The Loch Ness Satanic Monster
Why do followers of Aleister Crowley still flock to Boleskine House? God knows, says Allan Brown.
The remarkable thing about Aleister Crowley is not his ascent of K2 in 1902 fuelled only by champagne, nor that his boyfriend died in the 1920s from imbibing a surfeit of cats' blood, nor even his deportation from Italy by Mussolini, but that, 50 years after his death, he is still able to fascinate and shock in equal measure.
For the Tarantino generation, the image of an elderly, bald man in a kilt attempting to conjure up the Devil in a hut near the banks of Loch Ness should be no more than a Pythonnesque footnote. But Crowley's ability to continue making headlines Is uncanny. It's the spookiest thing about him.
His former home, Boleskine House, on the banks of Loch Ness, has become a blue-plaqued, Satan-slept-here must-see on the Luciferan tourist trail. A number of occult rituals still begin with the words: "Let the magician, robed and armed as he may deem fit, turn his face towards Boleskine."
The cult surrounding Crowley is perplexing. It is customary for religious visionaries to meet less than glorious ends, but there can't be many who were reduced to peddling quack remedies that included their own semen as a secret ingredient before expiring at the age of 72 in a Hastings rooming house.
"It was a very sad end," says Roger Hutchinson, the Skye-based author whose biography of Crowley is published next week. "He was supposed to be the prophet of a new religion but he ended up impoverished in a boarding house. He evaded reality throughout his life and in the end it caught up with him."
Spiritualism was the team to play for early this century and Crowley was its star striker, filling newspapers with tales of narcotic excess, sexual perversion and Satanic hocus-pocus.
Some madmen never die, they just wait for everyone else to get as nutty as them. Such has happened with Crowley. In life, he was followed by just a small and motley crew of fellow delusionals but in death, Crowley has been rehabilitated. Most of his writing -fiction and autobiography is back in print. The Internet twitches with reams of Crowley arcana. Earlier this year, his paintings went on display in London, while a play and a novel about Crowley by Snoo Wilson is to be supplemented by Wilson's movie version of his life, with Alan Rickman tipped to play the man himself. (Steven Berkoff is a better physical match.)
Why the renaissance? Who cares? Hutchinson does. His biography takes an "agnostic" view of the Beast, playing down the magic elements and focusing on Crowley as "the last of the great Victorian eccentrics, a man totally opposed to the sexual standards of the day, who set about revising them, who took us to the position we reached in the 1960s, the do-your-own-thing mentality. But, really, his worth is as a figure of entertainment. He was just a very colourful, outlandish, fascinating, complex man".
Twenty years after Crowley's death, the Beatles stuck him on the sleeve of their 1967 Sgt Pepper album. They were taking a lot of drugs at the time, as were the other rockers whose flirtations with Crowleyism furnished a taste of the illicit when hedonism paled.
Most famously, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, an ardent Crowley acolyte, bought Boleskine House in 1971 and later lathered the band's movie The Song Remains the Same with Crowley symbols and footage of himself clambering round the rugged hillscapes that surround Boleskine. The house, Page noted, was built on the site of "a church that burnt to the ground with the congregation in it", a scene rendered in the Zeppelin number Stairway to Heaven, the most played song on radio in rock history.
Hutchinson has visited Boleskine, finding nothing more than a "harmless Georgian country lodge". Does he believe the stories? "Well, we have only Crowley's word and he could make himself believe almost anything."
The son of a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren preacher who, paradoxically, had built a fortune from brewing, Crowley came into an inheritance in his late teens. Bent on invoking the spirit of Abra-Melin (don't ask), he required an isolated house with an oratory, a north-facing door and a handy supply of fine river sand (don't ask). He scoured Britain with little success until he alighted on Boleskine. Ill health as a teenager had forced Crowley to take into taking regular Highland sojourns and he had begun his successful mountaineering campaign on the Cuillins of Skye some years earlier. He bought it at twice the market price (£2,000) and assumed the ancestral title, Lord Boleskine.
Pretty quickly, things started going bump in the night. Crowley claimed his rituals summoned up 115 spirits, the Devil among them. He wrote of how the "shadowy shapes" would sneak into the house from the oratory in the grounds.
A workman attacked Crowley and had to be locked in the cellar. The lodge-keeper went on a drunken binge and tried to kill his wife. A butcher in Foyers sliced through his femoral artery and bled to death after Crowley scribbled an incantation on a bill. Locals took to the hill paths rather than use the road past Crowley's front door.
Fabrication and coincidence, but it set in stone an image of Boleskine that persists to this day. Opposite the house, over the road built by General Wade, sits the Boleskine Burial Ground. In the corner, overlooking Loch Ness, stands a two-storey out-house where Crowley is said to have performed some of his "magick".
A pentagram has been drawn next to a stone fireplace; one of his slogans, Love is the Law, is daubed on a wall. Any thoughts that these might be remnants from Crowley himself is dispelled by the profusion of Led Zeppelin graffiti, the flattened beer cans and screw-top wine bottles that litter the floor. As they say in these parts, a good scare is worth more than good advice.
The same conclusion was reached by Malcolm Dent, caretaker at Boleskine during Page's ownership. In 1991, Dent was exposed by the tabloids for charging Crowley nuts huge fees to stay overnight, without Page's permission. "I don't care how many nights you spend there," he said. "But if you stay more than one I'll be very surprised."
Page sold the house in 1991 but Dent has not relinquished his role as Boleskine's demonic cheerleader. Last year, he advised builders to pack up and get out lest they experience what he had. "One evening," he says, "a small porcelain figure of the Devil rose off the mantelpiece to the ceiling, then smashed into smithereens in the fireplace." Dent also claims he was wakened at dead of night by the sound of "a huge beast, snorting, snuffling and banging. Whatever was there, I have no doubt it was pure evil".
Or pure invention, if you ask Boleskine's current owners. Annnette MacGillvary, who with husband Ronald bought the house for £250,000, does not disguise her distaste for Boleskine's associations: "I just don't like talking about it, it just encourages them," she says. Them? The Crowleyites? "The idiots, that's what we call them."
But still they come regularly, traipsing up the driveway, asking to look around their master's sanctum: "We just tell them where to go, we're not interested. It's a lovely house, nothing happens here, there are no ghosts." A local hotelier sums up apathy towards the Crowley trade: "You know who they are, they're dressed all in black with spiky hair. We don't take much to do with them. They look a bit sad, really."
There is an easier way into Boleskine. Call up and book a room. "Your hosts are pleased to share their home and small estate with guests who wish to enjoy a comfortable Highland way of life," reads the Boleskine brochure. It seems in keeping with the shabby legacy of Crowleyism that what was called the most evil house in the world is now an upmarket B&B. The old loony must be spinning in his cape.
"Guests with special dietary needs can be accommodated," says the blurb. Goat's head soup, however, is out of the question.
Aleister Crowley The Beast Demystified by Roger Hutchinson, Mainstream (£16.99)
Source: The Sunday Times 08/11/1998
Article written by Allan Brown