A night in a haunted Scottish castle

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“Which room are you sleeping in,” my guide Nicola asks me.
“Number 18,” I say.
“Oh, I shouldn’t have asked you. Bad things happen in that room.”

In the beginning of April Gerry and I spent a night in Tulloch Castle in Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. We were travelling around Scotland doing a few stories about Scottish independence for media in Finland.

I didn’t see much of the hotel at first. After checking in I curled up on the bed in our room and fell asleep, exhausted after doing stories and travelling for days. Gerry had left in a rush to watch Ross Conunty beat Hibs at the football stadium in town. Not a single thought of ghosts entered my mind and I woke up a couple of minutes before I was set to join the castle’s own ghost tour. I hung around in the lush reception area, bleary eyed and half-asleep, wondering if I’d perhaps got this tour thing wrong. As I was staring up at a stag head on the wall Nicola showed up and told me I was the only one doing the tour that night.

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Nicola has been working at the castle since she was fifteen, she’s now 24 with a young son at home. She normally does the ghost tour even though she seemed terrified of the ghosts herself.

We start in a dark room with thick walls and tiny holes for windows, a room that had been used as prison cell. A heavy door closes behind us and a single light bulb swings back and forth in the ceiling. The room is bare, with a table pushed into one corner. It seems ordinary, but it’s late at night, I’ve not slept much during the last few days. I feel slightly unsettled by it all.

“It’s said that two nuns were buried alive here, under the floor,” Nicola explains in a matter of fact way. She opens a small cupboard at the back of the room and I look into the darkness, half expecting something to jump out at me.

We continue the tour. Underneath the front door there is a hatch, leading to a tunnel, which might take you all the way to central Dingwall, if you fancy crawling on all fours in a very small space. After we’ve looked at the tunnel Nicola asks me for my room number. When I tell her it’s room 18 she seems to regret her question, but tells me not to worry, it’s just that strange sounds have been heard from that room.

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“You can feel something’s wrong as soon as you step into that room. We’ve had customers tell us they’ve heard sounds form in there, like someone’s moving around furniture, even though the room’s been empty that night.”

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I tell myself I slept there earlier that evening, that I didn’t feel there was anything strange or unusual about the room. Instead I thought it was comfortable, with a lovely wide bed and cool castle-red wall paper. But I’m easily scared. I wonder if I’ll sleep again that night.

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We walk up the stairs to the main dining room. The castle is dark and quiet around us. The room is filled with empty tables and in the middle of one wall hangs a large painting. This is the most important part of the whole tour – the portrait of the Davidson family who lived in the castle in the early 1800s. Maybe it’s the late hour, maybe it’s something else, but the girls in the painting look like they could have come straight out of a horror movie.

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Behind one of the young girls is a darker area. That’s where their father, Duncan Davidson, once stood, Nicola explains. For reasons unknown he has been painted out of the portrait. The girl in front of him is his daughter, who is now known as the green lady, the castle’s most famous ghost.

According to Nicola the girl walked in on her father (known as the Stag because of his many love affairs) in bed with one of his mistresses. She was so shocked by this that she ran down the stairs and fell to her death. Ever since then she’s haunted Tulloch Castle.

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Room eight seems to be her favourite spot and Nicola tells me about a guest from Edinburgh who couldn’t even stay a night in the room.

“He kept having a dream about these two young girls knocking on his door, asking to see his dog. He tried to tell them that his dog was dead.”

The man then woke up to his room being freezing cold. So cold he could see his own breath, Nicola tells me. He managed to fall asleep again, but kept having the same dream. Eventually he woke up and noticed the two girls in the room with him.

“He felt like he couldn’t move and the girls were suffocating him. He managed to reach the phone to phone the receptionist who came to help him and gave him a drink,” Nicola tells me.

I tell myself, this sounds like sleep paralysis, but the thought of the girl from the painting standing next to my bed sends a shiver down my spine.

We keep walking around the castle and there are many more stories about ghosts, strange shadows and noises.

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“This is the most scary room I think, sometimes I have the guests walk in before me,” Nicola says and pushes open a heavy wooden door with an intricate pattern. She feels her way to a light switch and we step into an impressive room with wooden panels. On one wall hangs a portrait of a stubborn looking old lady.

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“I’m only going to say nice things about this lady this time,” Nicola tells me.

I ask her why and she explains that she once came into the room with a man who was also doing the ghost tour on his own. She’d said something insulting about the lady and suddenly the lights in the room started to flicker. The man had become so frightened he had started crying and they quickly left the room. I start thinking Nicola is either very superstitious or a very good guide.

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The tour finishes and I meet Gerry in the hotel bar. I down a gin and tonic, but even though I tell myself I don’t believe in ghosts, my imagination is now working on overdrive. When we get back to our room I notice that we’re actually staying in room 19 instead of the supposedly haunted room 18. I breathe a sigh of relief, but as we go to sleep I keep listening. The tiniest sound makes me wonder. I ask myself what would happen if I’d open my eyes and see a ghostly girl standing in the room.

It takes a while, but eventually I fall asleep. The night passes quietly. In the morning the hotel is full of light, we eat a scottish breakfast and drink some black coffee. I give Gerry a guided tour and think about how much scarier things can seem at night.

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Oh Berlin – I did fall in love with you a little bit

Gerry and I are back in London after four lovely and intense days in Berlin. I’m exhausted and excited, happy and inspired after having seen something new. But four days was clearly not long enough to see everything we wanted to see.

