Saturday, 21 February 2015

Big Cats Roaming Wild in Angus

From the world of cryptozoology comes a report of strange and unidentified Big Cats roaming the prairies and fields of Angus, according to the 'Courier' newspaper:

  Mysterious large cat beasts have of course been reported from all parts of Great Britain and beyond for many decades, perhaps most famously roaming the moors of Devon and Cornwall.  It is interesting to speculate whether these are actual animals, escapees from people's imaginations or merely rumours transferred into shadows mistaken for flesh and blood.
  Whatever the Big Cats are, there are few traces of them in 'traditional' written folklore down the ages.  But no need to be sniffy about these newcomers. According to the newspaper report there have been sightings of these creatures near Edzell and other northern areas of Angus for several decades.  Approach with caution!



Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Earliest Legends of Glamis

Mention the name Glamis to followers of Scottish ghost stories or folklore and they will probably conjure up memories of the 'Monster of Glamis', the hidden secret of the owners of the castle, which has been popularised in umpteen books (of varying credibility) from the mid-19th century onwards.  The story, with its hints of scandalous conspiracy and melodrama, is absolutely the product of its times: the Victorians loved nothing more than romantic and gothic intrigue.  But there is more to Glamis that this tale and the boast that it is one of Scotland's most haunted sites. 
   The history of the 'Monster' will be dealt with in future entries, but in the meantime it's worth asking whether there is anything in the actual site or location of Glamis that somehow made it a place where strange things could thrive.  Glamis may have been an important, if not an unusual place long before Glamis Castle was built.  The earliest reputed resident at Glamis was the 8th century Irish saint Fergus.  He came to live in a cave beside the Dean Water here and 'consecrated a tabernacle to the God of Jacob'.  When he died his head was severed in Celtic pagan fashion and carried away to a monastery at Scone.  St Fergus seems to have been a contemporary of the equally elusive St Donald of nearby Glen Ogilvy in the Sidlaw Hills.
   A small group of Class II Pictish symbol stones testify to the importance of Glamis as an early Christian site.  A few centuries after St Fergus the Scottish kings are said to have maintained a hunting lodge here.  The wooded hill just south of the village is still called Hunter's Hill, though its alternative name of Fierypans (or Fierytops) may recall a time when great ritual fires once blazed on its summit.
   Glamis Castle itself was originally planned to be built on Hunter's Hill.  But every morning the builders arrived they found the foundation stones scattered and broken.  A nightly watch was set and out of the darkness one evening came this mysterious pronouncement:

                                    Build not on this enchanted spot,
                                    where man hath neither part nor lot,
                                    but build it down in yonder bog,
                                    and it will neither shake nor shog.

   The castle was accordingly shifted to its present site, away from the domain of the supernatural beings on the hill.

Centaur from Glamis Pictish stone.

   Several early records state that King Malcolm II (1004-1034) met his death at Glamis, but they disagree about the manner of his death.  The Chronicle of Melrose vaguely speaks of 'a shameful death...underfoot', after the monarch was defeated by enemies in battle.  Another source insists that Malcolm was murdered by 'parricides', the his main opponent - termed the 'Aggressor' - was also slain.  Local opinion once stated that the king fought his last battle on Hunter's Hill, beside the King's Well.  Other sources hint at a dynastic dispute.  The chronicler John of Fordun said that King Malcolm was waylaid at midnight by followers of nobles he had executed.  The bandits were slaughtered, but Malcolm died from a haemorrhage three days later.

   There is a chamber in Glamis Castle named King Malcolm's Room, which is reputed to stand on the site of the hunting lodge where he perished.  A usefully indicative and indelible bloodstain marked the floor of the room until a squeamish owner of the castle boarded it over.  Andrew of Wyntoun, writing in 1406, writes that the king was assassinated because he had 'rewyist [ravished] a fair May of the land there lyand by'.  But, like other authorities, he gives the impression that he did not know the exact cause of Malcolm's death.

