Lost origins of stones. A walk around Lauderdale.

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.

Thirlestane Castle
Thirlestane Castle

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.

Lauderdale. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654.
Detail from ‘Lauderdale’. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

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.

A walk in insolation and a real Green Man

I am thankful to live in a beautiful place, surrounded by quiet roads and woodlands that can be explored without intruding on farmland.  As the Covid-19 lockdown continues, without sign of diminishing, I find a walk in the open to be the best part of the day – a calming escape from the same four walls and the omnipresent work laptop.  I know we’re lucky to have this, so close.

On Sunday, having been pretty much potato-level inactive over the previous week, we took the opportunity to take a slightly longer walk than usual, but still walking straight from home.   The walk would be around ten miles in total, from our front door and back, sticking to the roads and maintaining a social-distance from any cyclists and fellow-walkers we happened to pass.  We touched no farm gates, benches or anything else except the tarmac beneath our boots.  As the sun shone, then, we left Stow and headed uphill (which is pretty much the same in every direction from Stow!).

We had decided to walk to our local Community Woodland, at Wooplaw.

Wooplaw is important nationally as the first community buy-out of woodland anywhere in the country, way back in 1987.    Marked as a tower on Blaeu’s famous 1654 Atlas of Scotland, Wooplaw House is a 19th century building, possibly on the site of earlier buildings.  Nearby is Murdercleugh, where a drover was killed for his money, after a drunken night of boasting at the Hawksnest Inn.  The woods were once part of the Wooplaw estate.  The origins of the name are lost in time, although I did read a suggestion that Wooplaw is derived from Old English wulf-hop- hlāw, “wolf-hope law”, or in other words, Wolf Valley Hill! 


Tvedia cum vicecomitatu Etterico Forestae etiam Selkirkae dictus, [vulgo], Twee-dail with the Sherifdome of Etterik-Forest called also Selkirk / auct. Timotheo Pont.  1654.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Armed with a bottle of water and some chocolate, we set out, puffing up one of the steepest hills that leads away from Stow towards the ancient towns of Earlston and Galashiels.  There were very few folk out that day, mostly cyclists.  The air was clear and fresh and the sky mostly a dazzling blue.  Hares were dashing around, little lambs were springing and calves were mooing.  It felt like being in a Disney cartoon…

One of the other reasons I was keen to walk to Wooplaw was that just a little further on lies the end of one of the ancient walkways that has crossed the landscape for centuries, The Girthgate.

This ancient road once linked Edinburgh and Melrose, linking important towns and religious houses, with the hospital and church at Soutra, high up in the hills – a place now famous for having the main road’s snow gates closed frequently in winter.  Soutra was founded by Malcolm IV, King of Scots, in c.1160 and was once one of the most important hospitals in Scotland.  Centred around the House of the Holy Trinity, the Augustinian monks here tended to the sick and to travellers.  Soutra was built almost certainly on an existing route and it is suggested that the Roman road known as Dere Street follows the same path at this point.  So, the road is at least a thousand or so years old!  I find this staggering and a bit of a thing of wonder!


It is astonishing to wonder about the people who have followed this path over the last millennium: kings; knights; bishops; soldiers.  The Romans who may have built the first road here, were followed by the Picts, the Gododdin, the Scots and the Angles.  Wars have been fought around it, countless lives lived – and lost  – on and near it.  Maybe, shades of these former souls still linger, here and there?

It is possible to walk most of the Girthgate, starting at the little village of Oxton.  During the Covid-19 lockdown, though, that idea will need to be filed under ‘in the future’.  That route, some eight and a half miles, ends just here, between Threepwood Farm and Wooplaw.  Not far away, the line of the Girthgate might now lie under the present road which travels on to Melrose, passing by a quaintly (oddly) positioned crossroad, that should really have an old-fashioned 1930s style signpost on it.  But it doesn’t.  The signpost is disappointingly new.  Still, I wondered whether any legends which frequently attach themselves to crossroads, were attached to this ancient one.

This junction is where the Community Woodlands at Wooplaw are spilt into two distinct parts, but an easy walk leads from one to the other.  Both are well worth visiting, featuring a modern day Roundhouse, tranquil pond and picnic area.

The community woods here were created through the vision of a local, much-missed woodsman, sculptor, craftsmen, environmentalist, poet and artist Tim Stead.  If there was ever a human,  modern day Green Man, it was him.  Tim sparked the idea of woodland owned by the people, a radical thought in the 1980s which has now been replicated many times over.  Here, though, he was groundbreaking. He lived only a few miles from here, in a building which – it is hoped – can also be saved for the nation.   The Steading is a breathtakingly beautiful expression of Tim’s passion and art and is of international importance.  I hope the Tim Stead Trust succeeds in its ambitions.

