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.
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.
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.
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, 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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
It’s been a while since my last post, primarily due to the day job and a lack of visiting anywhere. Spring is slowly becoming summer, despite the snow, with life and the remnants of lockdown moving on much as it has for the last year.
We have been busy, though, with our podcast. Joined by a new Wyrdo, we’ve been managing to produce a new episode each month. The next episode comes out tomorrow, so here’s a plug for April’s episode.
Join me as we travel back in time, to days of turmoil, dynastic plotting and a war of ideology. Stand with us in the mist, watching battle loom on the field of Drumossie Moor. Come with us as we march to Culloden.
Magic and mystery looms large in the Borderlands. Tales of the Good People, the Quiet Folk – the Fairies – have been told here for hundreds of years, through stories by the fireside or the long, elegant ballads still performed today by folk musicians. Tales of witches, the Devil and chilling hauntings feature strongly in the local lore and cultural identity of this sometime turbulent place.
Today, a grey, gloomy and colder day than in recent weeks, I feel in the mood for some old-fashioned ghost stories. Outside of the window, the rain is falling steadily and the tops of the trees are shrouded in mist. A shiver is in the air.
Here, then, are a few of my favourites from the Border lands. Place to visit, perhaps, when the current restrictions end?
Mentioned in previous posts, I include it again not to note once more that Sir Walter Scott himself it said to haunt the place – which has been reported – but to remember that Sir Walter was pivotal in preserving many of the old tales and ballads, which he heard as a child and which he copied, adapted and embellished in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, his novels and other works. Without Scott, part of the rich detail of the ancient songs and legends would have been lost.
In addition to collected objects and artefacts from the past, Scott’s library is full of historical and historic books, tomes on witchcraft, hauntings and legends. There’s a little occult section, just by the window overlooking the Tweed, where I hope his children peeked a look at the stories of ghosts and witches – like I did in the seventies, pouring over my parents’ copy of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. I’m certain that Scott would have told them stories, sitting around the fire. The library is a beautiful room, like his study and drawing room and all can be explored as part of the self-guided tour. I like the anecdote that says Scott called his study room Edinburgh so that, when callers visited his house to meet him (as they did in annoyingly large numbers), his staff and family could honestly say that Sir Walter was in Edinburgh and sadly unavailable.
Knowledgable and friendly volunteer guides are on hand to add to your tour. There’s a great exhibition, shop and restaurant and the gardens and grounds can be explored at your leisure. I can’t recommend it enough. The audio tour, featuring his cat and dog, is extremely well-done and really adds to the atmosphere during a visit! The audio guide featuring Sir Walter ‘himself’ is also engrossing so a repeat visit is recommended – and cheap, as a ticket can last you an entire year!
I love Peebles. It’s a shame that the town sign with its “Peebles for Pleasure” motto has gone; the 1950s zingy-ness of the slogan always raised a smile!
There’s something very homely and welcoming about the place. Maybe it’s because the town has an attractive, bustling high street devoid of many of the chain stores that towns usually have: walking through Peebles, you can see independent butchers, grocers, bakers, craftspeople – and a bookshop! – among many others. It feels like it has an identity that chain stores erode. There’s a lot of history, too.
The haunting of the Cross Keys Hotel, a coaching inn dating back in part to the 17th century, is well known. If planning a stay and of a nervous disposition, it is recommended you avoid room 5! So too, is the figure of a woman who walks the chambers of nearby Neidpath Castle. When I was younger, this magnificent tower overlooking the Tweed, was empty and open to visitors. It quickly became my favourite castle in Scotland and I always looked forward to a return visit. The Earls of Wemyss’ family have found new uses for it more recently, so visitor access is now limited. But, then, castles were built to be used, not preserved as well-manicured ruins. The ghostly woman, said to be the shade of Jean Douglas, was a daughter of a laird of Neidpath who fell in love with a man from a rival family. Forbidden by her father to have anything to do with him, she pined away and died. Her ghost, said to be wearing a brown dress with white collar, has been reported ever since. Scott wrote about this, popularising the poor Maid of Neidpath.
Scott also wrote about a sometime Minister of Peebles, John Scott (everyone’s a Scott down here!) who was an expert in ‘reading down’ spirits, or exorcising them. Clearly troublesome sprites have been a problem in Peebles for quite some time. The Reverend Scott, however, is said to have met his end when another, younger, more rash Minister started the ceremony without him. The toll of dealing with the angry phantom, wrecking the house in which it had manifested, was too much for the cleric. The effort
“…occasioned his falling into a lingering disorder, of which he never recovered.”
I’ve written in a previous entry about the haunting of Buckholm Tower. If you prefer, you can also listen to the story in our Wyrd Scotland podcast – available wherever you find podcasts and also on YouTube. Another ancient Borders home which may have had a more peaceful haunting is…
Another favourite place, Traquair House is alleged to be one of the oldest houses continually inhabited in Scotland, with a history stretching back some 900 years and having welcomed 27 kings or Queens! I’ve featured the place in an earlier post, looking at the weirdness of the 1968 film The Ballad of Tam Lin, which used Traquair as the filming location for exterior shots. Traquair has a fascinating history and is one of the most wonderful places to visit in the Scottish Borders.
The house is beautiful and grand, but in a very homely way. The rooms feel authentic and welcoming, probably because they date mostly from the 17th century final phase of construction. Although redecorated since, the layout is that of 300 years ago. There’s a wonderful mural in one chamber, depicting a hunting scene – painted in the 1530s. It is beautifully atmospheric. The building has strong associations with the House of Stewart and the family remained loyal to the Scottish royal house after they were deposed in 1688, remaining Jacobite despite the cost. Their Roman Catholic faith also marked them out as defiant and faithful, again, despite the costs. There is a wonderful 19th century chapel in the courtyard of the house and inside a secret staircase through which priests could come and go during the harsh days of the Reformation and Covenanting times. And although I’ve mentioned it before, it’s worth stating again that the restored 18th century brewhouse is a highlight of the visit: the Jacobite Ale being a particular favourite!
For a house of such an age and with such history, it’s surprising that there are not more tales of ghosts here. The only spectral figure reported is said to be that of Lady Louisa Stewart, the last of the Stewart family ennobled as Earls of Traquair by King Charles I.
Lady Louisa died in 1896, just short of her 100th birthday. She was seen walking in the grounds in the early 20th century by one of the outdoors staff, watched gliding effortlessly through a closed gate and vanishing!
There are few other tales of the supernatural I can find. Given the feeling of peace and tranquility there, maybe that’s not surprising.
On the bank of the Tweed, not far from Maxton, stands the shattered, romantic ruin of Littledean Tower. Built in the 16th century, the tower stands surrounded by the earthworks of a (probably) prehistoric fort. Lives were lived and lost here, then, for a very long time and unlike Traquair is said to have an unfriendly, desolate feel. The house was lived in until the 18th century, but was abandoned, it is said, when the head of the house was gored to death by his prize bull!
The tower was said to be haunted by the spirit of a previous lady of the house, throughly disliked when she lived as
a covetous, grasping woman, and oppressive to the poor. Tradition averred that she had amassed a large sum of money by thrift or extortion, and now could not rest in her grave because of it.
according to William Henderson in his 1879 ‘Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders‘.
The spirit appeared to a servant girl in the castle, who took pity on her bedraggled cold appearance, bidding her to sit by the fire. The girl noticed her feeble shoes and cold feet, offering to dry and clean her shoes. On this act of kindness, the spirit confessed to her identity, offering to show the girl where she had hidden the gold that would not let her rest. She told the girl to command the Laird to split the gold in two: the first half was for him as head of the house; the second half was to be halved again, with the poor of Maxton to benefit from one share and the girl herself the other. If this was done, she would be able to rest.
