Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the route is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the cove, to stray and rove,
Among the rocks and streams
To sport that night… – from Halloween by Robert Burns
Here in Toowoomba, it has been an uncharacteristically cool and wet October, making our experience of the month more like a northern autumn than a southern spring. I have to confess I have revelled in the misty days, cool moist air, a caressing fog and swaddling grey skies. I love autumn, it is my favourite season and while everything is reversed in Australia and it is now our spring, this year has allowed for some seasonal dissonance, even if the trees are coming in green and not dropping leaves in golden drifts. The skies have let me feel the dark and its attendant thin places are still close by, we are not yet into the brutal harshness of summer and I am enjoying the last of the soft weather.
Halloween has always felt to be, a peculiarly American thing, a bit crass and commercial but that is really just the modern experience. The reality is older and more tired to my own Gaelic heritage. Even the word Halloween has its origins in Scottish literary heritage, from Wikipedia:
The word hallowe[‘]en comes from the Scottish form of All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day):even is the Scots term for “eve” or “evening”, and is contracted to e’en or een;(All) Hallow(s) E(v)en became Hallowe’en.
There is the Robbie Burns poem Halloween, and I believe the first use of the word dates to an even earlier Scottish poem but I am uncertain of the title or date of that one, (please leave a comment if you know it). Scotland at Halloween or the pagan Samhain does lend itself to a peculiarly haunted feeling, there is a pleasurable melancholy in the air, especially in the wilder locations. The air is heavy with magic and the divide between worlds does indeed feel thin. Like we can reach out and touch the unseen. The world positively tingles.
I sometimes think the focus on the departed is a very healthy thing, these days I don’t think our culture deals with death in a particularly healthy way. We are more intent on hiding from the reality of loss, while at the same time devouring media that makes an ugly circus of death and destruction in graphic movies and video games, they turn death into a warped fantasy and do nothing to prepare us for the reality of a loss we must all experience someday. But there is a lot to be said for the frisson of a good ghost story at the dark time of year, they let us try out our bravery before we ever really need it.
Since we are coming to the end of October, and Halloween is looming, I thought I would do a post on Toowoomba’s ghosts, we are quite a haunted town really. Local historian Don Talbot has contributed several books to the chronicle of Toowoomba’s ghosts. I have read a couple of them in the past including Ghostly Tales of Toowoomba, which is a good place to start if you are interested in our local hauntings, which are abundant, there are supposed to be at least 50 ghosts in the garden city.
One of our most famous ghosts is resident, not more than a couple of hundred metres from where I am currently writing. The elegant Ascot House, which is just up the road from me comes with its own haunting. When the house was rescued from dilapidation by the current owner back in the 1980s they apparently experienced ghostly caresses and one room in the house, a former maid’s room, always felt cold, one wall was described as icy. Before it was bought and renovated, it had fallen into disrepair and had been damaged by vandals, the subject of rumour it had always had the reputation of being “creepy”.
The current owner driven by that ghostly caress, cold spots in the house and the odd eerie noise, set about researching the house’s more domestic history and the tragic story of Maggie Hume emerged. Maggie had been a maid in the house. One morning in July 1891, she did not rise to light the household fires. She was found in her room, deceased from apparent strychnine poisoning. At 23 years of age, it is suspected Maggie fell prey to the all too common story of an unwed woman driven to despair at the discovery of a pregnancy and living and working in the home of a prominent local politician, a pregnancy was a shame she could not face. Foul play, murder, was considered but general consensus seems to lean towards suicide.
Living in such proximity to one of our most famous haunted houses the question arises, have I ever seen anything otherworldly in the neighbourhood? Sadly the answer is no. Afraid my neighbourhood feels all too populated with the living. Have you ever felt a ghostly presence?
I have certainly experienced moments of unease at certain locations, a sense of something not quite right but not at any of the major ghost locations. I once experienced a particularly creepy moment at the university. It was at night, I was on my own at the time and it was inside one of the buildings, the floor was dark, no one should have been there but I heard a whispering close by and then a sort of banging noise in the wall, probably just the ancient air conditioning but I felt a very distinct urge to get off that floor and return upstairs where at least there was another staff member working. I thought I would receive some well-deserved mocking from security, instead, I was regaled with tales of other ghostly encounters on campus, so who knows, the tortured souls of students past perhaps still haunt the halls.
There are several well-known hauntings in Toowoomba, perhaps it is best to defer to Don Talbot himself and let him introduce some of our best known hauntings, starting with Mrs Perkins our railway station ghost.
I know at one stage ghost tours were being operated in Toowoomba but I don’t think they are currently running. Certainly might make a fun way to discover some of the local history if they are re-introduced.