Historical Stories

Mark Bridgeman

Photo sent in by Mark Bridgeman

The Cairn Of The Dead ©

As you pass through the attractive village of Fortingall, in Perthshire, Scotland, tucked against the hill line at the gateway to Glen Lyon, your eyes cannot but help to be drawn to the pretty and neat collection of thatched, white cottages built in the ‘arts and crafts’ architectural style.

However, in the lush, expansive field opposite the cottages, about one third of the way before the field reaches the River Lyon and Drummond Hill to the south, stands an upright and unassuming granite pillar. The stone, slight and with a pointed top, sits atop a grassy mound. A closer inspection of the mound reveals this to be turf covered and tumbled-down cairn of stones. Secured to the northside of the stone is a metal plate bearing the following inscription:

CARN NA MARBH Here lie victims of the Great Plague of the 14th century. Taken here on a Sledge drawn by a White Horse, led by an old Woman.

The description is a vivid one. It appears that during the 14th century the village of Fortingall was ravaged by yet another unwelcome visit of the Bubonic Plague to the shores of Britain. At the time the original village of Fortingall (originally known in Gaelic as Fartairchill – ‘church at the foot of a steep slope’) was not where the attractive thatched cottages now sit, but across the fields, alongside the banks of the River Lyon. It is highly probable that the first victims were buried at the church but that the villagers simply ran out of space as the disease ripped through the population. The superstitious inhabitants refused to bury anymore dead within the grounds of the old church, for fear that any later internments would release the disease again. Nor, as panic engulfed the community, would the remaining villagers touch the bodies of their deceased loved ones, for fear of infection. Remembering an ancient story handed down to the inhabitants by their ancestors, they prayed and pleaded for divine intervention, doing little else to check the spread of the infection. Instead, the victims were left unburied and lying in the fields and in their cottages. Eventually, the legend tells us, that only one old woman was left alive. She was kindly, unafraid, and apparently unaffected. Slowly laying the bodies on a rough sledge, to which she yoked an old white horse, she then led the faithful animal across the field to a safe distance from the village and buried them in a shallow grave. On top of this grave was piled a heap of stones and the upright stone pillar which now marks the grave. The metal plaque marking the site was added in the 1900s. The old village was razed and buried too, leaving no record of the former community. The modern village, as we see it today, was not constructed until the 1890s (some 500 years later), following the purchase of the Glen Lyon Estate in 1885 by Sir Donald Currie.

So, does any truth lie behind this tragic story? Certainly, the story is believed locally and survives in the great Scottish story-telling tradition. The stone memorial itself appears to be a re-used Bronze Age stone, possibly originally used for ceremonies of a religious (pre-Christian) significance. Archaeological investigations during the 1920s and 1950s seemed to indicate that the mound had been enlarged at some point. This does not necessarily mean that it does not contain victims of the plague, however. Perhaps, in fact, the site was chosen because it already held some spiritual significance? There is undoubtedly a great deal of evidence showing early Christian activity in the area, including the possible site of a monastery. The site certainly gained later significance. Local legend tells us that the cairn was, for many years, the focal point of an ancient Samhain (Halloween) festival. A great fire or Samhnag was lit on top of the mound each year. The whole community took hands when it was blazing and danced round the mound in a sunwise and anti-sunwise direction. As the fire began to wane, some of the younger boys took burning embers from the flames and ran throughout the field with them, finally throwing them into the air and dancing over them as they lay glowing on the ground. When the last embers were showing, the boys would have a leaping competition across the remains of the fire, reminiscent of the Beltane festival. Following the ceremony, the young people went home and ducked for apples and practised divination. There was no Scottish ritual of ‘guising’ (this is a fairly modern and ‘imported’ tradition), the bonfire being the absolute centre of attention until it was finally consumed. The Samhain celebrations at Fortingall apparently came to an end in 1924. The location of these festivities at the burial mound does seem to add some significance to the importance of the site though.

