Mary, Scotland’s ubiquitous Queen

There’s something about Mary. Scotland’s most famous Queen regnant, although not the first women to rule Scotland, Mary Stuart has continued to inspire, divide and fascinate since her brutal end in 1587.

In some ways, doomed from the start – a woman in a religiously male world – her story has been interrogated and romanticised countless times, most recently in the 2018 film with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie wonderful in their roles. Although there was much to raise eyebrows at (the interior of Holyroodhouse closely resembling a chiselled cave being the most irksome, while the Earl of Moray’s metrosexual Alice Band and manscara being just oddly distracting) I really enjoyed the film. The two lead actors were captivating and the film looked beautiful. Yes, the inaccuracies were irritating (Mary landed in the Port of Leith on returning from France and not in the middle of a desolate moor) but it was still an enjoyable film with two strong female leads.

They followed in some big footsteps. Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave have both donned the frilly caps and played the roles, while Katherine Hepburn starred in a tartan-bedecked, bagpipe-filled epic that thankfully was released in black and white. All wonderful stuff. I lasted seven minutes into the tv production of Reign and the least said about that the better. The story is told, time and again, provoking sympathy or scorn in equal measure. She can be a Catholic martyr or victim of her political manoeuvring, a fool or a heroine, in equal measure. She is, perhaps along with her great, great, great-grandson, Prince Charles Edward, the most popular, enduring romantic figure from Scotland’s past.

Like her descendant, she has inspired visitors to Scotland, becoming a regular on the lids of shortbread tins, Christmas baubles, even pillows. Tourism in Scotland owes much to the memory of these two, flawed, very human Stuarts. Had they been victorious in their aims, Scotland would be a very different place indeed. Had they been victorious, it’s doubtful they would be so popular in the public imagination. The eternal under-dogs, who never quite made it.

Unlike her bonnie relation, though, Mary has also become well-known for a more ethereal reason: hauntings. Apart from the anonymous shades of spectral lady haunting many a Scottish Castle whether they be Green, White, Grey or (as at Stirling Castle there’s a full set of Black, White and Pink!) where the identify of supposed phantoms remains unknown, Mary has been said to haunt more places than any other individual in the history of Scotland.

As Mary haunted the thoughts of her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor, following her signing of the sovereign Queen’s death warrant, so Mary is said to remain in many of the places associated with her, perhaps searching for a solution to her woes or salvation that failed to appear.

I thought it might be fun to try and list some (if not all!) the places in Scotland where Mary Stuart is said to walk… These are all usually open to the public, so can be visited (Covid-19 restrictions and property closures permitting).

It might be of course, however, that these shades – if they walk at all – are not Mary but merely women of the same Stuart period, lazily named in honour of the famous Queen. Anyway, regardless of accuracy, these are some of the places normally open to the public where you might just glimpse the tragic monarch.

Mary’s ghost is said to haunt many of the places she visited during her short reign and she visited a lot of places! Progresses round kingdoms were a way for Monarchs to pacify troublesome locals and maintain the prestige of the Crown and Mary used these to her advantage. Were it not for her faith in an age of religious revolution and intolerance, she may well have charmed her kingdom into submission. As a result of her travels, many a Scottish castle is now said to be haunted by her lingering presence.

Stirling Castle

One of the splendours of renaissance Scotland, this Stewart palace remains sufficiently impressive after centuries of neglect and recent thorough restoration. The aforementioned Pink Lady is suggested to be Mary, while the nearby Green Lady is said to be one of her faithful retinue, a maid who saved the Queen’s life when a candle set fire to her bedclothes but who lost her own. Historic records mention such a fire, but do not commemorate the death of the servant girl.

Stirling Castle, Stirlingshire

In other versions of Stirling’s ghostly tales, the Pink Lady is from a much older time and is someone who lost their love on a battlefield – a sense of loss and grief accompanies her spirit. The Castle, under the care of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is well worth a visit and features royal apartments as they may have appeared in the mid-16th century.

