St Andrews Chamber of Corpses mystery – ‘Does the ghost of the White Lady exist? It’s not so much a belief as a reality!’ , says historian

The Haunted Tower of St Andrews Cathedral where centuries-old corpses were discovered in the 19th century
The Haunted Tower of St Andrews Cathedral where centuries-old corpses were discovered in the 19th century

Perched by the edge of the high cliffs overlooking the North Sea on the north side of St Andrews Cathedral, stands a bleak tower known as the Haunted Tower, and sometimes also known as the Ghost Tower, the Virgin Tower or Mary’s Tower.

Of the original 16 towers along Hepburn’s mile-long Abbey Wall, 11 of the remaining 13 are round and two are square. The Haunted Tower is one of the two existing square towers.

Today it is the only tower with three chambers and an external stair, leading to a locked iron gate.

But a wall of stone just nine inches thick once blocked its entrance, concealing an ancient secret within.

For over three centuries the Haunted Tower had been known locally as the lair of the elusive ghost of the “White Lady”.

In the 19th century, even talk of this tower was enough to fill the most robust of hearts with feelings of dread, and the local fisher folk along Kirkhill would warn, in all seriousness, not to pass there at night.

At a time of great superstition, the story might have remained the stuff of local folklore without any credibility.

That was until 1893, when an article in the press revealed details of a secret expedition, led by a professor at the university some years earlier, which aimed to see what lay beyond the then sealed chamber of the Haunted Tower. It gave a detailed account of a chamber filled with up to 10 coffins from different centuries. There were nine males and one female. Some were wrapped from head to toe in white wax cloth.

One of them was the corpse of a young, slim, beautiful woman, four-and-a-half- feet long. She wore a long white silk dress, and according to the report, it was “as if she had fallen asleep that very hour”.

Both she and the other corpses were in a perfect state of preservation. There was no obvious indication as to who they were or why they came to be entombed in the tower.

As a child growing up in St Andrews, Richard Falconer, now 51, was well aware of the town’s most famous and prolific ghost story. He claims to have had multiple encounters with the White Lady over the years, both as a teenager in the cathedral grounds and more recently whilst running his St Andrews ghost tours.

But it was only whilst researching his fascinating new book ‘A St Andrews Mystery: An investigation into the Chamber of Corpses and the White Lady Apparitions of St Andrews’ that he began to realise the true scale of the hard evidence behind the legend. For the first time in over a century light has been shed on the mysteries, including details of at least six ‘openings’ of the tower in the 19th century, that were the talk of the local and national press in the1890s.

And he has concluded that the corpses found in the tower were likely the preserved remains of local, possibly Celtic-era saints, predating the year 1000 AD. He believes they had been worshipped in the cathedral during 400 years of Catholic rule and were hastily entombed in the tower for protection in the 1500s as the Protestant Reformation gripped the town and ultimately destroyed the cathedral and the then power base of Scotland’s Catholic faith.

“The general history of the cathedral and the town always had an appeal to me, as did W.T Linskill’s book of St Andrews ghost stories from 1911, which captured my imagination and those of the townspeople, “ said Richard, a former caddie and record shop worker who started formulating his historical research in 1987.

“I spent a lot of time researching the truth and the fiction of what Linskill had written.

“But this is the first time that anyone has done in-depth research into, not just the White Lady, but the ghosts of St Andrews in general.

“For example, there are 75 haunted locations in the centre of St Andrews far more than anyone realises but since then I’ve discovered 82 examples of unpublished material on top of that.”

Giving The Courier a tour of the cathedral grounds, Richard said the White Lady was one of the most prolific stories in St Andrews, and the Haunted Tower had always intrigued him.

One of his key aims had been to investigate the sources used by Linskill, who was president of the St Andrews Antiquarian Society, formed in 1879 to investigate claims that there were a series of secret passages and chambers under the cathedral.

While Linskill got very excited when the Reformation-era mine and counter-mine were accidentally discovered by workmen outside St Andrews Castle in 1879, he never achieved his ambition of finding the legendary ‘St Andrews Treasure’ the medieval artwork and gold thought to have been hidden by monks in chambers under the cathedral as the Reformation took hold.

“When Linskill died in 1929, the enthusiasm died with him,” Richard added. ”It’s only now that some of the old research is coming back to life.

“I found a lot of information about the tower buried in the records of the antiquarian society. There were reports of the tower being opened and Linskill being involved in some of the later openings.

“There were also details of the eventual burial of the bodies that were left in there although the White Lady’s body seems to have gone missing, sparking yet another mystery.”

A more mundane theory is that the corpses in the tower belonged to the Clephane family who had strong St Andrews and Cupar connections in the early 1600s and that the tower was their mausoleum. Many of them died of plague.

But Richard dispels this theory and firmly believes the corpses were pre-Reformation local saints, linked to a former Celtic church that once stood near the harbour.

He added: “There were 30 altars in the cathedral, which took 150 years to build. Up until about 1000 AD there was no canonisation, when the Catholic Church in Rome standardised things. Before then there were local saints around Scotland and Europe. They would have been well known within the parishes but virtually unknown outwith. The Catholic Church kept very poor records, if any, about these Catholic saints. I believe they were local saints who even had their own altars dedicated to them. They were all preserved. “

Richard said the coffins found in the tower dated from different centuries, and were made of fur and oak.

