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.
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…
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.
Like King Arthur, Robin Hood is most firmly associated in the world’s collective imagination with England – and specifically Sherwood Forest. However, as with King Arthur, when we look back in history we find that myth, legend and established history are not quite so simple and both these strange, alluring figures also have links to the place we now call Scotland.
Indeed, many of the earliest written references to Robin Hood, can be sourced from southern Scotland and not England. The important 15th century history of Scotland Scotichronicon begun by John of Fordun in the 14th century and completed by Walter Bower, Abbot of Inchcolm, in the 1440s, contains possibly the first written mention of Robin Hood – but as a very old legend.
John of Fordoun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum or Chronicles of the Scottish People was concluded, unfinished, around 1385 and lamented the lack of older records which were destroyed during the almost continuous warfare of the 1300s. Indeed, this first attempt to write a continuous history of Scotland was written as an expression of national identity and in reaction to the invasion of Edward I of England – whom Bower describes as a tyrant whose invasion led to the destruction of much of Scotland’s ancient manuscripts and histories, during the Wars of Independence. Bower extended the reach of this history, which he titled Scotichronicon, up to the murder of James I, King of Scots, in 1437.
The Scotichronicon is a fascinating insight into medieval Scotland. The founding legend of the Scots as descendants of Scota, a daughter of Pharoah, is included as is a passage on why many Englishmen have tails!
The reference to Robin Hood, under the year 1265, refers to
the famous armed robber, Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices. The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing of them more than in other romances. Yet some of his exploits thus recited are commendable…
An alternative translation starts this passage by calling him the famous murderer! Robin, of course, is a nickname for Robert. Robert Burns, Scotland’s eighteenth century national poet, for example, was never (never!) known as Rabbie Burns – despite the common use of this today – but he was, in his lifetime, known as Rob or Robin.
Fourdon / Bower mention Barnsdale in the English county of Yorkshire as the location of the tale of Robin Hood. The passage concerns his devout worship and godliness, rather than glorifying some daring deeds. It is interesting, though, that it is the celebration of the figure of Hood by the people that takes most of the author’s attention here. Also notable is the fact that ballads or stories of Robin were not simply confined to England. Like Arthur, the legend of Hood – or the spirit of who (or what) he represents – would cross national boundaries.
Around 1450, a ballad was written in Middle English, “A Gest of Robyn Hode” and may well be a printed version of a much older oral ballad or story, which travelling minstrels may have sung to audiences.
Lythe and listin gentilmen That be of frebore blode I shall you tel of a gode yeman His name was Robyn Hode
Another ballad, “Robin Hood and the Munk” [Monk], was also published around 1450 in England and, like “A Gest‘, may incorporate much older folk ballads and tales, perhaps dating back to the period of the Wars of Independence in the 14th century. That would help explain why the ballads and legend of Robin had travelled around southern Scotland – minstrels perhaps accompanying the soldiers of the English army. Robin seems to have been a central part of plays that were performed around May Day, in both England and southern Scotland. These plays included performances of tales of Robin Hood, dancing and feasting, celebrating spring and fertility in the land. It is interesting that where May Day celebrations take place today, a man in green – or a Green Man – feature, including in the resurrected (or manufactured, depending on your point of view!) Beltane Festival in Edinburgh.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that Robin, dressed in forest green attire, was a symbolic figure taken from folklore or earlier folk-belief gained some support. Margaret Murray, whose Witch Cult in Western Europe, became one of the set texts for those who claimed historical witchcraft to be alive and kicking into the modern era, claimed such. Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the Green Man and others, besides, were proposed by a number of different authors as being a nature spirit, or remnant of pagan Briton’s ancient belief system. It’s also worth remembering that green clothing was associated with Fairies and also featured in witchcraft confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The idea of continuous witch cults, surviving from the pre-Christian era into the present day is an idea which still divides opinion, academic and popular, to this day. Now, however, there is little mainstream support for the idea that Robin was some type of spiritual entity, linked to the woodlands – an erstwhile nature spirit or guardian. But, the idea still appeals to many. To some, Robin Hood is a simple corruption of Robin of the Wood, a green god which lingered on long after Christianity replaced (partially?) the Old Ways.
