THE air turns drastically cold. Despite being deeply engrossed in the intricate blue decorations adorning the plaster cornices, I become acutely aware of the fast-dropping mercury. Goosebumps greet my palms when I rub them against the skin of my forearms.
I turn towards a nearby window thinking perhaps the cooler temperature is due to the temporary cloud cover.
Instead, my glance is met with the full glare of the early afternoon sun. Puzzled by the sudden change in room temperature, I decide to look for the couple who was with me earlier to see if they’re also experiencing the same anomaly. Alas, there’s not a soul in sight. Apart from me, the room is completely deserted.
Suddenly, a strange feeling overwhelms me. I feel a shiver running down my spine as I recall an old wives’ tale which associates cold sensations with the presence of supernatural beings.
I’m in Kellie’s Castle, reputed to be among the top five scariest places in the country. Quite a number of visitors to this century-old building have laid claim to witnessing wandering apparitions of the family who once lived in this place. I start to break into a cold sweat and feel my knees turning to jelly.
Fortunately for me, a group of chattering teenagers arrive just as I’m about to make a dash for the nearest exit. At that very moment, I feel the room temperature returning to normal. The icy-cold sensation that enveloped the room just seconds ago is gone.
Confident that my personal brush with things supernatural is over for good, I decide to spend some time exploring and eventually stumble upon a plaque that helps me piece together my brief paranormal experience.
The room I’m in was meant for Helen, one of William Kellie Smith’s children. Over the years, visitors have reported seeing her ghost in this room. The apparition was said to resemble that of a 6-year-old child with curly hair and dressed in a white blouse. All the eyewitnesses tell the same tale about the ghost child emerging from the door, hovering for a few seconds before vanishing into thin air!
Scared out of my wits, I decide to leave the room and explore the other “safer” parts of this rambling mansion built by Smith, who hailed from Moray Firth in Scotland.
THE EARLY YEARS
Born on March 1, 1870, Smith was the third of five children in a family that subsisted primarily on farming. Life was tough and the family struggled to make ends meet.
Fortunately, Smith was born during the time when the British were rapidly expanding their influence in the Far East. To young men like him, this represented a golden opportunity to seek better fortunes in British colonies like India, Burma and Malaya.
Smith eventually arrived in Batu Gajah, Perak in 1890 and began working for Charles Alma Baker, a colonial pioneer from New Zealand. Already a trained civil engineer at that time, Smith became involved in survey work and road construction in southern Perak.
Several years later, he branched out on his own by setting up William Smith, Civil Engineers, Architects and Contractors. Things started looking up when his company was awarded a two-year contract to supply ballasts for the Perak Railway in 1896. Unfortunately, that project was halted soon after it was launched.
Despite this early setback, Smith remained steadfast. His partnership with Alma Baker had yielded handsome profits and he used that to acquire a 607-hectare concession in Batu Gajah which he subsequently christened Kellas Estate. He tried planting coffee but soon discovered that the boom was over and prices had started to spiral downwards due to stiff competition from Brazil.
Later, Smith learnt about the invention of the pneumatic tyre. The engineer in him knew that this new invention would soon lead to a huge demand for rubber. Acting on his hunch, Smith quickly set out to replace his ailing coffee plants with hundreds of rubber saplings. Within a short period of time, he started reaping handsome gains.
It was some time in 1903 when Smith received bad tidings and promptly left for Scotland to be with his mother who was on her death bed. After the funeral, he returned to Malaya. During the voyage, he met an heiress named Agnes who happened to be travelling to the Far East for the first time. Their friendship blossomed within the close confines of the ship and they were married soon after arriving in Penang.
The couple began their married life in Batu Gajah, living in a wooden bungalow in Smith’s estate. Smith had earlier named his home, Kellas House, in honour of his family home in Scotland, Easter Kellas.
A year later, in 1904, Agnes gave birth to their first child, Helen. Overjoyed, Smith began borrowing extensively against his wife’s inheritance which was due in the next five years.
With Helen’s arrival and the anticipation of more children to come in the near future, Smith spent $24,000 to build a new wing to his wooden bungalow. Conscious of his wife’s intolerance to the oppressive tropical heat, he decided to use heat-absorbing brickwork rather than timber.
