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December 17th 1896

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The 'unhaunted' Ballechin House

Ballechin House lies on the outskirts of Strathtay, close to the river. At one time, like many such houses it had a certain reputation for being haunted. This might have been due to the somewhat unusual lifestyle of Major Robert Stewart who inherited the house on the death of his father in 1834.

He was an eccentric bachelor who preferred the company of his many dogs to most of his neighbours. He declared that he would haunt Ballechin after his death in the form of a black spaniel. The hauntings did not materialise.

In August 1896 the house was let to a Mr Heaven and his family for three months. A Mrs Howard who stayed with them claimed that those who stayed there were disturbed by “violent knockings, shrieks and groans which were heard every night.” 

There was also talk of a hunchback figure said to glide up the stairs and the shadowy form of a grey lady who passed through the door of one of the rooms. Mr Heaven was persuaded by his family to leave Ballechin after only a month, though in a subsequent letter to the Times he gave it as his opinion that the peculiar sounds came from the hot water pipes. There were in addition two military gentlemen there, who also heard the banging noises but nothing else.

This was then the state of affairs when the Society for Psychical Research or S.P.R. and more particularly Lord Bute, vice-president of the Society, decided to investigate the matter further. In a letter from the Honorary Secretary of the SPR, F.W.H. Myers to Lord Bute dated December 17th 1896 it becomes clear that the decision to take over the house for an extended period had been taken and that Lord Bute was prepared to pay the costs of such an investigation.

In February 1897, a tenancy was taken by a Colonel Taylor and his family with “a little winter shooting and some good spring fishing.”  It was subsequently revealed that Colonel Taylor, a member of the SPR, neither shot nor fished, was a widower and had no family. Colonel Taylor, much to his disappointment, saw and heard nothing during his stay though he repeatedly slept in the alleged haunted bedroom. But in addition to Col Taylor there were a large number of other guests who stayed there for various periods. (It was after all a pleasant location with servants laid on and all expenses paid.)

Some, such as Professor Oliver Lodge, the Hon Everand Feilding, Archbishop Angus McDonald of St Andrews and Edinburgh, John Ritchie Findlay, son and heir of the owner of the Scotsman and F.W,H, Myers himself were well known to members of the public; but among the forty guests there was also a Miss Ada Goodrich Freer. Miss Freer, whose parentage was very much more humble than she was wont to imply, whose claims to Scottish and Highland descent were bogus, but whose intelligence, charm and hard work were without doubt impressive, was a well known and valued member of the SPR. Not only did she have the ability of crystal vision, shell hearing (the ability to receive psychical messages through sea shells) and automatic writing but she also claimed to be a ‘sensitive’.

With such an array of talents it was not surprising that Miss Freer was very soon making the running at Ballechin. She reported the apparition of a nun near to the house. With the aid of her ouija board she discovered that the apparition’s name was Ishbel. “Ishbel,”  she writes to Lord Bute, “appears to me to be slight and of fair height. I am unable of course to see the colour of her hair but I should describe her as dark. There is an intensity in her gaze which is rare in white coloured eyes. The face, as I see it, is in mental pain, so that perhaps it is hardly fair to say that it seems lacking in that repose and gentleness that one looks for in the religious life. He dress presents no peculiarities. The habit is black, with the usual white about the face, and I have thought when walking, she showed a lighter under dress. She speaks upon rather a high note with a quality of youth in her voice. Her weeping seemed to me passionate and unrestrained.”  As a description of a living person this would be considered to be satisfactorily comprehensive, as a description of a ghost it is quite remarkable. A few days later Ishbel appeared in company with another apparition, Margot, and the two were heard conversing in the glen. Still later Miss Freer records the apparition of a woman “with a coarsely handsome face”  in the drawing room.

But what of the other members of the company? Miss Langton in company with Miss Freer heard the sound of “low conversation”  and Miss Moore “a murmuring voice” . But these were outside in a wooded area near to the river where such sounds might well be heard in any case. The Rev Charles Shaw heard a loud groan and saw a momentary vision of a crucifix on the wall of his bedroom.

No one else saw anything or heard anything except the many noises during the night. Colonel Taylor who had certainly gone to Ballechin with high expectations, writing to thank Lord Bute at the end of his visit says, “I heard many noises in the night during my stay at Ballechin, but they were of much the same sort I have been accustomed to hear at a similar time at other houses. I think that some of our witnesses may have given them undue prominence under the influence of their own expectancy.” 

Mr Findlay also writing to Lord Bute makes some rather unflattering comments regarding the critical faculties of some of the guests. Of Mr Shaw who had the vision of the crucifix he writes “He is in the habit of seeing figures outlined in light against a dark background. These he told me he could see at will. He seems to have little critical instinct, and a thorough belief in the supernatural.” 

It all adds up to a classic case of a haunted house that wasn’t, but for the Society for Psychical Research there was worse to come. In a long article in the Times headed ‘On the trail of a Ghost’ J Callender Ross, one of the guests, made a sustained attack on the SPR and by implication on Miss Freer.

“The only mystery in the matter seems to be the mode in which an ordinary dwelling was endowed with so evil a reputation. I was assured in London that it had had this reputation for 20 to 30 years……Yet the factor on the estate concurs with the lawyer and minister in denying that the house had any reputation for being haunted before the advent of the Heaven family. The minister said that ‘Some of the members of the H family had indulged in practical jokes and boasted of them’ ……It was represented to him (Lord Bute) that he was taking ‘the most haunted house in Scotland’, a house with an old and established reputation for mysteries if not supernatural disturbances. What he has got is a house with no reputation whatever of that kind, with no history, with nothing germane to his purpose beyond a cloud of baseless rumours produced during the last twelve months.” 

In spite of this broadside and the extensive correspondence in the Times that ensued, Miss Freer in due course brought out a book, ‘The alleged haunting of B- house’ in which all the original claims for the peculiar happenings at Ballechin were renewed. The book received rather hostile criticism but even so went to a second edition.

By this time Miss Freer had quarrelled with and severed all connection with the SPR. Ever the survivor she wisely transferred her attentions from psychical research to folk law. She married a man sixteen years younger than herself, left the country and finally died in 1930 aged 73.

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