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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Magic and mystery looms large in the Borderlands. Tales of the Good People, the Quiet Folk – the Fairies – have been told here for hundreds of years, through stories by the fireside or the long, elegant ballads still performed today by folk musicians. Tales of witches, the Devil and chilling hauntings feature strongly in the local lore and cultural identity of this sometime turbulent place.
Today, a grey, gloomy and colder day than in recent weeks, I feel in the mood for some old-fashioned ghost stories. Outside of the window, the rain is falling steadily and the tops of the trees are shrouded in mist. A shiver is in the air.
Here, then, are a few of my favourites from the Border lands. Place to visit, perhaps, when the current restrictions end?
Mentioned in previous posts, I include it again not to note once more that Sir Walter Scott himself it said to haunt the place – which has been reported – but to remember that Sir Walter was pivotal in preserving many of the old tales and ballads, which he heard as a child and which he copied, adapted and embellished in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, his novels and other works. Without Scott, part of the rich detail of the ancient songs and legends would have been lost.
In addition to collected objects and artefacts from the past, Scott’s library is full of historical and historic books, tomes on witchcraft, hauntings and legends. There’s a little occult section, just by the window overlooking the Tweed, where I hope his children peeked a look at the stories of ghosts and witches – like I did in the seventies, pouring over my parents’ copy of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. I’m certain that Scott would have told them stories, sitting around the fire. The library is a beautiful room, like his study and drawing room and all can be explored as part of the self-guided tour. I like the anecdote that says Scott called his study room Edinburgh so that, when callers visited his house to meet him (as they did in annoyingly large numbers), his staff and family could honestly say that Sir Walter was in Edinburgh and sadly unavailable.
Knowledgable and friendly volunteer guides are on hand to add to your tour. There’s a great exhibition, shop and restaurant and the gardens and grounds can be explored at your leisure. I can’t recommend it enough. The audio tour, featuring his cat and dog, is extremely well-done and really adds to the atmosphere during a visit! The audio guide featuring Sir Walter ‘himself’ is also engrossing so a repeat visit is recommended – and cheap, as a ticket can last you an entire year!
I love Peebles. It’s a shame that the town sign with its “Peebles for Pleasure” motto has gone; the 1950s zingy-ness of the slogan always raised a smile!
There’s something very homely and welcoming about the place. Maybe it’s because the town has an attractive, bustling high street devoid of many of the chain stores that towns usually have: walking through Peebles, you can see independent butchers, grocers, bakers, craftspeople – and a bookshop! – among many others. It feels like it has an identity that chain stores erode. There’s a lot of history, too.
The haunting of the Cross Keys Hotel, a coaching inn dating back in part to the 17th century, is well known. If planning a stay and of a nervous disposition, it is recommended you avoid room 5! So too, is the figure of a woman who walks the chambers of nearby Neidpath Castle. When I was younger, this magnificent tower overlooking the Tweed, was empty and open to visitors. It quickly became my favourite castle in Scotland and I always looked forward to a return visit. The Earls of Wemyss’ family have found new uses for it more recently, so visitor access is now limited. But, then, castles were built to be used, not preserved as well-manicured ruins. The ghostly woman, said to be the shade of Jean Douglas, was a daughter of a laird of Neidpath who fell in love with a man from a rival family. Forbidden by her father to have anything to do with him, she pined away and died. Her ghost, said to be wearing a brown dress with white collar, has been reported ever since. Scott wrote about this, popularising the poor Maid of Neidpath.
Scott also wrote about a sometime Minister of Peebles, John Scott (everyone’s a Scott down here!) who was an expert in ‘reading down’ spirits, or exorcising them. Clearly troublesome sprites have been a problem in Peebles for quite some time. The Reverend Scott, however, is said to have met his end when another, younger, more rash Minister started the ceremony without him. The toll of dealing with the angry phantom, wrecking the house in which it had manifested, was too much for the cleric. The effort
“…occasioned his falling into a lingering disorder, of which he never recovered.”
