Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Dark Deeds and a Tragic Queen


Scotland has a rich heritage of history as well as spectacular scenery. It seems you cannot go more than a few miles in any direction before meeting up with evidence of some pretty colourful characters and many dark and sinister deeds.

Scattered around the rugged countryside, is a wealth of haunted castles, whose walls have seen much violence and bloodshed, but few can lay claim to quite as much bloodiness as the Hermitage, situated in the remote Liddlesdale Valley  around six miles from Scotland’s border with England.

More of a fortress than a palace, its forbidding presence still rises today out of the boggy landscape, its strategic importance vital in the centuries of border conflicts and it legacy, in addition to the violence and battle, includes tales of black magic and sorcery, betrayal and revenge.

Originally built by the Lords Soulis, the first structure was erected in the thirteenth century although little of that remains now. In 1360, the earth and timber structure began to be replaced by a more formidable stone edifice. Hugh Dacre was responsible for the work, starting with the central stone tower and, even today, it is possible to see the cobbled courtyard and spiral stairs which led to the laird’s upper quarters. A further three towers were built and the whole place became a stronghold, heavily fortified although with some fine accommodation.

Being so close to the border, over the centuries there were gains and losses on both sides and, from time to time the castle fell into English hands. Sometimes the exchange of ownership was aided and abetted by the laird of the day, accepting money from the English in return for possession of his castle.  From the Soulis lords, it passed to the Dacres, the Douglases, then onto the Hepburns (the family of the infamous Earl of Bothwell who married Mary Queen of Scots after almost certainly murdering her husband, Lord Darnley). Latterly it passed to the Dukes of Buccleugh and the Scotts before coming into public ownership in 1930.

As for the sorcery and black magic, there are a number of legends. In the thirteenth century one of the lords Soulis – possibly Ranulf or Sir Nicholas. He had made a pact with the devil and engaged in dark acts of sorcery and magic. The devil appeared to him in the form of Robin Redcap and kept him from harm so that no weapons or attempts to hang him could succeed. Rumours quickly spread that, in order to pay back his debt to the devil, de Soulis was capturing and sacrificing local children.

Frightened for their children’s lives the villagers sought the aid of famed prophet and poet Thomas the Rhymer and asked what they should do to kill a man who was incapable of being harmed by weapons or the hangman’s rope. The advice he gave, they followed. According to legend, the villagers captured de Soulis and dragged him off to Ninestane Rig, a nearby ancient stone circle. They then tipped him into a vat of boiling oil.

Justice had been served – or not actually. It all makes for a great legend but, in fact, de Soulis was murdered by his servants before the family moved to the Hermitage. Another version states that he was imprisoned at Dumbarton Castle where he died.

Whichever version you subscribe to, Lord de Soulis has been heard and seen returning to the vaults where he performed his sacrifices and various devilish rituals. He visits every seven years and his terrifying visage, along with the tortured screams of his victims, has been reported many times.

 The wicked and vile Lord de Soulis has another claim to fame. A frighteningly huge knight called the Cout of Keilder rode up in full armour one day, bent on killing the evil lord. His suit of armour held magical powers so that he too could not be harmed by weaponry. Lord de Soulis is supposed to have drowned him in Hermitage Water – although another version of the tale states that the Cout was also an evil soul who terrorized the castle’s inhabitants until he was drowned.

Later in the castle’s history comes the sinister tale of owner of the Hermitage, Sir William Douglas who was furious when he learned that Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie had been made Sheriff when he firmly believed that honour should have gone to him. He ambushed Ramsey and carted him back to Hermitage Castle where he kept him prisoner until the poor man starved to death. When his corpse was finally found it was clear that he had gnawed his fingers to the bone. Sir Alexander Ramsay is reported to haunt the castle to this day and his cries have been heard, screaming from the walls.

The castle’s royal connection is with the aforementioned and tragic Mary Queen of Scots who would visit Bothwell at the castle. On one such trip, she fell from her horse into a bog, contracted a serious fever and almost died. The castle has its own White Lady apparition and this is said to be that of Mary. Given all the places she is alleged to haunt, Mary Queen of Scots’ ghost leads a much travelled hectic afterlife. As for the evil scheming Bothwell - having killed her husband, married her and then abandoned her to her fate, he died insane in a filthy Danish jail;

With so much going on, it is hardly surprising that Hermitage Castle has attracted the attention of some distinguished ghost hunters over the years. Famed Victorian journalist W.T. Stead visited there when he was a young man and reported being terrified by screeches from overhead, followed by the trampling of what sounded to him like ‘a multitude of iron-shod feet’. A heavy door swung on rusty hinges and the whole place took on a chilling, menacing air. He was greatly relieved to escape the place as he felt at any moment, he might encounter the devil himself.

 When Mary Queen of Scots’ son James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, border skirmishes ceased and the need for such a fortification ended. The castle quickly fell into neglect and ruin and would not have survived today were it not for the efforts of Sir Walter Scott (whose family owned it for a time), the 5th Duke of Buccleuch (a subsequent owner) and now Historic Scotland. You can visit it – but be warned, the spirits are still there…

There are ghosts aplenty in Henderson Close – and a devil or two. Here’s what to expect from The Haunting of Henderson Close:

Ghosts have always walked there. Now they’re not alone… 

In the depths of Edinburgh, an evil presence is released. Hannah and her colleagues are tour guides who lead their visitors along the spooky, derelict Henderson Close, thrilling them with tales of spectres and murder. For Hannah it is her dream job, but not for long. Who is the mysterious figure that disappears around a corner? What is happening in the old print shop? And who is the little girl with no face? The legends of Henderson Close are becoming all too real. 

The Auld De’il is out – and even the spirits are afraid.

The Haunting of Henderson Close is available from: