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Slains Castle by Lady Blanche Murphy

In traveling over the old lands of Europe one is sometimes apt to think more of historical and genealogical traditions than of the natural beauties or peculiarities of the country. The old landmarks of a nation, whether monuments built by the hand of man or archives carefully preserved by him, tell us of its growth, just as the strata of the mountain tell of its progress to the geologist; and as every successive layer has some relation both to its predecessor and its successor, so the traditions of each generation have a perceptible influence upon the moral development of the generation following. Every nation is thus the growing fruit of its own history, and every visible step of the grand ladder of facts that has led up to the present result must needs have for a student of human nature an intrinsic interest.

This comes very clearly before my mind as I think of Slains Castle (Aberdeen), a massive crown of granite set on the brow of the rocks of the German Ocean, and the seat of one of those old Scottish families whose origin is hidden away among the suggestive mists of tradition.

Slains Castle stands alone, a giant watchman upon giant cliffs, built up only one story high, on account of the tremendous winds that prevail there in spring and autumn, and cased with the gray Aberdeen granite of the famous quarries near by. The surrounding country is as bare and uninviting as one could imagine; the road from Aberdeen (twenty miles) is bleak and stony; the young trees near the castle are stunted, and in many cases disfigured by the inroads of hungry cows among their lower branches, and a damp veil of mist hangs perpetually over the scene, softening the landscape, but sometimes depressing the spirits. As the hours pass the place grows on you: a weird beauty begins to loom up from among the mist-wreaths, the jagged rocks, the restless waves, and you forget the desolate moor, which in itself displays attractions you will realize later, in the grandeur of the desolate sea.

The original building is of the time of James VI. (of Scotland), and is due to Francis, earl of Erroll, whose more ancient castle, bearing the same name, was destroyed by the king to punish his vassal for the part he had taken in a rebellion. In the seventeenth century Earl Gilbert made great improvements in it, and early in the eighteenth Earl Charles added the front. In 1836 it was rebuilt by Earl William George, the father of the present owner, with the exception of the lower part of the original tower. In this there used to be in olden times an oubliette in which unhappy prisoners were let down. All at first appeared dark around them, but when they had thankfully assured themselves that they at last stood upon solid ground, they would look about them and presently descry a line of fitful light coming from a door ajar in their dungeon. The poor victims would then go in haste to this door, pull it open and, blinded by the sudden light, step out upon the green slope terminating quickly in a precipice, which went sheer down to the sea.

The rest of the house is built around a large covered piazza, intersected by corridors where pictures, armor and all kinds of old family relics decorate the walls. The drawing-room is on the very edge of the rock, and on stormy days the flocks of uneasy sea-gulls almost flap their wings against its window-panes, while the clouds of spray dash up against them in miniature waterfalls. The rocks in the immediate neighborhood of the castle are rugged in the extreme, here and there rent by a gigantic fissure reaching far inland, and up which the foaming waters gurgle continually as if in impatience of their narrow bounds, now jutting far into the sea like a Titanic staircase and thickly matted with coarse sea-weed, and again reared up on high, a sheer glistening wall, with not a cranny for the steadiest foot, and with Niagaras of spray for ever veiling its smooth, unchanging face. In wonderful hollows you will come upon pools of green water with sea-anemones, delicate sea-weed of pink, yellow or purple hue, and gem-like shells resting on a bottom of clearest sand; and while the waves are roaring on every side, and flinging their dampness into your very face, these fairy pools will lie at your feet without a breath or ripple on their surface.

