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?


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.

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!


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.

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!


For a house of such an age and with such history, it’s surprising that there are not more tales of ghosts here.  The only spectral figure reported is said to be that of Lady Louisa Stewart, the last of the Stewart family ennobled as Earls of Traquair by King Charles I.

Lady Louisa died in 1896, just short of her 100th birthday.  She was seen walking in the grounds in the early 20th century by one of the outdoors staff, watched gliding effortlessly through a closed gate and vanishing!

There are few other tales of the supernatural I can find.  Given the feeling of peace and tranquility there, maybe that’s not surprising.


On the bank of the Tweed, not far from Maxton, stands the shattered, romantic ruin of Littledean Tower.  Built in the 16th century, the tower stands surrounded by the earthworks of a (probably) prehistoric fort.  Lives were lived and lost here, then, for a very long time and unlike Traquair is said to have an unfriendly, desolate feel. The house was lived in until the 18th century, but was abandoned, it is said, when the head of the house was gored to death by his prize bull!

The tower was said to be haunted by the spirit of a previous lady of the house, throughly disliked when she lived as

a covetous, grasping woman, and oppressive to the poor. Tradition averred that she had amassed a large sum of money by thrift or extortion, and now could not rest in her grave because of it.

according to William Henderson in his 1879 ‘Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders‘.

The spirit appeared to a servant girl in the castle, who took pity on her bedraggled cold appearance, bidding her to sit by the fire.  The girl noticed her feeble shoes and cold feet, offering to dry and clean her shoes.  On this act of kindness, the spirit confessed to her identity, offering to show the girl where she had hidden the gold that would not let her rest.  She told the girl to command the Laird to split the gold in two: the first half was for him as head of the house; the second half was to be halved again, with the poor of Maxton to benefit from one share and the girl herself the other. If this was done, she would be able to rest.

The girl did indeed follow her instructions and she and the Laird uncovered the gold. The Laird obeyed the requests and all was well.  The spirit had said she would

rest in my grave, where I’ve no rested yet, and never will I trouble the house mair till the day o’ doom.’

Let’s hope that, given the way of things, no-one should see the phantom lady any time soon.


Another of the Lairds of Littledean was said to be a strikingly handsome, dark-haired man.  A notorious drunkard and womaniser, he treated his poor, devout wife terribly.  He killed his young stable boy, for a minor misdemeanour and soon was being shunned by all except those who shared his cruelty and debauchery.  He sounds very similar to the Laird of Buckholm, mentioned before.

One dark and stormy night (!) he rode his horse off into the woods, having drunk far too much to be sensible.  As the storm worsened and as the cold, driving rain helped sober him up, he looked for shelter realising he had rode too far from home.  At last, he came to a clearing in the woods and spotted a humble-looking cottage, with light shining from it’s little window.

He entered the single room within to beg for shelter, and was immediately transfixed by the beautiful women sitting spinning by the fire.  Something bothered the Laird, though.  There was something unnatural about the women, whose eyes sparkled with humour.  As dawn broke, the Laird hurried back to Littledean, relieved to have escaped from harm.  And yet, he could not, in the days that followed, get the mysterious woman from his mind.  He started riding out, searching for the cottage but could not find it.

Then, when all hope had dwindled, he saw from the castle battlements the haunting figure of the woman – standing close to his home.  He ran to meet her, she leading him to the edge of the woods, and there he would meet her again and again to satisfy his urges but only – at her insistence – within site of the castle and at the very same time of day.  He was truly bewitched by her.  He taunted his wife with his new hobby and she, powerless, resorted to prayer.

The Laird left Littledean on business, leaving his wife behind.  A servant, loyal to the lady, spotted the dark-haired woman that the Laird had been meeting, walking to a patch of woodland near the castle.  Summoning her servants the lady immediately rushed to the woods: there was no chance the stranger had escaped.  However, on entering the woods, there was no sign of the woman.  Only a large hare was seen, watching the party approach and then running off.

The Laird returned home on his horse, some nights later.  As he neared Littledean in the gloom, he spotted a large hare running towards him.  Soon, another hare joined the first and ran behind the Laird.  Several more appeared and, to his horror, the Laird realised they were trying to surround him and his horse.  The horse, terrified, almost threw the Laird, but he kept hold and tried crushing the hares with his horses hoofs.  When that failed, as they scampered closer and closer, he drew his sword.   He managed to hack off a paw of a hare that had leapt on to this saddle.  The injured hare retreated, followed by all the others, leaving the Laird to hurry home.

White-faced and trembling, the Laird reached the safety of his castle.  As he removed his long cloak, he and his servants were horrified to see a human hand tumble to the floor – hacked off at the wrist.  The Laird, realising that the hares had been witches transformed,  picked up the severed hand using his sword and hurried down the slope to the river, throwing the hand into the running water.  He hurried back to the castle and bolted the heavy door shut with a bang.

