Hermitage Castle, Newcastleton, Borders

Hermitage Castle broods in desolate isolation amidst some of the eeriest countryside imaginable.

The gentle warmth of a summer’s day rarely penetrates its sullen bulk. Creepy corridors and cold stone staircases meander between the moss-clad walls of its ruinous interior the very fabrics of which seem imbued with a genuine ambience of menacing evil.

Built around 1300, on the disputed borderlands between England and Scotland, the castle’s ownership would switch regularly between the two over the next four hundred years, as the frequent conflicts that swirled around its towering walls led to its being dubbed the "guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Britain."

One of the earliest owners of Hermitage Castle was Sir William Douglas "the Knight of Liddesdale" who wrested it from the clutches of its then occupant, the Englishman Sir Ralph de Neville in 1338.

Douglas was much respected in Scotland on account of his victories against the English. However, when King David 11 made Sir Alexander Ramsay sheriff of Teviotdale, the ruthless and envious Douglas lured the unfortunate Ramsay to Hermitage and imprisoned him in a "frightful pit or Dungeon, apparently airless and devoid of sanitation." Here he was starved to death, and his ghostly groans have echoed down the centuries ever since.

But most infamous of all the Castle’s bygone residents was Sir William de Soulis, who owned it during the reign of Robert the Bruce (1274-1329).

Historically, Sir William was arrested and executed for plotting the assassination of The Bruce in order that he might have himself crowned King of Scotland.

But legend has chosen to bestow a far more dramatic end upon "Bad Lord Soulis."

Tradition maintains that this thoroughly evil individual was a practitioner of the Black Arts who kidnapped the children of the neighbourhood to use their blood in his sinister rituals, during which he would conjure up his demonic familiar, Robin Redcap.

Eventually the local residents petitioned King Robert, begging to be relieved from the scourge of their wicked Lord. "Boil him if you must," replied the King "but let me hear no more of him."

Taking his words literally, the locals stormed the castle, wrapped de Soulis in lead, and plunged him head first into a boiling cauldron.

His ghost now wanders the castle, a malevolent spectre whose nebulous meanderings are often accompanied by the heart-rending sobs of children echoing along the crumbling corridors.

There is something strangely indefinable about Hermitage Castle, as though whatever malicious forces are harboured within its vast, impregnable walls resent your presence.

Indeed, it is easy to understand the local sentiments, recorded by Sir Walter Scott that "The Castle.. unable to support the load of iniquity which had long been accumulating within its walls, is supposed to have partly sunk beneath the ground; and its ruins are still regarded by the peasants with peculiar aversion and horror."

Blackness Castle, Blackness, Falkirk

Your worst nightmare’s could not conjure up a place as demonic as the aptly named, Blackness Castle.

It squats menacingly atop a knoll of jagged black rock, its shoreline lapped by the grey waters of the Firth of Forth.

From the moment you set foot on the rickety pathway of its dark, vaulted gatehouse, you are confronted by a sparse interior, where evil foreboding oozes from its every pore.

As you wander between its forbidding towers, you don’t so much walk as stumble across the uneven cobblestones or scramble across chunks of black, serrated rock to reach rooms and staircases where you can just sense that numerous unspeakable deeds have been perpetrated.

Built in the 14th century, and massively strengthened in the 16th century when it became an artillery fortress, it has also been a Royal Castle, an armaments depot and a State prison.

The central Tower is known as the "Prison Tower" and, as you climb its winding stone staircase, a distinct feeling of oppressive coldness hangs heavy in the air.

It was here that a dramatic manifestation occurred in the late 1990’s, when a lady who had brought her two young sons on a visit, was startled by the sudden appearance of a knight in armour whom, she claimed, chased her angrily from the tower.

A group of ghost enthusiasts, who persuaded the custodian to allow them to stay over night one Halloween, were disturbed by the constant noise of furniture being scraped and banged across the stone floor of the room beneath them. Although one of their number bravely investigated the disturbance, he found nothing out of place. But the moment he returned to his companions, the noises began again.

Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh

Standing in the dark, narrow Close’s and Wynds that slope steeply between the tall gaunt buildings that line the ridge known as the Royal Mile, in Edinburgh, you find yourself lost in an almost ethereal world of silent shadow.

In the Middle Ages this was one of the most densely populated and disease ridden quarters in Europe, and you entered these sinister labyrinths at your peril. Confined by the city wall, Edinburgh had expanded upwards, its stark tenements rising nine, ten - even eleven storeys high, casting the walkways between them into eternal darkness.

Even today a journey through these murky chasms is not for the faint of heart, and the tales of ghosts and sinister happenings, of which there are plenty, can elicit cold shivers, even on the brightest summers day.

Buried beneath the 18th century buildings of the city chambers, there exists a hidden Close that is, historically more horrifying, and supernaturally more terrifying than any other – Mary King’s Close.

Plague was a frequent visitor to the squalid and rat infested tenements of Edinburgh. But one of the worst visitations came in 1645 and the residents of Mary King's close were decimated by it.

The City fathers, in an ill-conceived and barbaric attempt to contain the contagion walled these neighbourhood's off and left the residents to die in what must have been unimaginable horror.

Once the pestilence had abated, the stench from the corpses became unbearable, and so the authorities sent two butchers to clear away the detritus of the deceased. The men simply hacked the rotting cadavers to pieces, loaded them onto a cart and wheeled them away.

Such was the shortage of accommodation that soon new residents came to live in Mary King’s Close and, by 1685, it had become common knowledge that spirits from the plague year were still there!

Thomas Coltheart, a lawyer, and his wife were beset in their new home by numerous apparitions.

The disembodied head of an old man, with a grey wispy beard and terrible eyes was seen floating around their rooms. It was sometimes accompanied by a severed arm, which seemed intent on shaking Thomas Coltheart’s hand.

A ghostly child appeared hovering in mid air and a veritable menagerie of strange, deformed phantom animals paraded before the astonished couple.

The upper storeys of the Close were demolished in 1750 and the Royal Exchange constructed on the site.

The City merchants, however, preferred to do business in the streets and so the new building became the City Cambers, beneath which the rooms, passages and stairways of Mary King’s Close survived. Today it is a secret place that can be visited only on pre-booked tours, but it also reputed to be the most haunted part of Edinburgh.

A tall lady, dressed in a long black gown, is but one of the many ghosts that frequent this underground world of lengthening shadows. Several visitors have caught fleeting glimpses of a short, elderly man who wears a troubled expression.

But perhaps the most poignant of its earth bound spirits is that of a little girl, whose lank hair hangs over a pale face that is covered in weeping sores. She was discovered by a Japanese medium, brought here by a television company and who was told nothing of the Close’s history prior to her visit.

Stepping into one of the rooms the medium was overwhelmed by a disturbingly depressive aura. As she turned to leave, someone tugged on her trouser leg. Going back into the room she found a dishevelled young girl weeping in the corner, who told her that she had died of “the sickness” in 1645.

The distraught child revealed that she had lost her doll and felt very lonely and unhappy as a result. Moved by her plight, the television crew bought her a doll and left it in the room.

Ever since, many visitors have also brought gifts for the ghostly child, and a bizarre collection of toys, dolls, books and even coins are now piled in the corner of the room.

Balgonie Castle, Nr. Glenrothes, Fife

The magnificent sandstone residence of Raymond Morris, the much-honoured Laird of Balgonie, is one of the finest 14th century towers in Scotland.

Probably built by Sir Thomas Sibbald, Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, it was added to and expanded over the centuries until David, 3rd Earl of Leven, built the final wing in 1702.Despite playing host to several visitors of note – Mary, Queen of Scots, Rob Roy, Daniel Defoe, James Boswell and Dr Johnson included – the castle lay largely neglected by the 1840’s, and letters began appearing in the Edinburgh press decrying its appalling state.

The roofs’ being removed so that the owners could avoid paying the Roof Tax certainly didn’t help!

