Wednesday 1 May 2013

On the dreamy silence broke the beating of a drum...

Recently, I wrote about a ghostly drummer story, versions of which appear in Turk’s Gut (today’s Marysvale) and Brigus, in Conception Bay. Since that article was printed, I have come across another version of the legend, though without a location.

This “new” version of the legend was included in an article entitled “What About Ghosts?” which was printed in the September-December issue of The Feildian for 1905.

The Feildian was the magazine of Bishop Feild College, a Church of England academy for boys. The magazine ran from 1893 to 1960, and was created to foster school feeling, and to chronicle the College affairs. It was the first publication of its kind on the island, and included news, letters, sports and reports from school alumni.

The author of the piece was identified only as “H.” and in the article, H claimed to have put to rest a story about a ghost. Sadly, the mysterious author did not mention the location of the ghost story, only that it was at the mouth of a bay, “on the bank of a river close to a mountain gorge containing a lagoon.”

“The lagoon was reported to be haunted by a deserter from a French war ship,” writes H, “who had died in a fisherman’s cottage in the bay, after several years spent in the woods, in fear of recapture. He had been a drummer on the ship, and he swore to the woman who had nursed him on his death bed, that he would haunt the lagoon, a weird and lonely spot. For years his drum was heard beating at certain periods, as his spirit marched through the woods, and many a time parties visiting the place fled in terror from its supernatural roll.”

One evening, the author was sitting in the twilight after supper, camped on the reportedly haunted spot.

“My guide was that the brook washing up, and I was placidly smoking, seated on a stone,” writes H, “with my back against a telegraph pole, the line of which ran through this country for many miles. Suddenly on the dreamy silence broke the beating of a drum, and my man came running back with a scared face. I at once recognized the sound, but could see no ghost, so... I kept my head, and began to look for the spectre.”

“I soon noticed that angry gusts of wind were coming down through the gorge,” he notes, “and as these passed,the drum rolled out, I observed a tremor in the telegraph pole. This gave me a clue, and immediately afterwards I saw the ghost in the wire. In short, the drum was the wind playing on a mile of telegraph wire, and reverberating in the cliffs as the ‘spouts’ came down the gorge from the North East.”

I suspect that the story, regardless of where it took place in the province geographically, is what folklorists would call a “migratory legend” - story supposedly based in historical fact, but which is which is found repeatedly at different places, having a similar plot but with place names or topographical information changed. Locals might believe their version to be “true,” but very similar versions, equally “true,” pop up a little bit further down the road, or in the next bay, or even in a different country.

The ghostly drummer legend is probably related to other local legends, like the famous story of Piper’s Hole, near Swift Current on the Burin Peninsula. There, a ghostly piper has been playing his instrument for centuries, possibly giving the location its name.

According to some, the phantom musician was a piper in the French army in the eighteenth century. In this version of the legend, the French and English clashed in battle at spot nearby called Garden Cove. Supposedly, the spirit of the French soldier lingers in the river valley, mournfully playing a tune. In other versions from the same area, the musician was a Scottish bagpiper, killed in a hunting accident by an Englishman.

If you know of another ghostly piper or phantom drummer story, email me at

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