The girl did indeed follow her instructions and she and the Laird uncovered the gold. The Laird obeyed the requests and all was well. The spirit had said she would
rest in my grave, where I’ve no rested yet, and never will I trouble the house mair till the day o’ doom.’
Let’s hope that, given the way of things, no-one should see the phantom lady any time soon.
Another of the Lairds of Littledean was said to be a strikingly handsome, dark-haired man. A notorious drunkard and womaniser, he treated his poor, devout wife terribly. He killed his young stable boy, for a minor misdemeanour and soon was being shunned by all except those who shared his cruelty and debauchery. He sounds very similar to the Laird of Buckholm, mentioned before.
One dark and stormy night (!) he rode his horse off into the woods, having drunk far too much to be sensible. As the storm worsened and as the cold, driving rain helped sober him up, he looked for shelter realising he had rode too far from home. At last, he came to a clearing in the woods and spotted a humble-looking cottage, with light shining from it’s little window.
He entered the single room within to beg for shelter, and was immediately transfixed by the beautiful women sitting spinning by the fire. Something bothered the Laird, though. There was something unnatural about the women, whose eyes sparkled with humour. As dawn broke, the Laird hurried back to Littledean, relieved to have escaped from harm. And yet, he could not, in the days that followed, get the mysterious woman from his mind. He started riding out, searching for the cottage but could not find it.
Then, when all hope had dwindled, he saw from the castle battlements the haunting figure of the woman – standing close to his home. He ran to meet her, she leading him to the edge of the woods, and there he would meet her again and again to satisfy his urges but only – at her insistence – within site of the castle and at the very same time of day. He was truly bewitched by her. He taunted his wife with his new hobby and she, powerless, resorted to prayer.
The Laird left Littledean on business, leaving his wife behind. A servant, loyal to the lady, spotted the dark-haired woman that the Laird had been meeting, walking to a patch of woodland near the castle. Summoning her servants the lady immediately rushed to the woods: there was no chance the stranger had escaped. However, on entering the woods, there was no sign of the woman. Only a large hare was seen, watching the party approach and then running off.
The Laird returned home on his horse, some nights later. As he neared Littledean in the gloom, he spotted a large hare running towards him. Soon, another hare joined the first and ran behind the Laird. Several more appeared and, to his horror, the Laird realised they were trying to surround him and his horse. The horse, terrified, almost threw the Laird, but he kept hold and tried crushing the hares with his horses hoofs. When that failed, as they scampered closer and closer, he drew his sword. He managed to hack off a paw of a hare that had leapt on to this saddle. The injured hare retreated, followed by all the others, leaving the Laird to hurry home.
White-faced and trembling, the Laird reached the safety of his castle. As he removed his long cloak, he and his servants were horrified to see a human hand tumble to the floor – hacked off at the wrist. The Laird, realising that the hares had been witches transformed, picked up the severed hand using his sword and hurried down the slope to the river, throwing the hand into the running water. He hurried back to the castle and bolted the heavy door shut with a bang.
The next day, he set out to find the cottage and, as these stories go, happened to find it. Inside, the beautiful woman he had been dallying with was gone, transformed into a wizened hag. In front of her body she held her right arm, which ended in a bloody stump wrapped with rags. Hate filling her eyes, she screeched at the Laird that as he had taken the hand so he would never be parted from it. He returned, horrified, to his chamber in his tower and there, on the stone flagstone floor, was the bloody, severed hand. Terrified, he threw it out of the window and retreated to his bed. On lying down, he found the hand under his pillow. He picked it up and threw it on to the fire, watching it burn away.
In the morning, his servants discovered him quite dead on the floor in front of the fireplace. Marks around his neck showed he had been strangled by hand(s) unknown.
It is said that his ghost, riding frantically on his horse, can still be seen racing towards the tower on stormy nights. Two other spectres, both young women in white, were reported walking towards the tower from the river. They are said to have been victims of his, killed after he abused them for fun, buried in unmarked graves. In the 19th century, two skeletons were found buried under rough stone slabs near the riverbank. They were given proper burials in the graveyard nearby and the spectres were not seen again. It is little wonder that locals avoided Littledean Tower and its reputation for hauntings was very well known.
This interesting and unusual castle, with a massive D-shaped tower, is not very well-known now, and worth a visit – but not on dark and stormy nights.
Jedburgh Castle was once an important royal defence guarding the route from the south and was easy prey for invading forces during the long years of war with England. King Malcolm IV died here and Alexander III was married here – a spectral figure with the face of a skull, said to have appeared as portent of the doom which his death would plunge his poor little kingdom into. Being so close to the border, Jedburgh would be frequently attacked and was burned by invading troops at least six times, most cruelly during Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing in the 1540s. The magnificent 12th century Abbey was last attacked then and has remained a romantic ruin ever since.
The site of the castle may have been fortified from prehistoric times and the route of the Roman’s Dere Street nearby suggests so. During the Wars of Independence, the Scots used their vital tactic of regaining the castle from the occupying garrison and then demolishing it, to render it useless. The original castle was destroyed by the beginning of the 1400s, and remained a ruin for centuries. In the beginning of the 1800s, the site was cleared and a fort-like prison, in the fashionable Gothic style, was built.
Like Inverness, the mock-castle dominates the landscape of the town. The prison lasted a mere 60 years, but has been restored as a museum of prison life in the 1820s. The design was considered at the time to be revolutionary, showing an enlightened approach to penal reform. Despite its grand design, it’s fair to say that inmates did not enjoy their time inside, especially those whose crimes were met with execution. Designed by Archibald Elliot, who would design the grim mock-fortress jail on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, the museum includes the original cells and Jailer’s House – now a museum which looks at the long history of the burgh.
Many visitors, though, are enticed to the jail because of its haunted reputation. Ghost-hunter groups, armed with electronic beeping machines and ouija boards, have been here a number of times, convinced of the supernatural activity. These groups claim on their websites to have encountered many unhappy spirits, including those condemned to death. Other visitors have felt uneasy in parts of the gloomy building, with one young visitor from a primary school failing to take a great selfie, but capturing what may be one of the condemned, looming in a corridor! The photo featured in the local Border Telegraph newspaper – and is, certainly, intriguing! Another photo, taken by a member of a ghost-hunting group, made it as far as the Daily Record.
Before the virus, there appear to have been ghost-hunting vigils regularly. Once the current lockdown ends perhaps they’ll begin again, socially-distanced, of course. The appeal of “Scotland’s most haunted jail” looks set to continue.
We set out to take a walk around Saint Mary’s Loch, the largest freshwater loch in the Borders. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday, blue skies overhead and a slight breeze keeping the atmosphere fresh. We drove the fifty minutes or so through some spectacular scenery, but noticed as we went that the roads were much busier than we’d expected.
When we got to the loch, we were horrified to see how busy it was: the narrow A-Road was even narrower, thanks to all the cars parked on the verge; the dozens of tents pitched on the lochside showed that a lot – a lot – of families had decided to make this their Covid-19 summer holiday location; there seemed to be a rally of middle-aged blokes on motorbikes, modern-day Vikings of the Road, each vying to have the loudest silencer; a charity sponsored walk looked like it was about to start.
The drive became a real life videogame, where the object of the game is to avoid the drivers in their cars pulling out in front with no warning or awareness of anyone other than themselves. It was horrible. It was crowded. My natural dislike of crowds kicked in, but amplified through a TheyretooclosetogetherdonttheyKNOWtheresapandemic?! huff.
Looking online later, reading the local complaints about litter and people defecating by the lochside and in the rivers confirmed that we made the right choice. Like at so many other natural beauty spots, the pandemic seems to have given free-reign to a selfish, stupid and utterly moronic section of society who clearly don’t give a shit about the environment or anyone else. Ancient trees burned or felled for barbecues in the Trossachs, litter, tents and empty bottles abandoned where they fell in dozens of places; stuff like this makes me think that a chunk of humanity is incapable of change and undeserving of any sympathy. We turned around sad and disappointed and headed back along the busy road.