Throughout the 20th century vandals and the elements abetted the castles sad decline and, by the 1970’s, it was little more than a melancholic ruin.

In 1985 Raymond Morris, whose family were the first people to live in it for 160 years, purchased Balgonie Castle.

They had soon grown used to sharing their abode with the ethereal inhabitants to whom a fortress of such impressive antiquity is, inevitably, home.

The Laird’s son, Stuart, has seen a ghostly old man walking across the courtyard; a head and collar materialise out of a wall and front of him, and even a phantom dog and its nebulous owner who disappeared into an invisible doorway.

One night, Margaret, The Lady of Balgonie, was asleep by the fire in towers upper room (the wind often howls in demented fury around the walls and windows up here and there is no central heating!), when she awoke to find the figure of a man in 17th century attire, sitting on the sofa opposite. She looked him up and down and then he suddenly vanished.

A few weeks later, she came across a portrait of the first Earl of Leven, and immediately recognised him as the revenant she had seen.

But the castle’s most famous spectre is "Green Jeanie," described in 1842 as being a "well-known phantom."

Garbed in green, her face concealed by a hood, she wanders Balgonie castle and has been seen many times in recent years.

Nobody knows who she was or, even what event, if any, made her such permanent fixture in the castles phantom guest book. She has been seen walking behind the iron bars of the ground floor windows in the ruinous 1702 wing and was recently captured on a digital photograph, taken by a guest at one of the many weddings now held at the castle.

The Great Hall, which is the only room never to have been remodelled, still retains many of its original fixtures, and is imbued with a uniquely historic atmosphere chilling yet tranquil. It is a candlelit place of dancing shadows, where reports of indistinct shapes seen flitting around its darker recesses, or the oft heard sound of disembodied voices engaged in indecipherable conversation, are sufficient to send uncanny shivers down the spine.

Add to all this, several cold spots detected by visiting mediums; an unknown "something" that once ran its icy cold fingers down the back of an astonished waitress; a disembodied head that once floated out of the great hall; not to mention white and grey figures seen at several different locations, and you begin to understand why Balgonie has the reputation of being one of the most haunted castles in Scotland.

Yet, it is also a very spiritual and peaceful location, and the romantic chapel, bedecked in flowers, and illuminated only by candlelight, is acknowledged as a truly romantic wedding venue.

The whole castle, cut off from the outside world by a huge encircling wall, seems trapped in a time warp, and exploring it in in the company of the kilted and bearded Laird is an experience without equal.

Raymond Morris readily acknowledges the presence of at least nine ghosts at his home, but insists that none of them is malevolent. "They’re like part of the family," he observes, "they were here first, I just hope they’re pleased with what we’re doing here now."

Abbey Craig, Stirlingshire
William Wallace, Braveheart!

On 10th September 1297, William Wallace stood upon the lofty heights of Abbey Craig - where Scotland’s national memorial to him now stands - and gazed across the River Forth at the English held stronghold of Stirling Castle.

The second son of minor Scottish noble Malcolm Wallace, William had grown up against the background of war, intrigue and ruthless oppression that had seen Scotland’s King, John Balliol, stripped of his sovereignty by England’s Edward 1st and his country bowed to English rule, her independence sacrificed to the self serving interests of her bickering and duplicitous nobles.

It had been the death in 1286 of Scotland’s King Alexander 111, that set in motion a chain of events that would bring Scotland into open conflict with Edward 1st of England and, ultimately, start Wallace on his path of outlawry, freedom fighting, martyrdom and immortality.

Under Alexander’s rule the Scots had enjoyed twenty years of peace, both at home and abroad, and were basking in a period of prosperity buoyed up by a thriving export trade.

In 1284 the King had named as his successor to the Scottish throne his granddaughter, Margaret, (‘The Maid of Norway’).

Furthermore a treaty had been agreed with the King of England, whereby Margaret would marry Edward’s five- year- old son, Edward of Caernarfon, and join the two dynasties, albeit on the binding agreement that Scotland would remain an independent state.

