It’s Saturday and today I’m thinking about connections, how the pieces of history and our lives often fall together in strange ways and even weirder coincidences.
It’s usually a day that I do nothing on but today was different. Today, I decided I would start a new habit (at least try to). I decided that I will write something every day, no matter what it is. I was digging through my literature and my library in my office and at my other desk downstairs for inspiration and came across an article in Dennis Hauck’s International Guide to Haunted Places. An old favorite, its covers and the covers of its companion, Haunted Places: The National Directory, have seen better days with extreme wear and tear.
I spent many nights pouring through each entry in my early ghost chasing days. As I recreated the past, the pages flipping through my fingers with the scent of old paper flooding my nose, I came across one of the many dog-eared pages. I stopped to read it over, to see if I could remember why I marked this set of articles. Then I saw that I had not only dog-eared it but committed the cardinal sin (to a librarian anyway) of writing in the book. In blue ink the words “possible radio show topic” were scrawled and underlined in my choppy handwriting. Below, I saw the title of the article. It was a sprawling two-page affair about Castle Stuart in Scotland.
I read over it and found out that I had a personal connection to the history of Castle Stuart as nebulous as it was at any rate. Castle Stuart is a stunning structure located in the Highlands not far from Aberdeen (no, not Katniss Aberdeen), just across the border of County Grampian. Castle Stuart is what is known as a tower house, meaning it was meant for double duty as both a defensive structure as well as a residence. The tower house style began to appear in the Middle Ages and it served to make buildings a command center as well as create a location with defensible strategic points while reducing the number of troops needed (Toy, 1985).
Standing tall and stark against the rolling lands of green, Castle Stuart is a dark red stone and brick construction with narrow windows and a soaring set of towers. It looks every bit like a haunted castle in every movie you can think of and that assumption would be quite right. Construction was started by the first Earl of Moray, James Stewart, the illegitimate son of King James the V and was half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots. The family connection comes not from James Stewart but rather Mary’s son, James the VI. My family belongs to Clan Gregor (MacGregor).
In 1603, after a set of violent raids between the MacGregor’s and the Clan Colquhoun (pronounced Cal-hoon), Alistair MacGregor and his men trapped and killed over 140 prisoners of war including, according to court records, a group of school boys who had stopped to watch the battle between the MacGregors and the Calquhouns.
Captured by King James’s men, Alistair and his men were put on trial and found guilty and summarily tortured and publicly executed. At the time of Alistair’s trial, James drafted a new law on April 3, 1603 called the Proscriptive Acts of Clan Gregor, which “altogether abolished” the surname of MacGregor and called for anyone who bore the name and refused to change it to be executed, women and children included. MacGregor men were killed outright while women were stripped, branded, whipped and paraded through the streets in England and afterwards sold into slavery in the colonies in North America. It was essentially a license to kill. This ban on our family’s surname lasted for 57 years and was finally overturned in or around 1660.
In short, the builder and owner of Castle Stuart was related to the king who nearly wiped my family from existence (not saying that Alistair and the 17 men who were found guilty did not deserve punishment. Giving into their bloodlust like that was uncalled for and my family have always been warriors, both in ancient times when we were called the Children of the Mist, to Rob Roy, even today as hockey players and actors who go on to be Jedi Knights).
James Stewart began construction on Castle Stewart roughly in 1561. Not long after its construction, Stewart himself was violently assassinated on January 23, 1570 by a supporter of his half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots, James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. Hamilton shot Stewart as he passed by in a cavalcade with a carbine. It was the first recorded assassination by firearm.
The castle itself would not be finished until 1625 when the final stone was laid by the third Earl of Moray, ironically enough who also bore the name James Stuart, but this time using the spelling that became the family’s calling card. He himself died in 1638. It seemed like the house itself was destined not to be built but in truth, after its completion, it did see quite a few years of prosperity.
It was just before the English Civil War (1642-1651) that the castle itself had its first major tragedy. In 1629, the feud between the Stuarts and the McIntosh reached its apex. 500 of Clan McIntosh attacked and sacked Castle Stuart. The siege was brutal and finally, the Stuart family decided that escape was preferable to death and they fled from Castle Stuart, never to return. In 1649, King Charles, a Stuart descendent, was executed, adding another bloody chapter to the Stuart family book but it was nothing compared to what happened next on the green moors.
On April 16, 1746 the tensions between the French supported Jacobites and the British crown came to a head in the explosive legendary conflict known today as the Battle Of Culloden. It was the final battle of the Jacobite uprising and the capstone of a larger religious war burning across England and Scotland during this period. It was not a battle that ended in the favor of the Jacobites, with the group losing horrendously to the loyalist forces of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Estimates put the Jacobite losses at roughly 1,500 to 2,000 men, not to mention the continued campaign of brutality waged by Augustus which earned him the sobriquet of The Butcher (Battle of Culloden, 2017).
The battle took place not far from the grounds of Castle Stuart, drenching the soil in blood that ran deep and that even today produces tension among both historians and descendants. Even by this time, with the castle abandoned, the structure had already gained a reputation of being haunted. The end of the Battle of Culloden saw the fall of the rule of the clans and with its closure, the Stuarts could finally return to Castle Stuart after 117 years of it sitting abandoned, a lonely shell witness only to silence, shadows and atrocities.
Around this time, another Earl of Moray attempted to make Castle Stuart a home. He was unable to get the peace and quiet he desperately wanted, his servants telling him horror stories of nightmarish screams, voices, apparitions and moving objects. Fed up with what he thought were the hallucinations and wild ghost stories of the weak minded, the Earl was determined to prove his house was not haunted and offered a reward to any man who was brave enough to spend the night in Castle Stewart, specifically in the room at the very top of the East Tower. The room had gained a reputation of being haunted by the devil and the Earl wasn’t having any of it.
Four local men took him up on his offer: a minister, an elder in the Presbyterian church, a shoemaker and lastly, a rough and rowdy type named Robert Angus.
The plan was simple: Each of them would spend an entire night in the haunted room. They would be locked in and in the morning, they would be let out. They were not to speak a word until all four of them had spent a night and then would compare their experiences.
The first to go in was the minister.
He found the room furnished comfortably. He made himself at home and promptly fell asleep.
The minister’s rest did not last.
The sounds of someone in the room echoed as heavy footsteps moved across the floor. Opening his eyes, the minister felt his heart drop as he saw a large powerfully built man covered in blood, very much dead, walking towards him. The apparition said nothing and slowly sat in a chair next to the minister, staring at him.
The minister awoke and realized he was dreaming. The dream felt far too real and he did not sleep the rest of the night.
On the second night, it was the church elder’s turn. The church elder did not fall asleep but rather read his Bible by candlelight. As he read, the room grew ice cold and he looked up as movement caught his eye. A man, a huge blood covered man, stepped through the wall of the tower like it was air. Frozen in terror, the elder saw the wall behind the blood covered man shimmer and move, rippling, it turned into a mirror and in it, he saw only a skull reflected. Growling, the apparition demanded to know what he was doing, drawing its dagger and advancing slowly towards the elder.
The next morning, the others unlocked the door to find the elder unconscious on the floor, having passed out from fright.
The shoemaker took his turn, though by now, it was with great reluctance. He built a fire in the fireplace and sat by it, praying for safety. At midnight, the locked door to the room opened, slowly, creaking on its hinges. Petrified, the shoemaker turned to see a form standing in the doorway, made of shadow and darkness. He saw the figure had no feet but instead had cloven hooves. The form seemed to shudder and shake as twin red orbs formed where its eyes would be. He cried out in terror as the thing leapt at him like an animal and he too was found unconscious the next day. Both he and church elder did not recover from their encounters for months, both scared beyond imagination.
At last, it was Rob Angus’s turn and he took it bravely, stating to the three who had come before, “You will find me as I am or dead. None other.” He claimed he was afraid of nothing. He was locked in as the others were and it was the last time anyone saw Robert Angus alive. The next day, the door was unlocked and to the shock of everyone, Robert Angus was not there. The room had been destroyed, furniture ripped apart, bedding destroyed. It looked like a tornado had torn through the room and the window, the narrow window that looked out over the fields, was shattered with no glass inside the room, meaning something had gone through it.
The three men made their way over to the window and looked out of its sorry remains; there, on the castle grounds, lay the broken twisted body of Robert Angus, an expression of terror frozen on his shattered face.
A farmer who had been working his herd that night, moving his sheep past Castle Stuart, swore that just after midnight he heard loud screams and what sounded like a terrible struggle. He looked up towards the castle tower and saw lights flashing with roars and screams. He watched as the window exploded outward and the body of a large man was hurled through it, taking the frame with him to his death below where he landed with a sickening wet crunch. Looking up at the empty frame, the farmer swore he saw a face floating there, the face he swore on his Bible, was that of the devil incarnate.
