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Issue 59 - The Green Lady of Crathes

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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The Green Lady of Crathes

Annie Harrower Gray looks into the spooky goings on at Crathes Castle

For a family to find themselves living in a haunted house is quite unusual. The Burnett’s of Leys must have considered themselves very fortunate, or unfortunate, in having lived in not one but two homes occupied by two different spirits. The lands of Leys near Banchory was given to the Burnetts by Robert the Bruce in recognition of their support in the Wars for independence against Edward I. Alexander Burnard (Burnett) became a valued follower of Bruce and was further rewarded with grants of part of the Royal Forest of Drum and neighbouring lands forfeited by the Comyns, Bruce’s adversaries for the crown. The Catholic Church ex-communicated Bruce for the murder of the Red Comyn, after he killed his opponent in Greyfriars Church, Dumfries. As a badge of honour for his role as Royal Forester of Drum, Bruce awarded Burnard with the Horn of Leys, a symbolic horn made of ivory and encrusted with jewels. It is now on display above the fireplace in the great hall of Crathes Castle.

Crannochs, fortresses of timber built on a man-made island, were popular in the 14th and 15th Centuries and the Burnetts built their stronghold at Loch Leys. By all accounts they lived quite peacefully on the mound in the middle of a bog, despite being disturbed from time to by a malicious spirit that either occupied the crannoch or the loch. Around 1746, a splinter of rock killed the 4th Baronet’s son Sir Thomas, as he attempted to drain the loch.

After the tragedy the baronet developed a ‘boodie fear of beasties’ (a terrible fear of ghosts). The Burnett’s decided to leave their crannoch and the move was made possible by the marriage in 1543 of another Alexander, the 9th Laird to Janet Hamilton daughter of Canon Hamilton of the Abbey of Arbroath. By way of a dowry Janet brought a substantial amount of church lands, later added to by arranged marriages and gifts. In 1560 they began building the tower house that was to become Crathes Castle.

Castle building at the turn of the 16th century became less focused on fortification moving towards the castle as a residence. By the 1550s the tower house was the recognised form of residence for every member of the landholding classes. New designs developed and after the Reformation of 1560, owners became more and more competitive in their ornamentation of the houses they built.

Crathes Castle is a fine example of 16th century ostentation with its fairytale turrets, corbels, elaborate string courses and Jacobean painted ceilings. A number of nearby buildings all enclosed within the grounds by a barmkin or courtyard wall would have supported the original house.

One hopes that the spectre stalking the Burnetts at Loch Leys was not too fearsome for the tower house took 36 years to build, only being completed by Alexander Burnett in 1596. The mansion house, an extra wing, was added in the 18th Century.

It was in the 18th Century the Green Lady made her first reported appearance.

By the 19th century there were several sightings and one witness could hardly be described as having an overactive imagination. Queen Victoria observed a green mist floating across the aptly named Green Lady’s Room. The apparition swept up a ghostly child before disappearing into the fireplace. Workmen later discovered the remains of a woman and child behind the same hearthstone. The skeletons were believed to be centuries old.

The fireplace is possibly a significant clue as to the identity of the Green Lady and her child. In medieval times castles were cold damp places and the fireplace became a symbol of lordship, built exclusively for the use of the laird and his family.

Was the woman buried behind its embers a member of the Burnett family killed for having given birth out of wedlock; family honour being valued above the life of a daughter and her child?

Another possible explanation is that a Burnett with a roving eye, impregnated one of the servants and both mother and child were murdered to save the family’s reputation. One such Burnett was certainly promiscuous. Sir Alexander 2nd Baronet (1653-1663) succeeded to the title while a 16-year old student at Kings College, Aberdeen. Described as ‘dissolute and naughty’ he managed to father at least six children before he died at the age of 26.

If the mysterious mother was in fact related to the family then it is certain she will always have felt at home in Crathes Castle. The tower contains a collection of original family portraits and Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings were uncovered in the Chamber of the Muses, The Chamber of Nine Worthies and the Green Lady’s Room during the late 19th century. Her surroundings must certainly be comfortable and familiar and her view over the lands, stunning.

The original tower house completed in 1596 stood in total isolation offering extensive views over the woods and moors. The estate comprising of 530 acres on the north side of the River Dee is home to a wide range of habitats including woodland, marsh, ponds and streams. It was vital for the family’s protection that any hostile visitors could be seen approaching. A yett or metal grid still protects the original doorway.

Mature trees from around the world, planted by Sir James Horne Burnett circa 1860 add to the distinctive character of the tower house. Topiary hedges of Irish yews dating back to the early 1700’s surround the eight themed gardens and the famous walled garden contains nearly four acres of gravel paths, with unusual plants in herbaceous borders including the world renowned ‘June Borders’.

Laid out on two terraces, a grass croquet court takes pride of place on the highest level.

Fairly recent sightings of the Green Lady suggest she has no intention of leaving this Deeside paradise. However, she is no longer dependent on the Burnett family for her continued existence in the castle but to the entire nation. In 1951, Sir James Burnett of Leys gifted part of the estate, the castle and its inhabitant to the Scottish people. Her tender care and that of the estate is now in the hands The National Trust for Scotland.