Falkland Palace

Mary visited the magnificent royal palace of Falkland, Fife, less than a year after her return to her homeland. The young monarch seems to have captivated the court and she is recorded as enjoying the hunting and feasts that took place here and, in particular, enjoying the games of Royal Tennis in the court (which can still be visited today). Falkland was a favourite Stewart hunting lodge and is, indeed, where her father James V died at the age of 30, weakened by the treachery of his subjects, it is said.

Falkland Palace, Fife

Falkland, built in the renaissance style of a French château, would have felt much more like home to Mary, having spent most of her life as the Dauphine of France. Although partly ruined, the royal apartments have been saved and give a flavour of what life in Mary’s time would have been like, including a Roman Catholic royal chapel. It’s little wonder that Mary might have chosen to remain in a place where she found happiness, although her father King James V is also said to have stayed behind here…

Mary, Queen of Scots House and Ferniehurst Castle, Jedburgh

Now a museum dedicated to her memory and telling the story of the history of Jedburgh, this 16th century bastel house is said to have been where Mary was taken, gravely ill, having attempted to ride from Edinburgh to Hermitage Castle to see her Earl of Bothwell. Owned by the Kerrs of Ferniehurst Castle, it is suggested that that it is there that Mary was escorted instead, a much grander more fitting residence for a convalescing monarch. She would stay some six weeks in Jedburgh – at either place. Perhaps predictably, her phantom is said to have remained behind – in both houses!

Hermitage Castle

There seems to be some debate as to whether she managed to visit Hermitage, but nevertheless her ghost is among the many spirits and entities said to lurk in this foreboding fortress.

Loch Leven Castle

An old, severe tower originally built in the 1300s, this island fortress became Mary’s prison when she was forced to abdicate after miscarrying twins. The bodies were hastily buried at the castle. What once was a favoured royal castle in earlier centuries had become by the 1580s an antiquated, relatively primitive place. Situated on a small island in the middle of the loch, Loch Leven Castle was, in Mary’s time, simply a tower and courtyard surrounded by water. The loch has been lowered over the centuries, leaving the castle on a much larger island than Mary would have known.

Loch Leven Castle, Kinross-shire

Mary visited as a guest in 1561 – harangued at the time by the Protestant preacher John Knox – but was returned as a prisoner of the rebel Protestant lords in 1567. Removed from power, she faced an uncertain future and her infant son became King while her half-brother James, Earl of Moray assumed power. Little wonder that a place of such trauma could capture something of her essence and the shadowy woman glimpsed by visitors is suggested as being Mary.

She did, however, manage to escape with the help of her jailer’s family to…

Craignethan Castle

Another HES property is Lanarkshire’s Craignethan Castle, the once architecturally-ambitious was a mighty home of the Hamilton family, second only to the Stewarts in terms of power and prestige. Ruined, enough survives of the castle’s architecture to imagine the magnificence that the Hamiltons once enjoyed.

Craignethan Castle, Lanarkshire

Mary visited this place in 1568 after escaping from Lochleven, the Hamiltons remaining loyal to her to the end. Perhaps that’s why her ghost is said to walk the castle, a place where she found some solace before final defeat and flight to England.

This castle is also worth visiting, featuring the impressive keep and an unusual caponier – an enclosed stone tunnel with gunloops, where the household would have defended the castle from attack.

From Craignethan, to the battle of Langside and defeat, Mary would then throw herself on her cousin’s mercy. Elizabeth I of England was then faced with an impossible choice: her cousin, with a strong (if not stronger) claim to her throne but a usurped Catholic monarch on an island embracing Protestantism; a figurehead for Catholic rebellion and plots against the Tudor Queen; a problem she would endure for some twenty years.

Her weary journey in England stretched from Carlisle Castle to Bolton Castle, Napa Hall and Tutbury Castle with each now claiming her ghost within their walls t o varying degrees of horrific kitsch.

