Some of Malaysia’s deepest mysteries are buried in its past and a few of them can come unravelling before your eyes if you dare to peek into its secrets.
Kellie’s Castle in Batu Gajah, Perak, is one such mystery. Among local architecture, the European/Indian structure was a curious anomaly. But standing as an everlasting testament of one man’s love for his wife and a father’s love for his son, these rambling ruins belonging to a Scottish planter named William Kellie-Smith, made a foreboding yet enchanting invitation for visitors to revisit the past.
It is rumoured that the 14-room castle, fitted with an empty lift shaft, a four-storey tower and spiral staircases leading into narrow dungeon-like wine cellars as well as secret underground tunnels, is inhabited by entities, not of this realm.
Travelling Back in Time
Travelling with a companion for the adventure, we made the two-and-half-hour drive of about 194 km from the City Centre of Kuala Lumpur to discover Kellie’s Castle for ourselves. Upon arrival at Jalan Gopeng ─ the main road that connects Gopeng to Batu Gajah ─ we were able to see Kellie’s Castle looming ahead of us. The huge structure sprawls across elevated green grounds and is fronted by the scenic Raya River which is actually a creek that runs into the larger Kinta River further away.
Apart from its infamy for being one of the most haunted places in Malaysia, Kellie’s Castle also claims the honour of being the film location of blockbusters such as Anna and the King in 1999 and Skyline Cruisers in 2000. So, not only is this enigmatic building committed to the memory of our country’s history, it is also romantically immortalized on international celluloid.
Welcome to the Ghost House
We arrived in the afternoon and parked in the parking lot adjacent to the ticketing centre. The centre, which is open daily from 9 am till 6 pm, is replete with cafes and a souvenir shop. The tickets are priced at RM10 for foreigners and RM9 for children or RM5 for Malaysians and RM3 for children. After we managed to get our tickets, we had to walk across a walk bridge that spans across the Raya River to reach the castle grounds.
Basically, there are two main blocks to the castle: The first block or the “frontal” façade, is a two-storey structure adorned with long, bricked balconies and verandahs, a tower, horseshoe arches, domed vaults, ornate friezes, Grecian columns, and Maharaja- style tall windows.
The second block at the back is a connected building but roofless, in that it comprises mainly walls, rooms, and floors. It is said that this building is actually the remnants of Kellie-Smith’s real residence called Kellas House which got partially destroyed during World War I. It is said that Kellie-Smith and his family lived here while they waited for their castle to be completed.
The design concept of Kellie’s Castle can be seen to have followed the modules of the Ipoh Railway Station, the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the now renamed the Sultan Abdul Samad Building or previously known as the Federal Secretariat Building.
Unlike the three buildings mentioned, Kellie’s Castle did not take one style into account as it was an odd, eclectic mix of Mughal-Moorish Revival, Indo-Gothic and Greco-Roman architecture. Fused as a whole, this piece of construction is an amalgamation of both East and West and is the only one of its kind in Malaysia to exhibit such a fusion design.
Its melancholic beauty ─ evocative of a time when the world was a different place ─ makes Kellie’s Castle the perfect setting for our Instagram.
Where the Past Comes Alives
Inside, things started to get a little eerie. The corridors summoned melancholia while the walls seemed to know all the secrets of a long-forgotten past. I decided to wander the mansion by myself to get the best feeling out of my visit.
The vast and empty living halls downstairs evoked a sense of desolation. Even the balconies that looked out to fresh air and sunshine were seemingly eerie for me. Interestingly, the one on the ground floor has a signboard that mentions “The Ghostly Cloister Balcony”. It is said that the spirit of William Kellie-Smith himself walks this balcony to look forlornly over a mansion he never got to complete. Visitors who have seen his apparition would probably testify to this tale.
The vast spaces upstairs feature four large empty bedrooms: a guest room, the bedrooms for Helen and Anthony (Kellie-Smith’s daughter and son), and a master bedroom. The daughter and sons’ rooms were accompanied by corridors and secret passageways that lead to the ground floor.
