Duncan Lunan, astronomer and author, from Troon, Ayrshire, shares his experiences of living in a haunted house in Irvine, Ayrshire, during the 1970’s.
In December 1974 I met my first wife, and we quickly formed a serious relationship. My parents were away looking after a sick relative in the south of England, and her parents were bothered by the 10-year gap in our ages. (We announced our engagement at her 19th birthday in January 1975, and the following morning she was dismissed as a Police Cadet for the unforgiveable offence of forming a relationship with a writer, even though I wasn’t a journalist.) In order to spend weekends together we took to organising parties at my parents’ house in Troon, after the ASTRA meetings on Saturdays, and we kept up the practise once we had a place of our own.
We married in the spring of 1975, and during the summer we were invited to become the caretakers of an 18th century house above a pub in Irvine. The lease-owner wanted a reliable couple to occupy the house and prevent burglars from ripping up the floorboards to get at the spirit store below, which had happened three times in the previous month while the house was vacant.
When we moved in, a couple of odd things caught our attention. One was that the staircase was boarded up for no good reason, blocking access to the perfectly good attic bedrooms above which we promptly reclaimed. The hall door inside the porch showed signs of having been repeatedly forced, because, we were told, previous tenants had locked themselves out and kicked the door in. What we weren’t told was that the previous caretakers had all been single and had left due to haunting: a few months later I met one, who told me he’d quit after seeing a door open and close in front of him with nobody there.
Even before that, we had become aware that the house had ‘presences’ who, for the most part, were pleased to see us – because we were a couple and because we were regularly throwing parties. One striking incident was when the young Bill Ramsay (later ASTRA President and an SNP candidate) decided to crash out early, in a sleeping bag in my workroom. Within 30 minutes he was back, white-faced, and drew me aside to ask, “Duncan, is this place haunted?” By that time I was used to it and just said, “Oh yes”. Something invisible had been prodding him and telling him not to be unsociable, get up and rejoin the party.
Each room had its own presence and only the one in our bedroom seemed to be in any way hostile (see below). The house had been built before Robert Burns lived in Glasgow Vennel nearby, and the presence in the living room definitely knew him. Any time anything about Burns came on the TV, there was an immediate sense of a third person in the room and what had caught their interest: Lorna and I would turn to each other and say, “He’s here again,” or just turn to empty space and say, “Good evening”.
The weirdest of all episodes came at the end of a party, for which we had lashed out and completed my collection of Beatles records with the last few of the singles, which had just been re-released. The late Chris Boyce was staying over, and after he went to bed, we decided to give the discs a final spin.
As we did so, the most extraordinary impression came over both of us, that something was trying to make my wife look like Chris’s wife. My wife didn’t then know her and was only aware that her own expression had changed without her volition. It was so strong that I got Chris up to look. He was very sleepy and couldn’t really verify it, other than to say that my wife certainly looked very different. What was really strange was that I could identify the presence responsible and it wasn’t any of our ghosts, but Chris’s father, the late Peter Boyce, whom I knew well but who had never met my wife. Even stranger was that Peter was then alive and well, though shortly afterwards he suffered a stroke and on the one time we all met thereafter, he couldn’t recognise me, much less register who my wife was.
Throughout most of this I remained convinced that we weren’t dealing with independent, conscious entities, but just an interaction between our minds (knowing we were both sensitive to such things) and remnant presences of the previous occupants of the house – like Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tapes. The one incident that really didn’t gibe with that came in October 1979, when ASTRA and the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project jointly staged the High Frontier Exhibition at the Third Eye Centre (now the CCA) in Sauchiehall Street. It was the biggest space exhibition held in the UK to date, and we received large numbers of duplicate posters, some of which I brought home and put up in our hall. They included the classic Voyager image of Io and Europa seen against Jupiter’s southern hemisphere and the Great Red Spot; photographs of the Earth, closeups of Europe and Britain from the new Meteosat 1 weather satellite in geosynchronous orbit; and a large blow-up of the prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise preparing to land in the glide tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
All the rooms in the house went quiet, but I would have defied anyone but the most insensitive to walk down the hall, even with all the lights on, without saying, “Excuse me”. The overwhelming impression was that the ghosts had gone out into the hall to look at the pictures – and when the effect ceased, my wife asked me to take them down.
