Beasts from the North East
A remarkable corner of the world that is packed full of folklore, Aberdeenshire, Speyside and Moray are teeming with monsters, magic and mystery, says Rosie Morton
Who doesn’t love a bit of trivia? When I learned that the north east of Scotland has more castles per acre than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, there was no question of where to begin telling Aberdeenshire’s most intriguing mystical yarns.
You can visit the well-preserved ruins of Dunnottar which stand defiantly atop cliffs, battling the cold North Sea air; the 17th-century stronghold Craigievar, with its salmon pink exterior; and the Royal Deeside abode, Balmoral, in which our monarch has passed many a happy holiday. Each one of these holds its own air of mystery, but Cruden Bay’s Slains Castle stole the show for acclaimed author Bram Stoker. Ideas for his great Gothic masterpiece, Dracula, had been brewing for a while, but it was Slains’ dramatic setting that is said to have brought the infamous Count to life in Stoker’s mind’s eye.
A few miles north, adjacent to Kinnaird Head Castle, you’ll find Fraserburgh’s ‘Wine Tower’ which was built around 1570. Its original purpose is up for debate, but it’s generally agreed that it served as one of two things: a secret Catholic chapel, or a place for the laird to roll out his best bottles of booze to impress important guests. (The history books seem to have favoured the latter, more amusing theory).
Sadly though, the Wine Tower has a Romeo and Juliet-type story. In the late 1500s, Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th Laird of Philorth, forbade his daughter Isobel from seeing a young piper from the village with whom she had fallen hopelessly in love. So deep was their bond that the couple defied the laird’s commands.
Sir Alexander was furious at this betrayal, so much so that he imprisoned Isobel in the upstairs room of the Wine Tower and chained the piper to the caves below. What Sir Alexander hadn’t bargained for, however, was that the piper would drown in a storm that night. Isobel was heartbroken, so flung herself from the window and crashed onto the rocks, and her blood was washed away with the waves. Legend has it that the skirl of the pipes can be heard whenever a storm is brewing.
Ill-fated, unrequited love is not a problem exclusive to humans. Jock the Giant o’ Bennachie, a friendly soul that once guarded the Aberdeenshire mountain, was left equally brokenhearted. Despite his plan to propose to Lady Anne, a beautiful giantess, she was stolen away by Jock’s only enemy, Jock o’
Noth, who lived on Tap o’ Noth near Rhynie. In his despair Jock o’ Bennachie threw boulders at his rival, leaving five gigantic finger marks in a stone on Tap o’ Noth which can still be seen today.
One of Jock’s stones could well have landed in Lumphanan, a small village that lies a short distance away, which was once home to Helen Rogie, a crofter’s wife. Of course, neighbourly feuds have existed since time began, but back in the day disputes were less, ‘You parked in my spot’, more, ‘You bewitched my cattle’. Helen was accused by local resident George Forbes of having cast a spell on his prized livestock, causing them to fatally injure themselves. He also claimed that she had worked her witchy magic on his horse, which had thrown him and died prematurely. Nobody jumped to Helen’s defence, not even her mother, Margaret Bane. In fact, Margaret threw her own daughter under the metaphorical bus, claiming that they had all taken part in a ‘devilish dance’ on nearby Craiglich Hill, entertaining Satan as their guest of honour. Unsurprisingly, this did Margaret no favours in the long run. Both she and her daughter were later tried and burnt at the stake in Aberdeen.
Serving up his own rough justice in Kincardineshire was David Barclay. In the 15th century, he was known as the ‘cannibal laird’. (Brace yourself, it is what it says on the tin). Sick to the back teeth with the Sheriff of the Mearns’ heavyhanded application of the law, Barclay and four other local lairds complained to King James I, who angrily replied that he did not care if the sheriff were ‘sodden and supped in broo’. As far as Barclay and his merry band of lairds were concerned, there was no room for misinterpretation. Luring the sheriff to a quiet spot on Garvock Hill near St Cyrus, they struck him to the ground, threw him in a cauldron of boiling water, and enjoyed the spoils. Horrible Histories, eat your heart out…