“Bloody Tam” Dalyell and his card games with the devil

Portrait of First Baronet General Tam Dalyell at the House of the Binns near Linlithgow. PIC: NTS.
Portrait of First Baronet General Tam Dalyell at the House of the Binns near Linlithgow. PIC: NTS.
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The contents of the family pile of the late MP Tam Dalyell are being catalogued by heritage chiefs with a table where his direct ancestor is said to have played cards with the devil among the collection.

Experts at The National Trust for Scotland are working at the House of the Binns near Linlithgow where the Dalyell family has lived since the mid-17th Century.

The marble table where 'Bloody Tam' is said to have played cards with the devil. PIC: NTS.

The marble table where 'Bloody Tam' is said to have played cards with the devil. PIC: NTS.

The mother of the late parliamentarian, who died in January 2017, gifted the property to the charity in 1944 with the former MP for West Lothian and then Linlithgow continuing to live on site with his wife.

More than 1,000 objects spanning more than three centuries of Dalyell family history have so far been catalogued as part of the trust’s Project Reveal, with the past possessions of First Baronet General Tam Dalyell - also known as Bloody Tam - of particular interest.

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Among the General’s items is a 17th Century marble table which, according to legend, was thrown out the window of the House of the Binns during a particularly fraught card match played between the General and the devil.

The Colonel's Pond in the grounds of the house where the table was found. PIC: NTS.

The Colonel's Pond in the grounds of the house where the table was found. PIC: NTS.

Also in the collection is a pair of the general’s cavalry boots with stories suggesting they took on a life of their own following the death of Bloody Tam, so-called because of the way he led Government forces against the Convenanters in Scotland and his time in Russia fighting the Turks and Tatars.

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Dr Alexandra Hill, Project Reveal Officer East, said: “It was said that Bloody Tam played cards with the devil. One night he tried to cheat by putting a mirror behind where the devil was seated. The devil saw what was happening and became angry and threw the table at the General. It narrowly missed the General and ended up in a pond outside.”

The table was never seen again until it was spotted at the bottom of the Colonel’s Pond in the grounds of the house in 1878.

The table would originally have been decorated with many semi-precious stones, which are now missing, and the wooden stand has also been replaced, Dr Hill said.

Eleanor Dalyell, the mother of the late parliamentarian, made arrangements for a joiner to come and fix the table. When the joiner arrived at the house he said it would be his last ever job as he was about to retire. He then revealed that his first ever job had been recovering the table from the pond.

“Bloody Tam” led government forces against the Convenanters at the Battle of Rullion Green outside Edinburgh in 1666 and is recalled for treating his defeated opponents with great cruelty.

Up to 100 prisoners were taken to Edinburgh and incarcerated in a small room in St Giles Cathedral, called Haddo`s Hole. Ten leaders were hung with their right hands cut off and nailed to the prison door at Lanark with their severed heads were sent home as a warning.

Legends have long since developed around the General, who is also credited of bringing the thumbscrews to Britain for the first time after encountering them in Russia.

Dr Hill added: “One legend of Bloody Tam tells how, following his death, Tam’s third son John took his father’s cavalry boots back to his home at Lingo in Fife but he was forced to return them to The Binns.

“Every night when he took them off they wakened the sleeping household as they marched round the house.

“It was said that if cold water was poured into them, it would quickly come to a boil.”

NTS’ Project Reveal will photograph and document every item held across the 47 sites in its care.

It is anticipated the work will reveal new treasures which will then be accessible to the public in an online collection.