We stopped off, though, not too far from the loch. Nearby, stands a place I’ve long wanted to visit: the little castle of Dryhope.
A ruined, 16th century tower house, one of hundreds that stood tall in this turbulent part of Scotland, Dryhope stands some four storeys, but is an empty shell. Unlike many which have been reduced to mere lumpy foundations covered with coarse grass, or built into new farmhouses, or which have entirely disappeared, Dryhope has been consolidated as a ruin and is free and open to the public. The situation is pretty, although the modern farm buildings nearby are a reminder of the 20th century, so no chance of any time-travelling Outlander stuff here. Turn around, away from the farm, and the quiet situation above the Dryhope Burn is a romantic one: JMW Turner drew sketches of the tower on his way to the Yarrow Water and lochs, which are held by the Tate in London.
Standing on private land we followed the obvious path, not straying too close to the sheep and cattle grazing quietly nearby. The place was utterly empty of people and tranquil. We felt better immediately, compared to the frenetic feeling on the over-busy roads. It was a short, easy walk to the tower, passing over the small burn with ridiculously picturesque Rowan, and up to the castle’s entrance. I was pleased to note the Rowan guarding the approach to the castle, some stepping stones crossing the running water of the burn – two ways of keeping the witches out!
Dryhope is surrounded by history: immediately nearby are prehistoric hut circles and cairns and slightly further afield, the remains of old gold workings. Not too far from here stood once the castle or possible hunting lodge of Craig of Douglas, the earthworks of which stand prominently by the road. This, part of the empire of the mighty Douglas family, was destroyed by James II as the Crown sought to curb the strength and ambition of the Douglas lords. Dryhope, however, would be destroyed in part on order of a later king, James VI, following the involvement of its owners – a branch of the Scott family – in with some of his more troublesome courtiers.
There’s a thoughtful interpretation panel at the approach to the castle, right next to where the Southern Upland Way passes by.
The tower is devoid of internal features: all the floors have long-since fallen as has the original turnpike staircase. However, what makes this tower different to most other similar ruins is the modern spiral staircase installed when the tower was consolidated at the turn of the century. This allows the visitor access to the roof ,which is a rarity, especially for ruined towers that are privately owned.
Inside, modern construction is helping to keep the tower standing, so imagination is needed to get a glimpse of life when the tower was complete. All internal floors and rooms have long-vanished, but the vaulted ceiling at the top remains. It’s this floor that you can climb to, via the modern stairs, to reach the top. From there, the views are lovely. After visiting the top, we walked back to Olga and set off for Thornielee.
The view towards Yarrow Water and Dryhope Farm
Mid Hill (left), Ward Hill and the Southern Upland Way
Lockdown has now lasted for some five months, with the opportunity to spend only very little time spent outside of our small village. The early enthusiasm for walking, cycling and the great outdoors has dwindled a little, as the repetition of the walks became too frequent and too familiar. Instead, trashy movies, trashy books and chocolate digestives seem to have taken up more of my spare time of late, meaning shorts and t-shirts have become a little less roomy.
With waistbands tightening at an alarming rate, I thought it was time to become reacquainted with the great outdoors, so have set off on a few slightly longer walks recently.
One walk, organised by the great Scottish Borders Walks group, started off in the small town of Lauder, some five miles from home. Socially-distanced and limited in size, I was lucky to be part of the group of a dozen or so participants in this five hour gentle walk. Covering around ten and a half miles, the walk invluded roadside, moorland, fields and woodland.
Starting on the outskirts of Lauder, we walked around the estate of Thirlestane Castle – an interesting building and once home to the mighty Earls of Lauderdale. Lauder itself is a pretty wee town, a Royal Burgh, no less, and one that is blessed with picturesque architecture and independent businesses. Special mention to Flat Cat Cafe and Gallery and Purple Plum, both of which have been managing to survive the difficulties of the last few months.
We then slowly climbed upwards, skirting the plantation known as Elsinore (?!) then passing by the intriguingly-named Wanton Walls farmhouse which was marked as a castle on Blaeu’s famous map of the 17th century. It can be clearly seen as Wantonwaes. The hills that dominate the map, under the title Thirlstain, are more rugged and stern than the rolling hills that actually exist, but artistic licence is forgivable given how evocative and intriguing Blaeu’s maps are.
Many of the farms, castles and churches shown by Blaeu have long-since vanished or, at least, have become less obvious. Wantonwaes is seemingly hidden beneath where the solid farmhouse is today. Many of these had lasted for centuries, but the advance of larger estates and agrarian improvements from the 18th century onwards brought about the demise of hundreds of medieval farms and townships across the south.
We continued towards our destination, the tallest hill in the area Dabshead Hill. Dabshead gives impressive views of the surrounding country, looking down to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle, towards the Lauder Common which leads to Stow and beyond. The hill is also one of the hundreds in the Borders which feature the remains of a prehistoric fort. Dating back some 2-3,000 years, the fort here is of an impressive size: 600′ by 435′. The earthworks which once were ramparts are clear, although very difficult to capture on camera on the ground.
In the centre of the fort is a odd-looking ‘standing’ stone, although ‘drooping’ may be a better adjective. Placed here in the 19th century to celebrate a local aristocrat’s wedding, it is suggested that the stone itself – wherever it came from originally – is a much older monolith. There are several supposed cup marks on the stone, which will be familiar to anyone interested in prehistoric art. Original? Opinion seems a little divided on this. Given that the stone was set up here, on a new mound of rubble with iron supports (now rusted and failed), that’s understandable. One suggestion claims that it may have stood next to a nearby neolithic burial site, at Borrowston Rig. There bronze urns have been found under a low-lying stone circle, near a small number of cairns and further cup-marked stone.
This gives a possible origin of the droopy stone, in which case it has had a very long history indeed and is linked to the unknown rituals or knowledge of our long-forgotten ancestors.
The hilltop may look very rounded, soft even, from the valley floor, but the views are truly worth the climb.
We then proceeded downwards, towards the hunting lodge of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the many aristocratic landowners who own much of southern Scotland. His lodge at Burncastle stands roughly where another old peel tower once stood – the tall, gaunt defensive castles of the Borderlands, which can still be seen throughout southern Scotland and northern England. Burncastle, which also appears on Blaeu’s map, has disappeared apart from some tumbledown foundation stones in the grass. So too has has the adjacent medieval village of Earnscleuch at the head of the small river that shares its name.
After a fairly shoogly crossing of the Earnscleuch Water by way of old, shiny stepping stones, we followed a track alongside the Duke of Northumberland’s grouse fields. I was delighted to later discover, but wish I’d known at the time, that we were now following the Herring Road. This is a historic route, used mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries by the herring cadgers, carriers, walking from Dunbar and East Lothian to the Lauder marketplace. Quite a journey of some 28 miles, carrying creels of herring! More information can be gained through the wonderful Heritage Paths website.
Leaving the Herring Road, we walked close by the medieval farmsteads of Newbigging, and Huntington – with its prehistoric barrow – and crossing the Lauder Bridge back into town.
This was a great walk, organised by passionate, enthusiastic people and I’m very glad to have taken part. It reinvigorated my love of walking and encouraged me to go out again. It also reminded me just how much history – hidden history – is to be found just in front of our eyes. All we need to do is look.
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…
This is the content of a walking tour I compiled for LGBT History Month in February of this year. I’ve been meaning to put it online since then, but events have been busy of late. As this is #Pride Month, now seemed like a good time to put this up – especially in these increasingly intolerant days.
The format was originally designed to be spoken, so might be a bit rough and ready, but I’m hoping you can still enjoy it.
