Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Case of Bewitchment

Toward the end of October in 1990, monitoring a procession of magpies from my bedroom window, I was surprised by the sight of our neighbour, Jenny Glover, emerging from behind the garage, hunched and purposeful, and striding rapidly across our lawn. On reaching the washing line, she cast a furtive glance to either side, before taking a pair of my underpants, cramming them into the pocket of her anorak and quickly departing by the same route from which she had arrived. It took me several seconds to recover my wits and make my way to the street, by which time the front door of the Glover house, immediately opposite ours, was closing behind her. At any other time I might have taken time to ponder the most sensible course of action. Having only recently, however, been an object of infatuation which had culminated with the imposition of a court order and a (slightly dubious) suicide attempt, I thought it best to acknowledge Mrs Glover's interest and politely but firmly discourage its development.

Twenty years on, my recollection of the ensuing exchange on the Glovers' doorstep still brings an instantaneous warmth to my cheeks. A verbatim account would challenge the abilities of a court stenographer. Suffice to say, I was disabused of the notion that Mrs Glover's attentions toward me could be anything other than hostile. "What would any woman want with your underpants?" she demanded with such incredulity I was stricken by a momentary conviction that I had lost the capacity to distinguish between reality and precognition. On returning to to the scene of the crime, however, I was reassured by a cursory inspection of the washing line on which disordered pegs and a gap commensurate with the breadth of a pair of boxer shorts indicated a recent intrusion. That night, I dicussed the matter with my parents. Neither seemed overly concerned by the violation I had suffered. "I couldn't go through a repeat of the Alexander business," said Mum, unfairly citing a long resolved unpleasantness precipitated by Dr Alexander's intemperate response to finding me in his wardrobe. Dad, meanwhile, restricted himself to the undeniable observation that, "It's your word against hers." Neither favoured police involvement: "It would be a bit of a cheek after what you said about them," said Mum referring to an interview in which I injudiciously referred to their work as 'janitorial'. On reflection, it was evident that further action might would, at the very least, prove a distraction to more pressing commitments and could leave me vulnerable to accusations of slander. Determined to remain vigilant, I decided, for the time being, to let the matter drop.

As any doctor will confirm, apparently trivial symptoms often indicate a darker malaise. Over the course of a long, troubled winter: I was debilitated by a succession of bugs compounded by the constant sensation that nemesis lurked in the lowering gloom. By spring, my spirits were bolstered by the return to lighter nights and the coincidental departure of the Glovers who moved to Glasgow in order to assist in the care of a grandchild who had been born with significant health problems. I thought little of them until several years later when Mum drew my attention to a notice of Jennifer Glover's death in the Glasgow Herald. "Loving wife, mother and grandmother," she read, emphasising the last word with a sharp glance, as if to say, "See? Nothing about stealing your underpants." Mrs Glover's posthumous exoneration was short-lived. Only weeks later, Gavin Sutherland, who bought their house, appeared unexpectedly at my door. "I think these are yours," he said, proferring a filthy rag which, on closer inspection, proved to be adorned by a tag on which the words 'Hamilton Coe' were still legible. "I found them when I was fixing the floor-boards in the shed," he continued with a slight shudder. "They were wrapped around some kind of carcass."

As a child visiting the David Livingstone Museum in Blantyre, I was thrilled to contemplate the explorer's jerkin torn in a lion attack. Future visitors to the Hamilton Coe House, I thought, would be similarly intrigued by evidence of my own attempted bewitchment. Mum, unfortunately, had less consideration for posterity: "Don't be so disgusting," she snapped as I argued the case for their retention. After a brief tug of war, I snatched the disputed underpants from her grasp and fled, hiding them under my mattress. Years later, months after Mum's death, I decided to move my bed. Removing the mattress, I was irritated by the realisation that the underpants were no longer there. With the unerring instinct, formerly used in the location of my siblings' cigarettes and contraceptives, Mum had found and, presumably, destroyed them. "For goodness sake," I muttered before, quite unexpectedly, my legs buckled and I sprawled beside my partially stripped bed, overwhelmed by a keening regret.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Haunting in Arran

In August, 1998, my sister's friends Paul and Isla Morrison, enjoying an impromptu weekend break in Arran, stopped at the Lochside Guest House in Lochranza. "We were planning to spend the night in Blackwaterfoot," says Isla, "but we were tired and hungry and it was so idyllically situated, I thought, 'why don't we just stay here?'" Checking in, however, presented unexpected complications. "Mrs Henderson (the owner) apologised and insisted they were full," remembers Isla, "but her husband, who'd been lurking in the background, immediately contradicted her, saying, 'what about number nine?' She was obviously furious. The two of them disappeared into the office, and left us standing in the lobby. We were about to leave when she finally emerged and said, 'Yes, we do have a room, but it's only fair to tell you that there's a slight problem.'" Room Eight, she explained, which adjoined theirs, had 'experienced issues'. When Paul and Isla tried to establish what, exactly, these 'issues' entailed, Mrs Henderson reluctantly conceded that they were 'ghost related', quickly reassuring them that phenomena, caused by an entity she familiarly referred to as 'William', while occasionally disruptive, were confined within the walls of Room Eight. "By that time," admits Isla, "we thought she was a fruitcake. We were more concerned about the owners than any ghosts that might be in the vicinity." Nonetheless, they took the room.