Supporters of this idea claim that this is why the figure of the Green Man can be found in so many medieval churches. The term Green Man is modern – dating to a 1939 volume of TheFolklore Journal, where Lady Raglan wrote of “The Green Man in Church Architecture”. Jack-in-the-Green is an alternative that has been used, as has Herne, Cernunnos, Bacchus and, of course, Rob or Hob. The origins of the figure and the reasons why he has appeared carved in some many churches and temples around the world is obscure. Examples can be seen from Saint Magnus’ Cathedral, Orkney; to Nicosia, Cyprus; Istanbul and beyond.
In Scotland, the image is more rare, but can be found in spectacular detail in Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, with over 100 different appearances in this spectacular building.
There is also at least one little green man in Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire which, not surprisingly is less well known that his near neighbour, the bagpipe-playing pig. But more on this another time…
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford is well worth a visit (when the current lockdown eventually ends!), for it’s fantastical architecture and antiquarian collections. It’s a place of romance and legend, showing the character of the author of Waverley, Ivanhoe and Red Gauntlet – the J. K. Rowling of his day.
The estate that surrounds Scott’s conundrum castle is important for its pioneering landscape and beautiful walks. It was only last year that I learned of Scott’s passion for forestry and his great planned arboretum. Abbotsford became one of the first and largest re-imagined woodlands anywhere. In its heyday, the estate reached some 1400 acres, as Scott bought farm after farm, creating the landscape visible today. Bankruptcy would see the estate shrink back to the 120 acres looked after by the Abbotsford Trust today. An army of volunteers help the Trust to restore and maintain a vast network of paths and the historic gardens.
Many dignitaries would call on Scott during his lifetime here – often to his annoyance – given his global fame as an author: the visiting book in his house notes such celebrities as Oscar Wilde among its pages.
The estates contain as much romance and history as the mansion. At one point, the lands included an area promoted as being the haunt of the legendary Thomas the Rhymer. Scott allowed and actively encouraged free access to his estate, except for the private gardens immediately next to the house, unlike many other landowners at the time, or since.
Another visitor hosted by Scott may be of interest to those of a slightly gloomy, supernatural disposition. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, visited Scott in 1817. Paying homage to Scott, Irving would then travel to Newstead Abbey, the gothic seat of the late Lord Byron.
His journal of the visit was published in 1835 and evokes a warm, image of the man and his house, his dogs and grimalkin, the cat:
The evening passed away delightfully in this quaint-looking apartment, half study, half drawing-room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of “Arthur,” with a fine, deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a rich treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such a place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture.
While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin, already mentioned, had taken his seat in a chair beside the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.
Scott accompanied Irving around his lands, including up a carriage route which travels uphill from Abbotsford towards a loch, Cauldshiels. It is a very pleasant route – we walked it in the height of summer and did not see another soul!
Cauldshiels Loch was known then – and now – as being a special place, because of the water spirit or bogle that lies within its depths. It was also said to be bottomless!
The sprite that haunted this place was a fearsome and enormous Water Bull – a supernatural being that is now less well known that it’s cousins, the kelpies or selkies. Water Bulls – known in Gaelic Scotland as tarbh uisge – were widely believed to be real well into the nineteenth century. Said to be malevolent – or benign! – these creatures lurked in the depths of lochs, but could shapeshift into human form and wander on land. They were feared but also thought useful as they were less of a threat to humanity than their enemies, the terrifying Water Horses or Each Uisge. Perhaps a remnant of pre-Christian, ancient animal worship, Water Bulls lingered in the popular imagination for centuries.