Execution of Mary, Fotheringhay Castle,
February 1587

For Mary, innocent or not of the various plots to regain her power, was moved from place to place; a royal prisoner. Only, finally, when Elizabeth signed her death warrant, was Mary freed from her capture. Her beheading in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 the last act of a long-running tragedy. Her son, brought up to despise her Catholic tyrant of a mother, James VI was indifferent to the news. His eyes were on a much larger prize. When Elizabeth Tudor finally did die, he wasted no time in deserting his northern kingdom for the more lucrative south.

Unsurprisingly, Fotheringhay is associated with Mary’s ghost, although the castle was dismantled in the 1630s. Some stone from the building and a wooden staircase were incorporated into the Talbot Hotel, Oundle and, it seems, Mary went too. The staircase, with dramatic emphasis, the very one Mary descended on her way to the executioner’s block.

Surprisingly, the buildings most keenly associated with her life, her birthplace of Linlithgow Palace or the Palace of Holyroodhouse – where she would spend most of her short personal reign – have no stories of hauntings by her. But, then, she is very busy elsewhere…

Yellow Eyes, 1979.

It’s been another few busy weeks with some exciting projects moving forward – including a new history tour of Stow which currently I’m working on. I’d overlooked putting a little plug for the latest episode of our Tales of Wyrd Scotland podcast, so here it is…

Edinburgh, 1979 and in the long hot days and nights of summer, something is stirring…

Culloden

It’s been a while since my last post, primarily due to the day job and a lack of visiting anywhere. Spring is slowly becoming summer, despite the snow, with life and the remnants of lockdown moving on much as it has for the last year.

We have been busy, though, with our podcast. Joined by a new Wyrdo, we’ve been managing to produce a new episode each month. The next episode comes out tomorrow, so here’s a plug for April’s episode.

Join me as we travel back in time, to days of turmoil, dynastic plotting and a war of ideology. Stand with us in the mist, watching battle loom on the field of Drumossie Moor. Come with us as we march to Culloden.

A Land o’ Cakes…and Castles

It was the eighteenth century Scots poet Robert Fergusson who noted Scotland as a Land o’ Cakes, in his poem, “The King’s Birthday in Edinburgh“, when he wrote

“Oh, soldiers! For your ain dear sakes
For Scotland’s, alias, Land o’ Cakes.”

His fellow poet in Scots, inspired by him, the better-known Burns, would use the phrase in his work, too. Perhaps the phrase was understood at the time as a synonym for Scotland, although in the brief research I’ve completed I can find no earlier reference. It may be gently mocking. The cakes suggested may not have been sponges, gateaux or even Dundee varieties, but rather the rough oatcakes first noted in the 14th century by Froissart, during the reign of Robert II, King of Scots. The term has popped up now and then, including as a suitable slogan for bakery advertisements and at least one pub name.

Other romantic nicknames for Scotland, if not simply Caledonia or Scotia, include the questionable Land of Golf and the even more questionable Land of Scotch – both of which have a whiff of 1950s advertising to them. Come to think of it, they sounds like slightly dodgy warehouses in out of town retail parks.

There is, though, another title that seems (to me at least!) to be fitting. Up alongside Korea’s Land of the Morning Calm (which I misread as clam and was disappointed to discover my mistake), Japan’s Land of the Rising Sun and Finland’s Land of a Thousand Lakes, Scotland could very sensibly be called Land of a Thousand Castles. Or, Land of the Three Thousand Castles, to put an alternative number on them! Various sources note that there are between 1,500 and 3,000 castles or sites of castles in the country – apparently more per square mile than any other nation. Reflecting the turbulent history of the land, and the risk of wars and invasion, these ranged from the earliest of fortified sites, to the grandiose elegance of the early modern period and a transformation into country houses. May are now lost to history, remembered only as features on historic maps or strange lumps and shapes under turf. Other are the shattered ruins, preserved for posterity – but all were designed to be used for defence or lived in. Many ruins have been restored and lived in once again or put to some other useful purpose. I’ve been obsessed by castles since a young age – transfixed by Nigel Tranter’s seminal The Fortified House in Scotland – and lucky to have parents who took me visiting castles and historic houses at the weekends and on holidays. I still have many to tick off the list, though.

