A Welsh Castle Ghost Story

In 2007, Ken and I spent two nights at the haunted Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. Even though the place is called a castle, the Tudor-era structure feels more like a manor house or mansion than the towering medieval fortress ruins that dot the region.

Gwydir Castle in north Wales is a lovely bed and breakfast—and home to several ghosts.

(If you’re a castle lover, northern Wales is your dream destination.) Gwydir is a private home, a museum, and a bed-and-breakfast (with two rooms)—all historically decorated in antiques.

Yet, this charming Tudor “castle” has a ruined past. Built around 1500, it was the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd. It was rat-infested, crumbling and damp—and being used as a night club when Judy Corbett and her husband-to-be Peter Welford bought it in 1994.

There are 10 acres of gardens at the historic Gwydir Castle. Peacocks roam the grounds. At night, their haunting cries seem to call "help, help!"

(For a vividly written account of Judy and Peter’s process of bringing Gwydir Castle back to life, read Judy’s memoir, Castles in the Air.)

The couple had little money but a passion for history, so they spent years living in a construction zone doing much of the painstaking historical restoration themselves. In the process, they encountered a number of ghosts with hundreds of years worth of sitings.

Meet the Ghosts

There’s a female spirit who is reportedly a victim of her lover, one of the Wynn baronets, who stuffed her body behind the wall in a passageway—or possibly in a secret enclosure within the wall called a Priest’s Hole. (A Priest’s Hole was a hiding place for Roman Catholic priests during the turbulent Tudor years when Britain’s “official” religion vascillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, depending on the monarch.)

This behind-the-wall Priest's Hole was possibly the hiding place of a murdered mistress in the 1600s.

Many people report a foul smell in one of the house passageways—the centuries-old stench of the woman’s corpse. Ken and I smelled nothing, but the passageway certainly feels colder than the rest of the house.

There’s also a ghost of Sir John Wynn—possibly the murderer—who is often seen on the spiral staircase. Gwydir even has a ghost dog, a large one. Judy and Peter actually dug up the skeleton of a large dog years ago in the basement.

Ken and I didn’t do any actual “ghost hunting” at night. Instead, we slept cozily in our four-poster canopy bed in the Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber, a lovely large room furnished with antiques and a private bath in the hall.

Our castle room: The Duke of Beaufort's Chamber

Except for the bedrooms, the castle does not use electricity (to keep it authentic). And, at night, the alarm system is activated, so one doesn’t want to creep about and wake the whole house. Besides, why would ghosts appear only at night?

The closest I came to an apparition was when the castle’s two large lurchers (a British breed of dog I’d never heard of before) bounded through the breakfast room. A moment later, a third dog nosed through the breakfast room door and streaked across the room. But, there were only two dogs that I knew of! Could the third have been the ghost dog wanting to join the living pair in play?

Malevolent Lady Margaret

The wisteria-surrounded doorway into the B&B section of Gwydir Castle

There is (or at least was) one sinister spirit at Gwydir Castle, a woman who haunted Judy for months early during the renovation. Lady Margaret followed Judy everywhere and triggered a series of “accidents” apparently intended to harm Peter.

Fortunately, Lady Margaret Cave—whose good nature darkened radically after the birth of her son in the early 1600s—has not appeared since. She was married to the philanderer Sir John Wynn, so perhaps being married to him sent her into an eternal rage against the man of the house.

Dream Come True: Sleeping in a Castle

There’s nothing nightmarish about staying at Gwydir. In fact, spending two days among its archways, mullioned and wisteria-covered windows, and Tudor-style beams was a dream come true. It’s a little like sleeping in a museum—a fantasy of mine since I was 10 and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The dining room is lavishly restored with its original wood panels, which were spirited off to America by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s.

The castle dining room has a story so long and fascinating I can’t even go into it here. Suffice it to say that its glorious Tudor panels were bought by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now they’re magnificently back in the castle.

Gwydir Castle is three miles from the resort town of Betws-y-Coed and 12 miles from the medieval walled town of Conwy, so it’s a great B&B to stay at while exploring the North Wales castles. It’s also within walking distance of the market town of Llanrwst, which has train and bus connections plus several good restaurants and pubs.

Gwydir Castle is open to the public (admission fee) March through October. Check for times.

P.S. I highly recommend Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion (Random House, UK, 2004). I bought a copy while staying at the castle, and I read it on train rides across Wales and on the plane home.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Spooky Postscript

In gathering photos for this blog entry, I noticed that a number of them have round, ghostly patches of light. At first I thought they were shiny flash spots or reflections, yet most of them are against backgrounds with no reflective surfaces. Then I thought they might be dust motes or raindrops on the camera lens.