There were also poltergeist effects, of a sort, but we didn’t immediately associate those with the house. My family supposedly has a ‘friendly’ but mischievous ghost called Esmeralda, part of the traditions I grew up with: whenever anything went unaccountably missing, my mother, aunt and/or cousin would cry “Esmeralda”. However the effect moved with us to Irvine. Examples included a large and expensive card which I bought her for our first anniversary, which had disappeared when I went to fetch it and reappeared, four years later, on top of a shelf of reference books which I consulted every day. Similarly a batch of urgent mail which my sister-in-law gave me to post turned up fifteen months later, on a bookshelf where it couldn’t have sat unnoticed for a day. When Heather Coles was staying with us (see below), she got in big trouble with her mother for losing a scarf which turned up overnight in the middle of the living-room floor. It’s characteristic of Esmeralda events that when things reappear, it’s always where they couldn’t have been overlooked for so long.
When we first set up house, one of my wife’s relatives was clearing a house belonging to the late mother of a friend, and we were offered free choice. Among other things we picked a handsome chiming clock which had been won in a 1930s motorcycle competition by a brother of the deceased lady. It proved to have a weakness, namely a weak linkage which tended to snap if the clock was moved, as it had to be to be wound up, and would then cause it to run down and stop.
There came a point in 1980 and 1981 where it was broken yet again, and would have to be taken to Troon to be repaired. I had fairly recently turned over a desk in the living room for my wife’s use (following Heinlein’s advice in “Time Enough for Love”) and she had taken to wearing a World War 2 wristwatch of my father’s, whose weakness was that the winding wheel had a tendency to snap off. It was in the desk, in that condition, when we watched a TV programme about Uri Geller and his claims to be able to mend watches and clocks remotely. We were discussing this afterwards and agreeing it was implausible, when the clock began chiming and a check revealed that it was running with the linkage repaired. We then checked the watch in the desk and apparently the winding wheel had ‘grown’ back on. My wife found both extremely upsetting.
I’ve discussed this incident since with sceptics, who replay that ‘obviously’ she had secretly taken both to the repairers in Troon to wind me up. I don’t buy that because I was working at home at the time, we were both very hard up and staying in as much as possible, and I don’t see how she could have left the house for that length of time without my noticing. The clock was definitely not running during the programme, because it chimed the quarter hours. And they didn’t see her genuine distress at the thought that this effect, whatever it was, might have been channelled through her.
We both became convinced that the whole Esmeralda effect emanates from a family heirloom, a bureau which my other loved as a child. It was in her family’s summer home at Frinton, and when she heard that my grandfather was selling the house and its contents, she was sufficiently upset that he instructed his agent to buy back the bureau, ‘money no object’. I still have it and the effect still happens. It once occurred to me that ‘Esmeralda’ might be my grandfather, whom I never knew, having fun at my expense, but my mother’s reply was that he had no sense of humour and would have hated me.
In 1981 events took a new turn when my former Secretary Jean Coles and her 12-year-old daughter Heather came to live with us for two short periods, one while waiting for a Council house in Irvine and the other after a fire there. Jean began reprimanding her for letting herself into house after school and running upstairs without first greeting us. But my wife and I had heard this sound day after day for the previous six years. There were connecting floor beams running through the house into the one next door, converted into an outfitter’s, ‘The Adam Shop’, and we had always supposed that the sound was simply carrying through – always between 4 and 4.30 p.m.. But then we realised that the sound of the door opening and closing did appear to be within our house; Heather didn’t have a key; and previous tenants had blocked off the stairs, and left because of doors opening and closing by themselves.
I mentioned above that the bedroom we used appeared to have a less welcoming presence: it was often cold and I frequently suffered from nightmares. We didn’t move across the landing because the house’s hot water supply was used by the pub, so the timer on the thermostat was disconnected and the hot tank bubbled all night. One night in 1981, however, we had a house full of guests and Heather slept on a camp bed in our room. I woke up to find her disturbed in her sleep, twisting around, grunting and gnashing her teeth. Hanging on the wall above her appeared to be something like the cloak worn by the Somerset apparition, without the human figure, and the feeling of cold in the room was intense. After perhaps half a minute, it lifted off the wall and flapped through the closed window, at which the conditions in the room immediately eased and Heather slept quietly. I have never been sure whether that really happened or I dreamed it – but the atmosphere in the room was more pleasant from then on.
Nevertheless, events were moving against us, and in July 1982 family pressures forced us to split up. Six weeks later my landlord evicted me because I was no longer fulfilling the conditions of the rental, i.e. we were no longer a couple, even though my sister, her husband and my 3-year-old nephew were living with me. Alan and Mary were both still semi-invalid after spells in hospital and the move was very difficult.
Duncan’s book Children From The Sky is released this summer – more details on that and his other work here