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.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon

In 2006, a succession of visitors to Scotland's National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, reported sudden bouts of nausea and dizziness. Assistants noticed that the attacks all occurred in the vicinity of David Scougall's portrait of Robert Campbell, fifth Laird of Glenlyon*, best remembered as the captain of the regiment responsible for the slaughter at Glencoe. The suspicion that some previously unsuspected power inherent within the canvas had caused the spate of illnesses was compounded by the insistence of one stricken tourist that Campbell's ashen features had subsequently appeared at her bedside. A delegation from the Ghost Society's Verification Department, excitedly pronounced the area "haunted"**, most probably by the guilty spirit of the infamous laird. "He feels genuinely misunderstood," said Valerie Cuthbert, failing to explain how he thought associating himself with sudden illness might repair his damaged reputation. "He wants people to realise that he wasn't responsible for what happened at Glencoe."

Cuthbert is partially correct: a Captain of Foot on a salary of eight shillings a day, Campbell would doubtless argue that he was merely following orders issued far from the desolate glen, most likely in London. One can only admire the cynical genius by which responsibility was deflected onto such a plausible cat's paw as Campbell. The grandson of Mad Colin, a brain damaged psychopath who once hanged thirty-six Macdonald raiders, his youth was marred by the sporadic terror of retribution. In 1645, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, accompanied by MacNabs and MacGregors, were responsible for a murderous raid into the Campbell heartland of Breadalbane. The next year, they repeated their depredations, taking advantage of a wedding at which the most prominent Campbells and their allies had drunk themselves into a state of near incapacity. This, co-incidentally, was the condition in which Robert spent much of his adult life.

Typical of dissolute young men, shocked by the sudden realisation of middle-age, Campbell was fifty before he married. The next decade was punctuated by a succession of ignominies, each providing a red flag en route to the culminative horror at Glencoe. Having squandered his inheritance, he was compelled to lease Glen Lyon's fir woods to a company of lowland merchants. Prompted, perhaps, by the chastening spirits of his ancestors, he subsequently raided his tenants' mills, menacing their employees and stealing their equipment. Threatened with Letters of Fire and Sword, he was compelled to sign a bond, effectively ceding the management of his affairs to the Earls of Argyll and Caithness. The death of Argyll five years later released him from his obligation and he resumed his demented accumulation of debt, selling his family's assets until only Chesthill remained. This property, inherited from his wife, was raided by MacDonalds returning to Glencoe from the Jacobite triumph at Killiecrankie. In desperation, Campbell was reduced to reiving cattle from Strathfillan and, finally, accepting a commission in the regiment of the Argyll Regiment. At sixty years old, then, the Laird of Glen Lyon became a mere captain of Foot. His debasement was almost complete.

*Campbell stares self-consciously from Scougall's portrait as if anticipating the judgement of posterity. The artist does him few favours: the golden curls cascading on either side of his face create a sinister contrast to the singular irregularity of its features. The prissily compressed lips and flushed cheeks combine to indicate weakness, disippation and a capacity for cruelty. Even his dark armour creates the impression of some scuttling insect. Decades before Glencoe, Scougall sensed the imminence of Campbell's eternal disgrace.

** Museum assistants have suggested that the phenomena may have less to do with Campbell's ghost than chemicals used in a recent refurbishment.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Greyfriars Poltergeist

It's a regrettable fact of life that the soft faces and tender hearts of youth are doomed to bloat and harden. Few lives illustrate this process of decline as aptly as that of Sir George Mackenzie. A thoughtful prose stylist, MacKenzie's early works Aretina, A Moral Paradox and The Religious Stoic, all written when he was in his mid-twenties, indicate a sensitivity belied by the reputation to which he has been condemned by posterity. He is now, sadly, better remembered as 'Bluidy George', the Lord Advocate whose prosecution of Covenanters seems, even by the standards of the age, brutal and vindictive.