The most magnificent of these rocks is one called in Gaelic "Dun-Bug" ("Yellow Rock"), the favorite haunt of the white sea-gulls. It stands alone, as if torn from the land and hurled into the tossing waves by some giant hand. Two hundred feet in height and a thousand in circumference, it forms a natural arch, being pierced from its base upward by an opening that widens as it ascends. The waves dash through it with terrific violence, and the very sight of its grim splendor conjures up a vision of shipwreck and danger. Scott has made mention of it in The Antiquary, and Johnson in his Journey to the Hebrides, recalling the grandeur of the rocky coast of Slains, has said that though he could not wish for a storm, still as storms, whether wished for or not, will sometimes happen, he would prefer to look at them from Slains Castle. These rocks and the caves that alternate with them were once famous as a smuggling rendezvous, and as such Scott has again immortalized them in his Guy Mannering. The Crooked Mary, a noted lugger, had many an adventure along this coast during the last century. The skipper's arrival was eagerly looked for at certain stated times, the preconcerted signal was given by him, and the inhabitants bestirred themselves with commendable haste. All ordinary business was immediately suspended: men might be seen stealing along from house to house, or a fisher-girl, bareheaded and barefooted, would hurry to the neighboring village, and deliver a brief message which to a bystander would sound very like nonsense, but which nevertheless was well understood by the person to whom it was given. Soon after a plaid or blanket might be seen spread out, as if to dry, upon the top of a peat-stack. Other beacons, not calculated to draw general notice, but sufficiently understood by the initiated, soon made their appearance, telegraphing the news from place to place. As soon as the evening began to close in the Crooked Mary would be observed rapidly approaching the land, and occasionally giving out signals indicating the creek into which she meant to run. Both on sea and land hairbreadth escapes were the rule rather than the exception, and it is related of one of the Crooked Mary's confederates on shore, poor Philip Kennedy, that one night, while clearing the way for the cargo just landed from the contraband trader's hold, he was simply murdered by the excise-officers. The heavy cart laden with the cargo was yet some distance behind, and Kennedy with some dastardly companions was slowly going forward to ascertain if all was safe, when three officers of the customs suddenly made their unwelcome appearance. Brave as a lion, Kennedy attacked two of them, and actually succeeded for a time in keeping them down in his powerful grasp, while he called to his party to secure the third. They, however, thinking prudence the better part of valor, decamped ignominiously, and the enemy remained master of the brave man's life. Anderson, the third officer, was observed to hold up his sword to the moon, as if to ascertain if he were using the edge, and then to bring it down with accurate aim and tremendous force upon the smuggler's skull. Strange to say, Kennedy, streaming with blood, actually succeeded in reaching Kirkton of Slains, nearly a quarter of a mile away, but expired a few moments after his arrival. His last words were: "If all had been true as I was, the goods would have been safe, and I should not have been bleeding to death." The brave fellow was buried in the churchyard of Slains, where a plain stone marks his grave, and bears the simple inscription, "To the memory of Philip Kennedy, in Ward, who died the 19th of December, 1798. Aged 38."

My own earliest recollections of the grand, desolate old castle are derived, not from my first visit to it made in infancy, but from the descriptions of one whose home it was during a brief but intensely observant period of childhood. There came one day a storm such as seldom even on that coast lashes up the gray, livid ocean. The waves, as far out as sight could reach, were one mass of foam, and the ghastly lightning flashed upon the torn sails of a ship as near destruction as it well could be. Cries came up from below in the brief pauses of the storm, and above lanterns were quickly carried to and fro, while pale attendants hurriedly and silently obeyed the signals of a more collected master. The occupants of the castle hardly knew to what its chambers might be destined—whether to receive the dead or to afford rest to the saved. Beds, fires and cordials were in readiness, and strong men bore dread burdens up dizzy paths leading from beneath. The ship broke in pieces on the merciless rocks, and many a drowned sailor went down to meet the army of his fellow-victims of all times who no doubt lay sleeping in the submarine caves of Slains. Those who survived soon disappeared, full of gratitude for the timely relief offered them at the castle, but one old man remained. He was never known by any other name than "Monsieur," and was beloved by every individual member of the household. A French émigré of the old school, with the dainty, gallant ways of the ancien régime, he still clung to the dress of his earlier days, and wore a veritable queue, silk stockings and buckled shoes. For some time he remained a welcome guest in the "red chamber," where the host's little children would sometimes join him and play with his watch and jeweled baubles. But one day poor little "Monsieur" sickened, and the tiny feet that had made such haste to run to him, now trod the corridor softly and bore a baby-nurse to the gentle invalid. It was a high and coveted reward for the little girls to carry "Monsieur's" medicine to his bedside, and everything that kindness and hospitality could suggest was equally lavished on him; but his feeble life, which had no doubt received a shock from the shipwreck it had barely escaped, went out peacefully like the soft flame of a lamp.

