Hello. My name is Hilary, and I am not great with scary or spooky stuff at all, to the extent that I’m unable to watch horror films, and once punched my friend while watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because the scene with the clown boggart made me jump. If you’re reading this, sorry, Claire.
So when I was invited to tour an allegedly haunted 15th-century castle in Dumfries and Galloway, then spend the night in a room where weird ghost shit has gone down, I said “hell, no”. Then I realised it might be a good opportunity to find out why I’m such a scaredy-cat, so I changed my answer to a reluctant yes.
I didn’t actually think for a second that I’d experience anything inexplicable or ghostly, but I did. If I’d known, I definitely wouldn’t have gone. Or, at the very least, I’d have packed some holy water*.
Comlongon Castle near Dumfries is made up of two parts: a Game of Thrones-y 15th-century tower house that looks like it should have a dragon aviary on the roof, and a 19th-century wing that used to be a Barnardo’s home for preschool-age evacuees during the war. It also features some snazzy suits of armour and more spooky portraits than you can shake a stick at.
Ghosts have been spotted in the tower house, and some have even been caught on film. One photograph shows a cloud of mist in front of the fireplace that’s said to be the ghost of Lady Marion Carruthers, who fell from one of the castle windows in mysterious circumstances in 1570. She’s also known as the Green Lady.
Over the years, staff have also heard children laughing, the sound of footsteps, and people called Hilary yelling, “Why did I agree to do this? Why?”
I was told all of these chilling facts (well, not the one about people called Hilary) by Kathleen and James, who invited me to the castle and run a ghost tour and investigations group called Mostly Ghostly with two other volunteers.
They both have a huge amount of passion, and – in Kathleen’s case – an amazing mane of voluminous black hair that would put Kate Bush to shame. While researching the tour, the group interviewed the hotel staff to ask them about any spooky occurrences they might have witnessed. It turned out they’d witnessed quite a lot, and we were about to hear about all of it.
The Mostly Ghostly team took me, my wife (who had come along to laugh at me while I panicked), and some other visitors on a tour of the castle after dark.
For added effect, they dressed up in historically accurate medieval costumes, which meant I kept catching glimpses of them and shrieking, “Back, foul spectre!” It probably didn’t do much for their self-esteem.
They also told us stories about the more modern wing and its history. It was built on the spot where poor Lady Marion tumbled to her death in the 1500s, and guests have seen the figure of a woman walking the hallways.
Two visitors even followed the woman down the stairs and into the bar area, assuming she was a member of staff. When they got to the bar, she vanished.
But that’s not all. A couple of years ago, the current duty manager was asked to take a photo of several visitors. When he checked the image, he saw there was a child sitting on the window ledge in front of the guests, but, guess what, there was no child with them. Well, not a visible one, anyway.
The spectral child was around 4 years old, the same age as the evacuees who stayed at Comlongon during the war. Nope.
Just after we were told about the child ghost, I noticed movement in one of the upstairs windows, in the room next to the one I’d be spending the night in. I saw a little girl with blonde hair, wearing some kind of white dress. She seemed to jump across the room to look into a birdcage, and appeared perfectly real.
I never like to miss an chance to crack a rubbish joke, so I turned to our photographer, pointed to the window, and said, “Please tell me you can see that child too, right? She’s not a child ghost, I hope? Haha!” He confirmed that he could see her, and we carried on with the tour.
The next day, I saw a couple with a parakeet in a cage (who brings a bird to a hotel?). They were checking out, and didn’t have a kid with them. We asked the staff and were told that no children were booked into the hotel during our visit.
At the time I had no idea that I might possibly, perhaps have seen an actual child ghost, so I carried on with my Most Haunted-style investigation. And, this, as everyone knows, has to involve some kind of panic-stricken vigil in a dark crypt. But first, I needed to check into my hotel room, which would definitely be a nice, welcoming safe haven. Right?
The clue was in the name. It was the Marion “Green Lady” Carruthers suite.
On the tour, we were told about two recently married guests who were sleeping in the suite when they were awakened by a loud noise, which sounded like a champagne bottle banging violently against a solid object.
Another couple heard their dresser being pushed across the floor in the night. Also, several housekeepers reported that they had prepared the room for new guests, only to return to find the imprint of a figure on top of the bed linen.
At this point I started drinking in my haunted room, especially because I was about to go back into the spookiest part of the hotel. On my own. Fuck.
I went up the winding staircase into the Great Hall and wandered around for a bit, even popping down into the dungeon area for a minute, which was full of 50 Shades Of Westeros-style iron shackles. Then it all got even more weird.
When I came back up from the dungeon I felt relatively calm, and was trying to take a few Snapchats for the lols, but suddenly I started hyperventilating. I was panicking for literally no reason. I was close to tears, as you can see in this video.
Then I heard a loud thud. I couldn’t handle it any more and legged it back to the main part of the hotel. I was so shaken that I started crying once I got back to my room, said I didn’t want to stay over after all, and had to be taken downstairs to the bar for lots of medicinal, nerve-calming whisky.
At the bar, I told Alex the duty manager that I didn’t want to stay the night any more, and he tried to reassure me, saying he’d never seen a ghost at Comlongon.
I pressed him and asked if he’d really never seen anything odd. “Well,” he said, looking sheepish, “I did once take a photo of some female guests in the bar, with their camera. When I looked at the photo, I could see a child sitting on the window ledge. The more you zoomed in, the clearer it got. I know that no one messed around with that photo because I took it. And I can’t explain it.”
“Wait, that was you?” I said. “They told us about that on the tour.” He nodded.
“I never really think about it to be honest, only when I’m reminded that it happened. I mean, what can you do? You just have to shrug and get on with your life. It’s not like there’s a support group or helpline for ghost sightings.”
His story really creeped me out, despite the fear-numbing whisky. But although I didn’t sleep well that night, I didn’t experience anything else otherworldly. The ghosts were clearly finished with me. For now. *Spooky arm gesture*
So, what did I learn?
When I got home, I got in touch with a neuroscientist from Cardiff University called Dr Dean Burnett. He’s written a book called The Idiot Brain, about the various ways your mind plays tricks on you. One of the chapters was about fear, so I asked him what he thought was going on in my head during my visit. He said:
“The first thing you need to bear in mind is that your perception of what happened could have been affected by the fact you were keen to see a ghost.
“You wouldn’t have ever asked about the child in the window if it wasn’t an unusual situation. When you’re exposed to something uncertain, your brain tries to make sense of it. It doesn’t like anything ambiguous, so your memory of seeing a child might be enhanced by your brain trying to rationalise it.
“The feelings of panic you experienced in the hall were more straightforward. At first, you were in a reassuring and familiar situation with lots of people around you. Then, you went back to that familiar environment in an unfamiliar context. The isolation got to you, you’d heard a lot about ghosts, and as no one can prove they don’t exist, you had that possibility in the back of your mind. And your brain’s prehistoric flight-or-fight response kicked in.”
Well, at least this time I ran away rather than swinging a punch at someone.
I have no idea if I saw a ghost. Plus, I’m not sure how I’d even define what a ghost is. What Dr Burnett said made a lot of sense, but I still have a creeping sense of unease about the whole thing, particularly my experience in the Great Hall.
All I’d say is, if you decide to stay at a “haunted” Scottish castle, make sure you bring a plentiful supply of whisky. And some spare pants.