“I like to say I believe in ghosts so I don’t get haunted by one” – Ella Henderson
Our species has a love/hate relationship with ghosts. On the one hand, they suggest a persistence of consciousness after death, the existence of an afterlife, and perhaps a chance to set a few things straight before shambling off into the light. On the other hand, apart from a few fetishists, nobody really wants to be haunted. One commonality amongst our ghost hunting aficionados is the implicit understanding that no matter the backstory, we should probably work on ridding ourselves of the nuisance that is the unruly dead, particularly when they’ve taken up residence rent-free in our homes (“cleansing”, as they say). And in fairness, ghosts are not very good guests, what with all the moaning, clanking of chains, and terrifying of the house pets.
Most of us typically assume that we’ve never done anything that merits a haunting. This obviously reflects the human tendency to make it all about us. Species narcissism has gotten us this far, at any rate, so perhaps it’s an important evolutionary strategy. The American satirist John Kendrick Bangs eloquently captured our bafflement at unjustified hauntings in one of his short stories, his haunted narrator remarking, “The main thing to bring my present trouble upon me, I am forced to believe, is the fact that my house has been in the past, and may possibly still be, haunted. Why my house should be haunted at all I do not know, for it has never been the scene of any tragedy that I am aware of. I built it myself, and it is paid for. So far as I am aware, nothing awful of a material nature has ever happened within its walls, and yet it appears to be, for the present at any rate, a sort of club-house for inconsiderate if not strictly horrid things, which is a most unfair dispensation of the fates, for I have not deserved it” (Bangs, 1902, p44). Note, the presumption is while we ourselves smell like roses, there must be people out there far more deserving of a haunting. We’re such jerks. Although, in some extreme instances, one would be inclined to agree. Consider the case of Sir Alexander Jardine of Applegarth, Scotland, described as “a bold bad Baronet” (Harper, 1907, p53).
Sir Alexander Jardine was the head of the lowland Scottish clan Jardine during the reign of Charles II (1630-1685), and proud owner of the clan’s first stronghold of Spedlin Tower at Applegarth on the River Annan in Dumfriesshire where they had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with since the 14th Century A.D. Now, being the head of a Scottish clan is a pretty good gig if you can get it, but it comes with certain responsibilities, one of which was imprisoning unfortunate souls accused of crimes until local magistrates could get around to putting them on trial. And if you’re going to lock up folks in the 17th Century, you need yourself a good dungeon. Luckily, Spedlin Tower (or castle if you prefer) was thus equipped. “The castle is a parallelogram 46 feet long by 38 feet 6 inches wide. The walls of the two lower stories are massive and strong, being from 9 to 10 feet in thickness” (MacGibbon, 1887, p45-48), and from the original, ground floor main hall, a staircase leads to the upper stories, but the landing of that staircase sported a hatch by which one accessed the dungeon below, which was no doubt kept in the dismal standards consistent with a proper dungeon. By the 19th century, Spedlin Tower’s dungeon had long been filled with earth. The reason for this will become abundantly clear.
Respecting his obligations as the local authority, Sir Alexander Jardine took into his custody a miller named Porteous, who was suspected of having willfully set fire to his own mill. Why Porteous might have done this or if he indeed was guilty at all is never explicitly delineated. Arson-based insurance scams had yet to be invented, so we may only hypothesize that he just didn’t like the mill. Or maybe he had a gluten allergy. We may never know. Sir Jardine tossed him into the Spedlin Tower dungeon for safekeeping until jurists could get around to putting him on trial. “Sir Alexander being soon after suddenly called away to Edinburgh, carried the key of the vault with him, and did not recollect or consider his prisoner’s case till he was passing through the West Port, where, perhaps, the sight of the warder’s keys brought the matter to his mind. He immediately sent back a courier to liberate the man” (Nimmo, 1868, p78-79). I don’t know how you feel, but generally if one is to have in their possession a functioning dungeon, it seems only reasonable that one should keep fairly good track of who is in said dungeon. Consequently, by the time the courier arrived from Edinburgh, poor Porteous had starved to death. Starving to death in a dungeon due to your keeper’s absentmindedness seems like a bad way to go. Most folks would expect Porteous to get his haunt on, and so he did.
