Chilling tales from Dunollie
Argyll is known for its rich heritage, and with this comes a history of spooky stories and gruesome tales
– some wild and spectacular, some just creepy enough to stick in the back of your mind and make you think…could that be true?
Dunollie Castle sits on a cliff on the periphery of a site that’s been occupied since the Mesolithic Era. An area which has seen over seven thousand years of life and death might truly be home to a few unsettled spirits…
For years now, visitors to Dunollie have reported seeing a Grey Man in the castle courtyard, with one group even arriving to find the courtyard locked and believing that someone was locked inside as they could so clearly see a figure. When staff went to check it out – surprised, as the gate should have been open - there was nobody there.
It is not just visitors, however, who report experiencing the supernatural here at Dunollie. The MacDougall family themselves have reported other ghostly sightings throughout the years. Admiral John MacDougall, who would become the 25th Chief of his clan, was never supposed to hold that title as a second son. In 1812, John’s older brother and heir apparent to the chieftainship was away from Scotland, fighting in the Peninsular War. One night, their mother Louisa Maxwell woke from her sleep to see Alexander standing by her bed – but when she spoke to him, he vanished. The next evening, their sister Belle was in the drawing room at Dunollie, when she turned to see him there in a torn uniform. She ran towards him, but he disappeared, and she apparently fainted.
Within a fortnight, they would receive the news that of his untimely death.
One of the most reported peculiarities, known to have been heard by at least five generations of MacDougalls, is the sound of a carriage approaching the house, rattling the gravel on the driveway as it comes. Now we can’t say for sure, but this could be a call back to one of Dunollie’s most tragic stories:
To understand this story, we need to go back to 1860. At the time, the Admiral John MacDougall was the clan’s 25th chief and he resided at Dunollie with his wife, Sophy – nee Timins. They received a letter from their son, Alexander, announcing his betrothal to a young Irish girl of humble birth and with no dowry. Horrified by this news, John and Sophy both opposed the marriage. John took the news particularly hard, leading Alexander to state in a letter some six months later that he would marry this woman, or not marry at all.
And indeed, he did. Due to his family’s unwavering disapproval, the couple waited until the Admiral John had passed away before finally tying the knot in 1867 – whole seven years later.
When the couple arrived at Dunollie, they were met by a great reception. The horses were taken out of the shafts to allow their carriage to be pulled up to the house by tenants, employees, and friends. In a tragic accident, one of the men pulling their carriage was killed. Not only did the family feel the sorrow of losing a member of the household they had known and lived with for years, but they told Alexander and his new wife plainly: this event is a bad omen, for a marriage that should never have been. Seven weeks later, Alexander was dead.
Could this ghostly carriage, heard by every generation since Alexander, be the very one from that fateful day?
These chilling experiences aren’t confined to the distant past. Until the early 2000’s, the North Wing of Dunollie house, where we now have our offices and collections stores, used to be let out as a rental property. Families who lived there reported seeing a young girl in one of the bedrooms, either when they were in the room, or through the window. One young girl who lived in the North Wing was found by her parents, cross legged and talking animatedly to an empty room. When questioned, she gestured in front of her with frustration: “I’m talking to my friend!” But of course, there was nobody there.
A few years later, whilst working to transform the 1745 House into a museum, there were numerous reports of supernatural activity in the building. Once, a member of staff was carrying in large panes of glass for a display case, and they spontaneously shattered in their hands! The same person, later working in the private house at Dunollie, taking down some curtains the family were passing over to the MacDougall Preservation Trust to be cared for, turned when she heard the clink of a teacup being set on the table. She reports that she saw none other than Sophy, wife of Admiral John, sitting at the table watching her remove her curtains. This would have been a miraculous sight, some 130 years after Sophy’s death.
Even more recently, one staff member who is still working at Dunollie, was pushed so hard that she fell to the ground in our shrubbery – but looked up to find she was the only person in the area. In the 1920’s, a prehistoric skeleton was found in a cave on the shore side of the site. It was sent by the family to a museum in Edinburgh in case it was of interest to their collection. However, the skeleton was promptly returned to Dunollie as they already had too much human remains in their stores. The family, unsure what to do with this skeleton, decided to rebury it in the shrubbery. Could this spirit, who had been disturbed from their resting place never to be returned, be behind the shove on our staff member?
There are still sounds heard in the old part of the house, now the museum, by staff and visitors alike. The most common is in the kitchen area of the 1745 House, where many people report hearing something heavy being dragged across the floor. Between this and the reports of an ominous, cold presence upstairs in the reading room, some may say that our 1745 House Museum is never empty, even when we are all gone for the day.
Perhaps the site itself never rests, always awake with the spirits of those who have lived and died here for thousands of years.