There was only one way in and one way out of that hellish hole. I could imagine the prisoners languishing, helplessly down there in the bottle dungeon in days gone by.
The condemned man’s fate was sealed as soon as he was lowered into that damp, rocky cavern beneath St Andrews Castle. Within a few weeks, he would emerge as a corpse, tied to the end of a rope which had been lowered from the surface by the guards. That same rope was also used to lower pig swill and water as sustenance for the prisoners and to raise the bucket of excrement and urine.
Us boys would lower ropes into the dungeon for a different reason. We would use ships’ lead lines, loaded with tallow, to pull up some of the coins that the tourists had thrown down there. We viewed these riches as our just rewards for persuading the visitors that the practice would bring them good luck and that the spirits of the past would grant them their wishes. We were great tourist guides!
On a good weekend, our coin-fishing expeditions could yield as much as ten shillings each.
Peem had once pulled up a really old coin. It was over four hundred years old. We took our find to the bank to be valued. It was worth more than five hundred pounds. We were rich! But not for long. It was declared as treasure trove and became the property of the Crown. We had to donate it to the local museum. We lied. We told them that we’d found it on the beach, just in case they stopped us from fishing for more in the dungeon. Next time, we’d find ourselves a buyer.
That’s when Peem had his brilliant idea.
“Why don’t we actually go down there and see what else we can find?”
That night, he lowered me down on a rope, torch in hand. We’d managed to prise the iron grid off the top of the hole. I have to admit that I was very scared.
When I got to the bottom, I swept my torch around the walls. It was obvious that there were a lot more coins near to the edges of the cavern than there were in the centre. I started to fill my bag.
As I got nearer to the perimeter, the temperature fell noticeably. I was freezing.
My bag was getting heavy.
I touched the wall. It was damp and slippery. I continued to harvest coins and reporting my progress to Peem.
“There are loads down here. I bet some of these are ancient.”
I had no time to examine the coins as I scooped them up and put them into my bag.
As I bent down to collect them, I kept my balance by resting my free hand on the wall, which had been carved out of solid rock, hundreds of years ago.
Suddenly, the wall moved. A piece of the rock was loose! I jiggled it around a little until it came away from its seating. It dropped to the floor.
I shone my torch into the hole but it had no effect. It was pitch black in there.
I put my hand into the hole and felt around. I touched something that felt like a piece of soft, damp leather. I gripped it and pulled. There was some resistance but the wet piece of hide was coming slowly out of the cavity.
Without warning, what felt like a huge blanket came flying out of the hole. I over-balanced and fell onto my back. The blanket landed on top of me, enveloping my whole body. It came to life! Slippery arms bound around me, hugging me tight. Hands closed on my throat, squeezing.
I struggled to free myself. I was panicking.
“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” I heard Peem’s voice in the distance, very far away.
“Pull me up” I yelled at the top of my voice.
The rope tightened and so did the grip of the beast.
I was sure that I was moments away from a gruesome death. I was terrified.
As suddenly as the horrible being had grabbed me, it let go and retreated quickly into its hole. I was violently whisked off my feet and was dragged upwards as Peem jerked the rope frantically. My shoulders hit the sides of the opening, painfully as I emerged into the fresh air above the ground.
Peem and I landed in a tangled heap on the grass, breathless.
It took a while for us to calm down.
We secured the grill and collected our belongings. Our torch was shining brightly in the depths of the bottle dungeon.
We buried our ill-gotten gains in a nearby field and marked the spot with a pattern of stones. As far as I know, that bag of coins remains buried in that field to this day. It may be very valuable. I don’t care. The thought of going back to retrieve it is too much to contemplate.