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The Black Lady of Broomhill House, Larkhall
The town of Larkhall stands on high ground of Machan Muir, in the heart of Lanarkshire, about midway between Hamilton and Lanark. Until the 18th Century the area boasted just a handful of small villagesamong them Millheugh at the Avon Gorge, and Larkhall. The economy was wholly rural, and the communtites were quite isolated from the rest of the country, but this changed with the advent of mining. The coal mining industry boomed and the population grew, principally around Larkhall, which by 1900 had a population of more than 10 000. To the east of Larkhall, the land drops down to the river Clyde, to the west it falls to the river Avon. Here, just beyond the old village of Millheugh, a settlement with it's origins far back in the dark ages, is a well known beauty spot beside the river, Morgan Glen. And on the slopes overlooking this glen, until very recently, stood a large house called Broomhill.
There has been a dwelling on the site of Broomhill House for centuries. For generations it belonged to the Hamiltons, one of the most important and wealthy families in Scotland. This whole district is the heartland of Hamilton power. The pedigree of the Hamiltons of Broomhill, can be traced back to a Hamilton's marriage to Mary, daughter of James II, in the mid 15th C, and by 1473 the title to Broomhill was established. At one time there was a tower house, which was succeeded by a castle, which itself was burnt to the ground in 1574 by Sir William Drury, Governor of Berwick, in retaliation for John Hamilton of Broomhill's support for Mary Queen of Scots at the Battle of Langside. In 1585 a new house called Auld Machan, was built on Broomhill's foundations, but it fell to disrepair, was partially demolished, and then rebuilt and extended. By the 18th C however, Broomhill House was again one of the principle "big hooses" of the locality, inhabited by a branch of the Hamiltons, and by the 19th C , the McNeil - Hamiltons. The estate owned much of the land in and around Larkhall and most of the village houses. The laird was therefore a man of considerable power in the community. His name was Captain Henry Montgomery McNeil - Hamilton.
HE was born in 1872, and succeeded to the estate on the death of his father in 1883, when he was only 11. His father had had a distinguished military career, had fought in the Crimea, married a Polish countess related to Queen Victoria who had died in childbirth, then married a Claremont from London, who was Henry's mother. Henry's career, like his strict and domineering father's was to be a military one - he took a commission to the Cameronians, rising to the rank of Captain. In 1896 he married Edith Gertrude Thomson Carmichael, daughter of the wealthy Carmichael estate at Tinto, between Lanark, and Biggar. They had 4 children - one son and three daughters - but the marriage was not a happy one, and the couple separated in 1910. McNeil - Hamilton continued to live at Broomhill until his death in 1924.
These are the barest of facts. But for most of this century, Broomhill House and the area around it has been associated in local popular belief with a ghost, The Black Lady. There have been numerous sightings and experiences of this ghost, and the stories surrounding her are known to almost everybody in the area. For Helen Sykes, however, there was an added family connection.
Her grandmother, Helen Henderson, who was born in 1857, worked at Broomhill House from the age of 12 until - amazingly - the age of 82. She went there first as a maid, and over the years rose to become housekeeper, going to work as a young girl, as a married woman and as a mother, right up to the start of the second world war. Latterly she had been there so long she could come and go as she pleased, although throughout most of the 1920s and 30s the McNeil - Hamilton family did not occupy the place, but installed caretakers to look after it. The house was used briefly by the army during the war, then suffered severe damage from a fire in 1943. Finally, in 1954, the family sold the land and what was left of the house to a woman with some connections to them, a Mrs Euphemia Hamilton.
Helen Henderson, who became Helen Perry when she married, told stories of the Black Lady, which she passed to her son, who passed them to his daughter, Helen Sykes. So, like many others in Larkhall Helen Sykes grew up well acquainted with the Black Lady. But her acquaintance was to become far closer than she might have wished.
About 6 years ago, when Helen was in her late 30s, she began to have a recurring dream. It came quite out of the blue, and initially she made no connection with the Black Lady, although there may have been some subconscious prompting, since the stories are known to her. At first the dream was mixed up and hazy, but then it started to become clearer, as if someone had adjusted the contrast on a TV set. She could see herself - at least she thought it was herself - standing in a room, wearing a white blouse and a long black skirt, and holding a set of keys; as she described it, "It's me, but it's not me - it's an older me. There's a beautiful ornate fireplace with a brass fender, a clock and a candlestick, and on each side of the fireplace is a door. Behind me there's a bay window with green curtains. There's a piano, and a firescreen with a red rose on it, and standing on one side is this tall, very good looking coloured woman. On the other side is this man - I've never seen him in my life before, he's very aristocratic looking, and has these piercing, piercing eyes."
