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The Hanged Man of Dornoch

The seaside town of Dornoch sits on the east coast of the Highlands of Scotland. It is a popular stop-off point for visitors, especially those travelling the North Coast 500 route, who enjoy wandering through the ancient streets and strolling along the scenic beach. In more recent years the town was in the spotlight when in December, 2000, the infant son of pop star Madonna and her film director fiancé, Guy Ritchie, was christened in the cathedral.

The Scottish Witch Trials

Despite the relaxing atmosphere today, Dornoch does have a darker claim as being the place of the last 'witch' burning in Scotland. A solitary stone with the date 1722 painted on it marks the spot where Janet Horne was burned in a barrel of tar after being accused of witchcraft. A slight error in reciting the Lord's Prayer in Gaelic was enough for this poor lady to be considered guilty. The date on the stone is incorrect, with it believed Janet was executed in 1727.

The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1735; however, this is not the town's only association with the final years of this dark period of Scottish History. At Gallows Hill, a plaque stands commemorating Donald Mackay who was hanged there in 1738 for killing a woman he believed to be a witch. It is a sad reflection of the time that while there is a memorial for the murderer, the identity of his victim is forgotten.

Dornoch Castle

In the centre of the town stands the 13th-century cathedral, mentioned earlier, and opposite stands the Dornoch Castle Hotel. Although the exact origin of this building is not known due to the early documents being destroyed in a siege in 1570, it is believed that it dates back to the 15th century. As was common in other important religious centres, the castle was built as a bishop's palace providing a grand home for the successive bishops.

Ownership of the castle was passed to the Clan Sutherland during the Protestant Reformation in an attempt to safeguard it from destruction during this turbulent time, yet this resulted in the property suffering damage in Clan Warfare. Over the centuries, the building was remodelled and extended several times, with only some sections of the original building remaining, including the vaulted dungeons below the tower.

By the start of the 19th century, the castle stood abandoned and roofless and was nearly lost when plans to realign the town centre were implemented, which would result in the demolition of several buildings either wholly or partly. A delay in acquiring some of the other properties to allow the construction of a new courthouse and jail resulted in alternative measures being sought. The decision was made to re-roof the castle tower to bring it back into use as a temporary court and prison.

The castle was also used as a school before becoming a private residence in 1922 and was subsequently converted to a hotel in 1947.

Paranormal Activity

It is not clear exactly when reports of paranormal activity at the property started; however, there are some suggestions that the reason the castle had been abandoned was that no one was willing to stay in it due to unexplained happenings.

A relatively detailed account does fortunately exist from the time when the property was being used as a residence for the Sheriff some time before 1912. It is reported that Marion Mackenzie, the daughter of the sheriff, saw a man with a 'weird' face and long untidy grey hair, wearing a long blue coat, knee-length breeches, buckled shoes, and a bonnet sitting in her father's study. She fled and alerted her mother, brother, and uncle, who was a minister, yet when they checked, no one could be found in the house. Soon after, her uncle awoke during the night to see the same man standing at the side of his bed. When he demanded he leave, the man simply slowly vanished.

Andrew McCornish and the Exorcism

With access to the court records, enquiries were made to try to uncover the identity of the spectral figure witnessed in the building. From the descriptions given, he was identified as being a Covenanter named Andrew McCornish, who had been convicted of stealing sheep. He had been imprisoned in the castle and later executed for his crimes.

Although the sheriff did no more, it is widely claimed that when the property passed into private hands in 1922, the new owners had an exorcism carried out in an attempt to rid the property of any further paranormal activity.

Return of the Wraith

Whether the exorcism did or did take place, there have been further reports of the wraith of Andrew McCornish continuing to make his presence known. A newspaper report claims that not long after the building was converted to a hotel, 5 people were sitting quietly in the lounge when they heard the front door open and slam closed, followed by heavy footsteps running along the corridor and up the stairs. A check confirmed there was no one present in the upstairs rooms and that the front door was locked.

A few years later, while the owner was enjoying a meal with friends in the dining room, one of the women became quite pale and asked who the gentleman was standing beside him. No one else could see this gentleman and so they made a joke of it to try to avoid any awkwardness, but the woman decided to leave. Before she did, the owner asked her what she had seen and she described a man with long grey hair, wearing a bonnet and a long blue coat. She added that he had an odd-looking face and he made her feel quite uncomfortable.

Despite these experiences, the family did not feel the phantom to be in any way threatening and were happy to consider sharing their home with him.

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