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Life in the big smoke

A night in a haunted Scottish castle

“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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A sneak peek at our Scottish adventures

I miss this place.

So here we are, back in the studio. I’m overly caffeinated and still tried, but it’s OK. That’s what happens when you get up at around five in the morning for about a week to travel all over Scotland.

On Saturday we finally journeyed back to London from Malvern where Gerry’s parents live. We got up early to get the train at six in the morning so Gerry could get back in time to trade at Spitalfields. Somewhere outside Chipping Norton the train stopped. We were both fast asleep at that point. After about thirty minutes the announcements on the train started seeping through into my sleep. It quickly became clear we were going to be stuck for a while because someone had stolen a piece of an electrical cable from the track. I was too tired to be too upset or even shocked. And amazingly it only took the rail-company about an hour to fix the problem. But Gerry was late for the market, we were too exhausted to think and took it as a sign to take the day off.

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In Scotland we spent a night in the gorgeous Tulloch Castle in the Highlands. It’s haunted and a girl who’s worked at the hotel for ten years took me on a pretty scary tour of the place. She seemed genuinely frightened herself and managed to set my imagination on overdrive. But more about this place at a later stage. First I need to freelance about it before I can write more here.

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Our last day was spent in Largs, a cute seaside town on the West coast. Gerry’s mum and Granny took us to an Italian place with excellent ice cream.

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As we walked back to the shore to get our car Gerry spotted something in the sea and it turned out to be a porpoise. It surfaced around three times and then it was gone. Apparently they are quite a rare sight in that part of Scotland and I was jumping-up-and-down-chuffed to have seen one.

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One of the best things about Scotland is that nature’s close by in most places. Even though I grew up in a small town in rural Finland I’ve never seen as much wildlife as I have in Scotland. When Gerry and I first travelled up to visit his family it amazed me that they could point out the Buzzards circling far above the house.

I’ve seen deer in Perthshire, whales, seals and gannets on Orkney. I had no idea wildlife would interest me this much, but I find it more enjoyable and interesting than most things a city has to offer. Perhaps this is another sign of edging ever closer to 30.

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Hello Scotland, goodbye Scotland

We’re in Scotland, in Gerry’s granny’s house. Gerry’s sleeping next to me. We’re both exhausted. These last few days have passed in a manic flurry. I can’t believe it’s only a couple of days since we arrived here. We drove up from the south, stayed a night at Gerry’s granny’s place, travelled up to Inverness at five in the morning the next day, did interviews the whole day, travelled even further north and stayed in a haunted castle. The day after we headed back south, stayed with friends in Glasgow. And today we’re back here, tomorrow we go back south again.

It’s been a whirlwind tour with too little sleep and a lot of travelling. But then again that’s what a good freelance trip is all about. I like cramming as much as possible into a few days, living and breathing a story. I feel like I have a lot of good interviews and good background material. But I don’t want to jinx it by thinking I’ve done well, because I know everything comes together when I sit down to edit and write.

I like it up here. I’ve remembered why I like Scotland so much. The Highlands fill me with a sense of awe. It hits me in the gut every time I go up there. The colours are more vivid somehow. The sky is a clear blue that I’ve not seen anywhere else. There are bleak, snow-capped hills, dark forests and the light and cloudscape seems to change on an hourly basis. It’s like no where else and it’s gorgeous.

Next time I hope we can stay longer. Next time I want to allow things to sink in before we leave.

On the Caledonian sleeper

Last week Gerry and I boarded a late train to Scotland. We were going up for a quick visit and in order not to waste time, we travelled up on Sunday night after Gerry had finished the market.

I was very excited. I’d always wanted to travel on the sleeper. And I had imagined a train out of a Poirot story (without the murders of course). Lush carriages, red velvet, polite staff bringing you tea in silver pots. Somewhere deep inside I sort of knew this wouldn’t be the case, but that didn’t stop me from wishing. During that train journey I learned a lot.

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Here are a couple of things to remember about the sleeper.

1. Always let the guard in your carriage know you’ve arrived, as soon as you step on to the train. Otherwise he will accost you in the dining cart just as you’re getting your miniature bottle of wine and in a loud voice ask you who you are and if you happen to have a ticket, before telling you off for not letting him know you’ve arrived. The other passengers in the dining cart might or might not snigger about this. Top tip, don’t piss off the train staff.

2. Don’t be a claustrophobic.

3. Order the continental breakfast.

4. Set your alarm and check when the train is supposed to arrive at your destination. No one will tell you when to get off.

5. Be a deep sleeper.

It took me a while to get used to the swaying motion of the train, but the bed was actually quite comfortable and if the staff hadn’t been so grumpy it might actually have been quite a pleasant experience. What was really nice was waking up in Scotland, knowing no time had been lost.

 

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Extra, extra! The New York series is out! Please help support our Kickstarter campaign.

A weekend of coffee and things loading sloooowly

Look at that nice sunset at the top of the post. Take your time to enjoy it. Because I didn’t. I barged past people waiting for the lights to turn, ignoring traffic and bracing myself against attacking leaves in order to snap a shot of quite a pretty looking gherkin at the end of Whitechapel road, then I rushed to an interview and halfway through it I realised I’d not remembered to eat for several hours because Gerry and I had been busy shooting the video for our Kickstarter campaign during the afternoon… And breathe.

Did I tell you I’ve been busy this week? I don’t want to go one about it, because this happens to all of us, right? There are periods of calm and periods when everything happens at once. This is one of those everything-happens-at-once-weeks. And I actually quite enjoy it.

This weekend

This weekend I have:

  • Edited a kickstarter video.
  • Put together the sketchbook for our New York prints.
  • Read some of Robert Macfarlanes amazing (really amazing!) book about wandering and wanderers while watching stuff loading.

I will:

  • Edit a radio story.
  • Edit some more video.
  • Watch even more things loading (this is video editing for you).
  • Write a newsletter and pack our bags for Scotland.

Because would you believe it, in amongst all of this, we’re getting on the sleeper tonight and heading up to Glasgow. I’ve always wanted to travel on the sleeper so this is quite an exciting thing.

We’re visiting Gerry’s granny and will have a day of calm on the Scottish West coast. After that we’re heading to Glasgow to stay with some friends and watch a football game. It’s Scotland vs. someone else. This is how Gerry suggested we should go and see the game.

Him: “You know how you’ve been saying how much you want to see Scotland play football?”
Me: “Er, no.”
Him: “Well, now is your chance.”
Me: “Will there be snacks?”

Now I’m not looking forward to freezing my toes off at Hampden Park, but I’m slightly curious about the atmosphere and seeing the Tartan army (Scottish people who travel around the world to watch Scotland play football) in their full glory. So. We’re back next week. Then I’m off to Finland for the book fair in Helsinki and after that it’s time to start thinking about taxes and christmas (those two things you can’t avoid in life).