Archive for the ‘Pseudohistory’ Category

Taboo’s Company

January 15, 2017
The 'Pirates' version.

The ‘Pirates’ version of the EIC trademark…

The 'Taboo'...

…and the ‘Taboo’ effort. Art imitating art?

 

I’ve started watching the BBC’s new period supernatural drama ‘Taboo’, and right away noticed something weird about the depiction of the East India Company in the show. It’s not the setup for them being a sort of Georgian version of OCP from Robocop, although that is historically dubious in itself. No, what I noticed was the bizarre choice of the EIC ‘logo’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. As the Radio Times points out, the company trademark (or ‘bale mark’) symbol did change over the decades, but they seem to think that the one used here is a real historical one. It absolutely isn’t, it’s the exact same one from the ‘Pirates’ movies. Given the casting of Jonathan Pryce, I half wondered if this was some sort of weird spinoff/crossover effort, but that seems to be coincidental. The correct bale mark is the heart-shaped one with the ‘4’ shape on top (an old merchant’s symbol), and ‘VEIC’ for ‘United East India Company’. The only real change was a move from curved segments to quarters, see here.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

for 1813 (the year that the programme is set in) would be the one I’ve posted above. This was used on their currency, stock and property in a similar fashion to the Board of Ordnance ‘broad arrow’, though frankly I haven’t seen the ‘heart’ on anything dated post-1808 (anyone that knows the real history here, please do comment). Certainly it was dropped from the Company’s firearms and replaced by a lion rampant from that date onwards. I’m also not sure that it’s appropriate plastered all over their HQ as it is in ‘Taboo’ – I suspect that the coat of arms should be the official ‘logo’ in that context (see this page). I have a nagging feeling that some researcher simply bashed ‘east india company’ into Google Images, which is dominated by the Disney EIC ‘logo’ in screengrabs, merchandise and wiki pages, and assumed that it was one of the real historical variants. If so, how incredibly lazy can you get? If not, what’s the big idea here? Why connect your dark gothic adult historical drama series with a series of light-hearted family movies based on a theme park ride? Yes, I realise most people won’t know or care, but if I thought like that, I’d never write anything here!

I’m not the only one, in fact. Some people on Reddit have also spotted this, and one theory is that they chose the fictional logo to emphasise that this is a fantasy version of the company, but a) what would be the need, and b) why go to the trouble of seeking copyright permission from Disney to use their version, when you could easily design your own. Wait, you did seek permission from Disney, didn’t you, BBC? BBC….?

Hairy Bikers? Hairy BS, more like.

April 18, 2016

I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.

It took me all of twenty seconds on Google to find something debunking this obvious load of old trousers!

Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones: The Saga of Shakespeare’s Skull

April 2, 2016
Is this William Shakespeare's skull? Nah.

Is this William Shakespeare’s skull? Nah.

 

 

Tldr for the youngsters; Shakespeare’s skull probably wasn’t stolen, and if it was, the skull in Beoley church almost certainly isn’t it. 

 

The Tomb

You’ve probably seen the press about a recent UK TV documentary on Shakespeare’s missing noggin. I actually have yet to catch up with the programme itself, but it did pique my interest, just in case there was some BSery afoot. In fact, for the most part, it was pretty responsible, and there’s actually some critical assessment of two claims. Firstly, and this is what’s got most of the press, they test historical claims that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1794. These claims were first made in an an anonymous article (actually a story; see below) published in the Argosy magazine in October 1879 (you can read it here thanks to archive.org), and then again in an 1884 pamphlet written by the same man, later determined to be the Rev. C.J. Langston (aka Charles Jones), entitled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Lost and Found’. No-one seems to have taken these seriously either at the time or later, until recently that is.

 

The Channel 4 team have produced some interesting evidence that might support that, although it’s far from as conclusive as the show and those involved are making out. As an aside, I have to say that I pretty much agree with the church’s reasons for not opening it; The theft story wasn’t really very plausible at face value (see below), and I really don’t get why the ‘tomb’ was such a mystery to people (as it seems to have been) purely on the basis that the stone with the words on it is much shorter than those of his family next to it. Some even speculated (no doubt with tongue in cheek) that Shakespeare was buried standing up! But anyone that’s spent any time looking at church burials knows that graveslabs are rarely uniform in size, material, shape, engraving etc, unless the family deliberately planned it out ahead of time.

