The Mystery of Glamis Castle and the Earls of Strathmore by Charles G. Harper 1907
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Unquestionably the most famous haunted house in Britain is Glamis Castle, in Forfarshire, and it is the more famous from the fact that the uncanny things connected with it and its secret chamber have ever been kept as inviolable secrets, and are no nearer solution now than they were hundreds of years ago. Thus, Glamis is not in the usual sense a haunted house: it is rather the abode of mystery, the home of some secret of which many have made light, but which those most nearly concerned have never been known to regard with indifference.
No other residence in the world, imperial or private, has been the subject of so much eager discussion as Glamis Castle; and no secret has been so continuously assailed by investigators as that safe in the keeping of the Earls of Strathmore, the lords of Glamis. The identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, and that of the writer of the Letters of Junius have been the subjects of furious controversies, in which the respective partisans have, every one of them, convinced themselves to be right; but those once fertile subjects have long been abandoned, or at the most attract but feeble attention. The mystery of Glamis, however, still piques curiosity, and still defies the acuteness of investigators.
Glamis shares with Cawdor—but with more show of probability—the tradition of being the scene of the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, Thane of Glamis; and the identical room in which that tragedy is supposed to have been wrought was long shown, together with the sword and the shirt of chain-mail worn by Macbeth! Such are the lengths to which, everywhere, the desires of the seekers after gory landmarks and original bloodstained weapons that have done even mythical deeds, will lead the purveyors of marvels to go. Malcolm the Second, however, was certainly assassinated in the neighbourhood of Glamis: on Hunter's Hill, according to local tradition.
Although Glamis is very old and grim, it may well be doubted if anything quite so ancient as the times of Macbeth and Malcolm the Second remain to it; and although those half-legendary, half-historic events are sufficiently tragical and have been sublimated by Shakespeare into the finest stage tragedy extant, they have no relation to the stories of unnamed horrors that reside in some undiscovered corner of the hoary pile. Those undesirable items date only from the coming of the Lyon family, in 1371. It was in this year that Sir John Lyon, Baron Fortevist, was given the lordship by Robert the Second, King of Scotland, whose daughter he had married. Among other honours conferred upon him was that of Great Chamberlain of Scotland, but he ended in a duel in 1383. It was this Sir John who brought with him to Glamis a kind of family curse, the famed "Lion Cup," a hereditary possession whose ownership is said to have caused many tragedies in the family. The plain man at this point naturally inquires why this accursed goblet was never thrown away, or at least sold, or given to some unsuspecting beneficiary against whom the Lyon family nursed a grudge, after the old Scots sort. But your plain man has no business here with family curses or spooks. Inquiry would, however, probably disclose the fact that the several disasters and violent endings of the Lyons were due less to the ownership of that item of gold plate than to the ferocity of themselves and their times.
The son of Sir John Lyon was one of those very few of the race for many centuries who died peacefully in their beds, and his son, created Lord Glamis in 1445, ended in the like natural manner. But a peculiarly horrible fate befell Janet, the young and beautiful widow of the sixth Lord Glamis, who with her son and other relatives was indicted for the practice of witchcraft, and for attempting the life of James the Fifth by the arts of magic and sorcery. Lady Glamis was found guilty on the perjured evidence of her own servants, among others, and was burned on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, in 1537. Her son John, at this time a boy of sixteen, afterwards seventh Lord Glamis, was put to the torture, and under it committed the infamy of falsely accusing his mother. He also was found guilty, but was respited until he should come of age, and was at length released and restored to his ancestral honours. His son, the eighth Lord Glamis, was killed in a chance meeting with the Lindsays, with whom the family of Lyon maintained a cherished feud.
An Earldom—that of Kinghorne—was conferred upon the castellan of Glamis in 1606, and another—that of Strathmore—in 1677. The recipient of this last honour was Patrick Lyon, who was born in 1612 and died in 1695, after having thoroughly restored the ancient castle of Glamis, and refitted it and its garden and policies according to the taste of that age.
The Earls of Strathmore at the present time own a remarkable multiplicity of titles, being also Earls of Kinghorne, Viscounts Lyon, Barons Glamis, Tannadyce, Sidlaw, and Strathdichtie.
The third Earl of Strathmore died of wounds he had received at Sheriffmuir in 1715, and was succeeded by his brother as fourth Earl. The fourth Earl had five sons and three daughters, and of these no fewer than four sons succeeded to the title. Charles, sixth Earl of Strathmore, died in 1728, in a duel arising out of a quarrel at cards or dice.