Unable to disprove the haunting, the Earl did the best he could with what he had and tried to force a home out of the haunted estate.
It wasn’t long before disaster struck Castle Stuart again, this time in 1798. A violent lightning storm struck, ripping off the roof of the East Tower, causing extreme damage to the wing. Rather than repair it, the Stuarts, already pushed to their limit, sealed off the entire wing instead of repairing the damage.
With the death of Charles and suffering from the English Civil War, the Stuarts abandoned their home again and this time it was for much longer.
Castle Stuart sat for 300 years, passing through different owners, none of whom could either capture the castle’s glory days or stay for any length of time with whispers barely spoken of ghosts and the dead. Finally, in 1930, James Cameron, a Canadian, bought the property and set about repairing the ravages of time and despair (Hauck, 2001). During the restoration, Cameron came across a doorway, deliberately hidden behind plaster.
Behind this door was a stairwell that lead down and dead ended at a wall.
Curious, Cameron tapped on the wall and found it was hollow. He raised his hammer and brought it down. The moment his hammer put a crack into the plaster of the dead-end wall, he claims he heard a voice come out of the air screaming “NO!” He shrugged it off and hit the wall again.
This time he reported he felt two hands shove him hard enough to knock him off his ladder, throwing him to the ground but the damage was done: His hammer had broken through the sealed wall completely.
A stench began to waft through the hole he had punched, the fetid sick sweet smell of decay and the cloying thick heavy wet scent of rotten flesh. Thoroughly terrified, Cameron bolted for the front door and when he stepped outside, he cursed as he remembered he would have to go back inside for his tools. It already getting dark outside and he did not want to go back in, unable to convince himself it was his imagination. After a moment, he steeled himself, and turned on his car headlights, aiming them into the open doorway of the castle. Carefully, he propped the front door open and went back inside for his tools.
Making his way back to the hidden chamber, Cameron had just reached his tools when he heard the sound he least wanted to hear: the sound of the heavy front door slamming shut.
Instantly he was in darkness.
Frightened beyond any capacity for rational thought, he blindly fumbled his way back up the stairs and to the main door. He yanked on it, and found it would not open as if it were held shut by a force with immense strength. Unseen, twin huge hands wrapped themselves around Cameron and began to pull him back into the darkness. He could feel the thick cold fingers through his clothes as they squeezed him.
Screaming, with adrenaline fueled strength, he managed to rip open the front door and bolted into the night, jumping into his car and never returned to Castle Stuart.
Once again, the old house was abandoned.
In 1977, Richard Charles Stuart, a descendant, bought the property and refurbished and restored it, turning it into a successful hotel with an accompanying golf course. The first wedding in 400 years took place in May of 1993 (CastleStuart.com, 2017). The owners do not shy away from their haunted history and to this day, have the restored tower room open for guests, if they are brave enough to stay a night there.
Like the Bell Witch and Amityville hauntings, the haunting at Castle Stuart claimed a life. It is rare in the annals of ghost hunting to come across such tales, let alone with confirmed historical facts to back it up.
What do we make of the haunting of Castle Stuart? Why was there a secret area, sealed off in plaster? Storm damage perhaps…. Maybe something else? The castle will hold its secrets, locked in stone and blood and it’s not going to tell anyone. It appears that those who get too close to the truth and haunted history of Castle Stuart may not live to tell the tale.
In the end, we find connections were we least expect them. In this case, the builder of what turned out to be a haunted house (and the victim of the world’s first assassination by firearm) was the half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots, whose son would later go on to almost exterminate my family’s legacy.
Strange how things work out when you open a book, eh?
Toy, S. (1985). Castles: their construction and history. New York: Dover.
Battle of Culloden. (2017, April 07). Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Culloden
Duhaime, L. (2013, October 31). 1604, The Abolition of the Surname Macgregor. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/LawArticle-1593/1604-The-Abolition-of-the-Surname-Macgregor.aspx
Hauck, D. W. (2001). The international directory of haunted places: ghostly abodes, sacred sites, and other supernatural locations. New York: Penguin.
Castle Stuart – Luxury accommodation in Inverness Scotland. (n.d.). Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://web.archive.org/web/19981206224541/http://www.castlestuart.com/html/history.htm