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20 December 2012

Christmas at Pitmilly,
the house where things
happened at night

Lorn Macintyre

Why was Captain John Jeffrey staring at the table at which he and his wife with their two children were sitting in the elegant old mansion of Pitmilly, near Kingsbarns in Fife? Had the butler placed an item of silverware that didn't belong at a Christmas feast? But it wasn't something set down by a human hand that was preoccupying the captain.

The previous week, a flaming coal had manifested in the centre of the dinner table. That Christmas of 1932, as he waited to be served, the former captain in the 13th Hussars was asking himself fearfully: what next?

Heir to an Edinburgh brewing fortune, John Jeffrey was starting to regret purchasing the mansion two years previously. Two aspects had attracted him. He had been born in Pitmilly House, and the details of sale promised the most modern amenities: ‘Electric lighting throughout house and offices with powerful plant; central heating, gravitation water supply, telephone' etc. Pitmilly was the former seat of the Monypennys, one of the oldest of Scotland's prominent families, with William, 1st Lord Monypenny, crossing to France in the train of Princess Margaret of Scotland in 1437. Pitmilly had been leased to Lady Gordon Cumming, who had spent much money modernising it before the Jeffreys purchased it.

For Captain Jeffrey, residing at Pitmilly was a luxurious life of a gentleman of leisure. There was a Daimler at the door, a large staff to feed the family of four, and to keep the log fires blazing. But flames would come from more than log fires, and events threatened to put the family in physical danger and to make Pitmilly House notorious in the annals of the paranormal.

The Monypennys and Jeffreys gave me access to family archives and memories so that I could write up the story of Pitmilly House, called 'Poltergeist Manor' by Harry Price, the controversial psychic investigator. As a youth Ivan, Captain Jeffrey's son, remembered the appearance of the first flaming coal on the table at which the family were dining. Ivan recalled: 'Things disappeared, never to be seen again…Ornaments used to crash on the floor; pictures used to fall off walls…Hot coals made their appearance in different rooms and set fire to curtains…fires started in different places at once…My parents called in a gentleman of religion who came and exorcised parts of the house, and holy water was sprinkled in several places…'. This was Bishop Wilson from St Andrews. The bishop was sitting with his hat on his lap by the drawing room fire when it was whisked into the flames. At this same fire a visitor left her gloves to dry, and when she returned to check them, saw that they were being held up in front of the flames, filled out as though on someone's hands.

But what was being exorcised? Charlton Monypenny, the previous owner of Pitmilly, denied that his ancestral home had a resident ghost. He had leased the house to Lady Gordon Cumming, wife of Sir William Gordon Cumming. The Sporting Times called him 'possibly the handsomest man in London, and certainly the rudest'. But he was also fearless, a big game hunter who had served with distinction in the Zulu War. He was a rakish figure in society, having abandoned his Scots accent and acquired a fluency in profanity in English and Hindustani. His brother Alastair Gordon Cumming kept on his mantelpiece the skull of an Arab slave-trader he had killed in Portuguese Africa. As a trophy he carried the man's blackened finger on his watch chain.

Gordon Cumming was found cheating at baccarat (a banned gambling card game loathed by Queen Victoria) in the notorious 'Tranby Croft Case' when the monarch's heir the Prince of Wales was taking the bank. Made to sign a paper pledging never to play cards again, Gordon Cumming took his accusers to court, thereby implicating the prince, after Edward's mistress Lady Brooke (known as 'babbling brook') had spread the story of the Morayshire landowner's cheating in London society. Having lost the court case and become persona non grata in society, the aristocratic cardsharp retreated to Pitmilly House, where he called his desperately unhappy wife Florence, an American cotton heiress, a 'fat frump', caring more for the pet monkey he carried about on his shoulder.

Had Gordon Cumming been dabbling in the occult at Pitmilly, and created a demonic presence? Or were the destructive manifestations coming from Mary, Captain Jeffrey's unhappy daughter, isolated from her peers by her haughty mother? Poltergeist activity has often been associated with energies emanating from children. But the presence in Pitmilly House seemed intent on driving out the Jeffrey family. Ivan recalled: 'On my first leave during the war…I was greeted by a Chinese bronze ornament which sailed across the hallway and impinged on my tum-tum…'.

On Thursday 7 March 1940, a major fire broke out in Pitmilly House, affecting around 20 rooms on the ground and first floors. An 83-year-old woman who had been in service with the Jeffrey family for four generations had to be rescued from her room. It would be the first time that an insurance company would pay out for arson by a non-human agency.

In July 1942 William Randolph Heart's American Weekly published an illustrated article with the headline: 'No rest in the Mansion. Mean Plot of Incendiary Spooks'. A maid – obviously an actress – is seen by an overturned table, a candlestick on the floor, bombarded by objects flung by no human hand. Pitmilly's reputation had crossed the Atlantic.

Terrified by the spontaneous fires and airborne objects, the Jeffreys had been driven out of Pitmilly House at considerable financial loss. It became a country house hotel, and a Welsh newspaper magnate woke to witness his clothes being tipped from the drawers. When he opened the door, fire was running for yards along the corridor wall, but without leaving a mark.

Pitmilly failed as a hotel, and in 1967 the mansion was sold to a local farmer, who demolished it. However, Pitmilly House's reputation endures in paranormal websites, and the 1947 play by Frank Harvey Junior, 'The Poltergeist', was made into a horror film, 'Things Happen at Night', the following year.

Lorn Macintyre is a writer and poet