The next day, he set out to find the cottage and, as these stories go, happened to find it.  Inside, the beautiful woman he had been dallying with was gone, transformed into a wizened hag.  In front of her body she held her right arm, which ended in a bloody stump wrapped with rags.  Hate filling  her eyes, she screeched at the Laird that as he had taken the hand so he would never be parted from it. He returned, horrified, to his chamber in his tower and there, on the stone flagstone floor, was the bloody, severed hand.  Terrified, he threw it out of the window and retreated to his bed.  On lying down, he found the hand under his pillow.  He picked it up and threw it on to the fire, watching it burn away.

In the morning, his servants discovered him quite dead on the floor in front of the fireplace.  Marks around his neck showed he had been strangled by hand(s) unknown.

It is said that his ghost, riding frantically on his horse, can still be seen racing towards the tower on stormy nights.  Two other spectres, both young women in white, were reported walking towards the tower from the river.  They are said to have been victims of his, killed after he abused them for fun, buried in unmarked graves.  In the 19th century, two skeletons were found buried under rough stone slabs near the riverbank.  They were given proper burials in the graveyard nearby and the spectres were not seen again.  It is little wonder that locals avoided Littledean Tower and its reputation for hauntings was very well known.

This interesting and unusual castle, with a massive D-shaped tower, is not very well-known now, and worth a visit – but not on dark and stormy nights.


Jedburgh Castle was once an important royal defence guarding the route from the south and was easy prey for invading forces during the long years of war with England.   King Malcolm IV died here and Alexander III was married here – a spectral figure with the face of a skull, said to have appeared as portent of the doom which his death would plunge his poor little kingdom into.  Being so close to the border, Jedburgh would be frequently attacked and was burned by invading troops at least six times, most cruelly during Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing in the 1540s.  The magnificent 12th century Abbey was last attacked then and has remained a romantic ruin ever since.

The site of the castle may have been fortified from prehistoric times and the route of the Roman’s Dere Street nearby suggests so.   During the Wars of Independence, the Scots used their vital tactic of regaining the castle from the occupying garrison and then demolishing it, to render it useless.  The original castle was destroyed by the beginning of the 1400s, and remained a ruin for centuries.  In the beginning of the 1800s, the site was cleared and a fort-like prison, in the fashionable Gothic style, was built.

Like Inverness, the mock-castle dominates the landscape of the town.  The prison lasted a mere 60 years, but has been restored as a museum of prison life in the 1820s.  The design was considered at the time to be revolutionary, showing an enlightened approach to penal reform.  Despite its grand design, it’s fair to say that inmates did not enjoy their time inside, especially those whose crimes were met with execution.  Designed by Archibald Elliot, who would design the grim mock-fortress jail on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, the museum includes the original cells and Jailer’s House – now a museum which looks at the long history of the burgh.

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.

An A-Z of Wyrd Scotland


If you’re looking for a spookyish podcast to wile away an hour or so, may I recommend our very own Tales from Wyrd Scotland to you?

The latest episode is a bumper hour-long dander through the first half of a supernatural alphabet of Scottish wyrdness.  Narrated by me –  featuring breathily wyrd intonation – and the electronical genius of Nick Cole-Hamilton and You Better Run Media, it’s the prefect accompaniment to plotting a trip around our strange little country or merely getting the ironing or hoovering done!

So, curl up in your favourite dark corner and join me on a journey through some of Scotland’s oddest places and weirdest moments in history, from Auldearn to Men (Green)…

Available here or where other devilishly good podcasts can be found…

Movie Horror: The Ballad of Tam Lin, or, The Devil’s Widow, or just Tam Lin, or The Devils’ Woman.

I recently, accidentally, watched again a little-known film which you may or may not be aware of.  I was interested in this title because it was filmed half an hour’s drive from where we live, at Traquair House – just outside the little town of Innerleithen – and also, briefly, in Edinburgh and South Queensferry.

Traquair is one of my favourite places in the Scottish Borders: a beautiful, ancient building which feels homely and welcoming with the added attraction of their own private brewery.  I can, heartily, recommend the Jacobite Ale!

The film I watched again was the 1968 “THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN“.  Starring Ava Gardner, directed by Roddy McDowell (I just mistyped that as Oddy McDowell) and loosely, very loosely, based on an ancient Scottish fairytale.  Sounds good?

Well, femme fatale Stephanie Beacham plays a ‘local’ lass.  And young Ian McShane performs the stud part extremely well as Tom Lynn.  Sound better?

Tam Lin

If I mention that Joanna Lumley’s in it, too, delivering a line that should be engraved somewhere important or carved in stone for all the world to remember, I think we just might have hit the jackpot!

Except, not so much.