But they appear in indoor photos and those taken on sunny days. Could they be blobs of ectoplasm? Were Gwydir’s spirits dancing around us?

You decide. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Here I am in the lovely breakfast room. Note the halo around the unlit candlestick behind me. For comparison, the candle on the table is lit—and has a simple glow. Methinks there's a spirit lurking.

Gwydir Gate, with some white, round lights. Are they ghost entities or merely raindrops on the camera lens?

Uncovering Callanish’s Secrets: An Archaeological Tour

Seeing, touching and photographing the astonishing Callanish stone circle on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis is only part of the delight of visiting. Because I’m more than a little obsessed with these prehistoric treasures, I wanted to learn what archaeologists think about this particular circle when I visited. So I did a little research and dug up a wonderful guide, Margaret Curtis, who has observed and excavated sites around Callanish for almost 40 years.

Archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis gives tours of the Callanish standing stones. Here she's explaining the Triple Goddess stones inside the Callanish III circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

I first read about archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis on artist Jane Tomlinson’s blog post,  and knew that I had to meet Margaret. The Visitor’s Centre has her contact info, and so I phoned her before I left the States to request a tour. Just like that, I had an appointment with a local expert!

As it turned out, Donald and Nita Macleod, the owners of Leumadair B&B where I stayed, are good friends and supporters of Margaret’s research. So, Donald drove me and Margaret on not one, but two, tours of Callanish—which encompasses far more than just the large circle I’d journeyed to see. Many megalithic sites—including other circles, stone rows, burial cairns, and single standing stones—dot the countryside and farmland. Collectively, these 20-plus sites are called the Callanish Complex.

Monoliths, Moons, Mountains, and Myths

Should you be so lucky as to hire Margaret Curtis to be your guide, you’ll be wowed by her  knowledge and her enduring passion for sharing the secrets of the Callanish Complex.

Here's Margaret Curtis with the Callanish I endstone. This stone marks the end of the avenue of standing stones that leads up to the central circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

Over the decades, Margaret’s  life’s work has included logging untold hours examining the stones; finding ones covered by thousands of years of peat; and unearthing hidden, but important, sites.

Yet earthworks and rocks are just part of the story. Like the Callanish builders four to five millennia ago, Margaret is also a student of the sky. Although she never formally trained as an archaeologist or astronomer, she has chronicled how ancient people carefully planned the Callanish sites to mark a number of astronomical events, including a lunar rise and set that occurs only every 18.5 years. Now that takes decades of observation on both the part of the builders and the archaeological sleuths! (Over the years, Margaret has done her extraordinary work with her first husband, Gerald Ponting, and with her late husband, surveyor Ron Curtis.)

The standing stones on this Scottish isle align with the sun and moon, yet there’s a third element at work here that makes the Callanish Complex extremely brilliant and, well, complex. On the horizon to the south are mountains, dominated by Mt. Clisham. If you use some imagination, you can see the head, breasts, belly, and knees of a reclining form. In English, she’s called Sleeping Beauty, but in the old Gaelic she’s “Cailleach na Mointeach,” the Old Woman of the Moors. I like that name much better.

Behind the Callanish Visitor Centre is the reclining figure of the Old Woman of the Moors. The blue mound just to the left of the highest peak is her face. You can just make out the nose in the center of her "face." © Laurel Kallenbach

The Man (or Woman) in the Moon

Cailleach na Mointeach, who also represents the Earth Mother or Earth Goddess, is the key to why all the Callanish standing-stone sites were built, archaeo-astronomers believe. The circles are all located in areas where viewers could see the once-every-18.5-year lunar event: when the full moon, at its rare southern extreme, rises from the sleeping body of the Old Woman of the Moors.

This celestial event was important enough that prehistoric people erected stones that would frame this special moonrise and moonset. As she wrote in Callanish: Stones, Moon, and Sacred Landscape (coauthored with Ron Curtis), Margaret says: “Seen from the Callanish area, the moon at its south extreme rises from some part of the Sleeping Beauty, passes low at due south, sets into the Clisham Hills, then reappears briefly and dramatically in the deep valley of Glen Langadale.”

Callanish III stone circle, where the two center stones frame the face of the Old Woman of the Moors. This is where the moon rises every 18.5 years. © Laurel Kallenbach

And there’s more: when the full moon reappears in the valley, a living person can stand inside the ring of stones and be silhouetted by the moon—a vision that’s as heart-stopping today as it must have been in 2200 BC. (You can see some photos of this at The Geo Group website. The last event occurred in 2006.)