Slains Castle had many gentle and pleasant memories about it, as well as its traditional horrors, and among these were many connected with the history of the old family that owned it. In one of the corridors hangs the picture of James, Lord Hay, a fair-haired, sunny-faced boy, tall and athletic, standing with a cricket-bat in his hand. He would have been earl of Erroll had he lived, but if we follow him in his short life from classic Eton to the field of Quatre-Bras, we shall find him again, on a bright June day in 1815, lying as if asleep, as fair and noble-looking as before, but silent in death. Simple Flemish peasants stand in a group around him, awed and admiring, asking each other if this beautiful youth is an angel fallen from heaven, or only a mortal man slain for the Honor of his country. His was a noble death, and worthy of the suggestive memento of his early boyhood before which we stood just now in the corridor of Slains Castle.

A little farther down this corridor, which to all intents and purposes is a family picture-gallery, we shall be forced to stop before the portrait of a dark woman, masculine and resolute, not beautiful nor like the handsome race of the Hays, of which she was yet the last direct representative. This is the famous Countess Mary, one of the central figures of the family traditions. The Hays were hereditary lords high constable of Scotland, and also one of the few Scottish families in which titles and offices, as well as lands, are transmitted through the female line. So this Countess Mary found herself, at the death of her brother, countess of Erroll in her own right and lord high constable of Scotland. In one of the two pictures of her at Slains, if I remember right, she is represented with the bâton of her office, with which badge she also appeared at court before her marriage (after this it was borne by her husband in the character of her deputy). Her husband was a commoner, a Mr. Falconer of Dalgaty, whose reported history in connection with her is curious and deserves to be told, though the old tradition is moulded into so many different forms that it is very difficult to disentangle the truth from its manifold embellishments. Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century this intrepid and independent lady fell in love with Mr. Falconer, who at first did not seem eager to return or notice her affection. High-strung and chivalric by nature, she did not droop and pine under her disappointment, but vowed to herself that she would bring him to her feet. Mr. Falconer coner left the country after some time, and went to London. The Countess Mary also traveled south the same year, and no news of her was heard at Slains for some time. Meanwhile, she and Mr. Falconer met, but unknown to the latter, who about the same time became acquainted with a very dashing young cavalier, evidently a man of high birth and standing, but resolutely bent on mystifying his friends as to his origin. The two saw each other frequently, and were linked by that desultory companionship of London life which sometimes indeed ripens into friendship, but as often ends in a sudden quarrel. Such was the end of this acquaintance, and one day some trifling difference having occurred between the friends, a cartel reached Mr. Falconer couched in very haughty though perfectly courteous language. These things were every-day matters in such times, and very nonchalantly the challenged went in the early morning to the appointed place to meet the challenger. Here the versions of the story differ. Some say that Mr. Falconer and his antagonist fought, but without witnesses; that the former got the worst of the encounter, and remained at the other's mercy; that then, and not before, the Countess Mary made herself known to him and gave him his choice—a thrust from her sword or a speedy marriage with herself. Others say that it was before the duel that she astonished her lover by this discovery, and that the choice she gave him was between marriage and ridicule.1

The fact of her marriage, and that it proved a happy one, is certain. Mr. Falconer dropped his own name to assume that of Hay. The countess was a devoted Jacobite and an earnest churchwoman. When Presbyterianism had got the upper hand in Scotland, and was repaying church persecutions with terrible interest, a Mr. Keith was appointed to the Anglican parish of Deer. This was within the Erroll jurisdiction, and it was not long before the zealous Countess Mary came to the rescue of the congregation, who had assembled for some time in an old farmhouse. In 1719 or '20 she had the upper floor of a large granary fitted up for their accommodation, and this afforded them a grateful shelter for more than a quarter of a century. Of this same parish of Deer a curious story is told in the local annals, showing how conservative and tenacious of traditions the north of Scotland still was in 1711. The skirmish to which it relates goes by the quaint title of the "Rabbling of Deer," and is thus reported: "Some people of Aberdeen, in conjunction with the presbytry of Deer, to the number of seventy horse or thereby, assembled on the twenty-third of March, 1711, to force in a Presbyterian teacher in opposition to the parish; but the presbytry and their satellites were soundly beat off by the people, not without blood on both sides."

