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.

Thornielee.Blaeu.1654
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. 

A Hatful of Hauntings

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?

Abbotsford

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.

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The Library, Abbotsford

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!

Peebles

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.

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Neidpath Castle

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…

Traquair House

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!

Traquair
Traquair

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.

Littledean

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.

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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

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.

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Jedburgh Castle Jail

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.