By JULIA HORTON
A STRANGE light is swirling in the dark rain-filled sky above Hailes Castle. Beneath it, four shadowy figures emerge through the gloom next to a ruined tower, their faces obscured in the dark of the night.
As they approach, a weird yellowish glow appears to surround them and an ominous whirring sound fills the air, getting louder and more alien with every step.
Suddenly one of the figures speaks: “Well, I’ve never seen anything like that before, have you Ryan?”
Meet the leading lights of Scottish Paranormal, dubbed (by their own website) Scotland’s “premier” investigative group. While none of them is sure what is causing the swirling light above them, the source of the noise and yellow glow is easily traced – to the group’s wind-up torches.
It’s no joke, these are apparently a crucial piece of equipment when it comes to ghost-hunting as spirits apparently have a nasty habit of draining the power source of normal torches.
As real-life ghostbusters go, they seem refreshingly open to the idea that headless horsemen and the like are all a load of nonsense. But they are all also clearly desperate to prove that the banging noises and visions of white ladies which locals have reported at Hailes Castle in East Lothian are really supernatural happenings.
With a past including prisoners kept in pits and tortured with burning oil, and a brief and unpleasant stay by Scotland’s most commonly seen ghost, Mary Queen of Scots, the castle’s history is definitely grim enough to make it a suitable home for the odd unhappy spirit.
And after speaking to people in the area, four members of the group are undertaking a series of visits to try and find evidence of paranormal activity – evidence which, if the public fascination with television shows like Most Haunted proves, many people believe exists.
As the swirling vanishes, head investigator Ryan O’Neill, a 28-year-old tourism student, leads his team towards a wall and gets out a grey gadget about the size of an old Sony Walkman. It’s an electromagnetic frequency (EMF) meter, which he is using to try and find evidence of ghostly activity after the team’s medium, Ewan Irvine, picked up feelings of “sadness” in the area.
Waving it at the wall, Ryan says: “There was a slight reading, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by the earth’s natural magnetic field. It can pick up EMF from TVs, cables, that kind of thing.”
Next, Ryan takes out the laser thermometer. Aiming it at the wall, Ryan takes the temperature, which is about 13C. Again, nothing unusual so far.
Moving into the ruined 15th century chapel, its roof open to the sky, Ewan, a 37-year-old Edinburgh civil servant, sits listening for voices from the other side.
“I keep getting the year 1648,” he says as he begins a running commentary of the information he is gleaning from the spirits around him.
Suddenly the peaceful atmosphere is broken by a clattering in the corner. Could it be Mary Queen of Scots?
Er no, more like remaining team members Mary Cunningham and her husband Jim as muttering reveals someone accidentally knocked over some equipment.
Meanwhile, Ewan is getting an earful from a very unhappy monk-like spirit. “When we first came in here someone shouted ‘You Jesuit!’. It’s definitely a guy who is active in this area. He is robed, and he’s not too happy about us being here,” Ewan explains.
Far from being scared that a furious friar might be about to unleash all manner of supernatural horrors, they are keen to goad the riled religious spirit into action. Foregoing any gadgetry this time, Ryan places a pad of lined paper on the ground in the bakehouse. On it Ewan places a cross which he takes from a chain around his neck.
Ryan draws around it, and a two pence coin, and then sets up a night-vision camcorder and leaves it filming as they head off to the nearby oven area.
The idea is that the cross and coin are “trigger” objects which spirits will move to prove that they are there.
“I just heard a bee in my ear,” says Ewan. “Me too,” says Mary. At that point an insect looking ominously like one of Scotland’s infamous midgies appears – apparently no respecter of paranormal investigations.
As Jim scribbles notes on proceedings by the fading light of his wind-up torch, Mary records everything with a night-vision camcorder and the rest of the team check readings on their respective gadgets. These also include a simple Dictaphone which they sometimes leave recording in the hope that it will pick up voices they cannot hear at the time.
Mary explains: “Once when we played it back there was a voice which sounded like it was saying ‘Come Ryan!’ That was strange.”
Still listening to the spirits Ewan suddenly says: “When was the time of the Jacobites?” The biggest silence yet descends on the room before Ryan eventually replies: “Now you’re asking.”
Leaving the research until later, when they will check historical records to try and link their findings to hard facts, they move on.
It is now about 9.30pm on a dark, wet Friday night and the rain is threatening again. Moving outside again to one of the two castle prison pits, the team explain why they love what they do.
Jim, a carer, and Mary, who are both in their 50s and now live in Glenrothes, became interested after Mary started hearing footsteps in their former home 30 years ago. Jim says: “She thought she heard me in the house when I wasn’t there. Then I started hearing things too and it went from there. We decided to join the group to find out more. I’m a firm believer. And we both really want to see a ghost.
Mary, a housewife, adds: “I didn’t believe until these things started happening. I’ve heard plenty of knocks and bangs but I really want to see something. One of my friends has stopped talking to me, I think she thinks I’m loopy, but other friends and my family are all quite interested.”
Ryan and Ewan also have similar tales explaining their interest. Two years ago Ryan, from Kirkcaldy, set up the group to try and find out once and for all if the paranormal is fact or fiction.
He says: “I wanted to prove or disprove paranormal activities. I’ve only been scared once, in Mary King’s Close, when I saw a shadow when nobody was there. I was so shocked, I couldn’t speak at first. I still don’t think I’ve seen a ghost yet, though. I’ve still got an open mind. My wife Carrie has a wee giggle now and again but she’s interested in it too.”
Reaction from the couple’s children, aged 18 months, four, six and nine, is far more positive. Ryan adds: “The older ones think dad’s a ghostbuster!”
The group now does public events, taking people on investigations of haunted spots. But although he and Ewan are taking part in TV’s Most Haunted when it comes to Edinburgh next week, Ryan is quick to point out that, “it’s not like the television. A lot if people expect it to be non-stop bangs and noises but it’s not like that. Usually if something happens it is over in five minutes.”
At the end of the night they head back to the paper with the cross to find that it has moved about half a centimetre on the page. Ewan says quickly: “The one who did that was the robed religious guy.”
More cautious, Ryan brings his fist down hard next to the pad to see if that moves the cross. When it doesn’t he beams: “I’m quite shocked. There’s no draught, no vibration. I’m standing here thinking someone moved that.”
Someone had. But sadly for paranormal fans the footage revealed that it was not a spirit but a living, breathing photographer.
So after three hours there have been no sightings of white ladies or strange bangs in the darkness. But with plenty of leads to follow up after Ewan’s communications with the spirit world the team are still investigating the castle, and plan to go back next year.
CASTLE’S UNSAVOURY ROYAL CONNECTION
HAILES CASTLE lies above the river Tyne near the East Lothian village of East Linton.
Records show that it was given to the Hepburn family during the reign of King David II (1329-1371).
In 1567, the 4th Earl of Bothwell abducted Mary Queen of Scots and shortly afterwards married her. Mary, above, stayed briefly at Hailes Castle before being taken to Loch Leven Castle where she was help captive.
Over the following years Hailes Castle passed to Hercules Stewart and then to the Setons.
In the 18th century it was bought by David Dalrymple, who became the new Lord Hailes, but by the 1800s it was being used as a granary.