As Halloween approaches the Tele’s feature writer Amy Hall headed out to some of the area’s spookiest sites to see if she could find out what really goes bump in the night – today she finds out just how haunted HMS Unicorn really is.
Lurking somewhere in the depths of HMS Unicorn is the ghost of George Bishop, the former devoted custodian of Scotland’s oldest ship which now calls Victoria Dock in Dundee home.
George was the Unicorn’s caretaker when it was a training establishment, before the Second World War, and he usually spent evenings on board the ship.
On this one particular evening he had been alone so it is unclear how the events unfolded. However, he was found dead the following morning in the lowest part of the ship, the orlop deck, at the foot of a steep set of ladderways.
Finlay Raffle, learning and engagement officer at The Unicorn Preservation Society, said that it is assumed that he “tumbled to his death” but there’s no way to know for sure.
The orlop deck is the only area of the ship where a death was recorded on board – but George’s presence lingers on.
“In the modern era, when people have seen apparitions on board, they see a sort of manly figure often dressed in naval attire and usually it goes down as George himself,” Finlay explained.
“I’ve never seen George, one of my colleagues has. I also have a different colleague who has claimed to see a small, childlike figure on the ship. We don’t have any recorded deaths of children on board but they swear blind that they definitely saw a child apparition.”
Built in 1824 and designed as a 46-gun frigate for the Royal Navy, the Unicorn was made to accommodate 300 crew members.
She was a speedy and powerful vessel with a substantial armament, but was intended to be agile and quick through the water.
Finlay said: “She was built down in Chatham Dockyard down in Kent. At that time Chatham Dockyards was one of the largest shipyards and industrial centres in the entire world.
“She was made to have 300 crew on board. Almost all of them would live down on what is the lower deck, or mess deck, with the exception of the captain who got a much nicer room for himself.”
Back in the day 10 officers would call the gunroom, sometimes known as the wardroom, home. it was a relatively generous space in comparison to other areas of the ship and housed individual cabins for sleeping in and a dining table too.
However, this space did more than just provide “cosy” living quarters for officers – it also doubled as a surgery. The chairs would be removed, the table wiped down and the cabins would be used as convalescence rooms for people who had undergone treatment.
Finlay explained: “Frigates weren’t big enough to have a dedicated surgical space, so if a ship was going into battle this room would be converted into the surgery for the surgeon to work.
“Operations were pretty basic 200 years ago, so really all that happened would be the patient would be put onto the table, the surgeon would do their best to try and sterilise instruments – maybe just with some hot water – and the patient was given a type of anaesthetic in the form of alcohol, ideally some rum, gin, wine, whatever you’ve got to hand.
“A good surgeon could take off a limb in maybe nine or ten seconds, so a number of other people would be helping to hold the patient down, try and cut off blood supply, and then get to it. It would be a very long nine or ten seconds.
“One of the reasons they say that the floor in these areas of the ship are painted red is because it didn’t spoil the look of the cabin, even if blood had gone all over the floor.
“Because the ship was used as a training ship for a long time, most of the deaths that are associated with the Unicorn are actually deaths where men trained on board would go off to fight elsewhere.”
So, how did Amy’s search for ghosts go?
As nightfall approached Amy headed to the ship alongside the Fife-based Scottish Paranormal team who carry out investigations around the country hoping to find evidence of spirits within a number of settings.
They brought with them a number of pieces of equipment which would aid the investigation including radio scanners, which are said to allow the spirits to talk through them, and voice activated recorders, which pick up sounds that were inaudible in the room.
There were also a number of gadgets which would flash or make a noise when touched or moved and would signal if drops in temperature were recorded.
The team and I started our investigation at the dining table in the captain’s room which, back in the day, would have been the most luxurious room on the ship.
It was during this time that team member Kyle started to experience pain in his right shoulder and his arm became numb. It was decided they would try the Franks Box, a device which scans radio waves providing the spirit world with a carrier or a medium to use to communicate with.
After Kyle described his feelings the radio seemed to blurt out “arm’s f*****”. Could this have been the spirit of a past crew member who had perhaps been operated on elsewhere in the ship?
‘First real fright’
The investigation was taken down to the gunroom and it was there that I got my first real fright. Despite hearing knocks and possible footsteps nothing had really stopped us in our tracks.
It wasn’t until we were all sat in the room and chatting amongst ourselves that suddenly a heavy equipment box, which had lain open for some time, suddenly slammed shut. While people might think it may have been caused by someone walking too close or even some trickery such as fish wire attached, I can promise it seemed to me that it shut all by itself.
We carried on and took a walk around some of the other parts of the ship, but I didn’t really feel scared at all while I was on the Unicorn. In fact it was the complete opposite.
We heard what seemed to be the sound of a child running above us and while the team live streamed the investigation to their Facebook page a number of commenters said they felt there was a child trying to have a laugh with us and perhaps even play a game.
That is exactly what it felt like at the time, like we were all having a bit of a laugh with the help of the spirits on board.
Although we didn’t get to see George Bishop ourselves I had a great time exploring the Frigate and the paranormal team said they found some interesting activity so it was a good night all round.