Orkney: Stepping back in time with ghosts…

I was fortunate enough last week to travel to Orkney as part of a student trip. This was my first trip to Orkney, and spending my teenager years growing up on the Isle of Skye I was looking forward to returning to island living and ‘island time’ for a few days. Last year, I visited Skye for the first time in several years and was shocked to see the impact of increased tourism. In particular, I was concerned to see how the commercialisation of folklore around sites like the Fairy Glen had been leading to the degradation of the natural environment. I was, therefore, interested to see if Orkney was experiencing similar problems.

In the last few years Orkney has become a very popular destination for cruise ships. This has resulted in a seasonal influx of large tourist numbers coming off the cruise ships to explore the island each day in the summer months. From discussions with some of the Orcadians during our trip these visitor numbers had brought positive economic benefits to the community. However, inevitably large tourist numbers entering the island was also causing issues in terms of pressurised infrastructure and degradation to historic sites. The community is, therefore, currently looking to adapt its tourism offerings to ensure a sustainable approach to welcoming tourists and sharing the ‘gems’ that Orkney has to offer, whilst preserving its heritage and natural environment. 

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As we explored Orkney we had the privilege of meeting a number of individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living on the island. We also had the opportunity to hear some of the fabulous folklore and ghost stories that Orkney has to offer – which are in abundance! Unlike Skye, the stories we discovered where not offered as a commercialised package but came from the personal stories that had been passed down through the years. There was something authentic, exciting and precious about these encounters which made you feel like you were hearing them for the first time. The ghosts stories we heard also provided the opportunity to learn about Orkney and its community in different ways: 

  1. Ghost stories enabled us to discover Orkney’s people. We were very privileged to visit Skaill House out of season and hear some of its ghost stories. skaillhouseWe learnt about the wife of one of the laird’s whose ghost is said to reside upstairs. She appears to get frustrated when the staff tidy up too early in the morning, showing her displeasure by banging on the floor. We also learnt about the son of one of the Lairds who was tragically killed in an accident involving his horse. The boys picture can be found in the house, and it is said that he is responsible for the rocking horse moving on its own. A polite ghostly gentlemen has also been seen in one of the exhibition rooms and has been known to answer visitor questions – only for them to later learn that he was not really ‘there’! Through these stories we learnt a lot about the former residents of Skaill House, their personalities, what they liked to do and their relationships with each other.skaill2
  2. Ghost stories also helped us to see Orkney in different ways.  As well as learning about some of the personal stories of Skaill House, we also learnt more about its location. The house is built upon a Norse graveyard and is situated just along from Skara Brae, illustrating the significant age of the land and how its use has changed through the years.  We also learnt about ghostly footsteps that are heard in the Orkney Museum, often at lunchtime. We had not heard of the museum being haunted until these stories were told, and suddenly the age and former use of the building as a family home was brought to life. These stories added layers to the sites we visited, allowing us to see them in different and more complex ways.  skarabrae
  3. Ghost stories allowed us to step back in time. By learning about the personal stories of the people of Orkney, and how the places had changed and evolved through the years we were able to experience the temporal dimensions of the island. These stories paint a picture of how things were, the ways they were experienced and the people that played a role in these past events. 

The ghosts stories of Orkney provided a unique way of seeing the island and appreciating its heritage. Beyond its ghosts Orkney also has a rich history of folklore, many of which can be read in Tom Muir’s Orkney Folk Tales. These stories have the unique quality of giving life and context to places that are not necessarily ‘tourism hotspots’. As such there may be an opportunity here to use Orkney’s folklore and ghostly tales to develop alternative forms of tourism to help alleviate pressure on popular destinations. 

There is, however, a lesson to be learnt from Skye and the ways that folklore have been commercialised. Orkney offered us an authentic glimpse into its heritage through ghost stories, and this felt important not just as a visitor but for the people we spoke to. Stories may be an interesting way to share Orkney’s heritage in different ways, but how these are developed and offered will need careful consideration to ensure the people, place and past associated with them is represented in authentic and sustainable ways. 

orkney view

 

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Collective Paranormal Experiences

There are numerous explanations and theories regarding why paranormal experiences occur, and what they may be. Believers in the supernatural may argue that experiences are evidence of the existence of ghosts and the otherworldly. Skeptics, on the other hand, may explain such phenomena away as the result of environmental and psychological influences, perhaps even fraud or simply the ‘need’ to believe in something. Regardless of these debates, paranormal experiences are still a prevalent part of our human and indeed, social, experience.

Over the last six years my interest has been in the ‘social’ element of such experiences. It all started with an encounter of my own, and a subsequent interest in understanding collective experiences:

When I was a student I took part in paranormal investigations as part of a local group in Aberdeen. During one investigation we were spending the night in the local Tolbooth (an old Scottish jail). We had split into teams to investigate the building and I was sat with a fellow investigator in one of the old cells – the rest of the team were located in other parts of the building. I vividly remember that we were sitting eating some biscuits that we had bought on the investigation to keep us going through the night. We were taking a break – by this point it was in the early hours of the morning – and not actively ‘looking’ for anything. As we sat there, I started to notice what looked like a shape standing in the doorway to the other room. At first I thought it was just my imagination, and although I could see it, I was aware that it was not like seeing it with my eyes – almost like a vision overlaying reality. This ‘vision’ became clearer to the point where I could see a man standing in the doorway, dressed in old, quite ragged looking clothing. The experience was not at all scary, and did not even feel particularly real. My initial thought was that I was just tired. That was until my fellow investigator said, “can you see that?”. I proceeded to ask her what she could see, and her reply astounded me, “it looks like a man standing in the doorway”. I replied, “yes”, and asked her what she could see. Between us we both described exactly the same figure. After a short while the vision seemed to dissipate and we were both left puzzled by the encounter. Had we both just seen a ghost? Or somehow shared the exact same vision between us? 

I have had a number of paranormal experiences, I guess one of the reasons that I became interested in researching this area. Looking back I am fairly sure that many of these could be explained by rational causes, however, this one always fascinated me. It also became a significant experience for me because I had shared it with someone else, and therefore it felt more ‘real’.

As I continued my research in this area and started my doctoral research it became clear that social confirmation of paranormal experiences is an important component in our understanding of them. Collective experiences have formed part of our spiritual and social history for a long time, and even in this modern day we seek confirmation of such encounters together – consider for instance the significant rise of paranormal and ghost hunting groups. Given the nature of paranormal experiences, and the ontological questions that surround them, collective experiences also provide an affirmation to such events. If more than one person is involved in experiencing the ghost, it has the potential to negate the psychological component – i.e. “it was not just my imagination, because Sue saw it too”. This is not to say that having a collective experience proves the existence of ghosts, and the argument for environmental or collective psychological influences still remains. However, investigating how we come to see and understand paranormal events together can offer some interesting insights into the ways that the paranormal is experienced.

In my thesis, I address collective experiences in the context of paranormal groups. I appreciate, however, that this is a fairly chunky piece of bed time reading and as such over the next few blogs posts my aim is to explain these findings. In doing so, I will discuss how we come to notice paranormal events, discover them and ‘feel’ them collectively.

 

Mountain ghosts: otherworldly encounters in high places

Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when  I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…

I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences do not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:

Mount Everest, Nepal

The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival everestchallenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:

“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”

In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.

K2, China-Pakistan Border

The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be K2one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to 681px-Grandfather_Mountain_NCsleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.

Ben Macdui, Scotland

A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…

Ben-macdui-from-carn-liath

It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.