OTD 1394: Wolf of Badenoch dies after chess game with devil

Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan, earned several nicknames during his lifetime given his loathsome reputation for murder, violence and fire raising.

Lochindorb Castle near Grantown-on-Spey - a favoured isolated hideout of 'The Wolf'. PIC: www.geograph.co.uk/coldwaterjohn.

Many knew him as the Wolf of Badenoch while others referred to him as the Celtic Atilla. It has been questioned whether he was indeed Scotland’s vilest man.

The Wolf died on this day in 1394 at Ruthven Castle near Kingussie with legend claiming that he met his maker after playing chess with the devil.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Read More

Read More
Which was the most feared Highland clan?
19th Century depiction of the Destruction of Elgin Cathedral, which was set on fire by The Wolf. PIC: Creative Commons.

The story is perhaps a fitting end for a man who honed his reputation with a series of rampages through the north of Scotland and his terrifying appetite for destruction of his enemies.

He set fire to the towns of Forres and Elgin, where the cathedral was torched and chaplains and canons burnt out of their homes.

It is believed that Pluscarden Abbey was also lit by the Wolf as he fought back against the influence of the Bishop of Moray. The driver for much of his rage was his marriage to Euphemia I, Countess of Ross, who was unable to bear him a legitimate heir.

The tomb of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, at Dunkeld Cathedral. PIC: Creative Commons.

However, he reportedly had seven children with his mistress, Mairead nighean Eachann, with other accounts claiming the Wolf fathered up to 40 offspring with other women.

The Wolf was powered by a toxic combination of anger and power which was gifted to him by his father, King Robert II, who made his son the Earl of Buchan in 1382 and the Crown’s chief law officer in the north of Scotland.

The Wolf’s territory stretched from Moray to the Pentland Firth - with much of its people to feel the full force of this “avarious and cruel” figure, according to Sir John Scott Keltie in his 1875 publication a History of the Scottish Highlands.

In 1390, by which time the Earl was bedding down at his secluded island home of Lochindorb Castle, the Wolf’s touch paper was lit when the Bishop of Moray, Alexander Bur, refused to annul his marriage.

He was later to excommunicate the Wolf. The Earl was “exasperated....to such a degree of fury” that he was reduced key parts of his territory to ash.

Keltie wrote: “In the month of May 1390 he descended from his heights and burn the town of Forres, with the choir of the church and the manse of the archdeacon.

“And in June following, he burnt the town of Elgin, the church of St Giles, the hospital of Maison-Dieu and the cathedral, with 18 homes of the canons and chaplains in the college of Elgin.

“He also plundered these churches of their sacred utensils and vestments which he carried off.”

It is likely that the Priory of Pluscarden was burned at the same time with traces of fire lit still seen today in the building .

The Wolf, whose other homes included Drumin Castle near Glenlivet, Castle Garth near Glen Lyon, and Ruthven Castle near Kingussie, was prosecuted and punished by his father but ultimately absolved of his crimes and received back by the church.

According to accounts, Pope Clement V subsequently annulled the marriage in late 1392 after Countess Euphemia complained to Rome that her marriage was meaningless given the Wolf was cohabiting with another woman.

The Wolf of Badenoch reportedly died in 1394 after playing chess with the devil at Ruthven Castle, according to legend.

It is said he was visited by a tall man dressed in black and the pair played through the night, with a storm conjured when the visitor called “check” and “checkmate”.

In the morning, the Wolf was found dead in the banqueting hall and his men too found lifeless outside the castle walls. The tomb of the Wolf can be found in Dunkeld Cathedral.