 

Anyway, to the evidence; the GPR plot (see the image on the The Guardian’s coverage here) shows conclusively that 3 feet down, the Shakespeares are actually buried in a series of individual graves, not a family vault as had been assumed previously. Secondly, it proved that William’s grave is just as long as the others under the slabs (duh!), and that his head isn’t up where the stone is (again, duh – Christian burials typically have the head at the west end of an east-west oriented grave). So far, so good; this is good solid archaeology telling us something new and confirming other things that we probably knew.

 

However, for some reason the investigators decide that the blank slab over the head end of the grave is somehow significant. Again, I don’t really see why, unless you’re wanting the theft story to be true. A church floor is a very practical structure, and a grave or memorial slab is in some ways just another paving slab. If for whatever reason someone (or their family) decides that they want a small slab with a particular inscription, there still needs to be a paving slab to fill the gap, and I personally think that’s what we’re seeing. It’s obvious that the documentary is in love with the idea of Shakespeare’s skull having been stolen, even as it dismisses most of the same story. It’s pointed out that the original 1879 Argosy story about the alleged theft does correctly talks about lifting a slab and rummaging around in the dirt, rather than descending into a family vault, and takes this to mean that there could be something in the story. I don’t follow the logic here; this could easily just be a correct guess. No-one reading the story could confirm whether this description of the ‘tomb’ was correct, nor would they care.

[Edited to add 3.4.16:] Fellow sceptic Eve Siebert at VirtualSkeptics.com (about 30mins in) is also sceptical of the documentary’s confident conclusion. Though she hasn’t actually seen the documentary itself, the point she makes doesn’t require her to. She makes the convincing case that Langston’s Argosy article was never intended to be factual, and is definitively a fictional short story. She also suspects that this was the origin of what is now (since perhaps the 1940s) local folklore (now of course international folklore thanks to the internet!). I think she’s right. If you look through any issue of the Argosy, it’s pretty clear that every issue is essentially a compilation of short stories and poems. If you read the actual story, it’s really no different, except perhaps for a Da Vinci Code style ‘BASED ON TRUE EVENTS!!!’ tone. It’s likely that he was inspired by recent vocal attempts by those seeking to confirm purported likenesses (and by phrenologists as the documentary says) to exhume the skull. Having attracted some attention, Langston then adapted this story, with an additional section about having rediscovered the skull, into the 1884 pamphlet, where it is more difficult to see the fictional context.

This means that regardless of the geophysical evidence, people are trying to prove a fiction. It would be like astronomers looking for the galaxy ‘Far, Far Away’, or an historian deciding to follow in Robert Langdon’s (Langston, Langdon… spooky!) footsteps to discover the truth of the Da Vinci Code. Now, Eve also notes that Benjamin Radford (also a prominent sceptic) has written a piece on the case. This actually supports the claim by discussing the very real background to celebrity skull theft. However, Radford does not actually support the claim that Shakespeare’s skull has been stolen. Quite frankly, if it has somehow been removed from the grave, it would be coincidental with the yarn spun by Langston, which some allege may actually have been intended to raise money for his church roof (see here).

Back to the geophysics. The disturbance of the ground at the ‘head’ area is interpreted by the geophysicist (Erica Utsi) in the documentary as a box-like brick or stone repair. Archaeologist Kevin Colls goes several steps further – much too far in my view – and takes it as confirmation that the theft happened as described. Even if he’s right though, I should point out that GPR cannot confirm detect the presence of organic materials, so it is not actually possible to confirm whether or not the skull is missing. I think there’s a reasonable chance that the account really was the exercise in Victorian trolling that it reads as (see the original book here), and that some other excavations in the church floor might account for the disturbance. Until and unless the church allows the grave to be opened, this is as close as we’re likely to get, and for many the proof that the head end of Shakespeare’s grave has been monkeyed with will be enough to confirm the myth.

 