That night, the Morrisons accepted Mrs Henderson's offer of a home-cooked meal. Also present were a couple from Glasgow, an Italian family and two female hikers from Manchester who had spent the afternoon in Glen Sannox. The food was well prepared and the Morrisons were enjoying the company of their fellow guests, particularly the hikers who seemed engrossed by Paul's account of the Goat Fell murder about which neither had previously heard. This, however, was unexpectedly interrupted when the Hendersons emerged from the kitchen, both clutching cordless microphones, and proceeded to a small dais at the far side of the room. "I hope you're all enjoying your meal," said Mrs Henderson, to which, of course, all present gave a muted but affirmative reply. "That's good," she continued, suddenly adopting a husky, mid-atlantic accent. "We thought you might enjoy a trip down memory lane." At this prompt, Mr Henderson switched on a karaoke machine and, to the Morrisons' astonishment, their hosts started to sing.

The Hendersons' repertoire (of which Isla remembers 'You Don't Bring me Flowers', 'Jackson' and 'Lucky Stars') was inoffensive and adequately performed but, in Paul's words, "about as appropriate as a lap-dance." The guests' embarrassment was compounded when Mr Henderson, leaving the stage to his wife as he served dessert, leaned forward to display a strand of mucous dangling from one nostril. As the Italians collectively recoiled, one of the hikers, screwing up her face in disgust, emphatically rejected the proferred dish with extended palms. Isla tried to discreetly alert Henderson to the cause of offence by indicating her own nose and apologetically mouthing the word 'snotter'. At this, the second of the hikers, already shuddering helplessly, regurgitated a mouthful of cola and covered her face with her palms. Apparently unperturbed, Mr Henderson quickly wiped his nose with a napkin, encouraged his guests to "enjoy your crumble" and returned to the stage where he joined his wife in an inevitable encore of 'I've Got You Babe'. By the meal's conclusion, the Morrisons felt like ship-wreck survivors, eternally bonded to their fellow diners by a shared trauma.

Later, lying in bed with her book, Isla listened intently for activity in Room Eight, but heard nothing but the wind howling, interspersed by sporadic explosions of merriment emanating from further along the corridor where, she assumed, the hikers were still regaling one another with impressions of their hosts. Reaching for the light switch, she was startled by a sudden noise from next door. "It was like someone dragging furniture," she recalls. "My instinctive reaction was, it's them: they're trying to freak us out." As the noise became more pronounced, her irritation heightened until she rapped the adjoining wall with her knuckle, eliciting an immediate response. "It was as if someone had thrown himself against the wall," she remembers. "I jumped right out of bed. Paul slept right through it, of course." Suitably admonished, she spent the rest of the night curled in an armchair at the far side of the room.

*Scanning the Scotsman's website several months after hearing Isla's account, I was startled by the headline, 'Guests Flee Botched Exorcism'. Scotland has several haunted - or ostensibly haunted - hotels, but the use of the word 'botched' summoned an instantaneous memory of Isla's description of the Hendersons. My intuition was immediately vindicated. The story, accompanied by a photograph of the couple keeping a sombre vigil outside the haunted room, provided a sardonic precis of the incident. Ewan Penny, a self-styled 'spiritualist' and 'New Age Healer' from Newton Stewart, was invited to perform an exorcism. "Colin tried to tell William that we wished him well, but that it was time for him to leave," explained Mrs Henderson. Whether irritated by Penny's presumption or the 'matey' witlessness of his approach, 'William's' response was unequivocal. "He was very angry," acknowledged Mrs Henderson before describing a chaotic interlude in the course of which, she claimed, "all hell broke loose." As the lights went out throughout the building, a cacophony of noise erupted in Room Eight, compounded by the fire alarm, causing guests in neighbouring rooms to flee. Mr Henderson, meanwhile, turning to join the exodus, was dragged back into the room where the hapless Penny had suffered a seizure. As Mrs Henderson struggled to pull her husband into the corridor, she shouted, "Stop it, William!" in response to which an object, propelled from inside the room, struck her on the temple, causing her to momentarily lose consciousness. By the time she came to, the lights had returned, revealing the detritus within Room Eight, where the furniture had been upended around the stricken figures of Mr Henderson and Ewan Penny. A medical examination revealed Henderson to be suffering the effects of shock, Penny, however was seriously ill and rushed to Glasgow's Southern General by helicopter.

**Last year, by sheer coincidence, I met Mrs Henderson at a function in Brodick. There's a unique pleasure in meeting people with whom we're vicariously acquainted by third party accounts. I have to confess that the Mrs Henderson with whom I shared pizza at the Eilean Mor was an entirely different creature to the figment nurtured by my imagination. The impression of the Morrisons as long suffering but good-natured victims of peculiar circumstances was also dispelled: my first reference to them caused Mrs Henderson's eyes to harden while her smile, almost imperceptibly, tightened into a grimace. "They're friends of my sister's, really," I said quickly, putting an emphasis on 'sister' that, I hoped, indicated scepticism about her judgment in general and the Morrisons in particular. Mrs Henderson was mollified by this small treachery and immediately brightened. Most guests, she insisted, enjoyed the musical accompaniment to their meals though some could be "a bit snooty."

