Five unsolved Scottish mysteries

Iona Abbey. Picture: Robert Perry.
Iona Abbey. Picture: Robert Perry.
Share this article
0
Have your say

TAKE a look at the stories behind five Scottish mysteries that remain unsolved to this day.

The missing library on Iona

A hangmans noose, made of rope.

A hangmans noose, made of rope.

The scenic island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, is known as the birthplace of Scottish religion.

In 536 A.D. missionary St. Columba and his followers landed on the island, and it was there he founded a monastery, which soon became the capital of knowledge in the medieval world.

Some historians also believe that Iona once housed an incredible library that held the most extraordinary books known to man.

Pre-Columba the island was sometimes referred to as Innis nam Druidneach, the Isle of Druids.

The beautiful and mysterious Island of Iona. Picture: Robert Perry

The beautiful and mysterious Island of Iona. Picture: Robert Perry

Old stories record St Columba and his followers fighting off the local Druid elders when they landed to take possession of the island.

It is said that the druids had founded a library. As well as housing the written records of the Druids themselves, it was also said to be home to books from the greatest library in Europe.

The only known survivor is The Book of Kells, which is preserved at Trinity College in Dublin. Many believe the rest were destroyed by Viking raiders who attacked in the ninth century.

Some historians believe some of the books may have survived, taken to Ireland or buried nearby to keep them safe.

The mysterious Gilmerton Cove. Picture: Phil Wilkinson.

The mysterious Gilmerton Cove. Picture: Phil Wilkinson.

Scottish history is a murky puddle. Few records exist for the first half of the first millennium. Stories, myths and half-truths cloud this period and a consensus is impossible to find.

But one group of St Andrews University archaeology students certainly thought they had been hidden.

In the 1950s they conducted a dig on the Treshnish Islands, near to Iona, in search of the lost books.

They found nothing. But who knows if they could still be there, a hidden cache of history and knowledge that, if found, might possibly represent the most important find of our time.

Gilmerton Cove - Underground house cave - The entrance to the cave showing the well worn steps.

Gilmerton Cove - Underground house cave - The entrance to the cave showing the well worn steps.

READ MORE - Five churches of Scotland with a dark and bloody past

Who killed Red Fox?

FOR 18 months the body of James Stewart - James of the Glen - was left to hang on the gibbet at an elevated and highly visible spot on the south end of the Ballachulish Ferry.

It was a sinister aftermath to one of the most shameful episodes in Scottish history - the Appin Murder. It claimed the lives of two men - one killed by sniper fire, the second “judicially” murdered after a rigged trial which paid no heed to justice, only the needs of vengeance and political expediency. The gruesome public display of the hanged man’s remains was one of the final flourishes of the bloody maelstrom that was clan warfare in Scotland.

Stewart unquestionably went to the gallows an innocent man. His own clan family knew that from the beginning but refused to turn in the guilty man. Instead, in one of the best kept secrets in history, the identity of the killer was passed down to selected Stewarts through generations.

The Appin Murder happened in May 1752, six years after the Battle of Culloden. The dead man was Colin Campbell of Glenure, Argyllshire. Known as “The Red Fox”, he was the factor of several estates which had been forfeited from pro-Jacobite clans and his challenging task was to collect taxes from clan leaders. It has been claimed that on the day he was shot Campbell was about to indulge in a spot of “ethnic cleansing” by evicting Stewart families from their houses on the Ardsheal estate and replacing them with Campbells. That claim has never been proved but post-Culloden, anti-Campbell sentiment was rife in the west Highlands. The Campbells, living in the heart of clan country, were however loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy and deeply unpopular among those who had fought with Charles Edward Stewart, the Bonnie Prince himself. They had also been seen to “do the bidding of their English masters” at the Massacre of Glencoe 60 years earlier.

Jacobites battle in the 18th century. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Jacobites battle in the 18th century. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Colin Roy Campbell was 44 and ambitious. His work was distasteful but the more fair-minded regarded him as a decent man who made the best of a difficult job. At Ardsheal, James of the Glen helped him collect Stewart rents and the two men often consulted.

On 14 May, Campbell and four others had just crossed Loch Leven on the ferry and were passing the road at Lettermore Wood when a musket shot rang out. Campbell lay dead and the killer disappeared into the rugged countryside. Within two days James of the Glen had been arrested and taken for trial to the Campbell stronghold of Inveraray Castle. The trial was a travesty. Eleven of the 15 jurors were Campbells and the presiding judge was the Duke of Argyll, the clan chief. Not surprisingly Stewart was sentenced to die. It is said that on the day of the hanging, the real man who fired the shot had to be held down at a house in Ballachulish to prevent him giving himself up. One of those who fell under suspicion was Stewart’s half-brother, Alan Breck Stewart, described as a vengeful young hothead who had stirred up anti-Campbell hatred among his clansmen. Robert Louis Stevenson became so fascinated with the story that he based the novels Kidnapped and Catriona on the episode - with Alan Breck as one of the leading characters.

In 2001, nearly 250 years after the incident, an 89-year-old descendant of the Stewarts of Appin, Anda Penman, claimed it was time to break the family silence. She said the murder was planned by four young Stewart lairds and that the gun was fired by the best shot among the four, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish, who had been elected assassin. Penman died soon afterwards and no member of the Stewart family has substantiated her incredible story.