I’ve written in a previous entry about the haunting of Buckholm Tower. If you prefer, you can also listen to the story in our Wyrd Scotland podcast – available wherever you find podcasts and also on YouTube. Another ancient Borders home which may have had a more peaceful haunting is…
Another favourite place, Traquair House is alleged to be one of the oldest houses continually inhabited in Scotland, with a history stretching back some 900 years and having welcomed 27 kings or Queens! I’ve featured the place in an earlier post, looking at the weirdness of the 1968 film The Ballad of Tam Lin, which used Traquair as the filming location for exterior shots. Traquair has a fascinating history and is one of the most wonderful places to visit in the Scottish Borders.
The house is beautiful and grand, but in a very homely way. The rooms feel authentic and welcoming, probably because they date mostly from the 17th century final phase of construction. Although redecorated since, the layout is that of 300 years ago. There’s a wonderful mural in one chamber, depicting a hunting scene – painted in the 1530s. It is beautifully atmospheric. The building has strong associations with the House of Stewart and the family remained loyal to the Scottish royal house after they were deposed in 1688, remaining Jacobite despite the cost. Their Roman Catholic faith also marked them out as defiant and faithful, again, despite the costs. There is a wonderful 19th century chapel in the courtyard of the house and inside a secret staircase through which priests could come and go during the harsh days of the Reformation and Covenanting times. And although I’ve mentioned it before, it’s worth stating again that the restored 18th century brewhouse is a highlight of the visit: the Jacobite Ale being a particular favourite!
For a house of such an age and with such history, it’s surprising that there are not more tales of ghosts here. The only spectral figure reported is said to be that of Lady Louisa Stewart, the last of the Stewart family ennobled as Earls of Traquair by King Charles I.
Lady Louisa died in 1896, just short of her 100th birthday. She was seen walking in the grounds in the early 20th century by one of the outdoors staff, watched gliding effortlessly through a closed gate and vanishing!
There are few other tales of the supernatural I can find. Given the feeling of peace and tranquility there, maybe that’s not surprising.
On the bank of the Tweed, not far from Maxton, stands the shattered, romantic ruin of Littledean Tower. Built in the 16th century, the tower stands surrounded by the earthworks of a (probably) prehistoric fort. Lives were lived and lost here, then, for a very long time and unlike Traquair is said to have an unfriendly, desolate feel. The house was lived in until the 18th century, but was abandoned, it is said, when the head of the house was gored to death by his prize bull!
The tower was said to be haunted by the spirit of a previous lady of the house, throughly disliked when she lived as
a covetous, grasping woman, and oppressive to the poor. Tradition averred that she had amassed a large sum of money by thrift or extortion, and now could not rest in her grave because of it.
according to William Henderson in his 1879 ‘Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders‘.
The spirit appeared to a servant girl in the castle, who took pity on her bedraggled cold appearance, bidding her to sit by the fire. The girl noticed her feeble shoes and cold feet, offering to dry and clean her shoes. On this act of kindness, the spirit confessed to her identity, offering to show the girl where she had hidden the gold that would not let her rest. She told the girl to command the Laird to split the gold in two: the first half was for him as head of the house; the second half was to be halved again, with the poor of Maxton to benefit from one share and the girl herself the other. If this was done, she would be able to rest.
The girl did indeed follow her instructions and she and the Laird uncovered the gold. The Laird obeyed the requests and all was well. The spirit had said she would
rest in my grave, where I’ve no rested yet, and never will I trouble the house mair till the day o’ doom.’
Let’s hope that, given the way of things, no-one should see the phantom lady any time soon.
Another of the Lairds of Littledean was said to be a strikingly handsome, dark-haired man. A notorious drunkard and womaniser, he treated his poor, devout wife terribly. He killed his young stable boy, for a minor misdemeanour and soon was being shunned by all except those who shared his cruelty and debauchery. He sounds very similar to the Laird of Buckholm, mentioned before.