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Redlands House, near Killin

In 1996, Annabel Edgar and her partner, Niall Rutherford, presented plans for a Museum of Folk-lore to be based in Redlands House, an eerily imposing, mid-Victorian villa situated on the outskirts of Killin. The community council was intially receptive to the proposed museum, but its members refused permission for the renovation of Redlands. The house, according to the relevant minute, was "dilapidated" beyond repair. This, as Rutherford pointed out, wasn't true: the building had, until recently, been used as an Outward Bound centre and, according to surveyors, its structure was sound. Despite his appeal, the councillors persisted in their veto. Only when pressed by Rutherford's lawyer would chair, George Pettigrew, acknowledge the reason for the objection: the almost unanimous local belief that Redlands House is haunted.

Edgar and Rutherford were furious. They had invested a great deal of time and money in the proposal, not least the purchase of a property which had inexplicably (as far as they were concerned) been found unfit for purpose. In the weeks following his rejection, Rutherford gave a series of interviews in which he accused council members of superstition, cronyism and racism (both he and Edgar are English). His particular ire was reserved for council secretary, Harry Duncanson. Harry's daughter, Karen, remembers Rutherford without fondness. "Dad loved the local folk-lore and, initially, he was keen to help, but Annabel and Niall didn't want to know. They were bluffers and they resented Dad because he knew they were bluffers." Rutherford, for his part, dismissed Harry as a bumbling 'teuchter'. "He came out with all this rubbish about Dad: he'd never been on an aeroplane; he couldn't pronounce 'lasagne'. I'm not even sure where it came from. None of it was true. They just wanted to make him sound like some bigoted old fool."

It's easy to scoff at the community council's intransigence. A ghost, however, is seldom an asset. I've investigated numerous 'haunted' buildings. Some are gloomily situated, others badly designed. More often than not, I tactfully recommend a lick of paint rather than an exorcism. In the past twenty years or so, I've conducted nearly a hundred investigations: of these, seventy eight were satisfactorily concluded with a natural explanation; twelve exhibited symptoms which might indicate some dormant malignancy (or subtle human mischief); seven were definitely haunted. One of these was Redlands House which Billy Ure and I visited in 1993 at the invitation of Outward Bound staff members, several of whom had been traumatised by their experiences in the building. Over the course of an afternoon, I successfully recorded three separate voices (one of which hissed "What do you want?") while Billy, sent to investigate the basement, epicentre of the Redlands' phenomena, witnessed the materialisation of faces in the brick-work and received distinct blows to both arms and head. Attempting to leave, he was horrified to discover that the door had been locked. Alerted by his screams, I initiated a search for the key which concluded nearly an hour later when, by chance, a staff member noticed its tip protruding from my trouser pocket. (I'm not, I suspect, the first psychic investigator to fall victim to a poltergeist's warped sense of humour!)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

On the Dangers of Hallowe'en

The immune systems of psychically gifted children are often depleted by negative energy absorbed from those around them. Until entering my teens and embarking upon a daily regime of vitamins and stretching exercises, I suffered a succession of metabolic collapses: Uncle Gregor's presence invariably caused choking fits while a visit from the Hegartys was sufficient to induce seizure. It gives me no satisfaction to record that in both cases my instincts were subsequently vindicated, but at the time I was accused of play acting and, on occasions, dragged to my room. Parents and babysitters should note that this is a potentially fatal response to a clairvoyant child's distress symptoms. Unsupervised, he might choke on his own drool or bludgeon himself to death in an effort to obliterate the unwanted images gathered in his mind. In fairness to my parents, until my aunt contacted the Gibson Institute, neither was offered any guidance in the specific needs of clairvoyants. Many gifted children, of all types, have their fiery essence drenched by incomprehension and disapproval. Ninety per cent have their potential nullified by the time they can walk. How many parents are competent to the task of raising a special child? Obviously, it's difficult to identify gifted children at an early age. My solution is that all children by removed from the home and reared by qualified nurturers until their individual capabilities become apparent. That, however, is by the by.

The period leading up to Hallowe'en is particularly fraught for children of clairvoyance. As a five year old, I had a terrible experience of psychic transportation while dunking for apples. I still retain a vivid memory of rough handed men in coarse leggings holding me underwater while their wives encouraged them from a distance, banging tambourines and singing "Green Grow the Rushes", a song I've subsequently associated with acts of cruelty. For some reason, the name Goodie Protheroe and the English county of Hampshire come to mind whenever I think of the incident. Consultation with local historical societies confirmed a spate of witch purges in the county throughout the mid 17th century. Though no record exists of the victims' names, I'm confident that Protheroe might be found among them.

Many of the playful traditions enjoyed at this time are rooted in a sinister reality. I'm aware of how eagerly some of my friends anticipate Hallowe'en: it pains me to seem a killjoy, but please be aware that the enaction of certain rituals, even in jest, invites catastrophe. Children of enhanced intuition are especially vulnerable to the psychic disruptions caused by the reckless agitation of spirits. How many are permanently traumatised by oblivious parents determined that they 'join in the fun'? The same tragic scenario is repeated every year: "Will you please stop squirming?" demands a fractious mother as she unwittingly forces her special child's head into a pumpkin shaped mould in which he'll be permanently transported to a realm of darkness*. "But, Hamilton, my child is as sensitive as a door-knob!" This might be the case, but he should be discouraged from blundering around, provoking entities that might attach themselves to his friends. All parents should exercise caution at this time, particularly as event organisers increasingly refer to the internet to tap into the festival's origins. While I'd hesitate to recommend that Hallowe'en be outlawed, certain types of costume and rituals should be legally proscribed with on the spot fines imposed against scofflaws.

