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Issue 75 - Yester Castle

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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Yester Castle

The Prince of Darkness and his pact with the underworld

Deep in the woods and seated high on a promontory encirled by the Hopes Water on the fringe of the Lammermuirs are the ruins of Yester Castle glinting pink on a summer's day.

A Charter of William the Lion dated 1160 gifted the “Lands of Yestrith” to Hugh Gifford, a relative of the King's mother Ada de Warenne. Further research indicates that “Giffard” was the family name of Walter de Longueville, a cousin of William the Conqueror. However, it proves impossible to verify the exact year in which Yester Castle was built, although a descendant of the Hugh, also known as Hugh Gifford, was certainly established there in 1250.

And it was this Hugh Gifford who, in the popular passtime of his generation, allegedly indulged in the pursuit of necromancy, placing him on a par with his more famous near contemporary, Michael Scott of Scottish Borders legend.

As it happens, very little is known about this Hugh Gifford apart from the rumours that surrounded him during in his lifetime, and they mostly relate to the remarkable vaulted hall underneath the castle forecourt of Yester Castle. A triumph of engineering under any circumstances, the tradition is that it was built by goblins, hence its name The Goblin Ha'.

One theory is that in an age of Crusades, the builders might have been imported slaves of a north African origin. Native Scots would never have seen such people before and in an age of superstition the rumours would have spread like wildfire.

It was also said that Gifford made a pact with the Devil and that there is a curse upon the castle and on those who are not wanted there. It certainly gives that impression.

In Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, Alexander III of Scotland visits the wizard Sir Hugo Gifford at Yester and asks him to prophesy the outcome of a battle he is about to fight against the Danes. Sir Hugo sends him to confront the Phantom Knight who obligingly prophesies victory.

There is also the legend of the Colstoun Pear. Hugh the Wizard's daughter Marion, married the laird of the neighbouring Colstoun estate. As the bridal party approached the church at Bothans, the bride's father stopped under a pear tree to pick a fruit and handing it to his daughter told her that so long as it was kept safe, so long would prosper the owners of Colstoun.

Fast forward four centuries and another bride of Colstoun when shown the pear, took a bite out of it. Disaster. Over the following summer, family members were drowned and the estate had to be sold.

In 1399, Jonet, the heiress of Yester, married Sir William Hay of Locherworth, Sheriff of Peebleshire, and it is from this union that the estate passed to their Hay descendants who three centuries later became earls of Yester and marquises of Tweeddale.

What we know for fact, however, is that Yester Castle was abandoned by the Hays after being attacked by the English during the Rough Wooing of 1544 to 1551. Following the surrender of its English occupants, the 4th Lord Yester did get his castle back but by then had relocated himself in Neidpath Castle at Peebles.

In future generations, the Hay family are known to have occupied a four-storey house at Bothans before employing the architects William and Robert Adam to create their splendid mansion house of Yester in the 18th century. The 60 room mansion and 200 acre estate is one of Scotland’s most luxurious properties, containing of six main bedrooms, a 1,300sq ft ballroom and three kitchens. Yester House also has musical influences as it was once owned in the 1970s by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who died in 2007.

Meanwhile, only the remaining ruins of Yester Castle, once ranked among the most formidable fortresses of the Scottish lowlands, survive – a solitary, melancholy reminder of a long forgotten Prince of Darkness and the lingering apocryphal pact he is said to have made with the Underworld.