I started musing about this, simply because of the walks we have taken since new Covid-19 travel restrictions came into force at the end of last year. We are lucky to have a number of beautiful walks from our own village with a number of castles and historic monuments on the way, including a dramatic site that has taken us three years to get round to.

The landmark above the valley of the Gala Water now known as Bow Castle is a very ancient place, perhaps dating back some three thousand years. An original hill fort was built over, perhaps twice, including, in the Iron Age, one of only three brochs to be found in the Scottish borderlands. I’m a massive broch fan. They are unique to the land we now know as Scotland and are mostly found in the north and west of the country. How or why three (that we know of) were built this far south remains enigmatic. A fourth may also have once been found in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, even further to the south.

We’ve visited all three in the region and all are very different. The most impressive is Edin’s Hall (which features on the Tales from Wyrd Scotland podcast) and is well worth the hike. Bow Castle is, sadly, very ruined. Stone has been removed over the centuries for building material or lies tumbled down the steep slope below. Modern cairns have been built on one side, which are useful features on the landscape but have no antiquity. However, the shape of the round broch can still be seen, as can the hidden embankments by which the older hillfort was secured. It’s a hugely impressive spot to visit, with spectacular views.

There are dozens of hillforts in the Borders, all dating back at least two millennia, which add to the rich history of the region. At Bow Castle, the broch may have been abandoned around the 2nd century C.E. when the Romans invaded and occupied this territory. 2nd century Roman pottery fragments and an enamelled brooch were found here during excavations. It may be that the local tribe were defeated by the Romans, their broch abandoned afterwards.

Nearby, as the crow flies at least, is another of the southern brochs – at Torwoodlee. Like Bow Castle, this may also have been abandoned around the 2nd century and is thought to have been systematically deconstructed. It may have been built and never fully completed. There are low foundations still in place, within an older hillfort enclosure. Again, the views towards Galashiels and the Eildon Hills (and Roman Fort site at Trimontium) are worth visiting.

The Torwoodlee estate is one of the ancient homes of the local Pringle family. Here, a short walk from the broch, can be found the ruins of a much later type of fortification, a Scottish towerhouse. These were once much more numerous in the Borders, many of which have been ruined, then demolished. Some, like Elibank or Dryhope still stand tall, although ruined. Others, like Ewes Castle, for example, in the valley of the Lugate Water, have vanished except for slight remains. Muirhouse Castle, near Stow, was demolished by a farmer in the early 1800s and has entirely vanished.

Torwoodlee Tower was abandoned in favour of a new, more modern country house in the 18th century. Torwoodlee or Torwartlie was mentioned as far back as 1456 and the ruins that can still be seen were built in 1601 to replace an earlier, simpler tower.

The ruins have been stabilised by the Pringle family, with interesting interpretation panels showing that this was once an impressive home, arranged around a courtyard with elegant terraced gardens leading away from the castle down the slopes. Unlike another nearby Pringle residence, Buckholm Tower (see here for the ghost story!), I can’t find any mention of phantoms at Torwoodlee!

We still have many more old castles to visit. And more stories to uncover!

A bleak mid-winter.

It has been a while since my last post, caused partly through the lockdown blues, pressures of the day job and a large stack of books waiting to be read by the fireside. We’ve also been busy with the Tales of Wyrd Scotland podcast, with new episodes added since my last post. We’re very excited about how this new venture is going and hope to have monthly episodes throughout 2021. Please listen – wherever you access free podcasts – and please let us know what you think!

The following entry is taken from our ‘festive’ podcast episode six, which was uploaded in December 2020.

Now, I know that it’s a bit late, having reached mid-February and with signs of spring popping up, but I thought the following was interesting enough to repeat here. So, Merry Christmas!

“A sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins.

Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale was written in 1611, in the reign of King James VI – and I.  Of course, Shakespeare’s works feature some of the best-known literary supernatural elements, from soothsaying hags to Macbeth’s murdered King Duncan appearing at the dinner table like a disliked drunk uncle.  Only more gory.  And fatal.