Contains adult themes, outdated opinions and language that some readers may find upsetting.
A Queer History of Edinburgh
The earliest times
There are virtually no references to same-sex activity in Scotland before the 1700s. Famous possible LGBT people, like James VI – perhaps – and his numerous male favourites, or his father, Lord Darnley, described at the time as a ‘great cock chick’, are notable for their rarity.
King James VI
Of legal cases where homosexuality is mentioned, the crimes seem sensational, rather than commonplace. In Edinburgh in September 1570, the earliest named people associated with same-sex activity (whether true or not) were John Swan and John Litster, convicted of
“…the wilde, filthie, execrabill, detestabill, and unnatural sin of sodomy, otherwise named bougarie, abusand of their bodies withutheris, in contrare the lawes of God, and all other human lawes.”
They were strangled at a stake, their bodies cast into fire, and burned to ashes: the same punishment doled out to so-called witches. Indeed, sodomy was heavily associated with diabolical actions and witchcraft accusations if it was mentioned at all. Same-sex desire as a concept had no name – if it was even considered.
With the increase in population and migration caused by the agricultural and industrial revolutions from the 18th century onwards in lowland Scotland, queer lives begin to be glimpsed, especially where the law was involved.
Cruising can be traced back into the 18th century, in London and Amsterdam, with the first recorded Glory Hole being mentioned in London in 1707. “Picking Up Trade” was commonplace by the mid-18th century, with Women of Pleasure jostling for position with Men of a Persuasion. Public parks, lavatories, graveyards, were listed among the places where people would meet for sex. Soldiers and sailors seem to feature strongly, being paid for sex, then blackmailing their clients for more money. But not always. A paper held in the National Archives from 1761 concerns The Captain of HMS Seahorse, complaining about the activities of his servant William with another sailor. Their punishment is unrecorded. Entrapment was not only active in the 19th and 20th centuries: there are many examples from the 1700s in England, but none in Scotland.
The Edinburgh of the early 1700s was a place of rapid change. Scotland disappeared as a sovereign state, the Parliament ending on the Act of Union becoming law. One state, with one Monarch, Queen Anne – the last of the Stuarts – commonly remembered for her tragic family and supposed lesbianism:
When as Queen Anne of great Renown
Great Britain’s Scepter sway’d
Besides the Church, she clearly lov’d
A Dirty Chamber-Maid.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its heart here in Edinburgh – the city of David Hume, Adam Smith, Jane Porter and Mary Fairfax Somerville – was concerned with knowledge and reason, liberty and experimentation.
Part of the culture of Edinburgh and elsewhere, were the growing number of clubs that existed. Some were scientific, some literary or historical, some, slightly more earthy. Many were simple drinking dens, some centred on libertine ideas. Perhaps the most notorious in Scotland were the Beggars Benison and the Wig Club. The Beggars was founded in Anstruther in 1731 and was an all male affair. With the motto “May prick nor purse ne’er fail you” they celebrated bawdy ballads, drinking games involving phallus-shaped cups and an interesting initiation ceremony involving a tray. Whilst all red-blooded men, much of their activities could well be termed ‘queer’ but only with hindsight. Some of their badges, sashes and ‘ceremonies’ were obviously mocking Freemasonry, some of their members – if you pardon the phrase – were also notable for their Jacobitism and anti-Union position. Subversive, indeed. Forward-thinking in many ways, they shared principles of ‘common sense’ and a professed freedom of sexuality against creeping moral panic (especially around masturbation), alongside fears that Scotland was suffering in the new Union. They were not kind to the Hanoverian regime in their first years, although latterly their political radicalism subdued, the Prince Regent, later George IV, would be an honorary member. Later branches formed in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Petersburg in Russia! The Wig Club, a splinter group from The Beggars, would take its name from the Beggars’ most venerated object: a wig supposedly made of the pubic hairs from the mistresses of King Charles II.
The rich language of slang of this period, also shows a growing queer culture emerge:
Mollies, Sodomites, Those who navigate the Windward Passage, Madges and Back Gammon Players, among others, give an insight into queer life in the 18th century, in a sense similar to Polari of the 20th century.
In the 19th century, this cultural trend would continue.
The University of Edinburgh has lone been held as a centre of excellence for medical studies. From 1809 to 1812, one of the students there stood out among the students. Considered to be a bad-tempered, squeaky-voiced eccentric, this Doctor would have a distinguished career in South Africa, the Caribbean and St Helena, rising to become the Inspector General of Military Hospitals.
Hated by Florence Nightingale for his temper and his treatment of staff, Doctor James Barry’s reputation as a bully perhaps resulted from the bullying he received himself from his tormentors when young, due to his apparent youthful, somewhat pre-pubescent appearance. He would, according to one account, shoot one tormentor dead, through the lung – but this may not be true. The teasing kinda stopped after that. Apparently.
His staff may have hated his brusque manner, but he was a skilled surgeon with a passion for hygiene and on improving sanitation. And, on his death from dysentery in 1865, he was discovered to be a woman. When news of this broke, claims that James was a hermaphrodite – perhaps Intersex to use the more modern term – were raised. The Army in a panic sealed all records about him for 100 years, only opening them again in the 1950s. Only then did the background of James Barry emerge.
Born as Margaret Ann Buckley in Ireland, linked to Venezuelan political radicals and the artist James Barry, it may have been her plan to study medicine as a man and subsequently move to Venezuela where she could practice medicine as a woman – something largely unthinkable in Britain at that time and for another half century. That plan failed and – for whatever reason – Margaret Ann – James – joined the Army as a Physician! But this is merely conjectural theorising.
Scandal would follow him. In South Africa, rumours spread that he was in a homosexual relationship with the Cape Governor, Lord Somerset. An anonymous poster put up in Cape Town, stated Somerset was ‘Buggering Doctor Barry’… But, on James’ death, the woman who made the discover claimed that he was a perfect woman with signs of having given birth when younger. Barry’s last wishes, seemingly, had been to be buried in the clothes he died in and without his body being prepared. Maybe this was why. Or maybe, like so much in Barry’s life, this story isn’t true. The myths obscure the facts.
Books have been written on the subject and the actor Rachel Weisz said in 2018 she is working on a biopic of Barry in which she will take the lead role. A committed social reformer, teetotaller and vegetarian, in many ways ahead of his time – he performed caesarean sections long before these became commonplace. Was he Intersex? Was his life as James based on sexuality or, identity or simply, a burning ambition to be a doctor in a society were women’s place was in the home? We can’t tell.
In less exceptional stories, more queer lives emerge. In one case from 1852 at Edinburgh Castle Barracks the accused, a Private in the 79th Cameron Highlanders after returning from the bed of another soldier loudly exclaimed : ‘ I have got a damned good f**k!’.
Only with Oscar Wilde’s trial, did a concept of homosexuality become widespread although that word was never used. “Buggers”, “inverts”, “perverts”, and “unnaturals” were common labels applied. In Scotland, however, there were no sensational cases in the courts, unlike in England. Instead, we see a gradual rise in the number of minor court cases involving male homosexuality. There’s virtually no mention of Lesbians, let alone Bisexuals, in Scotland’s story. The T doesn’t arrive to join LGB for quite some time, either.
There would be around six sodomy trials a year in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century and double that in the second half as the population grew. Before that, there is very little evidence. Queers lives do not appear, really, until the 1900s. Most found guilty were imprisoned or transported and banished from Scotland! Those who could afford to, left – for London, or to ‘safe’ havens in Monaco, Paris or Berlin. The technical death penalty for sodomy was removed in 1887: by the dawning of the 20th century, average sentences for men convicted were between 3 months and 6 years for a range of offences considered unnatural or gross indecency.