   In the manse garden at Glamis is King Malcolm's Stone, a Pictish slab predating the king by several centuries.  On the cross side are carved scenes which were once believed to be symbolic of the murder.  An unidentified beast, resembling a lion, and a centaur signified 'the shocking barbarity of the crime'.  Two fighting men were 'forming the bloody conspiracy'.  A fish on the other side represented Forfar Loch, 'in which, by missing their way, the assassins were drowned', apparently after falling through thin ice at night. 
   These traditions were recorded in 1783 by the minister of Glamis.  He also noted St Orland's Stone nearby at Cossans.  On each side of this monolith are striking water monsters.  One side shows four horsemen, which the minister said were 'officers of justice pursuing the killers'.  There is also a boat containing six people and a bull being attacked by a serpent.  Excavations in the 19th century revealed five crouched burials at the base of this stone.
   John Bellenden, translating Hector Boece's 16th century Latin version, continues the story: ;Nocht long eftir, they wer drawn out of the loch with creparis, and their quarteris hung up in sindry townis of Scotland in punition of their crueltie'.
   Malcolm's burial site is also a matter of dispute.  Fordun says he was buried on Iona, though a Pictish stone on Hunter's Hill, once surrounded by a cairn, was named King Malcolm's Grave.  The Welsh traveller Thomas Pennant, who visited Glamis in 1789, heard that when the castle was modified in 1686 a great round tower was built in an angle to retain a spiral staircase down which the royal corpse was thrown.  But who would have wanted to keep that sinister element in their house?
   The story of the king's death is too convoluted and distant to disentangle.  Was there the suggestion of a pagan sacrificial element to his end and in the ritual drowning of his killers.  Perhaps not, but the waters around Glamis are sinister and lethal.  The Dean Water, connecting Forfar Loch and Glamis, was known to be dowie or 'doleful', a characteristic acquired from its demand for human sacrifice:

                                    Dowie, dowie, dowie Dean,
                                    ilka seven years ye get eene [one].

   An alternative version runs:

                                     The Dowie Dean, its runs its leane [alone]
                                     and every seven years it gets eene.

   A third rhyme has the Dean taking one life and leaving one life every seven years.  Salt was once cast into the burn to placate its angry spirits.

   Macbeth is another king associated with the castle, though the link appears to be entirely unhistorical.  There are a string of Macbeth traditions running along the northern side of the Sidlaws.  But the ghost of Macbeth, once resident at Glamis, has not been glimpsed for many years.

King Malcolm's Stone


Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Battle of Nechtansmere

One of the most famous battles in Angus was not recognised as taking place in Angus until George Chalmers published his book Caledonia in the early 19th century.  The battle was Nechtansmere, the English name for an encounter between the rampant Northumbrian kingdom and the embattled southern Picts.  Almost uniquely for a battle of this period, there are alternative names for the fight.  The Britons called the place of conflict Lin Garan, the 'Pool of Herons', a name that may reflect the original Pictish place-name.  The Anglo-Saxon alternative helps place the fight at Dunnichen, but raises questions as to who the original Nechtan was - there are several recorded Pictish rulers with this name.  Modern writers style it the Battle of Dunnichen and more or less agree that it was fought in the marshy shadows beneath Dunnichen Hill.

    The background of the battle was the patchwork, fluctuating ethnic and political map of northern Britain.  The Irish Gaels of Dal Riata were not in the ascendant and the Picts had been hemmed in at their southern borders by the Northumbrians, who had themselves pinned back the Britons of Strathclyde and ruled British Gododdin for nearly half a century.  The ferocious warrior king Ecgfrith of Northumbria had terrorised his neighbours, even to the extent of ravaging the eastern coast of Ireland (possibly pursuing exiled British warriors from Galloway).  This latter act earned him the hatred of the Irish monks of Brega, who prayed for the Pictish king who rose up to face him, Brudei son of Bili.  The meaning of the surviving verse attributed to a monk of Bangor is extremely allusive, but full of dark hints that the monks cursed the Northumbrian.  The words celebrate the 'green swords' of the Picts and praise the Pictish war leader.  There is also a strange hint that the English king drank 'black draughts' - a reference possibly to poisoning or a sarcastic reference to the fact that he perished in the murky swap waters of Pictland?

