Posts tagged ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Oct 31, 2021

Guising or Trick or Treat – placating evil spirits and me on soul watch

Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is big business nowadays. Where I come from in the Scottish Highlands it was always one of the major occasions in a year we children looked forward to; each 31st of October we went out guising. Guising – or rather disguising – dressed in costumes and wearing a scary face mask we would wander about the village and be invited in from the dark and spooky night to neighbour’s cosy livingrooms  to recite a poem, sing a song or tell a joke. Our adult neighbours would then attempt to identify us. One year one of the older boys had pulled on a white sheet with eye holes cut out which the rest of us thought was cheating as it was nearly impossible to identify him – and this ghostly creature was a terrifying sight back out in the dark . We were invited to dook for apples floating in a basin of water or catch them with our teeth as they dangled from strings. Our reward for entertaining our neighbours were gifts of apples, monkey nuts, a coin perhaps and maybe sweets or cake. I thought of these things as rewards but the Celtic roots of this festival had a more sinister meaning. Contact from a spectral being, albeit a child wearing a false face, had to involve a donation to the spirit to thwart their evil intentions.  

Scots who migrated to America held onto many of their traditions. It has become law in the US that any celebration must be made into a money-making opportunity and so it was with guising. America’s trick or treat hit the shops here. A Scottish tradition that stretched back thousands of years that few south of the Borders had heard of was rebranded as trick or treat in the UK as well. Instead of apples and monkey nuts came commercial sweets, instead of a cardboard or plastic false face and an old sheet came shop-bought costumes and instead of the howked-out neep with a candle in the middle came pumpkins. But the essence remained. A gift to placate evil or have evil done in alive in trick or treat.

Guising took place on the night before the Celtic festival of fire of peace, Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic), on 1 November when fires were lit at dusk and musicians played as people danced and chatter was mostly about foretelling the future. Over time the two celebrations merged as Halloween, originally All Hallows’ Eve – the evening before All Hallows’ Day (All Saint’s Day) is the name that lingers but the festival pre-dates this Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day as Samhain was an important event in the pre-Christian calendar.

Lots of similar festivities took place over a year which were participated in by people living through uncertain times with life and death at the whim of the elements, a poor harvest or series of poor harvests spelled illness and death to communities. Where people lack personal control over their lives and there is continuing uncertainty they look for ways to ensure good luck comes their way. In few places in the UK was life more fraught with threats to survival than in the Scottish Highlands. And so where people today might buy a lottery ticket in the hope of getting out of a financial fix, Highlanders in the past curried favour with the spirits they believed were all around and influenced life and death by making them little offerings.

Highlanders were very superstitious. They were also very vulnerable to all sorts of calamities from the natural world to unscrupulous lairds. Perhaps it is this that made Highlanders particularly humble people, not given to boasting and showing off because luck can change. Nothing was taken for granted. For folk who had next to nothing in material terms a loss of, say, their only cow would mean deeper poverty than they already endured and potentially death for the family. They lived life on the edge, at the mercy of evil spirits, gods – whatever. For anyone who dared push themselves forward, get above themselves, there was a price to be paid. An example of this rashness comes in a story concerning Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots) was visiting Ross-shire when a Mrs Monro introduced her to her 12 sons and 12 daughters – all strong and healthy young people which the mother pointed out to the queen, offering them as her devoted servants of squires and damsels. The queen quite taken aback that the poor woman had borne 24 children immediately rose out of her chair,

“Madam, ye sud tak this chaire, ye best ‘deserve it.’

The queen praised the large, handsome and healthy family. That was not done in Highland culture. To praise was fair enough but a compliment must be qualified with a nod to god such as “God bless the …” could be a bairn, 24 bairns, or the family’s single cow. The queen, not being a Highlander, did not understand this and the family’s fate was sealed, it is said they had ill-luck from then on.

Parents were particularly concerned over their newborn babies who were thought of as particularly vulnerable to the spirits and evil eyes. Some of those evil-doers were fairies. Fairies were wont to steal babies. To Highlanders fairies were not delightful little creatures but conniving spirits that would harm a person as quick as look at them. Babies were watched round the clock to prevent them being taken by these malevolent influences who would swap them for a changeling infant. And you didn’t want a changeling. Changelings weren’t human and sometimes not even children but elderly fairies disguised as infants to get affection and coddling from human mothers. They were evil beings, recognisable by their precociousness or unusual physical attributes. Only when a baby was christened was it thought to be safe. At the christening gifts were given to placate hostile spirits, simple things such as a piece of bread.  