The documentary claims no evidence of works undertaken in this area, despite extensive restoration work in the 1880s. However, this cuts both ways; there’s also no record of any repair to the damage caused by the alleged theft, either! It’s also not true. With just a bit of online research, I’ve identified one episode that would account for this GPR anomaly, recounted in ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’ by Samuel Schoenbaum (p.340 – the primary sources given are Anon. Shakespeariana, Monthly Magazine, 45 (1818), p.2 and the recollections of one James Hare from the Birmingham Weekly Post). In 1796, work on creating an adjacent grave for the rector, Dr Davenport (actually his wife, who died long before him) caused a collapse into Shakespeare’s tomb. More than one observer peered in to see what they could see, which after more than 200 years in the earth under a church floor wasn’t a great deal, though one did claim to have seen the remains, including the skull. These accounts don’t say at which end of the tomb the collapse occurred, but given that we now know one end is basically solid earth (with graves cut into it), and that there’s a brick or stone wall at the head of the graves, this wall was either constructed or at least repaired when the vault was built. This would explain why a box-like support would be needed underneath the grave and floor slabs, as the existing material supporting the blank ‘head’ slab would have collapsed (creating the hole that people were peering into). By the way, as far as I can tell, Stratford church has no crypt per se apart from that left by the demolition of the old charnel-house, so the ‘vault’ (also called a ‘grave’ elsewhere) mentioned was likely just a fancier lined version of Shakespeare’s, rather than the sort of family vault in a crypt that we tend to imagine. Hence workers would have lifted slabs and started digging, inadvertently weakening the earth wall of Shakepeare’s grave, before installing the brick or stone wall to shore up the older interments before finishing the vault for the new ones. Ingleby also claims that the repairs made included a new stone. The area would also have been disturbed to bury Davenport’s son in the same year, his daughter in 1821, and finally Davenport himself (aged 92!) in 1841. That’s apart from any other repairs that might have necessitated disturbing Shakepeare’s grave.

 

In any case, despite Colls’ wishful thinking, the GPR work is not conclusive evidence of the claimed 1794 break-in. Note that the alleged theft wasn’t actually reported by anyone until the 1879 article, long after those alleged to have committed the crime had died without ever admitting anything. If it really happened, there ought to be some other record of the break-in, unless of course one is looking to cry ‘conspiracy!’. The theft would have been a major undertaking, and one difficult to cover up, even if the culprits had got away with it.

 

Incidentally, I did appreciate the hypothesis presented that Shakespeare’s ‘curse’ on his grave slab might be based upon a very real post-Reformation fear of being exhumed, disarticulated, and placed in a charnel house. There was even a reference to Romeo & Juliet to support this. Of course, Shakespeare could just have been playing the dramatist.

The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)

The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)

The Skull

The second claim is much more recent, and in my view even less robust. The 1884 book claimed that the skull had been returned; not to Stratford, but to St Leonard’s Church in Beoley (the name of the church isn’t given, but it is clearly indicated). It also stated that the skull had been rediscovered on the basis of a piece that had been cut out by the thief in order to be able to do just that on a return visit. The new claim is that the skull has since been rediscovered by a Richard Peach, who published an article in The Village magazine in October 2009. This seems to have made few waves, but a few years later, actor and author Simon Stirling really went to town on the idea in his 2013 book ‘Who Killed William Shakespeare?’. You may or may not be able to read the relevant chapter in the Google Books preview, but I will summarise the claim here.

 

Having decided that the 1884 book was accurate in its claims and that the Beoley skull must definitely be the one described, Stirling proceeds to confidently list various features of the skull that prove it. Some appear in an article in a Goldsmiths College student magazine; some are only in the book. The problem is that they don’t prove anything and in many cases aren’t even visible (at least to my eyes). Here they are;

 

  1. A missing piece from the base. Yes, in the 1879 and 1884 accounts, the Shakespeare skull (if indeed that skull was his, or was anything more than a figment of the author’s imagination) was missing a piece. But as Stirling admits, the original piece was cut from the forehead, not the base!
  2. A ‘darkly discoloured region’ on the right brow that supposedly matches a ‘star-shaped’ scar seen in the death mask (probably a fake in any case!) and which ‘appears as a groove on the Davenant bust’. I’m not seeing this, personally, and in any case the Davenant bust is not from life, or even death, being generally dated to the mid-18th century (one lone scholar claims it to date from Shakespeare’s lifetime, but has been roundly criticised).
  3. A fracture also in this area, apparently also seen on the Davenant bust. This is very clearly a post-mortem fracture (if you think there’s doubt over that, just wait).
  4. Two parallel scratches from this area across the forehead, allegedly also seen on the Davenant bust, as well as Dugdale’s (very rough!) sketch of same, and the Chandos portrait (the likeness with the best authenticity, but still not 100% verified). I can just about see what he means here, but I strongly suspect pareidolia. Even if there’s something there, for these scratches to be visible in soft tissue, there would have to be two fairly massive scars visible on the portrait and bust.
  5. An ‘uneven forehead’ and ‘roughly oval depression, mid-brow’, bizarrely blamed on the thumbs of an over-enthusiastic Elizabethan midwife by Stirling. OK, he’s lost me again. Where??! His composite image comparison can be seen in the Goldsmiths article as figure 18. Apart from anything else, the region he highlights on the skull in the book is NOT the forehead but the crown of the head (he even references the fontanelle in the book. This is very high up on the head).
  6. Indentations/scratches on the left side of the skull (figures 17 & 18 in the article). These he conflates with the ‘uneven forehead’ defect (still not on the forehead by the way!). Like the others, these may well reflect a wound on the skull, if not on Shakespeare’s actual head. Funnily enough, this is the only feature that I think I can see a parallel for on any of the images; the Chandos portrait (see high res image here). Hardly conclusive though.
  7. Another fracture in the left eye socket, supposedly reflected by ‘relaxed skin’ over the eye on the (probably fake) death mask and seen in Droeshout and Chandos portraits. Sorry, not seeing this either.
  8. A broken ‘fissure’ (he means suture) on the right side of the skull (left as we look at it), supposedly also evidence of some traumatic injury and which apparently accounts for ‘the protruding left eye of the death mask and possibly the swollen caruncle visible in the posthumous portraits…’. These separated sutures are incredibly common in old skulls, especially on either side (see the skull pictured here) and are an artefact of the drying out of the bones and damage sustained over time.
  9. Finally, a claim made in the article and not the book; that ‘The outline of the broken maxilla on the left side of the face is reproduced as a jagged grey line running down the cheek’ in the depictions. These breaks on the skull are obviously post-mortem. If Stirling is suggesting a portrait made from the corpse, then such fractures (which would be perimortem according to his murder theory) are not going to be visible through soft tissue.