It's fitting, perhaps, that the MacKenzie mausoleum, in Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirkyard, is surrounded by Covenanters' graves. This might explain the evident bad-temper which, according to some accounts, has persisted more than three centuries after Sir George's death. Poltergeist activity in the churchyard, most virulent in the area around MacKenzie's tomb, has accounted for over 350 reported incidents since 1990. These psychic attacks are largely restricted to unexplained abrasions, though responsibility for the death of Edinburgh spiritualist Colin Grant, who suffered a heart attack weeks after attempting to perform an exorcism at the Mackenzie mausoleum, has also been attributed to Sir George.

It might be argued that MacKenzie's apparent irritation is justified: in 2004, teenagers were charged with the desecration of a grave after simulating sex acts with a skull found within his mausoleum. Organised ghost tours, meanwhile, cause a constant stream of visitors to trample over graves, video-cameras primed for the appearance of Sir George, for whom eternity must seem like a bedroom in the vicinity of a bothersome party. The scratches, bruises and hostile attention of unseen hands routinely reported by tourists seem a reasonable defence against this morbid and constant intrusion.

*Sir George's cruel streak might be explained by his descendency from the Seaforths, cursed to extinction by another MacKenzie - Kenneth, the Brahan Seer.

Sir George MacKenzie

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Devil in Drumfeld

In 1678, John Dalrymple, a farmer, driven beyond his tether by the impending marriage of his former sweetheart, Peggy Moffat, to Captain Neil MacKenzie, summoned the devil to intervene. No record exists of Dalrymple's response to Satan's appearance, but I imagine he might have been as surprised as anyone else present. According to local legend, the devil challenged Dalrymple and MacKenzie to dance for Moffat's affections. The pair danced for three days, Dalrymple with the honest but basic steps of a countryman and MacKenzie on the tips of his toes in the continental manner now familiar to students of 'traditional' Scottish dancing. As the third day drew to a close, MacKenzie, whose technique demanded greater effort than his rival's ponderous steps, suddenly expired in a ball of flame leaving Dalrymple to claim his prize. Unfortunately, the farmer's moment of triumph was brief. Physically and mentally depleted by his ordeal, he aged rapidly becoming a grey and stooped figure virtually overnight. Unable to maintain his farm, he ended his days wandering the forest bemoaning his lot in tedious detail to anyone he encountered. To this day, a meeting with John Dalrymple's ghost augurs ill. History doesn't record what became of Peggy Moffat, though the account of the incident in the Parish History insists that she emigrated. The devil, meanwhile, is alleged to have returned to wreak havoc in Drumfeld on three subsequent occasions, the last of which, in 1903 resulted in his being tarred, feathered and driven into the hills (some accounts suggest that this might have been a case of mistaken identity, the consequence of over-exuberant Ne'er Day celebrations.)

Modern minds, while giving credence to infinitely more fatuous theories, recoil from the notion of a literal Satan. While I remain undecided on that score, a lifetime spent peering into the abyss has established the incessant activity of malign influence to which each and every individual is vulnerable. Mass communications now ensure that the threat, whether from Beast or Idea, is greater than at any period in human history.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Brahan Seer

Born at Baile-na-cille on Lewis early in the seventeenth century, Coinneach Odhar (or Kenneth MacKenzie) was renowned from adolescence for prophecies gleaned from the contemplation of a small white stone. Various contradictory accounts survive of how Kenneth acquired this talisman. Most, however, involve him stumbling over it while working as a farm labourer in the vicinity of Loch Ussie. A story then recurs, with slight variations, that Kenneth, peering into the stone, was forewarned against a plot to murder him. Most accounts identify the wife of his employer as the thwarted malefactor, but the reader is left to ponder why she'd want to murder a menial employee in the first place. The matter of fact rendition of the affair by authors, writing for an audience better acquainted with Kenneth's reputation, seems to accept her antipathy toward him him as a matter of course.

