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."

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