We’re back again. This time, Barbara looks at strange occurences at Montrose Airfield for our twentieth episode of Tales from Wyrd Scotland.
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…
Unlucky for some, we’ve reached our thirteenth podcast episode. Fellow Wyrdo Barbara avoids corpsing as she peaks behind the curtain, discovering thespian phantoms in Scotland’s historic theatres…
It’s been another few busy weeks with some exciting projects moving forward – including a new history tour of Stow which currently I’m working on. I’d overlooked putting a little plug for the latest episode of our Tales of Wyrd Scotland podcast, so here it is…
Edinburgh, 1979 and in the long hot days and nights of summer, something is stirring…
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.
Thornielee Forest lies in the valley of the Tweed halfway between the towns of Galashiels and Innerleithen. Nearby sits the former mill town of Walkerburn. We drove here, but it seems local buses stop here on request. Sadly, the nearby Thornielee Station, on the now-vanished Peebles railway, closed as early as 1950 so catching a train isn’t an option.
We stopped here on our way back from our abandoned plan to walk around St Mary’s Loch, having been put off by the crowds. I’m so very glad we did. Thornielee Forest, under the stewardship of Foresty and Land Scotland (the old Forestry Commission), is a gem of a place. Part of the Tweed Valley Forest Park, there is much to explore. There are two walks here, apparently: a gentle Meadow Trail, described as ‘easy’ – mostly flat alongside some pastures renowned for butterflies, and; the Cairn Trail – described as ‘strenuous’. We took the strenuous path (of course we did) and I again struggled, panted and sweated my way to the top. The slope through the trees is pretty much a continuous, long climb, punctuated by very welcome flat parts – but these are few and far between! Stopping every now and then, though, was a joy simply because you are surrounded by forest, with the sunlight streaming down in shafts between the trees. The trail is very broad at times and, unlike many other older plantations, the trees are spaced out, allowing other plants to grow on the forest floor. It felt gloriously alive.
Near the start of the trail is a curious, weather worn sculpture. The interpretation plaque states that this is Muckle Mou’d Meg – heroine of a local legend which, not surprisingly, Sir Walter Scott wrote about!
Meg – or Agnes – Murray, to use her apparent Sunday name – was daughter of the Laird of Elibank, Sir Gideon Murray – master of one of the great and troublesome Border families which gave successive Kings of Scots a headache, due to their warring, cattle-stealing and thuggish, lawless activities!
Meg was one of three daughters of the family and was, it is cruelly put, Scotland’s ugliest woman. She was muckle mou’d – large mouthed – in looks, but in temperament and disposition a happy, smiling soul. Indeed, folk mocked that we she did smile, the smile covered the whole of her head. Poor Meg!
The Murray’s neighbours – and sworn enemies! – was the family of Scott (of course!) of Harden, whose tall castle of Aikwood still stands, restored, today.
One dark, winter night, William Scott of Harden decided to raid Elibank and steal their cattle – the great moneymaker of the Border Reviers – but instead of sleeping guards, found them alert and ready for him. He was defeated after a short battle, captured and imprisoned.
He was sent to the castle dungeon until dawn, while the Laird of Elibank pondered his luck. The Lady of Elibank thought the young man a possible solution to their seemingly impossible Meg problem. And so, in the cold early light of morning, the young William was brought, tied and bound, before the Laird in his great hall. The Laird, sitting in his high oak chair in front of the fire, looked at the young cattle thief for some time. Then, he gave William a dilemma. As the nineteenth century poet James Ballantine would later recall, the lad was offered a choice: hang for his crime, or marry Meg. William was horrified; Meg’s appearance was infamous.
And so, he chose death, by hanging.
Now, the Laird was canny and sent him back to his prison, to think again one last night. On the second occasion he was hauled into the Laird’s hall, perhaps he feared death more than marriage to Meg. Perhaps, he saw something in Meg that others could not. It is said that Meg stood by, watching this drama unfold, tears in her eyes; tears which melted the heart of the handsome lad. Whatever the reason, he chose Meg and the two were wed.