Wooplaw also acts as a lasting legacy of Tim, in the same way his art does.  Tended to by volunteers, the woods have an ethereal feeling to them.  This is, perhaps, in part amplified when you come across the memorial slab and wooden statue that commemorate Tim.  Read the moving ambitions that the Tim Stead Trust has to save his legacy and beauty of his creation in their plan.  A more fitting memorial would be hard to imagine.





Having spent a very lazy week, when all thoughts of the government-sanctioned daily exercise was replaced with just one more chocolate digestive and a cup of coffee, I decided that exercise was in order today.  It was sunny, too, for the first time in days and so we went on an eight-mile round trip walking out of Stow to the little farm of Windydoors.


I’ve cycled up here before, some of the hills almost finishing me off as they are pretty steep. The views of the surrounding countryside are worth the effort, though, looking out over the Selkirkshire countryside towards the Eildon Hills.  Hare, pheasant, sheep and cattle were the only inhabitants we saw on most of our trip, although nearer to Stow cyclists and walkers were all out for their exercise time, too.

We were hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the many ruined tower houses that can be found throughout the county.  There are some forty or so, listed – whether standing or mere marks in the turf. Ancient, tall castles, so emblematic of Scotland and remnants of turbulent times, many fell into ruins as more peaceful times and more elegant fashions took hold.  Some, like Neidpath, outside of Peebles, are still lived in, but most lie shattered in ruins, or have vanished utterly, beneath the ploughs of later farmers.  Others, like Kirkhope and Aikwood – connected in legend to the great southern wizard, Michael Scott – have been restored.

I’m hoping we visit as many of these ancient places, when time allows.  I’ve always loved visiting castles and once hoped to restore and live in my own!  Alas, the lottery win has yet to happen, so not quite yet.

But, today, Windydoors Tower was our destination.  The place, ‘Windiduris’ was first recorded in the year 1456, but the current tower was begun in the following century. The name simply means ‘windy pass’.


Probably three or four storeys high, little remains above the ground floor, cellars.  The rest was plundered to build the adjoining farm steading and house and two doors have been broken through into the old castle cellar.  The remains are not particularly impressive, but they are more substantial than many other sites which once had a castle.  The setting is particularly pretty, however, overlooking the sloping fields and Stantling Craig reservoir.

It’s worth pointing out that the ruin is situated within a working farm, so we didn’t want to intrude, taking a quick photograph from a distance.

In 1797, a Thomas Gibson was listed as the proprietor of Windydoors in the Dog Tax returns.  Having two dogs, he was taxed 10 shillings (his neighbour, the Duke of Buccleuch at Bowhill House, had four dogs listed and was taxed £1).

I haven’t found much else about Windydoors.  Unlike Buckholm, there doesn’t appear to be a haunting to investigate.

One thing I will need to remember, though, is a plastic bag in my backpack.  The verges have more litter than the last time I cycled past – clearly from drivers throwing fast-food wrappers and plastic bottles out of their car windows.  Grrrrrr.

The Shelly Coat: part three.

The mist was rippled by a slight breeze as he walked across the gravel to the porch and the front door.  The tops of the pines at the far side of the field over the road were still hidden, but it looked as if the mist was finally moving away.  The eerie, quiet whiteness unnerved him.  It was when the world was at its most still that unfortunate things happened.  Or so it had seemed.

He looked back along the road as he reached into his pocket for the keys.  He was expecting a delivery this morning and didn’t want to miss the lorry.  He was completely out of Thomas The Rhymer and his regulars wouldn’t let him off another night without any.  Silly buggers, there were plenty of other bottles of cider, ales and spirits.  Creatures of habit, though, the local ale was his best seller to his regulars and he’d be buggered to lose money if he could help it.  No sign of the lorry,  he unlocked the door and walked into his pub.  Turning on the lights, he smiled as he looked around the bar.

The Hoppringle was his pride and joy, which he knew was a bit of a cliché, but one that was true.  Once a large farmhouse with a stone courtyard, for at least two centuries it  had served the old road as an Inn.  Built of solid, stone walls, it was, he thought, a rather beautiful place.  Bare wooden floors shone with a polish and colour that only the passing of time could provide.  The grey walls inside showed the old prints on the plastered walls to good effect, sharply contrasting with the golden wood that panelled parts of the room.  Just right.

The marks in the wooden door and window frames were all intact, he was relieved to see, and he’d already noted that there was no sign of any disturbance in the gravel outside the pub.  All good, then, he sighed.

He took the log basket he’d filled the previous evening from the log store outside up to the pot-bellied stove in the corner and started building a fire to warm the bar up.  He could see his breath in the air, even inside, on days like this.  It was always noticeably colder up here on the ridge road, compared to down in the village.  He shivered and stood up from the stove, taking from his pocket the red yarn wound tightly around an old bobbin.  In his other pocket, he felt for the little plastic envelope which contained the berries and rowan twigs.  He’d see to this later, he thought.

