The Red Book of Appin

A little background, first.

The Red Book of Appin was written over the course of three generations, sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, most likely, in either Scotland or Cornwall, by a succession of Devils — that is, cult leaders of the old, disreputable agrarian religion that had been fighting an increasingly erratic guerrilla war with Christianity. The witches of western Europe had a good instinctual grasp of the scientific method, and the Red Book was their lab notes: at each Sabbath or Esbat (to differentiate between High and Low Church) the Devil would call the witches to account — “What evil have you done since last we met?” he quizzed them, meaning, what magic have you done, to blast or to grow, to heal or to harm? — and the witch’s account of his or her magical experiments would be noted in the Red Book. Unsuccessful spells were remembered, and avoided; successful ones were passed down from Devil to Devil, witch to witch, and adapted and modified as circumstance or inspiration dictated.

It had tremendous powers, did the Red Book, and a curious nature. Like the Devil himself, the book was said to be icy-cold to the touch, and heavy beyond all expectations. Who held the book knew the answer to any question put to him, as well as the question itself before the postulant even framed it. Unwary reading of the Book struck the reader blind, of course, or caused his skin to break out “with boils and pimples and rashes of the most distressing sort,” as Tom Reed put it memorably in his 1567 deposition, “unless he wore an iron hoop about his temples.”

There were at least three unsuccessful attempts to steal the Red Book. The first in 1421, when John Campbell of Orkney simply plucked the book from the Devil’s hands and ran across the fields, hooting like an owl, until he was caught and “swallowed up entire by the Devil.” The “theft” here is probably part of an ritual of investiture for the new Devil misunderstood by the court recorder. There was another, more serious attempt later, in 1567, that ended in the dismemberment of the unfortunate thief and his ritual cannibalization by the vengeful witches. Whether the nameless victim was actually eaten or merely disposed of by more normal means is a matter of some debate; a case can be made for either interpretation. Aleister Crowley gives a good, if typically gaudy, summary of the arguments in Vol. 2 No. 3 of his periodical The Equinox.

The last and only successful attempt occurred in the early part of the seventeenth century and seems to have been almost entirely accidental. It was discovered among the effects of John Constable upon his death, and caused much speculation among his peers. Constable was the grandson of the well-known witch Isobel Gowdie, though he had never been suspected of witchcraft himself. Whether Gowdie had legitimately inherited the Book and later forgotten about it — an unlikely occurrence — or whether he had been in possession of it for years without any knowledge of what it was — possible, though also unlikely, for though he was “an unliterary man”, the Book itself was a huge folio, “half an ell across”, and much handled — was never determined.

The Red Book of Appin was sent to the Vatican Library where it remained for two and a half centuries, until it was destroyed by mildew in the first decade of the twentieth century. Like its career, the destruction of the Book is not without controversy. No other books in the library were lost to damp, either that year or that decade, and the librarian retired to a monastery shortly thereafter; he took a vow of silence and kept whatever secrets he had until his death in 1939.