Syne muckle-mou’d Meg pressed in close to his side,
An’ blinkit fu’ sleely and kind,
But aye as Wat glower’d at his braw proffer’d bride,
He shook like a leaf in the wind.
‘A bride or a gallows, a rope or a wife!’
The morning dawned sunny and clear –
Wat boldly strode forward to part wi’ his life,
Till he saw Meggy shedding a tear;
Then saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Fain wad Wat hunt again, fain wad be hame.
Meg’s tear touched his bosom, the gibbet frowned high,
An’ slowly Wat strode to his doom;
He gae a glance round wi’ a tear in his eye,
Meg shone like a star through the gloom.
She rush’d to his arms, they were wed on the spot,
An’ lo’ed ither muckle and lang;
Nae bauld border laird had a wife like Wat Scott;
‘Twas better to marry than hang.
So saddle an’ munt again, harness an’ dunt again,
Elibank hunt again, Wat’s snug at hame.
James Ballantine, Muckle Mou’d Meg, Poems, 1856. Scottish Poetry Library.
Despite the unfortunate start to their marriage, by all accounts the two lived…um…happily ever after! William would thrive, being knighted by King James VI and the two had at least four children. Accounts say that they had a long, happy marriage. They could have looked out over the Ettrick Forest from Elibank Tower, watching the hill of Thornielee change through the seasons.
Thornielee is marked on Blaeu’s 1654 maps – not a great length of time after Meg and William – as Thornyly and is shown as having a castle or tower house – one of ten in close proximity here along the valley of the Tweed. There is no trace of the castle now and no mention of it in the annals of the Tweed valley. Like most of the simple, square peels, it has disappeared from the land as surely as it has disappeared from history. There may be remnants of a tower hidden within the present Thornielee Farmhouse – or at the ruins of Old Thornielee farm, higher up the hill.
On the opposite side of the valley, however, it’s possible to spot the gaunt ruins of Elibank Tower – also shown on Blaeu’s map as Elybanck – from the modern sculpture of Meg and her William. It’s a lovely, startling, sculpture and a reminder not to judge by appearances!
There may not be any sign of a castle on the hill of Thornielee, but there are other remains or earlier farmsteads although mostly hidden at this time of year beneath the heather, brambles and bracken. Over from Thornielee, very large clearance cairns and unusual earthworks indicate human habitation that might stretch back into prehistory.
The paths climb ever higher, until the crest of the hill appears. The woodland comes to an abrupt halt beside a long stone dyke, beyond which is rough pastureland and moors. The Views are spectacular and well worth the climb. Some of the path is a bit muddy and steep, so care is needed and even on a quiet day, the paths are popular with mountain bikers, so care is needed.
We were chuffed to notice that at the top, the view stretches as far as our own Wedale – the windfarm at Long Park clearly visible. This view is really only accessible by foot, as the roads linking Stow with Ettrick are low and twisty. I’m glad we made the effort to see this and highly recommend the trip. Given the crowds of people sticking to the more obvious, roadside stops, the Tweed Valley Forest might still offer an escape from the staycationers. Just don’t tell anyone, aye?
Near the top, I spotted this stone (lefthand photo) – which is almost certainly part of a dyke that had collapsed, but there’s something about it I really liked. In my head, I can clearly see worn carvings on the surface – there’s something of a double-ended Pictish rod and discs, surely? Or maybe a salmon? Or both! Probably not, but fun to imagine.
Also nearby are the supposed Shepherds’ Cairns, of which I could find very little information.
This was a brilliant route to walk on a wonderful sunny / breezy day which, apart from one bloke on a mountain bike and a family of three, we had to ourselves for the couple of hours it took. Far, far better than squeezing our way through the crowds jammed around Saint Mary’s Loch. There are a good few other walks in the Tweed Valley Forest Park I hope to do soon – and, of course, a return trip to see Meg’s old home at Elibank, too. That will need to wait for another time.
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.
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…