Scott mentioned the spirit to Irving, as they paddled across the loch in a small boat. He recalled this in his book:
We had a pleasant row about the lake, which commanded some pretty scenery. The most interesting circumstance connected with it, however, according to Scott, was, that it was haunted by a bogle in the shape of a water bull, which lived in the deep parts, and now and then came forth upon dry land and made a tremendous roaring, that shook the very hills. This story had been current in the vicinity from time immemorial;—there was a man living who declared he had seen the bull,—and he was believed by many of his simple neighbors. “I don’t choose to contradict the tale,” said Scott, “for I am willing to have my lake stocked with any fish, flesh, or fowl that my neighbors think proper to put into it; and these old wives’ fables are a kind of property in Scotland that belongs to the estates and goes with the soil. Our streams and lochs are like the rivers and pools in Germany, that have all their Wasser Nixe, or water witches, and I have a fancy for these kind of amphibious bogles and hobgoblins.”
Whether Irving believed this tale or not, is not made clear. What is certain is that Irving seems to have developed a genuine friendship with and admiration of Scott. His journal is well worth reading and it’s still in print, or available free online.
The path that leads away from Cauldshiels is now part of the Borders Abbey Way – a trail we hope to follow when we can.
On the day we visited, we saw no sign of the Water Bull, although I do remember hearing a surprisingly loud Moo! at one point…
The Scottish Borders is a land rich in legend, myth and all too real history. Some seventeen miles from where we live, in the valley of the Yarrow River, stands the gaunt shell of Newark Castle. Here, one of the most awful chapters of Borders history took place, ostensibly in the name of God.
Newark Castle is a large, strong tower which was built by the Douglas family in the 15th century. Sir James Douglas, whom the English dubbed The Black Douglas due to his success at fighting the invading army of England’s Edward I, fought with King Robert at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Folk in the north of England would recite the little poem
Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye. Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye. The Black Douglas shall not get ye.
to children, as a soothing lullaby! Good Sir James, as the Scots called him, would take his comrade King Robert’s heart to the Holy Land in crusade, a promise made and almost fully kept after the sovereign’s death. Douglas was killed in battle, but the heart was saved and returned to Scotland. It lies buried in a lead casket at Melrose Abbey, not too far from Newark.
The Douglas family would become too powerful for the Scottish royal house of Stewart, almost eclipsing the royal family in power and prestige. In 1440, the 16 year old William, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, were invited to a feast in Edinburgh Castle, in the presence of the ten year old puppet-ruler King James II. All was well until a black bull’s head was carried into the Great Hall. A bull’s head was a potent symbol of death and this was placed before the Earl. The two young men were then dragged into the courtyard and after a mock trial, beheaded for treason. The event would live on in infamy as The Black Dinner, and inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’.
A short rhyme commemorates the event:
Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower, God grant ye sink for sin; And that even for the black-dinner, Earl Douglas gat therin.’
The Douglas power was extinguished for a while. Newark Castle was taken in the name of the King and became a royal hunting lodge, surrounded by the dense Ettrick Forrest. The arms of King James III and his Queen, Margaret of Denmark, were emblazoned in stone above the entrance.
The almost continual wars with England in the 1500s saw many churches, towns and castles in the south burned and Newark was one of these, but it was restored again.
Worse was to follow, though, during the brutal Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1645, a Great Plague year, a horrible travesty of justice would take place. As the civil wars in Scotland and England and the Irish Wars played out, around 100 Royalist soldiers, their wives and children were captured and held in the castle’s courtyard in the aftermath of the battle of Philiphaugh (although some say as many as 400 in total). There, they had faced the Army of the Covenanters, under the command of David Leslie**, a professional solider for hire, who had previously served the Swedish Empire and the Tsar of Russia.
(Left)David Leslie. (Right) Marquis of Montrose
The Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians, galvanised into a movement following the disastrous attempts of King Charles I to impose perceived Anglican forms of worship on the Church of Scotland. This, less than a century after the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was a catastrophe from which King Charles would never recover. Although born a Scot, in the royal Palace of Dunfermline in Fife, Charles was very much a King of England who continually failed to understand the religious or political landscape in Scotland. From riots in the streets, to fully-fledged armed conflicts with the Royalist forces of the king, the Covenanters were fully embroiled in civil war in Scotland.
At Philiphaugh, on the banks of the Yarrow, the two sides met in the early morning mist. Some 4,000 Covenanters faced a Royalist force of half that size, under the leadership of the poet-soldier, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. Montrose’s hopes would end at Philiphaugh, although he himself would live to tell the tale, for a short time, at least.
