Halloween | Terrifying tales from the National Galleries of Scotland

To celebrate all hallows eve we have trawled Scotland's art collection in search of the strange and the supernatural, the mysterious and the macabre, the ghostly and the grotesque to bring you a selection of terrifying tales to lead you up to the midnight hour. 

Read on, if you dare...

Sir George Reid Traquair House, Peebleshire 1855 - 1900

Sir George Reid, Traquair House, Peebleshire

This atmospheric sketch shows the rear entrance to Traquair House near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. It is reputedly the oldest inhabited house in Scotland.

In the foreground is a tributary of the River Tweed, and the open gates are almost identical to Traquair's famous Bear Gates, which are located at the front of the house.

After Bonnie Prince Charlie had stayed at Traquair in 1745 these gates were locked and were not to be opened again until a Stuart sat on the Scottish throne once more.

They have remained locked ever since.  

A lone spirit, thought to be the of Lady Louisa Stewart, sister of the 9th Earl of Traquair and the last Stewart lady to live at Traquair House, has been seen wandering the grounds. She died in 1896 just a few months short of her 100th birthday.

John Muir Wood Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle is perched high on a cliff above the Firth of Clyde in Ayrshire, and offers superb views across to the Isle of Arran. Designed by Robert Adam, it was home to David Kennedy, the 10th Earl of Cassillis. The name derives from 'Cuilean', meaning ‘place of caves’, because the shoreline is honeycombed with natural caverns carved by the action of the sea. This network of caves offered a haven for smugglers in the eighteenth century. The caves are also the source of its best-known ghost story.  

The tale involves a luckless piper sent into the caves below the castle in order to prove, somewhat ironically, that they were not haunted. As the piper, accompanied by his loyal dog, set off into the cave the locals, even those in the castle above, could hear his pipes blaring. The sound of the pipes got fainter and fainter as the piper made his way into the caves before stopping completely. Not even the barking of his dog could be heard and neither man nor dog appeared at the exit of the caves. A rescue party was sent into the caves, assuming that the piper and his dog had gotten stuck. The search proved fruitless and neither man nor dog were never seen again, at least not alive. On the eve of a Kennedy wedding the sound of ghostly pipes have been heard echoing from the caves below while a lone figure has been seen standing on Piper’s Brae.

Unknown Soldiers Leap, Pass of Killiecrankie. Poulton

The Soldier's Leap

The battle of Killiecrankie was one of bloodiest in the Jacobite rebellion. Although it was a resounding victory for the Jacobites, the battle claimed the life of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee and over a third of his army. Such carnage and loss of life is said to have left its trace upon the landscape with visitors reporting the sound of doomed government troops marching towards their fate on the anniversary of the battle. One visitor to the site claimed to have witnessed a vision of dead government soldiers while picnicking in the area.  

Indeed, supernatural occurrences even preceded the battle. Graham is said to have been beset by visions of a blood covered man on the eve of battle, possibly as a premonition of his own imminent death.

Soldier’s Leap, the subject of this photograph by George Washington Wilson is named after the tale of a more fortunate soldier. Redcoat Donald McBane is said to have leapt across the 18ft across gorge and the raging River Garry below while fleeing the battle.

Unknown Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan is possibly Scotland’s most distinctive castle. Its atmosphere and romantic setting have drawn artists and photographers to the shores of the three lochs over which it presides for centuries. This being Halloween though it is a tale of the castle’s ghostly inhabitants that concern us. And Eilean Donan does not disappoint.  

The castle had a key role to play in the Jacobite rebellion and in 1719 was bombarded by three heavily armed frigates for three days. The castle at the time was garrisoned by 45 Spanish troops, sent by Philip V, King of Spain to support the Jacobite cause. Although the walls of the castle, which were up to 14 feet thick in places withstood the onslaught the government troops were eventually sent ashore and the Spanish guards surrendered.  