Things really heated up with a flurry of male prostitution cases in Glasgow – something of a rising cottage industry! – in the 1920s, where newspapers and politicians frothed at the mouth at the risks to society from homosexuality and, more crucially, effeminate men. It is around this time that an emerging ‘queer’ subculture begins to emerge, where individuals challenged societal norms and sought out their own kind. Details about gay women are fewer in number and often dismissive. In the 1970s, in answer to a question from the Scottish Minorities Group, the Crown Office replied that
‘As far as female perverts are concerned, they have never been a problem to this office’.
The roaring twenties saw much hand-wringing about gender and acceptable behaviour – best expressed in the 1926 hit Masculine Women Feminine Men – and the apparent scourge of male prostitutes, feminine or feminised men and assorted degenerates, gathering in certain notorious places…
Let’s move on.
The Law and LGBT people
Following the 1707 Union and the removal of a Parliament in Scotland, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, became the centre of political and social discourse in Scotland. It has been likened to a Parliament by proxy. Here, Godly doctrine was upheld and it’s fair to say that the Calvinist principles of the 1560 Reformation were alive and kicking in the first half of the 20th century. This was reflected in how gay people – men – were treated by society.
There were heightened concerns over dance-halls in Scotland during the interwar period, which were linked to fears about growing immorality. Several cases were brought during this period over the use of female dance partners, who could be hired for an evening, most notably the case involving immoral earnings at the Kosmo Club during the 1930s.
The vast majority of venues available to men and women in the period prior to the 1980s were low-key and discreet, where one might find a potential partner, lover, or one of the TBHs (To-Be-Hads). Additionally, in a period when all homosexual acts were outlawed, small but thriving networks of male prostitution were established in Edinburgh and Glasgow, beginning around the 1880s. This more organised network focused its attention in Glasgow on the riverside Broomielaw and Clyde Street, where they would ply their trade. ‘Self-employed’ male prostitutes could be found outwith the city centre in places and spaces such as Cathkin Park and Queen’s Park throughout the same period. In Edinburgh a similar trade existed in Leith, Dalry, Gorgie and the New Town and one of those locations was Maxime’s Palais de Danse in West Tollcross, which opened in November 1921.
Maxime’s was to attract police involvement when it was found to be a venue of private leisure activities for queer men, which often involved soldiers stationed at a local barracks!
William Merrilees, former Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles, would be part of a ‘crusade’ against debauchery and he led a self-styled war against homosexuality in the 1930s. He seems to have held a genuine horror of feminine men, something in which – in Scotland’s hard-man culture – he was not alone.
He regularly visited bars, brothels and bathhouses in pursuit of morally-challenged men and his prejudices were those of authority and the majority. His Glasgow contemporary, Robert Colquhoun, recalled in his biography that a ‘dapper’ business man strangled by a young man who’d rejected his advance was murdered because he was evil. He deserved it is how I read this.
Merrilees, notable for his small stature and missing fingers, approached this endeavour with gusto (and, on occasion, in drag?), but even he was surprised by the scale and scope of queer subcultures within the capital city. Merrilees believed that homosexuality was typified by two strains of persons: the effeminate queer, whom he referred to as ‘bitches, poofs and pansies’; and their criminal associates. Working within vice in Edinburgh Merrilees considered male homosexuals as an insidious threat to order and morality, and a cankerous breed which required to be removed permanently from the streets of the capital.
Merrilees was awarded the Police King’s Medal for his work in the 40s and was so well-known – and regarded – that he starred in his own episode of the popular TV show This is Your Life in 1966. This, just one year before partial-decriminalisation of male homosexuality, in England and Wales.
Scotland, however, clung on to its legal ban on male homosexuality for some time to come…another 14 years, in fact.
It is remarkable, and a testimony to the brave few who stood up to be counted, that the first ever international LGBT conference was held in Edinburgh while male homosexuality remained against the law. The Scottish Minorities Group hosted the first ever International Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh from 18 to 22 December 1974. It was co-organised by Ian Dunn and Derek Ogg. Ian Dunn had organised the first meeting of what was to become the Scottish Minorities Group in 1969. Derek Ogg later founded SAM (Scottish AIDS Monitor) in the 80s.
The conference aimed to provide an international sharing of experience, so that delegates could find out the social, political and legal situation for men and women from other countries. The conference included sessions on the rights of young homosexuals and of gay women, and the problem of lesbian invisibility was explicitly addressed by a delegate from CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in New South Wales.
There were about 400 delegates at the conference, which led in 1978 to the establishment of the International Gay Association, later to become the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). Sponsors of the conference included Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, Christopher Isherwood and Hamish Henderson. Edinburgh City Council refused to host a civic reception for the conference and the press reaction to the event was entirely predictable.
Society was changing slowly, politically and socially. The establishment of our Parliament in 1999 was a sign of things to come.
Here, one of the first acts of the infant parliament was to overturn the UK Parliament’s 1988 Local Government Act – better known for Clause 28 (or Section 2A). Passed in the height of the AIDS hysteria affecting the country, this was a bitterly-fought battle to come. The demonising of the disease in the media and the association of HIV/AIDS with gay and bisexual men worsened their stigmatisation, and this association correlated with higher levels of sexual prejudice, such as homophobic/biphobic attitudes in this, the infamous Aids capital of Europe.
In 1987, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 75% of the population said that homosexual activity was “always or mostly wrong”, with just 11% believing it to be never wrong.
One UK MP said “I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS. I think that’s probably the best way.“
In the hostile environment, media attention focused on the new devolved legislature in Edinburgh. In 1999, the Bank of Scotland pulled out of its deal with US TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who describes Scotland as a ‘dark land overrun by homosexuals‘.
Banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, the act was repealed by the Scottish Parliament in 2000, despite a ferocious Keep the Clause campaign and support from the Daily Record. Clause 28 was repealed in England and Wales in 2003.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, in Edinburgh certain venues occupy a significant place in the queer history of the city: The Laughing Duck, Fire Island, and the Blue Oyster Club, for example. From 1982 until 1990, queer bookshops The Lavender Menace on Forth Street and then later West & Wilde on Dundas Street, provided an alternative beacon for LGBT people.
Fire Island was launched in what was the West End Club in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on a Monday night in May, 1978.
At the time Bill Grainger was running Glasgow’s first ever regular gay disco SHADOWS in Glasgow’s west end. Many people used to travel through every weekend from Edinburgh to visit Shadows and kept complaining that Edinburgh should have a similar club. Bill contacted the Edinburgh based Tam Paton (manager of the BAY CITY ROLLERS) and he introduced him to the owner of the West End Club for Fire Island to be held there every Monday evening. It would become the first club in Scotland to regularly feature big name recording artists which included: Eartha Kitt (twice); Village People; The Three Degrees; DIVINE (twice); Hazell Dean (many times!); SEVENTH AVENUE (later to become BIG FUN); Su Pollard, plus many more artists promoting their latest single.
During the last couple of years of its existence there were constant rumours that the club was closing and eventually the owner of the building sold the valuable premises to Waterstones and the club closed in September 1988. The last record that was played at Fire Island was the ABBA hit ‘Thank You For The Music’
The place of pubs can’t be over-estimated in the social history of queer people. Until decriminalisation, queer-friendly venues were few and far between. In 1990s, gay-friendly businesses became more openly geared towards gay customers. The Pink Pound was on its way. Younger, more affluent LGBT customers sought pubs and club nights that reflected their identities. Where pubs had been discrete before the 1990s, a confidence now emerged, with a legitimacy that the illegality of pre-1980-1 had prevented. Indeed, in oral histories from LG people collected in the late 80s and early 90s, a will to remain hidden or anonymous can still be glimpsed among older gay men, who remembered the persecution of earlier decades:
“None of these men wished a return to some sepia-tinted, halcyon queer past but wished to make two main points: queer life during the post-war period wasn’t all misery, gloom and furtive fumblings; there was colour, vigour and plenty of evidence of how queer men shaped their own experiences in the face of hostility, homophobia and potential criminalisation. Secondly, the march of progress, and widening rights was met with relief and joy by these men but they were conscious of how their experiences had led to a measure of disconnection with a later generation of LGBT Scots.” Jeff Meek, 2014, Queer Scotland
The Blue Oyster was one of the very few specifically gay bars in Edinburgh, along with that other much-missed pioneering place, The Laughing Duck. Monroe’s Bar in Hanover Street held ‘Menergy‘ disco nights on Thursdays and Fridays, in the mid-1980s.
