Ghosting Scotland

The Ghost Who Walks
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 1 2007 10:08 AM

Ghosting Scotland

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We could see a little drawing of Knock Castle on our map of the Isle of Skye, but for the life of us couldn't find the real deal. First we drove too far north, then too far south—which wasn't an entirely bad thing, actually. A 45-minute ferry ride from Oban, this sparsely populated portion of the Hebrides—at 639 square miles, it's the second-largest of Scotland's islands, nearly twice the size of Cape Cod—was by far the most gorgeous segment of our trip. Sea, sky, sea, sky. That's it. Eventually, we stopped at an inn to ask directions, and even then the location made no sense. Tentatively, we nosed our little rental car down a long pitted road and pulled up before a tiny tumbledown house on the edge of the Atlantic.

"Are ye looking for the castle?" asked a small bald man in a sweater.

We nodded yes.

"Park right here!" he cried. In his hand he held a bottle poorly concealed by a plastic bag. On the hill behind him a pile of beautiful ruins loomed against a perfect blue sky.

There are many varieties of apparitions, but the two most common are the ghost and the specter. The ghost makes itself known by a change in air temperature or a vague sensation, but it won't engage you. One way of understanding it is as a recording of a past event on eternal repeat. A specter, however, is highly interactive. When you ask it a question, it will reply. Then there are poltergeists, high-energy spirits that move objects around and really make their presence felt. They're often compared to adolescents.

On the margins of all this activity are the multitudes of spritelike phantasmagoria native to Britain, such as the gruagach, Gaelic for a type of fairylike ghost, as well as the glaistig, a protector of livestock, both of which are said to haunt Knock Castle. Also known as Caisteal Camus, the fortress was built by the MacLeods in the 15th century, overtaken by the MacDonalds when they came to control the island, and eventually abandoned in 1689. What's left looks much older than 300 years.

We got out and introduced ourselves to Willie. First, he wouldn't stop talking. Then he offered to take us on a guided tour of the rounded, sheep-dotted hill looming up over the sea, shards of castle perched atop. I felt nervous; the day was waning. But how could we possibly refuse? It's his back yard. After he dashed inside to refill his bottle, the three of us tromped up the hillside, Willie stopping every 10 or 11 feet to call out to his dog, Annie-pants, or point out a particularly interesting rock, annoying me to no end. I dislike interruptions so much that I don't even like it when people interrupt themselves.

Soon enough, we had reached the top and stood inside what was left of the castle walls. The ocean and the sky extended all around us, filling every crevice. It's said that the highlander believes the past is as real as the present—a Chekhovian condition I suffer from as well. Every Scot I'd met so far had his own ghost story to tell, but none, I was beginning to realize, were as free-spirited and knowledgeable as Willie, nor as seemingly impervious to time or logic. He proudly toured us through the ruins as if he owned them, which in a way he does, urging us to sit on "the king and queen's seat" and poke our heads through the window to better take in the ocean beyond.

The White Lady, he confided, often appeared on the hill. "I should charge her rent!" he joked. Gillian furtively eyed his liter of cider, but I decided to believe him. I suppose this was irresponsible—the man clearly had a problem. But the rush of pride and shyness that overcame him as he described her visits was sweet. If he hadn't actually seen the White Lady, he certainly felt as if he had. He said that when something good is going to happen, she laughs, and when something bad is forthcoming, she cries. She appears not as a vision, but as an imprint on his mind. The fairies, he added, don't look him in the eye.

We stayed up on the hill for a long time, clambered across the rocks for a while, and got caught in a flash rainstorm. Afterward, Willie invited us into his little house and disappeared into the kitchen "to find us a gift." When he returned, he was pressing two white seashells playfully to his chest, mermaid-style, one for each of us.

On our way out of Skye two days later, we stopped in at our one and only celebrity castle: Eilean Donan, the most photographed castle in the world. Big, majestic, highly photogenic—it appears in Highlander and in a James Bond film—it has the air of a beautiful woman too accustomed to being looked at. Indeed, the place was crawling with sightseers, crowding the narrow bridge and filling the small, low-ceilinged rooms. Gillian opted out entirely, choosing to wait for me in the coffee shop while I joined the madding crowds. There's some talk of ghosts there—Spanish soldiers, I think—but it feels impossible, falling in step with your fellow tourists, to think of any real life, dead or alive, happening there at all.

Kate Bolick, formerly executive editor of the late Domino magazine, is a writer in New York.