The Four Most Haunted Areas in the Castle
Of the four large bedrooms, Helen’s room ─ the only one with decorative blue plaster cornices at the ceiling ─ is reputed to be haunted by Helen herself.
In fact, a signboard on the wall announces to visitors that an apparition of a six-year-old Caucasian child with curly hair and wearing a white blouse is often seen emerging from behind the bedroom door. She will hover for a few seconds and then vanish into thin air. Helen’s room is one of the four most haunted areas in Kellie’s Castle.
The second scariest room is the Linen or Laundry Room on the first floor. The entity residing inside is said to be Gopal, a worker from India brought in by Kellie-Smith to take care of the household’s laundry. Gopal died there in the house, and to this day, remains a lost spirit still pining to return to his family in his homeland.
The third most haunted spot is the cloister balcony on the first floor at the end of the building facing the derelict horse stable. Frightening spectres have been seen and even photographed here.
The last but most sinister of the haunted rooms is the subterranean wine cellar located at the bottom of a narrow flight of rough-hewed stone steps.
It’s a pitch-black spooky room that emanates cold air and weird vibes ─ the kind that screws all your signals and makes you feel uneasy. However, if you can muster up the courage to step in, and you switch on your handphone torchlight to look around, you will see stacks and stacks of empty hand-carved wine racks made for storing up to 3,000 bottles of wine.
Who was William Kellie-Smith
William Kellie-Smith was born in Kellas, Moray Firth, Scotland. In 1890, by the age of 20, he arrived in then-Malaya as a Civil Engineer to join estate owner Charles Alma Baker’s survey firm in Batu Gajah, Perak. Success followed, Kellie-Smith started planting his own rubber trees and ventured into tin mining, naming his rubber plantation Kinta Kellas Estate and his tin mining company Kinta Kellas Tin Dredging Company.
With a fortune made, he went back to Scotland to marry his sweetheart Agnes and brought her over to Malaya in 1903. The next year, she gave birth to their daughter, Helen.
The family lived in their first mansion ─ Kellas House, the remains of which you can see at the back of his unfinished castle today. After trying for many years, Anthony, his son, was born in 1915. The birth of Anthony was such a great joy for Kellie-Smith that he started planning for a huge castle to celebrate the arrival of an heir to his empire and to mark his rising status in society.
The Tragedy Behind the Story
However, it was to be a dream that soon crumbled. Not long after beginning construction, Kellie-Smith started seeing a string of financial troubles. He couldn’t get funding to continue building his castle. His marble quarry and tin mining businesses also began to flounder. He ran a cattle farm but his livestock was wiped out by disease. World War I erupted, disrupting the supply of materials and manpower. For a while, Kellie-Smith grew his own vegetables to sustain his family in his estate.
And when the war was over, the Spanish flu devastated the world. The pandemic raged across the globe, swept into Batu Gajah, and killed many of the construction workers he had imported from Madras, including those skilled craftsmen who were needed to build his Scottish, Moorish, and Tamilvanan-inspired castle.
On top of that, his wife left him. Actually, it was to take Anthony back to Scotland to further his education but it meant leaving Kellie-Smith here by himself to complete his project.
In 1926, Kellie-Smith went to Scotland to see his family and on the way back, detoured to Lisbon, Portugal to bring back a lift to install in the lift shaft. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumonia while in Portugal and died there at the age of 56.
The lift, of course, was never installed but had Kellie-Smith brought it back successfully, it would have been the very first elevator in the country. Agnes never returned to Malaya and she didn’t want the castle either. She later sold all her interests to a British company called Harrisons and Crosfield and never looked back at the memories and the legacy her husband had left behind.
That is why Kellie’s Castle is sometimes called Kellie’s Folly. Today, the castle is one of Malaysia’s most enigmatic landmarks ─ restored, refurbished, remembered and commemorated as a legacy from the past and a place of interest.
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