Setting: Scotland, during the reign of King James VI
Before I go any further, I just have to say, this is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Yes, it is written in one of my favorite time periods, and yes it takes place in one of my favorite places in all the world, but when you combine that with the almost poetic style of Sinclair’s writing—sigh!
Ok, I know it sounds like I’m gushing, and maybe I am, but deservedly so. Sinclair’s development of characters is charming, making you love the characters she loves and hate the characters that she hates. Or, if she doesn’t hate them, she sure does a good job at making me do it for her.
Isobell is an English girl trying to escape the prospects of an abusive marriage to a wicked man. She comes up with a plan to escape to Scotland, leaving her privileged life behind to serve as a kitchen maid on the estate of the young Laird, Thomas Manteith. Isobell finds solace in the beautiful and spiritual countryside of Scotland and I loved viewing her world and experiencing it all over again through her eyes. From the flowering trees, the birds and other wildlife to the ancient stone circles and rocky cliffs of this magical land, Sinclair’s writing is a treat for the senses.
The storyline is beautiful too. The love Isobell shared with her “light of the world and salt of the earth” as she called him, was well written, leaving no room for doubt of the love they shared for each other, yet without some of the awkward details that other stories offer. And while I enjoyed experiencing all the wonderful sights (and feels!) with Isobell, I was always waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop”, and Sinclair did not disappoint!
I have read several books having to do with witch trials, from the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, to the Salem witch trials in America. All have been well written, but Sinclair’s description of not only the treatment of the accused witches and the bodily harm that they endured, but the spiritual, mental and emotional trauma that these accused women (and men, at times) must have endured, is brilliant.
I also enjoyed Isobell’s exploration of Celtic spiritualism, Catholic rites and Reformed practices as she sought for her own truth. It is an excellent example of Scotland’s own spiritual journey throughout history.
I will read this book again. Now that I know there is a beautiful end for Isobell (admittedly not the end I was expecting!), I will read it for the pure enjoyment of meandering the deeply moving countryside of Scotland once more.
If you would like to see more of Ailish Sinclair’s writings or see her beautiful pictures of Scotland, visit her on her blog at https://ailishsinclair.com/
To purchase a copy of The Mermaid and the Bear click here.
On the northern banks of Loch Crinan, in the western part of Scotland stands a picturesque little
castle named Duntrune. Built in the 12th century, it has withstood
the tumultuous history of Scotland to remain one of the best and longest
preserved castles that is still occupied in all of Scotland today.
Though Duntrune is a lovely
castle in a beautiful setting, it was an event that took place there in the mid
1600’s that first drew my attention to it.
A Nasty Civil War
The backdrop of our little ghost story
is the English civil war that took place between King Charles I and his
disagreeing Parliament. Charles eventually dissolved Parliament and decided to
rule without them. This threw the country into a civil war that wasn’t
satisfied until Charles was dethroned and beheaded in 1649.
This is a very simplistic explanation
of events, for there were underlying causes that put the two ruling forces at
odds with each other. One of those causes was deeply rooted in religious disagreements.
At first, Scotland made an attempt to steer clear of the problems in England,
but it soon became apparent that they would eventually be dragged into the
Two Sides of the
The English Civil
War was one component of a bigger war known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
This not only involved the people of England, but Scotland and Ireland were
also thrust into the disputes between Charles and his Parliament.
At the heart of
the Scottish involvement in this war were the Covenanters and the Royalists.
The Covenanters had their roots in Presbyterianism, a movement that had shaken
Scotland over a hundred years earlier and had caused dissent between the
Catholic Scots and those who fought for reformation. The Covenanters were also known
as Parliamentarians, due to their support of Parliament over King Charles. The
other faction was the Royalists. They were also known as the King’s Scottish
army. They were loyal to the king and supported King Charles’ policies of
governance in England.
clans of the Highlands were of differing opinions on Charles and his policies. This was due in part to the
many cultural and religious beliefs held by the disparate clans. When it came
time to choose sides, some clans followed King Charles (the Royalists), and
others joined the Covenanters who sided with Parliament.
Amongst these divided Highlanders were two clans that knew hundreds of years of quarreling. These were the infamous Campbells and the MacDonalds. The bad feelings between these two clans make the American Hatfield’s and McCoy’s feud look like a playground scuffle. Even to this day, you can still find places in Scotland that refuse to serve patrons who are in possession of a certain clan name of Campbell.
seem to think that a lot of the riff between the two clans has been blown out
of proportion. However, the fact still remains that in the mid-17th
century, when there were sides to be chosen, the Campbells and the MacDonalds
happened to find themselves on opposing sides of King Charles’ war. And this
was the heart of the problem concerning Duntrune Castle.
