Bizarre Family Curses

A Chamber of Horrors? What is the terrible secret of the ‘hidden room’ in Glamis Castle which, according to legend, is revealed to the eldest son on his 21st birthday? It is whispered that the chamber contains the remains of a monstrous creature born to the family. Others say it holds the bodies of prisoners forced by starvation into cannibalism. Whatever the secret, it could provide the clue to the curse which had hovered over the Strathmores for generations.

Family Curses - Glamis Castle (c. 1880)The heavy, oak door swung open easily under the workman’s hand. In front of him extended a long, dark passage, apparently on a slight incline. The workman–lost in the labyrinthine corridors of ancient Glamis Castle, in Scotland– started downwards. He had only taken a few steps before he experienced a feeling of claustrophobic evil. What he saw next almost make him retch in terror.

He fled from the scene, stumbling blindly along the castle’s passageways. In London, the news of the workman’s mysterious ‘discovery’ was relayed to the owner of the castle, Lord Strathmore, the grandfather of Britain’s most recent Queen Mother.

The Lord of Strathmore returned immediately to Glamis and, in strict secrecy, cross-examined the workman on what he had seen. A few months later, the workman emigrated from Britain with his family… at the expense of Lord Strathmore.

Nothing more was ever said. Only whispered. For the workman– or so it was rumored– had unwittingly stumbled on one of the world’s most strange and sinister secrets; the eerie ‘Locked Room of Glamis’ which holds the clue to the curse which the Strathmores have borne for generations.

And earlier Earl of Strathmore once told a friend, “If you could guess the nature of the secret you would go down on your knees and thank God it were not yours.” And the records of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research confirm that, after the inquisitive workman had been paid to leave the country, “Lord Strathmore was quite a changed man, silent and moody, with an anxious, scared look on his face.”

With its conical towers and ornamental battlements, Glamis Castle looks like something out of a Walt Disney fairy-tale. But this sprawling, red-brick fortress has a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the British Isles, with a history of murder and tragedy that extends back for almost a thousand years. The shadow of its curse, all the more potent because of its secrecy, still falls over the present owners, the Strathmores.

Murder Most Foul

It was here, in 1034, that King Malcolm II was stabbed to death by conspirators. The murderers died a few hours later when they tried to gallop over a frozen lock and the ice gave way. Malcolm’s blood soaked so deep into the floorboards that no amount of scrubbing would remove it and the floor finally had to be re-boarded several generations later.

Six years afterwards– according to William ShakespeareMacbeth murdered King Duncan the First at Glamis Castle. The room is still known as Duncan’s Hall.

Yet the uncanny record of haunting and curses really gathered momentum three centuries later. The mansion of the Lyon family at Fortevist contained an ancient cup that was regarded as the greatest of the family treasures. Legend declared that anyone who removed it from the mansion would be accursed, but in 1372 Sir John Lyon married the daughter of King Robert II and decided to brave the hoodoo. When they moved into Glamis– a wedding present from his father-in-law– he took the cup with him. It was a big mistake. Eleven years later he was killed in a duel.

The curse had now gained a foothold. In 1573, John Lyon, Lord Glamis, was accused of plotting to poison the king, James VI. His wife, son and an old priest were also accused, though the whole ‘plot’ had been concocted by a jealous relative, William Lyon. Lord Glamis plunged to his death while trying to escape from Edinburgh Castle and his wife was burned alive in front of a gloating crowd. The son’s execution was luckily delayed until his 21st birthday, by which time the repentant William Lyon had confessed that his accusations had all been lies.

The ghost of a lady in gray, which has been seen by many people– including, it is said, the present owners– is thought to be that of Joan Douglas, Lady Glamis.

Glamis Castle, indeed, has ghosts round almost every corner. Historians and psychic investigators had lost count of the apparitions recorded by witnesses. There is a white lady who walks along the avenue, a tall and cadaverous-looking specter known as Jack the Runner, and a Negro pageboy.

Guests have spoken of strange figures entering their bedrooms at night and shouts and banging noises from the older parts of the castle. At the turn of the 20th century, Mrs Maclagan, wife of the Archbishop of York, described how she and another guest had simultaneous dreams about a bearded man with a ‘dead face’. Later, Lady Strathmore confirmed that a man answering to that description had died in irons in the castle in 1486.

Another guest came down to breakfast and mentioned casually that she had been awakened by the banding and hammering of carpenters at 4 a.m. There was an awkward silence, then Lord Strathmore told her there were no workmen in the castle. he had heard one of the family ghosts.

The Queen Mother spent her childhood in Glamis, and is believed to have seen the ghost of the Negro pageboy. During the redecoration of her apartment, the Queen Mother once occupied the Blue Room and had to change her quarters because she was constantly disturbed by rappings, thumps and footsteps.

