House of the unholy
Or rather, a black upside-down cross. Because it has long been synonymous with The Dark Side. Look no further than Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, a newly enhanced DVD filmed during the band's notorious 1973 trek across the US. In one of the fantasy sequences that intersperse the live footage, guitarist Jimmy Page is caught in an eerily innocuous pastoral idyll, sitting by a lake next to his 18th-century manor in Plumpton, Sussex, toying with a hurdy gurdy as the song Autumn Lake plays in the background. He turns towards the camera and his eyes, pure Hammer House of Horror, are glowing devil-red. Then suddenly we're in dense, dark woodland lit by a full moon. Page is shown climbing the steep face of a snow-capped mountain with only a corduroy jacket and a neckerchief to keep him warm. To the strains of Dazed and Confused, he fights his way to the top, where a ghostly hooded creature dressed in white and holding a lantern awaits him. It is the Hermit, a Tarot figure representing philosophical enquiry, though here his face is wizened and has a pallor suggestive of death. The whole chilling sequence was filmed on the mountainside directly behind Boleskine House.
With the possible exception of the Rolling Stones, no band in history has ever been as closely associated with the Dark Side as Led Zeppelin. And of their four members, the one with the greatest reputation for the illicit and degenerate is Page. There are many anecdotes about the guitarist numerous apocryphal stories and rumours of carnal and pharmaceutical excess. But the one fact brought up time and again to capture his amoral essence is this: in 1971, as Zeppelin were about to enter their decadent pomp, Page bought Boleskine House.
Page, who later owned the occult bookshop The Equinox in London, bought it primarily because it had, between 1899 and 1913, been the property of one Aleister Crowley. Page was something of a Crowley aficionado, though the extent of his interest is a matter of speculation. Certainly, Crowley's maxims - "The word of sin is restriction!" and "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" - were adhered to with dissolute glee by Led Zeppelin in their debauched heyday.
A poet, novelist, painter and mountaineer, Crowley became a counter-cultural icon in the 1960s (his face is one of the many on the cover of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper - on the top row, second from left, next to Mae West), when his views were seen to have anticipated the permissiveness of the age. But it is for his alleged practices in the occult that Crowley is best known, and that earned him the nickname The Beast, alias The Other Loch Ness Monster. The tabloid press of the day were fascinated by and fearful of Crowley in equal measure, dubbing him "the most evil man in Britain" and reporting on his supposed dreadful exploits, including human sacrifice, devil worship and black magic. According to Crowley's writings, he bought Boleskine to perform a ritual called the Abramelin Operation, an angel-summoning ceremony "requiring intense and lengthy meditation in a temple or secluded place". Stories of unexplained ghoulish occurrences in the area during his time at Boleskine are numerous. There is one of a local butcher accidentally cutting off his hand with a cleaver after reading a note left by Crowley. Another concerns the disappearance of a housekeeper. A third tells of a local workman employed by Crowley who went mad and tried to kill him.
A low, pink-walled mansion situated across the water from the snow-capped Meall Fuarvounie 21 miles south of Inverness, Boleskine House was built in the late 18th century by Archibald Fraser - it remained in Fraser family ownership until Crowley bought the estate. According to legend, a church once stood on the ancient site. When it caught fire the congregation was trapped inside and burned alive. The nearby Boleskine Burial Ground is notable for the remains of the original chapel and a grave watcher's hut: the grave watcher was employed to prevent body snatchers from defiling the graves.
Not surprisingly, a tunnel between the graveyard and the house is said to be best avoided after dark. As for Boleskine itself, it has long been the site of all manner of strange and disturbing events. In 1965, for example, an army major who lived there killed himself with a shotgun. Malcolm Dent was invited by Jimmy Page, his boyhood friend, to supervise the restoration of the house after the guitarist bought it. While Page himself only spent a total of six weeks there in the two decades he owned it, Dent lived in it for years, raising a family there. Apart from random slamming doors and moving chairs and rugs, not to mention the odd headless spectre, Dent had to contend with streams of ghouls making pilgrimages to Boleskine because of its association with Messrs Crowley and Page.
"I knew Jimmy had some weird interests, but that was about it," Dent said at the time. He was less respectful of Page's acolytes. "I have them from every corner of the world. A lot of them are nutters. Many are downright dangerous lunatics. There's a constant procession of these sick-minded people." Often Dent would have to bolt the doors and windows at night to prevent their access to the grounds. "They're a damned nuisance, a real pain," said Dent.
Page sold Boleskine House in 1992. Subsequent owners, ignoring its turbulent history, have run it either as a private residence or as a guest house. And, judging by the graffiti in the graveyard, it's clear Boleskine still attracts a certain type of tourist, with a penchant for the macabre.
"We don't get too many enquiries about it these days," the woman at the Inverness Tourist Information Centre tells me. "But those who do seem to be drawn to it for its unusual history. Things like the tunnel between the house and the graveyard, which is meant to be haunted by witches." Is it a frightening place to visit? She pauses. "Well, it's certainly... curious."
• The Song Remains the Same CD and DVD are out now.