While a tradition of crystal-gazing exists in many other cultures, Highland visionaries tended to be gifted (or afflicted) by the phenomena known as 'second sight'*. It's unclear if Kenneth possessed resources of his own, channeled through the stone, or was entirely dependent on its mysterious properties. He was undeniably prolific, though it's impossible to pass objective comment on the accuracy of his predictions. Some are startlingly specific, but most are so vague or couched in metaphor as to be meaningless. Sceptics would undoubtably attribute his apparent successes to luck, co-incidence or calculated anticipation. Within a century of Kenneth's death, a version of apocalypse was to be visited on the Highlands to which many of his gloomier references can be applied. The dire circumstances he foretold for several prominent local families were also vindicated: the downfall of MacKenzies, MacRaes and Ranalds was predicted with the barely subdued relish that eventually contributed to Kenneth's own doom.

According to one version of events, the seer was consulted by Lady Seaforth about the whereabouts of her missing husband and infuriated her by a gleeful allusion to his infidelity; another insists that he was overheard indulging in mere gossip. All accounts, however, concur that Lady Seaforth, not the first woman, it should be remembered, to consider him obnoxious, ordered his execution. The modern reader will doubtless remark that the stone, so eager to reveal the fate of Kenneth's neighbours, might have been more diligent in alerting him to the possible consequences of his insolence. He had little time to enjoy this inescapable irony. Peering balefully into the stone for a final time, he pronounced a curse against the Seaforths before being taken to Fortrose where he was confined within a tar-barrel and incinerated.**

* In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Society for Psychical Research conducted an investigation in the phenomena of second sight. In our more prosaic age, its symptoms would more likely attract the attention of psychiatric nurses.

**According to Kenneth's prophecy, when the neighbouring Lairds of Gairloch, Chisholm, Grant and Raasay were, respectively, buck-toothed, hare-lipped, half-witted and a stammerer the extinction of the Seaforth line would be imminent. This valedictory prediction was vindicated on the 11th of January, 1815 when the final Lord Seaforth died having, tragically, survived four sons.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

On Mediumship

Last week I was informed that Muriel has been studying the 'career' of Callander medium, Helen Duncan, with a view to preparing a retrospective defence against her 1944 prosecution under the Witch-craft Act. Guided by the promptings of their history teacher, Megan Perry, the class has unanimously concluded that Duncan was the victim of prejudice and should be posthumously exonerated. A project borne of stupidity, then, lumbers inexorably toward a fat-headed conclusion. Many readers, I'm sure, will be familiar with the mythology of Duncan's prosecution. It's widely assumed that she was tried after inadvertently jeopardising national security by materialising the spirit of a sailor from H.M.S. Barham before the ship's destruction was common knowledge. This, in fact, occurred three years earlier in 1941. Duncan was actually charged with Vagrancy, Larceny and 'falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons.' Section Four of the Witchcraft Act WAS cited in her prosecution, but by the 20th Century, this was almost exclusively used against imposters. Nobody involved in Duncan's prosecution believed in her ability to materialise the dead. Portsmouth's chief of police went so far as to dismiss her as "an unmitigated humbug and a pest." It wasn't suspicion of witch-craft that appalled the authorities but the brazen cynicism with which they considered her to have exploited the bereaved.

With hindsight, the most astonishing aspect of the Duncan case isn't the 'draconian' manner in which she was eventually punished but the indulgence with which she was allowed to persist in her deceptions. More than ten years earlier, in 1931, Harry Price, the great researcher of psychic phenomena, was invited by Helen and her husband to assess one of her seances. While Price expressed incredulity at the performance's conclusion, his disbelief was prompted by the ineptitude with which they'd attempted to bamboozle him. Offended by their affrontery, he set about demolishing their credibility by establishing the presence of puppets, photographs and, in particular, yards of cheesecloth which Duncan regurgitated to create the illusion of ectoplasm. Two years later, at a sitting in Edinburgh, a suspicious client seized one of Duncan's 'apparitions' revealing it to be a stockinette undervest. Price, who attended the subsequent trial, commented on the "credulity bordering on imbecility" exhibited by witnesses for the defence. Despite their gullibility, Duncan was found guilty of fraudulent mediumship, charged £10 and sentenced to a month's imprisonment.