To help forestall any malicious fairy intending harm or a poor harvest or sickness in the family cow a tribute to the spirits might be left at a place associated with the spirit world, such as a well or loch. In the Black Isle, the Clootie Well near Munlochy has for long been one of these places where fragments of clothing, ribbons and even food such as bread or oatcakes were left and a wish made to protect someone. This tradition goes beyond Scotland. I’ve seen the same in Siberia where bushes and trees have offerings in the form of scraps of material designed to deter bad luck and instigate good fortune.

The Clootie Well

Birth was fraught with menaces and so, too, was death. I learnt from my mother that when a person died their souls rose up to heaven. We lived next door to the village church and graveyard and on several occasions the young me would stand watching and waiting, no doubt arms akimbo, to see the soul of a recently buried person rising into the sky, heavenward. After weeks, maybe months of this, I complained to my mother that I never saw any souls in the sky only to be told they were invisible. What a let down! She did not say, perhaps didn’t know though being from Highlanders whose ancestors stretched back into the proverbial mists of time she probably did know that when a loved one died a window in the house was opened to allow the soul to escape. That information could have saved me hours of standing about in our garden on soul watch. The dead were kept at home in our village; their corpses prepared for burial by the next of kin or someone appointed in lieu of them. Not sure the practice of placing a plate of salt on the body to prevent it from swelling and bursting the bands of the shroud was still on the go when I was young, probably not. Mort cloths were long pieces of plain woven linen that covered the body or coffin. I have one from my Black Isle family that was never used – my mother’s cousin cut up another into dish towels. The linen was grown on the family croft near Cromarty. As with babies, family watched over the newly dead until burial, to prevent evil spirits doing them harm. This was known as the lyke wake during which relatives old and young would dance, slowly, in the proximity of the body.

Evil was likely to escape through someone’s mouth as well as eye. To kiss a mouth could prevent fore-speaking – expressing the future (usually bleak) and anyone suffering misfortune was said to have the ‘uncanny eye’ or ‘uneasy eye’ and nobody wanted to catch that. Any afflicted with the uncanny or uneasy eye were offered small gifts, such as bread, oatcakes or pieces of clothing, to keep them on side and encourage them to cast their evil somewhere else.  

Superstition was an everyday part of life for the Highlander as it was for most folk straddling that fine line between survival and death – think of fishermen, famously superstitious. A few superstitions live on in the 21st century. Halloween is a capitalist’s dream of a commercial bonanza but I’d like to see how they would handle another Highland tradition on All Hallows’ Eve in which young women were blindfolded and encouraged to select a cabbage to discover the size and physique of their future husbands. I think we can assume that is something that is definitely relegated to the past.


Aug 29, 2016

From the Cock o’ the North to Commissioner Jim Gordon via Huntly Castle

Huntly Castle mid 15th - early 17th centuries

Huntly Castle from the mid-15th to early-17th century

Huntly Castle is a ruin but what a ruin. It is big and bold and sits in a green park surrounded by trees and the rivers Bogie and Deveron.

DSC03465

The calm side of the River Deveron

Motte where the first motte and bailey castle of Strathbogie was built in the late 1100s

Motte where the first motte and bailey Strathbogie castle was built in the late 1100s

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next to what remains of the castle is part of an extant motte site of the original 12th century Strathbogie castle – built for an earl of Fife. This first castle was wooden and was burnt down by the Black Douglas clan in 1496. Out of the ashes emerged first a tower house built soon after the fire and gradually more buildings were added until the great hulk of castle we see now – bigger and bolder than the earlier one emerged and to be on the safe side it was constructed of stone; mainly sandstone and freestone, altogether more resistant to fire than wood. Practically nothing remains of the tower house but the later castle, though tumbledown, hints at what it must have been like – something pretty amazing.

stables, brew house, bake house and other lost buildings including where an L-plan tower house once stood built in the early 15thC to replace the lost wooden castle

Stables for the short garron ponies, brew house, bake house and other remains including  the area where the L-plan tower house was erected in the 15th century to replace the lost wooden castle

King James IV used to make annual pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Duthac in Tain, north of Inverness, and he often stopped off at Huntly en route. During one visit, in 1501, he watched the stonemasons at work building or biggin the castle as they say in the northeast of Scotland and so impressed was he with their handiwork he gave them some tokens in the way of money and I’m not surprised because they made a grand job of it; the stone carving is superb.

