On 25 November 1897 in Callander, Isabella Rattray and Archibald McFarlane welcomed a daughter named Victoria Helen Macfarlane.

The birth entry for Victoria Helen Macfarlane, 25 November 1897
Crown copyright, NRS, Statutory Register of Births 1897/336/44

The above shows she was born at 3 am on 96 Main Street in Callander. Her father worked as a slater at the time of her birth and her mother’s maiden name was Rattray before they married on 14 November 1890 in Perth.

Helen led an eventful life, becoming a medium and spiritualist, including one performance which resulted in her prosecution under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Growing up, Helen soon proved that she did not want to fit into any stereotypes for a woman of the era. She was nicknamed “Hellish Nell” by those who knew her for frightening people with things that no one could have known were about to happen.

In 1914, after falling pregnant and in order to not bring more shame on the family, Helen was sent to Dundee.

Birth entry for Isabella Macfarlane, 19 February 1915
Crown copyright, NRS, Statutory Registers of Births 1915/336/4

Isabella’s birth entry shows that although Helen was sent away during her pregnancy, she returned to Callander to give birth.

Shortly after her daughter was born, she met and married her husband Henry and was from then on known as Helen Duncan.

Marriage entry for Henry Duncan and Victoria Helen Macfarlane, 27 May 1927
Crown copyright, NRS, Statutory Registers of Marriages 1927/685/4 633

The above shows us Helen was working as a Baker’s Shop Assistant at the time and her husband was a General Labourer. They were both aged 19 when they were wed and already living together in Edinburgh.

Although now married with a child, Helen’s passion for all things supernatural grew. She branched out from being a clairvoyant to a medium. In 1926, she shared her talents with punters offering the experience of calling on spirits and producing ectoplasm – a physical “substance” showing supernatural energy.

Not everyone was impressed by Helen’s talents, however. She was caught out by the London Spiritualist Alliance who were said to have found that the ectoplasm was in fact cheesecloth (a thin, loose cotton cloth used for some styles of making cheese).

Helens clients were fascinated with the idea of ectoplasm. One journalist described her ectoplasm in The Hampshire Telegraph as “living snow” (The Hampshire Telegraph and Post, 31 March 1944, The British Newspaper Archive).

Photograph of Helen Duncan with “phantoms”, in fact cheesecloth ectoplasm and doll spirits.
Credit: Harvey Metcalfe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During her career as a medium, although popular, Helen was called to court several times.

In 1941, she became embroiled in a court case that made her a minor celebrity but also prompted a vow to end her lifelong passion for spiritualism. Helen had performed at naval ports and during one performance, claimed that a spirit had told her that HMS Barham had been sunk. This raised alarm bells for the Royal Navy as Barham had indeed been sunk by a submarine in the Mediterranean with the loss of over 800 servicemen, and the news hadn’t yet been made public.

View from off the bow of the port side of the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship HMS Barham during her sea trials, 1915

Crown copyright, NRS, UCS1/116/16/56

Helen was arrested under an Act most would not associate with the twentieth century. She was found guilty under Section 4 of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, spending nine months in jail. Helen was not happy to have to take time away from her ‘trade’ with one newspaper reporting she “cried “Oh, God” and collapsed moaning”. (The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 4 April 1944, The British Newspaper Archive).

Luckily for her, the Act had changed over the years and was now not about whether an individual was a witch. Instead, it concerned wrongly misleading people about supernatural activity. Which was just as well, as people who were found guilty under the original crime of witchcraft were subjected to horrible and extreme sentences and in many cases death.

Helen’s case made for popular reading. Many who believed in her talents thought she might predict the plans for D-Day and it is possibly the reason she was found guilty; she was the last Scottish person to be imprisoned under this archaic act.

The news of Helen’s court case reached as far as Downing Street, where Prime Minister Winston Churchill is known to have written a note to the Home Secretary at the time complaining about the use of court resources on “obsolete tomfoolery”. Once Helen had served her time in prison, she agreed to stop practicing as a medium.

Helen’s promise proved short-lived however – in 1956, she was caught for a final time, the fame she had gained from being sentenced under the Witchcraft Act presumably proving too tempting to leave behind. Helen passed away at her home later that year aged 59.

A year after Helen’s death, the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald released an article about her, proving that Helen’s popularity did not fade after her death:

“For the first time, it can be told the full story of Helen Duncan. The woman who brought together the living and the dead.”

(Milngavie and Bearsden Herald and North Western Herald, 19 January 1957. The British Newspaper Archive)

Medium or con-artist, one thing is certain – Helen lived an eventful life which had thousands debating about the supernatural for years.

The death entry of Helen Duncan, 6 December 1956.
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Registers of Death 1956/685/6 745

The above shows that Helen died in Edinburgh of cardiac failure and had pre-existing conditions which contributed to her death.

Caitlin Harkins
Archive Attendant
Outreach and Learning Volunteer

Sources/Further Reading

One thought on “Hellish Nell: Medium or Fraud?

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