One dark and stormy night (!) he rode his horse off into the woods, having drunk far too much to be sensible. As the storm worsened and as the cold, driving rain helped sober him up, he looked for shelter realising he had rode too far from home. At last, he came to a clearing in the woods and spotted a humble-looking cottage, with light shining from it’s little window.
He entered the single room within to beg for shelter, and was immediately transfixed by the beautiful women sitting spinning by the fire. Something bothered the Laird, though. There was something unnatural about the women, whose eyes sparkled with humour. As dawn broke, the Laird hurried back to Littledean, relieved to have escaped from harm. And yet, he could not, in the days that followed, get the mysterious woman from his mind. He started riding out, searching for the cottage but could not find it.
Then, when all hope had dwindled, he saw from the castle battlements the haunting figure of the woman – standing close to his home. He ran to meet her, she leading him to the edge of the woods, and there he would meet her again and again to satisfy his urges but only – at her insistence – within site of the castle and at the very same time of day. He was truly bewitched by her. He taunted his wife with his new hobby and she, powerless, resorted to prayer.
The Laird left Littledean on business, leaving his wife behind. A servant, loyal to the lady, spotted the dark-haired woman that the Laird had been meeting, walking to a patch of woodland near the castle. Summoning her servants the lady immediately rushed to the woods: there was no chance the stranger had escaped. However, on entering the woods, there was no sign of the woman. Only a large hare was seen, watching the party approach and then running off.
The Laird returned home on his horse, some nights later. As he neared Littledean in the gloom, he spotted a large hare running towards him. Soon, another hare joined the first and ran behind the Laird. Several more appeared and, to his horror, the Laird realised they were trying to surround him and his horse. The horse, terrified, almost threw the Laird, but he kept hold and tried crushing the hares with his horses hoofs. When that failed, as they scampered closer and closer, he drew his sword. He managed to hack off a paw of a hare that had leapt on to this saddle. The injured hare retreated, followed by all the others, leaving the Laird to hurry home.
White-faced and trembling, the Laird reached the safety of his castle. As he removed his long cloak, he and his servants were horrified to see a human hand tumble to the floor – hacked off at the wrist. The Laird, realising that the hares had been witches transformed, picked up the severed hand using his sword and hurried down the slope to the river, throwing the hand into the running water. He hurried back to the castle and bolted the heavy door shut with a bang.
The next day, he set out to find the cottage and, as these stories go, happened to find it. Inside, the beautiful woman he had been dallying with was gone, transformed into a wizened hag. In front of her body she held her right arm, which ended in a bloody stump wrapped with rags. Hate filling her eyes, she screeched at the Laird that as he had taken the hand so he would never be parted from it. He returned, horrified, to his chamber in his tower and there, on the stone flagstone floor, was the bloody, severed hand. Terrified, he threw it out of the window and retreated to his bed. On lying down, he found the hand under his pillow. He picked it up and threw it on to the fire, watching it burn away.
In the morning, his servants discovered him quite dead on the floor in front of the fireplace. Marks around his neck showed he had been strangled by hand(s) unknown.
It is said that his ghost, riding frantically on his horse, can still be seen racing towards the tower on stormy nights. Two other spectres, both young women in white, were reported walking towards the tower from the river. They are said to have been victims of his, killed after he abused them for fun, buried in unmarked graves. In the 19th century, two skeletons were found buried under rough stone slabs near the riverbank. They were given proper burials in the graveyard nearby and the spectres were not seen again. It is little wonder that locals avoided Littledean Tower and its reputation for hauntings was very well known.
This interesting and unusual castle, with a massive D-shaped tower, is not very well-known now, and worth a visit – but not on dark and stormy nights.
Jedburgh Castle was once an important royal defence guarding the route from the south and was easy prey for invading forces during the long years of war with England. King Malcolm IV died here and Alexander III was married here – a spectral figure with the face of a skull, said to have appeared as portent of the doom which his death would plunge his poor little kingdom into. Being so close to the border, Jedburgh would be frequently attacked and was burned by invading troops at least six times, most cruelly during Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing in the 1540s. The magnificent 12th century Abbey was last attacked then and has remained a romantic ruin ever since.
