52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 1: Special Collections Ghost tour
T’was a dark and stormy night….no, honestly, it really was….when a gallant band of Special Collections and friends set out in full costume, accompanied by an even more gallant, because they didn’t have to be there, band of followers including Malfi the dog. The aim was to re-create a ghost tour of St Andrews given by W.T. Linksill in the 1920s, as our first offering for this year’s theme of Historical How-To’s.
Linskill was a town councillor in St Andrews, Dean of Guild, president of the St Andrews Antiquarian Society, and ghost hunter. His book ‘St Andrews Ghost Stories’ was the inspiration for this tour. Despite many years of researching and writing about the ghostly legends of the town, he claimed he had never had the ‘good fortune’ to see a ghost himself. However he had a very close shave with death on the night of the Tay Bridge Disaster on 28th December 1879. A packed passenger train was crossing the Tay Bridge in a terrible storm when the bridge gave way, hurling the carriages and all the passengers to their deaths. Linskill had been on that train, and was due to get off at Leuchars, but when the train arrived there, there was no cab to meet him so he resolved to carry on to Dundee. Just as the train re-started the stationmaster saw the cab coming through the snow, and Linskill jumped from the moving train, saving his life.
As Linskill himself says:
“St Andrews is possessed of a prodigious number of supernatural appearances of different kinds, sizes and shapes – most of them awe-inspiring and blood-curdling. So many are there that there is no room for modern aspirants who want a quiet place to appear and turn people’s hair white … there are spectres wailing in the Castle dungeons, murdered Cardinal Beaton stalking around the Castle; the phantom coach of Archbishop Sharp which if heard coming through the Pends …”
And there were yet more ghostly apparitions waiting to greet us that autumn night. Donald MacEwan (Chaplain of the University), narrator of Linskill’s stories, led us into the gloaming, past the ghostly face of martyr Patrick Hamilton forever emblazoned on the front of St Salvator’s chapel tower, and down Butts Wynd to meet the Smothered Piper of West Cliff, who haunts the cave under the Principal’s House. Legend has it that one night he marched into the mysterious cliff cave where no one dared to go. His piping faded away into the distance and he was never seen again. But now on moonlight nights his ghost is said to walk up and down the cliff where no path exists, and to hear the ghostly pipes is an ill omen.
Next we walked to St Andrews Castle for the story of The Spectre of the Castle, haunted by richly dressed Archbishop John Hamilton (Briony Aitchison, Lead Cataloguer, Phase 1) complete with hangman’s noose, hanged on the gibbet in Stirling by his enemies in 1371.
The White Lady of the Haunted Tower (Kirsty Lee, Archives Assistant) appears all around St Andrews, but especially on the path from the Castle to the Haunted Tower in the abbey wall. This square tower looking out to sea was said to contain the remains of 12 people, one of whom was a beautiful young girl dressed all in white who looked as if she were merely sleeping, although her body had lain there for centuries. A possible explanation for the association of a pure young woman with this tower is in the lilies carved on the front – a symbol of the Virgin Mary and it was known in pre-Reformation times as Mary’s Tower or the Virgin Tower. Our ghostly lady led us along the wind and rain swept ridge and then coquettishly appeared and disappeared at will.
The Monk of St Rules Tower (Christian Harding, Library Attendant) was Prior Robert of Montrose, murdered by a jealous monk in the Cathedral, and is often seen falling from the top of the tower.
The Veiled Nun of St Leonards (Mary Stevens, PhD candidate in Theology) is a terrifying story of a woman who refused to marry her betrothed, joined an order of nuns and so mutilated her face that her horrified fiancé fled and killed himself. She is said to wander the Pends by the old abbey wall at night with a lantern, which she lifts to her face to show her disfigurement.
The Screaming Skull of Greyfriars features Neville de Beauchamp’s severed head which haunts his descendants, and won’t leave until they are dead. Neville was played by a replica skull borrowed from a box of bones used by medical students, who appeared in the organ loft of St Leonards Chapel to terrify those in the dark below; the atmosphere made tense by a mysterious low growling in the background – Malfi the dog really didn’t like Neville!
We had a great deal of fun doing this, dressing up in silly costumes and acting out the parts. Briony showed great ingenuity in making her own Archbishop’s hat complete with bling jewel and gold glitter. Mary made her entire nun costume, the other costumes coming from my dressing-up box gathered during misspent years directing mystery plays. Kirsty threw herself into the role of winsome white lady and Christian willingly threw himself (in the virtual world at least) off the tower. Eddie Martin (Photographic Collections Digitisation Officer) took fabulous photographs which made us look even more ghostly.
But most spooky of all, and you will find this hard to believe but it really is true, although we had the stories we didn’t know the route of the ghost tours which Linskill took. I was in one of our strong rooms looking at another collection, when my eye was drawn to the shelf below. There were some volumes labelled ‘newspaper cuttings’, which I had never looked at before. I don’t usually have time to explore curious looking archives but this time felt I had to look in them – they turned out to be 5 scrapbooks of the St Andrews Antiquarian Society, compiled by Linskill himself! And the very first article I read, which wasn’t even in the first book I opened, was the one featured here of Linskill’s moonlight walk though haunted St Andrews, giving us the perfect ghost tour route to follow in his footsteps. Was Linskill in there with me guiding me to the right place? Who knows. But out of 13km of material housed in Special Collections, it’s quite a coincidence to randomly open a volume at exactly the right page. I like to believe I had a little help in finding those scrapbooks.
Perhaps Linskill did find some ghosts after all. Look at these photographs of the Pends from one of his scrapbooks – do those figures not look a little pale and ghostly to you?
Photographs by Eddie Martin