The dream develops. Helen sees a male hand, and on the third finger a gold ring with a black stone on it. The hand lifts the candlestick. The black woman is struck by the candlestick and falls to the floor. A sheet is passed under her where she lies. Helen follows the hand as it pulls the woman on the sheet through a door, across a black and white marble floor, where for some reason there is a polished stone like a curling stone, down a passageway, and through a kitchen. A door is opened, which seems to lead down to a cellar. There is blood on the steps although the body is still on the near side of the door.
Later, Helen had other dreams that seemed to take place elsewhere in the same house. One was of a young deformed boy, in a nursery with a rocking horse with only one ear, and the black woman trying to comfort the boy. Another was in a cellar or vault of some kind, with hooded men participating in a ceremony. Understandably, Helen was disturbed by the detail and the repetition of these dreams. She began to wonder if the woman in the dream could in some way be connected with the Black Lady of ghostly legend.
Now her grandmother had been a very down to earth person, with no reason to fabricate stories, of which there were in any case, already an abundance in the district. She had been a loyal servant who had worked in Broomhill for 70 years, and she had seen, not the ghost of the Blck Lady, but the original, had spoken to her and known her while she was at Broomhill. If this was true - and why would her grandmother invent it? - then Helen Sykes ought to be able to verify the existence of someone who had been alive little more than 85 years ago.
Her grandmother’s story was this: the Black Lady came from India and had been at Broomhill for about 2 years at the turn of the century. Her grandmother had last seen her one night after dinner, at about 10 o'clock, just before she left to walk home to Larkhall. When she came back the next morning, the Black Lady had gone. She was told that she had left to go home (presumably back to India), because she was unhappy. This was the only explanation ever given for her departure. But this seemed strange to Helen's grandmother: the horses and carriage had not been out that night, and it was some distance to walk from Broomhill to the East Station in Larkhall carrying bags and baggage. It was also inconceivable that an Asian woman, burdened with luggage, walking through a rural village at night would not have been noticed by somebody, but nobody had seen a thing. In any case, she had missed the last train. If she really had left so late at night, apparently without warning, it was at least highly unusual.
It was from this starting point that Helen began to research the existence of the real Black Lady. She put aside all tales of a ghost on the site of the old house, of a woman seen at the windows of Broomhill, or later walking among the ruins.
Helen's research took her to London and to Edinburgh, as well as to local sources, to the South African Records Office and to British military records. She established that the so called Black Lady was probably born in Crown Colony, Ceylon in 1862. Her name was Sita Phurdeen, and she was a Hindu, or possibly belonged to a Hindu - Buddist sect, and the name Sita indicated she almost certainly came from a high caste background. As a young woman she was taken to South Africa to work in the mines, and then became a camp servant in the British Army in SA. Why she had ended up in SA if she came from a high caste background is not known - although if she had somehow fallen into disgrace, if a suitable husband could not be found for her, or if she had perhaps been married but for some reason become an affront to her husband, she might have been dispatched abroad to get her out of the way - and SA was a very common destination for workers from British India at this time. If she was beautiful, as tradition suggests, she may not have worked in the mines for long, or at all, but been selected for sexual use by a white overseer. In any event, she ended up with the British Army, and through that she came in contact with Cptn. Henry McNeil - Hamilton. Almost certainly, she became his mistress. When he returned to Scotland in 1902, having left the army, he arranged for her to travel back too, passing her off as someone he deemed suitable to be a servant or nanny to his children.