The site of the castle may have been fortified from prehistoric times and the route of the Roman’s Dere Street nearby suggests so. During the Wars of Independence, the Scots used their vital tactic of regaining the castle from the occupying garrison and then demolishing it, to render it useless. The original castle was destroyed by the beginning of the 1400s, and remained a ruin for centuries. In the beginning of the 1800s, the site was cleared and a fort-like prison, in the fashionable Gothic style, was built.
Like Inverness, the mock-castle dominates the landscape of the town. The prison lasted a mere 60 years, but has been restored as a museum of prison life in the 1820s. The design was considered at the time to be revolutionary, showing an enlightened approach to penal reform. Despite its grand design, it’s fair to say that inmates did not enjoy their time inside, especially those whose crimes were met with execution. Designed by Archibald Elliot, who would design the grim mock-fortress jail on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, the museum includes the original cells and Jailer’s House – now a museum which looks at the long history of the burgh.
Many visitors, though, are enticed to the jail because of its haunted reputation. Ghost-hunter groups, armed with electronic beeping machines and ouija boards, have been here a number of times, convinced of the supernatural activity. These groups claim on their websites to have encountered many unhappy spirits, including those condemned to death. Other visitors have felt uneasy in parts of the gloomy building, with one young visitor from a primary school failing to take a great selfie, but capturing what may be one of the condemned, looming in a corridor! The photo featured in the local Border Telegraph newspaper – and is, certainly, intriguing! Another photo, taken by a member of a ghost-hunting group, made it as far as the Daily Record.
Before the virus, there appear to have been ghost-hunting vigils regularly. Once the current lockdown ends perhaps they’ll begin again, socially-distanced, of course. The appeal of “Scotland’s most haunted jail” looks set to continue.
We set out to take a walk around Saint Mary’s Loch, the largest freshwater loch in the Borders. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday, blue skies overhead and a slight breeze keeping the atmosphere fresh. We drove the fifty minutes or so through some spectacular scenery, but noticed as we went that the roads were much busier than we’d expected.
When we got to the loch, we were horrified to see how busy it was: the narrow A-Road was even narrower, thanks to all the cars parked on the verge; the dozens of tents pitched on the lochside showed that a lot – a lot – of families had decided to make this their Covid-19 summer holiday location; there seemed to be a rally of middle-aged blokes on motorbikes, modern-day Vikings of the Road, each vying to have the loudest silencer; a charity sponsored walk looked like it was about to start.
The drive became a real life videogame, where the object of the game is to avoid the drivers in their cars pulling out in front with no warning or awareness of anyone other than themselves. It was horrible. It was crowded. My natural dislike of crowds kicked in, but amplified through a TheyretooclosetogetherdonttheyKNOWtheresapandemic?! huff.
Looking online later, reading the local complaints about litter and people defecating by the lochside and in the rivers confirmed that we made the right choice. Like at so many other natural beauty spots, the pandemic seems to have given free-reign to a selfish, stupid and utterly moronic section of society who clearly don’t give a shit about the environment or anyone else. Ancient trees burned or felled for barbecues in the Trossachs, litter, tents and empty bottles abandoned where they fell in dozens of places; stuff like this makes me think that a chunk of humanity is incapable of change and undeserving of any sympathy. We turned around sad and disappointed and headed back along the busy road.
We stopped off, though, not too far from the loch. Nearby, stands a place I’ve long wanted to visit: the little castle of Dryhope.
A ruined, 16th century tower house, one of hundreds that stood tall in this turbulent part of Scotland, Dryhope stands some four storeys, but is an empty shell. Unlike many which have been reduced to mere lumpy foundations covered with coarse grass, or built into new farmhouses, or which have entirely disappeared, Dryhope has been consolidated as a ruin and is free and open to the public. The situation is pretty, although the modern farm buildings nearby are a reminder of the 20th century, so no chance of any time-travelling Outlander stuff here. Turn around, away from the farm, and the quiet situation above the Dryhope Burn is a romantic one: JMW Turner drew sketches of the tower on his way to the Yarrow Water and lochs, which are held by the Tate in London.
Standing on private land we followed the obvious path, not straying too close to the sheep and cattle grazing quietly nearby. The place was utterly empty of people and tranquil. We felt better immediately, compared to the frenetic feeling on the over-busy roads. It was a short, easy walk to the tower, passing over the small burn with ridiculously picturesque Rowan, and up to the castle’s entrance. I was pleased to note the Rowan guarding the approach to the castle, some stepping stones crossing the running water of the burn – two ways of keeping the witches out!
Dryhope is surrounded by history: immediately nearby are prehistoric hut circles and cairns and slightly further afield, the remains of old gold workings. Not too far from here stood once the castle or possible hunting lodge of Craig of Douglas, the earthworks of which stand prominently by the road. This, part of the empire of the mighty Douglas family, was destroyed by James II as the Crown sought to curb the strength and ambition of the Douglas lords. Dryhope, however, would be destroyed in part on order of a later king, James VI, following the involvement of its owners – a branch of the Scott family – in with some of his more troublesome courtiers.
There’s a thoughtful interpretation panel at the approach to the castle, right next to where the Southern Upland Way passes by.
The tower is devoid of internal features: all the floors have long-since fallen as has the original turnpike staircase. However, what makes this tower different to most other similar ruins is the modern spiral staircase installed when the tower was consolidated at the turn of the century. This allows the visitor access to the roof ,which is a rarity, especially for ruined towers that are privately owned.
Inside, modern construction is helping to keep the tower standing, so imagination is needed to get a glimpse of life when the tower was complete. All internal floors and rooms have long-vanished, but the vaulted ceiling at the top remains. It’s this floor that you can climb to, via the modern stairs, to reach the top. From there, the views are lovely. After visiting the top, we walked back to Olga and set off for Thornielee.
The view towards Yarrow Water and Dryhope Farm
Mid Hill (left), Ward Hill and the Southern Upland Way
Eildon, the name of which is said to be derived from the Old English for Old Fort, is a significant hill (or hills!) in terms of topography, history and folklore. The three peaks dominate the local landscape with views far beyond their home of Roxburghshire. They dominate local legend and history, also.
We went on a walk of around ten miles, much of it up the steep slope of Eildon Hill North, passing by the remnants of history stretching back some 3,000 years or so.
So significant was this place, that the Romans under Agricola chose a flat plain in the shadow of the peaks to build their Trimontium – the place of the three hills. Arriving around 79 C.E. the Empire would construct what would become its largest fort in what is now southern Scotland and which would at its height contain housing with underfloor heating, barracks for 800 cavalry troops, an amphitheatre and bathhouse. It was included on Ptolemy’s 2nd century map – the one where Scotland resembles a sore thumb, sticking out at entirely the wrong angle. The point is, Trimontium was important. From here, the tribes of southern Caledonia would be subdued as the legions began their stay of a century and a half.
Perhaps, the physical location suited them. Their arrow-straight road, known as Dere Street, stretches south towards York. To the north the road continued, indeed continues, beside the Leaderwater towards Lauder (and briefly becoming Malcolm IV’s Girthgate or Royal Road for the now sadly lost church and hospital of Soutra Aisle) and ultimately the Roman fort of Cramond.
Perhaps, though, the position under the noses of the local tribe in their hillforts was more a display of power and authority.
We set off on a bright, sunny morning leaving Olga* parked outside the tiny but very pretty village of Newstead. Newstead itself has a fascinating history and is suggested as the place where the stonemasons responsible for the magnificent Melrose Abbey lived during their labours. Nevertheless, we were heading upwards, towards Eildon.
Our first stop was at the Rhymer’s Stone. What at first glance looks like a simple gravestone is, in fact, a memorial to a piece of folklore and legend.