The film begins with some beautiful drawings that look like they were engraved on glass, showing what appear to be characters from folklore.  There’s a medievally-looking party of ladies and gentleman, a castle and the Horned God, Cernunnos (?) being mauled by hounds…?  Plus a unicorn.  And a praying monk (?), too.  All very folklorey so far and nods to the 16th century origins of this story.

The opening shot drops from a scarily large chandelier hanging over Ava’s bed.  And there she is.  With the studly McShane.

The party then set off, walking past a modern screen of engraved glass, in the townhouses’ hallway where  the drawings appear for the briefest of appearances.

With a chirpy

“I hope you’ve all  had enough to eat, we’re not stopping for lunch.”

from Ava, they’re off.

Photographer Ian McShane papps away at his friends using his big camera; the group of young things who were apparently also in the large town house all troop into the waiting cars and they drive to Scotland.

And, uh, what?

Spurned lovers and a questionable line that may be racist later, lots of driving shots and the credits roll.   Lots.  I’m hoping they had had enough to eat.


Then there’s a Scottish voice over, at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s suddenly dark now, so who knows where they got to as they passed through Newcastle in the bright sunshine?  The tweedy Scots bloke explains that there is a story in verse from this place, of a young man held in thrall by the Queen of the Fairies, The Ballad of Tam Lin.  The cars drive past in the background…

Cue Stephanie Beacham, the next day, riding her bike to Traquair House!

Traquair House is used as the setting for exterior shots of Gardner’s country lair, which is her country home, her hangout, surrounded by a gaggle (coven?) of young, hip swingers.  With a folk-prog-rocky background, courtesy of Pentangle.  There’s about a dozen young things, playing frisbee (mostly in slo-mo),  drinking wine and being glamorous.  Yes, Glamour is very much involved.  Geddit?  Oh and Space Hoppers!

McShane and Beacham meet over an astray frisbee, and give each other a meaningful look.  Uh-oh.  Scared, Beacham approaches a reclining Lumley, asking where to leave the puppy (?) she is delivering.  Lumley, languishing with aplomb, directs her to the Tarot-reading young things on the terrace above.  She is then directed to a xylophone-playing dude with a momentous perm and moustache.  And then suddenly Ava appears, a vision in red, bewitching all whom she sees.  Ava and Beacham then have a chat.  Beacham’s from the Vicarage apparently.  TUT.  Vicarage, indeed!  Manse, I should say.

Inside, the wonderful and downright gloomy Richard Wattis appears as some sort of Steward.  Sadly, the interior is not shot inside Traquair and instead an out-of-scale faux castley set is used, with much split-level balustrading.  And dazed looking young things scattered about like cushions.  This is a shame as Traquair’s interior is stunningly beautiful.  But the sense of Elphame, or another place, is clear.  Ava’s home is enchanting all those within.  The folkloric elements can be spotted throughout, but in a subtle way.  I wouldn’t call this a horror film, even less a folk horror film, but it has elements of both.  It’s not explicit that Ava’s character is the Queen of Elphame: her enchantment powers could be more to do with her wealth.  But, the ambiguity of the plot allows you to believe one way or the other. Only in the final quarter of the film are elements of the supernatural more pronounced, with a sort of Wild Hunt leading to the tense ending.

Before that, though, Ava wanders about, flapping her flowing dresses around in a variety of hues and directions.

McShane flirts about a bit, has a deep and meaningful with Ava next to a small model of a Knight overpowered by a Queen on horseback (folklore alert!), then it’s off to bed.

Inevitably, the young stud and local innocent get it together, following an unusual sequence of still shots by a burn.  Ava knows this, which eventually leads to McShane’s downfall as her chosen one.    Beforehand, though,  after McShane visits the Kirk and listen to Beacham’s father preaching the two young lovers have a picnic.  A subsequent confrontation in the Great Hall of Ava’s court leads to a scuffle, the end of festivities and – out of nowhere – Joanna Lumley turns to her fellow courtiers, pronouncing

“Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”!

And, presumably, she does.

It’s one of the oddest lines in any film.  I love it.  I’d like a mug with this printed on it.

Richard Wattis informs McShane of the previous young men who have held Ava’s affections.  And their grisly ends.  There’s a slight gay subtext going on at this bit, but McShane’s character is not so modern as to respond politely.  This is interesting, as only in the previous year, 1967, was male homosexuality partly decriminalised in England and Wales.  Scotland would wait another thirteen years to follow suit.

More arguments ensue and, not wishing to give away more spoilers, the plot drifts towards its conclusion.