The Monstrous Heir

The best-known legend of Glamis– that of the ‘Monster’ or ‘Horror’– dates from only 1800. In that year, says the legend, Lady Strathmore gave birth to a monstrously deformed child. As the first-born, the child should have been heir to the estates, but this was out of the question. Instead, the atrocious creature was confined in a secret chamber and kept there for the remainder of its life.

The secret was known only to the Earl, the heir to the title and one close friend of the family– usually the estate ‘factor’, or agent. One factor, Mr Arthur Ralston, could never be persuaded to stay the night in the castle, and when a later Lady Strathmore asked him about the mystery he told her, “It is luck that you do not know and can never know it, for if you did you would not be a happy woman.”

Nearly all the ‘monster’ legends– and there are many versions– link up with the all-pervading Curse of Glamis, and the mysterious ‘secret room’ which so terrified the blundering workman.

Does the room contain the remains of the grotesquely deformed heir to the title, who was said to have perversely outlived several generations? Or is there something even more frightful immured within the walls of Galamis?

Local inhabitants claim that in the old days of clan feuds a party of Ogilvies fleeing from their enemies the Lindsays came to Glamis pleading for shelter and protection. The Lord of that day led ┬áthem into a chamber deep in the recesses of the castle and, locking them in left them there to starve. Their skeletons– some in a hideous state of semi-embalmment– lie there to this day, preserved, they say, in the act of cannibalism, some even gnawing the flesh from their own arms.

Each heir of the Glamis, it is claimed, is told the secret under oath not to divulge it and taken to the hidden room on his 21st birthday. No woman, not even the wife of the owner, may know the secret of the chamber and the Queen Mother, though sometimes asked by intimate friends, will never speak of it.

According to one account, a previous Earl managed to trace the chamber by following the uncanny shouts and bangs to their source– but what he saw when he forced open the door made him collapse in terror. The room was resealed and its location kept a secret. At the beginning of this century, during a house party, some guests decided to locate the chamber by a simple trick: They hung towels from every window in the castle and then crowded outside to see the result. High in the battlements, one window had no towel hanging from it… but no amount of searching in the rabbit warren of corridors could reveal the hidden door.

Another version of the ‘curse’ puts the blame on a 15th-century Earl who defied the devil. Playing cards late on Saturday night with a friend– the notorious Earl of Crawford— Lord Glamis ignored his servant’s warning that it was almost the Sabbath. They swore they would not cease playing until the game was finished, ‘though they might continue till the crack of doom’.

No sooner had they uttered the oath than the clock struck midnight and a stranger in a black cloak appeared in the room an intoned that he would hold them to their word. Every year on the anniversary of that night, the two accursed players meet in the hidden room to continue the game which will only end on the Day of Judgment.

Absurd though it may sound, in 1957 a servant at the castle, Florence Foster, claimed to have heard the demon gamblers at their unholy game, “rattling the dice, stamping and swearing.” Often she said, she had “lain in bed and shaken with fright.”

Although the Lyons of Glamis appear to hold something of a baleful record, they are only one of many families on whom there seems to be a persistent curse or jinx which defies explanation.

in nearby Forfarshire there is another castle with a long and malevolent history. The ghost of Cortachy Castle, the seat of the Earl of Arilie, announces the imminent death of any member of the Airlie family by performing on a drum.

Drummer of Doom

In 1845 Miss Margaret Dalrymple and her maid, Ann Day, were on a visit to Cortachy. During dinner she remarked on the strange music she had heard coming from below her window as she had dressed… the sound of a fife, followed by drumming.

It was quite the wrong thing to say. The other guests fell silent and Lady Airlie looked distressed. After dinner another guest explained that the sound of the diabolical drummer heralded the death of someone in the family and the last time it had been heard was just before the death of the Earl’s first wife.

The next morning, the maidservant, Ann Day, was alone in Miss Dalrymple’s room while everyone was at breakfast. She heard a coach drive into the courtyard and looked out of the window. To her surprise, the courtyard was empty; but as she turned away she heard a drumming sound, apparently approaching from some distance. By the time the sound stopped, Ann Day was close to hysterics.

When Miss Dalrymple heard the drumming yet again, the following day, she decided she had had enough of Airlie and its ghosts. She packed her bags and left. Six months later Lady Airlie died in Brighton, leaving a note in which she said she was convinced that the drumming had signaled her own death.

Five years later the drummer announced the death of her husband, and in 1881 it was heard by Lady Dalkeith and Lady Skelmersdale just before they received the news of Lord Airlie’s death in America. So far this century the drummer has refrained from performing his macabre melody.

