Phantoms in the family

If sheer quantity of ghosts is any indication, the world's most haunted family may well be the Bowes Lyons, earls of Strathmore. Their ancestral home, in County Angus, Scotland, is the dour and daunting Glamis Castle, a menacing edifice that Shakespear chose as the setting for Macbeth. Indeed, the eleventh-century Scottish king Malcolm II was stabbed death in Glamis, and his blood is still said to stain the floor in one of the castle's innumerable rooms. Glamis's many ghosts include a lady in gray, a small black boy, and a Strathmore earl who supposedly lost a card game with the devil. Also supposed to dwell in the castle is the shade of a monstrously deformed child who was once locked away by the family in a hidden room.

Though particularly replete with tales of ghosts, the Strathmores are by no means unique. The British Isles teem with stories of specters associated with specific counties, houses, or families. These wandering spirits may be explained away as shared imaginings that have been promoted by fireside tales and handed down through the years. But the fact remains that reported sightings of family ghosts persist, often related by reliable witnesses, through decades and even generations. Some stories tell of phantoms who seem to be kindly disposed toward their host families or, at worst, indifferent. But far more often, the appearance of the familial shade is said to augur death for a family member. Most family ghosts are harbingers of doom.

A red-haired revenant
Ireland abounds with tales of the banshee, a wailing creature whose visitation marks death. Her name in Gaelic is bansidhe - fairy woman - although most say she is not a fairy but a spirit who is sometimes malign. Banshees are linked by centuries-old legends to the great houses of Ireland, whose misfortunes are chronicled in the spirits' mournful cries or fiendish laughter.

In the seventeenth century, Lady Ann Fanshawe, visiting her friend Lady Honora O'Brien in Ireland, was awakened one night by and eerie voice. She peered through a window and saw a woman who seemed to hover just outside the glass. The phantom's body trailed into the mist, but her face, limned in moonlight, was clear - pale, green eyed, and lovely, framed by masses of red-gold hair. The apparition moaned three times, and then sighed and vanished.

When Lady Ann told her hostess of the flame-haired apparition the next morning, Lady Honora showed neither surprise nor alarm. She explained that centures before, a young woman was seduced and murdered by the castle's owner and her body buried beneath the room where Lady Ann had slept. One might wonder why the girl chose to attach herself to a family that had so mistreated her; nevertheless, Lady Honora said, the young victim became a banshee who would appear when any O'Brien died. Floating outside the window above her grave, she would keen for the family member's passing. The banshee appearance the previous night was no mystery to Lady Honora; at about the time Lady Ann saw the apparition, her hostess's cousin had died in the castle.

A malicious monk
The ghost of a spiteful monk who delighted in misfortune was said to haunt Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, England, the ancestral home of the colorful Byron family.

The abbey was the priory of the Black Augustine canons for almost 400 years. But in the sixteenth century King Henry VIII, angry with the Roman Catholic church for opposing the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, began confiscating church lands and parceling out some of them to his nobles. Newstead Abbey fell to the Byrons and remained in the family for the next 300 years. The last Lord Byron to inherit it was none other than the Romantic poet and handsome rakehell, George Gordon, who not only loved the estate but found fodder for his verse in the most notable of its several ghosts, the Black Friar.

No one knows who this restless soul might have been in life, but some believe that his shade, cowled and dark visaged, represented the church's curse on usurpers of its lands. Certainly the Black Friar seemed ill-disposed toward the Byrons. Legend tells that when a family member died, the phantom monk would bake a visit to gloat at the tragedy. Conversely, it would present a sorrowful face at happy occasions such as births. The appearance of the grief-strucken mien was the norm at most family weddings as well - but not all. The poet Lord Byron averred he saw the ghost looking cheerful enough at his own marriage to Annabella Milbanke, which he would come to describe as the unhappiest event of his life.

In his Don Juan, Byron alludes to the Black Friar:

By the marriage-bed of their lords, 'tis said,
He flits on the bridal eve;
And 'tis held as faith, to their bed of death
He comes - but not to grieve.

An unnatural daughter
Berry Pomeroy, a castle in South Devon, England, that dates back to the Tudor period, has fallen into ruin, but it is still said to house many ghosts. Among them is that of a beautiful young woman who was doomed by her own wickedness.