He added: “Before the Reformation I believe the monks took these bodies from the individual altars and hid them in the middle chamber of the tower there, hoping that one day they’d be restored. The Catholics had been in power for 400 years. They had no idea they would be completely over-thrown.

“The cathedral was desecrated during the Reformation. But for some reason no one ever went into the Haunted Tower. It was left intact until the 1800s when explorers went in a number of times. At that time all the bodies were still intact. It also ties in with the lost treasure. If they hid the bodies in there, Linskill certainly believed that the treasure must have been hidden underground in crypts.

“Otherwise it would be like a bank without a bank vault. He believed St Andrews was no different to other such cathedral sites around the world and must have had a series of underground passages and that the treasure, including Scotland’s largest collection of medieval art at that time, must have been buried somewhere.

“There was a large gold statue of Christ on the high altar and other artefacts. Linskill dug up a number of areas around the cathedral. It was Linskill in 1904 who discovered stone kists of monks near the high altar from the 1300s.But they never found the treasure.”

Richard added that the so-called ‘Wee Stair’ a marble staircase leading into the depths near the high altar had been discovered amid the ruins in the 19th century. But workmen, who were frightened by ‘spirits’, filled it in and it was lost.

The discovery of corpses was one aspect which seems to have historic basis.

But while sceptics would say any supernatural element is rubbish, Richard “very much” believes in the ghost sightings also.

He added: “It’s not so much belief as a reality as much as everything else really. I’ve seen a number of things over the years. Probably 10 or 12 things. That sounds like a lot to those who have never seen anything, but over the history of a lifetime it’s not that often.

“I’ve seen her (the White Lady) twice in the cathedral grounds. Once in 1978 there were six of us still at school at Kilrymont, and in 1981 there were three of us. And it’s always the same description. She’s been seen shrouded, in a veil. I’ve found that inside the cathedral grounds she’s always shrouded. She stands next to the Haunted Tower., or she stands next to the cloisters at the Chapter House. People always speak of her as being luminous as the full moon and glowing slightly. It’s almost as if you cut out a human form from the full moon. That’s what she looked like. She has that vibrancy. But on the outside she looks different.

“There she is described as very slim with long dark hair wearing a long white dress, young and very attractive. And that complied with the reports of when they went into the middle chamber and found her entombed within there. That put a shiver up my spine when I realised that’s what we’d seen. “

Richard said there had been a number of sporadic unexplained incidents over the years on his ghost tours. Some, he said, involved the White Lady. Others related to the bottom chamber of the Haunted Tower where local legend says that you can ‘shake hands with the White Lady’ by putting your arms through the gun hole. It was here that 19th century workmen, whilst levelling part of the cathedral cemetery, discarded hundreds of bones from the original Holy Trinity cemetery within the cathedral grounds, before later throwing them over the cliffs.

Richard added: “A few months ago we were walking along the Scores path, up the path towards the archbishop’s palace when a chap stopped me and said ‘Richard, I didn’t want to stop you when you were at the tower because you were on a roll, but I’ve just seen her, the White Lady’. I was describing her as he was observing her. He only saw her for a second. She was walking across the path and disappeared into the bushes beside the tower. It’s not until something defies the laws of physics that people realise it’s something not of this realm.

“Then at the loophole, on the outside of the tower, we’ve had experiences of people putting their cameras through and them completely shutting down. An American woman put her camera through last year, she was laughing and joking. Then she stopped laughing when her camera shut down.

“In another incident, a woman put her arm through. She was in shock. She was quite disturbed. She froze.

“She claimed she was joking. But she wasn’t. She was visibly shaken. She put her arm through and something quite forcibly brushed past her hand. There are no birds or mice in there, so no one can explain what it was.

“The most common thing happened last when 43 people were on a tour last Easter 30 of them school children aged between 10 and 12 all of them were very eager, putting their arms through. It gets quite sinister in a sense. This girl put her arm through and burst into tears. Something grabbed her wrist and tried to pull it through. She had to be consoled by her teachers. It’s happened more often than anything else on the tour. The old legend of St Andrews is that if you put your hand through the hole there you can shake hands with the White Lady, but it doesn’t. It grabs your wrist!

“I think the energies in there are actually more connected with the townspeople whose bones were thrown in there by workmen during the levelling of the graveyard in the 19th century than with the White Lady. Nearly three centuries of townspeople were buried in the old cemetery between the 13th and 16th centuries. In 1868 when they opened up the bottom section of the Haunted Tower they found countless bones, and they were later thrown over the cliffs. It was a totally different mentality, effectively making way for the current burial ground. There’s a lot going on there that we don’t really know about. Perhaps we never will.”

A St Andrews Mystery: An Investigation into the Chamber of Corpses and the White Lady Apparitions of St Andrews’ by Richard Falconer is out now, published by Obsidian.

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St Andrews Chamber of Corpses mystery – ‘Does the ghost of the White Lady exist? It’s not so much a belief as a reality!’ , says historian

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