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Stirling, Borthwick and Lochleven: The Scottish Haunts of Mary, Queen of Scots

by Tori V. Martínez

Mary Queen of ScotsAs in England, where the number of historical establishments that claim, "Queen Victoria slept here," is legion, the same holds true in Scotland for Mary, Queen of Scots. In her relatively brief 45 years of life, Mary seems to have spent at least one night in just about every castle of note in Scotland. Between everyday living at her royal residences, numerous Scottish progressions, various attempts to escape a multitude of threats, and the early years of her imprisonment, she went from what we know today as familiar Scottish landmarks like Edinburgh Castle to near forgotten ruins like Spynie Palace in the Moray region of eastern Scotland. But if you think the Queen of Scots was busy in life, wait until you hear all the places she's reportedly "visited" in the afterlife. There's just something about Mary -- even after all these years -- that makes her an extremely popular spectral resident of Scottish castles. So much so that it's possible to track much of her life story just through the claims of her ghostly presence.

A Protected Childhood at Stirling Castle

Stirling CastleMary's ghost doesn't give us a completely clean start, as it's not Mary, but her mother, Mary of Guise, who supposedly haunts Mary's birthplace, Linlithgow Palace in West Lothian, not far from Edinburgh. Perhaps the ruined palace just isn't big enough for the two ghostly queens. In any case, the ghost of the Queen of Scots -- or, at least of the "Pink Lady" -- is reportedly present in her second home, monumental Stirling Castle. According to the stories, the castle is haunted by a "Pink Lady" and a "Green Lady." It's speculated that the Pink Lady, who is most fluently described as a "beautiful woman in a pink silk gown," is either the ghost of the Queen of Scots or that of a woman doomed for all eternity to search for her husband, who was killed when King Edward I of England captured the castle.

Despite the competitive claim, the case for Mary as the Pink Lady of Stirling Castle is fairly compelling. Queen of Scotland since she was six days old, Mary was an extremely vulnerable and easy target for the kings of England and France, who had their eyes on the Scottish throne. When she was just six months old, an alliance between England and Scotland betrothed Mary to England's Prince Edward, the five-year-old son and heir of King Henry VIII. The French Mary of Guise vehemently objected to the proposition, so she took the little queen into hiding at Stirling Castle. It's unlikely a safer place could have been chosen. The volcanic crag on which Stirling Castle was built rises some two hundred feet above the River Forth and provides a commanding view of the Scottish countryside for miles around. Long appreciated for its strategic location, a fortress of some sort has existed on the site since at least the 9th century, although much of the present castle was built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mary of Guise would undoubtedly have known that previous Scottish monarchs had also sought virtually assured safety at the castle, including her own husband and Mary's father, James V, who had first been brought there as a two-year old king by his own mother in 1513.

Once inside the fortress, Mary of Guise arranged for a hurried coronation ceremony for her daughter, which was held in the castle's old Chapel Royal on September 9th, 1543. Mary and her mother lived safely in the castle until 1548, when Mary was sent to be raised at the French royal Court. She returned to the castle several times after her return from France in 1561, and it was there that she sent her son, the future James VI, to be raised in 1566. Mary's life appeared to come full circle when -- just over 23 years after her coronation -- she attended James' christening in the same chapel at Stirling Castle. Mary again visited her son at Stirling Castle on April 24th, 1567, but it would turn out to be the last time she saw both her son and her childhood home. Just a few months later, Mary was forced to abdicate and James was subsequently crowned king.

These are perhaps all good reasons why Mary's spirit might want to return to Stirling Castle in the afterlife, but her ghostly appearance would seem to be more closely tied to an incident in 1561 when the curtains of her bed were set on fire by a bedside candle. Had it not been for a quick-thinking attendant who rescued the sleeping queen from her burning bed, Mary would never have had the chance to impact history the way she did. Unfortunately for visitors to Stirling Castle, the old Chapel Royal was demolished in the late 16th century, although its more modern replacement is open to the public, as is most of the rest of the castle.

A Husband, a Lover and Borthwick Castle

Borthwick CastleIt may seem almost too obvious at this point to say that Mary didn't have much luck in life. In March of 1566, while Mary was heavily pregnant, her second husband, Lord Darnley, brutally murdered her secretary at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Having witnessed the event with her own eyes, Mary no doubt saw that she needed to rid herself of, and find an alternative to, her troublesome husband. After the birth of her son, she evidently filled at least one, if not both, of those needs with James, Earl of Bothwell. History tells us that Mary and the earl not only went to work to formulate a plan to get rid of Darnley, but also began a love affair.

In October 1566, Mary learned that the earl had been wounded in a minor altercation and was convalescing in one of his castles. At great risk to both her safety and reputation, Mary dropped everything to be at her lover's side. She and a few select attendants rode as far as 50 miles to Hermitage Castle on the Scottish borders, where they stayed for two hours before making the journey back. On the return trip, Mary caught a chill and the subsequent fever nearly killed her. It is perhaps this event that has prompted ghost watchers to claim that the "regal figure" in a white dress seen on the deserted grounds of now ruined Hermitage Castle is the ghost of Mary.

Perhaps, but Mary's association with the Earl of Bothwell helped her leave an even bigger impact on Borthwick Castle, located just 12 miles south of Edinburgh. Now a beautiful hotel, Borthwick Castle was built in 1430 by the first Lord Borthwick, who was part of a formidable and ancient Scottish clan well known for its ferocity on the battlefield. In accordance with the clan's reputation, Lord Borthwick built an imposing fortress with a twin-towered keep over 100 feet high, walls 14 feet thick and an immense great hall. Mary's first visit to Borthwick Castle passed fairly uneventfully in 1563, as did many subsequent visits, but her final visit in June 1567 left a lasting impression. Newly married, she and the earl fled to Borthwick Castle to seek refuge from and raise forces against a group of very unhappy nobles in close pursuit. Part of the trouble was that, in February, Lord Darnley had been killed in a mysterious explosion and Mary and her unpopular new husband were believed to be at the heart of the incident.

