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Issue 43 - Restless spirit of the islands

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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Restless spirit of the islands

Dominic Roskrow reports on the spirits of Orkney and the ghost of Skaill House.

When folk talk of ghosts they tend to be describing one of two types. Firstly, there are those that haunt and scare, often the victims of violent or sudden deaths, unpleasant and malevolent presences whose blood has been spilled in violence and who now stalk their earthly prison in anger and frustration.

And secondly there are those that are altogether more ethereal, spirits that are restless and disturbed, unable to find rest in death and, often through tragedy or misfortune, condemned to remain trapped in a worldly half-existence, their presence a reminder of a troubled past.

Sometimes they are both. They say that in Louisiana when the electric mists rolls off the bayou silhouetting the gnarled trees in an eerie grey half light, you can see the ghosts of the Confederate dead, many of them teenagers too young to know what they died for, deprived of the promise of adulthood and victims to a cause that history has condemned them for. But many of the older ones reek of torture and slaughter, and have the terrifying look of killers who have seen too much. Superstitious the local folk may be, but they don’t care to be out in the wilderness when the damp mists roll in and the soldiers are about.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Orkney to learn that the islands have ghosts of both kinds. Few places of comparable size have witnessed more misfortune or loss, accepted more brutality and violence from generations of unwanted invaders, or buried more unhappy strangers far from their home. From the earliest settlers to the soldiers and sailors of the Second World War, Orkney’s craggy rocks and gusting winds have been the funeral decorations for generations stretching back thousands of years.

Unsurprisingly, then, it seems that there are many as restless in death as they were in life. Visit Orkney and you can’t escape the presence of spirits. It’s a spiritual place, and within minutes of arriving you are struck by it.

It sends shivers down the spine. They say it’s to do with the magnetic fields playing havoc with your emotions but that’s just scientist talk. What you’re tapping into is another world filled with restless and unhappy spirits existing a long, long way from home.

Unsurprisingly, then, there are plenty of places to head for if you’re in the business of ghost spotting. On the face of it, though, Skaill House wouldn’t seem to be one of them.

It lies just 300 metres from Skara Brae, not just one of the great wonders of Orkney but arguably of the world, a complete Pictish homestead that outdates the Pyramids and has been perfectly preserved over the millennia by sand. Skaill House dominates the landscape from Skara Brae, its spartan, cold and somewhat shambolic exterior made all the more severe and imposing by the treeless nature of the area.

Don’t be deceived, though: the rambling exterior in no way reflects the stylish, grand and comfortable interior and the procession of tastefully-furnished rooms that greet the visitor. The walls are adorned with paintings and in one room you’ll find a dining set that was used on Captain Cooke’s ship The Resolution. It is a relaxed and peaceful sort of place and not an obvious setting for ghosts.

But ghosts there are – and plenty of them.

In fact Skara Brae might play an indirect role in Skaill’s place as a haunted house. The house – whose name means ‘Hall’ – was built in 1620 but has been extended several times since. It was, for most of that time, a private family home, but it was decided to open it to the public in the mid 90s and extensive restoration work was carried out.

It was during this work that the remains of 15 human skeletons were found in gravel by the east porch, and it’s thought that they were part of a Pictish burial site – quite possibly linked to Skara Brae. It has also been suggested that a Nordic or Pictish burial site lies beneath the building.

This may explain the presence of so many spirits in the house, and there have been regular occurrences when people have heard inexplicable noises and sensed the presence of beings that were not there. Some talk of a sense of sadness during some experiences.

A Pictish or other ancient burial ground being disturbed might explains some of the house’s strange goings on, but it doesn’t explain two other ghosts that the house is known for. What is generally accepted, however, is that the ghosts are benign and not of the worrying type. Unless, that is, you’re a dog.

The house’s most famous ghost has never been seen, but he has been heard and sensed many, many times. On one occasion the Laird of the region Major Malcolm Macrae was working in the living quarters around the building’s courtyard when he heard distinctive footsteps in the corridor. His dog began to growl then bark in an agitated way and with a snarl rushed into the corridor.

Worried that someone was about to come to some harm, Major Macrae rushed after his dog, but there was nobody there.

On other occasions dogs have been known to cower or howl hysterically but nobody has been seen. But the ghost’s presence has been experienced. On one occasion someone staying in the house’s apartments told of a presence crossing the room at night while he lay in bed, and he had the experience of someone sitting on the edge of the bed.

The local view is that the ghost is that of Ubby, a strange man who built an island in Loch Skaill by continuously rowing out into the loch and throwing rocks over the side of the boat until a land mass was established.

He died on his little island and it is believed that he now haunts the house.

The house’s other non-Pictish ghost has been spotted just once. A group of cleaners employed to clean the house’s apartments reported to work one morning and were about to start when they saw a woman with a shawl over her head at the window of one of the rooms. Assuming that it was the room’s occupant from the previous night checking out late, they continued with the other apartments and left the room alone.

But later when they were asked why they had not cleaned in there and explained that the room was still occupied, they were told that the guests had left early and there was no one in the whole apartment block.

No one really knows who the woman was or whether she is responsible for other hauntings at the house, which have occurred in the apartments, in the courtyard and most recently, in the long room. But so frequent are the occurrences that haunted evenings when visitors can tour the house at night by candlelight were reintroduced in late 2008.

They have since proved to be immensely popular with guests.