Now for a bit of drama!
In 1958 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland overwhelmingly rejected the Wolfenden Report, which helped begin the move to the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 in England and Wales. The Wolfenden Report recommended to parliament the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in private between consenting adults over 21.
Also in 1958, the Lord Chamberlain lifts the ban on reference to homosexuality on stage. An interesting footnote in the history of Queer cinema can be traced back to a place not too far from the centre of Edinburgh, Drumsheugh Place.
In 1934, Lillian Hellman wrote a play that would become infamous at the time. A hit on Broadway, but banned in the UK, The Children’s Hour tells the story of two women teachers accused on a lesbian affair by one of their pupils and a tragic ending.
The Children’s Hour, 1961
A film was made of the play in 1961, starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. What’s less well-known is that the story the film and play are based on, took place in Edinburgh as far back as 1809. Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods opened a school for girls in Drumsheugh Place, one of many private schools that catered to the gentry of Edinburgh’s New Town. One of their pupils, Jane, granddaughter of Charlotte Square resident, Lady Helen Gordon, accused the two of ‘inordinate affection’. Lady Gordon spread the rumour and soon, all of their pupils had left. The teachers sued and won, but were ruined – the lurid accusations of their pupil was enough to destroy their careers.
One of the judges hearing the case, Lord Meadowbank, was less convinced. Sex between women, he said, was “equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery or carnal copulation with the devil.”
Not an unusual thought in early 19th century Scotland: sexual attraction between women was inconceivable to most.
From drama to international politics and a now unsung LGBT Hero.
Harry Otter Whyte (1907-1960) is a name most Scots will be unfamiliar with. Yet Whyte, the son of a house painter from Edinburgh, occupies an interesting position in the homosexual rights movement, but not in Scotland. In fact Whyte campaigned for the tolerance of same-sex desire in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Born in Carlyle Place, off London Road, Whyte was ‘the Scot who challenged Stalin’. Whyte’s activism was the result of Stalin’s decision to re-criminalise male homosexuality, which had been decriminalised by Lenin during the early 1920s. Whyte had moved to the Soviet Union during the early 1930s taking up a position with the Moscow Daily News, after learning his trade in a variety of positions in Scotland and England including a spell with the Edinburgh Evening News, which he had joined straight from school.
While living in Moscow he began a relationship with a Russian national who, after Stalin’s recriminalisation of homosexual acts, was arrested during a public clampdown on ‘sexual immorality’. This arrest, coupled with Whyte’s growing unease with Stalin’s increasingly vice-like grip upon Russian society, prompted the Scot to write a 4500 word letter to the Soviet leader. In this letter Whyte argued that homosexuality was conducive to Marxist-Leninist concepts of communism. Indeed, Whyte compared the conditions facing homosexuals as analogous to the condition of women and ethnic minorities oppressed by capitalism and imperialism. The Scot had also sought the opinions of Communist Party members and of two prominent psychiatrists who argued that same-sex desire was neither dangerous nor medically suspect.
Stalin, who is said to have personally read the letter, was unconvinced by Whyte’s argument, sending it to the archives with a scribbled note, ‘an idiot and a degenerate’.
Stalin perceived homosexuality as a symptom of bourgeois degeneracy and a threat to the healthy male body. Stalin’s dismissal of Whyte’s please for acceptance and tolerance marked an end to both Harry’s stay in the Soviet Union and to his hopes for a communist nirvana.
Whyte returned to Britain unaware that he had been monitored by the British intelligence services since his twenties, an interest that would continue until his death.
In December 1941 Whyte was called up for service, occupying a position as a temporary coder on the Arctic convoys, his fluency in several languages outweighing any concerns over his former communist sympathies and homosexuality. However, when the war ended ,the British intelligence services resumed their monitoring of Whyte who was now working freelance for a variety of publications, including the Daily Express and Daily Herald. By the early 1950s, MI5 quietly noted Whyte’s homosexuality and that he had drifted away from Soviet Communism and had become an alcoholic.
Whyte’s obvious dissatisfaction with the direction of communism, and his deep frustration with the societal conditions for homosexuality might explain his drifting existence; by 1950 he was working for Reuters as a freelance correspondent in Turkey. Turkey seems to have agreed with him and soon after his arrival in Ankara he began a relationship with a local man. What is sad is that Whyte never felt comfortable as a gay man in Scotland.
Whyte is an almost unknown figure in the history of LGBT rights, but his courage in challenging Stalin’s antipathy towards homosexuality, and the great personal risk he took advocating sexual liberty under communism, makes Whyte as one of Scotland’s earliest homosexual rights advocates.
Whyte grew up not far from the heart of the current so-called Gay Village, near Broughton Street: there’s quite a long queer history to this area. Public executions once took place here, while in the reign of Mary, Little Picardie grew up, the home to some of her court and followers from France – now recalled by Picardy Place. By the twentieth century, the area had a somewhat seedy reputation, with street walkers mingling with the great and the good, and some places would become refuges for the queer outcasts.
The Imperial Hotel, which once stood where you now find Omni, was one of these queer havens. Built in 1803, it had become a bit down at heel by the 50s. One commentator later recorded that at the Imperial Hotel in Leith Walk ‘there would be fifteen hookers and the place would be absolutely stinking of hairspray and beehives’.
The Imperial Hotel and beehives may have gone – but the focal point for many people in Edinburgh’s LGBT community is still there. While many freedoms and rights have been won, the rise of hostile politics and attack on minorities continues.
Holyrood may have been described as the ‘gayest parliament in the world’ – a sign of how far Scotland’s march to equality and diversity has travelled – but there is still much work to do. The fight for equality goes on.
The dawning of the first day of May, Beltane in Scotland and Ireland, is an ancient time of celebration which has enjoyed a form of revival in recent years, particularly in Edinburgh – although the current pandemic will see major events cancelled. The Edinburgh Beltane Society are holding a virtual celebration, this year.
There were many traditions to mark the dawning of May 1st and the beginning of the new quarter of the year, throughout Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Fertility looms large, with dancing around May Poles a possible phallic celebration still performed in parts of England. The colour green also features strongly, from the costumes of dancers, to garlands and swags of foliage that would once have graced many a cottage or village lane, to the modern interpretations of the Green Man (and Green Lady).
In the Celtic lands, the celebration is mentioned in very early historical documents, showing the antiquity of the importance of the occasion. Marking the start of summer, or the hope for bounty and plenty, it was also the time of year when cattle were moved out to the summer pastures. Rituals, charms and ceremonies were used to ask for protection of these valuable beasts which were crucial commodities for rural communities. For peoples dependent on the welfare of their livestock, pleasing the divine was essential.
This was the time of year when the sheilings were used for the first time. Sheilings are simply simple summer huts or dwellings adjacent to pasture land, apart from main farm buildings. It is the shieling that gives Galashiels, the largest town where we live, its name. Simply, the sheiling by the Gala Water. The stone remains and turf embankments of abandoned sheilings can still be glimpsed in many parts of Scotland.
