When I asked my guide, Charlie Hunter, about ghosts in Scotland, he assured me I’d come to the right place. “It’s all been murder and mayhem,” he said cheerfully.
Ghostly spirits are second only to the drinkable kind in the hearts of Highlanders like himself, he said, and an ancient house without a specter is as scarce as black heather. He paled only slightly when he learned he’d be sleeping in the haunted room in the Thainstone House Hotel, Inverurie, the second night of our three-day outing.
Like most moderns, I don’t really believe that the dead can come back to haunt the living. But if they do, Scotland is the likeliest place to witness it.
It’s nearly impossible to find a book about Scotland without mention of a ghost, and that’s what gave a theme to my visit.
Looking at the spooky side of Scotland seemed as valid as visiting formal gardens or following the Whiskey Trail, and maybe even more popular, judging from the tourist promotions.
I picked three country house hotels old enough to have their own otherworldly tales to tell, and well located for day trips to castles and other haunted sites in the Edinburgh area.
Charlie, who came highly recommended by the tourist office, met me at the Edinburgh airport. As we drove off in his car, I explained that my interest lay in sites, not sightings. He nodded encouragingly but had his own agenda in mind. “We hope to encounter a Green Lady or two,” he said. (I never did find out why ladies wandering the afterlife wore only green or gray.)
Charlie was visibly disappointed when the rare but famous “Weeping Lady in Green” failed to appear in the corridors of Crathes Castle (1553) in Aberdeenshire. Nor did the castle treasure, a bejeweled horn presented to Crathes forebear Robert the Bruce in 1323, console him. The weeping lady was a common sight for 200 years but has been scarce since 1900.
We spent time in the castle’s topiary garden, but the outdoor ghost of Crathes did not appear. She is Gray Lady Agnes, who poisoned her daughter-in-law-to-be and was banished by her son centuries ago. The ghost is well known to the gardeners, who say she is most likely still looking for the antidote.
Charlie transferred his hopes to the Green Lady of Fyvie Castle, who, it’s said, walks through the walls. In the late 16th century she supposedly was starved to death by her husband, Sir Alexander Seton, because she bore him only daughters. To our regret, she did not manifest.
Fyvie has another ghost we missed too: Annie, the daughter of Tifty the Miller, who was beaten to death by her brothers and father to keep her from her lover, Andrew the castle trumpeter. Perhaps it reflects her low status, but no one can describe the color of her dress. As for Andrew, for many years his phantom horn was heard whenever a Fyvie laird was about to die.
Stirling Castle’s Green Lady is said to have been a royal attendant who saved the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, when the draperies on her bed caught fire. Whenever the lady appears, disaster follows.
We did not go west as far as Oban, land of a centuries-old feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, but we stopped in a village nearby. Over lunch in a pub, Charlie told me about the Green Lady of Dunstaffnage Castle, who weeps before the death of a Campbell and hums with joy when a pleasant event occurs. “These are one and the same,” the publican said when he overheard us discussing the matter. He didn’t need to tell us he was a MacDonald.
So many Scottish country hotels were once country houses, it may be hard to find one more than 300 years old that is ghost-free. Not that this is bad for business. From the tourism brochures, I got the impression that having a ghost is a necessary amenity, like marmalade at breakfast.
I noted for future reference a few of the more colorful tales: On the grounds of Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, St. Boswells, a Gray Lady walks the chain bridge, eternally looking for her lover, a monk put to death by his abbot.
Dalhousie Castle Hotel, Bonnyrigg, boasts a Gray Lady, the laird’s mistress, who was imprisoned forever in a turret by the outraged wife.
In Shieldhill House Hotel near Biggar, the 17th century Gray Lady likes to stay in her own room whether or not it is also occupied by a registered guest.
Meldrum House Hotel in Oldmeldrum has a female spirit who gave a male guest an ice-cold kiss as recently as 1985.
Our first lodging was at Airth Castle Hotel, where the ruin of an old church and graveyard are just around the corner from the front door. Invisible children are said to play in the hallways of the hotel’s 14th century main building. Their nursemaid haunts three rooms. I was not told in advance that my room was next to one of the three, and so I slept soundly.
The same was my experience at Thainstone, though Charlie reported an odd coldness in his room.
My most serious expectations were saved for Glamis Castle, the home of Macbeth’s nemesis, Malcolm. Having felled Macbeth on the battlefield, Malcolm himself came to a bad end, murdered in the room that now contains the family china. When the bloody stain on the stone floor kept returning no matter how often scrubbed, the floor was boarded over. “ ‘Twas housewifely exasperation, no doubt,” opined Charlie. Maybe this tale influenced Shakespeare when, centuries later, he gave his fictional Lady Macbeth bloodied hands and the signature line, “Out, damned spot!”
About 500 years later, a real blueblood, Janet, Lady Glamis, was burned as a witch by King James V on a trumped-up charge. It is said she haunts the chapel at Glamis Castle and was seen as recently as five years ago.
Glamis also has a Haunted Chamber, a Hanged Man’s Chamber, a female vampire and a monster who walks the roof. The ghost of a page who froze to death in the 15th century has been seen in the Royal Apartments.
Glamis was the childhood home of today’s Queen Mother, and she apparently was not bothered by ghosts because she chose to give birth to Princess Margaret there.
Not all ghosts stick around as long as Lady Janet. One who vanished after her modern 15 minutes of fame was the “Black Lady of Broomhill” in Millheugh. She was dark-skinned, either an Indian princess or a servant, either married or mistress to a certain Capt. McNeil, whose death was attributed to “premature old age.” She caused fatal accidents so regularly that she was featured in an exorcism shown live on Scottish television, Charlie recalled. She hasn’t been seen since.
In Prestonfield House, a manor on the outskirts of Edinburgh recently turned into a hotel, a spectral horse-drawn carriage regularly comes up the great driveway in the wee hours and then disappears. Unfortunately, my room overlooked the golf course, and Charlie was staying overnight with his family. A groundskeeper showed us the marks of carriage wheels the next morning. Charlie was disappointed for me.
In Edinburgh, rowanberry trees are still grown to protect against witches, and organized Ghost Tours leave afternoons and evenings from the ancient Mercat Cross in Parliament Square. I joined one that led through a tenement passageway called Mary King’s Close. The inhabitants here were walled up to die during a plague lest they spread the disease. The actress who led the tour made their torment vivid with bloodcurdling screams.
I dined that evening at the Witchery, a restaurant near the spot where more than 300 alleged practitioners of the black arts were executed over the years, but only the chocolate desserts were properly sinful.
The closest I came to landing a ghost was at Huntingtower Castle. The favorite grim tale here was of yet another maiden falling to her death while escaping punishment for having a lover.
Neil Cowan, the caretaker, was sympathetic to Charlie’s failure to produce a ghost for me. He told me to take a picture of anyone coming through a nearby door. “Put the picture in a Bible for three weeks, and if there’s a ghost, ‘twill materialize next to the person.”
I did as told, and three months later the tourist I caught coming through the doorway was still smiling--and still alone in the picture.
I wrote Charlie about this, and he replied, “Doubtless the film should have been developed in Scotland.”
I never thought of that.
* Lodgings with tales of a ghostly past with prices that won’t spook you, L19.