Walking with the Wise Woman of Callanish

Now in her early 70s, Margaret is truly the Wise Old Woman of Callanish. She says she’s personally most interested in the area from a scientific point of view, but she acknowledges that her work also draws from local history, folklore, and ethnology. She’s given tours to modern pagans and goddess worshippers, and she admits that their insights into earth-based rituals inform her work. After all, there are no written records about Callanish, so oral tradition in the form of legends can contain kernels of truth.

The white mineral deposits on the bottom half of this stone form what looks like the Horned God (Callanish I). His large torso is slightly leaning to the right, and you can make out what look like antlers on his rather small head. © Laurel Kallenbach

At the start of my tour, Margaret took me to her workshop, where she demonstrated how the Callanish stone circles were designed to be ellipses—not just poorly made circle—and how the stones were erected. She even let me hold a 4,000-year-old arrowhead—a tiny remnant of the prehistoric people who lived on this island. Mind-boggling!

Later, we ambled through Callanish I, the main stone ellipsis, which Margaret calls both “a stone-age computer” (because it marks solar and lunar events) and a “community center” (because it was a gathering place for singing, dancing, and burying the dead).

In a way, Callanish is still a community center—of World Heritage Site calibre. Over the days, I heard visitors from several continents speaking various languages, and I watched children have foot-races down the stone-lined avenue, the ancient entryway to the main circle. I saw photographers and artists capturing images of the stones on paper or in digital format. Couples paused to kiss. Baaing sheep gazed over the fence at the stones. Dogs lifted their legs to pee on the stones. Ravens alighted on the monoliths. Many people sat amid the stones and meditated or wrote in their journals. Occasionally someone would sing.

“People tuck flowers or special, meaningful items into the stone gaps and graves here,” said Margaret. She pointed out that someone had climbed up and left a carved bone atop the tall End Stone of the Avenue—the very top that had been broken off since Victorian times and that Margaret found amid a pile of rocks. The top has now been cemented on, thanks to her!

Along the way, Margaret related the individual history of many other stones, which she knows like the back of her hand. She pointed out a stone in which the hornblende crystals naturally form a shape that looks strikingly like the pagan Horned (or Antlered) God. The gneiss stones were surely chosen because of their shape, size, and the presence of quartz (a crystal associated with the sun) or hornblende (a mineral associated with the moon).

She also showed me the notches in two separate stones in the Callanish I circle. At Summer Solstice, these two notches form a square “viewfinder” through which you can see the midsummer sunrise. In addition, an east-west line of stones lets you sight through two stones to witness both the Spring and Fall Equinox.

Stones That Mark Celestial Events

There are really too many highlights from Margaret Curtis’ tours for me to relate, but here are a couple of other Callanish sites worth visiting:

The standing stones at the Barraglom Narrows are just part of about 20 prehistoric sites that comprise the Callanish Complex. © Laurel Kallenbach

1. Barraglom Narrows  stones (Callanish VIII): These standing stones are picturesquely positioned on a cliff overlooking the narrows that separate the Isle of Lewis from the Isle of Bernera. By sighting the east horizon from the third large stone here, you can spot two standing stones on a distant ridge. On Beltaine (May Day) you can see the sun rise between the two standing stones.

2. Callanish III stone circle: Sitting in what’s now a cow pasture (watch out for cow pies!), this small, elliptical circle surrounds four stones, which Margaret believes represent the Triple Goddess (one each for the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone) and her male consort (represented by a tall penis-shaped stone). If you stand at a sighting stone a few hundred yards outside the Callanish III circle, you will see the full moon rise at its rare southern extreme (every 18.5 years) from the body of the Wise Woman of the Moors—and that event is exactly framed between two stones. Four hours later, if you move to a second sighting stone that’s at a different angle to the circle, you see the moon reappear from behind the mountain in the valley of Glen Langadale. This too, is perfectly framed by two stones in the circle.

I loved visiting Callanish, especially at about 7:30 p.m., when this photo was taken. I'm wearing rain pants to cut the sharp wind and so that I could sit in the grass by the stone of my choice without getting damp. It's not all paradise. Shortly after taking this picture, I had to put on my wool cap and gloves for warmth. And the midges start biting at sunset. Still, there's no place I'd rather be.

Well, if anyone is still reading this too-long post, you’re probably as much of a standing stones geek as I am. Here’s to looking at the moon…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and wannabe archaeo-astronomer

To arrange a tour with Margaret Curtis, contact the Calanais Visitor Centre, which will share her phone number. If you’re staying at Leumadair Guest House, which is located just a short walk to the Callanish I site, Donald or Nita Macleod can put you in touch with this local expert.