Who was the drummer originally? One story claims he was a ‘truce’ messenger sent by the Lindsay family to the Ogilvies– the family name of the Earls of Airlie. The Earl of Airlie promptly tied him in a drum and threw him out of the window into the courtyard. As he fell, the drummer cursed the family into eternity. A more plausible story suggests that he was thrown to his death because he was Lady Airlie’s lover; though a more refined version identified the murdered man as a ne’er-do-well brother of Lady Airlie, who was hurled to his death when the Earl caught him trying to borrow money.

Strangely, there is still a drum in the room from which the man was said to have been thrown. The drumming certainly fits in with a current psychical research theory that a ‘ghost’– particularly an audible one– is nothing more than a kind of psychic ‘tape recording’ in which some powerful human emotion has somehow imprinted itself on its surroundings. Perhaps some retainer originally played the drum to cover the sounds of a violent quarrel. Yet it still fails to explain why the drum should only be heard before the death of a member of the Airlie family, and so far no ‘scientific’ explanation has succeeded in covering all the facts.

In the case of Glamis and Cortachy it seems fairly clear that the curse was associated with the house itself, supporting the ‘tape recording’ theory.

But how can one explain a curse that seems to follow the victims around, sometimes over the course of many centuries? That is what plagued the Montague family. One of their ancestors, Sir Anthony Browne, had expelled the monk from Battle Abbey— the famous abbey on the site of Britain’s Battle of Hastings— in 1545. An angry monk cursed Sir Anthony, declaring that he ‘would lose what he prized most’ and that fire and water would one day bring about the extinction of his dynasty.

Sir Anthony was not impressed. To add insult injury, he went on to build a magnificent home, Cowdray House, on lands that had been confiscated from the Church near Midhurst, in Sussex. When he lavishly entertained Queen Elizabeth there, it looked as though the old monk’s curse had fallen flat. But shortly afterwards his only son died and Sir Anthony became a defeated and embittered man.

After his death, Cowdray House passed to his grandson and for the next 200 years the curse– with its enigmatic threats of fire and water– became a family legend. Then, in 1793, Viscount Montague tried shooting the rapids of Laufenburg, on the Rhine. He and his companion suddenly disappeared into the boiling spray and were never seen again. One week later, Cowdray House was burned to the ground.

Montague had no children, so the line came to an end. It had taken nearly three centuries for the curse to be fulfilled.

The dividing line between a curse and a malign prophecy is delicate and indistinct. The same uneasy definition is involved in two of Scotland’s most famous family curses, that on Erskines of Mar and the Gordons of Gight.

The Erskine ┬ácurse consists of a long Gaelic poem attributed to the Abbot of Cambuskenneth, whose lands had been seized by the 20th Earl of Mar. It beings by stating that the ‘proud chief of Mar’ would sit in the place of the king, but that his work would be accursed and never finished. It predicts a fire in which a member of the Erskine family would die, and that three Erskines would ‘grow up never to see the light’. It foretells the day when their land would be given to strangers, horses would be stabled in their hall, and an ash tree would grow from the topmost tower.

Prophecy Fulfilled

The prophecies began to be fulfilled almost immediately. In 1571, Erskine became Regent of Scotland and guardian of James VI. He then began to build a magnificent palace near Stirling— now known as Mar’s Work— but ill luck pursued the venture and it was never finished. The curse remained dormant until 1715, when the Earl of Mar raised an army to support the Old Pretender; after his defeat his lands were confiscated and given to strangers. The wife of a subsequent Erskine died in a fire, and three of her children grew up blind. After the fire, the family home was deserted, and some marauding soldiers stabled horses in the hall. As late as 1815, an ash sapling began to grow at the top of the tower– a sign that the curse was nearly at an end. And, in fact, the Erskines were restored to their estates in 1822.

The curse of the Gordon family was pronounced by a 13th-century seer called Thomas the Rhymer, who declared that when the herons left the trees the Gordons would lose their lands and three men would die violently. But it was 500 years before the herons ceased nesting in Gight, and Katherine Gordon married a handsome gambler called Captain John Byron, known as Mad Jack. His excesses soon brought the estate to ruin, and it was seized by creditors and sold. Shortly afterwards, Lord Haddo was thrown from a horse in the grounds of the castle and broke his neck; the same happened to a servant a few weeks later. The final death was of a workman who was jeering about the curse when the wall under which he was seated fell on him.

The son of ‘Mad Jack’ Byron was a crippled boy named George. When he was 23 he wrote an autobiographical poem in which he described himself as a man laboring under a curse. It was called Childe Harold, and it made George Gordon– Lord Byron— famous. But a mere 12 years later his gloomy forebodings about his own destiny were fulfilled when he went to Greece to join the freedom fighters and died of rheumatic fever. With this death the strange curse of the Gordons came to an end.


Glamis Castle: