Halloween, the night when some say the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, is the time for ghost stories – and author Graeme Milne has plenty to tell.
From phantoms in shoe shops to the shades of murdered children, a Victorian headmistress roaming the halls of her school, to a doomed Air Raid Warden, Graeme reckons “pound for pound” Aberdeen is as haunted as the likes of Edinburgh – a city famed for its spooks.
He is compiling some of the spine-tingling tales of the supernatural for a new book, Aberdeen’s Haunted Heritage.
Born and bred in Aberdeen, Graeme is now living and working in Edinburgh as a tour guide, including ghost walks.
“Edinburgh makes a big deal about its ghosts because it has the history and amazing buildings. Aberdeen destroyed a lot of its buildings of that era, but pound for pound I do think Aberdeen is just as haunted. It has loads of great stories,” said Graeme.
He is compiling some fresh yarns for Aberdeen’s Haunted Heritage, which will also revisit some of the cases he investigated for his first two The Haunted North books.
“There are lots of new stories, including one about a shoe shop, called Jones, on Union Street, the one that had the big golden boot outside,” said Graeme, adding he interviewed staff there about “peculiar occurrences” before it shut down a few years ago.
“They had a massive stockroom downstairs and also there’s a staircase which leads to a flat above which was derelict, so they used that for storage. People would go in that flat and odd things would happen. Random shoes would be placed in the centre of rooms that nobody could explain.
“A child’s voice was heard to shout out ‘what’s that’ while one of the girls was hoovering downstairs. It was so loud she actually switched it off and looked around. The voice repeated it three times, it kept saying ‘what’s that’, like the spirit was wondering what the Hoover was all about. That kind of freaked her out and she left rather quickly.”
Another of Graeme’s new stories revolves around the tragic murder of a little girl in Urquhart Road in the 1930s but with a twist that happened decades later.
“A chap I know, Jim Thomson, was a message boy for Aberdeen Corporation Transport in the 1950s and was delivering leaflets in Roslin Terrace,” said Graeme, who used to work with Aberdeen’s museums department.
“As he was going up the first flight of stairs there was a girl sitting staring at him from the step. He got a wee bit of a vibe from her, but she was just staring ahead and moved to the side. He walked up and glanced back down and she had gone.”
Jim told Graeme his colleagues at the time thought it would have been the ghost of the murdered girl.
Graeme said: “I thought it can’t be the same girl, because she couldn’t be haunting a building three streets away. But about three years ago, I was working at Kaimhill and spoke to a lady called Sheila who was in her 90s. This conversation of Aberdeen’s history and murders came up. She said her mum was good friends with the mum of the girl who was killed.
“She said she remembered clearly the girl’s mum appearing at their door quite upset soon after the event. The woman wanted a house move and did eventually get one. It transpired she moved to Roslin Terrace. That gives a bit of credence to Jim’s story.”
Graeme reckons one of the most haunted places in the city is Provost Skene’s House, the medieval building now undergoing renovation to become Aberdeen’s Hall of Heroes.
“I know someone who saw a lady there who seemed to be the owner of the house because she was dressed in almost medieval clothing. She saw that figure very clearly in the old dining room at the back of the building,” said Graeme.
“She was locking up for the night and heard rustling coming into the room. There were always two people on duty and assumed it was her colleague and turned round, but this woman was standing looking at her. She said the strangest thing was that the woman blinked, she was solid and it was like she was looking at her and looking surprised. Then she just kind of vanished. She said she was wearing very oldest fashioned clothes.”
Graeme said there were many “fantastic” stories of the uncanny around Torry’s Victoria Road School, with cleaning staff in particular having close encounters with the supernatural when in the building alone.
“One cleaner actually had a buffer turn on her and squash her against the wall. She shouted out and it clicked off. She was actually genuinely terrified,” said Graeme.
“Another time she was buffering and she felt someone behind her. She turned round and there was this woman standing behind her, wearing a Victorian dress with high lace-up boots and lace sleeves. She described her really accurately to me because she was standing there for a number of seconds.”
Graeme said staff used to joke about Liz, the ghost who haunted the school. But there was an Elizabeth Nesbit, who was headmistress there in the early 1900s.
“Whether that name just stuck or someone had found it out and used the name, I don’t know,” said Graeme. “I spoke to about five different cleaners and they had all either seen this woman or a guy with a flat cap. They used to go in the morning and say to thin air ‘good morning’ just to let themselves be known. They felt there was something lurking about.”
But buildings needn’t be ancient or Victorian to have a ghost story attached to them.
Graeme was told of one inexplicable encounter by a colleague who lived in Cattofield Place.
He said: “She was getting annoyed by this hammering on her door which was very loud in the evening. She used assumed it was kids and ran to the door or the window to look out but whoever it was had gone.
“This happened a number of times to the point where she was sitting at the window waiting for it because she thought kids were winding her up. It happened one night as she looked out and there was nothing there.
House blew up
“She got chatting to one of her neighbours who had lived there for years since the war. She explained her house had been badly damaged in the big bombing raid of 1943. She said an Air Raid Warden had been round there knocking on people’s doors trying to get them out, when the house blew up and killed him.”
Some instances of supernatural stories have their roots in the city’s long forgotten past.
Commerce Street stands next to the city’s old Heading Hill, where people were executed by beheading and many witches were burned at the stake, said Graeme.
“I was talking to a lady who stayed there but she packed it in because of the sound of Latin chanting which used to come out of nowhere in her flat, just a disembodied voice. They were making all sorts of wild excuses, like it was a taxi driver’s radio being picked up by their stereo but it happened when the stereo was off,” said Graeme, adding the last rites would have been given in Latin in days gone by.
“She was telling me all this on a tour I was doing and one guy looked really shocked. He said he stayed at a flat next door and the strangest things used to happen. He was ironing a shirt, the phone rang and he went to get it. When he came back the shirt had vanished.
“He was left scratching his head but just forgot about it, until he was changing a fuse six months later. When he opened the fuse box, scrunched up at the bottom was his white shirt.
“He would wake up in the morning and someone had opened his cigarettes and made shapes with them on the floor. He said there was just something weird about that area.”
Graeme said he first got interested in the supernatural after a “weird” experience while in a house in Dunfermline in his early 20s.
“I actually got pulled across the floor by something in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, which at the time was quite terrifying. I laugh about it now, because it was 30 odd years ago, but that was what got me thinking maybe there is something to this,” he said.
Graeme is also aware that many people are dismissive of the whole idea of ghosts and the supernatural.
He said: “It’s difficult to persuade somebody unless they have had an experience. A lot of people never will have an experience, but some people do and it changes their life.
“I don’t buy into everything. I am quite cynical in some respects and I like to do the research to find out if somewhere could possibly be haunted. You can discount things quite easily, but there is unexplainable stuff, which is the fascinating bit.”
Graeme is now putting the finishing touches to Aberdeen’s Haunted Heritage and hopes to find a publisher soon. In the meantime, he says would like to hear from anyone who may have a ghost story to share. He can be contacted through the Facebook Page for Haunted North at www.facebook.com/GraemeMilnesHauntedNorth