Haunted houses in Britain: spooky stories from stately homes and castles

    Longleat House
    Longleat House. Credit: Longleat House

    At Discover Britain we love a spooky story or two. We speak with the mistress of Inveraray Castle, Argyll, who is blithely unbothered by the spirits she shares her home with, plus a round-up of other haunted houses in Britain…

    Haunted houses in Britain: Inveraray Castle

    Eleanor Argyll has never seen a ghost, but that is not to say she does not believe in them. After all, as the mistress of Inveraray Castle, Argyll, Scotland, she welcomes to her home members of the public and private guests alike who, daily and in their droves, report sightings of spectres and glimpses at ghouls. “We have five ghosts,” she hoots, transparently unfazed by the statement. “And I’ve never seen one of them, probably because I’m too busy shouting at my children… but certainly it’s striking that everyone’s stories corroborate one another.”

    Inveraray Castle, which stands north-east of Glasgow on the shores of Loch Fyne, represents the classic Scottish castle of legend and is one of the most haunted houses in Britain. In its exterior, architectural historians will note a curious melange of styles, spanning the baroque, the Palladian and – all important for such a ghostly proposition as this – the gothic. Its grey stone turrets would signify even to a five-year-old that this is a place which harbours eerie, spectral phenomena – and they would not be wrong.

    Inveraray Castle
    Inveraray Castle. Courtesy of Inveraray Castle

    The castle that visitors see today was built in 1746, though it stands on the site of the original 14th-century building. The later manifestation was based on a sketch by Vanbrugh (architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard), who died before his vision was made flesh; consequently Inveraray was completed by those prolific classical revivalist architects, John and Robert Adam. “It was built for my husband’s ancestors,” explains Argyll. “William of Orange had made them dukes, so they needed a place to live that was befitting of their new rank and would reflect their new-found wealth. Of course, over time there have been various deaths in the house. Certain people can see some of those who linger on this loch side, and others simply don’t.”

    According to Eleanor Argyll, one of the most consistently spotted spectres is that of a maid in the tearoom. “When the tea ladies arrive early in the morning, many of them say they see her. She is, by all accounts, pretty unmistakable, though nothing is known about her history. The only indicator we have is that she wears a hat and uniform, with the crossed back pinafore, and the notable thing about her is that she is always standing in a puddle of water, and always laughing hysterically. She’s certainly a benign presence and nobody has ever had any cause feel fearful about her. She seems more like a soul who was having too much fun to shuffle off this mortal coil than anything else. Being a practical-minded sorted of person, I mostly want to know where the water comes from… whenever anyone spots her, she eventually vanishes, but the water does not.”

    So riddled with the lingering spirits of former incumbents is Inveraray purported to be that the television show, Most Haunted, dispatched its crew to the castle to attempt to catch paranormal activity on camera. The ghost hunters were not, as it turns out, disappointed. “It was tremendous fun having them here,” says Argyll. “When the crew went into the library, they picked up on the piper who has been spotted on the balcony of the library before now. The cameras must have enraged him, because they have footage of a book of poetry being thrown at the poor unsuspecting camera man’s head! He’s evidently rather more cross than our laughing tea lady!”

    Perhaps the most alarming of Inveraray’s quintet of ghosts is to be found in the MacArthur Room. The legend goes that in 1644, the Duke of Argyll fled his castle to escape capture from the Marquess of Montrose. When he deserted, he left behind a young Irish boy who had been in his employment as a harpist. Upon being discovered by Montrose’s men, the youthful musician might have wished that he had fled alongside his master. The Marquess had deployed Irish mercenaries who, outraged that a fellow countryman could be in the employ of their sworn enemy, slaughtered the boy, leaving his dismembered body on the duke’s bed.

    Despite this gruesome and bloody scene having taken place in the old castle, so attached is the boy said to have become to the bed, he stayed with it even when it was moved to the modern castle. “That is a more macabre tale and although once again I haven’t experienced anything myself, I have certainly noticed a marked drop in temperature in that room. Some people literally won’t step inside, so overpowering is the feeling of foreboding and dread they get. The Most Haunted team filmed a chair being flung across the room by unseen hands. Previous incumbents of the house have also reported that when one of the family is about to die, harp music can be heard from the room.”