Thus, with one act of union, peace and prosperity could be maintained while Edwards ambition to unite the two countries could be satisfied.

Sadly, it was not to be, for Margaret died en route from Norway and a fierce debate as to a successor ensued.

John Balliol and Robert Bruce (grandfather of the future King) emerged as the strongest of the fourteen contenders, but their rivalry threatened to plunge Scotland into a bloody civil war.

So it was that the Scottish nobles turned to Edward 1st of England and asked him to mediate in the contest.

In May 1291 Edward invited them all to a meeting at Berwick, where he demanded that, before any discussion could begin, all those present must recognise him as Scotland’s Overlord and surrender all Scottish Castles into his hands until after the succession had been agreed.

On 13th June 1291, led by Robert Bruce and John Balliol, the Guardians and Lords of Scotland lined up to place their hands in Edward’s and, one by one, surrendered their nations independence by recognising him as "superior and direct lord of the Kingdom of Scotland."

Shortly afterwards the accession was settled in favour of John Balliol who was duly inaugurated at Scone.

It was Edward’s insistence that, as Overlord, he had the ultimate authority to hear appeals from Scots against their Kings judgements that edged the two nations into disagreement.

But it was his summoning of King John in 1294 to join his war against France that turned the disagreement into open conflict.

In 1295 the Scots cemented an alliance with Phillip 1V of France and effectively declared war on England. It was a brave move but a monumental miscalculation. Edward, at almost sixty years of age, with his flowing mane of white hair was the veteran of many military campaigns – a warlord without peer.

He mustered an army of 25,000 foot soldiers and almost a thousand knights and marched on Berwick, then the richest and most populous city in Scotland.

His objective was to teach the rest of Scotland what to expect if they continued to resist. In so doing he subjected the unfortunate citizens of Berwick to a horrific three day massacre that left 11,000 men, women and children dead and their blood, so one chronicler lamented, streaming "so copiously that mills could be turned by its flow."

Edward’s army then swept northwards, inflicting a crushing defeat on Balliol’s army at the battle of Dunbar and capturing the ancient coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, which was taken from Scone to Westminster Abbey.

One by one the Scottish nobles surrendered to Edward.

Then in July, at Kincardine Castle, King John himself was forced to confess his rebellion and resign the throne, his humiliation compounded by Edwards ripping the Royal insignia from the chest of his Tabard.

When the great seal of Scotland, that most precious emblem of Scottish Sovereignty, was presented to Edward, he cast it contemptuously aside, observing facetiously that "a man does good business when he rids himself of a turd."

Edward wasted little time in inflicting English administration upon the vanquished Scots and placed her affairs into the hands of two trusty lieutenants, William de Warenne and treasurer Hugh Cressingham.

He then ordered every freeholder in Scotland to swear and oath of fealty to their conqueror. Most did, but amongst those who steadfastly refused were Malcolm Wallace and his brother, William.

Their father, Malcolm, had refused to swear a similar oath in 1291 and had later been killed in a skirmish with the English.

By 1296 William had acquired something of a reputation as an anti-English firebrand who had avenged the death of his father by killing his slayer, an English Knight named Fenwick.

He was considered a giant of a man, standing at over 6 feet tall and had become a sort of Robin Hood figure, leading a band of outlaws whose hideout was situated deep within Ettrick forest.

On the forest periphery stood the town of Lanark where lived a beautiful young heiress called Marion Braidfute to whom Wallace was, if not married, then certainly betrothed.

When the Sheriff of Lanark, Hazelrig, had Marion’s brother put to death Wallace and his comrades stole into town and put fifty English soldiers to the sword.

Hazlerig meted out savage retribution by executing Marion "to deny Wallace of the woman he truly loved."

Wallace returned to the town, murdered the sheriff in his bed, killed his son along with two hundred and forty English soldiers, merchants and commoners, before going on the run, rampaging his way across Scotland collecting fables and followers as he went.