I want to go back. I want to get to know the city better. Compared to London Berlin’s crazy cheap. It’s creative, independent and laid-back. I did like it quite a lot more than I thought I would. So, there it is, I think I have a new city-crush.

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To the kid who was bullied on the 67 bus through Dalston at eight on a Saturday morning

We saw what happened to you. We only sat a few seats away. We didn’t do anything, because we didn’t know what to do. Your brother was slapping you around the head, punching you, stealing your oyster card and laughing at you. When we looked angrily at him he suggested that it was your fault that people were staring. I wish I had said something there and then. I wish I had followed you as you got up, swallowing your sobs, walking downstairs. I tried to catch your eye, but your head was bent down, your eyes on the floor.

I wanted to say that you’re a good person. That you don’t have to put up with any of this. What the other kid was doing (because he is only a child) to you is abusive and it’s wrong. It might have something to do with how he himself is being treated at home. His behaviour will not have anything to do with the kind of person you are and everything to do with who he is, his pain, his sorrow which he is acting out towards you.

If there is someone in your circle, an adult, that you can talk to I suggest you talk to them. I hope that you talk to them, because they might be able to help. Maybe they can help remove this person from your life, maybe they can help him with his problems. He is the troubled one you see. That might not be of much help now when you’re caught in his anger cycle, being forced to shoulder his pain. But you don’t have to do any of this. You’re your own person. If you look within yourself perhaps you can find the strength to keep the pain on the outside, to realise that it’s not your pain and it doesn’t have anything to do with you.

You’re a strong little guy. You must have learned how to be strong. Focus that energy on clearing your own path forward. You can be better than this person. You can make a good life for yourself. It might be hard, it might be easy, but only you can do it. There might be words of encouragement or words of scorn along the way. Listen to some of it, but listen mostly to yourself.

It’s not always going to be like this. Life will get better. The storm will pass. Focus on your future. Focus on the things that make you happy. Maybe that’s reading, football or computer games. Whatever it is focus on what makes you feel strong and confident. Somewhere in there you will find your path forward, out of all of this mess. You might look back on this in ten/twenty years time, still feeling the pain, but knowing that everything that’s happen to you has made you the person you are now. You survived, you’re strong, you didn’t give in, you looked adversity in the eye and said “no thank you”, I’m not going to let you break me, I’m going to go my own way.

This is what I hope for you. This is the wish I sent you when I was too shy and unsure of what to say. There are people out there rooting for you.

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So… how’s the writing going?

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I thought I’d answer a question I get asked sometimes these days. I’m asked this because I’ve told some people (a few people, too many people!?, people on this blog) that I’m working on a book. It’s really nice that friends ask me about my writing, but that doesn’t mean I’m not pretty bad at answering the question. In my head I sometimes still equate saying I’m writing books with saying that I’m planning to become an astronaut or that I’d like to join a circus.

So how’s the writing going then? There are three answers to this question.

1. I wrote a book. My first fiction book. It took me about a year to write. A couple of months ago the publisher I’ve worked with in Finland turned it down. It stung a bit, but I wasn’t surprised. I had known that the book wasn’t really good enough. It had problems. It was a bit of a Frankenstien’s monster of a book, lots of different ideas and experiments stitched together. It was very much a first attempt at writing fiction. I learned a lot writing it. I’m moving on.

2. This spring I joined Charlie’s and Amie’s first writing bootcamp. This month I’ll be finishing my first novel in English. It’s been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot. One of the best things is having gained access to a writing community where I can get and give feedback. I still don’t know what will happen with this book when I’m finished. Perhaps nothing, perhaps I’ll publish it on Wattpad. Maybe one day I will find a good editor, someone to design me a nice cover and put it up on Amazon.

3. I’m not really done with my first fiction book yet. Some of the characters refuse to leave me. I think there’s some life in them yet and I’m planning another outing for them. A better one. A better story. Let’s see how it goes.

The main thing is. I’m writing. I’ll keep writing.

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Some London love and hate

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I love this city when…

It’s eleven on a muggy summer evening. Gerry and I have just shut the studio door after a long day at work. We’re tired, slightly grumpy and can’t wait to get home. Suddenly a woman in her 50s, grey hair, bright yellow jacket, skateboards past us with a defiant look on her face. I love London.

I hate this city when…

I’m late. London smells of exhaust fumes, the pavements are hot underneath my feet. I rush to get the tube, even though I hardly ever get the tube. I miss a train and decide to take the District line and change at Monument to the Central line. Because I never take the tube I don’t realise that I’m making a huge mistake.

I get off the train at Monumement and I start walking. Did I mention I hate the tube? There are long corridors and I try not to think about how much dirt, cables and Victorian piping there is between me and the street above. I had my first panic attack going up the escalator at Angel. I try not to think about this as I get to the first set of escalators. I travel further down. There are more corridors. More escalators. And then the signs for the red Central line point me towards more escalators, this time going up again.

I try not to hold my breath. My palms go sweaty every time I think of the escalators in the tube these days. Maybe I’m suffering from some kind of escalator phobia? But I’m trapped somewhere near the Central line at Bank station and I have no choice. I walk up the escalators. Eventually I get out. Choose to abandon the tube altogether and get a bus instead. I turn up late. I hate this city.

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