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Issue 49 - A towering tale

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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A towering tale

Annie Harrower-Gray gets on the trail of The Wizard of Balwearie.

The auld folk of Fife were superstitious souls with fears and good luck charms that differed greatly between coastal dwellers and inlanders. Fishing communities believed in the magical, life preserving qualities of salt whilst the presence of clergymen, lawyers and professional gamblers on a vessel was taboo. Inland, lapwings were feared because of their cry ‘Bewitched!

Bewitched!’ But the rooster who greeted the day was associated with great psychic powers. Both communities had one thing in common though, whenever a human figure entered into these superstitious beliefs it would be Michael Scot, The Wizard of Balwearie.

Michael Scot’s father had been knighted by Alexander II and married Margaret Balwearie of Kirkcaldy, Fife. Scot was born in the latter part of the 12th Century and grew up in a tower at Balwearie. The tower stood long before James III, in 1463, granted William Scott a licence to build the fortress that was to become the Castle of Balwearie.

The road leading up to this tower it is said, was laid down by demons working under a spell cast by Scot. The Devil himself laboured away on the road and after it was finished constantly plagued Scot for more work.

Tired of the Devil’s pleas, Scot sent him to make an endless rope of sand on the shore at Kirkcaldy. The task wore the devil out and it may be from this tale that the saying, ‘The Deil’s deid and buried in Kirkcaldy’ originated.

In a kingdom, where in the early 13th century few people travelled more that a few miles and most could not read or write it is hardly surprising such a man who travelled Europe and read Arabic translations of the Greek Philosophers inspired such suspicion and awe. After his initial training at Oxford, Scot studied at universities in Paris and Toledo in Spain. It was probably at Toledo he learned the secret of distilling alcohol as early manuscripts attributed to him refer to “Aqua Ardens”, the earliest name for distilled alcohol.

The first formula for alcoholic spirit was recorded in 1494 but both Toledo University and the medical school at Salimo, Italy knew of the distillation process as early as 1150.

Scot was at Toledo in 1217 and would certainly know the method. If he put his knowledge to good use on his return to Scotland then it is possible that he is the father of Scotch whisky and Balwearie the birthplace of the first dram.

Toledo University was famous for more that just discovering alcohol, it was celebrated for its cultivation of the occult sciences. It was here that Scot strayed from his studies in mathematics and theology and pursued judicial astrology, a field of study that lay between religion and science and was the key to becoming a ‘wizard’. It was this knowledge of the black arts that earned him his place amongst the magicians and soothsayers in Dante’s Inferno (canto xx), a mention in Cornelius Agrippa’s De Oculta Philosophie and a reputation as the most feared alchemist of the 13th Century.

When an angry king of Scots sent Michael to France to stop French pirates attacking Scottish ships, he opened up his magic Book of Might and summoned his black demon horse.

In the presence of the French king, Scot ordered the horse to stamp its hoof three times. The first fall of the horse’s foot set all the bells of all the churches of Paris ringing.

The second demolished three towers of the Palace. As the horse lifted its hoof a third time the king ordered the piracy to stop.

Around Balwearie similar tales spread throughout the neighbourhood. Scot rode the same coal black steed up onto the Bel Crag, a local rock once used by sun worshippers and there the demon horse left an imprint of its shoe.

Hares around Balwearie were not always the innocent creatures they appeared to be either. If Scot wanted to hunt and prey could not be found, a witch woman who occupied a nearby cottage changed her form and ran over the fields for the laird to chase.

A deep grove known as Dunnikier Den was supposed to have been dug by Scot as he fled from an angry fiend. Using his mystic powers, Scot created a valley and stream behind him as he ran. He knew a fiend could not cross running water.

Most feared of all was the haunted cave whose sides cut into the Bel Crag. It was here Scot conducted his experiments and was thought to be one of his sources of his power.

From this cave came either a ‘breath from heaven’ or ‘a blast from hell’. If properly inhaled these toxic emissions were believed to carry the gift of second sight.

The reputation of the cave and its powers survived down the centuries and in the nineteenth century an inebriated piper on his way from Lochgelly fair took no heed of the storm raging through the Tiel Valley by Balwearie.

As he passed the cave, instead of stopping in reverence to its reputation, took out his chanter and played a wild and unearthly tune drowning out the howling wind until dawn broke.

In the morning a farm labourer, on his way to work found the dead piper lying at the entrance to the cave. To this day the piper’s lament can be heard on a stormy night.

If the gruesome ballad Lamkin is to be believed then Michael Scot left a legacy of evil attached to Balwearie Castle. Sometime after Scot’s death, a mason was owed money supposedly for building work on Balwearie Castle. In revenge for the absent lords non-payment, the mason killed the lord’s wife and child leaving blood on the stair.

It would be tempting to attribute all the folklore surrounding Scot to the imagination of the bygone folks of Fife who because of limited education, feared such a learned man but for one thing: he did in fact have the gift of second sight and accurately prophesised many events including his own death.

He foresaw that a blow from a small stone of a certain weight would kill him.

The knowledge frightened him so much he devised a new type of headgear called a Cerebrerium. This he continually wore, only taking it off when attending church.

During one church service a small stone fell from the ceiling and hit him on the head. A few days later on 15th July 1235, Michael Scot died from the wound.

When weighed the stone was found to be exactly the weight Scot predicted.

On what was, according to Sir Walter Scott, ‘A night of woe and dread’ The Wizard of Balwearie was buried together with his Book of Might at Melrose Abbey and a stone effigy erected above his grave.

In these far climes it was my lot To meet the wondrous Michael Scot A wizard of such dreadful fame, That when, in Salamanca’s cave, Him listed his magic wand to wave, The bells would ring in Notre Dame Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel.