Edinburgh’s Castle’s most gruesome tales

The attack upon the Douglases by Crichton's men known as 'the Black Dinner'. Picture: Submitted.
The attack upon the Douglases by Crichton's men known as 'the Black Dinner'. Picture: Submitted.
Share this article

EDINBURGH Castle is known for its dark and fascinating history. Burning witches, torturing prisoners, botched escape attempts and royal treason, the castle has witnessed its fair share of death, misery and melancholy over the centuries. Here are three such tales.

The Black Dinner

This story involves the Douglas family, a powerful clan whom had fought alongside William Wallace in his campaign against Edward Longshanks, King of England.

In 1440 a 16 year old William Douglas became Earl, succeeding his father Archibald whom had died in June of that year. Archibald was loathed and feared by his peers as he had been appointed lieutenant-governor of the kingdom in 1439.

A plot was hatched by the kingdom’s official Regent, Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callander and the Chancellor, William, Baron of Crichton to damage the Douglas family.

Archibald died of natural causes, therefore their hatred could not be relinquished on him. This bitterness was extended to his son William whom had now acquired his father’s vast power and influence.

Crichton and Livingstone had enemies and those whom did not align themselves with the nobles usually stood by the Douglas family.

Young William took command of affairs as quickly as he could. He sent Knights to the court of the French king to ask for charters for lands given to his grandfather, Charles V, he also made a habit of appearing in public with an armed entourage.

This troubled the Chancellor and the Regent, they knew they could not attack William directly as it would incite civil war in Scotland.

So they invited him to dinner.

William and his younger brother David were asked to come to feast with his sovereign James II in Edinburgh Castle on November 24, 1440.

The boy-king arrived with his armour laden bodyguards, though he entered the castle with only his brother and Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, a trusted advisor of his father’s.

Perhaps it was youthful arrogance that made the teenage aristocrat think his new contemporaries wanted to hear his thoughts on Scotland’s future. Once the portcullis was lowered, the gates shut and the young king began to chatter with his new associates at the table, two servants entered the room bearing a silver platter holding a black bull’s head.

The bull’s head is an ancient symbol of death and it caused the three men to unsheathe their swords in self-defence. Armed guards forcibly removed them from the chamber and where the barracks now stand, the Douglas boys and their loyal advisor were beheaded under the night sky at the behest of James II.

READ MORE: 9 of Edinburgh’s oldest buildings
Lady Glamis’s unjust fate

One of the most bloody and malicious of the stories associated with Edinburgh’s ancient fortress is the tale of Lady Jane Douglas.

During the 16th century a tide of paranoia swept over Britain in the form of the witchcraft trials. By all accounts they were not trials at all as it was more often than not a foregone conclusion that the accused would be killed in horrific fashion.

James V was a megalomaniac who held resentment for the powerful Douglas family due to a difficult shared history. Jane Douglas’ first husband, John, Lord Glamis died and she remarried to Archibald Campbell of Skipness.

Jane was beautiful and many men attempted to win her heart in the wake of Lord Glamis’ death. One such man was William Lyon who was intensely jealous of her new husband, Archibald.

Utilising the kings paranoia to his advantage he concocted a plan to seek revenge on the woman who refused him and the man who stole her away from him. He accused Jane, her son and elderly priest John Lyon of treason.

King James believed the lie and was given a reason to remove the people who could contest his right to the crown.

Jane was widely adored and respected and was a women of impeccable character, though many of her closest friends turned away from her at this time.

The Lady Glamis was accused of attempting to poison the king and of practicing witchcraft, with no evidence, but to the hysterical king this didn’t matter.

Jane was tortured, sometimes in front of her son, who also received the same barbaric treatment. A confession was forcibly obtained through brutal mutilation and this gave the king full justification to punish Lady Glamis for her alleged satanic rituals and conspiring plots.

She was sentenced to death based on her own false confession and was burned at the stake on Castle Rock on July 17 1537 while her husband and son watched helplessly from a cell in David’s tower.

Archibald died on the crags of Castle Rock after he supposedly attempted to escape, though suicide is believed to possibly have been his motivation.

The young Lord Glamis was released in 1542 when James V died and the old priest John Lyons was exiled.

Lady Jane is now said to haunt Glamis Castle, her royal home, as the Grey Lady.

READ MORE: 6 times Edinburgh Castle was under siege
The warrior and his mistress

The legend of a warrior named Grim who usurped the Scottish crown in the 10th century is one of morbid intrigue.

Grim enjoyed hunting in the meadows and forests south of Edinburgh, when he received respite from Scandinavian hordes attacking his shores.

Grim’s comrade, aptly named Hunter, was given control of the Polmood region in the Borders where the king liked to hunt wild boar and deer.

The Queen spent most of her time in the castle and often argued with her husband on the amount of time he spent hunting, thus leaving her alone in Edinburgh Castle.

As one would imagine of a man who took the throne from the king simply because he could, Grim was in the habit of doing as he pleased.

This was exemplified on one evening while out with Hunter in Polmood he came across a young woman outside a cottage, she was beautiful with bright red hair and displayed an interest in the king.

The old warrior reciprocated her smile and set off on his hunt once more.

He was taken with her and sent his men to inquire as to who she was. They did as commanded by their king and discovered that her name was Bertha and that she was an unmarried woman, living with her elderly father in the cottage.

The men relayed to the king that she made clear her affections for him.

The king began to go on more and more hunts in the forest where this little cottage just so happened to be situated and the queen grew increasingly suspicious. The queen hired spies to find out whether or not her suspicions held any weight. She then discovered that her paranoia was well founded as it was reported to her that they were seen together and the young girl was pregnant.

Vengeance consumed the queen and she hatched a plan that was to be executed at the opportune moment.

Danish forces landed in East Lothian once again, forcing Grim to fight the encroaching pillagers.

Grim’s forces took a substantial hit, though he survived and ultimately quashed the invasion.

He returned to Bertha only to find she was not at home. Grim noticed a mound of earth next to the house and dug it up to find his new family, Bertha, her father and his son, slaughtered.

The king ran home on his stallion and saw a black banner flying on Castle Hill, assuming treachery he sped home over Lammermuir Hills to the castle to confront his wife.

Upon arriving he drew his sword and was met at the gates by a steward. Grim interrogated the steward demanded to see the queen, he was then informed of his wife’s recent expiry.

The king was overwhelmed with rage at the death of the queen and sought out Malcolm III, whom he had usurped, to wage war.

Grim’s men had lost much of their faith in him as he waged war for no reason other than he knew little else and many abandoned him on the battlefield.

Taken prisoner by the former king Malcolm, Grim’s fate was to be that of his namesake.

Medieval royalty in Scotland weren’t known for their weak stomachs or kind hearts and Malcolm was no different, he blinded Grim with hot iron and threw him in a cell where he would die in mere days.