Janet Douglas Lyon, Lady Glamis, was one of 2,000 Scots, mostly women, burned as a witch at Castlehill between 1479-1722, when Edinburgh was the witch-burning capital of Europe. The witch hunts, tortures and burnings which began in Europe in the 13th century spread to Scotland and targeted women, especially those with any kind of power or property, who challenged male authority. King James V hated the Douglas family, and under his orders, Janet Douglas was falsely accused of witchcraft and plotting to poison the King, and was publicly burned at the stake in 1537. She was widely loved and respected by the local people and considered one of the beauties of the age. My Lyon family history and its petty treacheries, and the Scottish Borders hallowed tradition of feuding, which was exported to my native Tennessee, inspired an intense interest in Castle Glamis and the sad story of Lady Glamis, and The Ballad of Lady Glamis, which I set to the beautiful old melody of The House of Glamis.
The blood remembers. It grows in the bone and eddies through the veins, ferrying loves and hates from womb to womb down through the ages. To the children's children. And their children's children. And now to me, gazing into the loch deep eyes of Sir John Lyon, the Seventh Lord Glamis, in the portrait hanging in Glamis Castle. The eyes are only made of paint, but they somehow strangely convey the horror of that day when Sir John Lyon was forced to watch his mother, Lady Glamis the mistress of Glamis Castle—Janet Douglas Lyon—burn as a witch on trumped up treasonous charges.
What did it smell like, that Tuesday the 17th of July in the year 1537? Edinburgh wasn't called Auld Reekie for nothing. The old walled city of bodies crammed into coal-blackened tenements was a cesspit of putrid vapors of sweat, dung and piss, rat droppings and dead cats, bloodied severed heads, decomposing corpses, rotten meat, fish offal, burped garlic, rancid cheese and randy sex.
Inside and out, royalty and commoner, the city and its occupants stank, stank, stank. Yet compared to these fetid airs wafting from the town, Lady Glamis' body must have smelled sweet, if it’s true that human flesh, whether noblewoman or vulgar whore, has the aroma of suckling pig when it burns.
Lady Glamis’ son, Sir John Lyon was only 16 years old. He would have seen it all from the window of his prison chamber in Edinburgh Castle: a cart loaded with crude tar barrels rumbling over the cobbles toward the execution spot on Castle Hill. Rowdy mobs dressed in rags or tradesmen clothes, streaming from the sunless closes and wynds between the 13-storey dark stone tenements, and the dank netherworldly maze of chambers and vaults of this fetid town. Pouring from the old Cow Gate, Fleshmarket Close, Coffin Lane, Blackadder, tramping through the slimy rivers of garbage, offal and night soil trickling over the cobbles, to the faggots piled on Castle Hill.
The seventh Lord Glamis watches his mother drifting like a white rose petal on the breeze toward the pyre. The Doomster wrapping the iron chains around her body, around and around the wooden stake. The long hair as fine as Persian silk, shorn like wool off a bleeting sheep. Locks of deep sparkling French claret grabbed by the fist and slashed off with a knife. The razor scraping the bleeding scalp of every last strand of power. The sweat-damp tresses hissing like a viper on the pyre of glowing faggots. The flames blazing with a supernatural fury as Lady Glamis, Dame Janet Douglas Lyon, mother of four children, is burned alive at the stake.
Some in the crowd are screaming, tearing their hair, crying for mercy, mobbing the King's guards, flinching from the blows of the clubs to wrench her free. A ragged mongrel leaps up, rips Doomster's flesh above his crusty boot. With his fur aflame and the Lady's singed locks in his teeth, the mangy dog plows through the crowd to the castle tower, pawing and whimpering at the briny stone prison. The Doomster moans for his own bleeding haunch, but Lady Glamis is silent as the flames whip her face and a sword of fire stills her voice forever.
As the odor of roasting flesh fills the window of King David's Tower, is John Lyon feeling any remorse for betraying his own mother? For falsely professing to know of her alleged plot to poison King James V with charms and enchanted potions? Or is he only relieved to have escaped torture on the pynebaukis—the rack, hoping the King will keep his promise to allow him to retain his estates and the fabulous Castle Glamis?
The taut young body of Lady Glamis, remembered for centuries as the most renowned beauty in Britain of her day, bore no witch-pricker's welts. Scottish “prickat wiches” hadn't developed their profitable travelling trade until half a century later, during the 1590 Scottish witch panic. Had they taken the time to drive their foot-long pins – brods -into Lady Glamis’ flesh or head, would they have found a Devil’s mark, a spot that did not bleed - sure proof of a witch?
And had they bound her thumbs and toes together, then pitched her into a lake, would they have seen her body sink - which was “normal” - or float on the surface, a supernatural sign of the “monstrous impietie of Witches.” No, after Lady Glamis’s quick trial, they took her straight from the dock to the flames. A quick solution for King James V. After her death, he confiscated all her goods and £5,770 and moved himself and his French Queen Mary of Guise into this fabulous residence.