There was little of the martyr about the Scot of that warlike day, and most emphatically and literally did he show himself a "soldier of the Lord."

The aisle of the old church of Slains contains the graves of Countess Mary and her husband, with an epitaph in Latin, of which the following is a translation: "Beneath this tombstone there are buried neither gold nor silver, nor treasures of any kind, but the bodies of the most chaste wedded pair, Mary, countess of Erroll, and Alexander Hay of Dalgaty, who lived peaceably and lovingly in matrimony for twenty-seven years. They wished to be buried here beside each other, and pray that this stone may not be moved nor their remains disturbed, but that these be allowed to rest in the Lord until He shall call them to the happy resurrection of that life which they expect from the mercy of God and the merits of the Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ."

The central figure, however, in the history of the Hays of Erroll, and that which no one who bears the name of Hay can think of without a thrill of pride, is the Lord Kilmarnock who fell, in 1746, a victim to the last unsuccessful but heroic rising in favor of the Stuarts. I have heard it whispered as an instance of "second sight" that some years before he had any reason to anticipate such a death he was once startled by the ghostly opening of a door in the apartment where he was sitting alone, and by the apparition, horribly distinct and realistic, of a bloody head rolling slowly toward him across the room; till it rested at his feet. The glassy eyes were upturned to his, and the bonny locks were clotted with blood: it was as if it had just rolled from under the axe of the executioner; and the features, plainly discerned, were his own!

His part in the rising of 1745 belongs to history, but his personal demeanor concerns my narrative more closely. All the contemporary accounts are loud in praise of his beauty and elegance of person, his refinement of manner, his variety of accomplishments; and Scott, in his Tales of a Grandfather, relates a curious circumstance concerning his fine presence at the moment of his execution. A lady of fashion who had never seen him before, and who was herself, I believe, the wife of one who had much to do with Lord Kilmarnock's death-warrant, seeing him pass on his way to the block, formed a most violent attachment for his person, "which in a less serious affair would have, been little less than a ludicrous frenzy."

The grace and dignity of his appearance, together with the resignation and mildness of his address, melted all the spectators to tears as they gathered round the fatal Tower prison to witness his death: the chaplain who attended him says his behavior was so humble and resigned that even the executioner burst into tears, and was obliged to use strong cordials to support him in his terrible duty. Lord Kilmarnock himself was deeply impressed by the sight of the block draped in funereal black, the plain coffin placed just beside it, the sawdust that was so disposed as speedily to suck up the bloody traces of the execution, and the sea of faces surrounding the open enclosure kept for this his last earthly ordeal. It was certainly not from fear that he recoiled, but his proud, sensitive, melancholy nature was thrilled through every nerve by this dread publicity, and we cannot wonder that, leaning heavily on the arm of a trusty friend, he should have whispered, almost with his last breath, the simple words, "Home, this is dreadful!"

One who was the lineal descendant of this earl of Kilmarnock, and whose only brother long bore the same blood-stained and laurel-wreathed title, has often told me of the strange link that bridged the chasm of four generations from 1746 to 1829, and bound her recollections to those of a living witness of the scene. She was so young as not to have any distinct impression of other events that happened at the same time, but this lived in her mind because of the importance and solemnity with which her own parents had purposely invested it in her eyes. One day, at Brighton, this little great-great-grand-daughter of the Lord Kilmarnock of 1745 was brought down from the nursery to see an old, more than octogenarian, soldier who had distinguished himself in recent wars, and reached the rank of general. This tottering old man, more than fourscore years of age, took the wee maiden of hardly four upon his knee, and told her in simple words the story she was never to forget—how he had been a tiny boy running to school on the day of the execution of the "rebel lords," and how, seeing a vast, eager crowd all setting toward the Tower quarter, he was tempted to play truant, and flinging his satchel of books over his shoulder, had pushed his way as far as the great state prison. Then of his frantic efforts to secure a point of vantage whence to see the great death-pageant—of his childish admiration for the handsome, manly form of Lord Kilmarnock, of his enthusiasm when Lord Balmerino, the other victim, had cried in a loud voice, "Long live the king!" and of the fascination he could not resist which led his eyes from the shining axe and the draped block to the auburn locks of the prisoner, and soon after to his bleeding head laid low in the sawdust around the coffin. All this the old veteran told thrillingly, the shadow of a boy's awed recollection mingling with his Scottish exultation as a compatriot of the victim, and even with a touch of humor as he recalled the domestic scolding which marked the truant's return.

