The ghost of aviator Elsie Mackay, and a night spent at Scotland's Glenapp Castle

BY AARON SAGERS
[NOTE: You can listen along to the story on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/aaronsagers/the-ghost-of-elsie-mackay-scotlands-haunted-glenapp-castle]

It is 1 a.m., and despite the fact that I am exhausted, and feeling heavy due to copious gin cocktails, I am determined to draw a bath and listen to some period music. After all, I am staying in a majestic suite in a Scottish castle, and I happen to be sleeping in “the haunted room.”

The Castle is Glenapp in Ballantrae, Scotland, just off the Ayrshire coast. And the haunted room is the Earl of Orkney suite. The supposed ghost? Elsie Mackay.


GLENAPP CASTLE

After a long day of peculiarities courtesy Hendrick’s Gin (more on that at a future date), a group of spirited colleagues and myself emerged from a perfect Scottish afternoon trail walk to the castle grounds, greeted by a bagpiper’s music and a stunning view of the structure, a romantic structure with seemingly countless turrets and towers.

Beyond the fairy tale castle is a fairy tale sea, and a clear day yields views of the foreboding black volcanic island of Aisla Craig, as well as the Isle of Arran, and Holy Island.

Before he was the namesake for my night’s lodgings, the Earl of Orkney owned the Glenapp Estate. That was before industrialist, James Hunter (later the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire) commissioned Scottish architect David Bryce to design an appropriately lavish home in 1870. In 1917, the castle became the family home of Sir James Lyle Mackay, a prominent British businessman, colonial administrator, shipmaster, and the 1st Earl of Inchcape.

The castle never saw battle, but the Scottish Baronial style gives a different impression, with its combination of Gothic and Renaissance architecture that make it look like the fantasy home of a princess.

I passed through the grand entrance to encounter oak-paneled halls that lead deeper into the castle, now home to a 5-star hotel.

I shed my wellies -- muddy from that walk through a lush green forest with a stream cutting through it, and likely populated by fae and sprites alike – and headed straight to my West Wing suite. To the left of the main entrance, and down a long hallway that crosses by sitting room, dining room, and study, I arrived at a door with a brass plate on it, stating “Earl of Orkney.”

My key with a leather strap slid back the deadbolt with a dramatic “clack,” and the door opened with an even more dramatic creak. I found myself in another hallway, leading to yet another door. To the left, halfway down this entrance, is a bathroom, medium in size but with checkered black-and-white tiles, a luxurious freestanding tub, and a window looking out upon the courtyard.


I continued down the doorway, and opened the next door, which revealed a grand room (the largest I’ve ever stayed in), vast and spacious with high ceilings, and flooded with afternoon light.

I have walked into a bygone era. It is accented by modern touches, such as television, but they are afterthoughts to the historic opulence of the suite.

The king bed to my left, flanked with ornately designed curtains and canopy caught my eye at first, but each direction revealed another sitting space, chaise, couch and chair. To the right, two chairs and a table loaded with sweets and a welcome Hendrick’s cocktail overlooked a window with a view of a flower garden to the castle’s rear, and the sea beyond.

To the left was a freestanding mirror, and vanity in front of another window. To the back of the room was a fireplace flanked by a sofa and another set of seats. To each side of the fireplace are doors molded into the rounded columns of the back wall. One opens into a closet. The other reveals a spiral staircase, which surely could be re-classified a “secret staircase” with very little effort. The steps lead up to the entrance of another room, and I didn’t dare jiggle the doorknob. They also lead down to a ground floor storage room, and a door to the outside.

The Earl of Orkney is intimidating in its size and grandeur. It is almost too dignified, and far too airy. Still, it is not unfriendly in ambiance. Instead, it is the kind of room where one would reasonably determine to sit upon every surface whilst wearing a luxurious bathrobe or, if given the chance, be naked with someone else in every seat.

I noticed one other thing as I toured the room: It is remarkably quiet. The carpet and rugs under feet do not give way to creaks.

Though my time is short before I must arrive at dinner, I immediately introduce myself respectfully to Elsie. And I begin peppering her with questions because Elsie was the kind of person you want to talk to.


ELSIE MACKAY

Born in 1893 in India, Elsie Mackay was the daughter of the aforementioned James Mackay, a well-regarded man in the British Empire due to his work in India, and negotiations with China. But as reputed as he was, his favorite daughter was not defined by her father’s legacy.

Elsie was independent to the core. When she was 24, she eloped with the actor Dennis Wyndham, and went into acting under the stage name Poppy Wyndham. Elsie was supposedly disinherited for the marriage, but Poppy went on to appear in eight movies from 1919-1922 – until the marriage ended. From there, she reconciled with her family, and became an interior decorator for extravagant public rooms, and state rooms on five ships in her father’s shipping business.

But it is Elsie’s aviation career that propelled her to legendary status.