 

Stirling clearly has a predilection toward pattern recognition. In the same article he identifies a depiction in a painting of a tied piece of cord as somehow a representation of a dragonfly. Having decided that this must have been the artist’s intent and not his subjective interpretation, he then proceeds to read some dark significance into this secret ‘dragonfly’ symbol. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…

 

Let’s take stock. In 1884 Langston identified a skull in his own crypt as Shakespeare’s on the basis of an article that he himself had written, claiming (for the first time) that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen and relocated. There was no corroborating evidence, and it would have been impossible for anyone to check this unless the author (Langston), who also controlled access to the vault (being the vicar) allowed it. No one seems to have done so. At some point local lore identified a skull in that vault as the one in question, despite the fact that it didn’t have the diagnostic piece of bone ‘clipped’ from the forehead (which, by the way, would have been very hard to take  from the skull without massive damage). Over a century on from Langston’s writing, (2009) a local man photographed this skull and published an article under the assumption that it is the same one, Finally, in 2013 someone else (Stirling) lists certain features and defects on this skull that (very) subjectively resemble those on artistic depictions of the man himself, only two of which are confirmed as being authentic and are still only artist’s impressions of a man who was already dead when they were made; almost certainly not from his actual corpse. Even worse, none of these likenesses are confirmed to have been made when Shakespeare was alive (or even from his corpse). That’s a pretty flimsy chain of evidence not only for this being Shakespeare’s skull, but also Stirling’s theory that he was murdered.

 

This was just my assessment of the book chapter & article. Before having seen the documentary, I rather suspected that as well as confirming the theft (which they sort of did), the makers would also try to perpetuate this claim. I’d also found this article, which lamented that the diocese in question had refused permission to DNA test the skull in question for the documentary. This seemed to suggest that the filmmakers were going to play the old ‘they won’t let us test it, therefore our theory is correct!’ card. So, I decided to start looking at the book’s claims on face value, without being swayed by the documentary. Then I read this summary of the documentary and archaeological team’s findings.

 

The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.

 

This would definitely torpedo Mr Stirling’s entire book thesis, as the skull seems to be the lynchpin of his broader argument that Shakespeare was murdered. Reading this interview, it appears that Stirling refuses to accept Wilkinson’s findings, and even accuses the makers of the show of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘confirmation bias’ on his blog. Readers familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia will find these comments somewhat ironic. The onus is surely on the claimant to show that this skull is Shakespeare’s, and not on the TV producer or anyone else to prove that they aren’t. It’s also unfortunate that he goes on call into question the professionalism of the expert involved, Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moore’s University (whose PhD is in Facial Anthropology). Doubly so because he was happy enough to use evidence produced by the same expert in his book (even if the reconstruction in question was of the dubious death mask). Clearly the conditions imposed on her analysis weren’t ideal. The team weren’t permitted to physically analyse or even touch the skull, and the laser scan itself was therefore incomplete, because the skull could not be touched (pretty ironic given that the skull had clearly been moved in 2009).

