Do you believe that buildings have the power to retain the imprints of past events that took place within their walls? It’s a theme I have explored on a number of occasions – including in my latest novel, The After-Death of Caroline Rand. Canonbury Manor is a prime candidate for one such house. and, while that is fictional, the one I am talking about here is entirely real and was once owned by the infamous Great Beast himself – Aleister Crowley.
Boleskine House, with its secluded setting in Scottish countryside near picturesque Loch Ness was the perfect place for the man dubbed England’s wickedest man, to set up residence and practice his darkest of dark arts.
Crowley bought the house at the age of twenty-three, in 1899 and during his residency was said to have summoned some 115 spirits, including the devil himself. He also conducted an elaborate six month ‘power-giving’ ceremony there called Abra Melin. It is said that the grandmaster of the Order of the Golden Dawn – effectively his ‘boss’- interrupted him during the time of this ritual with an urgent summons to go to Paris. As a result Crowley left, having not shut the ritual down properly. So, the spirits he summoned to Boleskine stayed there. These are hardly insignificant ones either – Abra Melin demands the summoning of the Twelve Kings and Dukes of Hell.
Not that they were alone. Boleskine had a bizarre reputation for sinister bewitchment dating from long before Crowley’s time.
Boleskine Kirk, which used to stand on the shore of Loch Ness, appears to have been one possible source of the cursed land round and about. Evidently an early minister of that parish was forced to fend off a wizard who was raising the dead and getting up to all sorts of mischief. The minister – Thomas Houston (1648-1705) - had to lay the disturbed ghosts to rest again. But sometime later, fire destroyed the entire church, and all who were in it, during a sermon.
Fire seems to play a recurring part on Boleskine’s history – even up to recent times.
In 1762, a visiting bishop noted the dilapidated state of the church and graveyard, remarking on the lack of walls of the churchyard and the plethora of human bones scattered everywhere, including on the floor of the kirk itself. Dogs were witnessed running off with them.
Soon after this, a committed Jacobite – Colonel Archibald Fraser – bought the land and built Boleskine House on the charred remains of the kirk. He also managed to acquire land thereabouts which had belonged to Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, who switched sides from Jacobite to Stuart and lost everything including his life (he was beheaded).
Colonel Fraser’s family retained possession of the house right up until the time they sold it to Crowley. The house now entered its darkest time. Crowley had few, if any, redeeming qualities and took great delight in the suffering he caused the local people by his sinister practices, which drew in the unwary as well as those with equally sadistic and perverted preferences. He boasted of how an employee on the Boleskine estate who had been sober for 20 years was enticed into getting drunk one night and ended up attempting to kill his wife and children. Then Crowley’s lodge keeper, Hugh Gillies suffered a series of tragedies. His ten-year-old daughter died suddenly at school and the following year, his fifteen month old son suffered convulsions and died on his mother’s knee.
Crowley may have sold the house in 1913, but the tragedies didn’t stop there. In 1960, the then owner Major Edward Grant shot himself in Crowley’s former bedroom – an event that the 78 year-old housekeeper, Anna MacLaren said had been revealed to her in a premonition exactly seven days earlier when she had been picking vegetables alone in the garden and heard a shot from inside the house. On investigation, she found no one there at that time but when the real shot happened, she was the one who found the Major, lying on the floor with most of his head shot off. The family dog was laying with a bone from the deceased man’s skull.
After that a young couple moved in. The wife was blind. Within a few months, her husband abandoned her there, alone in the house.
In 1969, film maker Kenneth Anger lived there during the summer. He saw a heavy painting seemingly detach itself off the wall, and float down gently to the floor.
A new buyer acquired the house in 1970. Jimmy Page, legendary guitarist with rock group Led Zeppelin, was fascinated by Aleister Crowley so much so he had to acquire his house. Yet for all his enthusiasm for it, he probably spent no more than around six weeks there during his twenty-year ownership. Instead, Page’s longtime friend Malcolm Dent moved in with the aim of restoring it. Dent loved living there and raised his family. A confirmed sceptic when he moved in, by the time he left he acknowledged that there were some things about the house that he couldn’t explain.
One such instance involved a female guest who woke up screaming that she had been attacked by some sort of devil. Another time, Dent himself was woken by what sounded like a wild animal snorting and clawing at his bedroom door. He was too scared to open the door until morning whereupon he found nothing there but remained convinced of what he had heard.
Doors opened and slammed shut in the middle of the night. Rugs would be found in a pile. All of this he put down to Aleister Crowley – by now long dead.
Seven chairs acquired by Jimmy Page from the Café Royal had each belonged to a famous person and had the associated nameplate attached to them. These comprised: Aleister Crowley, Marie Lloyd, Billy Butlin, James Agate, Rudolph Valentino, William Orpen and Jacob Epstein. Crowley’s chair was always placed at the head of the table but, when the chairs returned after restoration, Crowley’s chair was forever being switched with Marie Lloyd’s, even though no one could possibly have done this. Dent only found an explanation of sorts when he discovered that the restorer had erroneously switched the nameplates of the two famous people.
The next owners, Ronald and Annette MacGillivray would have nothing to do with Crowley’s legacy and frequently painted over his occult symbols. Sadly, as soon as the paint dried, the symbols allegedly kept reappearing. In 2000, a BBC film crew working on a documentary entitled, The Other Loch Ness Monster were attacked by a plague of beetles, suffered a variety of unexplained equipment failures, and some photos taken just down the hill (above a purported tunnel leading to the house) were ruined by a ‘strange halo of fog’ which could not be explained as lens flare or a camera fault. The producer said he had never seen anything like it. Exploding lights and falling camera stands showered the crew in broken glass, a crew member’s phone rang intermittently for no reason and another colleague’s alarm went off at the same time each day – even though it wasn’t set. All of this took place despite the best efforts of a priest and clerics who blessed the project.
In 2002, new owners bought the house. Fortunately, they weren’t there in 2015 when a devastating fire gutted the house. It started in the kitchen although there was no one there. and the actual cause was never determined.
Following that fire, the owners put the property up for sale and it was bought by the not-for-profit Boleskine House Foundation which set about restoring it. But it seems, the curse of fire wasn’t done yet. In December 2019, only a week after the purchase, another fire raged through the building. This time, though, the cause was believed to be arson.
Not to be deterred, the Foundation aims to restore the building to its former glory and open it to the public. Let’s hope Aleister Crowley lets them get on with it although their aims to promote ‘heritage, education, health and wellness’ seem somewhat at odds with his philosophy.
I wish them well.
Meanwhile, at Canonbury Manor…
It begins with a chilling greeting: "Welcome to The Columbine, Miss Sinclair. You are expected."
The After-Death of Caroline Rand
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