Having, at various stages of my career, come into contact with mediums of varying levels of competence, I felt compelled to contact Ms Perry in order that someone might a) represent the innumerable victims of fake mediums and b) discourage any of Muriel's classmates tempted to dabble in the their preposterous but potentially catastrophic 'art'. "I'd have thought that you of all people would have been more tolerant," said Ms Perry before dismissing my offer on the grounds that I've not been cleared to enter the school premises by Disclosure Scotland. The fact that I already possess separate disclosures to teach Cung Coe and conduct tours in Drumfeld Museum cut no ice. "I'm sorry, but I can't possibly invite you into the school."

This resistance to my well meaning intervention was, sadly, entirely predictable. Most of the teachers charged with instilling good sense and order have, in every significant aspect, failed to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Desperate to be liked, they pander to their charges, eagerly responding to contemptuous nicknames and affecting an interest in sci-fi and pop groups. The board of Drumfeld High, meanwhile, has repeatedly rejected my offer to oversee a mentorship programme or deliver a series of lectures while headmaster, Richard Bryant, thinks nothing of publicly referring to me as a 'nut-job'. My niece's evolution toward truculent nonentity is evidence of their incompetence. While Muriel might not be especially 'gifted' in any respect, her curiousity was indicative of an enhanced sensibility which might, at some stage, have resulted in a career in one of the forensic sciences. For years, in fact, members of the family referred to her as 'Hamilton's assistant', a joke that, admittedly, became wearing (Muriel wasn't qualified to be my assistant). She displayed, however, a serious interest in my work which, allowed to develop, could have resulted in some kind of apprenticeship. After two years in secondary school, unfortunately, Muriel has become less interested in investigative technique than hanging round Drumfeld Churchyard, smoking cigarettes and presenting vicious lampoons of her former mentor for the amusement of her idiotic new cronies. (Last year, I inadvertently stumbled upon one of these performances while studying the gravestones of Covenanters for which the churchyard is, rightly, renowned. If anyone was guilty of ‘spying' on that occasion, incidentally, it was Shaun Magennis who had no business clambering over the Farquharson Memorial in the first place.)

I'm not a natural sceptic. The evidence of my own (psychically enhanced) senses has been sufficient to bolster my conviction in worlds beyond our ken. It would be fat-headed to attribute rules and boundaries to kingdoms whose very existence defies logic. I'm in thrall to no dogma beyond a belief that the sphere of consciousness that bubbles chaotically between our ears persists and, at some stage, escapes its current limitations. Spencer, irritated by any reference to an afterlife (a predictable prejudice in someone raised to expect the harsh judgement of a Calvinist God) responds to any attempted dialogue on the topic by scoffing, "Oh, God, Hamilton's doing that creepy religious thing again!" As far as he's concerned, any notion of emerging from death is borne of fear, gullibility and convention. There's every possibility, of course, that he might be right: a universal inability to come to terms with the concept of oblivion may have caused the human race to seek consolation in innumerable alternatives to the void. As a child, I remember glum, sleepless nights struggling to imagine myself ceasing to exist. More than thirty years on, this horror persists to the extent that the Hamilton Coe Foundation has frozen samples of my blood, mucous, hair and toe nail clippings in order that, should such developments materialise, scientists of the future will be able to summon my holographic equivalent. I'm reassured by the notion that one day visitors to exhibitions devoted to Drumfeld past might be greeted by a cheery, "Hello, everyone! I'm the ghost of Hamilton Coe! Welcome to my world!" (A nightmare scenario, in which I'm reconstructed as a dull-eyed, soulless husk, set to menial tasks and taunted by tourists is too grim to contemplate.)