Back in 1754 the sight of the remains of James Stewart was too much for a local half-wit known as “Daft Macphee”. It is said he uprooted the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe and that it then floated into Loch Etive before coming to rest further south near Bonawe. The wooden gibbet was used as a bridge across stream and the bones of James of the Glen were carefully gathered and buried - by none other than young Donald Stewart of Ballachulish.

READ MORE - The Edinburgh gambler and murderer who bankrupted France

The mystery hangman of Dundee


By the mid 19th century the post of hangman had become a widely unpopular one in Dundee.

The hanging of popular Jacobites during the rebellions had left a distaste in the mouth of residents and the town had not had a hangman since 1745.

In the 1830s the notorious Black Band criminal gang had left Dundee in the grips of terror. The gang was responsible for break-ins, highway robberies and starting riots and the city’s small police force failed in the face of the crimewave.

When one of the gang was captured in 1835, a young Irishman called Mark Devlin, he was sentenced to hang in Dundee on May 30 1835.

As the city had no hangmen they sent for an executioner from Edinburgh, but when he failed to turn up they needed a volunteer from the townspeople.

They found one with just over an hour to the hanging, but one who demanded to wear a mask so as to conceal his identity.

Rumours that a local travelling fairground showman James Livingstone had taken on the job were soon to prove unfounded.

All that was known of the hooded hangman was that he was a native of Dundee.

The bailie who appointed him took the secret to his grave.

READ MORE - Aberdeen’s forgotten riots that left a city shamed

Six-century old murder mystery

David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, was just 24 when he was arrested and imprisoned by his ambitious uncle in 1401, and – it is widely suspected – murdered.

The son of ailing King Robert III, David had become Duke in 1398 and then “Lieutenant” of the Kingdom.

The post of Protector up to that point had belonged to his uncle Robert, the 1st Duke of Albany.

After his arrest, no-one really knows exactly what happened to David Stewart.

It remains one of the most enduring mysteries in Scottish history.

One legend has it he was allowed to starve to death by his enraged uncle..

His body was buried in an unmarked grave in 1402 somewhere in the grounds of Lindores Abbey, Fife, and has lain there for the past 611 years.

Gilmerton Cove, Edinburgh

An underground dwelling-place carved out of sandstone, Gilmerton Cove has remained unchanged for centuries, yet to this day no-one knows who built it and what it was for.

Access is through an old plumber’s workshop, where visitor panels dripping with damp and fungus set out what little is known about the cove. This leads to an even darker, mouldier room where the entrance to the cove begins. Here, rough stone steps lead you ten metres underground to the snaking of tunnels and chambers below. The size is surprising, the intricacy of the carving astonishing. And the sense of the mysterious is overpowering.

What is known about the cove is that local blacksmith George Patterson claimed to have hewn the rooms and passages from the rock between 1719 and 1724. Thereafter, his family lived there until his death in 1737. We also know from church records that the Pattersons used one room as a public house to sell alcohol – not unusual at the time.

Although unconventional, this underground home may have provided reasonable accommodation when compared with the state of housing above ground. Down here, the family would have had space – even if less than comfortable.

The dispute and the intrigue arise from a suggestion that far from constructing the whole building, Patterson merely inherited an existing structure.

In 1897 FR Coles, Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, investigated the cove. His conclusion was that it would have been impossible for one man to have built it in five years. Furthermore he suggested that the stonework showed clear signs of pick-marks, as used by miners, and not the chiselling he would have expected had the blacksmith indeed fashioned himself an underground home.

Mining and Gilmerton have had a long connection. Coal and lime have been found here since the 13th century and the last mine only shut in the 1960s. It is no great leap to suppose that Gilmerton cove was a trial bore – a seam that miners dug out, which came to nothing. It is reasonable to think that Patterson found the caves already excavated and set about building the “furniture” that can be seen today.If you accept that the structure pre-existed Patterson, then the function of the different rooms is open to debate. It may well be that Patterson used the drinking parlour as a pub and the punchbowl held alcohol. But this might not have been the original function.

Look closely and you see mason’s marks on the “bar” which might lead to the conclusion that this was a masonic meeting place. Search further and you can glimpse the faint tracing of a carved animal, a cat sitting perched beside the punchbowl. There are some who think the cove was in fact a home to witches, or a coven.

Add more letters and you get Covenanter – and there is a theory that the chapel was the meeting place of people persecuted for their religion, who gathered far from prying eyes to conduct their services in secret.

The punchbowl may have been a baptismal font – the hidden room serving as a chapel for Roman Catholics to baptise their newborn.

Further exploration of the cavern only deepens the mystery. Two small bolt holes - tunnels that shoot off out of the building - have been found. There is speculation that one leads towards nearby Craigmillar Castle. The other is said to head straight to Rosslyn Chapel only a few miles away.

With the revelation of secret passageways – or escape routes – theories topple over each other like dominoes. Into the already heady mix of masons, witches and Covenanters comes more fanciful notions. Echoing around the caves is a distant whisper of a deep and hidden mystery. It is said that the Knights Templar – those fighting Crusader monks – used this place for assignations, entering secretly through the tunnels that run back to Rosslyn.

And as everyone knows by now, the Templars didn’t just bring fighting talent when they came out of the East, but something else. Which leads to one final question about Gilmerton.

Could this neglected, half-forgotten cave be the true resting place of the Holy Grail?

Scottish heritage: for stories on Scotland’s people, places and past >>