The defeated Royalist troops and their camp followers – often the wives and children of the soldiers, in addition to merchants, laundry workers and the like – were shot, executed by the Covenanter Army where they stood, in cold blood. The Covenanters perhaps paused, briefly, before committing this terrible act, but they were, after all, an army convinced of their righteousness and Godliness. It no doubt helped that many of the prisoners were Irish and, or Catholic. Leslie would order a strikingly similar massacre at Dunaverty Castle, Argyll, in 1647.
A mass grave was seemingly discovered in the early 1800s in a field near Newark named Slain Men’s Lea, which seems to have become the victims’ final resting place.
On the anniversary of this dreadful deed, September 13, the cries of the victims are said to echo still. Their terrifies screams, echoing through the gaunt ruin.
Newark was damaged further during the war years that followed, but restored again for Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch – apparently the last inhabitant. On her death, the Castle was stripped of its finery and abandoned. The new mansion of Bowhill, nearby, a more comfortable and modern residence. Slowly, Newark fell into ruin, although still stands more or less complete to the wallhead.
Sadly, Newark seems to be open very rarely. Perhaps, the echoes of the past are louder inside than out! It is a remarkable building, with a fascinating story. Maybe one day, more can be made of it and public access allowed. But perhaps a place to avoid in mid-September.
**Changing sides, like many nobles, Leslie was ennobled by the restored King Charles II, as the first Lord Newark. This new title was named after the Leslie family’s Newark Castle in Fife, not this one! However, was a title that also – however inadvertently – recalled a massacre a sly judgement from the new King?
We are very lucky to live in a beautiful, peaceful place while the current limitations on travel exist. I hope before too long we’ll be on our way again and life will return to some form of normality, after this dreadful virus has been contained. However, lockdown has allowed us to explore our village and nearby places. I’ll share some views of them and stories from here with you over the next few days but to begin with, here’s a little about Hodge Cairn fort.
According to the wonderful PastMap, Hodge Cairn is the site of the remains of a large prehistoric oval fort on the slope of White Hill. Obscured over the centuries by farming and tree planting, there’s enough left to spot from the roadside, which I did, puffing up a hill on my bike during my daily exercise.
There are wonderful views of the ramparts and ditches which remain here, which clearly show the remains of the ancient buildings that were once inside. There are dozens of similar hillforts and medieval farmsteads in the hills surrounding the Gala Water, reaching back to the very early history of the land, before the Legions of Rome would arrive. The ancient peoples who lived here would have known the vast Ettrick Forrest that once covered these hills, clearing many trees to make way for the their homesteads and forts like this.
When the Romans arrived in the First Century, they called the inhabitants of this land the Votadini. Later, this Latinised name would be recorded in Old Welsh, the local tongue, as Guotodin, then Gododdin. This part of what is now Scotland was the territory of the ancient Cumbric-speaking Britons – the ancestors of the modern Welsh, Cornish and Bretons and cousins of the Picts.
The Welsh would come to tell tales of Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North – when remembering their ancestors here. Indeed, one of the earliest poems to have survived in Britain, Y Gododdin, recalls the people of this ancient kingdom. Supposed to have been written by the bard Aneirin, perhaps court poet to the Gododdin, it recalls the bravery and defeat of the Men of the North in battle c. 600 AD against the Angles of the south. The poem may also include the earliest reference to King Arthur as a paragon of bravery, although this is argued over. From their fort at Din Eidyn (now Edinburgh), the warriors travelled south, to annihilation at the hands of the Angles, a battle which saw the kingdom of the Gododdin disappear into the Angles’ Northumbria. It’s a (very!) long poem, but worth a look.
In later times, the Guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, launched guerrilla attacks on the English invasion forces from Ettrick, during the first Wars of Independence.
There is so much history in this part of Scotland, hidden beneath the grass of the rolling fields in now tranquil countryside. I’ll share more with you again soon.