It is with this Charles, sixth Lord Strathmore, that the chief of the uncanny stories of Glamis is concerned, There are, of course, many versions, but the most generally received is that of the fatal gaming party. By this it seems that the long-standing feud between the Lindsays and the Lyons had so far healed that the members of the two families dined, drank, and diced together, like the fine old Scottish gentlemen they were: bent upon some form of ill-doing, at any cost. Those ancient Scottish noblemen who were not up to some devilry or another, from slitting the throat of monarch or friend, conspiring against the State, or making off with a neighbour's wife, down to mere ordinary sharp practices and insane gambling, were few indeed, and even those abstaining few did not generally receive the credit to which their abstention entitled them. Such another set of equally atrocious villains it would be difficult to find, in any age or country.
The legend goes on to declare that the play, one fatal night at Glamis, grew desperately high. The Earl was suffering a run of ill-luck, and when he had gamed away all his money, resolved if possible to win back his losses in staking his estates. But the bad luck was still in force, and, staking one property after another, he continued to lose, until Glamis itself stood at hazard upon the turn of a card and was lost. Then the dazed and infuriated Lord Strathmore, not able to understand such extraordinary ill fortune, lost his temper, and accused his guest of cheating.
A blow was the only reply; swords were drawn, and, after a few passes, the Earl was run through the body. Thus died the sixth Earl of Strathmore; but it would appear that it was not a Lindsay, but one James Carnegie, of Finhaven, who killed him, as appears in the trial that followed.
From this comparatively simple version, which bears, in its broad aspects, the stamp of truth, many wild varieties have been elaborated, in which the evil characteristics of earlier lords of Glamis have been incorporated, to make tales of marvels. In these narratives the chief actor is "Earl Beardie," or "Earl Patie," of whom the real original would appear to be the first Lord Glamis, who died in 1454, and whose actual or imaginary ill deeds had rendered him for generations a kind of traditional Bogey or Raw Head and Bloody Bones, the terror of many a nursery in the country round about Glamis.
According to these horrific imaginings, clearly evolved in the minds of an ultra-Sabbatarian peasantry, Earl Patie was not only a gambler, and a gambler who would not merely play day and night and with his fellows, but would continue on Sundays, and in default of any of his own station, would play for bawbees with the veriest scullion in his proud castle. It was on a dark and stormy November Sabbath night (observe the excellent stage-management of this legend!) that Earl Patie, wearied of the empty day, called with his most startling oaths for a pack of cards and for a partner in the game. The cards were duly forthcoming, but it was not so easy to secure a partner. My lord, with growing fury, invited each individual member of his staff of retainers, but without avail. Starting with the steward, and working down to the meanest potwalloper in the establishment, he received refusals from all. Then he tried the rather hopeless task of persuading the domestic chaplain to take a hand, with the result that he not only got another refusal, but found that any likely waverer among his menials was scared out of obliging him by the threats the chaplain proceeded to hurl against any one who should so desecrate the Lord's Day.
Earl Patie thereupon, consigning the chaplain and every one else to Helensburgh, and swearing if possible worse than ever, took himself and his pack of cards away to his own especial room,
declaring himself prepared to play with the Devil, if no other partner were forthcoming.
He had not sat long, before a knock came at the door, and a deep voice without was heard asking if he still wanted a partner.
"Yes," shouted the Earl; "enter in the foul fiend's name, whoever you are."
Thereupon there entered a. tall, dark stranger, wrapped mysteriously in a cloak. Nodding familiarly to the Earl, he took his seat, without further ceremony, on a vacant chair opposite, and the game presently began. The stranger had proposed a high stake, and in accepting, the Earl agreed, if he were the loser and found himself unable to pay, he would sign a bond for whatever the stranger might choose to ask. (What doited fools these legendary gamesters always are!)
Fast and furious became the game. Loud and louder were the oaths that resounded through the chamber and echoed down the corridors, alarming the household. Up crept the terrified servants,
and listened at the door-after the manner of servants-wondering who this might be who should thus bandy words with their wicked master.
At last the old butler, who had served the family for two generations, and had peeped through many a keyhole in his time, applied his eye in the old familiar manner; but he had no sooner done so than he fell back and rolled upon the floor with a yell of agony. In an instant the door was flung open, and the Earl, with furious face, instructed the servants to slay any one who should pass, while he went back to settle with his guest.
But the guest was gone, and with him had gone the bond. It seems that while the game was in progress, the stranger had noticed the keyhole, and, throwing down his cards, had exclaimed, with a dreadful oath, "Smite that eye!" whereupon a sheet of flame had darted directly to the keyhole, blighting the butler, and the stranger himself vanished. This would make an impressive tract for the conversion of Keyhole Peepers.
For five years after this dramatic scene, Earl Patie lived, and then was gathered into Abraham's -or some one else's-bosom. But every Sabbath evening afterwards the room where the two had played at cards resounded in the same boisterous manner, until at last, unable any longer to endure this Sunday evening tumult, the family had it built up. Of course the stranger, as the intelligent
reader will already have perceived, was none other than the Devil himself, and the bond resulted in his winning the Earl's soul.