*Parents who insist on forcing their children into costume for Hallowe'en should be wary of allowing them to adopt personae with negative connotations. The post-modern parent might consider it amusing to dress his child as Crippen, Lizzie Borden or Tom Baker's Dr Who, but the psychic repercussions are potentially devastating and permanent.

Monday, 11 October 2010

On W.B.Yeats and the Perils of Automatic Writing

In 1916, W.B. Yeats, having been rejected by Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult*, proposed to Bertha Hyde-Lees (familiarly known as Georgie). If Yeats was hoping that one or other of the Gonnes, dismayed by the prospect of his imminent unavailability, would finally surrender to his advances, he was to be disappointed. If anything, both seemed relieved by the apparent transfer of his affections. Worse still, Georgie unexpectedly accepted his proposal with the consequence that within months the poet, chagrined and bewildered, found himself honeymooning with a woman whose very presence was a source of irritation. Having already used Georgie shabbily, Yeats, whose advanced years came without the compensation of sensitivity or experience, had little compunction about confessing the cause of his unhappiness. Understandably bemused by developments, Georgie struggled to compose her thoughts by writing them down. Distracted by Yeats's self-absorbed interruptions, it suddenly occurred to her that, while she continued to write, the words no longer came of her own volition - she was merely a conduit for some other source of inspiration. Pointing out to her husband the vaguely promising sentiments " With the bird all is well at heart " and " You will neither regret nor repine " she triggered an obsession that would dominate the rest of their lives.

The sceptical reader might find it inconceivable that a fifty one year old man would attach cosmic significance to his wife's scribbled response to crisis. Certainly Yeats, having shattered the mood of the honeymoon, might have felt obliged to retrieve the situation by encouraging Georgie's new interest. It should be remembered, though, that throughout his life, his habitual response to a fat-headed notion was to lend it his whole-hearted approval. Whether as a teenage theosophist or elderly fascist, he evinced an almost heroic indifference to the suggestion that he might be making a fool of himself. There seems no reason to doubt that he was similarly galvanised by this new enthusiasm. Misgivings forgotten, he spent the remainder of their honeymoon badgering Georgie into increasingly intensive periods of communication with her spirit guides. A more worldly individual might have been alerted by the constancy with which they took her side. They chided him relentlessly for his insensitivity, criticised his sexual technique and only stopped short of materialising on Georgie's hands like glove puppets and belabouring him with blows. Meekly, he accepted every admonishment and remained in thrall to his wife's unexpected genius. By the time they returned home she had filled ninety three pages. Hundreds more would follow, their observations informing Yeats's 'Vision' and prompting the productivity that continued through the latter part of his career.

Whether one regards the Yeatses as recipients of secret information or participants in mutual folly, it's evident that neither was harmed by the project. Their apparent successes notwithstanding, I'd implore anyone determined to experiment with Automatic Writing to proceed with caution. As is the case with any system in which a spirit is invited to impart information, it's often impossible to determine whether the driving force is an external influence or a repressed facet of the subject's own unconscious. Nonetheless, experiments should only be conducted in environments in which the author (or conduit) feels entirely comfortable while the hyper-sensitive would be well advised to abstain from the practise entirely.

The experience of Canadian poet Barry Gulliver should serve as a deterrent to the curious. Barry had no particular interest in automatic writing. His first half-hearted experiment, conducted after consuming two bottles of red wine, represented nothing so much as an attempt to kill time as he waited to fall asleep. Looking over his notes the next morning, he was astonished to find seven pages covered in a barely decipherable scrawl bearing not even the slightest resemblance to his own handwriting. "Midnight in the City of Angels," started the first page causing Barry to momentarily wonder if he was in receipt of some apocalyptic prophecy. The next few lines were illegible but the final sentence of the first paragraph - "It was quiet.... TOO QUIET!!!" - reinforced his sense of foreboding. This turned to bewilderment, disappointment and finally self-reproach as, over the following pages, a story emerged in which the narrator (identified only as 'Steve') became embroiled with an undercover female detective (" A different type of detective !!!"), itinerant Shaolin monks and a drugs cartel. The final page concluded with him chained to a radiator, stoically awaiting execution by a man with "the sort of face you only see in dreams... Bad dreams !!!!"

Having attributed the entire episode to over-work and intoxication, Barry was astonished when he woke up the next morning to find more of Steve's adventures scrawled across ten pages of his notepad. Rescued from certain death by the detective, Steve became embroiled in an apparently pointless car-chase which culminated in an explosion and a gratuitous sexual encounter with a glamorous but sassy librarian ( "A different type of librarian !!!") The rest of Barry's day was wasted as he struggled to find some hidden meaning in the text: was it possible that Steve represented humanity or simply unexplored aspects of his own personality? It occurred to him that a message of genuine significance might be extricated from the intricate banalities of the plot. For hours he pondered the purpose of the monks and analysed Steve's leering asides but to no avail. If he was being tested with a code, it was beyond his powers of interpretation. " Who are you?" he eventually wrote but no direct response was forthcoming, merely a resumption of the increasingly hare-brained narrative.

