Posted on: October 31, 2012

I was once asked what was my favourite type of ghost story, and I had to confess I have a weakness for gothic old legends like this one – the sort of thing that involves a deformed mad earl locked in a secret room (chuck in a few vampires and werewolves and I’m even happier). And at first glance, it does simply look the stuff of dark fantasy – it wouldn’t be out of place in a Grimms Fairy Tale – and yet, it may well have a lot more substance to it than might first appear.

The magical Glamis Castle, in Tayside, Scotland, is an amazing-looking place, with its gothic towers, and splendid clock face. I visited it once on a warm summer’s day, and it had a pleasant atmosphere. Nevertheless it is absolutely crammed full of gothic, spinechilling legends. In fact, sometimes it seems unfair that one place should have so many. A sort of embarrassment of riches. Sir Walter Scott once found the place too eerie for comfort, and remarked that the dead were rather too close to the living there! These days it is more famous for being the childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother. And by all accounts, both she and her mother were fascinated by the legend of the Mad Earl, and it is thought Elizabeth may have recounted the legend herself to one of her biographers in the 1960s, although legend has it that the women of the family were purposely never let into the dark secret.

Here is a list of some of the numerous grisly legends about the castle:

. In 1034 King Malcolm II was killed by a gang of rebels here, (who in turn died when when they attempted to escape by crossing a frozen loch, the ice broke and they drowned). It is said that Malcolm’s blood seeped into the floorboards, causing a bloodstain which is still visible today. Skeptics have pointed out that the current floorboards, in King Malcolm’s Room, have been replaced since Malcolm’s day, but even so you can’t keep a good legend down.

. In 1486 a grey-bearded man was shackled and left to starve to death here. This isn’t the only such story to concern the castle. The Ogilvie clan were said to have come to the castle begging for protection from their enemies, the Lindsays. The Earl of Strathmore led them to a hidden chamber, deep in the castle (now known as The Haunted Chamber), and left them there to starve. In desperation the family were said to have turned to cannibalism, even gnawing on their own flesh. When the room was unsealed over a month later only one member of the family was found alive.

. Patrick, the 3rd Earl, and his friend, Lord Crawford, were once said to have gambled with the Devil in one of the towers, and his ghost is now said to be heard there, stamping and swearing (presumably he lost). In 1957 a servant at the castle, Florence Foster, reported in a newspaper article that she had heard the sound of “rattling dice, stamping and swearing”.

. A Grey Lady haunts the chapel. She was witnessed by Lady Glanville, who saw her kneeling in a pew, and Lord Strathmore saw her several times.

. A strange apparition called Jack The Runner is said to sprint across the parkland on moonlit nights. According to Tom Slemens, in ‘Vampires of Great Britain’, the ghost is that of a black slave, who in the 17th century, was used as human prey by a bunch of odious toffs, who hunted him like a fox. He was torn apart by their dogs.

. One gruesome spectre is The Tongueless Woman, thought to be a servant whose tongue was cut out to prevent her revealing one of the castle’s millions of dark secrets. She tried to escape, but was caught and had her neck broken, before being dismembered and thrown to the wild boar in the forest. She is said to roam the grounds plucking at her mouth, and has also been seen staring down from a barred window.

. As might be expected, there is of course a legend of a vampire. One servant was caught taking blood from a victim, and was bricked up in a secret room. It is even said that the women of the Bowes-Lyon family occasionally give birth to vampires, and that this secret room is where all these bloodsucking little monsters are kept locked up! (David Icke would have a field day with that one). In his vampire book Slemens says that half-vampire half-human hybrids were known as “dhampirs”.

. Another Grey Lady haunts the Clock Tower, and was thought to have once been sighted by the Queen Mother. This particular phantom is thought to be Janet Douglas, wife of the 6th Lord. She was burned alive in Edinburgh in 1527 on a charge of witchcraft, and of trying to poison King James V of Scotland. King James seized the castle on her execution, but when later Janet was pronounced innocent, and the King had died, the castle was returned to her son.


