Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Auld Wat of Harden

Cattle graze peacefully in this picture I took last Sunday of Kirkhope Tower in the Ettrick Valley. But it was not always thus. Kirkhope was the home of 'Auld Wat of Harden' one of the most notorious and colourful of the Border Reivers. In 1597 he led a raid on Bellingham in Northumberland with three hundred men and came back with four hundred head of cattle. The Scotts have always dominated the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys and Bowhill, residence of the (Scott) Duke of Buccleuch lies just a few miles down the valley, not far from Abbotsford House, famously home of Auld Wat's descendant, the novelist Sir Walter Scott.

'Not really a castle though, is it?', someone said. In fact these tower houses were the style of the time for landowners throughout Scotland: economical to build, one big room on each floor and high enough so that a fire on the battlements could be seen by the next tower up the valley and so pass the warning if a raid was coming up from the other direction.

Ironically it may be Auld Wat's wife that has left us the best story from Kirkhope. She was Mary Scott of Dryhope (below) known as the 'Flower of Yarrow', and when the larder was bare, she would just put Auld Wat's spurs on a plate and set it in front of him at dinner time!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Can we book a haunted castle please!

Sometimes people ask to spend a night in a haunted castle - prompting a thought as to whether, in this litigious age, they have any recourse if they book a 'haunted castle' and neither see nor hear anything!

But last month a group from Pennsylvania innocently celebrating a fiftieth birthday in one of our Aberdeenshire castles experienced the unexpected...

"Our Ghost was first seen when my friend Ed was putting wood in the fireplace in the basement room ... [He] swears there was a man sitting in the chair, dressed in tweed-like clothing - patches on the elbows, arms on either armrest staring straight ahead. He vanished very quickly.

The second sighting was when my friend Nancy and I were in the room watching the Stanley Cup playoff hockey game .... I was sitting in the chair closest to the door and Nancy was on the couch. Nancy saw a person sitting on the other chair. She was scared, didn't want to scare me so she left to go to bed. The next day she related the story, and she and Ed started comparing the look of the ghost and described him wearing the same exact thing, sitting in the exact same pose, etc.

Nancy is an artist and is going to draw "Angus."We felt no animosity from him, talked to him every time we went into that room - but no one else saw him. We figured he liked hockey and just wanted to hang out for a while!

Nancy also said in her room (the 4-poster which would have been the master bedroom at one time) she heard as clear as a bell a child saying "ma ma," in a whiny distressed kind of way, and when she looked out the window she thought she saw someone in the field above the house, however figured it was a tree. The next day when she looked there were no trees in that particular place.

Others who stayed in the castle said they felt cold breezes and "felt" a presence, never angry or mean - just peaceful and curious."

Out of consideration for Angus, future tenants will be asked to leave a hockey game showing on the TV where possible when they retire to bed!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Iona - pilgrimage site or holiday destination?

Iona has an ancient and a sacred ring to it: burial place of Scottish kings; monastery founded by St Columba in 563; heart of the Celtic church for 500 years; pilgrimage site and home to the Iona Community.

Happily Iona is not easily accessible; it is still a bit of a pilgrimage involving two ferries. But inevitably in summer it attracts plenty tourists like the couple from New York whom I was guiding.

Geographically similar to many other Hebridean islands, Iona is different. Even from the ferry port on Mull you can see the impressive abbey on the other side, and once you approach it along the pilgrims' route, studded by massive Celtic Crosses like St Martin's Cros (above), you come to the 12th Century Chapel of St Odhrán (right) and Reilig Odhrán containing the unmarked graves of some 48 Scottish kings. From there sràid nam marbha, 'the street of the dead', an ancient cobbled track, leads to the abbey, a holy place which straddles the millennia, now home to the (ecumenical) Christian Iona Community.

It was lovely being there in the summer, but on this island chosen for its remoteness, there were too many people. I am going back when there is snow in the air and may perhaps come closer to the long-lived spirit of St Columba.