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Issue 56 - The Ghostly Whistler of Balcomie

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


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The Ghostly Whistler of Balcomie

Annie Harrower Gray looks at the legend of a boy minstrel

The remains of a fortified castle and fragment of a massive wall overlooking the harbour, suggest the people of medieval Crail were well protected against overseas invaders. It seems though the old Fife fishing port was powerless to keep out the Devil, body snatchers and wandering apparitions. Crail Parish church, built in the reign of David II (1329-1371), contains many fine specimens of wood-carving in its oak linings. In an eastern passage a tombstone preceding the reformation of 1560 forms part of the pavement. Another carved stone is preserved in the western wall after spending half a century being used as a paving stone, a legion of boots defacing the back before the burghers came to realise how important a piece of the town’s history it is. This stone carved with animals and other emblems is probably the Old Cross of Crail. Pilgrims flocked to the town hoping to find a cure for their illnesses. The cross was reputed to have great healing powers. Other relics of similar antiquity are consigned to the surrounding walkways after being broken up by 19th century workmen.

Whilst the cross was a monument to the hopes of the living, easy access to the cemetery around the church caused the people of the town to fear for their dead. Amongst the grand old monuments, a castle-like morthouse was built in 1826 and bodies were kept for six weeks in summer and twelve weeks in winter. After this the corpses decomposed to such an extent they were of no use to the resurrectionists’ or ‘body snatchers’.

As the Napoleonic wars escalated the demand for army and navy surgeons grew in proportion, hundreds of young men converged upon Scotland’s famous medical schools to train as doctors. Each student was required to dissect at least one body to qualify as a doctor. With the laws of the time allowing only the bodies of executed murderers to be used for dissection many despaired of ever being able to take the Hippocratic oath. With some 800 medical students studying in Scotland annually, even in a violent year there were not enough executed murderers to go round.

It was the students who decided to help themselves to newly buried bodies. Organised gangs of body snatchers followed suit. Unethical medical schools would pay 10 pounds for a fresh body. It was a lucrative business and not strictly against the law, as a body does not below to anyone and it cannot be stolen. When the ‘sack-‘em-up’ men robbed the grave of its corpse they left the shroud behind. The shroud was the property of the deceased’s family and theft of property was a criminal offence carrying a high penalty.

This method of procuring bodies for medical training caused hysteria throughout Scotland. Burghers defended their churchyards according to the amount of cash available, new technology and fashion trends. Mortsafes, heavy coffin-enclosing frames made up of iron bands, were common as these contraptions could be re-used. Mortstones, heavy stone blocks were laid over coffins, and watchtowers were built to house trigger-happy watchmen. Sometimes the guards shot stray animals by mistake and as in one case at Leith in Edinburgh, they shot each other.

The ‘dead house’ at Crail with its battlements, ventilation slits and sturdy door is one of the finest examples of its kind. It is not however the only stone work the town if renowned for. The devil in a temper was well known for throwing boulders. When the nuns of St. Clares at Haddington built the tower of the old church, it offended the devil’s eye. The devil, then residing on the Isle of May, picked up a missile and hurled it at the churchyard. The stone split in mid air, one piece landing harmlessly on consecrated ground and the other on Balcomie beach, near Fife Ness. The ‘Blue Stane’ lies near the church gate, the devil’s awful thumb-mark imprinted on its side.

In Victoria Gardens on the road to Fife Ness, where Mary of Guise landed on her way to marry James V at St. Andrews in 1538, another stone takes pride of place. The Sauchope stone was originally situated on a the small mound where Sir William Hope of Balcomie is said to have drawn swords with a foreign knight before writing The Complete Fencing Master.

The road continues on to the most easterly point of Fife and Constantine’s Cave. It is both reputed and disputed that King Constantine was murdered here in 874. Situated in the north face of a rocky crag on the shore of Fife Ness, ancient crosses are cut into the rock on every side. Half a century ago, a farmer discovered some 30 stone coffins lying near the cave, all laid out in neat rows. After opening the coffins the farmer dug a deep hole and buried the bones.

To reach Constantine’s cave visitors must first pass Balcomie Castle, for centuries a landmark guiding mariners to safety. The original castle dates back to the reign of Malcolm IV (1153-65) when it belonged to the Hay family. The castle passed through several hands before James Learmouth of Clatto received a grant from James V to build the mansion in which he entertained nobility and royalty. It was here Mary of Guise stayed on her arrival.

By the end of the 19th century, Balcomie castle had lost its welcoming air. The Weekly Scotsman of Christmas 1899 reports the castle being shunned by the people of Crail during darkness hours.

Sometime in the 16th century, a general occupied the castle and employed a boy who vaunted his love of music by wandering around the castle playing a penny whistle. One winter morning, as his master slept off the effects of too much ale, wine and merrymaking the boy paced the corridor outside the bedchamber blowing his whistle. The master woken from a deep sleep, seized the child and locked him in the keep before returning to his slumber. When the general awoke again, he had completely forgotten the incident. After an absence of seven days, the master returned to the castle to hear of the mysterious disappearance of the boy minstrel. His memory came back to him and he rushed to the keep only to find the boy’s cold corpse.

For centuries there were reports of unearthly whistling within the castle walls, candles burning blue and chairs moving of their own accord. In the last year of the 19th century an old Crail fisherman reported he saw the minstrel’s ghost sitting on top of the castle flagstaff blowing an old tin whistle and afterwards the people of the East Neuk of Fife, gave the castle a wide berth.

Today, Balcolmie is a working farm and all that remains of the old castle is the keep. The Isle of May evicted the Devil when it became a bird sanctuary, and the old Morthouse has outgrown its usefulness. Crail is a picturesque town with a summer Arts festival. It is just possible though that one night a lesser-known whistler may turn up uninvited and play a haunting tune.

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