Eildon Hill North, from Newstead
The Rhymer’s Stone
Erected in 1929, the stone marks the supposed place where once the Eildon Tree grew. The tree is where, according to The Romance of Thomas of Ercildoune, Thomas met the Queen of Elphame, the Queen of the Fairies. Lying resting under the tree’s branches, Thomas spotted a beautiful maiden, dressed in green.
True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank, A ferlie he spied wi’ his eye And there he saw a lady bright, Come riding down by Eildon Tree.
Her shirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.
Sadly, the Eildon Tree is long-gone. Captivated by the tale, local literary superstar Sir Walter Scott lamented its loss, centuries before. The tree was marked by another stone, also long-since disappeared. A newer thorntree is growing quietly, behind the 20th century monument.
I’ve mentioned Thomas before in a previous post, so won’t dwell on him too long here. Suffice to say, he went off with the Queen of Elphame for seven years and returned with the gifts of prophecy and the inability to lie – hence his epithet of True Thomas. Some versions of his tale also claim he was given immortality and rests beneath Eildon Hill.
Sir Thomas of Ercildoune was a real historical figure dwelling at Ercildoune (now the Berwickshire town of Earlston) in the 13th century, in the shadow of the old hillfort of Black Hill – mentioned in my previous post. There, sandwiched between a cafe and a petrol station, you can glimpse the shattered stump of a small castle, known as the Rhymer’s Tower. Driving into Earlston the signs read ‘Home of Thomas the Rhymer’ so clearly there’s still some pride in the local lad!
Thomas is associated with various prophecies and possibly the authorship of some Arthurian legends. It is little wonder, then, that he featured in the ballads and tales of the Borderlands which Scott so loved and which inspired him to write his histories and novels.
The Stone is easy to visit and stands on the side of the old main road which has been closed to traffic, so is very popular with joggers, cyclists and walkers. This road rejoices in the glorious name of Bogleburn Road. I’m yet to discover the origin of the name Bogle Burn (Ghost Stream in English), but it seems to some to refer to the goblins Thomas was acquainted with – although I’m not convinced that that’s the reason.
Leaving behind Thomas and the Fairies, we began the steep climb up to Eildon Hill North. There are a number of fine paths which meander around the hills, part of the great Melrose Paths network. I think we, inadvertently, took the steepest and had to stop several times to ‘admire the view’. Enough to say I was red as a balloon and sweating like a large cheese in a shop window.
The views are spectacular from the top. The large flat area once contained a hillfort, with some 300 hut circles identified at the site. When the forces of Rome arrived, it’s thought they built a signal tower at the summit. Various theories exist about the relationship between the hillfort and the Roman fort, but there is much that is unclear. Were both occupied at the same time? Archaeologists have uncovered much native and Roman finds, but the Roman finds all lie above the native, possibly showing that the local tribe had abandoned the site when the Imperial forces arrived. The Selgovae tribe is mentioned as being sited here by Ptolemy, but this is challenged by some who claim they were further south and west in modern Galloway. If they did live here, this fort was very close to one of their rival tribes, the Votadini, who occupied a much larger and presumably stronger kingdom and are perhaps more likely to have been the original British people to have made this place their home. Both became subjects of the Imperial occupation.
Was the hillfort – one of the largest in Scotland, covering 39 acres in total – lived in or was it, as many believe, only an important ceremonial site?
The continued folklore would indicate the mythological stature of the place. It one of many hills said to be hollow, like its Lothians’ counterpart Arthur’s Seat. In both, Arthur is said to be sleeping with his knights, ready to defend the country against its worst foe – a reminder that the legends of Arthur cover much of the island of Britain and not only Cornwall or England.
One story tells of a shepherd (or horse dealer) being led inside the hill by an old man in ancient dress, who offered him strange old coins if he provided horses for a surprising band of riders. In a chamber underneath the hill, he saw a sleeping king and knights, who required steeds. Here, the shepherd is shown two objects: a horn and a sword. The old man asks him to choose an object. The shepherd chooses the horn, blowing it. The king – Arthur, of course! – and knights awake, cursing him as a coward for not taking up the sword, at which point he is expelled from the chamber. On telling his tale to his friends, he dies of exhaustion and the entrance to the underground chamber is never seen or heard of again. Scott claimed the old man with the money was our old friend True Thomas.
