FRANCES ABBOT remembers moving to her new Scottish Highlands community and discovering the mystery surrounding the former home of Aleister Crowley, The Beast of Boleskine House
I am a city girl born and bred. I used to like the feel of pavements under my feet and the smell from exhaust fumes in my nostrils until I transferred my family to the beauty and tranquillity of the Highlands of Scotland to take charge of a small rural school on the bank of a peaty-brown river that flows down to Loch Ness.
We soon knew most of our neighbours (anyone who lived within a five mile radius) and it wasn’t long before we were invited to a party in a big house down by the shores of the loch, Boleskine House.
“I wouldn’t go there, if I were you,” the school cook told me. “That place is haunted.” She didn’t elaborate, just said that you wouldn’t catch her walking by there at night.
Ghosts of Boleskine House – home of Aleister Crowley
By this time I had been regaled with many stories of ghosts and hauntings. Just up the road there was the bridge over which a bridal carriage had fallen carrying bride and groom to their deaths over the waterfall and where you could hear wailing at a certain time of the year.
Then there was the old disused hunting lodge, set in a spectacularly scenic spot for a picnic; a house that beckoned the curious in for a wary investigation of its echoing rooms. This was haunted by a white lady, but no one could tell us why she flitted through the gloomy chambers of the servants’ quarters.
Despite the host of tales, we neither heard nor saw anything remotely out of the ordinary as we went about our lives, so I took the haunting of Boleskine House with a degree of scepticism.
It was a winter night, cold, dark, cloudless and starry when we got out of the car at Boleskine. The sound that greeted us made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and transported me from the present day to a gothic past. Images from Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invaded my imagination; straight out of a horror movie came the deep-throated baying of large hounds. Happily, if rather prosaically, these turned out to be two dobermans chained in their kennel.
The house at that time belonged to a famous rock musician, who visited only occasionally. It was occupied by the family of an old school friend of his. And, in between the smoking and drinking and dancing and having a whale of a time, he told us of another famous owner, the person who had given the house its fearsome reputation in the minds of the local population.
“The Wickedest Man in the World”
Aleister Crowley, infamous occultist, mystic, magician and self-styled Great Beast 666, bought the house in 1899 specifically to perform an elaborate ritual which would call forth four powerful demons to help him further his magic.
In one of his many books he says, “I was not content to believe in a personal devil and serve him in the ordinary sense of the word. I wanted to get hold of him and personally become his chief of staff”.
BBC Scotland once did a documentary on Crowley called The Other Loch Ness Monster. He did style himself Lord Boleskine, but he is widely known in the area of Inverness as The Beast of Boleskine.
The press of the time called him The Wickedest Man in the World, a title he readily accepted. Even today one website labels him as The Master Satanist of the Twentieth Century. His creed was Do What You Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law, and he acted on it. He was, in the language of the day, a libertine. In other words he had lots of sex and sex undoubtedly played a role in some of his rituals. He was no stranger to drugs either. He is quoted as saying, ordinary morality is for ordinary people. He certainly was not ordinary. But did he or his raised demons haunt his former house?
Back at the party we were told that the occupants were firmly of the belief that the house was haunted. They heard footsteps in the middle of the night, felt cold unexplained draughts and when entering the dining room would find the chairs all moved from their places. There was even speculation about a tunnel that once existed running to the ancient graveyard over the road from the house.
I seem to remember symbols carved in stonework inside the house, but I must say I did not experience any frisson of fear that evening, not even when the dogs did their howling act on our departure, but some years later I was transferred to the school that served the area of Boleskine House and, while I was doing research for a project on the locality, I came across the history of the old graveyard.
History of Boleskine churchyard
In a slim volume called An Account of the Kirk of Boleskine compiled from parish archives it is recorded that in the second half of the 17th century the minister, one Thomas Houston whose intricately carved stone is still to be seen in the graveyard, was called from his manse when a notorious local wizard raised the bodies of the dead. He had the unenviable task of laying them to rest again.
Conditions in the graveyard at that period were grisly. One traveller wrote in his journal, after dinner we took a walk to see the Kirk of Boleskine, the poorest Edifice of any kind I ever looked upon, as is also the manse. The Church-yard is quite open without any walls, where you see plenty of human bones above ground, and the floor of the kirk is overspread with them. But how much was I shocked to hear … that sometimes the dogs are seen carrying the human bones in their teeth. Pity poor Thomas Houston, all this and wizards too.
On my next visit to the graveyard I sat on the wall and thought of the old minister hurrying out of his manse to put the dead back in their graves and wondered what he would have made of Crowley raising demons on his patch. Perhaps something sinister did draw The Beast of Boleskine to this particular site. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
FRANCES ABBOT has gone from writing plays to be performed by children and arts/community groups to writing short stories and is now writing a crime novel. You can follow her on twitter @AbbotFabbot.
EXTRA: Becoming the Beast Aleister Crowley
(Article originally published on Spooky Isles on 18 September 2012)
Actor and writer JOHN BURNS talks about his arduous journey to inhabit the mind of Aleister Crowley, one of the most notorious occultists of the 20th Century
What does a man see in his life time? What experiences shape and mould him from the outside and, perhaps more importantly, what happens within his own mind that drives him and makes him become the man he is? These are the questions any writer has to ask himself about anyone he is trying to recreate on the stage. Writing my one man play about Crowley was a journey, a journey to some dark and terrifying places.
They call him The Beast and thousands still follow him today, Crowley lives on in his writings and his influence and is one of the towering figures of his age. He was a leading mountaineer, a poet, a novelist, his experiments with drugs and sexual accesses led him to be reviled in Victorian England. So much so that the Daily Mail dubbed him The Wickedest Man in the World and campaigned for him to be hung.
It was his exploration of the occult that gave Crowley his greatest notoriety. Son of a Plymouth Brethren preacher he grew up as a devout Christian but, when his father died, when Crowley was 11 years old, he cast aside his religion and went in search of a different faith. He explored many of the world’s religions only to reject them finally finding solace in what he called Magick, an old faith with its roots in paganism.
Crowley was hedonistic in the way he lived and fearless in his search for the truth. His life is surrounded by myth, half-truths and complete lies, many of them created by Crowley himself. Finding out who he was led me into a labyrinthine world, just as I got close to him he would slip away into another dark corner and present me with another facet of his character.
Standing back stage, about to go on and become Crowley, is an eerie experience. I try to let all the things that he would have seen and experienced in his life flood through my mind. It’s at times like that I feel he is close, sometimes very close indeed. This is a man the world should not forget, a man who teetered on the divide between genius and madness. Which side did he fall? That’s something you must decide.