The Ballad of Tam LinTam-Lin_(film)

The film possesses a dreamlike quality, especially when views of the countryside and house feature.  It is a rather beautiful thing, with a sense of scale of landscape and understanding of the themes of fairy and folklore.  The slow pace and lack of action only adds to a sense of Otherworldliness, while the dated fashions and groovesters only add to the charm.   Filmed in 1968, shelved for some years and edited into a number of  versions with as many alternative titles, it was to be Roddy McDowell’s only film direction, which is a shame as there is much to praise here.  It’s not a great film, but it’s not awful.  The last ten minutes are a little bit iffy, though – and a little too dark to be able to see.  Bt here, in this last act, the links to the old ballad are most obvious.

What is a little bit magical is that much of the filming took place in the part of Scotland where the original ballad of Tam Linn originated.  The Forest of Carterhaugh is no great distance from Traquair, where Tam Lane’s well can still be glimpsed.

Well worth watching for the setting if only as a folklore-inspired oddity.  And for Ian McShane’s obvious talents.


The film can be found here.

More about the ballad can be found in this excellent website.

Margaret Wilson

I count myself lucky to live in a beautiful part of Scotland, steeped in legend and folklore.  This is, after all The Old North, land of the Gododdin of legend; this is the land of Merlin and Thomas the Rhymer; William Wallace led the fight for Scotland’s liberty from the forests of Ettrick and the fairy folk held court in the lair of the Green Man.   Peaceful now, it was not always so.


Here’s another tale taken from George Sinclair’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, and it isn’t a very happy one.  In Relation XXXII, Sinclair tells the tale of Demonic possession in the Borderlands, this time, the town of Galashiels some three hundred and forty years ago – more or less.

The Minister in Galashiels, a Mister Wilkie, was sitting in the manse one night, when there was a thunderous hammering on his door.  His servant, answering the door, ushered in a local man of some standing, respectable in every way and not given to flights of fancy.  A Godly sort, one could say.  The Gentleman, in an anxious state, begged the Minister to attend to his household, where his niece, Margaret, was being vexed by a terror that only Wilkie, a man of God, could end.

The poor Mister Wilson claimed that the Devil was at his house with phantom knocking shaking the building, even when his poor family tried to gather together at prayer!  All this terrible, awesome activity seemed to be centred around his niece, Margaret.

The man and the Minister rushed to the house where they – and many witnesses – were shocked to see that Margaret, having been put to bed and soundly asleep, was lifted up by forces unseen, hovering above her bed.  Many strong men – who happened to be there at the time, apparently – were not able to pull her down.

The story goes on, with many other uncanny events taking place, presumably in the sight of the Minister.  Margaret’s body was shaken by forces unseen and loud, scratching sounds echoed throughout the rooms of the house with no obvious cause.

On waking, Margaret claimed that the Devil had spoken with her, offering her gifts.  At this point, the Minister seems to imply molestations of a more earthly nature, which the uncle loudly protested against, but Sinclair’s text is unclear in parts – so best not to dwell on this too much, perhaps.

“After much trouble of this kind, and much noise and talking…the woman went to Edinburgh and the torments ceased.”

The Devil seems to have tried his best to deter Margaret from church-going and other Godly things, and it’s only at that point that Sinclair mentions she is 12 years old.

Then, Margaret went somewhere else.  After that, she married, then she died.

And, like many of the Relations in the book. The story ends abruptly.  Like this one.

The Devil Comes Calling… Part Two.

The village of Stow tends to be a little over-looked, I think. In histories and anthologies of the Scottish Borders and in books about sacred places, haunted spaces and witchcraft, it often doesn’t feature at all.  Imagine, then, how chuffed I was (chuffed to bits, in fact), when I happened across the name of our village in a book about spirits and witchcraft.  And not,  just any old book.

Satan’s Invisible World Discovered is a wonderfully odd read, written in 1684-5 by George Sinclair, sometime Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.  His Satan’s Invisible World is perhaps, now, the writing he is best remembered for, although his name lives on in the George Sinclair Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.

SinclairSatansWorld1685      Witches-Being-Baptized-copy_1

A staunch Protestant, eager to swear allegiance to William of Orange following that king’s overthrowing of the Stuart king, James VII in 1688, Sinclair wrote the book as proof of the Devil, evil spirits and witches which, therefore, proved the existence of God in the face of a growth in atheism.  It is interesting that some sources claim Sinclair was born in East Lothian, which, some decades earlier, had been at the heart of some of the worst witch-hunts in Scotland, most famously including the North Berwick witch panic of 1590.   Had something in his childhood struck the young George with fear, which manifested itself in later life as his unshakable belief in the supernatural?  He was also a scientist, attracting much fame for exploring the wreck of an Armada ship in a large diving bell, among other things.

The book was immensely popular, said to be second only to the Bible in the humble cottages of Scotland, and contains a curious mixture of ancient and recent tales, which give a flavour of folk belief and superstition of the late 1600s.  The most famous incidents, told through a serious of Relations, include the hauntings of Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, the infamous Major Weir and Wigtownshire’s Glenluce Devil – one of Scotland’s earliest alleged poltergeist hauntings.