The stone pillar atop the burial mound, although probably a re-used Bronze Age pillar, was seemingly added later. It also seems unlikely that the one remaining old women in the village would have been able to move the stone into place unaided. The attached nameplate, containing the inscription, is not mentioned during an archaeological survey in 1928, but is during similar investigations in 1956. We can safely assume it was attached at some point in between. Some repair work seems to be have been undertaken at the same time, since the pillar of stone is now secured in modern concrete. No doubt it had started to lean, or perhaps fallen altogether, over the previous 600 years. So far, no excavations have been made to determine the presence of plague victims, although of course, there is also the possibility that the cairn is merely a memorial and the original burial site is long forgotten. ‘Evidence’ of a more unearthly nature is abundant, nonetheless. Legend tells us that ‘when the stars come out over Creag Mhor there is the gleam of a white horse moving about in the gloom near the pillar of the dead.’ Sightings of this ghostly apparition have been reported by various paranormal investigators and in occasional newspaper reports. Also, on still nights, it is said that the sound of crying can be heard from the sight of the old village. This has been variously interpreted as either the souls of suffering children sobbing, or that of a Cailleach (an ancient Gaelic term for an old woman in lament or suffering, sometimes also known as a ‘divine hag’).

On a more scientific basis, what evidence does actually exist to confirm the existence of the plague in the 14th century?

In fact, the presence of the plague during that period is well documented and irrefutable. The National Library of Scotland hold extensive records detailed the epidemic. During the early months of 1349 Scottish soldiers, engaged in border warfare, praised God that many of their English opponents were being felled by a new and terrifying affliction. This affliction soon spread, of course, into Scotland carried by diseased rats. During the course of 1349 -50 the ‘Black Death’ killed one third of the population of Scotland. The infection was particularly virulent and coupled with poor hygiene, immunity and diet, could have undoubtedly been responsible for the decimation of the old village of Fortingall. In addition, it has also been frequently suggested that the memorial is incorrect, and should, in fact, refer to the ‘Great Plague’ of the 1660s. However, the outbreak in the 1660s largely did not impinge upon Scotland (confining itself to English cities instead) and the Highlands were unaffected. We can therefore assume that the dates mentioned in connection with this story are true.

However, in an interesting twist, there is evidence of an even earlier plague epidemic in the area now known as Fortingall and Glen Lyon, as far back as the year 664. The stories also surrounding the two tragedies share remarkable similarities. The English Benedictine Monk, the Venerable Bede, recorded that during an eclipse in the year 664 (astronomers have now been able to confirm the occurrence of a solar eclipse on 1st May 664, thus adding credence to the story) that:

‘In the same year of our Lord 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the third day of May, about the tenth hour of the day. In the same year, a sudden pestilence depopulated first the southern parts of Britain, and afterwards attacking the province of the Northumbrians (what we would now call Northern Britain and Scotland), ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men.’ At this time, Adamnán of Iona (c. 624 –704), also known as Eonan, an abbot from Iona Abbey, and the adopted Saint of Glen Lyon, had built his chapel at Milton Eonan in Glen Lyon. As the Great Plague swept up the Glen legend tells us that he bravely ventured out to meet it. Only four miles from his church he climbed the rocky hillock of Craig Fhionnaidh and prayed. The terrified locals beseeched him for a miracle. Adamnán inserted his crucifix into a hole in a large stone and ordered the plague to enter – thus ridding the Glen of infection. Crucially, he also administered more practical help. Firstly, he separated the unaffected from the sick, sending the healthy to shelter in the mountains. He remained behind to tend to the sick and single-handedly bury the dead. He seems to have been spared from the disease, as documentary evidence indicates that he later returned to Iona and did not pass away until 704 A.D. – some 40 years later.

Perhaps legend and the art of Gaelic tradition of vocal story telling had blended the two tales over the years? It does seem, however, whether or not the stories have been embellished, the existence of the Bubonic Plague in Glen Lyon is almost certain.

Even today, farmers steer their ploughs well clear of the mound as they traverse the field.

(Story is copyrighted and cannot be copied)

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Rating: 5 out of 5.
Author Mark Bridgeman

About Mark Bridgeman

Mark Bridgeman is based in Scotland and has appeared on ITV, BBC, Scottish Blethers Podcast, Heartland FM, and at various Festivals and events discussing his work. His seven titles are available via Amazon, Waterstone’s and many bookshops. Mark has two further books pencilled for release in 2022.

If you would like to see more of Mark’s stories, then please visit his website:


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The Ghost of Gight Castle

By Mark Bridgeman

Photo By Mark Bridgeman (Sent in by Mark Bridgeman)

The small estate of Gight in the Formartine area of Aberdeenshire is perhaps best known as the location of the 16th-century Gight (or Formartine) Castle,the ancestral home of Lord Byron.

