It’s a hostelry with a history stretching all the way back to the Battle of Culloden.
Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that apparitions go together with alcohol and spirits intertwine when one walks through the doors of Ma Cameron’s in Aberdeen’s Little Belmont Street.
As the city’s oldest pub, dating back to 1746, this is a place with its own resident ghost and it now has a special story – Vodka and Spirits – written about it by former Aberdeen University student Michael McKean.
He has delved into the way that many people who have worked on the premises over the years have reported a spooky presence around them.
A lot of them feel as if they are being watched while they are in the bar when nobody else is around and one famous story recounts the ordeal of a painter and decorator who was doing some maintenance work when he heard knocks on the ceiling above him from a locked, empty room.
When he knocked three times in response, he was immediately answered with three more raps from above.
At which point, perhaps unsurprisingly, the poor fellow was so scared that he fled from the pub in terror.
There’s a line in Michael’s story that will strike a chord with anybody who has sat in these old Gothic surroundings, especially in the dead of winter.
It goes: “This pub is never empty. Not really.”
Vodka and spirits go together at Ma’s
Robert Gordon University even issued a list of Aberdeen’s five most haunted places – in a bid to stop freshers matriculating themselves – and the list included the city’s Central Library and Tolbooth Museum and a spooky tale about another bar, Krakatoa (formerly The Moorings), involving a polaroid photograph of a customer who had actually died years earlier.
But top of the standings, yet again, was Ma’s, which came with the billing: “The Snug Bar is the oldest part of the building and staff have seen bar taps turn on by themselves, the cleaners have witnessed their materials move and a painter has even run out of the building itself and refused to go back after hearing knocking from a locked room.
“Some paranormal investigators have even seen a man in Georgian dress so if you’re looking to share a beer with a Georgian ghost, head to Ma Cameron’s”.
The author, who enjoyed his time in the Granite City and wrote for The Gaudie magazine, was struck by the spectral atmosphere when he visited the bar, originally built on a medieval settlement in the 18th Century, which is one reason why many believe there are ‘ghosts’ or ‘entities’ at the site.
The Cameron family owned the pub until 1933 when it was bought over by Alex Michael.
It has also survived two fires that occurred during the same weekend, but no one knows how or why these fires started.
Ma Cameron’s ghost story
And that sense of inexplicable events in an eerie setting has inspired Michael to self-publish an 8,000-word short story, which revolves around Ma’s.
He gave us a wee flavour of what to expect and it certainly sounds creepy.
The blurb runs: “Spencer and his foolhardy sidekick, Darren, are hired to do some maintenance work in the dead of night at Ma Cameron’s, a bar in Aberdeen’s city centre.
“What forces lurk within its walls? More importantly, what walks the vacant and neglected upper floor? And is there truth behind the tale of a deceased customer who keeps coming back for one more pint, or are all the spooky goings-on the work of less supernatural machinations?
“Either way, Spencer is about to get a fright he’ll never forget.”
And he won’t be the only one, given the masterful way in which Michael ramps up the tension as his ghost story unfolds.
He told me: “I was inspired to write the story by an RGU student journalism article, containing photographs of the out-of-bounds upper floor of Ma Cameron’s, an area which customers don’t often see.
“Then there was an online rumour about two painters/decorators who went to carry out after-hours work in the pub only to be chased away in the night by strange noises from that same upper floor.
“Vodka and Spirits is an imagining of how that night may have transpired.
“But even without those two sources, Ma Cameron’s as a place has an eerie feel in itself.
“The story also sheds light on some little-known features of the pub, such as the rooftop beer garden and the fact it used to be a coaching inn.”
He’s a big fan of Stephen King
Michael added: “I’ve always been a keen reader and writer, a talent I helped hone when writing for The Gaudie and also with the Creative Writing Society, where I was a contributing author to the yearly anthologies.
“However, I always say that the first step to good writing is good reading, and my idol there has to be master of horror Stephen King (who else?).
“As for other ghostly experiences, I have had a few in my native Ayrshire!
“Top of the list has to be when some friends and I ventured into an abandoned care home down Troon beach where we got more than we bargained for, including but not limited to a bang on the staircase and a mystery face at a window.
“That house (Crosbie Towers), intrigued me so much that it’s actually the subject of my first novel.
“I am hoping to self-publish or traditionally publish that later this year, with a few embellishments, of course.”
There’s always an audience for writers who can send chills running up your spine. And Michael McKean has delivered those a-plenty in his new take on an Aberdeen institution.
What the Dickens! Some other ghostly tales
There are no shortage of ghostly connections throughout the north-east and one such story was actually published by none other than Charles Dickens.
Although he travelled north of the border on a regular basis, there are few mentions of the country in his famous novels and myriad other literary works, although he dreamt up A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge after seeing a gravestone in an Edinburgh cemetery.
Yet there were many articles and tales about the Scots in the journals he edited, including a sensational story set in Aberdeen that appeared in Household Words in 1852 and was called Who Murdered Downie?
Dickens expert Dr Paul Schlicke said: “The article recounts the mock trial and execution of Richard Downie, the Sacrist of Marischal College in the late 18th Century, by a group of undergraduates who were seeking revenge for Downie’s officiousness in reporting student misdemeanours to the authorities.
“Having lured him to a darkened room, the masked students enacted a ceremony in which they convicted him of ‘conspiring against their just liberty and immunities’ and made him kneel before a block to be beheaded.
“Sadly, the prank went horribly wrong when Downie, struck on the neck by a wet towel, died of fright. The students vowed one another to silence and the truth emerged only in a deathbed confession years later.”
And a ghost even became a village
If that’s macabre, there is even a community in the north east named after a story, telling how a traveller was given lodgings in a farmer’s barn.
However, he was subsequently woken up by a young man who asked for help because he had been murdered and buried under the barn and couldn’t rest without a Christian burial.
The lad initially thought it was just a nightmare, but he told his host what had happened and, after the experience occurred two further times, the farmer eventually went to the minister.
The three men subsequently dug under the barn and eventually found the bones, which they interred in proper fashion.
That night, local legend has it, the dead man appeared in front of the traveller to thank him for his efforts in ensuring he had received a decent, if belated, burial.
Next morning, the lad “rose hearty”, and that is how the little north-east village got its name.
Michael’s ghost story, Vodka and Spirits, is available here.
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