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Sunday, 10 February 2008

Scottish Occultist

The fearsome witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were surely among the worst instances of men's injustice to women. While many women were victims of cruel and ignorant superstition, few men, it seems, were similarly treated. However, had Aleister Crowley lived in such times, it seems unlikely that he would have escaped the attention of the witchfinder general. Indeed, his flamboyant behaviour seemed to have been designed to draw attention to his occult activities rather than to conceal them. Crowley was born in 1875, the offspring of strict Plymouth Brethren whose austere lifestyle he violently rejected. Intended for a career in the Diplomatic Service, he went up to Cambridge in 1895, where he soon showed a preference for mountaineering and writing poetry over academe. Later, as an explorer and climber, he was to visit many of the world's great mountains, and over the next decade his output of poetry and prose was voluminous. However, his writings received mixed comment from those able to grasp their arcane implications.

In 1903, at the age of 28, he bought Boleskine House, a property situated just outside Inverfarigaig and across the road from an ancient and atmospheric graveyard. By this time he had already acquired a sinister reputation for dabbling in the black arts, and his declared intention in purchasing Boleskine was to perform a ritual to invoke his guardian angel, or was it his guardian devil ?

Crowley remained at Boleskine on and off for some years and inspired a fearful respect in the local people. Tradesmen left orders at the gates rather than deliver them to his door, and parents warned their children to keep clear of his tall, cloaked figure. The more imaginative believed that he and his followers would sacrifice them, perhaps even eat them!

Within the house there were prints and tapestries depicting all manner of bizarre rites, and a circular bed on which his acolytes might lie, feet to feet, to form a cabbalistic symbol. A further blasphemous touch was provided in a crucifix fixed to the floor beneath the front doormat.

In later years the self-styled wickedest man in the world capitalised on his infamous reputation and played willingly into the hands of the gutter press, tweaking their noses, one likes to think, with a devilish chuckle. Newspapers described him variously as 'a clown of the occult' and 'one of the most sinister figures of modern times', but the highly reputable Scotsman more moderately pointed out that 'Mr
Aleister Crowley's imagination disports itself in a manner calculated to stun the middle classes.' He might have enjoyed that as an epitaph for he was, if nothing else, an outrageous black joker who revelled in creating a legend that was 10 times larger than life. However, charlatan though he was, his perverse ways left their mark and his shadow lingered over Boleskine, touching the lives and fortunes of others who lived there after him. Until quite recent times it was a house of strange and tragic happenings. By the time he died, in the 1940s, Crowley had reportedly become the archetypal club bore, 'a gross old man' who 'babbled drivel about pentagrams and elementals'.

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