Many, many years ago there was a Highland Ball at Alness in Ross-shire. Visiting the area from England was a young nobleman. At first, he sat against the wall, for the Scottish dances were not familiar to him. However, finally he heard something he knew – a slow waltz – and at the same time he noticed a young woman. He described her later as “a princess, hair as black as night, eyes like dark pools.” Now he was motivated to dance! He approached the young woman, and she agreed to be his partner for the waltz. She seemed to him to almost float across the floor, light as thistle down. But when the dance ended, a coachman approached to drive the maiden home.
He begged her to stay, but she sadly replied that she could not. Not even for one more dance. Frantic, the young man asked where he could call on her, but she shook her head and told him that she could not tell him where she lived or even her name. The carriage drove away.
The young man asked the other dancers who the young woman was, but they could give him little hope. “She is the Lady of Balconie,” they said, and they explained that she was known to walk alone at night along the banks of the Alit Braat, by the Black Rock of Novar. Although the dancers warned the young man that the area was not only dangerous but haunted and that neither man nor beast was safe there, the young man took no heed of their dire warnings.
The very next night, he made his way to the Black Rock just as the sun was disappearing below the horizon. There, high above the great chasm, mist swirled around in swaths, and the young man saw the woman who had captured his eye and his heart at the dance.
As the waters below them roared, the young woman told her story. While she was a young girl, she had been robbed of her beauty by disease and had made a bargain with the devil himself. She would regain her beauty for five years, and at the end of that time, the devil would claim her. As she spoke, a dark shadowy figure appeared through the mist and commanded the woman to follow him.
The young man clutched her hand more tightly, but felt her slipping away and over the brink of the chasm. As she disappeared, however, she tossed upwards a bunch of keys. Their purpose he could only guess, and desperately he reached for them, but the keys flew over his head and down into the gorge. They bounced off a large rock as they fell, and the indentation can be seen still today.
The young man, overcome with grief, threw himself after the maiden into the chasm and was dashed to pieces on the rocks. A sad end to a sad story.
Years later, a fisherman who had enjoyed a successful day of fishing, left a basket of fish near the rock, intending to retrieve it at the end of the day. However, when he returned, the fish had disappeared, leaving only a trail of silver scales along the river’s edge. Assuming that otters had stolen his catch, he followed the trail, which lead down a slippery ledge to a dark cave, whose entrance was guarded by two ferocious-looking dogs. Peering into the cave, he saw a beautiful maiden in a dress of long-ago times. She was occupied with baking. The fisherman realized with a start that this was the Lady of Balconie, who had disappeared a century before and had been the cause of a young Englishman’s tragic death. He called out to the woman and urged her to flee with him. Sadly, she shook her head and waved him away. The dogs growled and perhaps would have followed the fisherman, but the woman tossed them each a lump of dough, and this distracted them so that the fisherman could escape.
Sadly, he retraced his steps up to the cliff over the gorge. Although later he searched several times, he was never able to locate the cave again.
People in the area tell these tales and more. All sad. Many tragic. They say that when the mists swirl over the ravine, the lady of Balconie is busy baking for the devil himself, but they warn anyone who is tempted to search for her that if they pursue her, they will be likely to slip on a stone and fall to their death.
Contributed by Marilyn McPhie