In 1956, a young joiner and his colleague were left terrified after claiming to see the ghost of a woman walking the corridors in an empty mansion on the Cairnsmore estate in Scotland. This is Mr Horner's story that he told many years later.
Perhaps the most frustrating of apparitions are those which are so clear and so definite, and although described in detail by several witnesses, cannot be associated with any specific person or event. In 1956 William Horner, a 17-year-old apprentice joiner, together with his journeyman, Joe Robinson, had been working for a month on maintenance in the rambling 50-room mansion on the Cairnsmore estate, some eight miles north from Newton Stewart.
The house could have been designed as a setting for a classic horror film. Set in the wild countryside with a backdrop of grey hills, it had not been lived in for many years, although it was kept fully furnished in an earlier style. Translated into human terms, it was in a kind of suspended animation, a living dead. And as if to emphasise this, mains electricity had not yet marched over the moor on its pylon legs, but the house had a supply of a kind from a venerable and temperamental generator which gave illumination a little more convenient, if not a great deal brighter, than candles and oil lamps.
So it was with some relief that the two men packed away their tools at about 3.30 on a November afternoon on the last day of their work. They had just loaded their equipment into the van outside and were returning to the house for a final check when they were stopped dead in their tracks in the great entrance hall by the first sounds they had heard in the building apart from those they had made themselves. It was a most unusual rising and falling rumble, beating rhythmically from the ceiling of the ground floor. The immediate reaction of the two men was that one of the bedroom ceilings was collapsing in a rain of plaster, but the next moment, to their relief, they recognised it was the sound of the huge, antique, hand-propelled carpet sweeper that was kept at the end of the first-floor corridor. If pushed with sufficient power the cumbersome machine both swept and beat the carpet with a characteristic thudding - the two men had been so intrigued by the apparatus that early in their visit they had tried it out to see how it worked.
For the moment the mystery was cleared up: it seemed rational that someone should be cleaning up behind them now that their work had finished, but almost before the idea had really formed they knew that that explanation was impossible. No one else had been to the house all the time they had been working there, and it seemed most unlikely that anyone should do so then. In any case, a visitor would have had to pass the two men to enter the building, and certainly, no one had done so. So, they were brought back to their original idea of a collapsing ceiling and dashed up the main staircase to the first-floor corridor from which the family and guest bedrooms opened off. As they reached the head of the stairs, the carpet sweeping sound ceased abruptly, and as they searched every room they found that not a speck of the very-evident dust had stirred. Reaching the end of the corridor in their search, they turned, non-plussed, because although there was the servants' floor above them, the noises had definitely come from the level on which they were standing.
Then suddenly, as they stood discussing the next move, a woman emerged from an open bedroom door halfway along the corridor, and without glancing in their direction, walked away from them towards a flight of spiral stairs that lead upwards to the second floor and attics. She wore a long, dark dress that suggested a fashion of some fifty years earlier, and her hair was swept up and piled on top of her head. These details, and the fact that the position of the arms suggested that she was carrying something in front of her, made a very deep impression on William Horner.
It did not dawn on them at that moment that her odd clothing, her utter silence, her strange behavior in not acknowledging their presence, and the sheer impossibility of her being there at all, precluded a living human being. It was only when on reaching the foot of the staircase that she hesitated for an instant, and then immediately vanished, that the first suspicions and dread began to crystalise. But even then they clung to the frail hope that it was a joke, played in a way they could not comprehend. The figure had definitely not gone to the second floor as the stairs had been in full view all the time, even though the light was not particularly bright, but as the men knew that this part of the house would have to be checked before they left, they went up together, rather reluctantly.
At the top, they pressed the switch which illuminated the upper corridor, and as the generator labored with the additional load, a red-tinged glow lit the passage from end to end. There some twelve yards away stood the woman they had seen on the floor beneath, motionless, but with the same long dark dress and the upswept hair, looking straight at them - at least, there was the impression of staring, though in the grey shadow that served as a face there were no distinguishable features. For two endless seconds the two men watched, frozen, and then simultaneously with limbs loosened, they bolted down two flights to the open air. They knew that no living person could have passed them to reach the top story; they knew that the windows opened sheer to the ground forty feet below - and yet she was there.
With the hair on their necks bristling they dashed to the caretaker in his lodge, leaving the lights burning in the house with reckless prodigality. The old man, a retired gamekeeper from the estate, was, William Horner said, the stereotype dour Scot: had a ghostly Bonnie Prince Charlie and a phantom army marched down the drive he probably would, without a flicker of feeling, have merely said that the master was not at home. Now, with as little emotion as if he were explaining a drain blocked by falling leaves, or a damp patch caused by a fallen tile, he rationalised the figure. A suicide, maybe, or more likely the tradition of a maid who had been killed in the late nineteenth century when the pony and trap she was driving crashed through the parapet of the bridge into the river running through the estate.
But whatever the explanation - if indeed there was one, or needs to be one - it does not concern William Horner, who said that even today he feels that intense prickling of terror as the clarity and detail of the ghostly woman returns to him - as it so often does.