Janet Douglas Lyon, Lady Glamis was one of as many as two thousand Scots, mostly women, burned at the stake as a witch at Castlehill between 1479-1722, when Edinburgh was the witch-burning capital of Europe. In his Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Alexander Pitcairn contends that Lady Glamis was innocent; she had been falsely accused of conspiring to poison King James V.
Lady Glamis' accuser, William Lyon, was the king's confidante and a blood relative of her first husband, John Lyon, the Sixth Lord Glamis, who she was also wrongly accused of poisoning seven years after they were married. Pitcairn describes the accuser William Lyon as a spurned suitor who framed Lady Glamis out of spite, because she refused to marry him.
This heartless Iago carried out his diabolical plot by playing upon King James V's paranoia about threats against his life, and the King's fear and hatred of her Douglas clan. Later, racked by guilt over all the deaths he had caused, and the ruined House of Glamis, William Lyon on his deathbed confessed to the King his heinous crime of jealousy. But it was too late.
Pitcairn concluded: "the whole complexion of this shocking tragedy bears such savage traces of a furious and unmanly revenge against a noble and unprotected female, who was the only member of her family on whom 'the advisers of the Crown' could lay their hands, that it can hardly be compared with any other event either in ancient or modern history."
The day after his wife is reduced to cinders before his own eyes, Archibald Campbell of Skepnische, Lady Glamis' second husband, also condemned as an accomplice in the poison conspiracy, tries to escape from Edinburgh Castle. He fashions a rope from his greasy bed linens--for royal prisoners are allowed bed linens.
Under cover of a wooly sea mist he climbs out the window of the King David's Tower, just as King James III and Alexander, Duke of Albany had successfully done before him, on a night in 1479. Campbell hangs over the razor-sharp basalt crags of Castle Rock, left from the volcano that blew when Scotland was a tropical forest millions of years and thousands of miles from crashing into England.
What does Campbell think of before his shaking arms let go of the rope that proves too short, and the force of the 30-meter fall rams the bones of his neck up through his brain?
The blood remembers. King James wants to stop its flow. After Lady Glamis is burned at the stake and her second husband, protector of her daughters, crashes to his death, King James banishes Lady Glamis' two young daughters to a nunnery in North Berwick, insuring that the feared Clan Douglas blood racing through their young veins never bears fruit or revenge.
John Lyon the seventh Lord Glamis is sentenced to beheading and quartering, to prevent him from avenging his mother’s death. But the portrait of him in the Drawing Room of Glamis Castle, done by the French artist Clouet in the year MCCCCC LXXXIII  shows him with his head firmly attached.
King James V enjoyed Glamis Castle's fabulous rooms and gardens until his death in 1542. In 1543 the Queen released Sir John Lyon and his brother George from prison. Sir John brought a formal legal process of Reduction of his Forfeiture, against the crown.
His estates, which had been annexed to the Crown by an Act of Parliament on December 3, 1540, were returned to him, along with his title. But by that time, Castle Glamis had been ransacked of all its furniture, and its gold and twelve great silver flaggons had been melted down for the royal mint.
In summer the car park of this Disneyland fairy castle—the childhood home of the late Queen Mother Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth—is packed with tourist buses. They line up to Ooh an Aah over the gilt lions and gargantuan stone fireplace in the 54-foot-long Great Hall, and to see the Queen Mother’s chambers, silk canopy beds, hunting trophies and coats of armour in the few rooms open to the public. But on this winter’s day there is nothing but ice and snow and deadening quiet. Gordon has brought me through ancient Pictland and haunting Glen Lyon to the village of Glamis to show me the castle which I've seen only in picture books—the castle that has been in the Lyon family since the year 1372.
In that year the tall, fair Sir John Lyon—known as the "White Lyon"—married the daughter of King Robert II of Scotland, who was the grandson of Robert the Bruce. King Robert gave his new son-in-law and Princess Joanna a very nice wedding present: the castle which had been the hunting lodge of the Kings of Scotland since the 11th century.
Since then the Lyon family has occupied Glamis Castle, building and expanding upon its medieval magnificence—except through the dark period when King James V burned the castle’s owner—Lady Glamis, confiscated all her goods heritable and moveable, gold, silver, and £5,770 and moved himself and his French Queen Mary of Guise into its fabulous rooms. King James V enjoyed this regal residence and its elaborate gardens until his death in 1542. Then in 1543 the Queen released Lady Glamis’ son John Lyon the seventh Lord Glamis from prison, and restored his title and ransacked estates.
Under the long shadows of tarnished northern light, Gordon and I walk with feet soft in January snows. Through groves of sacred Yews and Druid oaks, through the heavy iron De'il Gates carved with beasts and satyrs, we walk. Past gargoyles with snow-stuffed mouths..over crusts of frosts, through caws of jackdaws and crows, we walk. Into a braith of gloom, we walk, among eerie gardens trimmed in ice and hedges sharpened like a knife.
We are walking down the mile long avenue lined with Scotch firs when it looms up—the medieval castle of the Thanes of Glamis. I’m stunned at the solid mass of fleshy pink stone, the startling magnificence of battlements, spires, pepperpot turrets; the keep, tower and corbelled parapet, and the fabulous ornamented roof, with iron finials decorated in fleur-de-lys, roses and thistles. For a brief moment, I feel proud to be a Lyon.
