An expert guide to Scotland’s legendary castles
Author and historian Marc Alexander highlights some of the best legends associated with Scottish castles.
Scotland is famous for its castles and no wonder. There are over 1,000 of them ranging from time-worn ruins to citadels still grand and serviceable. It isn’t surprising that legends grew around them, sometimes inspired by historic incidents. Here are examples of several traditional themes.
Glamis Castle is famous for its mysterious phenomena which include a tragic female phantom said to appear surrounded by a fiery glow above the clock tower. In real life, she was Lady Janet Douglas, widow of the 6th Lord of Glamis. In 1537 a relative, William Lyon, accused her, her son and her second husband Archibale Campbell of attempting to murder James V of Scotland by witchcraft.
After they were arrested, Campbell fell to his death when attempting to escape from Edinburgh Castle. Lady Janet’s end was more terrible – tied to a stake, she was burned alive on Edinburgh Castle’s Hill. According to an old chronicle she met her fate ‘with great commiseration of the people… suffering all with a man-like courage’.
Her son survived as the court decided he couldn’t be executed until he reached his 21st birthday. Before the fatal date William Lyon had made a deathbed confession that he’d made the witchcraft allegation out of spite.
A different type of legend concerns the ruins of Castle Urquhart, overlooking Loch Ness. According to a local tradition, deep beneath its foundations is a great underwater cavern – the lair of the Loch Ness Monster.
It has been suggested that the monster, now more endearingly referred to as Nessie, was the invention of a journalist desperate for a scoop. In fact, the story goes back to AD563 when St Columba is believed to have stayed at the fortress that evolved into Castle Urquhart whilst endeavouring to convert the Picts. According to an ancient manuscript he saved a Pict from a monster while there.
Today Nessie hunters – with cameras rather than harpoons – visit the castle in the hope of snapping a sensational photo from the splendid vantage point. And Nessie recently made the headlines after no reported sightings for the last eighteen months. A satellite image showing the waters above Loch Ness, and a shadowy form around 100 metres long, has been studied by the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club after the image was spotted by a members of the Great North Air Ambulance in early 2014.
A curse figures in the legend of Edzell Castle which stands a short distance from the village of that name. The story goes far back to when Lord Crawford, then owner of the castle, had two gypsy lads hanged for poaching.
The boys’ mother confronted Lady Crawford and cried: ‘I curse you. You shall not see the sun set. As for you, Lord Crawford, you shall die a death that would make the boldest man even to witness shriek with fear.’
Legend tells that Lady Crawford died soon afterwards and Lord Crawford was devoured by wolves.
One of the most remarkable paranormal manifestations on record occurred mirage-like above Inveraray Castle, which stands close to Loch Fyne. On 10 July 1758, Sir William Hart, an eminent physician, went for a stroll in the castle grounds accompanied by two companions. Suddenly one of the men looked up and cried out in astonishment.
In the sky above the castle, a phantom battle was taking place. Soldiers in Highland dress were attacking a fort until volleys of musket fire forced them to retreat, leaving a great number of their dead comrades. Then the scene of carnage dissolved, leaving a clear summer sky.
Soon afterwards, two bemused women arrived at Inveraray crying how they’d seen a dreadful vision above the castle. Their account tallied exactly with that Sir William and his companions had witnessed.
What could it mean? At that time there was war with the French in America, in which Scottish troops were involved. Some time later, dispatches reached Scotland stating that Highlanders had been in action against a French fort at Ticonderoga on Lake George. And the date of the battle? 10 July.
Marc Alexander is the author of The Scottish Castles Story, published by History Press. The book explores the story of Scotland’s castles, featuring many vivid tales from history and legend, and showcasing a wide range of its incredible wealth of castles.