Built in 1806, Ballechin’s reputation as a haunted house* followed the death of its owner, Major Robert Steuart, in 1876. Most histories of the haunting refer to Steuart by his posthumously accorded nickname, “the Wicked Major”, though his depredations seem to have been limited to a clandestine affair with a housekeeper and a compulsion to fill his home with dogs. Semi-invalid by the time of his tenancy at Ballechin, he had formerly served in India where he developed a belief in transmigration. As he hirpled laboriously around the great house, he frequently repeated the desire that one of the dogs should inherit his spirit. Relatives, to whom, presumably, the Major had failed to endear himself while human, thwarted this ambition by ordering a canine cull within hours of his death. Not surprisingly, among the first supernatural phenomena reported in the house was the pungent odour of dogs. Aural manifestations followed, including the Major’s limping gait, knocks and the sound of voices quarrelling. Visitors to the house complained of a presence in their rooms, some claiming that their bed-clothes had been violently removed by unseen hands. While sceptics suggested the phenomena had less to do with the Major’s ghost than the building’s irregular construction, the manifestations became so pronounced that, in 1883, an annexe was built for the security of the family children.
In 1897, Ballechin’s notoriety was such that the Society for Psychical Research, backed financially by Lord Bute, rented the property for three months with the intention of conducting an investigation. The research team comprised Ada Goodrich Freer (the Irene Adler of the spiritualist craze), Constance Moore and Colonel G.L. Le Mesurier Taylor who negotiated the let with the Steuarts, apparently assuring them that the house was intended as a base for a fishing holiday. Forty or so independent witnesses were also invited to stay in the house for periods of one to three nights. The results were inconclusive: Freer and Moore both reported sightings of nuns, identified after consultation with a ouija board as ‘Ishbel’ and ‘Marget’ (though Moore’s testimony was tainted by the suspicion that she might have been unduly influenced by her famously strong-willed friend.) Some of the other ‘investigators’ left accounts of minor disturbances, but nothing that couldn’t be attributed to nerves, subliminal suggestion or natural shifts in the fabric of the house. Most tellingly, perhaps, Taylor, a member of the S.P.R. and the London Spiritualist Alliance, who eagerly based himself in the most haunted of the house’s bedrooms, conceded that he witnessed nothing of significance. Those hostile to the S.P.R. dismissed the entire expedition as a morbidly themed jolly: the Steuarts were particularly aggrieved by the realisation that they’d been duped into letting their home for the purpose of a ghost hunt.
In the aftermath of the anti-climactic investigation, J. Callendar Ross, a visitor to Ballechin while the S.P.R. representatives were in residence, published an unsigned record of his own observations in the Times. Many of the participants, most of whom were society affiliates, seemed, in his opinion, eager to attribute supernatural causes to the most mundane events. Any reported ‘sightings’, he suggested, could be attributed to Ada Goodrich Freer’s ability to manipulate suggestible witnesses who invariably went to bed already scared witless by the prospect of an encounter with ‘the Wicked Major’. Ross’s account prompted further public criticism from Sir James Crichton Brown (who had accompanied him on his visit to Ballechin) and former residents of Ballechin (both staff and family) all of whom denied that the house was haunted.
Capitulating in the face of what seemed a co-ordinated assault, Frederic Myers, the Honorary Secretary of the S.P.R., wrote to the Times claiming that the investigation’s detractors were merely reiterating his own conclusions. Ada Goodrich Freer, stung by the realisation that she had been identified as a scapegoat for the debacle, turned on her former colleagues. ‘The Haunting of B____ House’ the account of the investigation co-authored with its sponsor Lord Bute, features excerpts from Myers’ correspondence which suggest that his enthusiasm for the project was as great as her own. Both Freer and Lord Bute clearly believed that Ballechin House’s reputation was justified. Their investigation, unfortunately, was fatally compromised by an absence of objectivity on the part of its main participants and an evident power struggle within the S.P.R.**
*Ballechin House was demolished in 1963.
**Freer also appears to have been angered by the inolvement of Iris Jessica Chaston, the owner of a small nursing home in London and ostensibly a “medium” (her status remains confined within barbed inverted commas throughout Freer’s account), who accompanied Myers to Ballechin. Freer’s frank incredulity seems justified: no other record exists of Chaston’s mediumship and her intuitions at Ballechin were easily contradicted (the death by suicide, for example, of a Steuart family member who was still, happily, alive.)
The reason for Chaston’s unwelcome presence remains a mystery, though Freer’s antipathy probably reflected the realisation that her own credibility had been undermined. Prior to the Ballechin investigation, she had embarked on three expeditions to the Western Ises (again sponsored by Lord Bute) to study the phenomena of second sight. Unable to communicate with the Gaelic speaking islanders, she had depended entirely upon the research of local priest, Father Allan MacDonald, much of whose work she blithely passed off as her own. While this casual plagiarism might have escaped the notice of her peers, her treatment of Lady Burton, widow of Sir Richard, the African explorer, made her an object of contempt. Claiming to have received messages from Burton by means of automatic writing, Freer informed his widow that she had been asked to serve as a conduit between them. Securing an audience, she claimed to have received further messages through which Burton encouraged his wife to employ Freer as a secretary. This eventuality was prevented by Lady Burton’s death in 1896 (her fragility had rendered the attempted exploitation all the more objectionable) but Freer still contrived to profit from the encounter through an article in the spiritualist journal Borderland which prompted the intervention of the Burton family lawyers.