 

Nonetheless, watching the actual documentary, you can see that they got right into the ossuary/vault and were able to closely scan most of the skull. There was easily enough coverage of the salient features, when combined with photography, to make an assessment. The shape of the cranium is clear both in the photos and the 3D render, and it’s a gracile, smooth forehead lacking in brow ridges. Incidentally, if the Davenant bust really is a likeness of Shakespeare, it’s a poor match for the skull, as the profile photo in this article shows. Otherwise, as Wilkinson points out, not only are the teeth missing (not surprising given the damage sustained) but the actual bone of the upper jaw has resorbed. In other words, there are no spaces for the teeth. That’s a pretty definitive indicator of total tooth loss, not something we’d expect on a well-to-do middle-aged playwright.

 

Now, Wilkinson is a leading academic in her field, and is not likely to allow herself to be misrepresented in a TV documentary (she’s appeared in a number of them). She is clear that the skull appears to be of an elderly female rather than a middle aged male. Like any responsible academic, she did caveat her conclusions (‘I would be somewhat cautious’). So yes, there’s room for doubt that the skull might be a particularly feminine and prematurely aged male. But even then, is that a match for what we know of Shakespeare? I’d say not, but then comparing a partial skull with artistic depictions made after the fact is fraught with difficulty. But again, the onus must be on the claimant. Even if the documentary didn’t 100% prove that the skull wasn’t Shakespeare, Stirling is very far from proving that it wasn’t. Therefore our provisional conclusion has to be that it probably isn’t.
Overall, not a bad documentary with some interesting information, and I do agree that the Beoley skull is almost certainly NOT Shakespeare’s. However, as I’ve explained above, they really haven’t shown, as press reports claim, that ‘Shakespeare’s head appears to be missing’ nor that ‘the skull was probably stolen from what is a shallow grave by trophy hunters’. I think the anomaly they’ve identified is just as likely, if not more so, to reflect some other building work, possibly repairs made following the documented collapse in 1818.

 

Edit to add:

In researching this article I came across a joke, a version of which I’d heard or read previously, and that is very appropriate here; even more so if another candidate for his skull is ever claimed in the future! In this, a gullible collector is accused of having acquired a fake Shakespeare skull, and is shown another, larger skull also purported to be as Shakespeare’s. He responds that his skull:

 

‘…is of Shakespeare certainly, but of Shakespeare as a child about twelve or fourteen years old ; whereas this is that of Shakespeare when he had attained a certain age and had become the greatest genius of which England is so justly proud’.

-Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine, Vol.14-15, 1864, p.287 (but also various period newspapers).

 

Slicing the Upper Crust

March 24, 2013

I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog,  this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.

This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because Phrases.org has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;

‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’

The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).

It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides Phrases.org mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?

Early in the hi…

March 10, 2012

Image

Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.

Eye-Eye, Cap’n!

December 24, 2011
Perusing the most interesting Lifehacker blog yesterday, I came across mention of a suggestion that pirates’ eye-patches were used to preserve night vision when moving between the deck and interior of a ship. It’s one I’ve heard before, and Wikipedia refers to it in more general, nautical terms. The first listed source is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though I can’t find any entry entitled ‘Eye Eye Matey’. The redundant section immediately below references the Mythbusters episode where they tried it out, and found it to be plausible enough. As that last link shows though, there is no actual historical precedent for the idea.

This led me to consider where the pirate/eye-patch thing did in fact come from.

Here I will direct readers to the rather good Athenaeum Electronica blog, which has covered this very issue in some detail. I broadly agree with their concluson that our modern and specific association with pirates most likely originates with the classic 1950 movie version of ‘Treasure Island’, as depictions of patched-up pirates are few and far between prior to that.

However, I think there’s more to it than that, something that the great post linked above has missed by limiting his research to pirates specifically. The one-eyed, peg-legged sailor is actually an older trope, used to imply the rough and dangerous life of a naval seaman or officer; see the early C19th cartoon reproduced here, this 1851 fictional description of veterans at the Greenwich Hospital (complete with ‘iron hooks’!), or this 1828-dated fictional use of a ‘factitious leg and black eye patch’. Whilst these injuries may not have been as ubiquitous in reality as the stereotype implied, they would have been fairly common amongst veterans of all services, and sadly are again common today thanks to the Afghan and Iraq wars. And sailors could still find work with a missing eye, as Samuel Johnson’s diary shows. The skillset of a seaman was far more valuable to a ship’s captain than his depth perception. In any case, direct injury wasn’t the only threat to one’s eye; disease too was a serious problem.

I would also note that the line between historical pirates and other sailors was less clear in the past, what with the prize money system and letters of marque. Today’s sailors have nothing in common with their piratical counterparts.