Ceremonies involving fire were central to this turning of the year, in many parts, particularly in the Highlands of Scotland. As purifier, one or two bonfires were lit, in between or past which people and their cattle would pass, to symbolise protection and cleansing for the year ahead. Most of these ceremonies were ancient, but dying out at the end of the 18th century, particularly where the Church held a tight grip on the parishioners. The obvious pagan overtones were thought ungodly. Household fires were often extinguished and new fire brought into the home from the Beltane bonfire. Fire features at the heart of the new, reimagined Beltane festivities in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
F. Marian McNeil, in her Scottish Folkore and Belief (1957), noted a Highland charm listed in Alexander Carmichael’s wondrous Carmina Gadelica, which recalled the nine sacred woods that were used to light the fires at Beltane – and Hallowe’en, in pagan times:
Choose the willow of the streams,
Choose the hazel of the rocks,
Choose the alder of the marshes,
Choose the birch of the waterfalls,
Choose the ash of the shade,
Choose the yew of resilience,
choose the elm of the brae,
Choose the oak of the sun.
Beltane, Là Bealltainn, is said to be derived from ‘bright fire‘ in a common-ancestor of the modern Celtic languages. To others, it is derived from the Fire of the God, Bel, Belenus or similar. Regardless, teine is the Scottish Gaelic word for fire. Like the Green Man, the origins and meaning are lost in time, being appropriated by people today in myriad of forms and where is the harm in that? It is, simply, a celebration for people, together in the land.
Carmichael, in Carmina Gadelica, also noted a Beltane Blessing, part of which is repeated here:
BEANNAICH, a Thrianailt fhioir nach gann, Mi fein, mo cheile agus mo chlann, Mo chlann mhaoth ’s am mathair chaomh ’n an ceann, Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann, Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann.
Gach ni na m’ fhardaich, no to ’na m’ shealbh, Gach buar is barr, gach tan is tealbh, Bho Oidhche Shamhna chon Oidhche Bheallt, Piseach maith, agus beannachd mallt, Bho mhuir, gu muir, agus bun gach allt, Bho thonn gu tonn, agus bonn gach steallt.
Tri Pears a gabhail sealbh anns gach ni ’na m’ stor, An Trianailt dhearbha da m’ dhion le coir; O m’ anam riaraich am briathra Phoil, Is dion mo chiallain fo sgiath do ghloir, Dion mo chiallain fo sgiath do ghloir.
BLESS, O Threefold true and bountiful, Myself, my spouse, and my children, My tender children and their beloved mother at their head. On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling, On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling.
Everything within my dwelling or in my possession, All kine and crops, all flocks and corn, From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve, With goodly progress and gentle blessing, From sea to sea, and every river mouth, From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Three Persons taking possession of all to me belonging, Be the sure Trinity protecting me in truth; Oh! satisfy my soul in the words of Paul, And shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory, Shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory.
Washing your face in the morning dew at sunrise on 1st May was said to bring health and beauty for the coming year (or forever, depending on who you ask!) and is one of the few widely remembered and still observed customs. In Edinburgh, an early hike up to the summit of Arthur’s Seat is the preferred destination for this ritual.
In the Borders, the ancient town of Peebles is mentioned in late medieval writing, as celebrating Beltane. The Maitland Manuscripts, compiled by Sir Richard Maitland in the 16th century, includes a poem called Peblis to the Play. This is a bawdy romp of a poem, in the language of Middle Scots and describes celebrations of May Day in the town. Some academics suggest that the poem is the work of the poetic James I, King of Scots, having witnessed the Beltane celebrations for himself. Others are more inclined to suggest the Makar (court poet), William Dunbar, although King James V has also been seen as a contender. Regardless of the author, the poem gives an insight into medieval life, love and brawling!
At Beltane, when ilk bodie bownis,
To Peblis to the Play,
To heir the singin and the soundis,
The solace, suth to say;
Be firth and forest furth they found,
They graythit tham full gay,
God wait that wald they do that stound,
For it was their Feist Day,
Of Peblis to the Play.
All the wenchis of the west
War up or the cok crew;
For reiling thair micht na man rest,
For garray and for glew.
Ane said my curches ar nocht prest
Than answerit Meg full blew,
To get an hude, I hald it best;
Be Goddis saull that is true,
Of Peblis to the Play.
The poem goes on at some length, and I’ll come back to it more properly in a future blog when hopefully I can do it justice! I love the fact that the annual celebration of the town, which like so many other Border burghs includes a common riding, is still called The Beltane, having been revived in 1897. Sadly, this year, the event will not be taking place.
Other celebrations or rituals for Beltane included visiting holy wells, with folk walking around the well sunwise (never widdershins!), whilst reciting prayers or charms for good health. The truly ancient practice of leaving offering in wells, and also at Clootie Wells and Trees or Coinzie trees, was also common as May 1st dawned. I don’t know whether this happened at the centuries-old Our Lady’s Well, here in Stow – but I would imagine so!
(Left, Our Lady’s Well. Stow; right, a modern clootie tree, Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, Eskdalemuir)
Water has a long history of association with healing powers and divine assistance, long before Christianity replaced the local Gods. Many pools, lochs and springs still have associations with healing powers or magic, and the practice of throwing coins in wishing wells derives from leaving offerings to the Gods. There are some 600 holy or lucky wells throughout Scotland – from the Well of Youth, on Hirta, St Kilda, to the Saint Margaret’s Well in Edinburgh. Before the arrival of Christianity, many of these pools and wells would have their own deity. Later, they would be associated with the Saints.
Our Lady’s Well in Stow is accessed through some fields, so this year – due to the Covid-19 restrictions – I won’t be wishing or washing there tomorrow at dawn!
Feasting was another integral part of traditional Beltane customs in Scotland until well into the modern age. Beltane Bannocks, cakes, were baked – and cakes or bread featured in the other three quarterly feasts or celebrations of the year. There’s a wonderful recipe here in the Cailleach’s Herbarium for a Betane Bannock. We may not be able to gather together by the fireside this Beltane, but we can maybe try a bannock or two.
Wishing you a safe and well Beltane – wherever you may be.
I am thankful to live in a beautiful place, surrounded by quiet roads and woodlands that can be explored without intruding on farmland. As the Covid-19 lockdown continues, without sign of diminishing, I find a walk in the open to be the best part of the day – a calming escape from the same four walls and the omnipresent work laptop. I know we’re lucky to have this, so close.
On Sunday, having been pretty much potato-level inactive over the previous week, we took the opportunity to take a slightly longer walk than usual, but still walking straight from home. The walk would be around ten miles in total, from our front door and back, sticking to the roads and maintaining a social-distance from any cyclists and fellow-walkers we happened to pass. We touched no farm gates, benches or anything else except the tarmac beneath our boots. As the sun shone, then, we left Stow and headed uphill (which is pretty much the same in every direction from Stow!).
We had decided to walk to our local Community Woodland, at Wooplaw.
Wooplaw is important nationally as the first community buy-out of woodland anywhere in the country, way back in 1987. Marked as a tower on Blaeu’s famous 1654 Atlas of Scotland, Wooplaw House is a 19th century building, possibly on the site of earlier buildings. Nearby is Murdercleugh, where a drover was killed for his money, after a drunken night of boasting at the Hawksnest Inn. The woods were once part of the Wooplaw estate. The origins of the name are lost in time, although I did read a suggestion that Wooplaw is derived from Old English wulf-hop- hlāw, “wolf-hope law”, or in other words, Wolf Valley Hill!
Tvedia cum vicecomitatu Etterico Forestae etiam Selkirkae dictus, [vulgo], Twee-dail with the Sherifdome of Etterik-Forest called also Selkirk / auct. Timotheo Pont. 1654.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Armed with a bottle of water and some chocolate, we set out, puffing up one of the steepest hills that leads away from Stow towards the ancient towns of Earlston and Galashiels. There were very few folk out that day, mostly cyclists. The air was clear and fresh and the sky mostly a dazzling blue. Hares were dashing around, little lambs were springing and calves were mooing. It felt like being in a Disney cartoon…
One of the other reasons I was keen to walk to Wooplaw was that just a little further on lies the end of one of the ancient walkways that has crossed the landscape for centuries, The Girthgate.