 Next blog post: An eco-friendly farm B&B with a view of Callanish

For more info, click on Visit Scotland or Visit Isle of Lewis

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Scottish & Sustainable: A Farm B&B Near the Callanish Stones

What could be better than spending three days at the mystical Callanish Stone Circle on Scotland’s picturesque Isle of Lewis? Staying three nights at the nearby Leumadair Guest House, a charming farm B&B where I could see the famous Callanish stones from my bedroom window.

Leumadair Guest House in Callanish, Scotland, is a small farm that takes in visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for my visit: the price is reasonable; rooms are homey and nicely furnished; breakfast is outstanding. And this B&B is eco-friendly to boot.

Leumadair is ideal for travelers visiting the Callanish standing stones and other nearby attractions, such as the Doune Carloway Broch Iron-Age tower  and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village.

I chose not to rent a car, which made Leumadair all the more perfect: it was just a short walk to the main stone site, and not much farther to a couple of the smaller prehistoric circles in the area.

Modern Comforts in an Ancient Landscape

After spending days out in the brisk Scottish air (no rain while I was there), coming back to Leumadair was a slice of heaven. One of the advantages of staying in a farmhouse B&B is that you sleep so peacefully: nights are quiet and dark—so if you have a clear sky you can stargaze or moongaze without light pollution.

Leumadair B&B is located very near the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also, owners Donald and Nita Macleod took very good care of me—something you appreciate when you’re traveling singly. There was always plenty of conversation with Donald or the other guests.

And Donald knows so much about this region and is an excellent source of historical and cultural knowledge. He helped facilitate my private tours of the standing stones with local archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis, who has studied the stone’s alignment for decades.

My comfy room at Leumadair was spotless, and it had a convenient, very modern ensuite bathroom—and two bunk beds that I didn’t use, but which would have been handy for a family. (The regular single/double rooms were already booked.)

Waking up after a good night’s sleep means something good’s going to happen: an incredibly delicious breakfast awaits. Leumadair’s features fresh eggs (from the chickens that wander about the property—they’re very free-range!) cooked the way you like them, and bacon and sausage from Donald and Nita’s own hogs. The sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes add pleasant flavor, and if you’re up for an adventure, try the Stornoway black pudding. In general, I’m not a huge fan of black pudding (aka blood sausage), but this was blended with herbs and onions and was quite tasty.

I couldn’t say no to the toast either—not with an array of Nita’s homemade jams and marmalade calling to me. I topped it off with Fair Trade teas or coffee. Breakfast was a feast that fueled me for hours of wandering the moors to see stone circles.

Walking through History

Walking from Leumadair B&B to Callanish, I passed a number of photogenic old houses, some in ruins. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another huge asset for staying at Leumadair—besides its comforts and friendly hosts—was that I could visit the stones during the early morning or late afternoon—after the tour bus mobs have gone home. These times also happen to be when the sunlight is prettiest on the stone circle.

From Leumadair Guest House, the walk to the main Callanish Stones Circle takes 15 to 20 minutes on scenic roads. One morning as I was ambling up the hill to the stones, I encountered local crofters shearing their blackface sheep, using hand shears. I stayed for a bit to watch this snippet of Lewis culture.
 The farmers bantered and made jokes, although the sheep looked none too keen on being trussed and shorn.

Sheep shearing on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leumadair’s Sustainable Efforts:

  • Recycles
  • Composts kitchen waste (and feeds leftover to the pigs, chickens, and dogs)
  • Uses energy-saving CFL lighting
  • Grows and raises some of its own food
  • Additional food is locally sourced
  • Serves Fair Trade tea and coffee
  • Bedroom furniture is crafted from reclaimed wood
  • Is equipped with low-flow toilets and showerheads
  • Uses eco-friendly cleaning products

And just as important as these efforts, the Macleods are good stewards of the land. They raise “heirloom” farm breeds: Highland cattle and Gloucester Old Spot Pigs. Donald grew up on this island, and he loves its landscape, history, and prehistory. He cares deeply about bringing visitors here to support the economy of the island, while also doing so sustainably.

Even if you’re not staying at Leumadair B&B, you might be interested to know that it runs a Sunday coffee shop/restaurant, called Pol’s Place (named after Donald’s Harris hawk). It’s open only on Sundays, when the Callanish Visitor Centre and many other island businesses are closed.

Logistics for Reaching Leumadair B&B: Whether you fly to the Isle of Lewis or ride the ferry (with or without car), you arrive in the island’s primary town: Stornoway. I flew from Glasgow International Airport, which takes less than an hour to reach this remote island. After a quick taxi ride from the little Stornoway airport to the Stornoway bus station, I hopped on the public bus. Thirty minutes later, this bus dropped me off at the Leumadair Guest House driveway. Couldn’t be simpler! (They also make a stop at the Callanish Visitor Centre. )

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on traveling in Scotland, click on Visit Scotland or Visit Isle of Lewis.

