We have all heard of the Headless Horseman. Surely, you know something of the tale written by Washington Irving in 1820: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” However, did you realize that the Headless Horseman had been a much used motif of European folklore since the Middle Ages. The Headless Horseman is traditionally depicted as a man upon horseback who is missing his head. Depending on the legend, the Horseman is either carrying his head, or is missing his head altogether, and is searching for it.
In Irish folklore, the dullahan or dulachán (“dark man”) is a headless, demonic fairy, usually riding a horse and carrying his head under his inner lower thigh (or holding it high to see at great distance). He makes a whip made from a human corpse’s spine. When the dullahan stops riding, a death occurs. The dullahan calls out a name, at which point the named person immediately dies. In another version, he is the headless driver of a black carriage. A similar figure, the gan ceann (“without a head”), can be frightened away by wearing a gold object or putting one in his path. [Wikipedia and McKillop, James A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 2004.]
The most prominent British tale of the headless horseman concerns a man named Ewen decapitated in a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. The battle denied him any chance to be a chieftain, and both he and his horse are headless in accounts of his haunting of the area.
But what of the House of Dun? Designed with Georgian pride and baroque extravagance by renowned architect William Adam, House of Dun is every bit the perfect 18th-century laird’s home. It took 13 years to complete and the precision shows in the fine details. Joseph Enzer’s plasterwork in the saloon is masterful – classical tableaux and family emblems rise thickly from the walls and ceilings with filigree flourishes. Throughout the house, hand-stitched woolwork and embroideries by Lady Augusta FitzClarence, daughter of William IV and actress Dorothy Jordan, are equally impressive. [National Trust for Scotland]
Angus Folklore tells us, “Castles and mansions seems to favour larger properties, as if spirits develop an inexplicable sense of snobbery after death. The House of Dun in the north-east of the county, was built in the Georgian era for the Erskine family who lived here into the 20th century. The house can be said, without exaggeration, to be fully infested with ghosts. The House of Dun probably first came to national prominence after its inclusion in Catherine Crowe’s classic compendium The Night Side of Nature (1848):
“Not very long since, a gentleman set out, one fine midsummer’s evening, when it is light all night in Scotland, to walk from Montrose to Brechin. As he approached a place called Dunn, he observed a lady walking on before, which, from the lateness of the hour, somewhat surprised him. Sometime afterwards, he was found by the early labourers lying on the ground, near the churchyard, in a state of insensibility. All that he could tell them was that he had followed this lady till she had turned her head and looked round at him, when seized with horror, he had fainted. ‘Oh,’ said they, ‘you have seen the lady of Dunn.’ What the legend attached to this lady of Dunn is, I do not know. [The Night Side of Nature, 226.]
“This ghost cannot be definitely identified, but in more recent times there have been sightings of an woman riding a horse through the grounds; unusually, she is facing backwards on her horse. Other ghosts on the estate include a headless horseman, plus – near a certain yew tree – the spirit of a knight killed after he returned here from the east and found his lover had betrayed him. In recent years voices have been heard inside the house, plus the sound of a crying baby and an invisible harpist. More bizarrely, a phone has been heard ringing in a part of the house where there was no actual physical telephone. Diverse other phenomena include: unseen dogs, a dress floating around without a body inside, plus an array of spirits both male and female, some of whom resented modern, living intruders.”
House of Dun, meanwhile, is haunted by the Headless Horseman, but the house has plenty of history. A harpist was murdered at the den – and is often spotted in the exact same spot playing musical laments, and the ghost of a knight has been seen on the grounds, too.
I had my own experience with a headless phantom when I was in college. It was a very dark rainy night. I heard footsteps and looked back to see a light-coloured trench coat moving behind me, but no head over it. I quickened my step, but I could hear my pursuer’s own steps approaching faster. Finally I turned a corner – now only two buildings away from my destination. But my fellow walker was almost caught up with me. Then he passed me, still headless. As I reached my building, he rushed ahead and – with a big and warm smile – opened the door for me. Only then did I realize he was black. I know he knew I was worried, but I’m sure he supposed it was his race that spooked me. I still wonder if I should have told him I thought he’d had no head.
Perhaps other headless stories arose from a similar experience.
Oh, my, Beatrice.