A sharp blast of a loud horn announced the arrival of the draymen.  At least Janey wouldn’t have to endure another night of moaning from the locals, providing the keg of Thomas was here.  And where the hell was she anyway?  Not like her to be late.

He walked across the room, checking that the fire in the stove had taken, towards the door.  He pulled it open and met Lanney, his regular brewery drayman.  Lanney was scratching under his wooly hat with a pencil.  He liked Lanney. One of the good guys around here.  He was also a regular, which still struck John as odd.  He’d be as well drinking at work and saving time and money than trecking up to the pub.

‘Alright, Lanney,’ he said.

‘Hiya John.  Six kegs, aye?’


It was at least half an hour later than Janey finally arrived.

‘Afternoon, Janey’, said John.

‘Aye, very good, John.  I’m not that late.  I’m sorry, the bus was ridiculously behind,’ she replied, as she hurried across to behind the bar, taking her coat off as she walked. ‘I’d have called you, but you know what the signal’s like at the stop?’

‘Aye, alright Janey, no bother.  The brewery delivered, so at least we’ve got Thomas for tonight.’

‘Thank God for that.  I couldn’t be bothered having Roddie whining on and on again, like last night’.

John smiled.  Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.


Around five o’clock, the pub was warm, cosy and beginning to get busier again. Outside, the land had disappeared into the night.  The mist had cleared during the day and now it was cloudless and very cold.  A slight frost was glistening already and, judging by how many stars glowed overhead, it was to be colder still.  The sky had that faint snow smell that the farmers knew well.   By the end of the week, the snow would cover the hills, much later than normal this year. Inside, the lamps gave off a warm, subdued glow.  The music in the background was just right with Maddy Prior’s voice just audible above the friendly conversations that were taking place.

Roddie was perched on his usual stool by the bar, a pint of Thomas in one hand and a vaporizer in the other.   He was chatting to Janey, his left leg bouncing up and down repeatedly, as always happened when he was talking about something he had an opinion on.  On this occasion, Brexit.    John watched them both from the corner of his eye as he collected empties from across the room.  The pub has been busy that afternoon, thanks to the ramblers from Gala.  Janey was smiling slightly at Roddie, whilst she twisted willow stalks in her hands.

John could tell that Janey was enjoying the chat, even if her expression  said otherwise.  She was used to the peculiarities of his customers after all these years.  Roddie was harmless.  Just lonely.  And far too bloody chatty.  It must be difficult for him, though, stuck up at Cauldhaugh ever since Malcie had gone.

Thinking of Malcie always made John’s cheeks burn red and he was thankful that no-one was watching him.  He gathered up the empty glasses and took them behind the bar to the sink.  Roddie was still talking, but John wasn’t listening.  It was only when Janey touched him lightly on the arm that he began to listen again.  Janey leaned in closely, turning her back on Roddie.  Roddie didn’t seem to notice, or care, that his audience was moving away.  Maddy Prior had been replaced by Toni Arthur and Roddie was now in full song.

‘Did you see that there’s been another one, John?’, she asked.

‘Another what, Janey?’

‘You know what.  At the Sentinel Stone, this time.’

‘Ach, Janey, that was early last year.  You must have seen the posters, surely?  It was all over the news, too’, said John.

‘No.  I didn’t.  I don’t know why.  That was when I went to Edinburgh, to the University, to see Bethan.  But, John, The Sentinel Stone.  It’s getting closer.  That can’t be good, can it?  What does it mean?’.

Janey looked a little scared, he was surprised to see.

“It was last February, Janey.  I think we’re okay now.’

Janey wasn’t convinced.  ‘You saw the marks on the wood, didn’t you?  That daft bugger’s been trying to erase them, hasn’t she?  She thinks if she rubs them out, it’ll let it loose, doesn’t she?’

John stopped polishing the pint glass he was holding.  He turned to look at her, smiling.

‘Janey.  The marks are all still there.  Not that that matters a bit.  If that daft old bitch wants to play games, then let her. We’re safe.  We follow the rules and we stay safe.  Now, don’t worry.  Go and see what Roddie wants, will you?  He looks like he’s never had a drink in his life, the way he’s waving that pint glass at us like a loon.’

As she walked away, John’s eyes flicked to the dark grooves and patterns in the beams by the window.  They all looked right.  Didn’t they?  He picked up another clean glass and polished it, without thinking.






The Shelly Coat: part two.

The bus was late again.  This wasn’t unusual and she didn’t mind at all.  The sooner it arrived, the sooner she’d have to start work and that could wait.  If only it was a bit warmer.

The mist still hadn’t shifted and that made her feel sad.  This time of year usually did, but something had changed in the last month that she couldn’t quite explain.  She shivered, drawing her collar higher up.  Sighing, looking at her watch again, she shifted her position against the bus shelter seat that wasn’t a seat.  It was more like a shelf that you had to prop up against.  At her age, she could have done with a proper sit down.