Soon after construction began, Smith started experiencing a string of setbacks and financial problems.
Initially, he failed to secure the release of the second advance payment from his wife’s trust fund. That was quickly followed by significant losses in his marble quarry and tin mining businesses. To make matters worse, his entire livestock was nearly wiped out by a virulent cattle disease.
He then tried to bolster his only remaining profitable venture by planting more rubber trees and bringing in an additional 200 labourers from India. This plan, however, proved to be his undoing as it eventually depleted his working capital.
On the verge of financial ruin, Smith had no other choice but to sell two-thirds of Kellas Estate in 1906 to the British agency house of Harrisons & Crossfield who renamed their purchase as Kinta Kellas Ltd and retained Smith as the managing director. Smith and Agnes retained their bungalow and some 202ha of land which had to be renamed Old Kellas Estate.
Known as a person who didn’t do things by halves, Smith proceeded with his most ambitious project as soon as his wife’s $300,000 inheritance came through in 1908. He’d always wanted a huge mansion for his family and, with ample money readily available, chose to build it along the Batu Gajah-Gopeng trunk road, just beside the Raya River, a small creek serving the main Kinta River.
BUILT FOR LOVE
He promptly obtained a licence to manufacture bricks on site and brought in an army of builders, including skilled stucco artisans, from Madras, India. Already planning for a large family, Smith fitted a total of 14 rooms into the sprawling mansion.
He also included a cellar, stables, rooftop tennis court and even a shaft for a lift that was never installed. Most of these features can still be seen by visitors to Kellie’s Castle today. All of them are in the main building except for the stables which are located a short distance away down the hill.
While making my way back to the main building, I finally have the opportunity to see it in its entirety. While this three-storey building reminds me of the grand British Raj palaces in India, it was actually built based on a mixture of Scottish, Moorish and Tamilvanan Indian architectural styles.
During my two-hour visit, I was somewhat attracted to the intricate stucco friezes found in the rooms as well as corridors. The opposing walls near the first floor staircase landing are my favourites as they feature both completed and unfinished friezes. This allows me to study the techniques employed by the skilled artisans who worked here more than a century ago.
It’s indeed a pity Smith was unable to finish his ambitious project. Work on the house was halted during World War I when all business capital was frozen.
Even the birth of their second child, Anthony, in 1914, failed to lift the doom and gloom hanging over the family. Over the next four years, the family learnt to be self-sufficient by growing their own food.
END OF THE DREAM
The war ended in 1918 and just when everyone thought that things would start looking up again, a deadly influenza pandemic known as the Spanish Flu broke out. It killed millions of people worldwide. Smith’s Indian workers were not spared. About 70 of them, including all his skilled masons, plasterers and tilers, succumbed to the disease.
Then, in 1926, Smith travelled with Helen to visit Agnes and Anthony in Europe and also to collect a lift for the mansion. That lift, had it been installed, would have been the first of its kind in the country. The duo made a brief stopover in Lisbon as Smith wanted to finalise his planting concessions in the Portuguese colony of East Timor. Sadly, he caught a chill, developed pneumonia and died in his hotel room at 56.
A grief-stricken Agnes sold the rest of the property to Harrisons & Crossfield and moved back to Scotland with her children. Harrisons & Crossfield decided that they didn’t want to waste any money on the mansion that many have started referring to as “Kellie’s Folly”.
As a result, the building was left deserted and after many years, consumed by the jungle.
Despite my fear of the supernatural, I decide to end my visit at the first floor cloister balcony. I do this after learning that many years ago, when Kellie’s Castle was in a derelict state and filled with creepers, a Canadian couple came by to photograph its many nocturnal creatures.
As the couple was about to leave, the woman suddenly looked up and caught sight of a ghostly image of a man standing by this balcony, staring forlornly into the distance. That set the local rumour mill churning about the possible return of Smith’s spirit to be with his beloved “castle” forever.
My efforts prove futile. Smith’s spirit is nowhere in sight. Perhaps it’s been scared off by the army of mobile phone-totting tourists crowding the balcony while I was there. Nevertheless, with or without its ghosts, I’m sure Kellie’s Castle will always remain an integral part of our nation’s colourful heritage.