Friday, 28 October 2011

Her head was missing!

I’m sitting comfortably in my cousin Basia’s living room, and looking at the picture of Jan, her father – my favorite uncle. A poet and story-teller, he was always funny and warm-hearted. Also my worst critic when it came to my early writing attempts.

“Why are you writing this rubbish?” he’d say after reading my manuscript. “Write your own material – not this stuff borrowed from those books that you’ve been reading.”

Among his most memorable stories were his harrowing experiences with ghosts during the summer of 1941 in Pitmilly house – a sprawling manor outside St.Andrews. The estate, formerly belonging to the Moneypenny family was commandeered for military purposes. His army unit, the Polish First Rifle Brigade, assigned the task of patrolling the coast, was stationed nearby. A Scottish Major, with his wife, and his daughter Mary lived in the house. A Polish officer, Jan had a room in the house. Also, he was interested in Mary, and following a short courtship they were engaged.

Staying overnight in the manor house wasn’t a lot of fun. It had already a reputation for hauntings. According to legend a spirit once lived in an ancient yew tree on the grounds of the house. Somewhat ill advisedly a gardener chopped it down with the result that the ghost had to find a new home --- the main house.

One night Jan was sitting up in bed, reading, when he happened to look up, across the room. A large oaken wardrobe standing again the far wall stirred into life, glided across the floor to halt by his bed, where it proceeded to rock to and fro threateningly. Of course he jumped out of his bed and high tailed it out of the room, and out of the house. The next day the Major complained that the wardrobe was not in its place. It took four soldiers to lift the wardrobe and shove it back against the wall where it belonged.

Engagement to Mary took its toll on him. One day upon returning to his room he found all the furniture scattered around the room. Books all over the place. Another time while watching Mary’s mother walking across a carpet, he saw the carpet catch fire where she set her feet down. Jan and a servant grabbed blankets and doused the flames before they caused major damage.

He actually encountered the ghost one moonlit night. He was on patrol in the grounds, when he saw a figure approaching him. As was customary, Jan called out, "Halt." After receiving no response or password he cried out, "Halt or I shoot." The unknown person continued to walk among the trees. Presumably a woman,because of her dress but curiously short. Only after she disappeared from view did he realize the reason for her short stature.

Her head was missing.

“How did you feel?” I asked my uncle.

“A cold dread down my spine,” he said.

Evidently the spirit inhabitants had a reputation, as was evidenced by a letter that Jan happened to see lying on the Major’s desk. From an insurance company. The insurance agent, in the most apologetic tones, said that the company was declining fire coverage on the house, on the grounds that “apparently the house was haunted.”

Granted that Jan, a poet, was also known for his sense of the dramatic,and for his tendency to exaggerate. Listening to those chilling stories on a winter night we wondered how much to believe. Fast forward to 1968 when I enrolled at St. Andrews University. I was determined to find out the truth behind the goings on at Pitmilly. At the cathedral grounds I found an old man who worked as a tourist guide. He must have been there for twenty years as I remember him from my youth as the bloke who always led us up the never ending stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower.

“Pitmilly?” he asked. “Why are ye asking about Pitmilly? There are chairs jumping up and down there.”

“Pitmilly is no more,” chimed in a second guard.

They gave me directions, and so I biked over to the spot. I found what had once been the manor, now a burned out shell. It had recently burned down. No one knew why. For some time no one had been living there.

Around the end of the war, Mary broke off her engagement to Jan. Reportedly in response to family pressures. My father theorized all along that the Major had mediumistic abilities, and the house’s apparent hostility to Jan was an expression of the Major's dislike of the prospective son-in-law. But evidently that wasn’t the entire story. The house was sold, the buyers tried to make it into a hotel, but with little success. The spirits had a nasty habit of moving furniture around in front of the guests, opening toilet stalls while they were inside. Then came the fire.

Today the house has been rebuilt and is functioning again. Anyone know what happened to the ghosts?

1 comment:

  1. Now there's a family story I hadn't heard before!