with the society’s riches. The Reek of Sulphur tells how her murder is revenged by two brothers whose own story is interpolated throughout the main narrative.
Born in Fatmachen in the far North of Scotland, Elspeth if given away by her father who can’t cope with his strange child who cures sick cattle and can see the dead. Eventually she is placed in service until the household prepares to emigrate to the West Indies. While waiting for their ship in Greenock, Elspeth escapes their clutches and lives a life of promiscuous abandon with two brothers who are heartbroken when she leaves them. They subsequently spend several years travelling the length of the kingdom looking for her. Meanwhile Elspeth has become infatuated with a young potter and lives with him in the Broomielaw in Glasgow. For a while it seems that she is no longer tortured by the visions that possessed her in the past. They have three children but her restlessness drives her into the arms of a married American preacher who had settled in Irvine. Their passion is mutual. Elspeth declares that he is the manchild prophesied in Revelation 12:1. They convene prayer meetings where every worshipper in greeted with a special act of intimacy. While the worthy burghers are outraged, her adherents are infatuated with the woman who declares herself clothed with the sun and the moon. Robert Burns, resident in irvine at the time, throws himself into the maelstrom of sex and religion on his doorstop declaring in a letter to James Burness makes several appearances in The Reek of Sulphur. Ostracised and vilified , the Buchanites eventually settle in New Cample where they build Buchan Hal. Elspeth, again tortured by visions, insists that her adherents fast for forty days. As no children are born to the community, rumours of infanticide grow ever stronger and the finger is pointed at the increasingly tyrannical Hugh White. The theme of revenge reaches its climax on a ship bound for America. The afterword to The Reek of Sulphur outlines the fate of the historical characters in the novel and the bizarre events that followed Elspeth’s death.
Early in the novel when working as a servant Elspeth discovers a book on demonology.
She held the cup to his lips as he slurped and slavered its contents down his jerkin. She cleaned his mouth with a slow wipe of his napkin. His eyes lit up with the effort of trying to communicate something long forgotten. There was a recognition, an intensity. He extricated his hand from the blanket and placed it on hers until he was claimed by sleep.
She noticed the book that had fallen to the floor, resting on its splayed pages. She picked it up and sniffed its ancient pages. The illustrations were so vivid she touched one and looked to see if the bright red ink had stained her fingers. She gasped. The lion has three heads at the end of three elongated scaly necks. One belonged or a dragon with the darting salacious tongue of a salamander; the second was that of a young man, his mouth open and fear in his eyes. The third belonged to a hyena, sniffing the ground for blood. The lion sat on its haunches, supporting its weight on two spindly, old women’s legs, ankle deep in slime; its tail flailed the red air, relentlessly. Elspeth squeezed her eyes tight, then tighter still until the beast became less distinct. She could now only see it in silhouette, until that too faded but she could still hear the cry of the angry creature as it merged into nothingness. She placed the book back on the floor.
She subsequently escaped from her guardians and befriended two brothers in Greenock.
The three of them lived together in a state of companionable and sensual drunkenness for several weeks. When the boys left to find work for the day, Elspeth too would rise and wander the streets, careful not to venture too close to where Annabel and her new husband were still waiting for the arrival of their ship. Sneddon was disappointed at the minx’s sudden disappearance. As the novelty of Annabel’s flesh had waned, Elspeth’s allure had grown. He felt cheated of the chance to teach her a real lesson.
Elspeth befriended the fish sellers on the quay; she helped the rag women sort their wares; the sailors soon trusted her to sell the silks and damask they had smuggled home, and, being blessed with a good strong voice, she made pennies by singing psalms on the street outside of the Old West church.
She felt safe with her boys and brought them bread and grog. James enjoyed teasing her and would ask in a solemn voice if her God would return that night in clouds of glory.
‘And smite the wicked?’ echoed Mathew.
‘Mock the Lord and He will aye be avenged,’ she said, throwing herself onto the younger boy and forcing him onto the ground. As he relaxed beneath her weight, she kissed him hard and then bit his lip.
‘Jesus! He said holding his mouth.
Later in the novel Elspeth's husband moves the family to Portsoi in an attempt to ‘cure’ her. His best endeavours fail and she goes missing.
He ran down the Vennel. ‘Have you seen her?’ he shouted at an amorous couple wrapped around each other in the shadows. ‘My wife, has she been this way?’ he asked Old Billy, the idiot man who slept on the quay.
‘Naked!’ Naked! Nae claes!’ said Billy pointing towards the headland that stretched beyond the village.
Robert climbed over the bracken and stones that marked the ascent onto the cliff. He stood at the top and briefly cursed whatever God had done this to him, then set off along the path. The occupants of a gull’s nest screamed into his face before he brushed them aside. At that moment, the moon appeared through the clouds and he saw Elspeth standing with her arms outstretched on the cliff edge in the distance. Stumbling, he ran towards her. As Billy had indicated, she was completely naked with her face unturned to the night sky. He wrapped her in his arms. He felt her ribs in their taut cage of skin. He felt her heart, a trapped pulsating sparrow. He breathed in her bitter breath of starvation. He took off his jacket to cover her lest the frail construct of bones that passed as a body might disconnect and clatter to the ground.
The commune eventually settle in Dumfries. The remains of Buchan Ha’ still stand. The old stones must have witnessed some astonishing scenes.
Eventually the dishes were cleared, and the table pushed against the wall. This would be a blessing like no other. Tam wiped his lips lecherously. Emily stole a glance at Davy, remembering his smile when she had offered to rub ointment into his back.
White took Elspeth’s hand and steered her into the middle of the room as if they were newlyweds and this was their first celebration among friends. Assuming this was the opening move in a dance, the others found partners and sufficient space to execute a turn or two. Kitty danced on her own, her arms outstretched, embracing the space once filled by her dead husband. Andrew Innes couldn’t see Katie and wondered for a moment if she was hiding from him.
White moved Elspeth’s hand from around his waist and pushed down on her shoulders until she was kneeling in front of him. Understanding what was expected, Elspeth undid the buttons on his breeches.
‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’
Elspeth was eventually buried in the grounds of Crocketford House in Dumfries and Galloway by her most loyal of adherents, Andrew Innes. Innes waited 50 years for her to fulfil her promise and rise from the dead. He left instructions that when he died he was to be buried above her so that she would waken him when the moment of her resurrection finally arrived.
Newhouse in Crocketford is virtually unchanged apart from the addition of a comparatively new extension. When I visited, developers were about to start work on the site. I knew that Dumfries and Galloway council had insisted that the alleged burial ground be excavated before any building could start, and I spoke to the archaeologist who carried out the work. He told me that they had located one grave but, out of respect, chose not to probe further. He commented on how close to the surface the coffin was. This is not surprising given that the Buchanites assumed that they would soon be woken by the angels and hoisted heavenwards. It was a pity that he could not confirm that the coffin was resting on another.
Title: The Reek of Sulphur