To Calgarth Hall, once the home of the Philipson family, was attached one of the oldest and best-known traditions of screaming skulls. What may have been the earliest form of the story was known to James Clarke, who in his Survey of the Lakes (1789) writes:
At Crowgarth were two human sculls [sic] of which many strange stories are told: they were said to belong to persons whom Robin [Philipson] had murdered, and that they could not be removed from the place where they then were; that when they were removed they always returned, even though they had been thrown into the Lake, with many other ridiculous falsehoods of the same stamp: some person, however, has lately carried one of them off to London, and as it has not yet found its way back again, I shall say nothing more on so very trivial a subject.
From 1819 comes a statement supporting Clarke’s assertion that only one skull remained.
In Clarke’s day, the tale of the skulls was evidently one of the stories told of Robert Philipson, ‘Robin the Devil’, a supporter of Charles I during the Civil War, by some reviled as a sacrilegious murderer and by others celebrated as a daredevil hero. Nineteenth-century accounts, however, attach the legend to Myles Philipson. In 1858, Alexander Craig Gibson retold the story in verse as he had heard it from John Long, the ferryman of the former Ferry Inn on Lake Windermere. It was also told by the American Moncure D. Conway in Harper’s Magazine.
According to Conway’s version, as repeated by John Ingram in the 1880s, Myles Phillipson (with two l’s), a wealthy local magistrate, coveted a little bit of ground known as Calgarth and wanted to add it to his estate, but the owners, a humble farmer named Kraster Cook and his wife Dorothy, refused to sell it. Myles thereupon ‘swore he’d have that ground, be they “live or deead”’. However, as time went on, he appeared better disposed and invited them to a Christmas banquet. Afterwards, he pretended that they had stolen a silver cup, and it was of course found in their house, an obvious ‘plant’. Theft being a capital offence, and Phillipson the magistrate, they were both sentenced to death. In the courtroom, Dorothy rose and, glaring at Phillipson, said:
‘Guard thyself, Myles Phillipson! Thou thinkest thou has managed grandly; but that tiny lump of land is the dearest a Phillipson has ever bought or stolen; for you will never prosper, neither your breed; whatever scheme you undertake will wither in your hand; the side you take will always lose; the time shall come when no Phillipson will own an inch of land; and while Calgarth walls shall stand, we’ll haunt it night and day – never will ye be rid of us!’
Dorothy’s curse came true, for after that the Phillipsons never prospered. Having built a new house at Calgarth, they acquired two troublesome skulls as guests. They were found at Christmas at the head of some stairs, and were buried a long way off, but then turned up in the house again. ‘The two skulls were burned again and again; they were brayed [crushed] to dust and cast to the wind; they were several years sunk in the lake; but the Phillipsons never could get rid of them.’
In some accounts, the skulls are represented not as mysteriously self-returning but as being manipulated by ghosts. Writing in 1860, Mackenzie Walcott notes, ‘Calgarth was said to be haunted by two spirits, the guardians of two sculls [sic] which … if removed from a particular window, were immediately replaced by these unearthly guests.’
It is said that Bishop Watson of Llandaff (d. 1816), who bought the Calgarth estate, while living there went through a solemn form of ‘laying’ the two ghostly skulls in order to allay the fears of the locals. He is alleged to have had them walled up in the niche on the staircase where they were kept. Whether these measures had the desired effect is uncertain: whereas John Ingram says that ‘Dorothy and Kraster have remained quiet of late years’, Wilson Armistead in 1891 says that the spectres ‘still are seen’.
Various attempts to explain the skulls’ origin have been made: that they came from a burial ground attached to Old Calgarth where human bones frequently turned up; or that a lady doctor who had lived in the house kept two skeletons for professional purposes, of which the skulls survived. Others suggest that the story was inspired by an early form of the name Calgarth, referred to as le Calvegartrige in 1390–4, which resembles Calvary, otherwise Golgotha, ‘the place of the skulls’; or that it was started as Roundhead propaganda, the Philipsons’ decline in fortune being attributed not to Dorothy’s curse but to their being ardent Royalists during the English Civil War.
Brougham Hall, near Penrith, also had a screaming skull: after many attempts to get rid of it, the old Westmorland family of the Broughams finally bricked it up in a wall. A number of other old houses contain, or have contained, human skulls, generally regarded as protective talismans. In every case, there is a strong tradition that the skull or skulls must never be removed. At some point, apparently in late Victorian times, the term ‘Screaming Skull’ was coined with reference to the specimen at BETTISCOMBE MANOR, Dorset, and is now the standard term even where screams are not specified as part of the manifestations.