She smiled.  At her age, she shouldn’t be working at all, in which case she could be back in her cottage in front of the fire.  Life hadn’t quite worked out as planned, though, had it?

She stood up, trying to stamp some warmth into her legs.  She turned, glancing at the notices someone had taped to the scarred plastic windows in the shelter.  Two new homemade posters begged for help in finding missing cats.  Peachy and Sparky.  One black, one white.  Ebony and Ivory, she hummed.

The older posters carried other photographs.  Missing: Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn. Last seen, 17/01/18 on the Borders Towers Way near Scarrigg Water.   And, next to the fading photograph of the German student, his friendly, bearded face fading as the seasons bleached the printer ink, another face.  Missing –  Aylie Liddel, 17, from Galashiels. Last seen walking near the bus stop at the Sentinel Stone, February 2019. 

She sniffed.  The hopes that these folk had, desperate to see their loved ones again.  She  had felt like that once, long ago.  She remembered putting notices up, full of expectation and terror, checking every day for months that her posters could be seen.  She had walked the paths around the village and beyond the valley every other day, terrified of missing a call from the Police but fearful of doing nothing but wait.  That’s when she had started going to The Hoppringle.  At first, it was to talk with the landlord, John, to see if there was any news.  Then, to talk with the customers to see if they could help her; locals mostly but with hillwalkers and cyclists regularly visiting.  No-one ever had any news of any use.  Visiting more frequently, she had become a regular herself without realising.  After a few months, John had asked if she needed work, with money not coming in any more.  Her job there had now lasted a little over fifteen years.  And still, she had no news. Or, rather no news that anyone sane would believe.

The Hoppringle Inn  was one of the best old pubs in the county.  Everyone said so.  At least two hundred years old –  the souvenir T-shirts and mugs claimed 400 years – the pub was a  sturdy stone building, two storeys tall and cosy in winter with the fires burning.  Halfway along the Towers Way, the pub had become increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists and less so with locals.  Nothing to do with the influx of strangers and more to do with drink driving checks and the smoking ban, there was still a loyal following of Borders who still visited regularly.  Real Ales, dogs welcomed and football barred, she loved it.  John’s only concession to the outside world was a jukebox and a fading Saltire fluttering outside, the word Yes printed across it.  Were it not for these intrusions, the pub could be a hundred years ago.  That’s what folk said.

She shivered again.  Where the hell was the bus?  It was definitely getting colder.  She took out her mobile, wondering whether to call John.  The wind picked up, her coat flapped around her legs and she tightened her belt, hugging her arms together and hopping from foot to foot.  No cars had passed on the road for some time.  She wondered if Alasdair would be on his way soon.  Or, maybe, Mary.  Either would be able to give her a lift, as the pub quiz would be sure to include them both.  It usually did.

It was beginning to get dark, now.  The bus stop was in an exposed spot, overlooking the river valley.  The dry stane dykes that lined the verges on either sign of the road providing a bit of a shelter, but this was a bitterly cold place to have to wait.   The Hawthorns and Scots Pines that managed to grow here were more twisted and stunted than elsewhere, showing their shared history of storms and high winds that blew along the valley.  Only gorse seemed happy here, and the rough, shaggy grass that grew in strange waves and bumps on the ground.  Too far outside the village to be useful to most, she normally had the shelter to herself.  Only occasionally did anyone from Calzeanie Farm use the stop, preferring their pick ups or ATVs to the infrequent buses.

She began to think that maybe she should retrace her steps, back down the hill and home.  She could call John and explain.  He’d understand.  She turned round, unsure of what to do next.  Her eye caught the face of Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn.  Glancing again at his poster, an email address begged for information to be sent to Helmut and Suzie Drewes.

Oh, Helmut, Oh, Suzie.  That’s not going to happen, is it, loves?  Not now.  She had received no good news fifteen years ago and nor, now, would they.  Eventually, she was sure, they would move beyond grief but they would never be able to understand what had happened to poor, handsome, friendly Jakob.  Nobody could possibly understand.  Except the Shelly Coat, of course.  The Shelly Coat knew why, when and where.  But would never tell.

The red and cream bus was announced by the sound of hissing breaks, bringing her back to the present.  She climbed aboard, nodding her usual greeting to Tam the driver.  Wearily, she sat down, thinking of the Hoppringle and the work that awaited.


Margaret Wilson

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil comes calling… Part One.

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

The old and new Parish Kirks in Stow of Wedale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witches circle

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Jonet Henrison

Marion Henrison

James Henrison

Isobel Thompson

Margaret Dunholme

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intolerance and Fear. The witch hunts begin. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It’s, like, really, really old…

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


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

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

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