The Stuff of
versions this tale can be found. Here I will give the account that I first
heard. Readers may wish to do further reading and research and come across
another tale that you find more believable or fascinating.
MacDonald clan was led by a hulk of a man that came to be known by the name
Colkitto. He was a master at warfare and not only fought for his own clan but
was also known to have assisted Clan MacIntyre of Glen Coe. In thanks for his
assistance, the MacIntyre chief gave Colkitto his favorite piper. He was to
accompany Colkitto and the MacDonald warriors on their campaign.
And so it
was that when the MacDonald clan came upon Duntrune Castle in the middle of the
night, the MacIntyre piper was also there to take part in the action. The
control of the castle was wrestled from the Campbells and left in the capable
hands of a few of Colkitto’s men along with his prized piper. Colkitto himself boarded
a boat and set sail across the Sound of Jura to continue on his campaign,
leaving his men to hold down the fort until his return.
Campbells launched a counter-attack to regain control of Duntrune, all of the warriors
of the MacDonald clan were killed, except for the piper. He alone was left,
with the intent that he would play his pipes and entertain the Campbell clan.
And that he
did, until one day Colkitto’s boat was spotted on the Sound. With permission, the
MacIntyre piper played a song that he had prepared in honor of his leader’s
return, “Piobaireachd-dhum- Naomhaid” or in English, “The Piper’s Warning
to His Master”. Soon the haunting notes drifted out across the water, reaching
Colkitto’s ears. But it didn’t take long for the great chieftain to notice
something odd about the melody. The piper had intentionally misplayed some of
the notes in an effort to send a warning message to Colkitto.
understanding the piper’s intent, turned his boat around and never completed
his destination to Duntrune. When the Campbell clan realized what the piper had
done, they called for the piper’s punishment.
And what greater
punishment could there be, than to disable the man, preventing him from ever
being able to play the pipes again? The MacIntyre piper’s hands were cut off,
and he eventually bled to death from his injuries.
The “Ghost” Part
of This Little Story
so ghostly about this sad story? For hundreds of years there have been stories
of banging noises and flying objects heard and sighted at Duntrune Castle.
There have even been reports of a mysterious sound of bagpipes playing on
occasion. For many years people actually thought the story of the mutilated
piper was just that—a story. But while a renovation project was underway at
Duntrune in the late 1800’s, an Episcopalian bishop reported that workers found
the skeletal remains of a man. They unearthed the bones: skull, arms, legs, torso—everything
was there—except for his hands. The remains were reburied outside of the castle
walls in an unmarked grave. Later, another excavation uncovered the bones of
two hands, without a body to go with it, buried under one of the rooms of the
If you are ever
in Argyll, perhaps you can venture to see Duntrune Castle. See if you can spot
a lonely specter dutifully piping out his warning across the salty waters of Loch
Crinan. Oh, and let
me know how he does it without his hands.
The one in Edinburgh, Scotland, right? Nope, the one in the secluded forests of the Catskill Mountains in the good ole U.S. of A.
How odd (or maybe not, considering it’s me :P) that one of my first posts is not about Scotland, England, or even the sixteenth century for that matter. It is about a place that I have been obsessing about since seeing an abandoned house video on YouTube. The place is Dundas Castle in Roscoe, New York and although abandoned, it is hauntingly beautiful and still full of potential.
Shrouded in mystery, the original country house, called Craig-E-Clair, was expanded in 1915 with the beginning of the building of the castle now known as Dundas. Built on 964 acres, the massive estate has 40 rooms, and took the owner and originator of the idea, Ralph Wurts-Dundas, over eight years and more than a million dollars to construct.
Sadly, since it took over eight years to build, Mr. Wurts-Dundas did not live to see its completion. Ralph died in 1921, and construction stopped in 1924. The finishing touches were never added, and neither he nor his wife, Josephine, ever lived within its walls. Josephine had been committed to a sanatorium and upon her death, the castle passed to their only daughter, Muriel, who was a child at the time.
But the tragedy of Dundas Castle doesn’t end there. Muriel Wurts-Dundas, who had only visited the castle a handful of times, married James R. Herbert Boone and moved to England, where she too eventually was committed to a mental health institution. In her absence, Dundas had passed through the hands of several caretakers before being sold to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Masonic Order in Manhattan.
Although Dundas Castle was used as a children’s summer camp for some time, no one has ever lived there, and it still stands empty to this day.
I just had an epiphany! My house is older than this one. It was built in 1890. Woohoo!
I have not been to Dundas Castle in Scotland, but I have been to a few others there. Can you tell this is one of my favorite things? Obsessed, I tell ya. Ob-sessed. It could be worse, right?
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Now go be the queen (or king) of your castle...and have a blessed day.
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