Over the course of a month, 'Steve' filled seven narrow lined A4 work-pads. Worse still, his adventures started encroaching into Barry's other work, in particular a sympathetic reassessment of the dynamic between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Every morning, Barry scanned the manuscript for the inevitable profusion of exclamation marks and margin notes (" Cheryl Ladd ????") that indicated Steve's presence. Barry's intention of rescuing Hughes's reputation from feminist opprobrium was complicated by the appearance of a sub-plot in which the poet pursued a murderous vendetta against prostitutes. Sylvia, meanwhile, (" A different type of poet !!!!") joined forces with a wisecracking American detective determined to enlist her assistance in bringing 'The Hawk' to justice. Around this time, Barry's sleep was disrupted by vivid nightmares in which Ted Hughes, portrayed by the actor David Soul, stalked the Devon countryside clutching a claw-hammer. Visitors to his apartment remarked on an unusual chill while his girlfriend tentatively broached a "body odour issue" that she attributed to his fondness for vintage clothes.

Matters came to a head when Barry's girlfriend, spending the weekend at the apartment, was surprised in the shower by a bearded face peering at her through the partition. Barry, alerted by her scream, hurried to the bathroom where he was confronted by a fat, gnomish figure in a surf shirt. The apparition waved his hands frantically as if to semaphore innocence before dissolving into the steam. Previously loath to acknowledge Steve's existence lest it be attributed to a mental disorder, Barry now confided a full account of his ordeal. His girlfriend, a practising Catholic, flatly refused to remain in the apartment or, indeed, return until an exorcism had been performed. This proved effective, though, interestingly, Barry abandoned his defence of Ted Hughes and, finding himself utterly bereft of ideas, wrote nothing for months.

* Neither Gonne married happily. Maud's husband, John MacBride, was executed for his part in the Easter Uprising while Iseult was treated abominably by the deranged Irish novelist Francis Stuart.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Man in the Green Shed

Nearly thirty years after his death, Ledingham Bayne, the most prolific author in recent Scottish history, remains unpublished and unremembered by anyone other than family members and a handful of close friends. Nearly six hundred of his stories survive, carefully archived by his daughter, Elisabeth, the vast majority of them set in St Bertram's Academy, an imaginary boarding school located somewhere in the Perthshire highlands. Elisabeth, who compares her father to John Buchan and, undeterred by constant rejection, continues to send his stories to publishers, thinks that his writing career was blighted by inverted snobbery. "Glaswegians aren't supposed to write about boarding schools," she says. "I honestly think that if Dad had written about gangs or shipyards he'd have been hugely successful. Throughout his life, he refused to do what other people expected."

Arthur Gibson, Ledingham's agent and closest friend, is less certain. "I'm not even sure if Ledingham was especially interested in being published," he says. "His stories were tightly plotted and well paced but, while he had quite a literary bent, he was writing for a younger audience. The first, second and third rule of writing for children is that you don't kill the hero, but Ledingham was always having his characters bumped off. I remember he gave me a series of stories featuring a hero called John Peerless. I thought, 'Good, Ledingham's finally written something I can let my daughter read.' Unfortunately, I'd skipped the conclusion in which Peerless was ambushed and thrown off a cliff. When I remonstrated with Ledingham, saying, 'you didn't even let him die well' he just shrugged and replied, 'Well, when you throw a boy off a cliff, he screams.' Which I suppose he does. He certainly screamed in my daughter's nightmares. My wife still casts it against me."

If Ledingham Bayne is still known by anyone outwith his immediate circle, it's for the haunting of his home in Glasgow's West End. The inclusion of 12 Cleveden Terrace in on-line guides to centres of supernatural activity has failed to enhance his literary profile: not one, in fact, so much as alludes to his vocation. Most accounts of the phenonema in Cleveden Terrace refer to cold spots, foot-steps emanating from an empty room and the smell of tobacco without a source. Having visited the house at Elisabeth's invitation, I can confirm that all three of these symptoms of manifestation were evident. I can't add my own testimony to alleged sightings of Ledingham's ghost in the shed in which he worked on his stories or Elisabeth's claims that her telephone conversations are regularly interrupted by his voice (an intrusion, frustratingly, manifested as a static hiss for the person to whom she is talking). She is, however, in my opinion, a transparently sincere and honest witness. Doubts persist as to whether the same can be said about her brother, Griffin, whose childhood memoir 'The Man in the Green Shed' might yet accord Ledingham posthumous renown.