An even more thrilling version tells how the Earl declared, with many dreadful oaths, that he would play until the Day of Judgment; and that on stormy nights the gamblers may yet be heard, quarrelling over their play.
The jealously guarded mystery of the secret room at Glamis may or may not be connected with this legend. There are, in fact, several "secret" chambers in the ancient fifteen-feet thick walls, but these are neither more nor less a matter of secrecy than the so-called "secret" drawers that form so perfectly obvious a feature of most old escritoires. The one absolutely secret chamber is never known to more than three persons at one time: to the Earl of Strathmore for the time being, to his eldest son (or to the next heir), and to the factor, or steward, of the estate. The solemn initiation ceremony takes place upon the coming of age of the heir, on the night of his twenty-first birthday; when the three are supposed to be armed with crowbars to break down the masonry which walls up the mystic recess. This rite duly performed and the wall again built up, the factor invariably leaves the castle and rides for home, no matter how stormy the night or late the hour. The Lyon family is wealthy-the late Earl left over a million sterling-and could easily reside elsewhere, but on the night that witnesses the coming of age of the heir, its members will be all gathered together at Glamis.
The theories as to what this terrible secret may be embrace every possibility and impossibility. An often-repeated story is that which narrates how the unhappy Lady Glamis, "the witch," who was burnt on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, was really in league with the Devil, and that her familiar demon, an embodied and visible fiend, inhabits the spot!
With other people, greedy of the horrible, a favourite theory is that there exists, in this dungeon, a hideous half-human monster, of fearful aspect and fabulous age. Another variety would have us believe that a monster of the vampire type is born every generation into the family, to represent the embodiment of a terrible curse upon the house of Lyon.
Again, a tradition declares that in the old days of feuds, when the Ogilvies and the Lindsays were for always flying at each others' throats, a number of hunted Ogilvies came to the doors of Glamis, imploring the Lord Glamis of that day to shelter them from the fury of their enemies. He was not on particularly friendly terms with either of those warring clans, but he opened his door to the fugitives and, under the pretence of securely hiding them, locked and bolted the unfortunate Ogilvies in a remote dungeon, and callously left them there to starve. The tale goes on to tell how the bones of those wretched fugitives strew the floor of that dismal hold to this day, the position of some of the skeletons showing that the captives died in the act of gnawing the flesh
from their arms.
Dr. Lee, who, in his _Glimpses of the Supernatural_ shows himself prone to swallowing anything, however startling, says: " On one occasion, some years ago, the head of the family, with several companions, was determined to investigate the cause of inexplicable noises heard at Glamis Castle. One night, when the disturbance was greater and more violent and alarming than usual, his lordship went to the Haunted Room, opened the door with a key, and dropped back in a dead swoon into the arms of his companions; nor could he ever be induced to open his lips on the subject afterwards."
Why the factor should be included in the triune initiation into the mystery of Glamis is a question that has always excited highly interested conjecture. If the factor's office were hereditary, there would conceivably be reason for it, but this is not generally the case at Glamis. But whatever the reason of the factor being always taken into the confidence of the Earl for the time being, to the exclusion even of the Countess, it is certain that the trust reposed has never once been misplaced. Whatever it is the factor has seen, or whatever the ceremony in which he takes a part, the nature of it has never been divulged.
The revelation of the mystery has often in times past been promised by reckless young heirs to the title, sceptical as to its importance, but the twenty-first birthday has come and gone and the
initiation into the secret has been performed; and the promised revelation has never been made. Instead, the subject, mentioned by expectant friends, has with evident anxiety been avoided. To an inquirer the late Earl, who died in 1905, said, "If you could guess the nature of this secret, you would go down on your knees and thank God it were not yours."
Mr. Hare, who was a. visitor at Glamis in 1877, speaks of the pleasant house-party then assembled there, and adds, "only Lord Strathmore himself has an ever-sad look. The Bishop of Brechin, who was a great friend of the house, felt this strange sadness so deeply that he went to Lord Strathmore, and after imploring him in the most touching manner to forgive the intrusion into his private affairs, said how, having heard of the strange secret which oppressed him, he could not help entreating him to make use of his services as an ecclesiastic, if he could in any way, by any means, be of use to him. Lord Strathmore was deeply moved; he said that he thanked him, but that in his most unfortunate position no one could ever help him. He has built a wing to the castle, in which all the children and all the servants sleep. The servants will not sleep in the house, and the children are not allowed to do so."
Whatever the nature of this heirloom, the late Earl seems to have found it a subject for constant prayer. A guest who had been staying at the Castle, and was leaving in the early morning, passed by the private chapel, and there he saw his host kneeling in prayer, and still wearing the evening clothes he had worn overnight.