This being so, consider this Punch illustration from 1896:

Perhaps it was intended to reference the fairly-recently (1883) published ‘Treasure Island’, but given the inclusion of a sailor’s hat, I have a feeling that it’s really a continuation of the ‘disabled seaman/old sea dog’ trope that’s still going today, independent of (or perhaps interdependent with) things piratical. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t just create the idea from whole cloth. He designed Long John Silver’s appearance to be familiar to the audience – not necessarily as a pirate, but as a grizzled sailor.

I realise International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a way off, but be sure to include an eye-patch in your Pirate Regalia…

A Faked Fake?

January 24, 2011

Take a look at this Ebay auction for another of those “Vampire Killing Kits” I’ve written so much about. Before I write more of the same – why does this matter? Well, like all VKKs, this one is potentially worth a lot of money. It’s currently over $1000 without the reserve having been met. Similarly presentable kits have sold for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars at auction. On the off-chance that the buyers of these things aren’t already fully aware of the spurious origin of the VKK, I offer this post.

This is quite a nice one, though bearing in mind the known facts surrounding these kits, the unequivocal date of 1835-45 seems a little over-confident. But hey, this is Ebay.

The kit is a “Blomberg”, complete with artificially aged contents-list, bottle of “serum”, and “efficient pistol” by the usual Belgian gunsmith, sold separately on Gunbroker.com due to Ebay’s fear of anything vaguely weapon-shaped.

So far, so typical. Here’s where it gets interesting. Have a look at the pistol, specifically the gunmaker’s name engraved under the barrel:

Those of you who know their VKKs ought to spot right away that the maker of this kit has managed to misspell the name “Nicolas Plomdeur” – an actual Liege pistol-maker – as “Nicolas Plomduer”. At least one other Blomberg kit has been observed with the misspelling “Plombeur”, which at least makes linguistic, if not historical, sense. But this “Plomduer” boob is a first, to my knowledge. It’s very unlikely indeed that a renowned gunsmith would allow a pistol to be sold with such a blatant error intact – reputations rely upon quality and consistency (and all this would take is a new barrel, not scrapping of the whole gun). So, perhaps a period copy aping Plomdeur’s work? Unlikely. For one thing the engraving is not very period-appropriate. It looks fresh and unworn. It is stamped rather than hand engraved – and lightly stamped at that. Examples of the real Nicholas Plomdeur’s work survive, and none of them resemble this mark. Finally, it’s marked on the underside flat of the barrel. Why? Gunmakers usually signed their work on the lock, sometimes on the top or side flat – never the underside. The point of applying the name was pride in one’s work and an early form of “brand-awareness”. It was a mark of quality – not to be hidden from view. As the barrel appears to be a “turn-off” type, it’s possible that it’s misaligned, but if so, the threads have been re-cut and the barrel shortened – suspect in itself if the case. So someone has applied this mark in the last few years (or decades at most) in a deliberate attempt to deceive.

An example of a genuine Plomdeur pistol with engraved name (surname only in this case)

For another thing, the “Blomberg” label is also misspelled in the same way. Therefore either the kit was made with the error on both items, or a subsequent owner has made a new contents list to match the pistol (the other way around being unlikely, as the case has apparently been made or re-made to fit this pistol. The current seller admits to having fabricated the powder flask, which looks no more or less aged than any other major component. It fits the case as well as any other component. In other words, the admittedly fake piece is indistinguishable from the supposedly genuine ones. This should sound a note of caution over the whole idea of these kits. Even if there are real ones out there, you’re going to need close examination and probably scientific testing to determine whether it might be “real”.

See how many other spelling and punctuation mistakes you can spot.
Prof. Blomberg may be fictional, but he’s usually more thorough than this…


As for the complimentary copy of “The Creature Vampyre”, it’s clearly modern, and not just in terms of its “binding”. It’s also entirely fictional, and doesn’t even use the same name as the guy supposedly responsible for putting these kits together (whose name is Ernst, not Charles). Whilst it doesn’t change the nature of the kit, it certainly doesn’t help its claim to authenticity any.

All of this points, in my view, to deliberate fraud. Maybe not by the current seller, but by whomever vandalised that percussion pistol and faked the contents list. As ever with these pieces – caveat emptor.

Blondes Have More Pun

December 8, 2010

Sorry, terrible title. I also don’t usually only post links to other pages, but the below links to such a comprehensive take-down of the “White Europeans Found to Have Started Every Civilisation Ever” meme, I felt I had to. Essentially, if you see a story claiming that dead white/ginger/blonde people have been found in China/Africa/native American archaeological contexts or anywhere else you wouldn’t normally expect us pasty-faced types to crop up, make sure it’s based on something other than confirmation bias…

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/11/no-romans-needed-to-explain-chinese-blondes/

Nazi Flying Saucers – “New” Evidence?