Elisabeth has spent the past year attempting to block the publication of a book in which her father is depicted as an overbearing odd-ball. "Dad wasn't perfect, but he was a decent man and he did his best under difficult circumstances," she says. "To me, Griffin's book reflects on its author far more than it does Dad." Aficionados of the Pitiful Lives genre, disappointed by an absence of violent incident within the book's pages, will almost certainly agree. Having spent a life-time engrossed in his own resentment, Griffin has obviously lost the ability to discern between instances of genuine abuse (of which I can find none) and the chasms of incomprehension evident in the relationship between any child and parent. These problems were undoubtably exacerbated by Ledingham's mental illness* (about which both Elisabeth and, surprisingly, Griffin are reticent) but the consistency with which Griffin makes mountains out of mole-hills causes the reader to with-hold any sympathy to which he might otherwise be entitled.

Arthur Gibson attributes many of the Baynes' subsequent problems to the death of Elisabeth and Griffin's mother, Isobel, only months after Griffin's birth. "Ledingham tried, but I always felt that he was giving a passable impression of how he thought a normal person ought to respond to any given situation. Without Isobel being around to prompt him, he was at a loss. He certainly wasn't equipped for fatherhood. While he was always in cahoots with Elisabeth, he had no rapport with Griffin whatsoever. It was impossible not to sense that he was disappointed in him: he wanted him to play football and get into scrapes, but Griffin wasn't remotely interested in that sort of thing. Ledingham would say, 'Oh, when I was a boy...' but I'm not sure if he really was that type of boy. I suspect he was more like Griffin than he cared to remember."

While Ledingham's indifference was to prove a lasting cause of resentment, Griffin found it preferable to the occasional bouts of mentorship to which he was subjected. "I remember Griffin had this terrible black eye," remembers Arthur, "and, naturally, I asked him what had happened. Before he could reply, Ledingham said, quite cheerfully, 'Oh, Griffin's being bullied, but I'm teaching him how to box.' For weeks Ledingham dragged him around the local boxing clubs: he'd stand around chatting to the coaches while poor Griffin got leathered in the ring. It was a typical Ledingham solution: resolve one beating by subjecting him to a dozen more. In fairness, the bullies stopped picking on Griffin, though I'm sure it was pity rather than fear that caused them to leave him alone." While Griffin fails to mention this episode in his memoir, it seems indicative of Ledingham's erratic approach to parenting.

Arthur, who has remained on good terms with both Elisabeth and Griffin, is a helpful adjudicator in the Memory Wars that have persisted between them since Ledingham's death. These are exemplified by conflicting accounts of the puppet theatre, recalled by Elisabeth as 'a treat' and Griffin 'a recurring horror'. "Ledingham's puppet shows were very well done," remembers Arthur, "though my wife always thought they were a little creepy. The children would all be given a part: more often than not, Griffin was the hero, but there was a terrible inevitability that he'd end up in some dire predicament at which point Ledingham say, 'Well, how do you think Griffin's going to get out of that?' and we'd take a break for cake or whatever. I remember my wife saying, 'Ledingham, aren't you going to finish the puppet show?' but by then he'd usually lost interest. To my way of thinking it always seemed a rather strange demonstration of paternal affection."

When Griffin was eighteen, he left home to study English and Philosophy at St Andrew's University where he met his first girlfriend, Ishbel McCauley. "Griffin didn't really talk about his family," remembers Ishbel, "He went back to Glasgow at Christmas, but that was about it. I must have been seeing him for about a year when, quite accidentally, I bumped into them all outside a bistro. Griffin turned beet red but he just about managed to stammer an introduction. Ledingham was very nice and invited me to join them, but Elisabeth just stared at me: it was as if she'd been introduced to a pelican. I remember as we went down toward the entrance - it was in a basement - she actually tried to push me. I managed to steady myself on the railing, but as I turned round, she smirked as if to say, 'welcome to the family!' Griffin had obviously seen what happened, but he just looked away. It was all a bit disconcerting."

Elisabeth, predictably, contradicts Ishbel's version of events. "There was no accidental meeting. She turned up with Griffin, wearing the most ridiculous boots I'd ever seen. She could hardly walk in them. We virtually had to carry her down the stairs to the bistro. If I hadn't grabbed her by the coat, she'd have broken her neck, which would have been no great loss to anyone." Elisabeth's mood was worsened by the appearance of Ishbel's brother with a girlfriend and two of their friends. "We'd hardly taken off our coats when they materialised, cue a great display of astonishment. I remember saying to Dad, 'Are we supposed to pay for everyone?' Ishbel overheard me and rolled her eyes, but, of course, he did end up footing the bill, though he was too much of a gentleman to complain."

While the evening merits a chapter in 'The Man in the Green Shed', no mention is made of Ishbel's boots or Elisabeth's attempted assault. The account centres on an alleged conversation conducted between Ledingham and Ishbel's brother, Malcolm, the latter of whom divulged its details to Griffin the next day. While Ishbel remembers her brother "quite fondly" referring to Ledingham, Elisabeth denies that they even conversed: "Dad was sitting next to me and he could hardly hear what I was saying for the noise. From what I can recall, Ishbel's brother was sitting diagonally across the table and he seemed too engrossed in his girlfriend to bother with anyone else." As the main protaganists are both dead (Malcolm succumbed to leukaemia in 1988), we are left to depend on Griffin's second hand version of their exchange. If this is to be believed, Ledingham, talking to someone he'd never met and with whom, the reader can surmise, he had nothing in common, casually confessed to committing a murder.