Relation IX was one that immediately caught my attention a few nights ago, as I sat in my study reading late at night.   According to Sinclair, in the ancient and royal burgh of Lauder in the year 1649, Robert Grieve – also known as Hob Grieve or Hob Grier in other sources – was arrested on charges of witchcraft.   He was, says Sinclair,

“…an eminent warlock…”

His wife, unnamed in this account, had apparently been burned as a witch some twenty years previously, so perhaps the taint of magic and devilry had surrounded him like a mist for all those years.  It was his wife, the story gained through his interrogation stated, who had introduced him to the Dark Arts as a means of escaping their poverty.  If he agreed to meet a Gentleman he would learn how to become rich…

He had travelled with her to “a haugh on Gallawater near to the Stow” where the story begins.  Here, then, in STOW! Sleepy, little over-looked Stow!


Following the sudden appearance of a fearful great black hound

“a great mastiff, bigger than any butcher’s dog” 

that came and went and was not mentioned again in the story (something that seems to happen a lot in Sinclair’s stories, where weird stuff happens and everyone just moves on to the next weird stuff), the Devil appeared, and made Robert many promises in exchange for Robert’s services.

Robert’s fortunes did, indeed, improve significantly and he went on to become a powerful local warlock with many followers.  His luck ran out in 1649, when the Godly society caught up with him.  Along with five others he was dispatched as a witch, burnt at the stake – although, interestingly, it does not state where in this version of the tale.

Now, it might be stretching something a little to suggest that he was taken back to the scene of his Diabolical Tryst, to the haugh at Stow and dispatched with the five named Stow ‘witches’.  Of course, there are many scholars and more learned folk than I who will scoff at this, but I like the thought that the story can be completed by the inclusion of poor Hob Grieve in the story of our little village.  It can’t be proved at all and there may be no truth in it , but it’s possible, perhaps?  Interestingly, Robert Grieve does not feature at all in the University of Edinburgh’s Scottish Witch-hunt Survey or its excellent interactive map (fascinating and horrifying – have a look!), but a Jon Grieve is listed as accused some thirteen years later.  Could he be the son of Robert?  Or, has the tale of a warlock called Grieve simply bound splinters of fact together? Maybe none of this occurred at all.

I mentioned in a previous post that Stow currently has no pub in the village.  Wouldn’t it be great, if ever one is opened in the future, if it is called The Black Hound – a memory of a terrible injustice that once gripped the locals with fear and saw six innocents put to the fire in the name of the Godly?

Maybe, maybe.

The Devil comes calling… Part One.

It’s been a while since my last post and it’s been a busy year.  Recently, I’ve been reading and researching more about this strange, wonderful corner of Scotland and I was pleased to find some more startling stories from Wedale and round about.

The old and new Parish Kirks in Stow of Wedale.

I mentioned below that six people were executed in Stow in 1649, a horrific year in which mass panic about witchcraft erupted throughout many parts of the kingdom.  Scotland would have five mass witchcraft panics:

  • 1590-91
  • 1597
  • 1628-30
  • 1649
  • 1661-2

There were witch-hunts, interrogations and executions at other times, of course, but in these five periods, the panics and executions intensified in scale and terror.  Localised panics could often break out at times when other parts of the country were relatively peaceful, as occurred, for example, in Renfrewshire in 1697-1700 in Bargarran.

1649 was one of the worst peaks.  In The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), Rossell Hope Robbins noted that

Scotland is second only to Germany in the barbarity of its witch trials.

Witchcraft in Scotland became a crime in 1563, only three years after the Protestant Reformation, during the reign of the absent Queen, Mary.  The Witchcraft Act formally made the Biblical offence of suffering a witch to live, a legal reality.  By making witchcraft illegal, Scotland was setting the scene for accusations, recriminations and mob rule.   The land was in the grip of religious vervour, the revolutionary Reformers determined to create a GODLY kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.

Belief in witchcraft was nothing new, and tales of witches and warlocks stretch back through history.  What was different after 1563, was that the State now could act upon superstition, suspicion and finger-pointing, legally.  And it did.

witches circle

The causes of the major witch panics are still discussed and reinterpreted.  Scotland during the period would be wracked by religious and political conflict and wars.   Famine through poor weather and crop failure, disease and plague are also contributing factors.

Recently, more attention has been given to the misogyny and sexism of the witch-hunts.  Doctor Julian Goodare, in The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context (Manchester, 2009) notes that some 85% of the recorded witch trials involved women.  These trials centred on accusations involving fornication.  In the Godly State the Reformers hoped to set up, all aspects of the lives of the Parish were under increased scrutiny.  The Kirk Sessions records note all misdemeanours and punishments and sexuality features strongly.  The Reformers’ revolutionary zeal and enthusiasm for making sure their neighbours obeyed the laws of God ,added to ages-old superstitions and a need to blame, provided a heady mix which would peak five times.