November 20, 2010

“ZOMFG!!!!11” – Oberleutnant Hans Gullibal, July 1944

Just a quick reality check on the recent stories claiming new evidence for the tired old Nazi flying saucer schtick. All of the articles reference a piece in the Nov 2010 issue of German popular science magazine ‘P.M.’.  Unfortunately no-one seems to have read the actual article properly. It’s also behind a paywall. Luckily the text is out there online. The article is headed by a piece of concept art for the new alternate history/sci-fi movie “Iron Sky”, which seems to be the impetus behind this press interest in the whole idea. I’ve reproduced a Google Translate version of the actual text below. It is nothing more than a summary of what’s claimed and known about WW2 and later attempts to build saucer-shaped aircraft. Contrary to the claims that P.M. have reported Nazi breakthroughs in anti-gravity technology, of new eyewitness testimony, and of the Canadians recreating a flying example of such a saucer*, none of this is in the actual article. It’s just a rehash timed to coincide with a movie, nothing more.

*actually the conventionally-powered, well-documented, and none-too-successful VTOL Avrocar for which there is no evidence of Nazi inspiration (only claims online, as the P.M. piece says).

The lesson here is to ALWAYS go back to the source. DO NOT trust the mainstream media to accurately report anything, but particularly anything esoteric. They rarely get it right. I expect this kind of thing from the tabloids, but the Daily Telegraph ought to know better – particularly as they quote the phrase “strong evidence” from the P.M. piece, which as far as I can tell, is a total misrepresentation. See what you think (in the original German here):

 

PM world of knowledge
The mystery of the ‘kingdom’ flying disc
It was called V7, and spread terror across the world: this wonder weapon the Nazis wanted the threat of defeat in World War II averted. It did not work – but the myth still lives V7
New York, December 1944: In the canyons of Manhattan flower speculation as to whether a German attack is imminent in the metropolis – was flown by nuclear slices. The New York Times has a “mysterious floating ball” reported and taken photos of blurred objects, which seem to race away at high speed. London panicked want those discs have observed in the low-level flight under the Thames bridges. 

The Allies were half a year before landing in Normandy, the German world front was on the verge of collapse – and yet even had the Americans fear that it could succeed with the German secret wonder weapons, prevent their imminent defeat yet. Goebbels propaganda machine of its own people conjured up in the end the tale of the “final victory” was also the enemy action. Hitler had not developed by Werner von Braun legendary V-2 rocket fire since September 1944 on the British capital? A deadly missile, which achieved bypassing enemy radar screens in just 320 seconds you target – without any warning.
The V in V 2 was in the Nazi propaganda for “retaliation”. Even if the so-called V-weapons in the war ends were not yet mature technology: some of them had great potential, so that the United States and the Soviet Union were able to further develop intercontinental ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. Others were from the outset only the satisfaction of wishful thinking in his headquarters. A special role here was the “V7” too, also known as the “kingdom of flying disc.”

Since the lost Battle of Britain was the German air force struck and Air Minister Goring under pressure. Therefore, he called out to 1941, all experts and invited them on to new, bold developments in order to secure the German air superiority. But the Nazis turned on all the money taps. An important role played in planning the model of a vertically strartenden circular disc, the young designer Andreas Epp and his supporters, the legendary World War I fighter pilot Ernst Udet had Goering presented shortly before. With a dual strategy, the idea can be realized: In the Breslau and Dresden, the German aircraft factories were aircraft engineer Richard Miethe and Italian turbine expert Giuseppe Belluzzo prepare the testing, at the Skoda works in Prague and their colleagues Otto Habermohl Rudolf Schriever.

In February 1944, led the Prague developers through the first successful test of the disk. On the maiden flight of different reports are circulating. Some projects the disc can be shot with more than 2000 km / h through the air, for others they just made a few lame jumping movement. But certainly played up the propaganda ministry, the event and claimed a breakthrough in the development of new wonder weapons. Most documents have been destroyed over the window in the turmoil of the last year of the war or were lost, but the fifteen months from the test flight until the armistice was sufficient to put the immortal myth of the super fast flying disks in the world.
For the aviation historian Peter Pletschacher, the evolution of the flying disc has studied, it is a matter of “psychological warfare at its best”. The speeds indicated were “impossible and then complete rubbish” was. The disc research could not have as often claimed, had priority because it is mentioned in the reference works of this period only in passing. The sensational effect on the enemy Pletschacher leads to the fact that the Allies would have had the greatest respect from the Germans and especially in the technical field they were confident everything. For example, the French seized 1945 jet engines from BMW, which were cited as the world’s most powerful, and built it into their own military machine.