Her name was Margaret, daughter of an early baron of Pomeroy. She bore a child by her father and then strangled the infant. After her own death, her ghost was said to herald deaths among the Pomeroys and their retainers.

Among the many who supposedly saw her was Sir Walter Farquhar, an eminent physician of the late eighteenth century. While at Berry Pomeroy attending the ailing wife of the castle's steward, Sir Walter caught sight of a stunning young woman, who was wringing her hands in obvious distress. She started up a stairway and then paused and turned briefly toward the doctor. He saw her clearly in the light streaming through a stained-glass window before she vanished into one of the upper rooms.

The next day, Sir Walter asked the steward who the beautiful visitor on the staircase had been. To the doctor's immense surprise, the man cried out that he was sure her visit meant that his wife was dying. He related how Margaret had killed her child in the room above the staircase and how her ghost had ever since presaged the deaths of castle inmates, including that of his own son. The doctor assured the steward that the condition of his wife, who was far from dying, was in fact much better. Nevertheless, the steward would not be comforted. His wife died at noon that same day.

A tortured cat
The manor house of Oxenby in England, erected during the reign of Edward VI, was a gloomy building, faced with flint and buttressed with gray stone. Its ill-lit interior was not unlike "a subterranean chapel or charnel house," according to a schoolmistress named Mrs. Hartnoll, who had lived there as a girl.

According to the late Elliott O'Donnell, a former pupil of Mrs. Hartnoll's and a collector of ghostlore, the lady was a no-nonsense sort, not a person given to fantasy. But even she ascribed a pervasive eeriness to the old house. She told O'Donnell that one day she was walking along one of its shadowy corridors when a door creaked open and a huge black cat crept slowly through it. The creature had been horribly maltreated. One of its eyes and a hind paw were missing. It seemed to want comfort, but as it fell at the girl's feet it somehow vanished into the floor. That evening, the future schoolmistress's brother was killed in an incident.

She did not see the spectral cat again for another two years. Then it appeared to her near the same cobwebbed spot where she had first seen it. As before, the pathetic animal was maimed and bleeding, apparently in its death throes. That same day, the girl's mother died of a stroke. Nearly four years later the cat appeared to the girl yet once more, and by evening the father of the family was dead.

The manor's dark history includes the chilling tale of an orphaned boy whose father had once owned the estate. The monstrous guardian who had been named to care for the lad finally murdered his ward and tried to install as heir his own illegitimate son - but not before forcing the true heir to watch while he and his bastard mutilated and boiled the boy's pet cat.

A horrific hag
Undoubtedly the most repulsive of Great Britain's omen ghosts is the Gwrach-y-rhibyn, a phantom that belongs exclusively to Wales.

Her name literaly means "hag of the mist," but it is more commonly translated "hag of the dribble" or "dribbling hag." She is said to appear as a hideous old woman who features masses of matted hair, a beak nose, penetrating eyes, ans tusklike teeth. Her long arms end in clawed fingers, and scaly black wings that are as leathery as a bat's sprout from the middle of her crooked back. Differens as she looks from Ireland's lovely banshee, the Hag of the Dribble keens and cries like the Irish spirit and has a similar function: She foretells death. The fearsome apparition is believed to serve as doom's emissary to families of old Welsh blood. Some Welsh inhabitants claim actually to have seen her gorgonlike visage. Others know the ominous crose as a dry rasp of claws on a windowpane or a baleful swish of wings that are too large for any bird.

One ancient family said to be haunted by the Gwrach-y-rhibyn was that of the Stradings of South Wales. For 700 years, until the middle of the eighteenth century, the Stradlings occupied Saint Donat's Castle on the seashore of Glamorgan. The family eventually lost the estate, although, it seems, the Dribbling Hag continued to associate Saint Donat's with the Stradlings.

One night a guest at the castle awoke to the sound of a woman wailing and moaning beneath his window. He looked outside but darkness veiled whatever lurked there. Then he heard a tapping against the window, followed by the flapping of enormous wings. Some eldritch quality in the sounds so frightened the visitor that he crept back to bed, but only after lighting a lamp to burn until morning. By the light of day, the guest asked his hostess if her sleep the previous night had been troubled by strange moans and scratchings. She replied that it had and that she knew the creature who made the noises was the Gwrach-y-rhibyn. As if to confirm her words, news soon came to the castle that the last direct descendant of the Stradling family was dead.