Helen Duncan materialises a 'spirit'

Ballechin House, near Dunkeld

Built in 1806, Ballechin's reputation as a haunted house* followed the death of its owner, Major Robert Steuart, in 1876. Most histories of the haunting refer to Steuart by his posthumously accorded nickname, "the Wicked Major", though his depredations seem to have been limited to a clandestine affair with a housekeeper and a compulsion to fill his home with dogs. Semi-invalid by the time of his tenancy at Ballechin, he had formerly served in India where he developed a belief in transmigration. As he hirpled laboriously around the great house, he frequently repeated the desire that one of the dogs should inherit his spirit. Relatives, to whom, presumably, the Major had failed to endear himself while human, thwarted this ambition by ordering a canine cull within hours of his death. Not surprisingly, among the first supernatural phenomena reported in the house was the pungent odour of dogs. Aural manifestations followed, including the Major's limping gait, knocks and the sound of voices quarrelling. Visitors to the house complained of a presence in their rooms, some claiming that their bed-clothes had been violently removed by unseen hands. While sceptics suggested the phenomena had less to do with the Major's ghost than the building's irregular construction, the manifestations became so pronounced that, in 1883, an annexe was built for the security of the family children.

In 1897, Ballechin's notoriety was such that the Society for Psychical Research, backed financially by Lord Bute, rented the property for three months with the intention of conducting an investigation. The research team comprised Ada Goodrich Freer (the Irene Adler of the spiritualist craze), Constance Moore and Colonel G.L. Le Mesurier Taylor who negotiated the let with the Steuarts, apparently assuring them that the house was intended as a base for a fishing holiday. Forty or so independent witnesses were also invited to stay in the house for periods of one to three nights. The results were inconclusive: Freer and Moore both reported sightings of nuns, identified after consultation with a ouija board as 'Ishbel' and 'Marget' (though Moore's testimony was tainted by the suspicion that she might have been unduly influenced by her famously strong-willed friend.) Some of the other 'investigators' left accounts of minor disturbances, but nothing that couldn't be attributed to nerves, subliminal suggestion or natural shifts in the fabric of the house. Most tellingly, perhaps, Taylor, a member of the S.P.R. and the London Spiritualist Alliance, who eagerly based himself in the most haunted of the house's bedrooms, conceded that he witnessed nothing of significance. Those hostile to the S.P.R. dismissed the entire expedition as a morbidly themed jolly: the Steuarts were particularly aggrieved by the realisation that they'd been duped into letting their home for the purpose of a ghost hunt.

In the aftermath of the anti-climactic investigation, J. Callendar Ross, a visitor to Ballechin while the S.P.R. representatives were in residence, published an unsigned record of his own observations in the Times. Many of the participants, most of whom were society affiliates, seemed, in his opinion, eager to attribute supernatural causes to the most mundane events. Any reported 'sightings', he suggested, could be attributed to Ada Goodrich Freer's ability to manipulate suggestible witnesses who invariably went to bed already scared witless by the prospect of an encounter with 'the Wicked Major'. Ross's account prompted further public criticism from Sir James Crichton Brown (who had accompanied him on his visit to Ballechin) and former residents of Ballechin (both staff and family) all of whom denied that the house was haunted.

Capitulating in the face of what seemed a co-ordinated assault, Frederic Myers, the Honorary Secretary of the S.P.R., wrote to the Times claiming that the investigation's detractors were merely reiterating his own conclusions. Ada Goodrich Freer, stung by the realisation that she had been identified as a scapegoat for the debacle, turned on her former colleagues. 'The Haunting of B____ House' the account of the investigation that she co-authored with its sponsor Lord Bute, features excerpts from Myers' correspondence which suggest that his enthusiasm for the project was as great as her own. Both Freer and Lord Bute clearly believed that Ballechin House's reputation was justified. Their investigation, unfortunately, was fatally compromised by an absence of objectivity on the part of its main participants and an evident power struggle within the S.P.R.**

Lord Bute and Ada Goodrich Freer

*Ballechin House was demolished in 1963.

**Freer also appears to have been angered by the inolvement of Iris Jessica Chaston, the owner of a small nursing home in London and ostensibly a "medium" (her status remains confined within barbed inverted commas throughout Freer's account), who accompanied Myers to Ballechin. Freer's frank incredulity seems justified: no other record exists of Chaston's mediumship and her intuitions at Ballechin were easily contradicted (the death by suicide, for example, of a Steuart family member who was still, happily, alive.)