After her marriage ended she took up flying in 1923. One of the first women to gain her Royal Aero Club pilot’s license, Elsie earned it through the de Havilland School of Flying, which was mainly used to instruct Royal Airforce Reservists. (She would later elected to the advisory committee of pilots to the British Empire Air League.)

Stories of Elsie have it that she enjoyed going fast. She would gallop horses, drive fast in her Rolls-Royce, and fly above in her Avro biplane, purchased with her considerable wealth, over the Scottish Ayrshire coast. Described by The New York Times as having “steel nerves,” the fearless aviator even attempted the dangerous outside loop stunt; after her safety strap snapped, she swung dangling outside the plane as Capt. E. C. D. Herne navigated the maneuver.


But Elsie’s sights were set even higher than a mid-air stunt: She wanted to be the first person, male or female, to complete a transatlantic flight, going from east to west against the headwinds. After all, Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis only completed his 1927 flight across the Atlantic by going eastward.

She purchased a single-engine Stinson Detroiter aircraft with dual controls and a heated cockpit, which was shipped from the United States to a racing track near Surrey, England.

(The craft had a top speed of 130mph, but less fuel range necessary for the journey – which would require a complicated refueling process using on-board tanks.)

She planned a mission to fly against prevailing winds, along with World War One ace pilot Walter G. R. Hinchliffe. The mission was undertaken in secret, so her prominent father could not prevent it. Supposedly not even Hinchcliffe’s wife knew about it. But Elsie was fighting time, and the media. The Daily Express tabloid learned of her plans, and she managed to shut down a newspaper story through threats of legal action. Still, she had to move fast, and while her parents were on holiday in Egypt, Elsie went forward with her plan.

Elsie and Hinchcliffe, departed the George Hotel on the morning of March 13, 1928, wearing their flight suits and chauffeured the four miles to the RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire. She adopted the pseudonym Gordon Sinclair, and without much fanfare, prepared to make their flight.

Around 8:30 a.m. that Tuesday morning, a black monoplane named Endeavor, with gold tipped wings and a black fuselage took off from the snowy airfield. But Elsie Mackay and Walter Hinchcliffe never completed the trip, to be greeted by the crowd waiting for them on Mitchel Field, in Long Island, New York, some 3,400 miles away.

Endeavor was sighted on course five hours into its journey, off the Irish coast. Later, a French steamer reported spotting them. But, by March 19, with no additional sightings, all hope was abandoned.

In August of that year, a floating wreck of an aircraft was spotted in darkness by a steamship. In December 1928, a piece of debris from an aircraft’s undercarriage, a wheel with a serial number, washed ashore in County Donegal in Ireland. It was identified as coming from the Endeavor.

In June 1928, Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly, as a passenger, across the Atlantic in the west-to-east direction. She did it as a solo pilot in 1932. But it wasn’t until 1933, five years after Elsie’s journey, that pilot Amy Johnson became the first woman to complete the westward journey.


THE GHOST OF ELSIE MACKAY

Glenapp Castle is not famous for its ghosts in the way that nearby Culzean Castle is. (Though ghosts take center stage in the fictional 2010 supernatural novel Glenapp Castle: A Scottish Intrigue.) Instead, the most popular “true” story here took place on a suitably stormy night, as guests of the Earl of Orkney suite were allegedly visited by Elsie in ghost form, wearing a 1920s flapper outfit. The tale ends there, but some of the staff told me they -- and more than a few guests -- believe the room is haunted. Other employees were less convinced.

Still, when a room holds potential haunted reputation, it seemed only polite to introduce oneself to the supposed spectral occupant. That is precisely what I did when I checked into the suite earlier in the day.

An adventurer, actor, interior designer, a glamorous and thrilling sort such as Elsie would likely be bored with the likes of a journalist prone to tiki wear. Still, I stated my name, and let Elsie know that if she was indeed hanging around I would be honored to speak with her. I invited her to reveal herself, move items, speak with me, and share her story.

Sadly, if Elsie was about, she was quiet during the afternoon as I lounged about my room, enjoying a strawberry and Hendrick's cocktail.

Which is why I was determined to try again at night.

With two espressos pushing me through my jet lag, I returned to the Earl of Orkney after midnight. My Hendrick’s hosts had been regaling our small band with stories of gin in literature, so my mind was in a fanciful state.

Outside, the day’s lovely weather gave way to a steady rain and fierce wind as the remnants of Storm Helene tracked across the British Isles, and Storm Ali was on the way. Inside, the heat was on and I was feeling toasty. I disrobed and drew a bath, and slipped into the water around 1 a.m.

Eyes closed, I leaned back against the bath spout, one hand dangling outside the bath, but gripping a glass filled with a spirit of a different kind.

Out of my Bluetooth speaker, 1920s music filled the bathroom.

Brad Gowan sang the early tiki tune “I’ll Fly to Hawaii;” Annette Hanshaw on “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home;” Ruth Etting’s lilt on “Because My Baby Don’t Mean Maybe Now;” “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra; Eva Taylor on “Ghost of the Blues;” Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Lucienne Boyer.