Sex, sexuality and fornicating with the Devil are common themes in the records that survive and, presumably, took centre stage in the accusations and executions which were not recorded.  The Devil, surprisingly conservative in his sexual choices, seems to have limited his lust for the female of the species.  Homosexuality and Devilish fornication does not feature with the Godly menfolk, but if this is misogyny and control in play, that’s hardly surprising.  The righteous were definitely wearing the trousers in the seventeenth century.

But men, were accused of witchcraft.  In my last post, I mentioned that one of the six accused of witchcraft was described as a Man of Lauder.   I’ve been wondering about this man ever since.  Our wonderful Parish archivist and author Mary W Craig (whose excellent Border Witch Hunt book came out last  year) has suggested that he was of wealthier stock that the others, whose family could pay to have his –  their – name removed from the records.  Sounds likely.  Doubtful they had enough money to save him from the stake, though.


I was working late last night, taking the second-last train home (this seemed important!) and stepping into the village at just before midnight.  As I crossed over the bridge that spans the Gala Water river, I could just make out the ruins of the 15th century Kirk in the heart of Stow.  There was no-one around.  No traffic or movement of any kind and not a sound to be heard.  The silence felt loud.  I walked to the centre of the village, pausing at the Celtic Cross of the War Memorial, glancing over towards the Parish Church.  It was near here, just next to the river, 369 years ago, six people were put to death.  Odd to think, in such a tranquil, sleepy location.

Remind me not to think about such things, when standing alone at midnight at the village crossroad!

1649 may  have been when the largest number of people were executed for witchcraft in Scotland in any single year.  The figure could be around 300.  With the passing of time, this seems almost meaningless, so far off from our enlightened times.  The impact of such a horrendous figure seems detached from reality.   It conjures up thoughts of  pointy hats, cackles and cries of “She turned me into a newt…  But I got better“.


But, imagine an average double decker bus.  Then imagine four of them, full of people.  That’s roughly how many people were taken from their homes, interrogated and cruelly put to death.  That we know of.  Accused by neighbours, relations, clergy, friends.  It is horrifying.  And are we really so different to the folk back then?

Some years earlier, a woman from Stow, Catherine Watson, was charged with witchcraft, having been a ‘wise woman’ or folk healer.  Healers or midwives were among the accused, perhaps if a charm or medicine they had produced had not worked.  It’s not known what happened to Catherine, but even if she were not executed, she would be feared and shunned in her community.  Many of the accused who were found innocent starved to death, having been unable to maintain a job or seek support.  One woman I read about was found dead by the roadside, having starved to death.  An old, poor woman, she was tainted by the mere accusation of witchcraft and was denied a Christian burial.  Her corpse was thrown into the Gala Water.

A majority of the executed in Scotland were women and many of them were poor.  But not all.  In Stow in 1649, four of the victims were women.

Jonet Henrison

Marion Henrison

James Henrison

Isobel Thompson

Margaret Dunholme

A ‘Man of Lauder’.  Why was his name not recorded?  No idea.  I’d love to find out.

I hope to find out more about this episode in the history of this village.  It wasn’t isolated, of course.  Many villages and towns in the Border counties saw similar atrocities, with Peebles seemingly being the most ferocious: 29 people were recorded as executed there, throughout the various Scottish witch hunts.

Many of these witch hunts also involved some of the darkest characters in Scotland’s history: the Witch Prickers.  Witch Pricking was a common part of the interrogation of suspected witches in Scotland, with sharp needles or bodkins used to find the so-called Devil’s Mark: a part or spot of the body insensitive to pain – and proof that the ‘witch’ had made a pact with Satan himself, who touched his disciple’s body and left his mark, sealing their demonic pact.  Pricking formed part of the torture that could be used to extract the ‘truth’, with victims essentially being repeatedly stabbed.  Some Prickers were alleged to use needles with retractable points, thus causing no harm to the accused and ‘proving’ their guilt.


Sleep-deprivation and ‘walking the witch’ were also commonplace.  It is little wonder that so many of the accused confessed, often with lurid and elaborate stories of their unGodly practices.

The Devil was thought to be an ever-present threat to the Godly, in a country weakened by disease, famine and religious turmoil.  It was easy to spot the ‘hidden enemy’ in the poor, the strange.  A barbaric age?  Certainly different to our own, but how different? Intolerance and fear of the ‘other‘ is on the rise again in our own time.

Witch Prickers were – horrifically – individuals who made a living out of witch hunting, being paid for every guilty witch they discovered.  And who was going to prove them wrong?  Around ten individuals operated in Scotland, including one who was supposedly revealed to be a woman in disguise.