Initially all Helen had intended to do was establish the facts behind the local legends. While doing the research, however, she was also involved in raising charity funds for the Sick Children’s Hospital in Glasgow, and a sponsored overnight stay at the “haunted house” was proposed. Around the middle of September 1989 she and seven other women spent the night at Broomhill. They made a fire in what had been the kitchen area, and sat around it drinking tea and having a good craic about anything other than the Black Lady – Helen was determined not to let the conversation dwell on the subject. At about 2 o’clock, too much tea had it’s natural effect on a young woman called Sheena. Equipped with an industrial torch, Helen took her round the back of the house to find a secluded spot where she could go to the lavatory. Just at this spot is a path known as the Black Lady’s Walk, which was indeed the part of the grounds where she had exercised, since all the time she was at Broomhill she was never seen in the village, but only at the house, or in the woods leading down to Millheugh and the Avon Gorge. Once again, what happened next is best described by Helen herself:
“I was holding the light and I heard movement behind me. I definitely heard the movement, and I thought at first it was one of the other girls, then I got this sensation, I thought there’s something odd here, and I could feel this terrible cold, and it clung to me, and then this heavy, heavy smell of spices – the only way I can describe it is that its like perfume somebody gives you at Christmas and it’s horrible, you just want to throw it away. She passed my left side, it was definitely female, I could see her form. I felt frightened, but not threatened – and very sad, I had this feeling of overwhelming sadness – pathetic. The next thing, Sheena says shine the torch in, there’s someone standing beside me, oh! what a smell! So I shone the torch in, the back wall was still standing at the time, and there was the shadow in the light, and it ambled across the wall like somebody out for a casual walk. That’s what happened. I was about 38 then, the same age Sita would’ve been when she came to Scotland.
Henry McNeil – Hamilton dies in 1924 of, according to his death certificate “premature old age”. This was caused by syphilis, in those days a common disease, especially among soldiers, and in most cases incurable. There is no way of proving what happened at Broomhill House that night, but the possibility must exist that through no fault of her own Sita had passed the disease to the Captain. Maybe in a fit of temper – brought on by the virulent syphilitic strain that afflicted him – Captain McNeil – Hamilton did attack Sita, perhaps even in the way dreamt by Helen Sykes.
Helen was subsequently contacted by a retired journalist from Cambuslang researching the history of that town. This woman said that she had discovered another “Black Lady”, an Indian woman who dissapeared from the Buchanan estate at Cambuslang. Colonel Gray – Buchanan was McNeil – Hamilton’s Colonel in the Cameronians. He had been present at the McNeil – Hamiltons’ wedding in 1896 – in fact one of his 2 daughters had been bridesmaid. The Indian woman and Sita travelled together to Scotland on the same boat. Helen wanted to see if there was any psychical evidence of a presence at Broomhill. It is, of course, a very ancient site of habitation, where no doubt many dreadful deeds might have been done over the centuries, so any evidence may relate to events which took place long before the time of the Black Lady. Nevertheless, through the auspices of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, three clairvoyants were brought independently to Larkhall. They each knew nothing, and were told nothing, of the stories associated with Broomhill. All three were disturbed by what they said was the evil atmosphere of the place. Evil things had been done there, said one, by men dabbling in the Black Arts. One clairvoyant declared there was strong evidence of witchcraft. These statements can be taken with or without a strong dose of scepticism What is interesting are the specific details identified. One talked of the presence of fire. And standing on the rubble os Broomhill House, over the buried cellarage, she said, “There is not A body down there. There are BODIES”
One of the clairvoyants described what she could see in great detail. The old gatehouse to Broomhill has gone, but the gates are still there. Walking through these gates the clairvoyant said she could hear carriages coming. This was a lovely tree lined avenue, she said. There was a carriage coming just now with a woman in it, a fair haired woman who – and she bent forward with pain – was holding her chest, she had terrible chest problems. (McNeil – Hamilton’s wife was fair, and had tuberculosis). There was a man lying by the avenue – he was in the way of the horse, and it was too bad, it just ran him over. There was a wee boy and a wee girl playing croquet – the bot dark, and the girl fair (like McNeil – Hamilton’s children). There was a black horse and gundogs ( both of which McNeil – Hamilton possessed), and there were spaniels (Helen’s grandmother had been given a spaniel puppy at the house.
Then the clairvoyant said to Helen, who was with her all this time, “Helen, there’s a woman walking beside you, she’s so like you, you’re her double.” Helen replied “If it’s who I think it is, she had a distinguishing mark.” The clairvoyant touched her forehead with three fingers. Helen’s grandmother had a permanent mark on her forehead from a fall down the steps at Broomhill.
Then the clairvoyant said, “Here’s a coloured woman – poor woman, she’s so unhappy, she’s tried to get away from here 3 times.” Again she bent over as if in pain, “There’s been a violent birth, some woman has been treated no better than a bitch having pups. Find the stone and you’ll find the entrance. There’s an altar. Find the family Bible and you’ll find the message. I can see a man with piercing eyes, a wicked man.”