Thousands flocked to his cause, including many nobles, chief amongst them the younger Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce who was destined to continue the fight after Wallace’s death and, having freed his nation from English rule, would become one of Scotland’s greatest kings.

When the Scottish Bishop’s gave their blessing to the rebellion it became both a national and moral crusade.

By the time he arrived at Abbey Craig, his army had swollen to over 40,000 men, and Wallace himself had become the ultimate cliché of patriotic resistance – a living legend.

From Stirling Castle itself the English commander, William de Warrenne, watched the rebels assemble. With 50,000 seasoned and heavily armed soldiers under him, he was confident that the ill disciplined, lightly armed Scottish force would be no match for his superior army.

But, observing battle protocol, he sent two Dominican friars to offer a reprieve for all past misdemeanours if Wallace and his comrades would surrender. "Tell your commander that we are here not to make peace but to do battle, to defend ourselves," was Wallace’s contemptuous reply. "Let them come on and we shall prove this in their very beards."

On the morning of 12th September 1297, the English cavalry began to file across the narrow, wooden bridge that spanned the River Forth.

From their vantage point on Abbey Craig Wallace and his comrades watched as the superior force began to fan out onto the marshy ground below.

At 11am William Wallace raised his battle horn to his lips and, blowing a long loud blast, gave the signal to attack. The English were caught completely off guard as an avalanche of screaming terror came hurtling towards them and plunged into their ranks, swords and spears at the ready.

A detachment of rebels broke from the main force and hacked and stabbed their way to the bridgehead determined to secure it.

Panic-stricken, the English troops were unable to proceed but found their retreat blocked by their own advancing company. Many fell or jumped into the river where, weighed down by their armour and equipment, they drowned in its deep waters.

Others were either cut down by rebel swords, impaled by Scottish spears, or else were crushed to death beneath horses hooves and men’s feet.

By afternoon, the greatly outnumbered Scottish force had inflicted a crushing rout on an English army that, until then, had never known defeat.

Plundering the bodies of their vanquished enemies, the victorious Scots came across that of the hated English Treasurer, Hugh Cressingham. They promptly flayed the skin from his corpse and fashioned it into a belt for Wallace’s sword.

Wallace was a national hero as he moved on to capture Dundee and drive the English forces further and further south until, by October 1297, not one English soldier remained in Scotland.

But as they retreated, the English adopted a scorched earth policy, burning farms, slaughtering livestock and destroying crops.

With the onset of winter and the people of Scotland facing famine, Wallace crossed the border and ravaged northern England. In so doing his reputation for savagery became well and truly cemented in the English consciousness.

It was not all battles, however, he issued a letter to Lubeck and Hamburg declaring that Scotland was free and that trade could resume between the countries.

Wallace was knighted and declared the Guardian of the Realm, acting for John Balliol.

But, as is so often the case in Scottish history, victory was short lived. The following year Edward 1st mustered a huge fighting force and, on 12th July 1298, he routed the Scots at Falkirk.

The rebellion was over and, although he managed to escape from the battlefield, William Wallace renounced his guardianship of Scotland and faded into obscurity.

It is known that he went to France in 1298 or 1299, probably to ask for military or diplomatic help. He may also have gone to Rome for the same reasons. It is highly probable that he returned to his campaign of guerrilla warfare and remained a considerable thorn in England’s side.

But history remains mute about his activities until in 1305, betrayed by one of his own countrymen, he was captured and taken to London.

There, in the imposing surrounds of Westminster Hall, he was sat on a bench and laurel crown was placed upon his head.

When the Kings Justiciar accused him of treason, Wallace refused to answer the charge, pointing out that since he had never sworn allegiance to Edward 1st he couldn’t be guilty of treason against him.

The English, however, were not interested in such legal niceties and the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion.

Thus it was that on August 23rd 1305, tied to the tails of two horses, William Wallace was dragged through the streets of London to suffer the barbaric punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Dalzell House
Nr. Motherwell, Lanarkshire
A Gaggle of Ghostly Ladies

Nestling in a well-wooded park Dalzell House is one of the finest mansions of the Scottish Lowlands and boasts an impressive pedigree that stretches right back into the foggy mists of time.

