Ghosting Scotland

My "Scooby Doo Vacation"
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 26 2007 4:27 PM

Ghosting Scotland

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Think what you want. I'm not here to convert you. Either you believe in ghosts or you don't, and if you don't—well, it's probably because you haven't seen one. They say the best believers are those who began as skeptics.

Take Bella Beck (not her real name; she asked that I not use it), a suitably matter-of-fact academic at the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies. The week before I flew to Scotland to look at ghosts—for reasons I'll get to in a moment—I'd e-mailed her to ask why, when casting around for haunted castles and houses to visit, I had 300 to choose from. Wasn't this excessive? Were there only 10—or even 100!—I'd have chalked it up to tourism. But 300 for a country roughly the size of Maine seemed to me revelatory. What does such a glut of supernatural sites mean?

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Bella didn't pretend to have an answer, but it happened that a couple of ghost authorities of her acquaintance were scheduled to be in town for a conference, so I arranged to meet them the morning after my arrival. Little did I know that Bella herself harbored a secret.

I would come to discover that in Scotland, ghosts are a lively subject. I'm new to the paranormal; restless dead people never struck me as any more interesting than living ones. Had I stopped to think about it, I suppose I would have couched myself as "charitably dubious"—I'd never seen a ghost, but I'm inclined to mistrust the impulse toward absolutism that would deny such a thing could happen.

My sudden curiosity had sprung from something much more of this world: a few passages in the recently published Household Gods, Deborah Cohen's fascinating history of Britain's infatuation with domestic interiors from the age of mass manufacture to modernism. As an editor at a home-décor magazine, I often think about houses and about how the way we decorate them exposes who we are and wish to be. But I'd never considered the role of the haunted house until I came across a sentence in Cohen's book that had first appeared in an 1897 home-décor magazine (the thriving "shelter category" has been around a lot longer than you might think): "To be the owner of a haunted house is, as all the world knows, the high ambition of everyone who has at last succeeded in establishing a name."

Cohen goes on to explain that at a time when a rapidly expanding middle class was channeling its anxieties into its domestic environs, which tended to be rented instead of owned outright, a ghost-ridden house attested to an enviable fixedness, as well as an impressive family lineage. The haunted house as a status symbol in Victorian Britain—that was interesting. For the first time, ghosts seemed worth thinking about. I wanted to see one.

And so it was that my friend Gillian and I found ourselves checking into the Borthwick Castle Hotel on the edge of a tiny town called North Middleton, 12 miles outside Edinburgh. Earlier this year, a research outfit called Ghost Finders Scotland—one of 1,400 paranormal investigative teams across the United Kingdom—trained its digital night-vision camcorders, infrared thermometers, dowsing rods, and assorted other investigative paraphernalia on the place, then posted (genuinely spooky) audio and visual footage on the Internet. When I spoke to Mark Turner, who founded GFS five years ago, he said that without a doubt the castle is haunted.

Borthwick is said to have two ghosts. The first is of a young medieval serving girl named Ann Grant, who had the misfortune of getting knocked up by one of the Borthwick lairds, who ordered her slashed across the stomach and left to die. Since then, she's often made her presence known in the "Red Room" on the third floor with sudden drops in temperature, scratch marks, loud cries and sobs, and the occasional slammed door on the fingers of a male guest. (She's understandably biased.)

The other ghost is none other than Mary, Queen of Scots, who, on June 11, 1567, disguised herself as a pageboy, jumped out a window, and fled the premises. (It's a complicated story, involving her wildly unpopular marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, murder, civil unrest, storming troops, etc.) But, apparently, scores of castles claim to host a Mary apparition, and as at least one ghost historian has asked, "If she was that well disguised, how could anyone be sure that this was not the phantom of a 'real' pageboy?"

Built by Sir William Borthwick in 1430, Borthwick Castle is modern by castle standards. In 1650, its occupants surrendered to Oliver Cromwell's forces, and the building intermittently sat empty until 1975, when it opened for business as a hotel. A tall, handsome hulk of a thing, in near-perfect condition, with walls that are 14-feet thick in some places, it towers over rolling green fields you'd assume went on forever if you didn't know the Scottish capital was so near.

In happy anticipation of a week of nonstop psychological terror, I'd requested the "Red Room," which turned out to be taken, so we unpacked our bags in the "Walnut Twin Bedchamber" directly beneath, me sulking about the downgrade, Gillian cheerfully indifferent. Gillian had already announced herself a nonbeliever. In New York, when I'd sketched out our ghost-hunting route—after Borthwick we'd go directly to Gourock, a little port town in the west, then meander up the coast to the storied Isle of Skye before wending our way down through Glencoe and back to Edinburgh—she'd rolled her eyes and scoffed at our "Scooby Doo Vacation."

Even so, it was Gillian, not me, who couldn't sleep that night. For dinner, we'd donned our finery and crept down the spiral stone staircase to the "great hall"—a cavernous room with vaulted ceilings so high that a 17th-century chronicler once claimed "a man on horseback could turn a spear in it with all the ease imaginable." All 11 guests (there are only nine bedrooms in the castle) were seated at a handful of nicely laid tables, silver candelabras gleaming against dark polished mahogany. We washed down a suitably castle-y feast—grilled Aberdeen Angus beef, roasted duck—with two kinds of whisky (a 16-year-old Lagavulin and 10-year-old Glenkinchie) and a bottle of Chilean cabernet, all of which, combined with the jet lag, proved more effective than a sleeping pill. By the time we'd returned to our unnervingly quiet stone-walled room, the black night like a thick blanket across the hills, I had no choice but to pass out.

But as I would learn the next morning, Gillian was having an altogether different experience.

Kate Bolick is a writer in New York. Her first book, a personal exploration of single women in America, will be published next year.