Matthew Hopkins may be the most remembered individual in England thanks to Hammer Films, but in Scotland, John Kincaid is perhaps even more repulsive.  Possibly from the town of Tranent in East Lothian, Kincaid would earn a lucrative income, ‘discovering’ witches in the Lothians, Fife, southern counties and elsewhere.  He was present in the little village of Stow, too.

For Margaret Dunholme’s ‘guilt‘ he was paid £Scots 6.  He was also paid £Scots 3 for food and lodgings for himself and his manservant.

Kincaid was feared for his cruelty and, if summoned, there would have been little hope for the accused.  In the sight of the Minister of the Kirk, the five people of Stow and the anonymous Man of Lauder, were incarcerated in the Bailie’s House and Church, then taken to a spot next to the Gala Water, strangled or “worryit” at the stake, and burned.

Some of the confessions sound almost comically ridiculous to us now, but at the time were proof for many of the evils abroad.  Think Blackadder’s Witchsmeller Persuivant, but real.  And very deadly.

There is, currently, no memorial to their fate in the village.  Indeed, there are hardly any memorials to these heinous acts in Scotland, although an interesting project in Orkney is currently underway.  Maybe, in our age of growing intolerance and rise of the Far Right, more memorials – reminders – would be no bad thing.

Intolerance and Fear. The witch hunts begin. Again.

The village of Stow was once a place of Sanctuary, centred on the ancient well and chapel of Saint Mary that, according to legend, was founded by King Arthur himself.    By the mid-seventeenth century, however, this Sanctuary was a thing of the past.

The 1600s can be seen as a century of trauma in the history of Scotland.  The ancient royal house of Stewart, ruling the land since 1371, had become absentee Heads of State, when King James VI inherited the throne of England after Elizabeth Tudor’s death and toddled off to his new palaces in London as quickly as he could.  Promising to come back regularly – he came back once – it soon became evident that Scotland’s ancient crown would not be worn much any more.  James’ son, Charles – born in Dunfermline, Fife – would inherit the crowns of Scotland and England and Ireland from his father in addition to an unshakeable belief in his divine right to rule, answerable only to God and not his Parliaments.

With this political uncertainty in the background, climate was also to have a detrimental effect on the Scots.  Periods of bad weather had contributed to crop failures and lack of food and many of the people suffered from starvation.  In 1644 this was exacerbated by the arrival of the Black Death, or Plague, which was to wreak havoc on the population for over four years.

Charles I’s reign had, for a variety of reasons, sparked civil wars in each of his three kingdoms and, in 1649, he would lose his head like his granny, Mary.

To many ordinary folk, it would have appeared that the End Times were upon them.

Looking for salvation or for causes of this terrible era with a seemingly angry God, it’s unsurprising that ordinary folk began to look close to home for something or someone to blame.  A new Scottish witch hunt would begin.  Again. There had been previous witch hunts and hysteria, notably only twenty years before, but the 1649 outbreak would be ferocious.  Belief in witches was centred on the belief that witches caused harm to people, their crops or animals.  Catastrophic weather, illness and famine, or the loss of invaluable cows or crops, could easily be seen through the prism of suspicion and intolerance.  That witches could cause you harm was widely believed in Scotland, by rich and poor alike.

220px-James_I;_Daemonologie,_in_forme_of_a_dialogue._Title_page._Wellcome_M0014280     220px-Daemonologie1

James VI, before his relocation south, would take a fanatical interest in witchcraft, even writing a book in 1597 – Daemonologie – and apparently interrogating alleged witches himself in the Canongate adjacent to his Palace of Holyroodhouse. His interest would wain in England, where many of the Scots’ beliefs were mocked as the superstitions of the parochial bumpkins.  To many Scots, though, witches were a real and terrifying danger and would remain so, some forty years after the King’s book was published.

Witchcraft had been illegal since the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563, passed by the Parliament of Scotland in the reign of Mary.  This made it illegal to practice witchcraft or consult witches – on pain of death.   A new law would pass, reiterating the main thrust of this Act, in 1649.

With God and the Law on their side, the fearful and Godly alike, would look to within their own communities for someone to blame…


The Season of the Witch

I love October.  I love the light that brings the colour of the autumn leaves into sharp focus and the darkness that begins earlier each evening and ends later each morning.  I think autumn is my favourite season and, every night, I feel genuine joy at the smell of woodsmoke rising from the houses in our village that greets me when I get off the train after commuting.

October, of course, is also the month of Hallowe’en, so what’s not to like?


Growing up in the 1970s, Hallowe’en was not the commercial, Americanised festival it is today.  There were no lines of spooky bunting, witchy goblets or decorations for sale.  There were gaudy witch or Frankenstein monster masks for sale in Woolworths (a much missed American import!) and treacle scones for sale in Templeton’s.

