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.