Shakepeare may not have invented the winter ghost story, any more than MR James; and Dicken’s Christmas Carol of 1843 was also not unprecedented.  Dickens himself reminisced about his own childhood Christmases of ghost stories by the fireside.

Stow, Selkirkshire.

These are part of a long-lived collective cultural heritage which knows that Christmas is a time for chilling tales of skeletons and spectres, beasties and bogles.  Lost in the pagan past, perhaps, folktales for winter told beside the safety and warmth of the hearth, helped pass the long, dark nights – especially in the north of Europe, in nations like Scotland where winter darkness falls in the mid-afternoon. 

Emphasised and enhanced through mass communications of the nineteenth century, from cheap newspapers and serialised stories to mass-produced novels, it is in Victoria’s reign that the idea of a Christmas ghost story really took hold.  Resurrected more recently, in part, by the BBC through their televised MR James stories – among others – the idea of a Christmas phantom is part of our modern festive tradition as much as trees, holly, advent calendars and turkey: their original meanings mostly forgotten or overlooked, but still enjoyed.  Perhaps, a Warning to the Curious, is at the heart of each retelling of every tale retold. 

Or, maybe, this is an echo of old Yule, the darkest festival of the ancient kingdoms of Europe, when the veil between living and dead was stretched very thin indeed and stories and songs were an everyday part of family and village life.

Having said all this, it is actually quite hard to find a report of supposed hauntings taking place at Christmas.

Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire.

The ghost of one John Leith, Laird of the beautiful old Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire, may be one such spirit.  Shot – in cold blood, or possibly in a duel – on Christmas day 1763, he is said to wander around the quiet, picturesque mansion.  He once scared the bejingles out of one overnight guest in 1968, apparently appearing at the end of their bed, his bloody head swathed in bandages.  His haunting, though, does not appear to be confined to the anniversary of his untimely demise.

Elsewhere, though, the folklore and traditions of some places indicate that spirits were vanquished by Christmas, the holy opposite of Hallowe’en.  The wonderfully-named Tristram P Coffin, in his 1973 Book of Christmas Folklore mentions this old tradition and notes a number of traditions associated with Christmas:

  • At midnight, bees hum the 100th Psalm and cattle bend their knees, bowing to the newborn Christ child.
  • A person born on Christmas day can see the spirits of the dead.
  • A windy Christmas day indicates good fortune to come.
  • Bell ringing, from the church towers or hand bells, dispel and terrify evil spirits at Christmas.

There are countless more.

In Scotland, however, things were slightly different. Christmas was not a great celebration for the Scots until recent times.  Following the Protestant Reformation of 1560, feast days and holy-days were abandoned as relics of Catholicism.  And this included Yule, with its pagan overtones. The Parliament of Scotland went so far as abolishing the superstitious ‘Yule vacation’ in the 17th century, “for all time coming”, indicating that some of the people had maintained their forbidden festivities long after 1560.

Hogmanay and New Year became the winter festival in Scotland, when feasts were held, songs sung, tales were told and gifts exchanged.   But, for Scots, Hallowe’en remained the time for ghost stories. That’s not to say, though, that tales of hauntings didn’t feature here in the winter months.

It is still very much within living memory, 1958 in fact, that Christmas even became a day off for workers in Scotland and Boxing Day as late as 1978.  Now, of  course, in the age of TV and mass media, there is little difference between Scotland and England in terms of Christmas.  Perhaps, though, we must look further back to the very early days of Scotland’s story, to understand the importance of the bleak midwinter.

December 21 marks the longest night, the Winter Solstice.  For our early ancestors, the movement of the sun and moon may have had particular significance.  In Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, some 4000 years ago the people living there began to change the landscape, recording the movement of the sun and the passing of time and their ancestors with standing stones, circles and cairns of stone and a henge.  Some of these monuments seem to align to the winter and summer solstice – the  longest and shortest days.   These are often magical places on a grand scale.  The effect on the people and their landscape must have been spectacular. What they were used for, in addition to burial places of the dead at some, can only be guessed.