Overlooking Galashiels, Buckholm Tower stands, ruined and looking a little forlorn. Inhabited into the twentieth century the tower could yet be saved, but a feeling of neglect and the passing of time almost overwhelms. Built in 1582, the tower was typical of the fortified towers that can be found throughout the Borders, but this one is still more or less complete, which makes its abandonment all the more melancholy.
The home of the Pringles of Buckholm, lairds in these parts, Buckholm is famed for its hauntings more than its architecture. One of these lairds, James Pringle, has become as notorious in death as he was, by all accounts, in life.
This story is very well known locally, so you might have heard it, but as Christmas is a time for tales of ghosts, here it is.
James Pringle lived in the second half of the 17th century and was feared for his temper, his cruelty and his debauchery. His wife and children would flee from him after years of torment and no woman was safe to visit Buckholm Tower. His reputation for evil was known for miles around and his favourite pastime was said to be hunting Covenanters – religious rebels in the eyes of the government – trailing them with his great hounds, as other lairds would hunt foxes and deer.
Ladhope Moor was a secret meeting place of the religious dissenters, anxious to worship far from the eyes of the State. Pringle knew of this and led a band of government troops there, keen to capture these Covenanting troublemakers. The Covenanters heard of the attack and fled, but one old man, Geordie Elliot – once a servant in the house of Buckholm – had fallen badly from his horse. His son, William, stayed by his gravely ill father. The Elliots were captured by the troops and Pringle was keen to execute them there and then.
The Captain of the troops, however, hoped to force details of their Covenanting friends from the men, so asked Pringle to hold them in the prison-like cellar in Buckholm Tower overnight. Pringle agreed.
With the Elliots held fast in his cellar, Pringle ate and drank alone. His brandy cup was filled and emptied several times and his sense of power and cruelty grew stronger by the cupful.
Pushing past those few servants in his employ, gathered outside the cellar door and listening to the cries for mercy coming from within, Pringle wanted to show his prisoners exactly how powerful he was. He entered the cellar, locking the door behind him, his terrified servants listening as sounds of a skirmish were followed by two, different, agonised screams.
Pringle emerged sometime later, locking the cellar behind him, a chilling smile on his face. He returned to his chamber and his brandy bottle.
Sometime later, a servant disturbed his drunken slumber. A visitor had arrived at Buckholm Tower. Old Isobel Elliot, wife of Geordie, had arrived to beg the Laird of Buckholm for mercy. With a leer, Pringle led the old woman to the cellar. Throwing open the cellar door, Pringle ushered Isobel inside with a mocking flourish.
A heart-breaking scream was all Isobel could give when she saw her husband and son, hanging from the meat hooks in the cellar ceiling, their bodies impaled like the meat of pigs which would normally hang there. Sobbing, she fell to the floor, where Pringle spat the insult “Witch!” at her.
Rising up, Isobel cursed the Laird of Buckholm, wishing him harm because of his hateful crimes.
And, from that day, a change was seen in Pringle of Buckholm. He claimed he had become accursed, haunted by packs of terrible hounds following him wherever he went. Servants would find him in his study, alerted by his screams, fighting off great dogs that no one else could see. Ghostly dogs would snap at his heels as he ferociously rode his horse back to Buckholm, begging his servants fight off the unseen dogs.
Then, not long afterwards, James Pringle of Buckholm died, in agony. Writhing in pain, the Laird departed this life, mourned by none.
One year later, as is often the case, on the anniversary of Pringle’s death, a ghostly figure was seen running up the winding path to Buckholm Tower, pursued by a glowing pack of hellish hounds. Loud banging noises were heard, as if the Devil himself was banging on the great wooden door of the castle, desperate to enter. Terrifying screams were heard from the castle courtyard but, when the door was opened, there was nobody there. And, a little later, screams were heard, coming from the cellar. Could it be that Pringle was being forced to reenact his terrible crimes, as punishment?
Every June, on the anniversary of his death, terrifying screams have been heard near the tower, ghostly hounds observed in the hills nearby. And, more dreadful again, heavy loud knocks from the now deserted cellar.
It is said that a Minister from Galashiels once performed an exorcism to rid Buckholm from these terrible torments.
