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.”
“..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.