The Strange Little Harper of Inveraray by M J Steel Collins

Inveraray Castle, sits near the town of Inveraray on the banks of Loch Fyne in Argyll and Bute about 60 miles away from Glasgow. The third castle to be built on this site, it is a pretty confection of grey stone and turrets of the sort you might associate with tales of beautiful princesses and happy endings. But it has inherited a history of the kind you might not want to be telling the kiddies in bed at night.
The site of the castle has been home to Clan Campbell since the early 1400s. Once one of the most powerful clans in Scotland, they weren’t afraid of throwing their weight about, earning them an enemy or six after a fashion. Come the 1640s, Archibald Campbell, Clan Chief and the Marquess of Argyll, was in practice, the head of Scotland. An ardent Covenanter, he found himself caught up in the chaos of civil war raging throughout Britain at the time.  In December 1644, Inveraray and its castle were sacked and burned by an army led by James Graham, the First Marquess of Montrose, who had a lot of beef to grind with the Marquess of Argyll. The attack saw Argyll fleeing from his burning castle down Loch Fyne in a rowing boat. Whilst he escaped, Montrose’s men killed 800 men, women and children in the streets of Inveraray. Even the animals were slaughtered and crops destroyed. Those that survived were left to fend for themselves in the notoriously harsh Scottish winter.
In the chaos, the Marquess of Argyll’s harp player was left behind. Some sources say that this was in disgrace because he was caught spying on the Lady of the House through a key hole. The Harper was soon found by Montrose’s men and hanged. Time, as it always does from these gory incidences, passed on. The wars and fighting ended. Both the Marquesses of Montrose and Argyll were executed. Plans were drawn up to build the third Inveraray Castle in 1720, which was eventually finished in 1789. And the Harper’s ghost still roamed, as he does today.
He’s not the only wraith to be found at Inveraray Castle, but certainly seems to be the head of the ghostly pack. Other spirits to be found include that of a young woman murdered by the Jacobites, who still seems to be running from her killers. A grey lady walks the castle corridors, seen only by daughters of the Duke. There is believed to be the ghost of a young boy, another victim of the 1644 carnage, who was dismembered after being killed. Something Nasty lurks in the MacArthur room, putting some folk off spending a lot of time there. A ghostly galleon sails down Loch Fyne, then onto the land, stopping at the castle when the Dukes, who are also the Clan Campbell Chiefs, shuffle off the mortal coil. But it is the Harper who commands all the attention, and his story is intertwined with some of his aforementioned comrades.
The Harper is believed to haunt the Green Library. For over a hundred years, there have been strange noises, as if a pile of books had fallen, heard in the library. Yet, when someone has gone to investigate, everything is still in its place and nothing can account for the noise. Peter Underwood notes in his classic Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts, it is usually only family members who hear it. Guests very rarely hear it if they are present at the same time. The Harper’s music at one time could be heard coming from the Blue Room, when no harps were present in the castle.
Women are a particular favourite of the Harper – the Duchesses of Argyll have seen him more than Dukes. It is most often women who encounter him. He is believed to be a friendly ghost, who likes to make his presence known in cheeky ways. One thing he is partial to is apparently to throw books around. People visiting the library may inexplicably burst into hysterical laughter. Reminiscent of the ghostly galleon that sails up to the castle when a Duke of Argyll dies, the Harper also becomes more active when a Duke dies. Female visitors most often see around the Harper’s apparition at the time of a Duke’s death and the subsequent funeral. Although, the Harper has extended his presence to men at these times too; in 1949, the 10th Duke of Argyll, Niall Diarmid Campbell lay dying at Inverary Castle, the doctor and local minister at his side. Suddenly both the doctor and minister heard the sound of harp music wafting down the hall, and went to investigate. They found no one there. When they returned to the bedroom, the 10th Duke had passed away.
The Harper was especially feisty in October 1922 on the death of Lord Breadalbane, an important member of Clan Campbell. The 10thDuke felt ill the night before the funeral, and took to his bed, deciding he wouldn’t be able to go to the funeral. The Duke’s sister, Lady Elspeth, and Ian Douglas Campbell, who succeeded as the 11th Duke, were sitting in the library, when they heard a tremendous racket, like the sounds of books being thrown about, coming from the turret room attached to the library. The door to the room then opened by itself, before something invisible shuffled into the library. Lady Elspeth and Ian Campbell rushed to inform the Duke what had happened. He said it was perhaps the Harper responding to the death of Lord Breadalbane, as the ghost often did this when a great clansman had passed. The Duke believed that the Harper was probably angry that the Duke, as Clan Chief, decided he wasn’t going to the funeral. This is recounted in Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.
In a metamorphism strange even to the realm of ghost legends, the tale of the Harper underwent a bizarre change from its documentation in Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book to the present day. The latter, published in the 1930s, described the Harper as being an old man, who was hung from a tree in 1644 by Montrose’s forces. By 2010, Alan Murdie wrote in the Fortean Times (FT 266), that the story had undergone a dramatic change. The Harper was now a young Irish lad aged 12 or 13 years, who had been found by Montrose’s men, killed and dismembered, with his body parts thrown on the bed in the MacArthur room after. His spirit now haunted the room. This is how the tale is told on the Inveraray Castle website.
Most Hauntedpicked up on this thread of the tale in the episode on the castle, without explicitly referring to the ghost in the MacArthur room as that of the Harper – they were apparently being ‘teased’ by his ghost in the library. They did however recite the tale of this mysterious young lad meeting his grisly end in the vicinity of the MacArthur room, and claiming to pick up on a dark energy associated with this event. Add to that, there’s the strange conundrum that seems to come out of an event that happened in 1644 suddenly occurring in a room of a castle that was built over 100 years later. But the official Inveraray website clears this up by saying the bed in the MacArthur room was moved from the old castle into the new castle, the boy’s ghost coming with it through attachment. Still, it is a bit of an odd one that the bed didn’t burn in the 1644 sacking if it was an original.
It is probably the usual case of two ghosts merging into one, as so often happens as these tales develop over time. Though this kind of change does seem to have come about rather quickly. Interestingly enough, Lily Seafield notes that the spirit of a servant boy roams the castle in her book Scottish Ghosts; maybe he’s the poor unfortunate that was killed and cut to pieces. Owing to the nature of Scots history, with its many alleged events, all we can do is speculate. I’m fairly convinced they are two different ghosts, and that the old tale of the Harper as an old man is the correct one. It’s been the more pervasive through time.

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