"I remember Griffin appearing at the house one day," remembers Arthur. "It must have been shortly after Ledingham's so-called confession. He told me he was concerned about his father: apparently he'd been talking about someone who'd been shot and Griffin thought it was evidence of some delusion. I said, 'Oh no, he must mean Edwin Arnott' at which Griffin turned chalk white, excused himself and disappeared to the toilet for a good ten minutes. When he finally emerged, of course, he wanted to know about Edwin. There wasn't a great deal I could tell him: he used to hang around pubs, cadging cigarettes and draining the dregs of other people's pints. If anyone protested, he'd say, 'Oh, I thought you'd finished.' He was a pain in the neck and a moocher but I was astonished that anyone would go to the trouble of killing him. It was actually Ledingham who told me: apparently someone waited in his close and let him have it as he let himself into his flat. The police established that the murderer used a Luger but I don't think they ever identified a suspect or a realistic motive. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if they really bothered. It's a horrible thing to say, but he wasn't a great loss."

Elisabeth retains only vague recollections of the man she knew as Eddie. "Every so often he'd turn up and Dad would give him a can of beer or something to eat. He used to do card tricks: I remember shouting out, 'but they're all sevens' and immediately feeling guilty because he looked so crestfallen. Apart from that, he didn't make much of an impression. Until I read Griffin's book, I didn't even know he'd been shot." She has more vivid memories of the Luger Ledingham kept in a locked drawer in his shed. "It was a souvenir he'd brought back from Germany. There must have been thousands of them floating around the West of Scotland after the war. When my cousins visited, Dad would take it out: he used to say it was loaded with one bullet for anyone who tried to break into the shed, but I don't think it had a firing pin. In his book, Griffin makes a great song and dance about the moment of revelation when he found out about the gun, but he used to charge around the garden with it, pretending to be Roy Rogers." The notion that it might have been used to despatch Eddie is, she says, "grotesque and absurd."

"If you read Griffin's memoir carefully," says Arthur, "he doesn't actually accuse his father of shooting Edwin, though he leaves a trail that leads the reader directly to Ledingham's grave. Of course, anyone else could create a diversion with exactly the same evidence. Reading Griffin's account, it's difficult not to come away with the impression of someone adding two and two with the determination that it will make five and to hell with what anyone else might say. In fairness to him, though, he has a better grasp on what people want to read than his father ever did."

Elisabeth is less phlegmatic. "There's such an unrealistic expectation on people," she says "Especially parents: 'They fuck you up your mum and dad' It's a banal sentiment, but it's a very convenient way of avoiding personal responsibility. Griffin sits and watches all of these television programmes and thinks, 'That's me, poor old Griffin.' He should dry his eyes and grow up."

*Griffin appears to have clung to a conviction that his father's occasional absences were necessitated by trips into the future undertaken on behalf of the Secret Service. Referring to the aftermath of revelation when a classmate, tired of his boasts, retorted, "Your dad's not in the future: he's in Leverndale!" he writes, "Whatever else changed, part of me remained forever frozen in that moment. My father was a liar. The world was not as I had thought." As ever, Elisabeth is unmoved by her brother's inner child. "He wasn't entirely backward. He didn't believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but every day at school, I'd hear him crowing about Dad being a Time Traveller. It was obvious that at some point someone would put him in his place."

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Fochabers' School, near Drumfeld

In 1833, brothers John and William Fochaber, the latter of whom is remembered for his association with African explorer Mungo Park, opened their eponymously named school near Drumfeld. Surviving correspondence from the pair indicates an almost evangelical faith in the Fochabers' ethos: their vision of a student governed community in which masters acted in an advisery capacity preceded similar fat-headed experiments by over a century. At the time of the school's closure, in 1985, the extent to which their design had floundered became fully apparent. The school's records, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, contained evidence of institutionalised bullying and abuse. One ledger, ominously titled 'The Black Book', contained sub-sections listing 'beatings', 'confinements' and 'ostracisms' while medical records contained twenty seven separate references to attempted suicides.

Dr Alexander Wishart, the last rector of Fochabers', confronted with allegations of negligence, struggled to explain the system of committees by which the school was governed. In 1985, a school council (membership of which was restricted to the prefects, or 'Gods') and seventeen sub-committees existed, all chaired by the school captain, Fraser Henderson, whose total mastery of his peers was explained by the revelation that he was twenty-four years old. "It's easy to lose track of these things," said Dr Wishart though later, as it became apparent that seven of the fourteen prefects were in their twenties, he acknowledged that, "strictly speaking we don't have a set leaving age at Fochabers'. They go when they're ready."

Fochabers' enjoyed its peak years early in the twentieth century when it became a popular depository for sons who might otherwise have been discreetly smothered or confined to attics. Startling physical anomalies are common in school photographs from the period, partially explaining Drumfeld doctor, Robert McPherson's alleged assertion that "a fire in the Fochabers' dormitory would be a kindness to the majority of its residents." In 1923, the board, alarmed by the school's renown as "an asylum for inbreds" revised its entrance policy, excluding those cruelly dismissed as "freaks and cretins." At the same time, an idealistic new rector, George Fisher, arrived, boldly (but injudiciously) announcing the necessity of curbing the power of the Gods. Within six months, he'd returned to Edinburgh, a broken man. Fochabers' reputation as a last resort for those unwanted elsewhere persisted and by 1930, the dwindling school roll indicated an irreversible decline.