December 25, was, before changes to the calendar, originally the day held to be the winter solstice.  The birth of Jesus replaced the pagan festival of old, some three hundred years after Christ.  The Roman’s week-long Saturnalia and the feast honouring the rebirth of the Sun, changed to heralding the Son of God.  Many of the customs associated with the first: feasting and decorating homes with evergreens, transferred to the new celebration.

And in the houses of the past, candle-lit and festooned with evergreen, folk gathered around the fire. A time for stories…

To hear a little more about this and a gloomy true story from a tragic Scottish Christmas, go listen to our blog. This text is taken from a longer script which we used in episode six of Tales from Wyrd Scotland. We’re now on Twitter, too, so please follow RT / comment. Find us @TalesWyrd.

It’d be great to hear from you.

A Walk in the Woods – part two.

Thornielee Forest lies in the valley of the Tweed halfway between the towns of Galashiels and Innerleithen. Nearby sits the former mill town of Walkerburn.  We drove here, but it seems local buses stop here on request.  Sadly, the nearby Thornielee Station, on the now-vanished Peebles railway, closed as early as 1950 so catching a train isn’t an option.

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We stopped here on our way back from our abandoned plan to walk around St Mary’s Loch, having been put off by the crowds. I’m so very glad we did. Thornielee Forest, under the stewardship of Foresty and Land Scotland (the old Forestry Commission), is a gem of a place. Part of the Tweed Valley Forest Park, there is much to explore. There are two walks here, apparently: a gentle Meadow Trail, described as ‘easy’ – mostly flat alongside some pastures renowned for butterflies, and; the Cairn Trail – described as ‘strenuous’. We took the strenuous path (of course we did) and I again struggled, panted and sweated my way to the top. The slope through the trees is pretty much a continuous, long climb, punctuated by very welcome flat parts – but these are few and far between!  Stopping every now and then, though, was a joy simply because you are surrounded by forest, with the sunlight streaming down in shafts between the trees. The trail is very broad at times and, unlike many other older plantations, the trees are spaced out, allowing other plants to grow on the forest floor. It felt gloriously alive.

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Near the start of the trail is a curious, weather worn sculpture. The interpretation plaque states that this is Muckle Mou’d Meg – heroine of a local legend which, not surprisingly, Sir Walter Scott wrote about!

Meg – or Agnes – Murray, to use her apparent Sunday name – was daughter of the Laird of Elibank, Sir Gideon Murray – master of one of the great and troublesome Border families which gave successive Kings of Scots a headache, due to their warring, cattle-stealing and thuggish, lawless activities!

Meg was one of three daughters of the family and was, it is cruelly put, Scotland’s ugliest woman.  She was muckle mou’d – large mouthed – in looks, but in temperament and disposition a happy, smiling soul.  Indeed, folk mocked that we she did smile, the smile covered the whole of her head.  Poor Meg!

The Murray’s neighbours – and sworn enemies! – was the family of Scott (of course!) of Harden, whose tall castle of Aikwood still stands, restored, today. 

One dark, winter night, William Scott of Harden decided to raid Elibank and steal their cattle – the great moneymaker of the Border Reviers –  but instead of sleeping guards, found them alert and ready for him.  He was defeated after a short battle, captured and imprisoned. 

He was sent to the castle dungeon until dawn, while the Laird of Elibank pondered his luck.  The Lady of Elibank thought the young man a possible solution to their seemingly impossible Meg problem.  And so, in the cold early light of morning, the young William was brought, tied and bound, before the Laird in his great hall.  The Laird, sitting in his high oak chair in front of the fire, looked at the young cattle thief for some time.  Then, he gave William a dilemma.  As the nineteenth century poet James Ballantine would later recall, the lad was offered a choice:  hang for his crime, or marry Meg.  William was horrified; Meg’s appearance was infamous.

And so, he chose death, by hanging.

Now, the Laird was canny and sent him back to his prison, to think again one last night.  On the second occasion he was hauled into the Laird’s hall, perhaps he feared death more than marriage to Meg.  Perhaps, he saw something in Meg that others could not.  It is said that Meg stood by, watching this drama unfold, tears in her eyes; tears which melted the heart of the handsome lad.   Whatever the reason, he chose Meg and the two were wed.

