Thursday, 20 March 2014

Yester Castle (Goblin Ha')

A ruined castle in a remote wood, Yester Castle stood on a high bluff above the confluence of two burns in East Lothian. A fragment of the gatehouse survives and a section of the curtain wall,  almost hidden in the trees. Yester Castle is not mentioned in any guide book. Nor are there any signposts. Yet these meagre ruins are among the most infamous in Scotland, that is because of a subterranean chamber known as the Goblin Ha'.


It was this notoriety, perhaps, as well as its more obvious attraction, its' relative inaccessibility  that fifty years ago in the middle of winter snow led my father to try and find it, with wife and boys in tow. Pipe in mouth dressed in his 'wood chopping' kilt, father; cigarette in hand wearing her kilt, a stepmother; and two little boys in shorts, 'you will be wearing trousers soon enough.'  The plan was to go for a picnic. Car laden we set out from Juniper Green near Edinburgh, an hour or so's drive to Gifford in East Lothian. On arrival out came the relevant Ordnance Survey map and the partly, intrepid little party set off on foot to find the castle.


Exploring ruined castles was a favourite family pastime in those distant days, and there was no shortage of ruined castles in Scotland. However this particular castle left an indelible impression, of cooking sausages  and brewing tea  and eating our picnic in the remains of a chamber  up in the gatehouse tower, reached by climbing up the crumbling walls. Eating at ground level would of course have been too straightforward.


What made that visit all those years ago so memorable was what happened next.  Led by father, with torch  through a subterranean passage into an dark underground  chamber. The stepmother sensibly waited  outside, no doubt passing the time by smoking, yet another, cigarette. Inside the chamber another stone passage with steep steps led down into the earth. As the eldest child it fell to me the dubious honour of following instructions to see where the passage led. Meanwhile the holder of the torch shone its beam on me.

On my second visit, fifty years later, the ruined castle is exactly as I remember. Remote wood; fragmentary ruins; the tiny entrance to the tunnel and the underground chamber itself.  Of the small party that made that visit fifty years ago, only two are still here, and one of them, my father, has lost his mind.

Yester Castle was built by Sir Hugo Gifford, guardian of the young King Alexander III, sometime before 1267. Sir Hugo had a reputation as warlock and a necromancer. He was said to have built the underground chamber with the help of magical forces and afterwards used it to practice his sorcery. He is said to have made a pact with the Devil which enabled him to raise magical forces to do his bidding and it was this supernatural army of Hobgoblins that built the castle, hence the popular name of the underground chamber, the Goblin Ha'. However the reality is no less remarkable, the Goblin Ha' is the earliest example of Gothic architecture in Scotland.


When Sir Hugo's daughter was to marry, he gave her fiance Broun of Coulston, a pear with the proviso that should anything happen to the pear it would spell disaster for the family. The pear was placed in a silver casket and the family prospered. Until, in 1692 when the fiance of Sir George Broun decided to take the pear out of its casket. When she the found the pear to look as fresh as the day it was picked she could not help herself and took a bite. She must have regretted her impulse soon after when her husband was forced to sell his estate due to gambling debts, then  her brother in law brother and two sons were swept away by flood waters when the River Tyne burst its banks. After the bite had been taken from the pear it is said to have turned as hard as stone. The pear is still preserved at Coulston House.


In 1357 the male line of the Gifford's failed and Yester passed through marriage to the Hay's who hold the barony to this day. David Hay was created a Lord of Parliament in 1487. In 1513 the second Lord Hay was killed at Flodden. In 1547 Yester was attacked by the English and defended successfully by the 4th Lord Hay during the Rough Wooing. After the death of the 4th Lord Hay, his son and heir abandoned Yester Castle and moved to a tower house on the site of the present Yester House. (The 6th Lord Hay was created Marquess of Tweeddale in 1646). The castle was left to fall gradually into disrepair and by the 17th century was in a ruinous condition. The last known resident of the Goblin Ha' was the Marquess of Tweeddale's falconer who left in 1737.