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Heaven in Hawaii: Napili Kai Beach Resort, Maui

A double rainbow arcs over Napili Bay on the west coast of Maui. We witnessed this beauty from our ocean-view lanai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Let me start by saying this: I cried when my husband and I checked out of Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui’s west coast.

I’ve stayed in many wonderful hotels on gorgeous beaches, but this low-key, low-rise, plantation-style resort on secluded-by-Maui-standards Napili Bay was so perfect for us that when I turned in our room keys, I felt like flinging myself over the reception desk and begging the staff to let me stay.

The Napili Kai building blend unobtrusively into the island landscape. Buildings higher than three stories are banned from Napili Bay, so development has never become an eyesore. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Napili Kai had everything we as a couple love: a quiet, sandy beach with good snorkeling; luxurious but unpretentious accommodations; cultural and environmental appreciation; a good restaurant with fresh, local ingredients; friendly people (both staff and other guests); and all-included resort amenities like beach chairs, towels, parking, and many activities (the hotel’s motto is “we don’t nickel-and-dime you.”

Blissing Out on Ocean Time

Ken and I stayed in casual luxury in a beachfront studio unit: king-sized bed; fully equipped kitchen; huge, two-chambered bathroom with walk-in shower; and a lanai—oh, the lanai with its unparalleled ocean view facing west for excellent sunsets. Two of the three nights we spent at Napili Kai, we got Thai takeout and enjoyed Panang curry and cold Aloha Beer (brewed in Honolulu) in the loungers on our lanai while watching the sun sink below the horizon.

At night, we turned off the air conditioning, opened the lanai doors, and slept to the sound of waves lapping against the black lava rock outside.

At sunset, a man lights the torches along the beach at Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because our internal clocks were three hours ahead of Pacific Time, it was easy to take advantage of early morning at the beach. Each day, Ken and I watched green turtles surfing near the shallow rocks close to shore. Their heads bobbed on the surface; fins flapped above the whitecaps. Occasionally one rolled in the surf. I assume it was for fun and not hunting, because green turtles are herbivores. As they munched on algae and seagrass, they seemed to savor the act of cavorting in the waves.

We got to view the turtles from an underwater vantage when we snorkeled along the two reefs in the fairly calm waters of Napili Bay. The first thing we saw was a trio of Moorish idols, the most impressive and elegant of tropical fish. We also spotted puffer fish, a dragon eel, butterflyfish of several varieties, red sea urchins, and purple or yellow coral. But the most unique experience was snorkeling with a pair of turtles. They glide through the water so gracefully that they seem more like angels than reptiles.

Riding the Wave of Hawaiian Culture

Local children learn Polynesian dances and perform weekly at the Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

What sets Napili Kai apart from many other beach resorts is that it highlights traditional Hawaiian culture. Most mornings, the hotel serves coffee, tea, and fresh pineapple in the Beach Cabana and presents cultural demonstrations such as lei making, wood carving, tapa cloth making, and palm weaving.

Napili Kai also helps perpetuate Hawaiian culture through its support of the nonprofit Napili Kai Foundation, which shares Hawaii’s cultural legacy with Maui’s children. Every Tuesday, Napili Kai guests can attend a free, onsite hula show in which young kids and teens perform authentic songs and dances of Polynesia with live adult musicians. Though the performances aren’t as polished as a professional hula show (I must say that the teen performers are extremely good), the costumes are colorful and the representation of Tahitian, Samoan, Maori, and Hawaiian cultures is satisfying.

George Kahumoku plays 12-string slack-key guitar and sings weekly. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s more: Napili Kai presents the Masters of Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar concert series every Wednesday. Hosted by Grammy winner George Kahumoku, Jr. (who was featured on the soundtrack of the movie, The Descendants), this was an opportunity for Ken and me to hear live, island vocal and guitar music. (“Slack-key” is a style that originated in Hawaii, in which the player loosens the tuning of the guitar strings.)

We loved the sound. Hawaiian guitar music has a gentleness and warmth that can only come from hearing the waves and feeling tropical sea breezes on your shoulders. Now, when the temperatures are below zero, just hearing Hawaiian music takes me back to Napili Kai, my ideal place for relaxing Maui style.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

A crescent-shaped slice of Maui heaven: the laid-back beach and cabana of the Napili Kai. The water and snorkeling were wonderful right from the beach. ©Laurel Kallenbach