Fisher's thwarted revolution might have been successful had his brief tenure not co-incided with that of Edward Dalrymple, the most powerful and vicious of Fochabers' notoriously depraved school captains. Dalrymple, reputed to have maintained the captainship into his late-twenties, is still recalled in Drumfeld for the occasions on which he appeared in the village square, resplendent in top hat and waistcoat and brandishing a Derringer. His florid delinquencies contrasted with his enthusiasm for the student hearings by which discipline within Fochabers' was traditionally maintained. 'The Forum', introduced by the brothers Fochaber in order that students might resolve differences without resorting to name-calling and violence, had evolved over generations, assuming powers of chastisement and embellishing its procedures with quasi-masonic ritual. Sentences most commonly dispensed by the forum were a 'Dance with Alice McPhail' (a thrashing) 'The Black Spot' (or 'Order of Ostracism', recipients of which were shunned) and 'The Bonnet' (a grotesque leather hat, strapped to the head of those found guilty of excessive 'beastliness', Fochabers' terminology for self abuse.)

In August, 1923, fifteen year old Arthur Simcox was enrolled at Fochabers'. Simcox, whose family lived near Woking in Surrey, had failed to settle at three previous schools, establishing a pattern of delinquency that caused one headmaster to allude ominously (if non-specifically) to "moral turpitude". While traits considered reprehensible elsewhere were often encouraged at Fochabers', there was a direct correlation between the indulgence of transgressions and the culprit's popularity. That Simcox failed to endear himself to his new school-mates is evident from the recurrence of his name in the Forum records throughout the latter part of 1923. Between September and December, he was summoned on seven separate occasions on charges ranging from 'impudence' to 'gross beastliness' for which he was sentenced, on December the tenth, to wear the dreaded bonnet. Three days later, boys with whom Simcox shared a dormitory reported him missing to their house-master, Stewart Crawford.

It hardly seems credible that Fochabers' exhaustive records, crammed as they are with the minutiae of the school's day to day business, fail to expand on Simcox's disappearance*. The participation of Fochabers' boys in a police search of the countryside is recorded, though any reader stumbling over the excerpt without reference to preceding entries, would assume that the missing person was a stranger for whom the school had no real responsibility. "The Fochabers' party," it reports with barely subdued self-congratulation, "acquitted itself well despite torrid conditions." Attention is then focussed on preparation for the Christmas holidays. Local girls are bussed in for a dance. Treats are organised. Nobody seems remotely perturbed by Simcox's continued absence. The historian searches in vain for further allusions to his predicament: he disappears from the record as completely as he seems to have done from life. It is nearly thirty years, in fact, before the next reference to Arthur Simcox is to be found in the Fochabers' record.


The first recorded accounts of a haunting at Fochabers' appear in 1952. "Mieklejohn noticed a strange boy entering the locker room," reads an entry dated February the fifth. "On following him, he found the area empty." A week later a boy called Carruthers was alarmed by an "urgent commotion" emanating from behind one of the lockers. Carruthers' house-master, Alistair Stanley, called to investigate, reported that he struggled to open the locker's door and, on finally doing so, was simultaneously assailed by a hissed (but incoherent) rebuke and an overpowering stench. He also noticed an "unnatural chill". By March, phenomena within the locker room had become so frequent and pronounced that the area was declared out of bounds. By this time, unfortunately, Agnes Carr, a house-keeper reputed to be a witch, had attributed responsibility for the disturbances to the troubled spirit of Arthur Simcox, a claim given credence by the spontaneous appearance of the initials A.S. scratched into surfaces around the school. The 'ghost', now identified, was given license to roam.

Panic briefly escalated into hysteria when the residents of Simcox's former dormitory, already troubled by nocturnal rumbles, found a vole nailed to the exterior of the bedroom door. In an effort to appease Simcox's vengeful ghost, the Gods dragged Thomas Ellington, the school's most prominent scapegoat, into the locker room and confined him within the locker identified as the source of disruption by Stanley and Carruthers. Other boys, accused of being possessed by Simcox's spirit, were flogged or 'beasted', a punishment which involved being bound and submerged under the chill water of Drumfeld Burn. A fatality might have occurred were it not for the decision of rector, Gilbert Thompson, exhibiting unprecedented (and unrepeated) initiative, to improvise a Founders' Day holiday. As the boys were bussed around a succession of bothies and hostels, Thompson had the locker room exorcised and, with the assistance of Drumfeld police, conducted an investigation into recent events. By the time of the reprobates' return, three members of the school's auxilliary staff, including Agnes Carr were no longer in employment. Also absent was poor Arthur Simcox, who didn't reappear until 1976 when his presence co-incided with a glue-sniffing craze: his second incarnation was apparently forgotten as quickly as his first.** .

*Nearly eight years on, I can only guess that Simcox, goaded beyond endurance, simply made his way home. At that time, trains passed through Drumfeld to both Glasgow and Edinburgh from where escape to England would have been straightforward.

**On this occasion, the centre of supernatural activity had shifted from the locker room to one of the dormitories.

***A rumour, popular in Drumfeld, that the Glamis heir attended Fochabers' is almost certainly unfounded.