    Certainly the castle is no stranger to presentiment and Eleanor Argyll, practically-minded though she is, recalls one particularly spooky occurrence. “My father-in-law died in a hospital in London,” she says. “We thought he was just in for an operation, but our then head guide, who was in his eighties and had been at the house and with the family for years, had an overpowering sense that the duke had died. It was a change in atmosphere and the fact that a painting in the MacArthur Room that he’d particularly disliked had fallen off the wall. And he was absolutely right. The duke had indeed died. So that was rather spooky.”

    Think you can handle the piper and the harpist? Visit www.inveraray-castle.com for visitor’s details.

    Inveraray is by no means alone when it comes to lingering visitors from beyond the grave. We take a ghost-spotting tour around these heritage sites…

    Haunted houses in Britain

    1. Fulham Palace, West London

    haunted houses in Britain
    Fulham Palace. Credit: Fulham Palace

    Located in London though it may be considered today, Fulham Palace existed as a country house residence for the Bishops of London for over 12 centuries. Forget a bucolic retreat however; switches in religious allegiances between Protestantism and Catholicism spelt tumultuous times for these religious figureheads. Edward VI’s reign saw Catholic bishop Edmund Bonner packed off to Marshalsea prison, while Queen Mary’s reinstatement of Catholicism witnessed his successor, Bishop Ridley (1550-53), being burnt at the stake. These days, the palace is a tourist attraction, but one former inhabitant seems never to have left; Bonner is often spied by staff and visitors wandering empty hallways, his footsteps echoing in the silence. Join one of Fulham Palace’s ghost tours for the full experience of one of the most haunted houses in Britain.

    1. Glamis Castle, Angus, East Scotland

    haunted houses in britain
    Glamis Castle by night. Credit: Glamis Castle

    A ghost hunter’s dream, Glamis – built in 1372 and owned throughout its history to the present day by the Bowes-Lyons family – is thought to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain. Believers in the legend say that the castle is cursed, the jinx occasioned by one Sir John Lyon who removed an ancestral chalice from their seat at Forteviot, where it was intended to stay forever. Visitors should look out for the spectre of Earl Beardie, the castle’s most famous ghost. A guest in the house, he drunkenly expressed his outrage that no one would play him at cards, professing that, instead, he would play with the devil. As if on command, a tall man in dark clothes knocked at the door, offering his services. The pair sequestered themselves in a locked room, where all that could be heard was shouting and cursing.

    An unsuspecting servant, curious to know what was going on, is said to have peeped through the keyhole, only to be blinded by a beam of light. The Earl then emerged to rebuke the peeping Tom, to find he’d been deserted by his partner, who had left with his winnings: the Earl’s soul. Those who listen carefully swear that they can still hear him rolling his dice and shouting forth bile. People – mostly children – have even reported that they have woken up to the alarming sight of the Earl peering into their faces. Visitors also report catching glimpses of the famous White Lady, a former resident who was burnt for witchcraft outside Edinburgh Castle and is thought to have roamed Glamis ever since; or indeed the lady with no tongue, famous for gruesomely pointing at her mutilated face.

    3. Dorney Court, Windsor, Berkshire

    haunted houses in britain
    Dorney Court. Credit Dorney Court

    Dorney Court, another one of the most haunted houses in Britain, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a bald woman, visible only to men. In the 19th-century, the resident Palmer family, disturbed by the lockless lady, invited a priest to investigate; the result, perhaps, would have disturbed them further. Having received an other-wordly instruction to tear down some paneling in the upstairs bedroom, he duly did so, only to find a concealed alcove, and within that, the shorn tresses of a young woman.

    4. Longleat, Wiltshire, South-West

    haunted houses in britain
    Explore Longleat House on a Halloween Tour. Credit: Longleat House

    In the 18th century, Longleat was home to Louisa Carteret and her husband, Thomas Thynne, the 2nd Viscount Weymouth. The match was ill-fated; she was considered kind and beautiful, while he was bad-tempered and suspicious – the latter tendency exacerbated when it was suggested to him that Louisa’s relationship with one of the footman may not have been entirely innocent. Enraged, he attacked the servant, fatally pushing him downstairs and concealing his body beneath the flagstones in the basement, insisting later to his wife that the man had simply departed suddenly. A distraught Louisa caught a chill and died, aged 22, in childbirth in 1736, after which servants reported seeing her prowling the corridors, apparently in search of her footman. To this day, she is heard banging on doors, trying to unearth the mystery – a mystery to which the house holds the key, for when central heating was installed at Longleat, a body was indeed found beneath the flagstones, clad in 18th-century clothing.

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