A fragment of the original roughly paved road made up of pebbles and boulders which led to the eastern part of the castle constructed in the 17thC

The spectacular ruin that stands in Huntly belonged to the Gordon family. Many of you will know that the name Gordon is very much associated with Aberdeenshire although scratch around and you might disturb some French roots in the guise of Gourdon (there is a place of that name farther down the Aberdeenshire coast) and a nod to Berwickshire where a bloke by the name of Sir Adam de Gordon thought he would like a bit of a change – and having shifted allegiance during the Scottish Wars of Independence he eventually ended up on the right side and was promptly rewarded with parcels of land in Strathbogie by Robert the Bruce. Such is how land came to be distributed – ending up in the hands of powerful families – handed out like sweeties. Cronyism has a long pedigree. Doing someone a favour, raising troops to fight their cause once secured immense tracts of land for families who prided themselves on their ability to accumulate piles and piles of the countryside. Some of them are still determinedly clinging on to land they acquired in all manner of dodgy ways in the past and will fight anyone who suggests they don’t have fair claim to their estates – in the courts not on the battlefield anymore.

The Gordons - not shrinking violets

The Gordons were proud of their lands and the great muckle house built at Huntly. George Gordon the 1st Marquess of Huntly had pride a-plenty which probably explains why plastered his and hers names right across the front of their impressive pile – akin today of installing neon lighting on the front of your house. The bold inscription reads:

GEORGE GORDON FIRST MARQUESS OF HUNTLY 16
HENRIETTE STEWART MARQUESSE OF HUNTLY 02

Not forgetting the hand of God pointing out each name. Well if you have it, flaunt it, said God.

The hand of God points out George Gordon's name and points out his wife's name as well

 

The hand of God points to the names of the Gordons who owned the castle

All generations of Gordons included a George so the story of the George Gordons can get very muddled and as the Gordons were always in the thick of the action, more than your average family, I will avoid going into detail. However, I cannot entirely.

three storeys

Three storeys of the castle

Old door

Original studded oak door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the several George Gordons – the one who wrote his name across his house – was an influential political figure in Scotland, attached to the royal court, and a nephew of James V. He was no shrinking violet as you may have deduced and earned himself the nickname, the Cock o’ the North.

 

The oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland

Certainly one of the oldest wooden lavatory seats in Scotland

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

The great fireplace was disfigured by Covenanters who disapproved of its Catholic imagery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This epithet transferred to the Gordon Highlander regiment who came to be known as the Cocky wee Gordons and not-so-long-ago a popular ditty was oft sung across Scotland – ask your granny or maybe your great granny and watch her face light up with the memory.

A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me,
If ye’re no a Gordon ye’re no use to me.
The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a’
But the cocky wee Gordon’s the pride o’ them a’.

Stairs in castles were usually built to give advantage to the castle family in the case of invading swordsmen (usually right-handed) and disadvantage to their enemies

Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, was involved in a plot to clip the wings of the Cock o’ the North. I should have said the Gordons were Catholics and so was Mary of Guise but then she turned on some other Catholics at the time of the Reformation because – well, because that was the politic thing to do – and heads were optional extras in those days.

Gordon the Catholic was ambushed by a party of royalist Stewarts and he was killed. His corpse was then embalmed and put on trial for treason. I can assure you stranger things have happened. His castle was looted and religious carvings relating to the old faith found there, including two medallions above his front door – most unusual in Scotland, were destroyed.

cropped carving at door featuring family and Scottish national heraldry

The main doorway beautifully carved

 

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views acrosss the countryside

Oriel window high up on the south-facing wall with spectacular views across the countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you will have gathered people, let’s be clear men, were pretty bloodthirsty all those centuries ago – and that’s without video nasties – and there was a definite trend for Scotland’s landed families to go at it hammer and tongs against their neighbours. You would think history has been a constant power struggle for land and political influence and you’d be right.

Remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle was packed with ornate work

A remnant of ornate plaster work. The whole castle once was adorned with such intricate craftsmanship

Back to the castle. Medieval palaces tended to expand over the centuries ending up in a melange of architectural styles. Huntly Castle is no different. Building was still going on when the Scottish civil war broke out in the 17th century. All these centuries on and the Gordons were still fighting anyone and everyone; family, strangers, neighbours – everyone.

 

Graffiti is there in abundance in the castle with some beautifully written letters

At the Battle of Aberdeen in 1644 at the time of the Scottish Civil War the Gordon clan fought on both sides – Covenanters and Royalists so that at least some of them would be on the winning side.

Details of another fireplace with medallion portraits of George Gordon and his wife Henrietta Stewart

Another fireplace with medallions of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart

George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, (son of George Cock o’ the North and Henrietta Stewart) brought up a Protestant Episcopalian at the court of James VI, was on the winning, royalist, side at the Battle of Alford in 1645 at which he fought alongside his son, also George, who was killed. George the 2nd Marquess had, in 1639, been secretly appointed to oppose the Covenanters in the north of Scotland and at Turriff he led a force of 2,000 in a show of strength against a gathering of 800 men led by the Marquess of Montrose (then in support of the Covenanters.) The two sides sized each other up but a tense situation passed without the spilling of blood.

 

Stone stairs lead to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. Some original joist ends have survived and the later castle from the north side

The peace was not to last and there followed a game of cat and mouse between Montrose and Gordon who was none too keen on getting dragged into the whole difficult affair with the Covenanters.

One day Montrose said to Gordon, “Do you fancy a trip to Edinburgh?”

Gordon smelling a rat replied, “No, not really.”

Montrose, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer and so Gordon was taken to the capital to intimidate him into behaving but he shrugged off the threat and travelled north again and fought in a battle at the Brig o’ Dee at Aberdeen. As a punishment Huntly Castle was plundered and the fate of both castle and the Gordons thereafter followed a downward trajectory. Gordon/Huntly was again a wanted man who embarked on the 1640s equivalent of trains, planes and automobiles to make his escape – by horse, foot and boat. He kept on the move – all around the north of Scotland but was captured at Strathdon in a violent incident that saw both his servants and friends killed. Gordon ended up back in Edinburgh, locked up in the tolbooth until in March 1649 he was beheaded.

prisoners

Prisoners abandoned in a deep, dark hole beneath the castle had no chance of escape

Life was one long power struggle for wealthy families in past centuries but there were occasional intermissions when peace broke out long enough for a game of football to take place or even a marriage. Football was a popular pastime with the rich and powerful in Scottish society in past centuries – less so today.

 


The Gordons enjoyed a game of fitba and like most landed gentry they also liked to keep their options open by shifting allegiances according to where their interests happened to lie on any particular day. They were split as a family during the Jacobite risings in 1715-16 and 1745-46 when once more royalist/government troops took over Huntly Castle and the gentle decay that had begun in the previous century continued apace following the unfriendly attentions of anti-Jacobite government troops.

It’s hard to get an impression of how opulent Huntly Castle must have been in its heyday – reputedly no expense spared and very grand indeed with all the main rooms highly decorated and beautifully painted ceilings. John Anderson was the painter responsible for some of the ceiling work, not sure if he was local, might have been and so impressive were his efforts he was commissioned to work on Falkland Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Of course Huntly Castle set the standard. The few remaining carvings tease us into regretting what has been lost but Historic Scotland have done a grand job both with the preservation of the place and a highly informative glossy booklet available in the shop.

landscape window frame

As for the Gordons they were scattered across the country and the Continent some settled in Poland. There are still an awful lot of Gordons around Aberdeenshire and some famous ones around the world – and the most famous of all surely Commissioner Jim Gordon of Gotham City unless you think Lord Byron better known – he was half-Scottish – a Gordon through his mother’s family and known as – well what else but George Gordon before England claimed him.

Swallow on nest Huntly Castle

The castle is now home to nesting swallows

Enjoy Huntly Castle.