This post supplements and updates the previous piece I wrote on the Phantom Drummer of Cortachy (published on 29th January 2015, which can be read here). For those unaware of the story, it is a legend that competes with the tale of the Monster of Glamis as the classic supernatural tale from Angus. Like the Glamis legend, the Cortachy tale seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, a product of the fervid Victorian imagination.
Foretelling Death in The Family
The Devil's Stone
In a nutshell, the narrative states that a ghostly drummer is heard at Cortachy just before the current Earl of Airlie died, as a kind of family warning along the lines of a banshee (but slightly more civilised). Incidences of the drummer sounding were reported from 1845 until 1900, after which he apparently went into retirement. The similarity with the banshee is an important clue, I believe, in the ultimate origin of the story. In the earlier piece I made the suggestion that the death-warning element attached to the Ogilvys was due to their descent from the Celtic Earls of Angus. Almost uniquely for the long-standing noble houses of Angus, they can be seen highly probably as descendants of the Picto-Gaelic rulers of the region. A ghostly ram once seen in the Den of Airlie before a family death also emphasises the connection between family and attendant warning spirit.
A third tradition states that a stone in the River South Esk, near Cortachy, is submerged before a significant fatality. This stone may possibly be the same weird object as The Devil's Stone, said to lie in the river. (I await clarification from anyone who can enlighten me.) This massive boulder can be viewed from the bridge over the South Esk. The folk tale which explains the stone's presence in the water is somewhat reminiscent of the Deil's Stane at Invergowrie, hurled over the River Tay by his Satantic majesty. There are several versions of the Cortachy story. This version summarises the retelling given by Patrick Newman in Glen Folk, Celebrating Life in the Angus Glens (pp. 17-18).
A long time ago the minister of Cortachy and a local laird were surprised by the sudden appearance of a local tenant farmer named John, riding hard on horseback on a Sunday morning. The farmer reported that the Devil, with a horde of demons and dead folk, was holding a ceilidh up Glen Clova between Drum and Eggie. Minister and laird went to investigate and, as they neared the place, they heard the sound of raucous revelry arising. Thinking this indicated a party of Sabbath breakers, the minister charged in. But he was astonished and dismayed to recognise several dead people, including old Minnie, who had died just last week, her sister Annie who departed six years previously, plus Auld Jim, dead even longer. In the middle of the foul gathering was Satan himself. Seeing the intruder, the Devil launched into an unholy sermon against the man of God. The undaunted minister commanded all those present to depart in God's name. But Satan said he cared nothing for God and lifted a huge rock and threw it towards the kirk, eight miles away. As he did so, the minister managed to pull out a cross and touch the stone. This act ensured the flight of the boulder was awry. Instead of destroying the church it landed harmlessly in the river. And there it remains.
The obvious point has to be repeated that neither death warning apparitions nor phantom drummers are unique to the Ogilvy family of Angus. Exactly how the various traditions in both categories relate to each other up and down Britain is more difficult to say. The Drummer of Cortachy, in many versions, is said to have originated in the tumult of the mid-17th century. Before we consider the supposed identity of the ghost, we might ask whether the story originated elsewhere and mysteriously migrated to Cortachy Castle. The following story has some similar elements, and is entertaining enough, and yet does not seem an ideal fit for the candidate of an origin tale.
A Similar Edinburgh Tale
In the mid-17th century the governor of Edinburgh Castle was Colonel Walter Dundas. A sentry one evening saw a drummer prowling the battlements, playing his drum. He fired his musket at the figure and called for help. Help came, no figure was seen, so the sentry was locked up. Subsequent sentries also began to see the drummer. Even the governor heard the ghostly drum sounding, which was now taken as a portend of some impending catastrophe. That same year the castle was taken by the English army of the Commonwealth and this was reckoned to be the disaster that was foretold. There were stories that the drummer was seen and heard occasionally afterwards, but his origin and purpose remain unknown.
The Identity of the Drummer
But who was the drummer supposed to be? One theory is that he was actually a Cameron who as accused of betraying the family to the marauding Campbells when they attacked Cortachy, Airlie, and the Ogilvy territory in Angus during the Wars of the Covenant. Protesting his innocence, he climbed to the top of Airlie and played a warning tattoo until he was engulfed in flames. A second story insists that the Drummer was actually an emissary from the rival Lindsay family. The Lindsays grew to be a major power in Angus and eastern Perthshire in the late medieval and early modern period and as such they were major local rivals with the Ogilvys. There was frequent bloodshed between various branches of both families. One day, the story goes, a messenger arrived from the Lindsays to the Ogilvy owner of Cortachy Castle. Both the contents of the message and the boy's arrogant bearing infuriated Ogilvy, so he had the unfortunate emissary taken to the top of the castle and thrown off. One variant says he was thrust through his drum before being toppled from the battlements. The third, highly coloured story, says that the Drummer was one of the castle's servants who fell in love with the lady of the house and actually had an affair with her. Being inevitably discovered, he was executed in the manner described and, before he expired, uttered a curse on Ogilvy and the head of the house forever after. (Another variant states that Ogilvy's lady was the Drummer's sister and the Drummer himself was an outlaw at the time, though this seems to make no sense.)
The background to the Drummer story and the ballad of the Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie is 17th century religious and political conflict between the Campbell house of Argyll and the Ogilvys of Airlie and Cortachy (their principal strongholds). James, 7th Lord Ogilvy (later created Earl of Airlie) was the enemy of the chief of the Covenanters, the 8th Earl of Argyll, and this Campbell warlord had a commission to eradicate this royalist enemy. Argyll came east in the summer of 1640 with a huge force and raided the Ogilvy lands in northern Angus. The Earl of Airlie was with the king in England, but his wife and immediate family were forced to flee in the face of the terrible Cambell onslaught.
The Late 16th Century Ogilvy-Campbell Feud
The actual ill feeling between the families started during the Reformation in the previous century. The Campbells gained control of Coupar Angus Abbey in Strathmore and several of the family gained lands in the region of Gowrie, far from their core power base but uncomfortably near the lands which the Ogilvys controlled. After several decades of blooding ill feeling the Campbells opened a case against the Ogilvys and then violence erupted. Four Campbells were slain by the Ogilvys in the summer of 1591. The Campbells alleged that the Ogilvys had violently attacked people in the Perthire uplands who were under their protection. Retaliation came quickly. The Campbells and their allies, 500 strong, ravaged through the Ogilvy lands 'with sic barbarous crueltie, not sparing wyffis and bairnis, bot murthourit and slew all quhome they fund thairin'. Forter Castle withstood the raids, but the home of Sir John Ogilvy, Craig House, was destroyed. A sergeant in the Campbell ranks had gone to Craig and found it occupied only by an old, bedridden gentlewoman and several servants. Loath to destroy the home, he reported back to Argyll that it was a place of no importance or strength. But the earl was more hard hearted and ordered that the house be destroyed. The Cambells penetrated as far east as Glen Clova and destroyed the Ogilvy castle there. The feud erupted even though the families were connected by marriage. James, 5th Lord Ogilvy, was the son of Katherine Campbell.
Even though the Campbells had gained the upper hand in that encounter, they still apparently bore grudge enough to feed into the violence which they unleashed upon the Ogilvys nearly 50 years later.