The present structure is an eclectic mix of buildings that cluster around a largely complete 15th century fortified tower house that remembers days of bloodshed and warfare.

Originally the home of the Dalzell Earls of Carnforth they kept possession of the estate form the 13th to the 17th centuries, when the then Earl, Robert, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be death.

The sentence, however, was commuted and instead he was stripped of rank, titles and lands and fined 100,000 Scots merks.

The Earldom and estates passed to his son, Gavin, who in 1649 sold the house to the Hamiltons of Boggs, to pay his father's fine.

In 1886 John Glencairn Carter Hamilton was created the first Baron Hamilton of Dalzell and the house hosted many Royal visits, with at least five of Queen Victoria’s children dropping by to enjoy its hospitality.

William Ewart Gladstone was also a visitor and in the grounds there is still a small round building known as 'Gladstone's Tearoom' in commemoration of his time here.

Although the house itself is private, the grounds that surround it are open to the public and from there you can gaze upon its sturdy walls and ponder the ghosts of the green, grey, and white ladies that are said to wander the house‘s interior.

The green lady is a spectral fixture of the houses South Wing and her ghostly wanderings are often accompanied by the distinct scent of sweet perfume.

The grey lady favours the North Wing and may well be the ghost of a nurse from the days when it was used as a hospital during the First World War.

The white lady is, apparently, of no fixed abode and can suddenly appear unannounced at sundry locations around the property.

One tradition holds that she is the shade of a former maidservant, who having become pregnant was so overcome by despair that she threw herself to her death from the battlements.

Another story maintains that she was in fact bricked up somewhere in the house’s fabric as punishment for some long forgotten indiscretion and it is this that has caused her spirit to roam the night hours of the old house.

People walking in the park at dusk have reported the unnerving sensation of being watched by invisible eyes and some have even caught glimpses of a forlorn female gazing at them from the windows of the house, although her form is not distinctive enough for them to be sure of the hue of their phantom observer.

Traquair House
Nr. Innerleithan, Borders

The dazzling white walls of Traquair House rise majestically from the rolling countryside that surrounds it and to cross its threshold is to find yourself wandering through passages and corridors where time stands still.

Ancestral portraits gaze down from timeworn walls. Stone stairwells spiral upwards to meandering corridors where with each step you find yourself falling under the spell of a house that has enjoyed continuous habitation for longer than any other in Scotland, and which claims to have played host to no fewer than twenty-seven Scottish monarchs.

Mary Queen of Scots came here with Lord Darnley in 1566, and the cradle in which their infant (later James V1 and 1st) slept is still on show in the room that they occupied. Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived during his 1745 campaign to reclaim the throne.

At the time hopes of success were running high, and as the Prince left the house through the Bear Gates - so called because of the two stone bears that surmount the sturdy gate posts - the fifth Earl of Traquair, locked them behind him and vowed that they would not be opened until a Stewart once more sat upon the throne.

When hopes for a Stewart restoration were dashed in the blood-spattered carnage of Culloden Moor, the gates remained locked, and today’s visitors approach the house via a driveway that bypasses the Bear Gates.

Given its tumultuous and emotional past, ghosts are conspicuous by their absence in the house’s interior. However the solemn wraith of at least one former resident has been seen wandering the grounds.

A portrait of Lady Louisa Stewart, sister of the 9th Earl of Traquair, and the last Stewart lady to live there, can be seen inside the house. She died in 1896 a few months short of her 100th birthday.

Perhaps it was the disappointment at not reaching her centenary that brought her ghost back in the early years of the 20th century?

One day a grounds man was ploughing in the fields when he saw a lady in old-fashioned clothing come drifting towards him. He watched in astonishment as she walked by him, passed effortlessly through a closed gate into the wood beyond and disappeared. He was later able to identify the fabric of the dress that his ghostly visitor was wearing from a book of fabrics shown to him by a woman who had been Lady Louisa’s dressmaker.