29 January 2013


Geoff Holder Poltergeist Over Scotland. The History Press, 2013.

Taking a leaf from Harry Price’s classic Poltergeist over England, Geoff Holder presents a comprehensive list of poltergeist cases/stories from Scotland that should be of great interest to psychical researchers and folklorists alike. The book is chronologically arranged and covers the period from about 1635 up to 2012.
Where possible, for each story Holder gives date, location, and duration, a description of the (alleged) phenomena, a detailed examination of sources, background information and the suggested explanations. There is a bibliography and index. It is clear that Holder had undertaken much more research into the sources and background of these cases than have most writers.

What emerges is a continuity of reported effects, with the movements of objects and strange noises predominating (these are the only ones which occur in over half the cases), followed by apparitions, displacements, doors locking and unlocking, stone throwing and electrical effects in about a quarter of the relevant cases; other effects become increasingly rarer. This can be contrasted with a multiplicity of 'explanations'. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witchcraft is the predominant explanation. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries 'traditions of disbelief” begin to appear, at least at an élite level, and from the mid-nineteenth century spiritualistic interpretations start to predominate. In the post Great War era we see the emergence of faux-Freudian explanations in terms of disturbed adolescents, and from the 1950s to the 1980s there was a vogue for 'scientific' or quasi-scientific explanations ranging from underground water to 'earth energies'. There is now a major revival of spiritualism and spiritualistic explanations.

Looking through the sources one can see that these are often ideological works, through most of the early years these were by clergymen, and their stories were collected by writers such as Glanville, Sinclair and More to provide ammunition in the war against Sadduceeism (i.e. anyone who thought it was rather a bad idea to hang or burn women accused of witchcraft). Similar motivations underlay the activities of many of the early psychical researchers and today's spiritualists. For others the stories become folklore, remains of a 'quaint' pre-modern world and its 'curious superstitions'. From the 1990s onwards it is clear that commerce is becoming a major theme, with ghost tours and legions of books.

You might think that the more up to date the cases become the better they are investigated and documented, but the reverse seems to be the case. The early cases were investigated by local clergy who, while they had obvious axes to grind and were often very credulous, at least saw it their duty to assemble good quality evidence for their case. In the last twenty years or so, sensation and marketable stories seem to be the order of the day, so that Holder finds it harder to get independent evidence for stories from last year than 200 years ago.

Another feature of the most recent cases is the predominance of self- proclaimed 'psychics', who I suspect fail to impress Holder. An examination of the behaviour of these individuals shows that they run a spectrum from people who are essentially story tellers, through the fantasy prone, via attention seeking narcissists all the way to sadists who take pleasure in inflicting fear and distress in others.
A constant however is the role of the clergy, likely to be as involved in the twenty-first century as the seventeenth, even as their general role in the community has steeply declined. Despite the downgrading of Christian ideology, it appears that its religious figures are still thought to possess some kind of vague spiritual charisma that gives them the ability to counter magical powers.

As too what is really going on in these cases, one can only echo Holder’s “I haven’t a clue”. The most puzzling, such as Sauchie, seem very difficult to reduce to misperception, mismemory and trickery, yet the paranormal explanations don’t, to me at any rate, make any sense at all. I remain unconvinced that terms like 'psychokinesis' have any more explanatory value than 'abcradabra', and invoking 'discarnate intelligences' simply doubles the problem, for you now have a hypothetical construct - psychokinesis - plus a hypothetical entity - if terms like discarnate actually mean anything at all. -- Peter Rogerson

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