Gossip was rife in high society that Thomas, the 11th Earl, had fathered a misshapen baby. Thomas had married Charlotte Grinstead in December 1820, and a baby boy – named after his father – was born the following October. It was put out that the baby had died the same day, a fact which came as a surprise to the midwife, who had pronounced him in “rude health”. (The following year Charlotte gave birth to another boy, also called Thomas, and he became the official heir). Thomas No.1 was said to have resembled a large, hairy egg. He had no neck, his head rested directly on his shoulders, he had a massive barrel-chest, and tiny arms and legs. In his book ‘Eerie Britain’, M B Forde speculates that the child may have suffered from quadramembral limb deficiency, which causes shortened limbs, or that he may even have had the appallingly tragic Proteus Syndrome, made famous by Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. As he was the first-born son he would, under normal circumstances, have inherited the Earldom. This was unthinkable to the blue-bloods, so the child was locked away in one of the castle’s numerous secret rooms.

There has been much debate as to how long the child lived. Some reckon he lived to a ripe old age, and that each subsequent heir to the Earldom had to be let into the dreadful secret on their 21st birthday. Some have even claimed that he is immortal, and still lives! I’ve even seen one theorist try and claim that the Mad Earl was really Jack The Ripper (well now you’re just being silly).

Guests staying at the castle added fuel to the rumours. Some claimed to have been woken in the night by strange grunts and snarls. One woman said she saw a mournful pale face with huge eyes staring at her from across the courtyard. In 1869 a Mrs Munro woke in the night to feel what she described as a beard brushing her face. Then she saw a strange form stumble into the next room where her young son was sleeping. The boy woke screaming, and told his distraught parents that he had seen a giant. A loud crash was heard by other guests in the castle that night.

In 1865 a workman was said to have accidentally stumbled into the Mad Earl’s part of the castle. He was paid a substantial sum of money to emigrate to Australia.

Victorian ghost-hunter Augustus Hare claimed to have overheard Lord Strathmore talking to the Bishop of Brechin in 1877, about his “burden”, saying “If you could guess the nature of the secret, you would go down on your knees and thank God it were not yours”. There are other lurid tales about prostitutes being smuggled into the castle for the Mad Earl’s delectation, but this is just the worst kind of prurient, sensationalist nonsense. It’s hard to see why the Strathmore’s would risk one of the women blabbing to the outside world about what they had seen.

As I’ve said, no one knows when the Earl died, but his coffin was thought to have been bricked up in the castle walls. In recent years this gothic story has been given a bit more credence. The Deformed Earl’s brother, Thomas, inherited the earldom in 1846 and married a Charlotte Maria Barrington. The couple never had children, and there has been some speculation that they deliberately chose not to do so, haunted by fears of another “monster” being born to the family.

Thomas’s younger brother Claude inherited the title in 1865, and on immediately coming into the job (as it were) he seemed to suffer a personality change, becoming more withdrawn. He said to his wife that, although they had often joked about the “monstrous secret” of Glamis, he had changed his view. “I have been into the room, I have heard the secret, and if you wish to please me, you will never mention the subject again”. Claude was determined to bury the past centuries of Strathmore murder, sadism, alcoholism, gambling, drink, abduction, and tales of incarcerated monsters, and make Glamis a happy family home. And by all accounts he succeeded very well. Visitors to the castle in the long hot summer of the late Victorian/Edwardian era spoke of it as a magical, charming, carefree place.

I’ve read biographies of the Queen Mother which haven’t dismissed the legend of the deformed earl as out of hand as I thought they might. Plus there is also the scandal of two of the Queen Mother’s female relations, who were kept incarcerated in a private mental hospital for decades. It had been given out to the outside world that they had died, when they were in fact very much alive, and lived to an advanced age. A family that can lie so brazenly about its own in the 20th century, would be more than capable of locking up one of its own for life, within a secret room, in the 19th.



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