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…

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.

Wizards and Fairies and Romans, oh my!

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.

Detail from Roy, 1793. Detail from William Roy – Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, 1793. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

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.

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.

Eildon Hill North
View from Eildon Hill North

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.

Supposed tomb of Michael Scott, Melrose.

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.

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.

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.


*That’s the car’s name.  Honest.