Gight castle originally dates from the 15th century and was built to a traditional L-shaped plan, including a tower, vaulted basement, a first-floor hall, and a turnpike stair at the end of a long passage. The castle changed hands, until, in 1787, the current owner Catherine Gordon was forced to sell the castle to pay huge debts accrued by her husband, Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron. The couple were the parents of Lord George Byron the famous romantic poet. Gight Castle then became the property of George Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Aberdeen (known locally as the ‘Wicked Earl’). He gained his notoriety – and nickname – from his exploitation of his tenants (in which he forced them to commit to punitive leases) and for his private life. He was rumoured to have had children by at least three mistresses, all of whom he treated contemptibly.

Despite his outrageous behaviour, George Gordon considered himself to be invincible. One day, however, an aggrieved tenant reminded him of the words of the 13th century soothsayer Thomas the Rhymer,

“At Gight three men by sudden death shall dee (die)                                                                             And after that the land shall lie in lea”. (meadow)

Thomas the Rhymer’s uncanny and ominous prediction was made two centuries before Gight Castle had even been constructed, yet George Gordon refused to heed the warning and continued his reckless lifestyle. He was reminded that the first part of the prophecy had already come to pass in 1644. He claimed to have no knowledge of the story, so it was repeated to him (perhaps in the hope it would force him to change his behaviour),

Below the castle, in the passing Ythan River, lies a deep pool known as Hagberry Pot. Local legend tells us that Hagberry Pot is bottomless. In 1644, Gight Castle was raided by the Covenanters and, to prevent them from stealing his jewels, the 7th Laird of Gight hurled all his valuables into Hagberry Pot. Following the Covenanters attack, the laird forced a local diver to recover his jewels. However, the visibly shaken diver soon returned to the surface without the jewels, claiming that the Devil himself was down there guarding them. The furious laird forced the diver to go back down under ‘pain of death’. The diver was left with little choice but to dive under the surface again. Within a couple of minutes the diver’s body, severed into four pieces, floated up to the surface. The laird’s jewels were never recovered.

Even after hearing this gruesome tale, George Gordon still refused to moderate his lifestyle, despite the dire warning. Indeed, he openly mocked those he rode past on his impressive stead. However, one summer’s day in the year 1791 he was thrown from his horse, while out riding on the Green of Gight, and was killed instantly. Following this tragedy the castle was abandoned by his family, bringing to mind another of Thomas the Rhymer’s prophecies,

“When the heron leaves the tree,                                                                                                       the Laird o’ Gight shall landless be.”

Just before the sale of the Castle a flight of herons, which had nested at Gight for many years, had flown from the estate, never to return.

Locals, seeing the herons leaving, were also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s earlier prediction, claiming that three sudden deaths would occur at Gight Castle; and many wondered if one more fatality would follow, thus completing the dark prophecy. They did not have long to wait. . .

Shortly afterwards a servant working on a nearby farm met a similarly sudden death. Some old farm buildings were being demolished and cleared to create a lea meadow (just as Thomas the Rhymer’s prophecy had stated), when one of the workers casually reminded everyone that Thomas the Rhymer’s prophecy had yet to come true. When challenged by his colleagues, the farm worker laughed off their warnings. Eerily, and less than an hour later, one of the walls he was demolishing collapsed on top of him, instantly crushing him to death. The second part of the prophecy had been fulfilled.

The castle now lies as a peaceful ruin, yet many claim to have seen the ghosts of the three men mentioned in the prophecy still roaming the castle grounds.

Yet, it appears, that the castle may also be haunted by other spirits. Firstly, many have claimed to hear the sound of a ghostly piper playing deep in the ruins of the castle. Legend tells us that a lone piper once went to explore a secret tunnel under the castle and never returned. Apparently lost, or trapped, beneath the castle, he haunts the ruins for eternity.

Perhaps, for those wishing a ghostly or supernatural experience, Halloween may be the best time to visit Gight Castle. Reputedly, the Gordon family dabbled in sorcery and witchcraft, frequently summoning the Devil himself. On certain nights of the year Satan himself is still believed to visit the castle grounds. A chilling thought indeed!

(Story has been copyrighted and cannot be copied)

Rating: 1 out of 5.