Syne muckle-mou’d Meg pressed in close to his side,
An’ blinkit fu’ sleely and kind,
But aye as Wat glower’d at his braw proffer’d bride,
He shook like a leaf in the wind.
‘A bride or a gallows, a rope or a wife!’
The morning dawned sunny and clear –
Wat boldly strode forward to part wi’ his life,
Till he saw Meggy shedding a tear;
Then saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Fain wad Wat hunt again, fain wad be hame.

Meg’s tear touched his bosom, the gibbet frowned high,
An’ slowly Wat strode to his doom;
He gae a glance round wi’ a tear in his eye,
Meg shone like a star through the gloom.
She rush’d to his arms, they were wed on the spot,
An’ lo’ed ither muckle and lang;
Nae bauld border laird had a wife like Wat Scott;
‘Twas better to marry than hang.
So saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Elibank hunt again, Wat’s snug at hame.

James Ballantine, Muckle Mou’d Meg, Poems, 1856.  Scottish Poetry Library.

Despite the unfortunate start to their marriage, by all accounts the two lived…um…happily ever after!  William would thrive, being knighted by King James VI and the two had at least four children.  Accounts say that they had a long, happy marriage.  They could have looked out over the Ettrick Forest from Elibank Tower, watching the hill of Thornielee change through the seasons.

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Detail, Atlas of Scotland, 1654. Blaeu. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Thornielee is marked on Blaeu’s 1654 maps – not a great length of time after Meg and William – as Thornyly and is shown as having a castle or tower house – one of ten in close proximity here along the valley of the Tweed.  There is no trace of the castle now and no mention of it in the annals of the Tweed valley.  Like most of the simple, square peels, it has disappeared from the land as surely as it has disappeared from history.  There may be remnants of a tower hidden within the present Thornielee Farmhouse – or at the ruins of Old Thornielee farm, higher up the hill.

On the opposite side of the valley, however, it’s possible to spot the gaunt ruins of Elibank Tower – also shown on Blaeu’s map as Elybanck – from the modern sculpture of Meg and her William.  It’s a lovely, startling, sculpture and a reminder not to judge by appearances!

There may not be any sign of a castle on the hill  of Thornielee, but there are other remains or earlier farmsteads although mostly hidden at this time of year beneath the heather, brambles and bracken.  Over from Thornielee, very large clearance cairns and unusual earthworks indicate human habitation that might stretch back into prehistory.

The paths climb ever higher, until the crest of the hill appears.  The woodland comes to an abrupt halt beside a long stone dyke, beyond which is rough pastureland and moors.  The Views are spectacular and well worth the climb.  Some of the path is a bit muddy and steep, so care is needed and even on a quiet day, the paths are popular with mountain bikers, so care is needed.

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We were chuffed to notice that at the top, the view stretches as far as our own Wedale – the windfarm at Long Park clearly visible.  This view is really only accessible by foot, as the roads linking Stow with Ettrick are low and twisty.  I’m glad we made the effort to see this and highly recommend the trip.  Given the crowds of people sticking to the more obvious, roadside stops, the Tweed Valley Forest might still offer an escape from the staycationers.  Just don’t tell anyone, aye?

Near the top, I spotted this stone (lefthand photo) – which is almost certainly part of a dyke that had collapsed, but there’s something about it I really liked.  In my head, I can clearly see worn carvings on the surface – there’s something of a double-ended Pictish rod and discs, surely? Or maybe a salmon? Or both!  Probably not, but fun to imagine. 

Also nearby are the supposed Shepherds’ Cairns, of which I could find very little information.

This was a brilliant route to walk on a wonderful sunny / breezy day which, apart from one bloke on a mountain bike and a family of three, we had to ourselves for the couple of hours it took.  Far, far better than squeezing our way through the crowds jammed around Saint Mary’s Loch.  There are a good few other walks in the Tweed Valley Forest Park I hope to do soon – and, of course, a return trip to see Meg’s old home at Elibank, too.   That will need to wait for another time.