No sooner was he dead, than his ghost began to torment the household, and no rest was to be had within Spedlin’s Tower by day or by night. In this dilemma, Sir Alexander, according to old use and wont, summoned a whole legion of ministers to his aid; and by their strenuous efforts, Porteous was at length confined to the scene of his mortal agonies, where, however, he continued to scream occasionally at night, ‘Let me out, let me out, for I’m deein’ o’ hunger!’ He also used to flutter against the door of the vault, and was always sure to remove the bark from any twig that was sportively thrust through the key-hole (Lee, 1875, p97-98).
Just in case you’re looking for pro-tips on how to confine a ghost to a particular location, it turns out that the ministers who attempted to exorcise the castle (and none to successfully, might I add – Jardine should ask for his money back), managed to trap the spirit in the Tower by placing the bible they had used during their efforts in a niche in the dungeon. I mean, if you can’t rid of spirits, you certainly don’t want them moving around too much. Especially when you’re responsible for their demise.
The spell which thus compelled the spirit to remain in bondage was attached to a large black-lettered Bible, used by the exorcists, and afterwards deposited in a stone-niche, which still remains in the wall of the staircase; and it is certain that after the lapse of many years, when the family repaired to a newer mansion (Jardine Hall), built on the other side of the river, the Bible was left behind, to keep the restless spirit in order. On one occasion, indeed, the volume requiring to be re-bound was sent to Edinburgh; but the ghost, getting out of the dungeon, and crossing the river, made such a disturbance in the new house, hauling the baronet and his lady out of bed, and committing other annoyances, that the Bible was recalled before it reached Edinburgh, and replaced in its former situation (Ingram, 1884, p234-236).
Who can blame Porteous for determinedly haunting Sir Alexander Jardine and his kin, given the opportunity, “but, it would seem, the ghost is at last at rest, for the Bible is now kept at Jardine Hall “(Dyer, 1893, p196-197). The eventual relocation of the bible would suggest either (a) it actually did nothing in the first place, or (b) ghosts have a shelf life. Anyhow, it seems that Porteous got sick of loitering about the mortal coil raising a ruckus. There’s a lesson here. You really need to interview your exorcists to ensure they are qualified. Secondarily, a lot of problems can be avoided by simply not having a dungeon. When it comes to side-stepping a haunting, it’s just common sense. On a side note, while this ghost story seems to be well attested to, at least in the repetition of precisely the same details across the years, I’m suspicious about the name “Porteous”, since this is Middle English (and a Scottish legal term) for a roll of offenders to be tried formerly prepared by the justice clerk, which means the ghostly miler’s name amounts to “the defendant”. A little poking around revealed that there were actually people running around the Scottish countryside with the surname Porteous, but one wonders.
Death is just so gosh darn final, and that doesn’t sit well with the narcissistic and spiteful critter that is man. Not you. You’re wonderful. The rest of them. We like to think that people get what they deserve eventually, even if it entails coming back from the grave to dole out the just desserts. We can’t bear the thought of others “getting away” with something. Perhaps that’s how we came up with the whole idea of ghosts in the first place. There’s an old saying that, “A man who desires revenge should dig two graves,” which is meant as prudent advice against seeking revenge at all, but what if you’re already in the grave. That’s cool, right?
Bangs, John Kendrick, 1862-1922. Ghosts I Have Met and Some Others. New York: Harper & brothers, publishers, 1902.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Grose, Francis, 1731?-1791. The Antiquities of Scotland. London: Printed for Hooper & Wigstead, 1797.
Harper, Charles G. 1863-1943. Haunted Houses: Tales of the Supernatural, With Some Account of Hereditary Curses And Family Legends. London: Chapman & Hall, ltd., 1907.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: W.H. Allen & co., 1884.
Lee, Frederick George, 1832-1902. The Other World; Or, Glimpses of the Supernatural: Being Facts, Records And Traditions Relating to Dreams, Omens, Miraculous Occurrences, Apparitions, Wraiths, Warnings, Second-sight, Witchcraft, Necromancy, Etc. London: H. S. King and co., 1875.
MacGibbon, David, d. 1902. The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: D. Douglas, 1887.
Nimmo, W.P. Omens and Superstitions: Curious Facts and Illustrative Sketches. Edinburgh: Murray and Gibb, 1868.
I live with ghosts and always have. They live in all the family heirlooms that I’ve inherited, in this house my mother built and died in. The ghosts are not particularly bothersome, except they nag me in a voice that sounds like my mother’s.
My imagination? Maybe, but I’ve always believed that “life essences” are eternal and may co-inhabit the space we call “physical reality,” especially if they have “unfinished business” or emotional ties.