Aberlemno Pictish stone:  a commemoration of the battle?

  The Northumbrians overran much of southern Pictland in 658 and swiftly crushed a native rebellion in 672.  Ecgfrith came north in pursuit of the new Pictish leader Brudei, a native Briton whose father was the king of Strathclyde.  The great St Cuthbert and others in Northumbria were against the campaign because supernatural omens predicted disaster.  In that year in Northumbria butter and milk was tainted with the colour of blood and throughout Britain there were reports of red coloured rain showers.  Even as the war band probably pursued a band of Pictish cavalry north across the Forth on Saturday, 20th May, the monks of Brega were aware of the impending battle, hearing the news on the early medieval grapevine.  Their prayers and curses went along with the opposing armies.

Dunnichen Pictish stone.

  The English army may have been lured up Strathearn by their 'fleeing' enemies, then went deeper and deeper into enemy territory, crossing the Tay and travelling east along Strathmore.  They may have followed the Pictish men through a cleft in Dunnichen Hill and found themselves trapped in marshy ground by the pool or mere.  Behind them a great army poured out of the previously unseen hill fort on the southern slope of the hill.  Ecgfrith and his bodyguard were cut to pieces; most of the few English survivors were enslaved.  The dreadful slaughter was witnessed far off in England.  St Wilfred of York, an old opponent of Ecgfrith, was on his knees in a Sussex church on the afternoon of the battle.  Suddenly he had a vision of the king's decapitated corpse falling forwards.  Just before the body hit the ground, two demons grasped Ecgfrith's soul and carried it off to hell, moaning dreadfully on its final journey.  Did Wilfred smile at the vision of death, along with the monks in Brega?

   The psychic panorama of the military disaster was seen in a third place.  On the same day, gentle St Cuthbert was indulging in antiquarian examination of the Roman remains in Carlisle.  When he suddenly became silent his companions asked him the reason and he told them that he had certain knowledge that the Northumbrian army had been defeated.

   The battle certainly led to the liberation of much of Pictland and to the gradual waning of the northern English empire.  The Pictish victory of Dunnichen was celebrated by the erection of the famous cross slab at Aberlemno, several miles to the north.  It shows helmeted Picts on horse back chasing the enemy cavalry, and native soldiers on foot, armed with swords and shields.  One Northumbrian trooper is seen being attacked by a goose, a bird with some of the Celts associated with violent death.

   A surprising, delayed 'vision' of the battle, or of its aftermath occurred in the 20th century.  Late on the night of 2nd January, 1950, Miss E. F. Smith was walking home to Letham after her car broke down.  She felt oddly nervous as she walked along the minor road west of the A932, then she saw a number of strange lights in the distance near Dunnichen Hill.  Turning south towards the village, she noticed figure in the field to her right, part of Drummietermont Farm.  Each figure carried a flaming red torch in its left hand and they seemed to be searching the ground for something.
   Miss Smith then saw shapes on the ground exactly like dead bodies.  The figure nearest to her stooped down and examined several of these 'corpses', turning them over and back again, as if looking for recognisable faces.  This scene lasted for around ten minutes, with Miss Smith's dog barking throughout.  Eventually she simply walked away.  She only realised that the whole event was peculiar when she woke up next day and thought about it.  Later she gave details of the experience to the Society for Psychical Research.  She reported that the searchers wore garb like body stockings, along with tunics and flattened oval helmets.  They appeared to be moving around the edge of the vanished mere, the shape of which was later traced by archaeological investigation.
   Although this post battle manifestation has not been repeated. some motorists passing through Dunnichen on misty nights have caught sight of fleeting human forms which vanish before their cars hit them.


Dunnichen Hill