Now I am going to tell you about Charles. I quite fancy him even if he would now be 102. But I suppose that’s the infinity of death. Infinitely young, infinitely handsome, infinitely dead. I am older than him now as well, which sort of takes the fun out of it and it becomes even more creepy. He was only 21, snuffed out by an embarrassing coat-tail-caught-in-the-spokes situation. Typical.
His proper name was Charles Arthur O’Neill Leith-Hay. The ‘Charles’ and ‘Leith-Hay’ bits come from his father, Laird of Leith Hall Charles Edward Norman Leith-Hay. The ‘Arthur O’Neill’ in the middle comes from his mother’s eldest brother who was the first MP killed fighting in World War One. Funny story, the same Arthur O’Neill MP is the grandfather and namesake of Arthur ‘Bamber’ Gascoigne, giving us our first little link to the Who’s Who of the 20th Century.
Charles’ death in September 1939 came very soon after that of his father, Charles Edward Norman Leith-Hay, in May of the same year. The older Charles was 81 when he died and so had lived to what we can call a good age. His son had not. He left behind his mother, Mrs Henrietta Valdivia O’Neill Leith-Hay (who thankfully has the silliest of the names in this story) who continued to live in the Hall. Mr and Mrs Leith-Hay had previously lost their two daughters in infancy in 1908 and 1911, both only 12 days old. Over time Henrietta buried all her children and her husband outside of the mausoleum which sits by the railway line, before she too joined them in 1965.
Charlie had a brush with Royalty, although he was never to know how it would turn out and died before it came to anything official. Three years younger than him at Gourdonstoun school in Moray was Philip Mountbatten, and they starred together in a play together, as can be seen if you google ‘Royalty – Prince Philip of Greece – Gordonstoun School, Moray’ with young Charles walking at the back of the group. When I first found this photo in his mother’s archives, I was confused as to how Charlie was at school with ‘Young Mountbatten’ as Lord Mountbatten was much older than him, and his children much younger. It was another year before I remembered Prince Philip’s re-naming.
The Queen and Prince Philip met five years before Charles’s death, so maybe he did know about the letters they wrote each other or the machinations of Louis Mountbatten, but it is also likely he didn’t. His mother presumably followed the wedding with an acute knowledge of the parallel life lost. In 1939 The Queen Mother, then simply ‘The Queen’, wrote to Mrs Leith-Hay about Charlie’s death to offer her condolences, although it was an oddly written, almost smug, letter. The letters from his fellow soldiers and superiors were much warmer and presumably more comforting.
I used to host ghost tours, despite being a sceptic, and spent years embedded in the profitable world of the paranormal and encouraging the invited ‘paranormalists’. The paranormalists would boast of conversing with many many beings in the house, but never the one I wanted, young Charlie, who was apparently never home at the time. Disappointing.
Now if you are not interested in ghosts, then do skip this next section. There are several reported sightings of unknown soldiers and of Charles himself in the grounds of the house. The most specific is of young Charles himself taking a walk around the pond on his way to the boat house. There are also rumours of unnamed soldiers looking out through the window in the Music Room, although since this room was used as an entertaining suite for injured soldiers in the First World War, it is possible, if you believe these things, that it is one of the many other soldiers who passed through the house during their convalescence. Finally, gardeners report footsteps on the gravel in the walled garden which Charlie’s parents developed and expanded. Charming and warming if believed; dull and disappointing if not.
Right, back to the facts. Charles features in a portrait where he is a chubby faced youngster, and it hangs above the door in the music room, next to the portraits of his parents. This was a room his father had repurposed because he didn’t play billiards, but he did like to write plays and poems, so we think this is where young Charlie probably spent much of his time at home when he wasn’t scampering through the grounds and exploring the local countryside. The more recent images of him, photographs shared on a family history website made by the children of his Australian cousins, make him look a little American; round faced and in what looks a bit like a hoodie. But there is another photograph, hanging in the museum upstairs, where he is in his uniform and he looks happy and handsome and tall.
Before he died, Charles had purchased a volume of the works of Shakespeare. I don’t know if he read them, but I do know that four months after his death his mother added a note to the inside page, stating when her son had bought the volume. Then she went back again and added another note to say he had died soon after. I think this painful inscription was her attempt to make a permanent mark on his behalf, and a symbol of the opportunities, loves, and life which ended too soon.
Charlie’s death marked the end of an era for the local area. He was an only son and didn’t have any heirs of his own. His siblings had all died in infancy, leaving no Scottish Leiths. There were cousins in Australia, but none who were interested, knowledgeable, or financially able to come to this draughty, ghost-filled, faux-French-Chateaux plonked in the middle of Aberdeenshire.
In 1945 Charlie’s mother, Henrietta, agreed a deal with the NTS to keep the house out of private hands, signing 500 years’ worth of family valuables and history together with a sprawling mansion and acres of land over to the charity for free. Her conditions were simple: the NTS would look after and share the stories of the family and house forever. Of course, those stories were the cherry picked and whitewashed ones (we aren’t allowed to tell you who had syphilis or who had an illegitimate child or who was a lesbian) but it was a bold task to entrust in a new organisation.
I think what Henrietta was desperate to do was to have her children remembered, never forgotten. And it worked. Her son was, and will always be, The Last Laird.
This fiction prose story was written as part of my MLitt in Creative Writing at The University of Aberdeen.