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Issue 52 - The haunting of wemyss

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


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The haunting of wemyss

Annie Harrower Gray discovers the tale of a piper and a noble family.

Eleven coves stretch along the shore from Wemyss castle to the old quarry at East Wemyss. In their 4000 years they have seen the appearance of The Picts, James V, Gipsies, smugglers, Druids and Pagans. They have also witnessed the disappearance of one piper who played his way into the Court Cave and never came out.

In the old Celtic calendar New Year fell on 1st November and Samhain, pronounced “sav-en” meaning ‘end of summer’ began at sunset on 31st October. Just as a new day begins at sundown and covers the darkest hour so the Celtic New Year’s eve began the dark phase of the year.

Many of the old Celtic Gods are depicted with two faces and like Janus their Roman counterpart, one face points towards the past commemorating those who have died during the previous year and one looks hopefully to the future.

It is a festival of time and yet a night that exists outside time, both a celebration of the dead and a time of regeneration.

More than 150 years ago, as an extension of the Samhain rites, the young of Wemyss formed a torch lit procession on the first Monday of the year. The ‘Hansel Walk’ as it was known, ended in the Well Cove. It was on this night that the fairy piper came to collect the dues owed by those who had neglected to make a sacrifice to the Gods of the Dead. The Piper was a messenger from Tir-nan-Og, who with his melodies, bewitched his followers and led them to the land of eternal youth. Legend suggests one night he played his last pibroch as he entered the Court Cove, where James V the final King to rule over an independent Scotland held his court of gypsies. Like the last of the Stuart Kings, the piper never returned.

The followers of these torch lit processions are immortalised in the initials carved into the walls of the inner chamber of the Well cove. The pure water of the well was said to have curative powers and it was hoped it would protect the procession from the ill health in the coming year.

Curative powers were not enough to save Mary Sibbald who died in the Well Cove, taking the waters. Mary was the daughter of the Laird of Balgonie Castle who had the misfortune to fall in love and elope with one of the gypsies living in the Court Cave.

Jean Lindsay, the man’s former lover was jealous of Mary and planted a brooch under her sleeping mat. In the morning, Jean declared her jewellery stolen. A search began and turned up the brooch. Mary was accused of the theft and in the Court Cave she was tried by Baron Baillie, convicted and sentenced to 12 lashes of the whip. A lady of gentle and refined manners, Mary could not get over the indignity and died of a broken heart as a monk soothed her wounds.

On one of James V’s visits to the caves disguised as the commoner ‘The Gudeman of Ballangeich’, a quarrel broke out amongst the gypsies after the flowing bowl was passed round and everyone was birling from the effects of the wine. One man charged Jean Lindsay of having borne false witness against Mary and accused her of being the real thief.

Jean denied the accusation. It was at this point the apparition of a white clad lady with soft blue eyes, entered the cave and stayed only a few seconds. It was enough to frighten Jean Lindsay into confessing.

The apparition of Mary Sibbald or ‘The White Lady’ made several appearances at the coves and MacDuff Castle, where MacBeth forced his way in and slaughtered the Thane’s wife and children. Its ruins, surrounded by the Alexander plant, mistakenly used as an aphrodisiac in medieval times, still overshadows the eastern coves. The plants widespread use amongst the nobility possibly explains Mary’s love affair with a gypsy man.

It was on the shore under the castle grounds that archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of a woman in the castle midden or rubbish heap. It is said she died of overwork.

Mary has not been seen in the castle’s vicinity though since 1967 when Fife Council deemed one of its towers dangerous and on the point of collapse. After several attempts at demolishing it, the council was eventually able to bring the stronghold to its knees.

MacDuff is one of two Castles situated above the coves. On a crag above Wester Wemyss stands Wemyss Castle where Mary Queen of Scots first met the handsome Lord Darnley. This castle has its own uninvited guest. The Green lady though, appears to be a sociable sort of soul.

One Christmas, during the residence of Lady Millicent Wemyss, a theatrical performance had been arranged for the entertainment of a large and merry party of guests. A stage was erected in the dining room and a curtain hung before it. At the farther end of the makeshift stage was a butler’s pantry where glassware was stored.

Early on the evening the play was to be performed, this small annexe was empty and the door firmly closed. The eldest daughter of the house and a friend were sitting before a roaring fire, listening to the logs crackling in the grate and looking forward to the night’s entertainment. Suddenly above the sound of the rain on the window, they heard a rustling sound coming from the stage even though the curtains were undisturbed. Gently, the curtains parted and through them glided a pale female form dressed all in green. She opened the door of the empty pantry and passed through. Miss Wemyss disturbed by the presence of an unknown guest, ran to the door and turned the handle to intercept the intruder coming out for there was no other exit. The room was empty.

When the young ladies heard Lady Millicent return from a drive, the girls informed her that they had seen ‘Green Jean’.

It was only a few days before her ladyship was also to meet the apparition.

With a stately gait, ‘Green Jean’ approached the speechless Lady Millicent in the castle’s gallery and the two walked companionably together. A few minutes later, Lady Millicent found herself alone.

It would seem the Wemyss family have always been sensitive to messages from beyond the grave. When an owner of Wemyss Castle is nearing death his demise is foretold by the fall of masonry. One such laird received his warning when he saw stones falling from one of the castle’s terraces and within a few weeks he was dead.

The Wemyss Coves and Castles are a magical place to spend the day pondering the mysteries of the other world and its inhabitants. Save The Wemyss Ancient Caves Society, a charitable organisation, run excellent tours during the summer and supply hard hats against the possibility of falling masonry. If you decide to go alone though, do take care to let your kith and kin know where you are.