This ancient road once linked Edinburgh and Melrose, linking important towns and religious houses, with the hospital and church at Soutra, high up in the hills – a place now famous for having the main road’s snow gates closed frequently in winter. Soutra was founded by Malcolm IV, King of Scots, in c.1160 and was once one of the most important hospitals in Scotland. Centred around the House of the Holy Trinity, the Augustinian monks here tended to the sick and to travellers. Soutra was built almost certainly on an existing route and it is suggested that the Roman road known as Dere Street follows the same path at this point. So, the road is at least a thousand or so years old! I find this staggering and a bit of a thing of wonder!
It is astonishing to wonder about the people who have followed this path over the last millennium: kings; knights; bishops; soldiers. The Romans who may have built the first road here, were followed by the Picts, the Gododdin, the Scots and the Angles. Wars have been fought around it, countless lives lived – and lost – on and near it. Maybe, shades of these former souls still linger, here and there?
It is possible to walk most of the Girthgate, starting at the little village of Oxton. During the Covid-19 lockdown, though, that idea will need to be filed under ‘in the future’. That route, some eight and a half miles, ends just here, between Threepwood Farm and Wooplaw. Not far away, the line of the Girthgate might now lie under the present road which travels on to Melrose, passing by a quaintly (oddly) positioned crossroad, that should really have an old-fashioned 1930s style signpost on it. But it doesn’t. The signpost is disappointingly new. Still, I wondered whether any legends which frequently attach themselves to crossroads, were attached to this ancient one.
This junction is where the Community Woodlands at Wooplaw are spilt into two distinct parts, but an easy walk leads from one to the other. Both are well worth visiting, featuring a modern day Roundhouse, tranquil pond and picnic area.
The community woods here were created through the vision of a local, much-missed woodsman, sculptor, craftsmen, environmentalist, poet and artist Tim Stead. If there was ever a human, modern day Green Man, it was him. Tim sparked the idea of woodland owned by the people, a radical thought in the 1980s which has now been replicated many times over. Here, though, he was groundbreaking. He lived only a few miles from here, in a building which – it is hoped – can also be saved for the nation. The Steading is a breathtakingly beautiful expression of Tim’s passion and art and is of international importance. I hope the Tim Stead Trust succeeds in its ambitions.
Wooplaw also acts as a lasting legacy of Tim, in the same way his art does. Tended to by volunteers, the woods have an ethereal feeling to them. This is, perhaps, in part amplified when you come across the memorial slab and wooden statue that commemorate Tim. Read the moving ambitions that the Tim Stead Trust has to save his legacy and beauty of his creation in their plan. A more fitting memorial would be hard to imagine.
The origins of the ‘Green Man’ which can be seen in medieval churches, Victorian graveyards and New Age shops, is one that has many contradictory versions depending on where you look.
To some, as mentioned in the previous post, he represents a nature spirit; to others, he is an echo or remnant of the head cult of the the ancient Celts. To others, still, he is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, whether that of Christ or of the world.
Supposedly one of the, if not the, oldest depictions of a Green Man in a Christian setting can be found in the Church of Ste Hilaire, in Poitiers, France – a basilica dating to the 10th century. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and can be found of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
Church of Ste Hilarie, Poitiers
Carved on a tomb which is suggested as dating to the early 5th century CE, the face of a green man looks at us clearly, after so many centuries. A Christian appropriation of an earlier symbol? Possible, as Christianity adopted the places and trappings of Pagan worship as it advanced across Europe.
5th century Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul, on the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople, show a face we could recognise as the Green Man, but to the creators of these beautiful images, they may have known him as: Achelous, the God of Water and Rivers in Greek and Estruscan culture; Bacchus, Roman God of wine, fertility and agriculture, whom the Romans borrowed from the Greek Dionysus and whom may have been a Hellenic version of Osiris…; a Wild Man, representing the Pagan and therefore uncivilised, barbaric heathens yet to be enlightened. No-one knows. But, given the reach of the Empire and the geographical location of Constantinople, it’s not a great leap of faith to see direct links and similarities with the mosaic face and the earlier Hindu carvings of the Indian sub-continent or Parthian Empire of the Middle East, which show similar designs.
Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Instanbul (left). Hatra, Iraq, 2nd century, CE (right)
Whoever he is, his image has been carved thousands of times. Perhaps, he is nothing more than a style of decoration, an artistic motif. Just like, say, a stylised sun with a face, or a moon, a creative design that proved popular and so was replicated. Scotland, an ancient European nation with cultural links to the continent and further afield, would see churches and monasteries built through the centuries, often by craftsmen from the continent. They brought with them their skills and their craft, but also their ideas and cultural influences.
In Culross, Fife, we can see more Green Men. At the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey, built in the 13th century on the site of an older monastic site, a carved frieze survives. Two green men, at either end of a vine? branch, can clearly be seen. Like so many similar designs, they have foliage sprouting (or vomiting?!) from their mouths.
Interestingly, the older religious community at Culross was said to have been founded by Saint Serf, adoptive father of Mungo – later canonised as Saint Kentigern – who would go on to baptise Merlin! (More on this later!) Early Christian stones found here date back to the 700s or 800s, showing that the site was religiously important for many centuries before the Abbey was built. The Protestant Reformation of 1560, the religious revolution that converted Scotland from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, saw the Abbey closed and allowed to fall into ruin.
Similarly, Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire, fell into ruin after the Reformation. Here, another Green Man can be seen, although somewhat eroded. Melrose was also a Cistercian Abbey – the first in Scotland – and founded by King David I in 1136. One of the finest examples of medieval religious architecture on the island of Britain, it is well worth visiting. In addition to the Green Man, the heart of Robert I The Bruce lies here and there are many other beautiful carvings to see.
Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire
The Green Man here tends to be overlooked by visitors who are searching for a better-known carving on the facade of the church: the bagpipe-playing pig. This is understandable, as this happy looking porcine musician is a fun reminder that church-builders had a sense of humour!
The High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles’ Cathedral, claims to have 66 Green Men, although I confess to having missed virtually all of these the last time I visited. Once the Covid-19 lockdown ends – hopefully – I’d like to go back and try to discover them all.
The Holy Grail (!) for Green Men spotters, though, must be the magnificent Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian. Famous worldwide as a result of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, much has been written about the mysteries of this spectacular building – with its elaborate carved interior. One hundred or so Green Men can be found inside, with the most famous looking more than an little mischievous (above). Less well known is the more naturalistic Green Man, carved into living rock in the valley below the Chapel, Roslin Glen. The legends concerning the glen would fill a book, with everything from sightings of Robin Hood – yes, him again! – to hidden temples, spectral hounds and UFOs! You get your money’s worth here, if you like that sort of thing! I’ll feature Roslin again, sometime soon.
The Green Man is a symbol which can be interpreted in different ways, to suits people’s own beliefs. It seems likely that a figure which is part-human, part-vegetation in its most basic form illustrates humanity’s dependence or interdependence with the natural world, divine or otherwise. The Green Man’s origins may be lost in time, but in the second half of the last century and now into our own, the appeal of a spirit of nature and of man’s vital reliance on the environment, is a compelling one. As we endure years that are routinely hotter than every previous one, as climate chaos moves us ever closer to near-future scenarios that we pretend are unthinkable, the totem of an Earth deity is one we may cling to more fervently than before. With extinction rates increasing and global warming already near the point of no-return, perhaps, we all need to be the Green Man.