Ghosting Scotland

A Truly Terrifying Haunted Room
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 2 2007 11:34 AM

Ghosting Scotland

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"I must own that when the door was shut I began to consider myself as too far from the living and somewhat too near the dead." —Sir Walter Scott

Status-wise, ghosts fall into two classes: Victorian ghosts, generally the apparitions of former residents who refuse to leave when the lease runs out, and Gothic ones, the brutally murdered lords and ladies that hang around castles from one generation to the next with the stubborn persistence of a family secret. To close our trip, we hit both ends of the spectrum back-to-back.

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The pub at the Drovers Inn, in Inverarnan, is the sort of place where the ashes of deceased regulars are kept on a shelf. It's been in operation since 1705 and caters mostly to the climbers that roam the surrounding hills; Inverarnan is big trekking country. I'm not sure why this is, but the foyer is crowded with taxidermy—stuffed bears and birds, mounted deer heads. In America, I suspect it would look hokey and rather Disney, but it works here. Perhaps because the place feels so weathered and rough around the edges. You don't get the impression that they go in much for affect.

When Gillian and I arrived late on the afternoon of our penultimate day in Scotland, after a long slog of driving, we had every intention of grabbing a quick bite before heading back outside for a hike, but as a barfly observed about five hours later, we just sat down and never left. Next to our table were two small ceramic jugs containing the remains of Hector McDonald and George Cumbe.

Eventually, after a plate of fish and chips, bread pudding, and several too many glasses of whisky (it's important, while in Scotland, to taste test as many as possible), I left Gillian at the bar to walk upstairs to our room and turn in early—and then I raced right back down again.

"Gillian."

"Kate! You're back! I thought you went to bed!"

"Gillian. I cannot be alone in that room. It is terrifying. Please come with me."

"Kate! Don't be crazy. You'll be fine. I'll be there soon."

At this point, the bartender—a strapping Australian in a kilt—leaned in. "Scared, are ya? I know what you mean. I've been in that haunted room."

Finally, I'd been able to secure a room that actually felt haunted­—the very purpose of my trip!—and I was ruing it.

"It's that girl," the bartender explained. "The one in the picture."

On the wall facing the bed, there is an old black-and-white portrait of a round-faced child. She is sitting on a cushioned settee—tiny legs stretched straight out before her—with her left hand petting an especially feral-looking dog. It is a terrifying picture.

"That girl is the ghost," he said. "When her family was staying here she got smallpox and died in the room."

"Gillian!" I said. Imploringly.

She shook her head. I had no choice but to pull up a chair and continue on with the taste testing. But here's the weird thing: When we finally found our way back to our room, many hours later, I dreamt the most disturbingly vivid dreams, in which dead people from my past whom I hadn't thought about in years appeared to me clear as could be. Shouldn't this count as a kind of haunting?

I'm sure you can imagine how, after seven days of virtually nonstop driving, an overabundance of fried fish and whisky, and a few too many fitful nights of sleep, the prospect of Dalhousie Castle loomed like a refuge. Excuse me: Dalhousie Castle and Aqueous Spa. This time, we'd be rubbing shoulders with high-end luxury ghosts. At the very least, I'd be able to conclude my survey of Castle Chic (see the accompanying slide shows).

A fine-looking fortress on the banks of the river Esk, a few miles south of Edinburgh, Dalhousie Castle is the 13th-century ancestral home of the Ramsay family. In the 16th century, one of the Ramsay wives discovered that her husband was fooling around with a Lady Catherine and had her imprisoned and starved to death in one of the upstairs chambers. Andrew Sharp, the castle steward and pipe sergeant, wrote in a flyer that he's seen the "Grey Lady" (so called because of her dress) rustling up and down the stairs. "It appears she does not like the bag pipe music," he adds. "When seen by me, the bag pipes fail to play a sweet tune." In spite of this, it's a popular site for weddings.

In their promotional literature, the present-day proprietors like to make much of the fact that, in medieval times, their castle was a very stressful place to be—yet now it's a house of extreme relaxation! I can't deny them this; I shuffled down to the spa and received a perfectly serviceable massage. And our four-course dinner in the high-ceiling dungeon was an instance of some extremely fine dining. But I felt altogether too close to the living and not near enough the dead.

Why should it matter? I'll leave that to 19th-century folklorist Hugh Miller, who had this to say about standing next to a corpse:

By what process of thought can we bring experience to bear on the world of the dead? It lies entirely beyond us, — a terra incognita of cloud and darkness; and yet the thing at our side, — the thing over which we can stretch our hand, — the thing dead to us, but living to it, — has entered upon it; and, however uninformed or ignorant before, knows more of its dark, and to us inscrutable mysteries, than all our philosophers and all our divines.

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