The Victorian era saw an explosion of interest in claims related to the paranormal with séances in every parlour and a ghost lurking in every shadow. Despite his commitment to Catholicism John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute was not immune to this craze for all things ghostly and he was deeply interested in the paranormal and the work of the Society for Psychical Research. He developed a friendship and correspondence with founder of the society, Frederick William Henry Myers, and prominent society member Ada Goodrich Freer.
The Society for Psychical Research was set up in 1882, the first of its kind, and the founders hoped “to approach these varied problems [of the paranormal] without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated.”
The 3rd Marquess of Bute was a dedicated student of many subjects and was not content to remain an armchair scholar. It was with Ada Goodrich Freer, who styled herself as ‘Miss X’, that he investigated the apparent haunting at Ballechin House in Perthshire.
Ballechin House was built in 1806 on the site of an older manor house which had been the home of the Steuart family since the Fifteenth Century. In 1834 Major Robert Steuart inherited the house and rented it to tenants while serving in the Indian Army. In India Major Steuart became interested in reincarnation, often claiming he would return in the form of a dog; when he returned to Ballechin in 1850 he lived, unmarried, with his many dogs. After the death of the Major his nephew, John Skinner, fearing his uncle would return, shot all the dogs in his newly inherited home and forced the Major to haunt the house as an incorporeal spirit. A maid witnessed the first haunting in 1876.
In 1896 ‘Miss X’ and Lord Bute investigated these claims and recorded their observations in their book The Alleged Haunting of B— House published in 1900. During their investigation the Marquess read aloud from the Office for the Dead, a prayer cycle for the souls of the dead, in various haunted spots throughout the house.
‘…Neither he nor any one with him saw or heard anything, unless it was the sound of women talking and laughing while he was reading the Office about 10.30pm in No.8 and this he supposed was simply maids going to bed, though in fact the room overhead was unoccupied.’
‘He had, however, a most disagreeable impression, not in the places where he expected it…the sensation was that of persons being present, and on the second occasion that of violent hatred and hostility… [and] on this last occasion as though they were only morosely unfriendly.’
Mr MacPhail, a barrister, who had joined the ghost hunt commented that ‘with the frequent occurrence of the words Requiem eternam &c., might be as irritating to Intelligences which desired to communicate, as would be the effect of saying merely ‘keep still’ or ‘be quiet’ to persons who wished to set forth their wrongs. But this curious hypothesis would be insufficient to account for a sensation of absolute enmity.’
Throughout the course of their visit various examples of ‘audile phenomena’ were recorded and published in the appendix of their book. ‘Miss X’ and Lord Bute offered no conclusions based on their investigations instead stating ‘The editors offer no conclusions. This volume has been put together, as the house at B____ was taken, not for the establishment of theories but for the record of facts.’
Unfortunately for Ada Goodrich Freer (Lord Bute died in 1900, the year of the book’s publication) the Society for Psychical Research quickly discredited the reports and findings from Ballechin House. After accusations of fraud were leveled at Freer, Myers and the Society turned their back on the whole affair; as a woman with influence in a society formed by men ‘Miss X’ seemed more dangerous to them than the spirits they were pursuing. Myers condemned the findings from Ballechin House saying ‘I greatly doubt there was anything supernormal’. As the majority of the apparent hauntings had been experienced by Freer alone this gave her far too much authority in the investigation, ghost hunters were generally male, so the Society turned her ghosts against her suggesting it had all been in her head.
In 1902 Ada Goodrich Freer ended her association with the Society and Ballechin House was finally demolished in 1963, taking its ghosts, if there ever were any, with it.