What did all this signify, if anything? Helen Sykes is the first to admit that it’s unlikely that the secrets of Broomhill will ever be unravelled, that a certain amount of speculation is inevitable.The references to evil deeds, to a violent birth, to bodies in the cellarage, to strange ceremonials with strange characteristics that might be masonic – from these pieces one can make any number of different shapes. By the time of the clairvoyant’s visit, Helen had written several pieces in the local paper based on her research, but shed had been careful not to sensationalise, and avoided all mention of possible witchcraft or satanic rites. Then as a result of her articles, she was contacted by a local woman Jean MacRae. She came with a secret she had kept to herself for 40 years. She had seen the Black Lady herself, on 2 occasions.
In September 1954, when the remains of Broomhill were still standing, Jean MacRae and some other young people had gone to spend a night in the “haunted house”. It was a kind of dare, a bit of a laugh, the idea being to light a fire, cook some tatties, and so on. They were in a room with a bay window, when one of the boys decided to liven up the proceedings by throwing a firecracker. Everybody ran out. The door that had opened so easily into the room now seemed jammed. Jean jumped out through the window instead, but lost her bearings in the dark and ended up at the back of the house. Then in the middle of her panic, something made her stop. She heard a movement, and thought it was one of the others, but then realised it was not. She felt a coldness, accompanied by a musky smell, and then she saw her. The woman was quite tall and was staring at Jean. She stood with both her arms folded across her chest, palms against her shoulders, and then one hand came down and the index finger pointed in front of her. At first Jean thought she was pointing at her own, or Jean’s feet. But then she saw the woman was pointing at the ground between them. Jean was terrified. She did not feel threatened by the Black Lady herself, but was frightened by a sense of other things around her. She took off, running through the rubble of the house, scratching herself and tearing her clothes on brambles, and did not stop until she reached the road back to Larkhall. She could not go home in the state she was in, so she went to her grandmothers house. Her granny took one look at her and thought she’d been attacked, and went to call the police, but Jean stopped her. Of course she had no option but to relate what had happened. Her granny it transpired, was something of a speywife, and took quite calmly the idea that Jean had seen a ghost. She told Jean she would need to go back and see the Black Lady again. Understandably this was the last thing Jean wanted to do, but her grandmother insisted.
Not long afterwards her granny died, and Jean began to feel very strongly that she owed it to her to return to Broomhill. One evening she went back alone. For about an hour she sat at the spot where she had seen the apparition, and nothing happened. Then when she was about to give up and go back home, the Black Lady appeared again. She stood in front of Jean in the same posture, and then her hand stretched out and she pointed behind Jean. When Jean turned to look she was horrified to see the figures of a further thirteen people on the slope behind her. Two of them were children.
For 40 years, until she read about Helen Syke’s articles, Jean said nothing. Anybody of course might have come to Helen claiming to see the ghost of the Black Lady. But why would Jean MacRae invent another 13 ghosts?
McNeil – Hamilton as we said, died in 1924. In 1937 all the valuables were removed from Broomhill, which had been occupied by caretakers since his death. It seemed strange that the son and daughters had neither lived in the house or sold it, simply allowing it to deteriorate. After the fire of 1943 it was semi – derelict, but it would be a further 11 years before the house and land were sold to Euphemia Hamilton. Ever since then it has lain empty, gradually falling to pieces. By the 1960s the house’s most resilient feature was its reputation. A film crew headed by well known reporter Fyfe Robertson was allowed into the cellars to attempt a “live” exorcism for the “Tonight” programme. Wild tales circulated about the vindictive nature of the Black Lady. A stone lintle weighing several hundredweight was carried by 5 men from the ruins to be used in the nearby Applebank Inn, and was apparently found the next morning as if it had been hurled from the pub into the middle of the road. One local ghost-hunter claims to have had his back broken by the lintle, and as recently as May 1995 he claimed that the Black Lady, resenting his interference, had tried to finish him off with what doctors were reported in The News Of The World as calling a “mysterious virus”. Such lurid tales seem at odds with the impression of unthreatening, pathetic sadness reported by others who have seen the ghost.