A disembodied arm
According to legend, one branch of Scotland's MacKenzie clan is haunted by a spectral hand that manifests itself only under the grimmest of circumstances: Its appearance always signals the imminent death of a family member.

The ghost has been seen well into the twentieth century. On one occasion it supposedly materialized from the wall of a movie theater while a MacKenzie sat in the audience. In another instance, the arm reputedly appeared to a young woman in the family as she was about to leave her bedroom one morning.

Hearing something bang to the floor behind her, she turned and saw that a tall silver candlestick - a solid and heavy piece - had somehow fallen off a chest of drawers. She bent to pick it up, wondering what could have dislodged it. Suddenly she saw, protruding from the wall, a hand and forearm. The milk-white arm disappeared into the wall at the elbow. Its slender hand had tapering fingers and almond-shaped nails and clearly belonged to a woman.

Just as clearly, it had pushed the candlestick from its perch to the floor. Even as the young woman stared at it, the ghostly appendage slowly vanished. Knowing that the phantom hand played the role of death's messenger for the family, she feared for the life of her mother, who had been quite ill. Her qualms proved groundless, however; the mother recovered. But only a few days after the candlestick fell, the family received news that a cousin had died.

An ominous bird
Sir James Oxenham of Devon was in a merry mood - so the story goes - and with good cause. It was the night before the marriage of his only child, his beautiful daughter Margaret, and scores of guests had come to feast in her honor. She was marrying the man of her choice, a promising youth who was much to Sir James's liking. Both families were pleased, in fact, and celebration was the order of the evening.

Sir James making an expansive speech, thanking the guests for their attendance, when suddenly he paled and stuttered to a halt. Alarm rustled through the audience, but at last he recovered his self-possession. He went on with the speech, but its former joviality was missing, and he hastened toward a conclusion. After the banquet, Sir James confided to a trusted servant the reason for his distress.

As he was speaking, the nobleman said, he saw a white-breasted bird appear, seemingly from nowhere, and fly toward Margaret. It circled her several times and then flew away. The servant needed no further explanation, since he knew well the story that a phantom bird had long haunted the Oxenham family. At last since the sixteenth century, and probably much earlier, the white bird hade been seen to hover near the deathbeds of Oxenhams. For generations it had been the family's harbinger of death. The servant tried to comfort his master, but it was no use. Sir James said he knew that Margaret was in mortal peril.

The nobleman's fears proved to be well founded. No sooner had the marriage service begun the next morning than an altar tapestry billowed out and a man who had been hiding behind it thrust his dagger through the fabric of Margaret's wedding gown and into her heart. She fell dead at the feet of her horrified groom. The assassin, a rejected suitor of the bride's, then stabbed himself to death with the bloody knife.

A headless horseman
In Scotland members of the MacLaine clan from the district of Lochbuie shun the nocturnal sound of clattering hooves and a jingling bridle. They fear the sight of a spectral horse bearing a headless rider who forebodes death.

The name of the rider is Ewen of the Little Head. Ewen was the son and heir of a MacLaine chief, but the son envied the father's wealth and fell to feuding with him. There was much inconclusive bickering between the two men, and at last both parties sought to settle the matter by force of arms.

In 1538 father and son led their partisants into battle, and the son was beheaded by one of his father's followers. From that time into the twentieth century, many witnesses have told how the headless Ewen rides to harvest the souls of Lochbuie MacLaines.

Ironically, this messenger of doom supposedly had a deadly omen of his own. According to one story, on the evening before the fatal skirmish, Ewen met up with the Faery Washing-Woman, a Scottish folklore figure akin to the Irish banshee and the Welsh Hag of the Dribble. On the eve of battles, it was her dire function to wash blood from the garments of combatants who were destined to die. Ewen was walking along a stream when he saw the old woman crouched by the water, rinsing a pile of blood-stained shirts. He asked her if his own shirt was there, and the hag replied that it was. But he might avoid his doom, she added, if the next morning his wife, with no prompting, served him butter with breakfast. Unfortunately, Ewen's wife was an indifferent cook, and no butter appeared on the table. The luckless man stoically munched his dry bread, then rode to battle that morning knowing he would not ride home that night.