The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Phantom Regiment" (1856)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Phantom Regiment” was written by James Grant and first appeared in The Phantom Regiment (1856). Grant (1822-1887) was an English novelist who was born in Scotland. He wrote a number of historical romances and books on Scottish history and became an advocate for Scottish rights. He also wrote several military novels designed to stir English patriotism. “The Phantom Regiment” is his best-known ghost story.
“The Phantom Regiment” is the story of one year in the life of Ewen Mac Ewen, a Scottish soldier of the nineteenth century. After many years’ service in the British Army he returns home to Moray a much graver and more religious man. He builds himself a cottage and discovers that his new neighbor is his childhood sweetheart, Meinie, and that she has been recently widowed. They marry and live happily for fifteen years. But then Walter Scott’s Waverley is published and a wave of tourists cause the road past Ewen’s house, which leads to the plain of Culloden, to be popular–so much so that a toll bar is placed on the road and Ewen becomes the gate keeper. This additional income allows Ewen to build a second floor on his house and even make one of the rooms available to let. The first winter no one rents the room, and by the following April Ewen is feeling desperate for tenants. Then, on the night of one of the most dreadful storms in memory, a tenant appears and demands the room. He is a profane man, one-eyed and with a wooden leg. He seems to drink nothing but whiskey flavored with gunpowder, and he has a deliberately abrasive manner. It quickly emerges that he was one of the soldiers of the “German Butcher,” the Great Duke of Cumberland, “whose merciless massacre of the wounded clansmen and their defenceless families will never be forgotten in Scotland while oral tradition and written record exist."1 This revelation infuriates Ewen, who as a good Scotsman has nothing but hatred for those who served under the Butcher. But Ewen remembers that the man, who he privately dubs “Wooden-Leg,” is his guest, and that treating him as he deserves would not become a good Christian. So Ewen accepts the man’s money and grants him the room for the year. Ewen quickly regrets his decision, for Wooden-Leg sets Ewen’s and Meinie’s teeth on edge: he is loud, irreverent and anti-religious, profane and a drunkard, given to comments which offend Ewen’s Jacobite ways, and “unco” in ways which trouble Ewen. Sometimes raised voices are heard from Wooden-Leg’s room, and sometimes Wooden-Leg can be heard quarreling, though with who Ewen does not know. Wooden-Leg’s career as a soldier seems peculiarly long, for he claims to have fought in various armies and in various battles for at least eighty years, if not more. And then Wooden-Leg begins telling the story of how he was killed. He had fallen among the Cherokee and been adopted by them, but after six months he grew bored with his marriage to a good Cherokee woman, so he betrayed them and led the British troops against their village. But the Cherokee’s Sachem scalped him and then killed him. Ewen simply thinks that Wooden-Leg is mad, and Ewen longs for the year to end. The final night of Ewen’s tenancy arrives, and with it comes a huge storm, one to match the storm which brought Wooden-Leg to the house. Wooden-Leg talks about his friends coming to get him and Ewen hears the sound of troops marching outside. He goes out to open the gate and sees a long line of soldiers, dressed in uniforms of the time of King George II. What is terrifying about the soldiers is the way that the storm does not seem to affect them and the ghastly expression on their faces. Leading them is a plump commander with a face distorted with mental agony and remorse. Wooden-Leg marches with them into the darkness, and they vanish. Though some do not believe Ewen’s story, even though he and his wife and children swore affidavits about the event, many others do, and the story spreads that every year, on the anniversary of the Duke of Cumberland’s slaughter of the clansmen, he and his murdering soldiers march to the graves of the victims in yearly penance.
James Grant’s specialty was Scottish history, and he puts it to good use in “The Phantom Regiment.” Even though Grant is riding his particular hobbyhorse–as mentioned, he was an advocate for Scottish rights–he does well in combining a period of Scottish history with a particular type of ghost story, what might be called the “Phantom Regiment” story. Another, much more benign version of this story appears in A.T. Quiller-Couch’s “The Roll Call of the Reef.” Grant also has a good touch at recreating the bygone time and place of the story through the use of vernacular, though not, thank heaven, through the use of the Scottish dialect which ruined Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. Grant also has some nice descriptions of scenery. Unfortunately the story’s supernatural elements are not as successful. Wooden-Leg is meant to be both unco (uncanny, weird, unnatural) and abrasive, and mostly succeeds only at the latter. But on the whole “The Phantom Regiment” is an enjoyable yarn.
Print: Marvin Kaye and Saralee Kaye, eds., A Classic Collection of Haunting Ghost Stories. London: Little, Brown UK, 1993.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011544403 (volume 14)
1 James Grant, “The Phantom Regiment,” in The Phantom Regiment; or, Stories of “Ours” (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1865), 319.