Another legend links another historical figure about whom much myth and mystery has developed like a thick fog. Michael Scott has become known as the Borders Wizard, or Wizard of the North, who used his magic staff to split Eildon Hill into three – or who got his demons to do the same!
Michael the Mathematician, as he was known to his peers in Paris, was a late 12th century scholar who was so renowned for his knowledge and academic influence that he was employed by both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and Dante included him in his Inferno. Now largely forgotten, except as a supernatural maybe, his skills as mathematician, linguist, human biologist, translator and astrologer have become mingled with myths of magic, demonology and sorcery. He was able to fly from France to Scotland in the blink of an eye, according to one story.
Like Thomas of Ercildoune, he is also said to have had the gift of prophesy and is said to have prophesied his own death, although where he lies buried is unknown. Like Thomas, he may also have achieved immortality.
He claimed he would die from being struck on the head by a stone and, as a result, took to wearing a metal cap for protection. I’m now envisaging Nicol Williamson’s Merlin in the 1981 film, Excalibur! On entering Melrose Abbey, however, to attend Mass, he removed his cap and surely a pebble fell from some loose masonry and struck him on the head. The wound would be fatal and the Wizard of the North was proved correct one last time.
Sir Walter Scott, who claimed some form of kinship, stated that Michael lies buried with his books on magic, at Melrose Abbey – just below Eildon Hill.
For many years, and odd-looking carving of a bearded man in gown and hood was pointed out as his tomb at the Abbey. I didn’t spot this at all, the last time I visited Melrose, but maybe he’d just nipped out to France for a bit. I feel Michael Scott should be better known: he was a giant among European intellectuals of his age and, like poor old Duns Scotus, deserves a better memorial and reputation.
We carried on with our walk, dropping quickly down the steep slope of the hill towards the old road that would take us over to the site of Trimontium. Walking through the woods was a welcome break from the hot sunshine, and we walked down wooded paths that seemed very, very old indeed.
Woodland path, near Eildon Hall
Eildon Hill North from the iron age earthworks at Newstead
We followed the old road back past the Rhymer’s Stone, then crossed over fields where an Iron Age fort once lay – until the Roman complex was built almost on top of it. Following the old Berwickshire railway line, we stopped off to admire the magnificent Leaderfoot viaduct – a wonder of Victorian engineering – which sits near the 18th and 20th century road bridges. Here, too, was a stone bridge built by the Romans, next to Trimontium. Visible, apparently, into the 18th century there is nothing of this to be seen now.
Leaderfoot viaduct, from the amphitheatre
Trimontium stone and Eildon Hill North
Not far from these bridges, the slight hollow in a field marks where the amphitheatre was built, opposite the enormous rectangle of the main fort. The scale of the fort is quite remarkable, but – apart from marks in the ground really only visible from above, there is nothing to be seen. It is still very much worth visiting, though, and we hope hope to go to the Trimontium Museum when it reopens after the Covid-19 lockdown closure.
It is incredible how much history can be discovered in such a small part of Scotland. There’s so much more I could have included here. Maybe another time.
Lockdown has now lasted for some five months, with the opportunity to spend only very little time spent outside of our small village. The early enthusiasm for walking, cycling and the great outdoors has dwindled a little, as the repetition of the walks became too frequent and too familiar. Instead, trashy movies, trashy books and chocolate digestives seem to have taken up more of my spare time of late, meaning shorts and t-shirts have become a little less roomy.
With waistbands tightening at an alarming rate, I thought it was time to become reacquainted with the great outdoors, so have set off on a few slightly longer walks recently.
One walk, organised by the great Scottish Borders Walks group, started off in the small town of Lauder, some five miles from home. Socially-distanced and limited in size, I was lucky to be part of the group of a dozen or so participants in this five hour gentle walk. Covering around ten and a half miles, the walk invluded roadside, moorland, fields and woodland.