The reason for Chaston's unwelcome presence remains a mystery, though Freer's antipathy probably reflected the realisation that her own credibility had been undermined. Prior to the Ballechin investigation, she had embarked on three expeditions to the Western Ises (again sponsored by Lord Bute) to study the phenomena of second sight. Unable to communicate with the Gaelic speaking islanders, she had depended entirely upon the research of local priest, Father Allan MacDonald, much of whose work she blithely passed off as her own. While this casual plagiarism might have escaped the notice of her peers, her treatment of Lady Burton, widow of Sir Richard, the African explorer, made her an object of contempt. Claiming to have received messages from Burton by means of automatic writing, Freer informed his widow that she had been asked to serve as a conduit between them. Securing an audience, she claimed to have received further messages through which Burton encouraged his wife to employ Freer as a secretary. This eventuality was prevented by Lady Burton's death in 1896 (her fragility had rendered the attempted exploitation all the more objectionable) but Freer still contrived to profit from the encounter through an article in the spiritualist journal Borderland which prompted the intervention of the Burton family lawyers.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Ronald Hawthorne's Investigation Into Internet Hauntings

It would be an overstatement to suggest that poltergeist activity has become a significant on-line menace. Most social-networking sites and independent safety watch-dogs are, quite rightly, preoccupied with the dangers presented by sexual predators, con-men and bullies. It's interesting, though, that in the wake of the Caroline Haan affair described in my last post ('Facebook') administrators of both Facebook and MySpace confessed to having consulted exorcists (though I'm not sure if the ritual was actually performed or, indeed, how.) Nearly every aspect of the Haan phenomena, of course, might be attributed to pranksters. While decent people find it inconceivable that anyone would assume the identity of a recently deceased friend with no purpose other than to frighten mutual acquaintances, the seasoned investigator recognises that human malignancy is often most pronounced in trivial endeavours. I've not entirely abandoned my initial suspicion that human agents were responsible, but various factors continue to confound me. The inability to trace the source of Haan's messages is the most significant of these but equally troubling is the gradual decomposition apparent in her icon pictures and the co-incidental misfortunes endured by those 'befriended' by her.

Astonishingly, the most worthwhile study into haunted websites has been conducted by 'celebrity' psychic, Ronald Hawthorne. As regular readers might recall, I've little time for Hawthorne's antics. Banished from the salons of Mayfair after being identified as a persistent source of gossip column fodder, he was reduced to trawling crime scenes, a vocation for which he had neither the sight nor the stomach . His technique never varied. On arrival, having attracted sufficient attention, he would sink to his knees, never missing his strategically placed towel, clutch his temples and softly gibber while his 'personal physician' took notes. These performances invariably conluded with Hawthorne, completely overwhelmed, screaming and gnawing on his trademark beret. Eventually rendered housebound by the accumulative effects of trauma and disgrace, he devoted himself to the investigation that might yet rescue his reputation from the peculiarly British purgatory reserved for spivs and poltroons.

Hawthorne has identified seven hundred and fifty six instances of what he refers to as "inexplicable phenomena", mainly websites or messages without a logical source. He considers fifty seven of these "potentially harmful" and twenty-three "unequivocally malign". Of the latter, he is particularly concerned by the circulation of an unidentified picture unsuspecting recipients of which, he fears, "are in grave danger." Several paintings exist with evil reputations, but I have a hunch that he's referring to Oswald Perrin's 'Hilary'. It's unfashionable to advocate the destruction of art-works, but nothing produced in a malevolent spirit can do anything other than replicate that ill-feeling in others. Perrin's apparently unremarkable portrait of his sister has been associated with illness, suicide and murder. One former owner reportedly suffered a seizure after the subject of the picture suddenly raised her head and stepped toward him. Others claim that Perrin himself lurks somewhere in the painting's periphery. The original was destroyed in a house fire in Dublin in 1970 and, while prints are rare, I know of several that remain in circulation. Without wishing to cause undue panic, I'd strongly recommend that anyone receiving such a picture (or, indeed, anything else that causes them instinctive unease) delete it immediately.


