The Mystery of the Cave Hill Ghost
The Cave Hill, rising majestically over Belfast, has for centuries been the playground for the city’s populace with magnificent views of Belfast and Belfast Lough. Its history, including Stone Age & Bronze Age raths & ring forts, rumours of buried treasure, and connections with Gulliver’s Travels, the O’Neill Chieftans and the United Irishmen make it a fascinating place to explore (See Cave Hill & McArts Fort post). It is not surprising then, that this rugged hillside has further secrets, mysteries and ghosts!
1913 – A Man in Distress
During the year 1913, the local Belfast police force were inundated with calls concerning a person in distress on the Cave Hill. The wooded hillside was a popular venue for folk seeking fresh air and ‘nature’ away from the crowded streets of the city. It was also a favourite spot for ‘courting’ couples. However, the paths on the hill were often steep and rough and the jagged cliff tops treacherous. More than a few people had suffered falls over the years.
However, the reports the police received were all remarkably similar. A man’s voice could be heard wailing and crying in the deepest part of the forest below Belfast Castle. Several people followed the voice intending to help the unfortunate person who had been injured or was in some distress. However, just as they reached the spot where the crying was loudest, the noise stopped.
The police responded by mounting searches in the area. Despite combing the trees and the surrounding moorland, no-one was discovered.
Throughout the following year the officers of the Chichester Road Barracks, off the Antrim Road, received many similar reports. The official view was that this was the work of some practical joker who enjoyed frightening people.
1915 – The First Sighting of the Ghost
In June 1915 a young couple out walking on the Cave Hill approached the same wooded area (neither had heard the rumours of wailing voices). Suddenly they both spotted something hanging from a tree.
Leaving his companion on the pathway, the man ventured further into the woods to investigate. As he approached, he saw a figure of a man among the branches hovering above the ground. While his brain struggled to compute the scene, the figure turned slowly towards him!
In total panic the man ran back to his girlfriend, grabbed her by the hand and the two raced down the slope. Both suffered scratches and bruises as they stumbled and half-fell along the hillside. It was not until they had reached the busy Antrim Road that the man was able to describe what he had seen.
Like all these unexplainable stories, the sighting of the Cave Hill ghost aroused great interest among the local populace. Ghost-hunters and thrill-seekers thronged the hill in the hope of seeing the restless spirit. The police were forced to intervene and disperse the crowds of nightly visitors seeking the ghost. They hoped in the process, to catch the prankster. To no avail.
1920 – The Next Sighting of the Ghost
The next sighting of the apparition came in September 1920. Two teenage boys, who had stayed rather longer than they had intended on the Cave Hill, were retracing their steps home when they spied someone in the trees. Too nervous to enter the woods or continue along the path, they reported it to the caretaker of Belfast Castle.
The caretaker agreed to accompany the lads along the path, hoping to uncover some poachers lurking in the grounds. As they passed the spot, the caretaker with his lamp searched the area but no-one was around.
On his way back to the castle however, he did see a man standing and looking into the woods. The caretaker thinking to scare off a poacher, ran towards the figure. When he approached, to his horror he realised the man was floating about 2ft off the ground. In terror the caretaker dropped his lamp and raced back to the castle. There he told a colleague what he had seen. Neither man ventured out of the castle again that night for fear of encountering the ghost.
More encounters with the ghostly figure occurred over the next couple of years.
People reported seeing a dark-clothed man staring into the woods but when approached he disappeared before their eyes. Dog-walkers described how their pets growled or crouched in terror when near the site.
The police were baffled. The scene was searched again with no success. Nobody was able to explain the strange phenomena.
The Mystery Resolved
One Friday evening in the spring of 1922, two friends, John McAleavey of Alexandra Park Ave and Frederick Orr of Duncairn Gardens, both in north Belfast, were walking on the Cave Hill. As they were coming down the old track towards the Ballysillan Road, one noticed an unusually smooth, rounded, white rock. On going to investigate they got a nasty surprise.
“…the man who noticed it first was the first there and he fell back in horror, for from the centre of the tangle of brier grinned a human skull, the empty eyesockets being brier filled”Belfast Telegraph 18th March 1922
The pair raced to the local police station and informed Station-Sergeant Greeney of their gruesome discovery. Greeney with 2 constables armed with spades, sealed off the area and began to cut away the thick brambles.
At last, the full skeleton of a man was uncovered. There were still some remnants of a black coat with a velvet collar attached to the bones. Also, a pair of Derby boots. Inside the pockets was a rusted penknife and part of a watch chain. There was in addition, a pocket-book or wallet, containing pulpy remains and a couple of coins. Beside the corpse were an old empty medicine bottle and a teacup.
“The site in which the skeleton was discovered was the area in which all the previous sightings occurred and the police were mystified as to how they had never discovered it before. However, one theory for this was that it may have been covered in bramble”Sean Girvan, Cavehill: A Short Illustrated History, 1994
The coroner was informed of the situation. He decided not to hold an inquest, but gave a ruling of suicide. The police published details in the local newspapers in the hope of finding the unfortunate man’s identity.
“The mystery surrounding the death of an unknown man, whose skeleton was found in briars at Track Lane, at the base of the Cave Hill, on Friday last, still remains unsolved”Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner 25th March 1922
The Body Identified
On 13th April 1922 a Mrs Scott arrived at the Chichester Road Police barracks. She had recognised the description of the articles found on the skeleton, as belonging to her husband James Scott. Mr Scott, originally from Warringstown in County Down, was a tailor. He had moved to Belfast and resided in the Ormeau Road district, starting up his own business. However, he had been missing for around 9 years.
With the identification established, the remains were buried. No further reports of sightings or wailings in the area were ever reported. The sad case of the Cave Hill Ghost was finally laid to rest.
We are indebted to local historian and author Sean Girvan for this story – See Sean Girvan, Cavehill: A Short Illustrated History, 1994)
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