All the while, I spoke with Elsie. Conjuring images of her acting and flight, asking about her journeys in the sky and on the screen. Based on what I’d read, she seemed so full of life, so I asked what kind of music she may want to hear. Or how she would take her martini (for some reason I had an image in my mind of Elsie enjoying a Gibson).

And encouraged her to make her presence known. In the next room, I had my phone recording video at 4K, and told Elsie as much. Now is a good time to move things about, I suggested. But we can also just hang out and listen to music, I said.

Perhaps I sounded like a madman, talking to myself in the tub when I should have been sleeping. Especially since I don’t know if I believe in ghosts.

But I do believe in ghost stories, and I want to believe. And my theory is that if ghosts exist, I suspect that – if they know they’ve shuffled off the mortal coil – they may be more drawn to conversation about food, drink, festivities moreso than, say, strangers pointing ghost hunting gadgets at them, and interrogating them with disjointed questions. And so, I simply wanted to have a chat with Elsie (albeit I was naked at the time, but I suspect Elsie wasn’t the type to be easily embarrassed.)

With my spirits high, but my glass empty, and bathwater turning cold, I removed myself from the deep tub.

Although not entirely concerned about Elsie seeing me in the nude, I nevertheless donned a soft castle robe and slippers. I poured a nightcap and sat by the fire for a moment or two. All the while talking to the woman who may or may not have been there.

There is something therapeutic about talking to a specter that may not even exist. You just talk, and say whatever you wish. And even if you don’t make a connection with the other side, you can work some stuff out.


I began in the comfy arm chair by the fireplace, until a distinct discomfort enveloped me. I felt uneasy, keenly aware of the hidden door immediately behind me. I didn’t feel as if someone was there, but I did feel … vulnerable. I switched to the sofa directly across from the fire, and felt myself dozing, slightly inebriated, and hypnotized by the sound of the growing wind.

I set my drink on the table beside the sofa, and promptly fell asleep.

I awoke to a shuffling sound far behind me, a sound so light it only barely registered in my unconscious state. I knew it came from the bedroom door.

A loud “WHACK” followed off to my left. The window on the left side of the suite, near the vanity.

I leapt, taking a nanosecond to close the robe that had opened -- to reduce my exposure – before flying to the door. I didn’t remember closing the bedroom door, which led to the hallway down past the bathroom and to the suite’s main door.

I opened the door, not knowing what to expect in the hallway. But it certainly wasn’t the handwritten note that I discovered slid under the main entrance. The note was announcing that our group’s departure had been delayed due to the inclement weather.

Then, to the window. I didn’t discover the precise source, but the wind had picked up, and it was clear to me that something had smacked against it on the outside.

How about that, Elsie? Wind, but no ghosts.

Then again, I did think about the stormy weather, and the wind she set off into on her attempted voyage. And I remembered the guests who reported seeing her, on a stormy night.

I flipped off the lights that remained, and slipped into the king-sized bed. The sheets were tucked in so tight, I had to wiggle and kick them out to avoid feeling like the innards of a carnitas burrito.

Goodnight Elsie. Feel free to wake me should you wish to chat.

And I slept. Then I woke. And slept. Then woke. All night long, I was in and out. The espresso was still alive in my blood, and each time I woke, the wind smacking against the windows held my attention. This wasn’t abnormally loud or scary, and I never felt anything but comfortable in the room. Instead, it was a romantic sensation. I was fully immersed in the experience. Around 6 a.m., as the light was returning to the Scottish grounds, I finally fell into a deep sleep for a couple hours.

When I woke again around 8 a.m., I began the process of packing and preparing to depart the hotel. My time was short, and I wanted to go for a walk outside, despite the wind, rain, and grey shroud hanging about the grounds. Ghosts were not top of mind as I rushed about.

I set my bags outside the suite entrance, then walked back through the Early of Orkney room to the hidden staircase. Before exiting, I bid Elsie a final farewell, and thanked her for her adventures.

I don’t know if the Glenapp Castle is haunted or not (and one night may not be enough to determine). But I suspect the aviation pioneer Elsie Mackay did find peace in her attempt to be the first person to fly westward across the Atlantic.

The author Susan Butler wrote of women aviators, in her 1997 book East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, that flying was a magical experience for everyone in the 1920s. But, for women, flying was “something more”:

“Still hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, still valued for looks and decorative skills, still steered toward passive accomplishments, for women it was the ultimate escape: total freedom, total mastery — no interference. Total liberation. Women who became pilots won something additional along the way: respect.”

No matter how deep her (justifiable) love for Glenapp ran, I think her spirit was most alive while in the air. She literally soared. She flew into the heavens on 1928, and never returned. Regardless of whether her ghosts walks the halls of Glenapp Castle, her legend as an aviator lives on.

Sources:
Dunlap, David and Darcy Eveleigh, “Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines.” New York Times
Glenapp Castle website
Baldwin, Jayne. West Over the Waves: The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay

Dangerous Women Project

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