Once, in the temporary absence of a former Earl of Strathmore, a party of guests, headed by the Countess herself, made an ingenious effort to discover the secret chamber. Starting on the supposition that it must have a window (but why?) they hung towels out of every casement, concluding that any window which displayed no towel would be the mystic chamber. The attempt failed, and while it was in progress my lord returned, with unpleasant results. It was even said that Earl and Countess parted, never to meet again.
It will thus be seen that it is not from want of inquiry that the secret has been kept. Sir Walter Scott, Sir Augustus Rumbold, Augustus Hare, and many antiquaries have puzzled their brains over it, with the solution as far removed as ever. Lord Playfair, who was a distant relative of the Lyon family, had been on the estate as a boy, and was possessed with a furious zeal to pluck out the heart of the mystery. Lord Strathmore was not in residence, and young Playfair had the run of the place, his uncle being one of the trustees. "I naturally did my best," he says in his autobiography, "to discover the famous secret and the awful mystery connected with it. I drew my own conclusions, which were probably as erroneous as those which have been made by others in regard to this famous secret." He left the neighbourhood no wiser.
Fifty years passed, and he was again at the Castle. Lady Playfair was with him, and the then Countess of Strathmore conducted them all over the place. "She even showed me," he says, "a secret chamber, but not the secret chamber, which has defied so many keen inquirers." She could not, as we have already proved, have shown it if she would.
Of course many attempts have been made to show that the mystery is of merely commonplace origin, and the extraordinary activities of Patrick, first Lord Strathmore, in constructing secret rooms
in his various residences, have been pointed out. A secret staircase, which would seem to have been built about 1670, and afterwards bricked up, was discovered in 1849, during some alterations; and a splendidly carved fireplace, whose existence had not been suspected, was accidentally revealed, a few years since, in the drawing-room.
Patrick, Lord Strathmore, left behind him an account of his works, called by him the Book of Record, printed by the Scottish History Society in 1890. In this he gives very full details of the work done by him at Glamis Castle. For instance, the construction of this back staircase, so long forgotten, is distinctly described; and from his references to certain leaden statues which he had erected in the grounds, these works of art were recovered from their undignified seclusion in some of the cellars, and have been restored to their original positions. When confronted with a mystery like that of the secret chamber, one naturally turns to the Book of Record to see if it contains any allusion to this apartment. The diligent student of that remarkable book will find two curious entries that seem to have some hearing on this subject. Writing on June 24th, 1684, Lord Strathmore records the following transaction: "Agried with the four masones in Glammiss for digging down from the floor of the litil pantry off the Lobbis a closet designed within the charterhouse there, for wch I am to give them 50 lib. scotts and four bolls meall."
The work of constructing this closet or small chamber was more serious than the Earl had contemplated. Judging from similar chambers which he caused to be made at his other residence at Castle Lyon (now Castle Huntly) in the Carse of Gowrie, the closet was probably dug out of the thickness of the wall.
On July 25th there is another reference to this closet, which shows that its construction was an arduous undertaking: "I did add to the work before mentioned of a closet in my charterhouse
severall things of a considerable trouble, as the digging thorrow passages from the new work to the old, and thorrow that closet againe so that as now I have the access off on flour [one floor] from the east quarter of the house of Glammis to the west syde of the house thorrow the low hall, and am to pay the masones, because of the uncertainty yrof dayes wages, and just so to the wright and plasterer."
From these precise entries it becomes evident that in 1684 the first Earl of Strathmore caused a secret chamber or closet to be constructed, with an entrance from the charter-room. This was by no means an unusual thing, for many noble Scottish families have had frequent occasion to conceal documents that would have compromised them in times of war, and even a charter-room might not have been secure against the searches by enemies. The first Lord Strathmore himself was deeply implicated in a Jacobite plot with the Earls of Southesk and Callander in 1689; and though he afterwards became reconciled to William the Third, it would have been useful for him to have a secure hiding-place for treasonable papers. Several of his descendants were concerned in the risings of 1715 and 1745, and a chamber of this kind would be useful either to secrete documents or to afford shelter to a fugitive. By that time, it is urged, the masons who had constructed the secret chamber thirty years before would have passed away, and the lingering rumours of its existence would be linked in the popular mind with the "wicked" Earl. For obvious reasons, it is pointed out, the successive Earls of Strathmore would not seek to dispel this superstition, and thus the simple "closet designed within the charter-room" has been elevated to the dignity of a haunted chamber.
Such are the matter-of-fact deductions drawn from the unromantic entries in the Book of Record; but they do not, it will at once be seen, meet and controvert the tales of magic and terror
at all points.