One of the most famous hauntings recorded in Angus also involved one of the most ancient families of the area, the Ogilvys who inhabited the castles of Cortachy and Airlie, among others. The alleged haunting came to prominence when it was included in Catherine Crowe's best-selling compendium of 'true' supernatural tales The Night Side of Nature (1848). Mrs Crowe states that a visitor named Margaret Dalrymple stayed for several days at Cortachy in 1845. While dressing for dinner on the first night she heard faint sound, like fifes playing, then a loud drum beat beneath her window. During dinner she asked the Earl of Airlie, 'My lord, who is your drummer?'
The earl turned pale and the countess looked upset, while the rest of the company appeared extremely embarrassed. Another guest later informed her that the Drummer was 'a person who goes about the house playing his drum whenever there is a death in the family. The last time he was heard was shortly before the death of the last Countess, the earl's former wife...The drummer boy is a very unpleasant subject here, I assure you.'
Ann Day, Miss Dalrymple's maid, had her own uncanny experience the next morning her employer was at breakfast. She heard a carriage draw up to the castle, followed by the distant sound of music and marching feet which gradually grew louder. She saw nothing when she went to the window and peered out. Worse was to come. She heard a drum beating, first outside and then inside the house. The sound came closer and closer, only stopping when it was directly outside her room. She was scared and perplexed by the incident; allegedly she had not heard the Drummer the previous day and claimed that she knew nothing about the legend.
Miss Dalrymple heard the Drummer a second time the following day. She left the castle the same morning. Five of six months later the Countess of Airlie passed away at Brighton. Among her papers was a note which stated that she was sure that the Drum had sounded for her.
The origin of the haunting was also detailed in The Night Side of Nature. A young drummer at Cortachy Castle had incurred the wrath of a former Lord Airlie by trying to woo his wife. Ogilvy angrily thrust the man through his own drum and hurled him from a window in the tower. Before the man died he cursed the Ogilvys of Airlie and Cortachy forever. The murder happened in the room which Miss Dalrymple later occupied. Local tradition says that the Drummer was the servant of a neighbouring laird who was constantly feuding with Ogilvy. He arrived with a message from his master which so enraged Lord Airlie that he killed the man in the manner previously described. Yet another version maintains that the Drummer was the outcast brother of Lord Airlie's wife.
In 1849, the Drummer was heard before the death of the 7th earl. A young Englishman was travelling up Glen Isla to join a shooting party at the Ogilvy property of Tulchan Lodge. Around half past eight in the evening, as he neared Tulchan, he became aware of a faint strain of fifes and drums. He asked the gillie travelling with him if he heard anything, but was told he did not, but the man told him it was 'uncanny to hear such things'. When they reached the lodge they discovered that Lord Ogilvy had left to travel to London to see his seriously ill father. The Earl of Airlie died the next day.
The next account came from Lady Mary Cameron of Lochiel, daughter of the 5th Duke of Buccleuch. one evening in 1881 at Achnacarry House in the Highlands she left her two friends along for a few minutes in a room. When she returned they were strangely silent. Two days later Lady Dalkeith asked her if there were any traditions of strange sounds in the family. Lady Cameron said there were no tales and Lady Dalkeith informed her that, while she had been out of the room, she and Lady Skelmersdale had heard a drum beating outside. She only mentioned it now because that day's newspaper carried a report that the 8th Earl of Airlie had died in Denver, Colorado, on the 25th September. They calculated the time difference and discovered that the Drummer had been heard around an hour fore the earl's death.
But why had the ghostly Drummer been heard at the home of the Camerons in Inverness-shire? Old Mrs Maclean of Ardgour supplied a fourth identity for the ghost:
Because the Drummer was a Cameron, and that the Ogilvys, thinking
he had betrayed them (to the Earl of Argyll), left him to perish when
Airlie Castle was burnt. The Drummer was said to have climbed to
the top of the Tower and to have continued to play the signal of alarm
till he was overwhelmed by the flames and protesting his innocence;
since that time he is supposed always to have been heard before the
death of any of the family of the House of Airlie.
The background to this tale was the Wars of the Covenant in the 17th century. James, 7th Lord Ogilvy (who became the first Earl of Airlie in 1639) was a staunch royalist and enemy of the Presbyterian Covenanters. One of his particular foes was the Campbell clan, headed by the 8th Earl of Argyll. In 1639 Argyll had ordered the earl of Montrose to take and destroy Airlie Castle. But Airlie's son Lord Ogilvy, a friend and cousin of Montrose, refused to surrender the house and Montrose retreated, giving the excuse that he had insufficient men to capture the castle.
But on 12th June, 1640, Argyll himself received a commission of fire and sword to march into Ogilvy lands. He arrived at Airlie on the 7th July with some five thousand men. Airlie was with the king in England. The house was occupied by Lord Airlie, his heavily pregnant wife and their children. Ogilvy escaped up the glen to Forter Castle and warned his mother about the raiders. Argyll dispatched a party to look for him at Iverquharity Castle, while another group wasted the lands of Lintrathen and drove off the cattle. Nearby Craig House, home of another of Airlie's cousins, was raided, but there was only a gentlewoman there, along with her servants.
With the fall of Airlie inevitable, Lady Ogilvy escaped south across the River Isla, going first to Dundee, then to Kinblethmont House, where her daughter Marion was born a few days later. Both Airlie and Forter castles were destroyed by Argyll. The attack was commemorated in the famous, if inaccurate, ballad 'The Bonnie House o' Airlie':
Lady Ogilvy looked frae her high castle wa',
An' oh, but she sighed sairly,
To see Argyll an' a' his men
Come to plunder the bonnie hoose o' Airlie...
The phantom Drummer sounded again in 1884, before the death of the Countess of Airlie. It was also apparently heard in 1900 when David, the 9th earl, died in the Boer War, at Diamond Hill in South Africa. One Sunday a British officer in camp heard a military band playing. This was forbidden at Bloemfontain, so the officer complained. But he was told that there was no band in the camp. Music was also heard in the sergeants' mess. This happened shortly before the earl's death.
But the Drummer seems to have retired at the start of the 20th century. A visitor to the turret room at Cortachy in that century saw the drum, describing it as being in two pieces, without any parchment.
It is tempting to dismiss the story of the Drummer as a melodramatic, literary invention of the Victorian era, and indeed it seems to have affinities with the heavily stylised tale of the Monster of Glamis castle, only a few miles away, was also being written about in the late 19th century. Certainly there are other phantom drummers in Britain, and various other death warnings associated with various families.
But could it be that there warnings are descended from memories of banshee traditions linked to certain ancient kindreds? The Ogilvy family was an offshoot of the original Celtic Earls of Angus, whose own origins may have been a hybridisation of Pictish and Gaelic nobility. There were other omens associated with the family. When a ram appeared in the Den of Airlie it meant a death in the family. There is no story explaining this. Another portend was when a certain stone in the river South Esk, near Cortachy kirk, was submerged under water; again this signified an Ogilvy fatality. When an Ogilvy baby was due its sex could be determined by observing which was the water flowed around this oracular stone. The stone is said to have come from the top of Tulloch Hill (where there is now a monument to the 9th Earl of Airlie). Here the Devil once stood and flung a boulder at the minister of Cortachy kirk, who was slandering him too volubly. The stone fell short and landed in the river.
The Den of Airlie is haunted ground. a nameless 'thing' prowls the banks of the Melgam Water here at a certain time of night, always sensed and never seen. Here also is an odd, crooked tree which no animal will ever approach. It has saw marks upon it, but whoever decided to attack it changed his mind halfway through or was made to do so.