Although the castle was destroyed after its capture, blown apart by 343 barrels of gunpowder, and lay in ruins it has now been restored. Echoes of that distant onslaught can still be felt however as testified by those how have reported seeing a headless figure stalking the gift shop. The figure, carrying his own head, is thought to be one of the unfortunate Spanish soldiers.

Alexander McGlashon Major Weir's House

Major Thomas Weir, the Wizard of West Bow

We've already heard about the persecution of women at the hands of Mathew Hopkins in seventeenth century England. A little closer to home in the same century is the origin of an Edinburgh haunting and a source of inspiration for one of the city’s most famous literary masterpieces.  

This photograph, by Alexander McGalshon, No. 10 West Bow, Edinburgh, the home of Major Thomas Weir. Major Weir earned the title of the ‘Wizard of West Bow’ when after a respectable career as soldier and Town Guard he made a remarkable confession. The old man confessed to having led a double life for decades. Despite outward appearance of respectability Weir claimed to have lived a life of sexual depravity that included an incestuous relationship with his sister, adultery and even bestiality with horses and cows. What’s more his outlandish tale was supported by sister who claimed that Major Weir had made a pact with the devil and that they had both performed untold acts of Satanism and sorcery. 

Although doctors had argued that the Major was mentally disturbed he continued to make his outlandish claims and was imprisoned. Still unrepentant both he and his sister were tried and sentenced to death. The Major famously refusing to beg for forgiveness with the words ‘Let me alone, I have lived as a beast and I shall die as a beast’. Major Weir was garoted and burned at the Gallow Lea, near what is now the Lothian Buses depot while his sister was hanged in the Grassmarket. 

Their legacy lives on in tales of ghostly happenings at their West Bow home. The house lay empty for many years out of fear that their malignant influence should survive beyond the grave. Indeed, those that have lived there since have reported many strange goings on.  

As a child Robert Louis Stevenson was supposedly terrified by tales of the Weir’s exploits. The stories were all the more horrific for being true and so close to home. Years later the double life of Major Weir, along with other Edinburgh tales of Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare would influence the most famous literary tale of a double life, the ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.

William Strang Grotesque 1897


This etching is a record of a fantastic dream experienced by Scottish artist William Strang. It was originally accompanied by a written description, although this was never published. According to Strang’s son David, each of his father’s prints, including those where no clear or obvious message was apparent, had a meaning – even if only known to Strang himself. 

Although Strang was no stranger to macabre subject matter, his output was incredibly diverse. Strang’s subjects ranged from the real to the fantastic, including uncompromising depictions of contemporary life and the effects of poverty and social injustice, landscapes in the tradition of the Old Masters, narrative illustrations for books, periodicals, and his own Scots dialect ballads.

Master of 1419, Saint Anthony Abbot Exorcising a Woman Possessed by the Devil

Master of 1419, Saint Anthony Abbot Exorcising a Woman Possessed by the Devil

Demonic possession is perhaps most well-known today through its depiction in the 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’ (written by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin) in which a young girl played by Linda Blair is possessed by the devil. Author William Peter Blatty took his inspiration from reported cases of exorcism and indeed tales of holy men exorcising those afflicted by demons span back centuries as this image attests. 

Saint Anthony, a fourth century Christian monk, is shown here exorcising a devil from a woman. The figure of Saint Anthony has fascinated artists for centuries. Hiëronymus Bosch, Odilon Redon, Max Ernst, Paul Cézanne, and Salvador Dalí have all taken the temptation of St Anthony as subject matter. This is hardly surprising, the subject is gift for any artist wishing indulge their imagination and conjour up a menagerie of strange and grotesque visions. 

The collection is packed with spooky stories just waiting to be discovered.
Read, for example, the terrifying tale of the photographers, the kirkyard and the poltergeist.
Take a step into the supernatural by examing the Art of Tam O’Shanter.
And take a harrowing look this Halloween at one of our best loved works - complete with creeping hand...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

By 'Petrifying' Philip Hunt, 29 October 2018