Borthwick Castle InteriorDespite the castle's impressive credentials as a fortress, it was soon surrounded by a large armed force and Mary and the earl realized that their only hope lay in escaping separately. The story goes that Mary -- who apparently enjoyed dressing up even under normal conditions -- disguised herself as a page boy to escape undetected from the castle. Despite their best efforts, both she and the earl were quickly caught and imprisoned, never to meet again. Perhaps it's because the newlyweds spent their last days together there that the unhappy Mary is said to haunt Borthwick Castle, appearing from time-to-time in a stairwell near The Mary Queen of Scots Room -- one of several exquisite rooms available to the castle hotel's guests. Also, in keeping with Mary's lifetime predilections and escape strategies, she's also been spotted around the castle dressed as she was when she fled there -- as a page boy.

"Polite" Imprisonment at Lochleven Castle

While Mary's spirit lingered at Borthwick Castle, the living Mary was imprisoned by those unhappy Scottish nobles at Lochleven Castle near Kinross beginning June 16, 1567. A month later, she had a double dose of bad luck when she suffered a miscarriage -- twins, who were buried near the castle -- and was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favor of her son. While many of us would be quite happy to relax in a castle ideally situated on an island in the middle of one of Scotland's beautiful lochs, Mary wasted no time in plotting her means of escape. With a keep that was five stories high and walls about eight feet thick, Lochleven Castle was nowhere near the caliber of fortress as Borthwick Castle. On the other hand, Lochleven had at least one distinct advantage over Borthwick that made escape far more difficult -- it stood on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. For Mary, this meant the only way of escaping the well-guarded castle was by boat.

Lochleven CastleHer first attempt involved making the boat crossing disguised as the castle's washer woman. Unfortunately for Mary, the boatman thought it was suspicious that an overworked washer woman could have such beautiful white hands, and Mary's escape was foiled. Her second attempt was successful thanks to the cooperation of her allies, including her jailer's son, who was apparently smitten with the beautiful young queen. On May 2, 1568, she successfully crossed the loch and made her way to safety, although, according to various ghost sightings, Mary's spirit once again lingered behind. Most references to Mary's ghost at Lochleven Castle are not very specific, but at least one story suggests that she haunts the castle in search of her lost twins. Modern day ghost hunters and travelers can still see the short, round Glassin Tower where Mary was imprisoned, as well as the keep, which is widely considered to be one the finest examples of a 14th century keep in Scotland. Like Mary, modern visitors can only access Lochleven Castle by ferry from a pier in Kinross, a trip that takes only about 10 minutes today.

After Mary's earthly escape from Lochleven Castle, she found refuge at the castle of one of her supporters, James Hamilton, the 2nd Earl of Arran. The hospitality Mary received at Craignethan Castle, near the Clyde Valley, must have been a welcome respite from her period of polite imprisonment, but the business of reclaiming her crown awaited her and her stay was accordingly short. Unfortunately for Mary, her hopes of achieving victory in Scotland were dashed on May 13th, 1568 at the Battle of Langside, which led to her escape to England and her eventual execution. Unlike her other hauntings, Mary's spirit seems to have returned to Craignethan Castle not as she was when she left, but as she was after her execution -- that is to say, headless. Of course, since it's difficult to identify a headless ghost, it is only assumed that the "headless lady dressed in white" spotted in the castle's old tower is, in fact, the spirit of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The story of Mary's mortal presence in Scotland ended with her escape to England, where she threw herself on the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Justifiably suspicious of the woman who was one of the strongest rival claimants to her throne, Elizabeth promptly imprisoned Mary, moving her from one English castle to another for the next eighteen years. As she had in Scotland, Mary made an equally significant impact on the English castles where she was imprisoned, both in her own lifetime and in the afterlife. But that is another story.

More Information:

Historic Scotland (http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk) maintains Linlithgow Palace, Stirling Castle, Hermitage Castle, Lochleven Castle and Craignethan Castle, all of which are open to the public. More extensive information on all of these sites and an impressive number of photos are also available at Undiscovered Scotland (http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk).

Borthwick Castle is currently operated as a historic hotel, effectively combining beautiful period features and full modern amenities. More information can be found at Celtic Castles - http://www.celticcastles.com/castles/borthwic/index.html.

Information on visiting The Palace of Holyroodhouse can be found at the official web site of the British Monarchy - http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/page559.asp.

Mary, Queen of Scots - Biography and Portraits

Marie Stuart Society Web Page

Mary I of Scotland (Wikipedia)

Tori V. Martínez is a writer and freelance public relations professional who spends as much time as possible researching and writing on her favorite subject -- history. Several years ago, Tori eschewed the life of a full-time career woman to travel and live around the world, particularly in Britain, where she spent considerable time exploring and researching historic destinations. At the moment, she is living in the US with her husband -- a Spaniard she met in England -- and is happily writing for a variety of online and print publications. For more about Tori, visit http://www.globetrottingbroad.com.
Article © 2006 Tori V. Martínez
Photos of Stirling Castle and Lochleven Castle courtesy of Undiscovered Scotland (http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk); photos of Borthwick Castle courtesy of Celtic Castles (http://www.celticcastles.com).


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