Now, however, Buckholm has been left to its ghosts.
The village of Stow tends to be a little over-looked, I think. In histories and anthologies of the Scottish Borders and in books about sacred places, haunted spaces and witchcraft, it often doesn’t feature at all. Imagine, then, how chuffed I was (chuffed to bits, in fact), when I happened across the name of our village in a book about spirits and witchcraft. And not, just any old book.
Satan’s Invisible World Discovered is a wonderfully odd read, written in 1684-5 by George Sinclair, sometime Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. His Satan’s Invisible World is perhaps, now, the writing he is best remembered for, although his name lives on in the George Sinclair Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.
A staunch Protestant, eager to swear allegiance to William of Orange following that king’s overthrowing of the Stuart king, James VII in 1688, Sinclair wrote the book as proof of the Devil, evil spirits and witches which, therefore, proved the existence of God in the face of a growth in atheism. It is interesting that some sources claim Sinclair was born in East Lothian, which, some decades earlier, had been at the heart of some of the worst witch-hunts in Scotland, most famously including the North Berwick witch panic of 1590. Had something in his childhood struck the young George with fear, which manifested itself in later life as his unshakable belief in the supernatural? He was also a scientist, attracting much fame for exploring the wreck of an Armada ship in a large diving bell, among other things.
The book was immensely popular, said to be second only to the Bible in the humble cottages of Scotland, and contains a curious mixture of ancient and recent tales, which give a flavour of folk belief and superstition of the late 1600s. The most famous incidents, told through a serious of Relations, include the hauntings of Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, the infamous Major Weir and Wigtownshire’s Glenluce Devil – one of Scotland’s earliest alleged poltergeist hauntings.
Relation IX was one that immediately caught my attention a few nights ago, as I sat in my study reading late at night. According to Sinclair, in the ancient and royal burgh of Lauder in the year 1649, Robert Grieve – also known as Hob Grieve or Hob Grier in other sources – was arrested on charges of witchcraft. He was, says Sinclair,
“…an eminent warlock…”
His wife, unnamed in this account, had apparently been burned as a witch some twenty years previously, so perhaps the taint of magic and devilry had surrounded him like a mist for all those years. It was his wife, the story gained through his interrogation stated, who had introduced him to the Dark Arts as a means of escaping their poverty. If he agreed to meet a Gentleman he would learn how to become rich…
He had travelled with her to “a haugh on Gallawater near to the Stow” where the story begins. Here, then, in STOW! Sleepy, little over-looked Stow!
Following the sudden appearance of a fearful great black hound
“a great mastiff, bigger than any butcher’s dog”
that came and went and was not mentioned again in the story (something that seems to happen a lot in Sinclair’s stories, where weird stuff happens and everyone just moves on to the next weird stuff), the Devil appeared, and made Robert many promises in exchange for Robert’s services.
Robert’s fortunes did, indeed, improve significantly and he went on to become a powerful local warlock with many followers. His luck ran out in 1649, when the Godly society caught up with him. Along with five others he was dispatched as a witch, burnt at the stake – although, interestingly, it does not state where in this version of the tale.
Now, it might be stretching something a little to suggest that he was taken back to the scene of his Diabolical Tryst, to the haugh at Stow and dispatched with the five named Stow ‘witches’. Of course, there are many scholars and more learned folk than I who will scoff at this, but I like the thought that the story can be completed by the inclusion of poor Hob Grieve in the story of our little village. It can’t be proved at all and there may be no truth in it , but it’s possible, perhaps? Interestingly, Robert Grieve does not feature at all in the University of Edinburgh’s Scottish Witch-hunt Survey or its excellent interactive map (fascinating and horrifying – have a look!), but a Jon Grieve is listed as accused some thirteen years later. Could he be the son of Robert? Or, has the tale of a warlock called Grieve simply bound splinters of fact together? Maybe none of this occurred at all.
I mentioned in a previous post that Stow currently has no pub in the village. Wouldn’t it be great, if ever one is opened in the future, if it is called The Black Hound – a memory of a terrible injustice that once gripped the locals with fear and saw six innocents put to the fire in the name of the Godly?