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The phantoms of Noltland Castle

Noltland Castle: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThe Balfour family, who lived in Noltland Castle in Westray, were reputed to have had a host of family phantoms.

Among these was a ghostly, glowing, light, that appeared to announce births and marriages in the Balfour family.

Family deaths, however, were precursed by a more sinister spectre.

The Boky Hound

The Boky Hound - the name given to Noltland Castle's spectral dog - dwelled in a dark hole under the castle's main staircase. When a member of the Balfour family died, their death was marked by the bloodcurdling howls of the hound.

One account of the Boky Hound implies that it was the spirit of a loyal family pet, slain in a fit of anger by the 13th century knight, Sir David Balfour.

Sir David had returned home from a hunt and called for drink. He was about to put the drink to his lips when his dog leapt on him, knocking the goblet from his hand. In a rage, Balfour killed the animal, only to later learn that it had saved him from drinking the poison prepared by his wife.

When Sir David fell at Turin in 1270, during King Louis IX of France's disastrous crusade, the Boky Hound's howl is said to have announced his death. His wife was found strangled in her bedchamber at the same time.

However, it may be that this tale is a later "invention", created to explain the existence of the hound.

In all probability the Boky Hound tales owe more to the widespread Orcadian belief in the varden - an animal-shaped spirit that was thought to accompany the mortal everywhere and howled dismally when the person was about to die.

For more on the varden, and the phenomenon of spectral dogs, click here.