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…

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