The Trossachs town of Aberfoyle is best known as the parish of Robert Kirk, author of the Faery Commonwealth. In 1692, Kirk's body was found on Doon Hill, the sinister wooded mound that looms to the south of the town, where he was in the habit of taking his daily walk. His grave can still be seen in Aberfoyle's old church-yard but legend persists that the body interred was that of a changeling: the real Kirk was abducted by fairies* and forced into servitude as a punishment for disclosing their secrets. In 1763, local witch, Margaret Stewart, predicted that, "the hill will open and Kirk will emerge, but woe betide all who encounter him!"

The natural apprehension with which the people of Aberfoyle have awaited their minister's return might explain their occasional hostility toward visitors. In 1986, Brian McVicar, a thirty year old Glaswegian en route to a 'Vicars and Tarts' party, stopped to ask for directions. Locals, incensed by the unexpected appearance of a puritan in their midst, pursued Brian along the town's main street, where he sought sanctuary in the Woollen Mill. Staff, initially sympathetic, locked the doors against the mob but panicked when apprised of the fugitive's suspected identity. Brian was forced to barricade himself inside the store's toilet from where he was eventually rescued by police summoned from Stirling by concerned tourists.

*Scottish fairies, malign and equipped with a low cunning, were known for switching human children for their own dotards. These "changelings", wizened and ill-tempered, could be identified by their disproportionately large teeth and a talent for dancing. Parents who suspected they had inherited a changeling were encouraged to leave the child on a mountainside or throw him into the nearest river. For generations, unprepossessing children in rural Scotland .risked being denounced as "fairies" by their relatives and abandoned to the elements.

Glamis Castle

Situated in Forfarshire, some twenty miles to the north of Dundee, Glamis Castle is the seat of the Earls of Strathmore. Reputedly the scene of Duncan's murder by MacBeth in 1040, the oldest part of the current building can be dated to the latter part of the fourteenth century. The secret chambers for which the Castle is renowned were a relatively recent addition, their creation in the late seventeenth century a precautionary measure by Patrick Lyon, first Earl of Strathmore, whose Jacobite sympathies rendered him vulnerable to the antipathy of the House of Orange. The notion of a 'house within a house' has subsequently excited the popular imagination and various theories have been extended as to what might dwell therein.

The Castle was already famously haunted by the mid-eighteenth century when Sir Walter Scott spent an uncomfortable evening in one of its bedrooms. At that time, its most celebrated ghosts were these of the second Lord Glamis (the hirsute degenerate popularly known as 'Earl Beardie') and Janet Douglas, wife (and suspected poisoner) of the sixth Lord who eventually encountered come-uppance in 1537 when she was burned to death after being implicated in a plot to assassinate James V. These traditional terrors have been largely superseded, however, by the genuine mystery of the Strathmore family secret, speculation about which intensified in 1923 when the daughter of the fouteenth Earl, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the late Queen Mother), married into the Royal Family.

According to family tradition, the secret is known to three people: the Earl, his factor and his heir, the last of these inheriting the knowledge on the eve of his twenty-first birthday. Successive Earls were reportedly traumatised by the disclosure which is widely assumed to involve a monstrous heir*, born to the Earl's wife in the early years of the nineteenth century. Legend persists that the child was hidden in one of Patrick Lyons's concealed apartments in the expectation that he would die in infancy, an assumption confounded as he thrived, by some accounts living well into the twentieth century. For most young men, a twenty-first birthday is remarkable for nothing more grisly than a hangover: the sudden collapse of nerve repeated throughout the Strathmore lineage might be explained these unexpected introductions to 'Uncle Angus'. .

Celebrity psychic (and numbskull), Ronald Hawthorne, who visited Glamis in the company of Princess Margaret in 1979, claims to have been guided around the castle's hidden corridors. By this time, the rightful Earl was, presumably, dead and spared an encounter that would have caused him to reflect gratefully on a lifetime's seclusion. Weeks later, Hawthorne was bundled into a van and subjected to a prolonged ordeal which culminated in his being dangled by the ankles from Tower Bridge. "You don't fall out with the Firm," he wailed, a dire inference that the Queen Mother had arranged for him to be cautioned against repeating the indescretions on which he'd been eating out since his return from Scotland.