In the charter-room at Slains Castle, where the records, genealogies, private journals, official deeds, etc. of the family are kept, one might find ample material for curious investigation of our forefathers' way of living. Among other papers is a kind of inventory headed, "My Ladies Petition anent the Plenissing within Logg and Slanis." The list of things wanted for Slains speaks chiefly of brass pots, pewter pans and oil barrels, but, the "plenissing" of Logg (another residence of the Errolls), "quhilk my Ladie desyris as eftir followis, quhilk extendis skantlie (scantily) to the half," contains an ample list of curtains of purple velvet, green serge, green-and-red drugget and other stuffs hardly translatable to the modern understanding, and shows that in those days women were not more backward than now in plaguing their liege lords about upholstery and millinery. But the most amusing and natural touch of all is in the endorsement, hardly gallant, but very conjugal, made by the fair petitioner's husband: "To my Ladyes gredie (greedy) and vnressonable (unreasonable) desyris it is answerit...." Here follows a distinct admission that the furniture of both houses, put together, is too little to furnish the half of each of them, and therefore nothing can be spared from Logie to "pleniss" Slains.

The family coat-of-arms commemorates to this day the poetical genealogy of the Hays. Its supporters are two tall, naked peasants bearing plough-yokes on their shoulders: the crest is a falcon, while the motto is also significant—"Serva jugum." Scottish tradition tells us that in 980, when the Danes had shamefully routed the Scots at Loncarty, a little village near Perth, and were pursuing the fugitives, an old man and his two stalwart sons, who were ploughing in a field close by, were seized with indignation, and, shouldering their plough-yokes, placed themselves resolutely in a narrow defile through which their countrymen must pass to evade a second slaughter by the victors. As the Scots came on the three patriots opposed their passage, crying shame upon them for cowards and no men, and exhorting them thus: "Why! would ye rather be certainly killed by the heathen Danes than die in arms for your own land?" Ashamed, and yet encouraged, the fugitives rallied, and with the three dauntless peasants at their head fell upon their astonished pursuers, and fought with such desperation that they turned defeat into victory. Kenneth III., the Scottish king, instantly sent for the saviors of his army, gave them a large share of the enemy's spoils, and made them march in triumph into Perth with their bloody plough-yokes on their shoulders. More than that, he ennobled them, and gave them a fair tract of land, to be measured, according to the fashion of that day, by the flight of a falcon. From the name of this land the Hays came to be called; lords of Erroll, and it is said that the Hawk Stone at St. Madoes, Perthshire, which stands upon what is known to have been the ancient boundary of the possessions of the Hays, is the identical stone from which the lucky falcon started. It was left standing as a special memorial of the defeat of the Danes at Loncarty. Another stone famous in the Hay annals, and conspicuously placed in front of the entrance to Slains Castle, is said to be the same on which the peasant general rested after his toilsome leadership in the battle.

Our walks over the bleak moors on one side, with the heather in bloom and the blackberries in low—lying purple clusters fringing the granite rocks, were sometimes rendered more interesting, though more dangerous, by the sudden falling of a thick white mist. Slowly it would come at first, gathering little filmy clouds together as it were, and hovering over the gray sea in curling tufts, and then, growing strong and dense, would swoop down irresistibly, till what was clear five minutes before was impenetrably walled off, and one seemed to stand alone in a silent world of ghosts. Or again, our walks would take us on the other side, over the Sands of Forvie, a desolate tract where nothing grows save the coarse grass called bent by the Scotch, and where the wearied eye rests on nothing but mounds of shifting sand, drearily shaped into the semblance of graves by the keen winds that blow from over the German Ocean.

This miniature desert, tradition says, was an Eden four hundred years ago, but a wicked guardian robbed the helpless orphan heiresses of it by fraud and violence, and the maidens threw a spell or weird upon it in these terms:

"Yf evyr maydens malysone

Did licht upon drye lande,

Let nocht bee funde in Furvye's glebys

Bot thystl, bente and sande."