Helen Sykes has often asked herself why her grandmother was so attached to the house that she was still going there in 1939 at the age of 82. In fact, through the second marriage of the widow of an uncle of McNeil – Hamilton’s, it transpired that there was a family connection. Both sides of Helen’s family had members who worked in Broomhill at one point. In the 1861 census she even discovered a maid called Helen Sykes, who was married to a John (the name of present Helen’s husband). If the dream that spurred Helen on to her research had any significance, might it be that her grandmother – the “older me” dressed in white blouse and long black skirt – was trying to communicate something to her? It seems inconceivable that a woman who had worked so loyally for so many years at the house would not have some knowledge, if anything suspicious had gone on over the years.
While researching another aspect of local history for a heritage society meeting, Helen came across a photograph of the opening of the Central Station at Larkhall in 1905. There in the picture was the man from her dream, with the piercing eyes. It was of course Captain Henry McNeil – Hamilton, some of whose land had been sold to the Caledonian Railway Co. and who was guest of honour at the opening ceremony.
The estate owned most of the land and houses in Larkhall, and some of the pits in the area. When McNeil – Hamilton married in 1896 it was one of the biggest society weddings in Lanarkshire, reported in local papers, and The Glasgow Herald. Bonfires were lit on Tinto and at Broomhill, and some of the great Border families, including the Homes and the Douglas’s were represented. The Captain’s battalion band played on the lawn, the honeymoon on the Riviera, gold, diamonds and other jewels were among the sumptuous wedding presents. But when he die, his obituary was a mere 11 words, and the funeral procession consisted of the hearse and one other car behind it. He was buried with his father in Larkhall Cemetary, but whereas the father’s name is on the grave, his son’s is not. Something had happened between wedding and funeral – more than just the separation – to make McNeil – Hamilton a shunned figure in Lanarkshire society.
An old man who had been an apprentice to the local undertaker told Helen, “ One evening there was a call to say the laird had died, and that we were to go up to the house at once, taking a coffin with us. The boss said we’d take him away and prepare him. No we were told – by his son this was – you’ve to deal with him here, the lid’s to be closed now. We went upstairs to his room – what a stink there was there. Even with the window open it was almost unbearable. It took me months to get my appetite back.” Whatever McNeil – Hamilton had done in his life, whatever he was, or was not guilty of, he came to a sad and lonely end at the age of 52.
Had Helen Sykes’s grandmother witnessed something when she was a servant during those years? She never said anything, but perhaps had a need to talk, and come back to Helen in her dreams? She would have been an unnaturally unobservant and incurious woman had she not noticed something. The routines of most “big hooses” inspired loyalty among their servants, but Broomhill was no different from others, in that servants developed an intimate knowledge of their employers private lives. Of McNeil – Hamilton’s brothers, one was a notorious kleptomaniac, always stealing from hotels and other places, but whose family name kept him from being prosecuted; the other was reputed to be homosexual, and simply disappeared, some say to SA, never to be seen again.
Some maintain that McNeil – Hamilton was a perfect gentleman. But the common currency in Larkhall is that he was anything but. One old man who had worked all his life as a miner recalled climbing the wall at Broomhill as a lad. He was caught by the laird who cracked his whip at his hands and took the top of 3 fingers off. A woman remembered how she used to pushe her children out of the way when the laird came riding by on his black horse, wielding his whip, for he stopped for nobody. Another woman who worked at Broomhill as a maid recalled the time McNeil – Hamilton was away from home. The maids got their boyfriends up to the kitchen for the night. They stole some of the lairds drink and watered down the remainder, and were having a grand time of it when the Captain returned unexpectedly. He was, said the woman like someone demented. He grabbed one man by the neck and threw him out, and went daft at another lad who had been fooling around at the cellar door. His rage was a terrifying sight – he seemed to lose control of himself completely.
Strangely enough, the present owner of Broomhill – who has left the land untouched since she bought it in 1954, other than to sell a small part of it (not the grounds or the house itself) to the local council – denied that there was anything in the Black Lady stories, although it was with her permission that the TV cameras were allowed down to the cellar again the 1960s. Later she would even deny that there had ever been cellars at Broomhill. When Helen Sykes’s research began to appear in the local paper and interest in the ruins was growing again, bulldozers were sent to fill in the entrances to the cellars and to destroy what was left of the stonework above ground. It seemed a strange way to behave when there was apparently nothing mysterious about the place, and nothing sinister there to be uncovered.
Whether dark secrets are really buried under the rubble, and whether the Black Lady will continue to walk and be seen in the vicinity until the truth behind her disappearance is revealed, only time will tell. But of all the hauntings that are still going on in Scotland, this is surely one of the strangest.