*By one account, an ovoid, neckless freak, covered in matted hair with tiny limbs dangling uselessly from its terrible bulk. This seems an improbable conjecture: such a hideously helpless creature would have been despatched without compunction.

**The existence and even location of these 'secret' tunnels is actually well documented, a Book of Record of their construction being discovered and published by the Scottish Historical Society in 1890.

Stragglers on the Great Beast Way

Nobody who frequents Drumfeld High St can be oblivious to the impending third anniversary of Lochside Crystals. Illegally posted fliers anticipating the event have defaced the town sonce January. "Three years?" scoffed Spencer who has whole-heartedly detested the store's proprietor, Malcolm Cooper, since he publicly corrected his pronunciation of 'Brion Gysin'. "Mackenzie and Whyte have been there since 1860 and they're not making a song and dance about it." While it's true that Cooper has rarely been reticent about trumpeting the most meagre of accomplishments, it could be argued that convincing the lonely and unfulfilled of Central Scotland that salvation might lie in the worship of brightly coloured stones is an achievement in itself. "Mackenzie and Whyte might have dressed the gentry;" I reminded Spencer, "But Cooper has persuaded a generation to invest its faith in chuckies." Since the store's recent extension, clients whose problems have proven resistant to the contemplation of crystals can be ritually thrashed with rattan canes or isolated within slime filled tubs. Spencer was particularly irritated by the Examiner's uncritical assessment of Lochside Crystals new facilities. "That's just wrong," he spluttered, prodding Cooper's photograph with a saffron stained forefinger. "I'm glad I broke his nose!" (This isn't actually true. Spencer often inflicts retrospective wounds on those who have somehow offended him. Their brief, undignified altercation didn't so much bring to mind Hearns vs Hagler as two discarded bags being tossed about a gusty lane. The wistful smile that accompanied his false recollection convinced me against correcting his version of events.)

Rather than be rebuked for tormenting the desolate with false encouragement, Cooper was recently nominated for Drumfeld's Man of the Year award and invited to address pupils of Drumfeld High School on the subject of 'responsible entrepreneurism'. This, it should be noted, is the same 'responsible entrepreneur' whose previous ventures include Highland Fling, a service for 'swingers'* that resulted in public indecency charges and the ill-fated Great Beast Way, a fat-headed tribute to Aleister Crowley, more of which shortly. I'm frankly dismayed by the prospect of him being presented to the youth of Drumfeld as anything other than an example of gormlessness and preening self-regard.

I've not spoken to Cooper since I caught him in the act of chalking the words 'Acid is Groovy' onto my bedroom door (his parents' indifference, incidentally, to the revelation that their son was a vandal and a drug abuser augured ill for his future.) Weeks later, he'd committed the Gysin gaffe and been banished from the House of Coe. By the time of the Great Beast debacle, several years later, my investigations revealed him to be an aspiring magician, albeit one lacking the focus or primal energy required to operate successfully. His technique was largely limited to absorbing subliminal messages from cassettes and saying 'thee' instead of 'you' when attempting to attract sexual partners by the application of magic(k). When he somehow acquired a hunting lodge near Loch Ness (where, incidentally, Crowley is still remembered without affection for strutting around, brandishing his swagger stick at locals and threatening to turn tradesmen into camels) he immediately embarked upon the scheme which the most generous assessment might describe as 'hare brained'. Despite objections from local councillors, he established a series of walking trails around the Loch's southern shores, each route identified by markers bearing Crowley's malign silhouette. Within months the area had been deluged by unsavoury ramblers, some of whom caused disruption by experimentally summoning entities. "Do what thou wilt," is all very well until we encounter someone who does. Copperthwaite became a victim of his own stupidity when an ill-judged piece of sexual magic(k) caused his dreadlocks to fall out.

* Swinger: a euphemism for individuals who indulge in a succession of unsatisfactory sexual escapades, occasionally disrupted by the encroachment of dog walkers.