After the war, the legend began operating independently of the legendary kingdom of flying disc and became increasingly bizarre forms. Probably because so many Nazi bigwigs were in hiding in South America, could be heard soon, Hitler and his followers had settled with their discs in the Antarctic and in tunnels under the ice waiting for her return to Germany. You have to understand that 1938das German research vessel “Swabia” was leaked on the then abandoned Antarctic in order to claim territories for Germany. The supporters of the theory of Hitler’s escape call our territory therefore “Neuschwabenland.
to test U.S. maneuvers with the aim of the cold war, new fitness equipment in the ice, gave the legend of 1946, more food. Did the Americans track down their old nemesis in his icy bunker? The high point of the absurd Mythenstrickerei, when it was finally, Hitler had withdrawn his wheels on the moon and waiting there on the day of his revenge. The trip into space would have allowed a new sensational drive technology, the “Vril” was called and was supposed to accelerate to 40,000 mph.

Fantasy and hysteria were no limits. Seasoned U.S. pilots gave sworn statements from 1947 through encounters in the air with unknown flying objects, UFOs shortly. The Air Force would even have been involved in a fight with a disk. Now also had a comic artist and Hollywood film makers their material. Martians in flying races visited the planet Earth, of course, just as philanthropists. Fearing that was when the media reported the same year by a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
Like nearly all other incidents of this kind, it turned out well as the optical illusion in Roswell.There only a weather balloon had fallen. The UFO-believers did not care and declared the city a place of pilgrimage. He has remained until today. This year were 150 000 visitors came to Roswell. Recently, word of the foundation stone for a “global Ufology Congress Centre” set.
The UFO paranoia of the 1940s had a twin, namely the fear of UFOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects): amphibious flying discs, which start in water, the water surface in the sky to shoot and then return back into the sea. The mystery investigator Lars A. Fischinger has investigated the phenomenon. Dozens of such phenomena from the past 50 years he has taken under the microscope. In Antarctica, for example, wanted an icebreaker crew have watched as UFOs broke through seven meter thick ice layers. Other windows have disappeared without trace in 8000 meters. Many of these incidents occurred during the Cold War in the waters between the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries. The suspect was brought low, Fischinger, that was like at the end of World War II from the tense international situation resulting psychological stress, people made vulnerable to hallucinations and hysterical reactions.
The UFO craze after the Second World War, not least been fueled by the developers of the flying disc itself. “The engineers wanted to make important,” says expert Pletschacher. Said Rudolf Schriever was allowed in the 1950s, the “mirror” contradicted his attempts to explain in Prague, where he claimed boastfully: “Flying saucers are not a gimmick. They are of greatest importance, the development of aviation technology. “By contrast the much more qualified professionally Giuseppe Belluzzo from Breslauer test group in 1944 warned that disk-shaped missiles were unstable due to their high center of gravity, particularly with increasing size.
From the shady promises Schriever and other engineers who were in the construction of the flying disc, and personal blogs pretended at least to let Canadian military researchers impress so they decided to be a replica, which they called “Avro Canada VZ-9AV”, short “Avrocar”, missed. In the years 1960 and 1961, the Canadian disc was tested 75 hours. The propeller pushes the air down and away backwards, allowing the construction and excavation were taken. Instead of the expected 480 km / h reached the plane to just pace 50, where he stumbled drunk out how and forth – probably just like his predecessor, Prague in 1944.

This result expected cost Canadian taxpayers five million dollars. The Smithsonian Museum today in the U.S. capital of Washington issued Avrocar model was not built for nothing: it is the evidence for all the doubters and deniers, that the kingdom flying disc was a technological dud. As a propaganda tool they struck the other hand like a nuclear bomb. Their impact, we must even 65 years after the war, marvel at, while the disc is more powerful myth. Not even the Reich Propaganda Minister would be the dream.

Paranormal Investigations Live

November 2, 2010


Perhaps “Least Haunted” would have been more appropriate

 

I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).

Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.

Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.

Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.

Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.

His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.

He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.

However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;

“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”

and

“..female fans flock to his book signings”.

Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.

Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?

The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:

“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.

Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:

“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”

We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.

Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;

 

1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.

The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;

“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.

Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.

The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.

 

2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.

Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;

“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”

I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:

“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”

This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.

 

3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.

Over to Ashley;

“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”

This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.

For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.

I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;

“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.

However, in discussion one evening  John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant.  He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”

So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.

As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.

I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).

The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;

“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”

Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;

“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.

However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest  is probably easy to find out about.”

Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.

 

5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.

As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.

So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.

Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.

So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.

I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.