Starting on the outskirts of Lauder, we walked around the estate of Thirlestane Castle – an interesting building and once home to the mighty Earls of Lauderdale. Lauder itself is a pretty wee town, a Royal Burgh, no less, and one that is blessed with picturesque architecture and independent businesses. Special mention to Flat Cat Cafe and Gallery and Purple Plum, both of which have been managing to survive the difficulties of the last few months.
We then slowly climbed upwards, skirting the plantation known as Elsinore (?!) then passing by the intriguingly-named Wanton Walls farmhouse which was marked as a castle on Blaeu’s famous map of the 17th century. It can be clearly seen as Wantonwaes. The hills that dominate the map, under the title Thirlstain, are more rugged and stern than the rolling hills that actually exist, but artistic licence is forgivable given how evocative and intriguing Blaeu’s maps are.
Many of the farms, castles and churches shown by Blaeu have long-since vanished or, at least, have become less obvious. Wantonwaes is seemingly hidden beneath where the solid farmhouse is today. Many of these had lasted for centuries, but the advance of larger estates and agrarian improvements from the 18th century onwards brought about the demise of hundreds of medieval farms and townships across the south.
We continued towards our destination, the tallest hill in the area Dabshead Hill. Dabshead gives impressive views of the surrounding country, looking down to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle, towards the Lauder Common which leads to Stow and beyond. The hill is also one of the hundreds in the Borders which feature the remains of a prehistoric fort. Dating back some 2-3,000 years, the fort here is of an impressive size: 600′ by 435′. The earthworks which once were ramparts are clear, although very difficult to capture on camera on the ground.
In the centre of the fort is a odd-looking ‘standing’ stone, although ‘drooping’ may be a better adjective. Placed here in the 19th century to celebrate a local aristocrat’s wedding, it is suggested that the stone itself – wherever it came from originally – is a much older monolith. There are several supposed cup marks on the stone, which will be familiar to anyone interested in prehistoric art. Original? Opinion seems a little divided on this. Given that the stone was set up here, on a new mound of rubble with iron supports (now rusted and failed), that’s understandable. One suggestion claims that it may have stood next to a nearby neolithic burial site, at Borrowston Rig. There bronze urns have been found under a low-lying stone circle, near a small number of cairns and further cup-marked stone.
This gives a possible origin of the droopy stone, in which case it has had a very long history indeed and is linked to the unknown rituals or knowledge of our long-forgotten ancestors.
The hilltop may look very rounded, soft even, from the valley floor, but the views are truly worth the climb.
We then proceeded downwards, towards the hunting lodge of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the many aristocratic landowners who own much of southern Scotland. His lodge at Burncastle stands roughly where another old peel tower once stood – the tall, gaunt defensive castles of the Borderlands, which can still be seen throughout southern Scotland and northern England. Burncastle, which also appears on Blaeu’s map, has disappeared apart from some tumbledown foundation stones in the grass. So too has has the adjacent medieval village of Earnscleuch at the head of the small river that shares its name.
After a fairly shoogly crossing of the Earnscleuch Water by way of old, shiny stepping stones, we followed a track alongside the Duke of Northumberland’s grouse fields. I was delighted to later discover, but wish I’d known at the time, that we were now following the Herring Road. This is a historic route, used mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries by the herring cadgers, carriers, walking from Dunbar and East Lothian to the Lauder marketplace. Quite a journey of some 28 miles, carrying creels of herring! More information can be gained through the wonderful Heritage Paths website.
Leaving the Herring Road, we walked close by the medieval farmsteads of Newbigging, and Huntington – with its prehistoric barrow – and crossing the Lauder Bridge back into town.
This was a great walk, organised by passionate, enthusiastic people and I’m very glad to have taken part. It reinvigorated my love of walking and encouraged me to go out again. It also reminded me just how much history – hidden history – is to be found just in front of our eyes. All we need to do is look.