Haunting Legend: The True Story Behind Ticonderoga

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A Scottish legend colliding with the American Revolutionary War inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to pen the haunting narrative of Ticonderoga, write DAVID TURNBULL

Ticonderoga

In the state of New York there is a small hamlet called Ticonderoga. The area was once famous for its lead production for pencils which bore the name ‘Ticonderoga’. Nearby, next to a stretch of fast flowing river which joins Lake Champlain and Lake George, there is a star shaped fortress which was built by the French in 1755 at the start of their seven year war with Native American tribes. Today the fort bears the same name as the hamlet but originally it was called Fort Carillon. The area and the fort have direct links to a spooky ghost story with its origins over 3,000 miles away in Inverawe in the Western Scottish Highlands.

By the 1780s Fort Carillon was under the control of the British army. On the 10th of May 1775 at the start of the American War of Independence a local militia known as the Green Mountain Boys overran the garrison. The cannons seized from the fort were then transported to Boston and used as artillery to oust the British from the city. 

Three years later the British, under General John Boroyne, returned to reclaim the fort. Serving in the campaign was a Major Duncan Campbell of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment. Eighteen years earlier at home in Inverawe Campbell had been awoken late one night by a frantic knocking on his front door. On investigation he discovered a distraught blood soaked stranger who recounted how he had gotten into a fight with another man and had ended up killing him. He begged for Campbell’s help. When armed men came looking for the murderer Campbell hid him in his house and then helped him make his escape. 

Later that night Campbell was visited in a dream by the ghost of his recently departed cousin who revealed himself to be the murder victim and berated Campbell for giving shelter to the man who had taken his life and sent him to an untimely grave. His cousin departed the dream with the ominously eerie words “Farewell Inverawe -‘til we meet again at Ticonderoga.”

Not having heard the name before and unable to find anywhere in Scotland bearing such a name Campbell dismissed this as nothing more than a nightmare fired by his imagination and the visit of the blood covered stranger. 

However, almost two decades later, on the eve of the assault on Fort Carillon Campbell’s ghostly cousin once more visited him in a dream. This time a second revelation was made. One that had Campbell staggering ashen faced from his tent the following morning. What the cousin had revealed was that the Native American, Iroquois, name for the area was Ticonderoga, meaning the place where two waters meet.

In the ensuing battle Campbell was severely wounded with his right arm fatally crushed. He survived for eight painful days, but died on the ninth. He was buried at British base at Fort Edward, having met his cousin once more at Ticonderoga, as prophesied in his haunted dream that fateful night in Inverawe.  

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde had never heard the legend of Ticonderoga, despite having been born in Edinburgh and growing up in Scotland. That was changed when it was recited to him in London by his friend Alfred Nutt. Born in London in 1856 Nutt was a renowned Victorian folklorist who specialized in Arthurian and Celtic lore. His books on the Holy Grail and Gaelic folk tales were hugely popular and highly thought of at the time he told the story of Campbell and Ticonderoga to Stephenson.

The story fired Stevenson’s fertile imagination in a manner which could be said to be akin to some of the evocative lines of narrative gothic poem he composed.  I shall sing in your sleeping ears / I shall hum in your waking head / The name Ticonderoga / And the warning of the dead.

Ticonderoga – A Legend of the Western Highlands was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1887. For dramatic effect Stephenson made Campbell the brother of the murdered man rather than the cousin. The poem sets its mood perfectly by starting with the ominous lines This is the story of a man / Who heard a word in the night and builds up the tension with the subsequent lines On the awful lips of the dead / He heard the outlandish name and further on, The name – Ticonderoga / The utterance of the dead.

The poem then recounts the atmospheric legend in three parts.

  1. The Saying of the Name – which tells of the murder and the prophecy by the ghost which visits Campbell’s dream and first utters the name Ticonderoga.
  1. The Seeking of the Name – in which Campbell embarks on many battles and campaigns across the globe during his military career but never once encounters a place that bears the name Ticonderoga.
  1. The Place of the Name – in which Campbell, on the eve of the assault on Fort Carillon, meets a ghostly figure bearing his own features. This apparition then utters the words that reveals the name of the place he has come to meet his foreshadowed destiny with death – It was called Ticonderoga / In the days of the great dead.

Following the publication of the poem a public dispute broke out between Alfred Nutt and Lord Archibald Campbell as to whether or not the story was about a Cameron ancestor rather than one of the Campbell lineage. It seems, however, that the Campbell version remains the favoured one. A short piece on The Tale of Ticonderoga and Stephenson’s poem features on the Black Watch Museum’s website.

A folk song called Ticonderoga inspired by the tale has been recorded by Isla St Claire and others. It begins with the lines Campbell left his homeland to fight across the sea / Driven by a vision that wove his destiny / He won’t remain there came a warning from the dead / Ticonderoga it sang within his head.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers also have a track called ‘This Ticonderoga’, referring to it as ‘element that shines which is ‘connected by the great unknown’.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark by the Department of Interior, Fort Ticonderoga itself is now serves as a tourist attraction and American military museum.

Ticonderoga is also the name given to a class of American naval missile ships from which deadly Tomahawk cruise missile can be launched, giving a new terrifying meaning to Stephenson’s poetic lines The name Ticonderoga / And the warning of the dead.

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