There were monkey nuts and apples for dookin, but that’s all there was.  Or, all I can remember.  Or all that FineFare had to offer.  Remember FineFare?!  Perhaps, things became more exotic when the first ever Safeways opened, along the road, but I had more interesting things to do back then.

The highlight of Hallowe’en was the Herculean effort my Dad went to, carving out the almost impenetrable turnip lantern that would then sit, glowing on the sitting room window, the scent of burnt turnip wafting for days after the great event.  The blisters left on the hands of anyone who has attempted this is a real badge of honour.  To carve a tumshie was an old Scottish tradition, which, sadly, has been replaced by the great American pumpkin.  They’re easier to carve, after all.

Almost lost in some parts, but not quite totally, is the art of Guising.  Instead, the kids have adopted another US import, the more threatening Trick or Treat.  Perhaps not all that dissimilar after all, with dis-guised children going from house to house in a macabre version of first-footing, maybe all that’s different is the language.  The practice of Guising goes back many years in Scotland and Ireland, perhaps even to the 1500s.

It might sound like I have an anti-American thing going on, but that’s not the case.  It is, only, a small, nostalgic sadness that many customs and aspects of our culture and language have been replaced by cover-all expressions from elsewhere.  Even going the messages* for monkey nuts is a thing of the past.  And remind me to write about Glamour later.

(*Does anyone still say this instead of ‘going shopping’?)

It’s also true that, with the rise of an infinite number of Wiccan, other witch, pagan, nature and self-created beliefs and practices, many traditions or supposed traditions have appeared.  Or re-appeared, depending on your point of view.  In Edinburgh, in the 90s around the time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at peak power, there were around five Witchcraft shops in the city.  These have mostly gone, presumably moved on to other fads.  But some – perhaps the genuine ones – remain.  The invention, or reinvention, of Samhain is now marked by a free festival on a par with that of Beltane and Yule which are now celebrated in Edinburgh with music, procession and pagan heroes.

The popularity of The Boy Wizard currently in its ascendancy has seen at least four wizardy shops spring up recently – usually next door to the Christmas shops! And mostly painted in Gryffindor colours.  Cafes, tour companies and others, keen to capitalise on Edinburgh’s links to the Harry Potter saga, are enjoying their moment in the moonlight.  At least two cafes are held to be the ‘home’ of Harry Potter, where J.K.Rowling wrote.  And maybe they are.  The tourist dollar is important.

But, for me, the smell of the air, a walk in the woods, and the sight of smoke rising from a chimney, is the essence of Hallowe’en.  And one that can’t be spoiled by the power of money.  That, and a big bowl of lentil soup.

And the smell of singed turnip.


It’s, like, really, really old…

The village of Stow, or, to use it’s Sunday name, Stow of Wedale, is really, really old.  Quite how old seems to be a subject of debate, but, you can be sure it is OLD.   It is, without doubt, a phenomenally pretty little place, with a ruined auld kirk – only 15th century – and the ruins of a house where a Bishops’ Palace once stood.  According to some, there’s been a church here since the 7th century.  Yes, since the 600s! Like I say, really, really old.  Most of the buildings in the village are 18th or 19th century following the removal of the village’s medieval past by an ‘improving’ landowner.  The same landowner built the fancy Town Hall – part of a grand vision to make the village into a smart weaving town, that never happened.


So we have an over-sized Town Hall, one wonderful local shop (also a Post Office) and a great little cafe / gallery.  And that’s pretty much it.  And it couldn’t be better!  Except, perhaps, for a pub.  Currently, there isn’t one.  The last, The Royal Hotel, burnt down with seeming irony, on the day of the royal wedding in 2011.  The plot stands empty still.  The other pub and hotel have long-since closed, meaning a trek into Galashiels or Clovenfords, the nearest places with taverns and the like.

There’s a rare 17th century bridge, which now stands a little isolated in a field, but once was the entry to the village over the local river, the Gala Water.  It was near this bridge that, in 1649, five Stow villagers were strangled at the stake and burnt.  Their crime?  Witchcraft.  Until moving here, and reading the great book on witchcraft in the Borders by Stow’s own Parish Archivist, Mary W. Craig, I had no idea of how ferocious the witchhunts were in the Borderlands.  Yes, I knew that Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife had large numbers of innocent people burnt as witches, but not the counties that line the border with England.  Sadly, Mary’s book, Border Burnings seems out of print now, but I managed to borrow a copy to read, keen to discover more about the place we’ve decided to call home.  I’d like to learn more still, so will go back to the Parish Archive when I find some time.

You’d never guess, when you take a stroll around this beautiful, tranquil space, of the terrible scene that would have been witnessed 369 years ago, by the river…