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Issue 58 - Shadows and Light

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011


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Shadows and Light

Annie Harrower Gray looks at the history of Aberdour Castle.

The origins of Aberdour Castle are shrouded in the mists of antiquity.

There is no record of either the castle or towns existence before it was mentioned in a bull of Pope Alexander III in 1178. An old tradition ties the castle to the Viponts, a powerful Northumbrian family whose name appears in charters of William the Lion (1165-1214) when the Barony passed into the hands of Sir Alan de Mortimer on his marriage to Anicea, daughter of Sir John de Vipont. Both families were extinct before documents relating to the castle came into existence, showing it as belonging to Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray.

Aberdour Castle is reluctant to give up its dark history and often-shameful secrets.

Part of the original St. Fillan’s church with its Norman chancel and nave dating from 1123 still exist in the castle grounds and suggests there was a keep on the site long before the present castle was built. The rest of the building has been restored and now used as a parish church.

Folklore claims Sir Alan Mortimer gave half the lands of Aberdour to God and the monks of Inchcolme Island in exchange for posterity and a burial place within the monastery. After his death the monks ferrying his lead coffin undercover of night, threw his corpse into the waters between the mainland and the monastery. The waters have since been known as ‘Mortimer’s Deep’.

Although of a later date than the church, the castle was also a square keep up until the time of the Regent Morton, who added the first extension just before his death in 1581. The lands of Aberdour have belonged to the Douglas’s since Sir James fought for Robert the Bruce and died carrying the King’s heart to Jerusalem. On the death of her brothers in 1341, the castle passed to the Countess of Moray and March, the infamous Black Agnes, a brawling boisterous wench who successfully defended Dunbar Castle against Edward III army, ensuring it stayed in Scottish hands.

James Douglas, fourth Earl of Morton was more interested in the wealth and power he could lay his hands on than the interests of Scotland. Born in 1516, he was the nephew of Archibald Sixth Earl of Angus. Angus married the widow of James IV, sister to Henry VIII giving the Douglas family immense power in Scotland whilst receiving bribes to spy for Henry. The young James V was too shrewd to be manipulated by the family and banished them from the King’s Court on pain of treason. Soon afterwards they found themselves fugitives in England.

On returning to Scotland James Douglas married the Earl of Morton’s third daughter Elizabeth and contrived to succeed to the title. As James courted Elizabeth, his father was arranging to pay The Earl two thousand pounds for him to sign a marriage contract and hand over his title and lands to the couple. James was not a good husband and Elisabeth was declared mad in 1559.

Morton’s rise to power was meteoric. Having thought it prudent to support the Presbyterians, he filled several minor positions during the reformation of 1560. It was only with the return of Mary though, he was able to exercise his full powers. He was sworn in, as a member of her Privy Council and in 1563 became Lord High Chancellor. It was in this role that he, Earl Lindsay and a following of a hundred and fifty men, stormed Holyrood Castle and stood guard over the Queen’s apartments whilst her husband Lord Darnley and his accomplices, Lord Ruthven and George Douglas murdered David Rizzio, the Queens’s secretary and counsellor. Morton would later be implicated in the murder of Darnley.

Following the civil war that raged between Mary’s followers and those who supported her son James, Morton was appointed Regent to the young king on the death of Regent Mar in 1572. Morton’s government was not popular and the new fines introduced found their way into the Regent’s own pocket. Neither was church ministers endeared towards him. They rarely received their stipends and many died in the streets penniless, hungry and cold.

By 1578, everyone the country held a grievance against Morton and he was forced to resign and retire to Aberdour Castle. Three years later, the excuse of his involvement in Darnley’s murder brought him to the maiden, a form of guillotine the Earl himself introduced into Scotland.

The massive fortune Morton amassed has never been found. On the scaffold as he waited to be beheaded, he pretended to be so poor he had to borrow the largesse to be given to the beggars watching him take his final journey. Perhaps he buried the gold in the Norman Church or under his new extension believing he would return to the castle in an afterlife.

An old gateway at Aberdour, no longer on its original site, guarded an entrance where a headless figure was often seen. Although the phantom was not always visible to the human eye, horses sweated and reared as they passed the pillars.

The Kirk session minutes of Aberdour show the powers of evil were forever active in the town. In 1650 a mitten placed under its head in the cradle bewitched an infant. The child died as the mitten was burnt too late to save it. The episode was blamed on one Janet Anderson whom a local resident had heard scraping the ground and howling as she engaged in devil-worship.

Margaret Cant, accused of witchcraft was arrested in 1661 along with a fellow sinner Margaret Currie who confessed and involved another woman, Janet Bell. The diligent witchfinder The Reverend Robert Bruce called in the Brodder to find the devils mark, an area of the body supposedly insensitive to pain when pricked. It was duly found and all three presumably strangled and HAUNTED Scotland burned according to the law. The sentence imposed was rarely recorded in Kirk Session records, as it was the Civil Court that carried out the punishment.

Today the town’s resident witch Christine Quick, known locally as the ‘Green Witch’ is celebrated rather than condemned. Raised in Lincolnshire, she initially found it difficult to integrate herself and her High Street shop, Mystique Moments into the community. Before the middle ages every town and village would have a witch, a wise woman carrying out the role of doctor, healer and midwife. Witches were an accepted part of society. In the 16th and 17th centuries, both church and monarch (James VI was obsessed by witchcraft and necromancy) bred fear and hysteria amongst the superstitious population.

Witches became fictionally embellished creatures who were the personification of evil.

It was to take four centuries and another fictional character to change the opinion of the masses. Chris says ‘it took five years and the arrival of the Harry Potter novels for me to become accepted.’ These days Chris is acknowledged worldwide, not only for the shops mixture of Wicca paraphernalia but also her homemade herbal potions that help with everything from backache to problems with fertility. She even receives referrals from general practitioners. It seems Aberdour has stepped out of the shadows and into the light.