I must not forget the "Bullers," a natural curiosity which is the boast of the neighborhood of Slains, and is moreover connected with a feat performed by a former guest and friend of one of the lords of Erroll. We drove there in a large party, and passed through an untidy, picturesque little fishing-hamlet on our way, where the women talked to each other in Gaelic as they stood barefooted at the doors of their cabins, and where the children looked so hardy, fearless and determined that the wildest dreams of future possible achievement seemed hardly unlikely of realization in connection with any one of them.

"The Pot," as it is locally called, is a huge rocky cavern, irregularly circular and open to the sky, into which the sea rushes through a natural archway. A narrow pathway is left quite round the basin, from which one looks down a sheer descent of more than a hundred feet; but this is so dangerous, the earth and coarse grass that carpet it so deceptive and loose, and the wind almost always so high on this spot, that only the most foolhardy or youngest of visitors would dare in broad daylight to attempt to walk round it. Yet it is on record that the duke of Richmond, some sixty or seventy years ago, made a bet at Lord Erroll's dinner-table that he would ride round it after dark. He accomplished the feat in safety. His picture, life-size, hangs in the dining-room to this day, and as he is represented standing in all the pride of a vigorous manhood by the side of his beautiful charger, he does not seem to belie the reputation which this incident created for him in the old district of Buchan.

The peasants of this wild and primitive neighborhood, though to some extent slightly infected by modernization, are yet very fair specimens of the hardy, trusty clansmen of Scottish history, and the present owners of Slains certainly give them every reason to keep up the old bonds of affectionate interest with every one and everything belonging to "the family." To my own observation of the ancient seat of the Hays I owe one of the most delightful recollections of my life, that of a Christian home. Not only the outward observances, but the inner spiritual vitality of religion, were there, while unselfish devotion to all within the range of her influence or authority marked the character of her who was at the head of this little family kingdom. The present head of the house, a Hay to the backbone, has triumphantly carried on the martial traditions of his ancestry, and on the roll of England's victorious sons at the battle of the Alma his name is to be found. He was there disabled by a wound that shattered his right arm and cut short his military career. Domestic happiness, however, is no bad substitute for a brilliant public life, and there are duties, higher yet than a soldier's, that go far toward making up that background of rural prosperity which alone ensures the grand effect of military successes. After having done one's duty in the field, it is to the full as noble, and perhaps more patriotic, to turn to the duties of the glebe, thereby finishing as a landlord the work begun as a soldier.

It is a touching custom, hardly yet obliterated in the district over which my reminiscences have led me, for one peasant, when coming upon another employed in his lawful calling, thus to salute him: "Guid speed the wark!" the rejoinder being, in the same broad Buchan dialect, "Thank ye: I wish ye weel."

I can end these pages with no more fitting sentiment. As a tribute of grateful recollection to those who made my days at Slains a happiness to me, and in the first fresh sorrow of a deep bereavement offered me distractions the more alluring because the more associated with Nature's changeless, silent grandeur, I pen these lines, crowning them with the homely Scottish wish that wherever they are and whatever they do, "Guid speed the wark!"

Footnote 1: (return)

There is another version of her courtship, and this a metrical one. This old ballad was not much known beyond the district round Slains, and the old servants and farmers on the estate were the chief depositaries of the tradition. I have failed to secure more than a very small fragment of it, which is itself only written down from memory by one of these old women. The rhyme and rhythm are both original:

Lady Mary Hay went to a wedding

Near the famous town of Reading:

There a gentleman she saw

That belonged to the law....

Here evidently there occurs a hiatus, during which some account is probably begun of her unreturned attachment, for a little later we find in the very primitive manuscript from which we quote these words of the countess:

I that have so many slighted,

I am at last—(unrequited?)

The story is now carried on in prose (my informant having forgotten the text of the ballad), and says that "Lady Mary wanted or challenged him to meet her in a masquerade" (probably meaning a duel in disguise), "and that his father told him to go." Neither father nor son seems to have known the fair challenger's rank, though the following words point to their being aware of her sex, for the elder Falconer is represented as saying,

If she is rich she will raise your fame,

And if poor you are the same.