Something catches my eyes across the snow, across the winter silence and up to the old clock tower. Maybe it's a trick of the light, the low northern sunlight erupting like flames on the high window panes. But I feel that I’m seeing beyond the pretty pink sandstone skin of the castle into a cold heart that feeds on human souls. The souls of the murdered King Malcolm II, whose bloodstains will not scrub out from the stone floor into which they soaked. The souls of Laird Lyon's private hangman and all those he hung. And the poor butler who hanged himself right in the Hangman's Chamber. The souls of the Devil's gambler Earl Beardie, the Boogeyman of Scottish children's nightmares. And the souls of the Ogilvies who sought protection from the Lindsays here, but were locked in a secret room and left to starve.
They knawed the flesh off their own arms before they died of starvation—only to be discovered centuries later as dried skulls and bones. The soul of the Monster of Glamis, the true 12th Laird Glamis and heir to the castle, born "a hairy freak with spindly limbs dangling from an egg-shaped body" in the year 1821 on October 18th. The soul of the woman whose tongue was cut out and hands cut off after she discovered the Lyon family secret. The souls of King James V. The souls of Cromwell's marauding soldiers. The tormented souls of the Strathmore lairds. And yes, the soul of Lady Glamis.
"Is it spooky enough for you?" Gordon asks, nudging me out of my dark reverie. He throws out his arms as if personally offering me the castle that inspired Shakepeare's Macbeth and Walter Scott's The Antiquary.
"Oooooh the fairies were right. The castle should never have been built here.”
"You mean that old legend…
“…yeah, that they tried building Glamis on Hunter's Hill, on that Pictish site called the Fairy Pans. And in the morning all the stonework was tumbled and scattered. Weird, isn’t it?"
"Very, says Gordon. They decided to build it here, on this low spot in the Vale of Strathmore. Away from the fairy mound. “
“Not far enough away.,” I laugh. “There's been a curse on the Lyon family ever since."
"You think your family is cursed?"
"Cursed by what we Tennesseeans call haints and witches. By addictions, lies and suspicions. The whole Southern bag of clan feuds imported from Scotland when the Ulster Scots moved to Tennessee and North Carolina. Thank you very much. Generational wars of gossip and obstinate silence, mixed in with a bit of the old British Divide-and-Conquer. And what's loathesome is that many Southerners are still proud of it! "
I wander over to inspect the regal 17th century sundial, all 21-feet tall of it. I stand under the shadow of the four stone lions holding up a the king's coronet and a stone globe. Gordon focuses his Nikon. Long after he has stopped clicking I’m still standing there, as if in a trance, hearing the strangest, eeriest air seeming to come up out of the snow. Gordon’s whistle, sending bewitching notes from its blackwood soul.
"Where on earth did you get that tune?
"From an old 18th century Scottish manuscript, Nancy. Some anonymous genius actually expressed the strange atmosphere and mysterious tension of this place into music. The melody is called 'The House of Glamis.' No doubt from the fairies. How do you think Old Topaz, would have evoked the atmosphere of Glamis?"
"Oh ! That drivel monger!"
Gordon had introduced me to the pitiful poems of William Topaz MacGonagle born in Edinburgh's Cowgate in 1825. We’d joked about forming a company called Topaz Tours, leading tourists around Scotland to visit the sites MacGonagle massacred with his awful poems. "Beautiful Aberfoyle," "Beautiful Balmerino," "Beautiful Comrie," "Beautiful Crieff," "Beautiful Edinburgh," "Beautiful Newport on the Braes o' the Silvery Tay," and so on.
"Old McGonagle must have visited Glamis," Gordon continues. "It's so close to his home in Dundee. But oddly enough he didn't write a poem about it."
"No, he wrote a sappy poem about Balmoral Castle and Queen Victoria, whom he worshipped. And an historical one called 'An Adventure in the Life of King James V of Scotland.' He portrays the King—who in his paranoia wandered around in a disguise to spy on his subjects—as loving and generous. No bother about burning ladies at the stake to steal their castles!"
"And if he had written a poem about Glamis...?"
"He would have left out the monster, even though it was the gossip of the day, featured in all the tabloids and chat sheets of the time, the idea of a deformed Earl, the rightful heir, hidden away, locked up and treated like a beast on a chain--they loved it!"
"Well if Topaz left out all the Victorian squalor, disease and crime in his poem “Beautiful Glasgow”, he'd surely leave out all the Lyon gambling, drunkenness, blood, skulls—and that rumour about the vampire!"
"I can just hear it now,” Gordon chortles: Beautiful Castle Glamis with its pink fairy roofs' / Is magnificent to behold, either on foot or horse's hoof.
—Or from a hearse's roof"
"That doesn't scan!"
"But none of his poems do!" "Go on then..."
"No, it's your turn."
"Its hundred rooms are fine and dandy / And sixteen-foot walls make defense quite handy.”
“A true fairy castle is this Castle Glamis / Even though t’wasn’t built on the Fairy Pans.”
“All who see it do agree / That to live here would be a source of glee.”
“Stop! That’s enough! We might raise McGonagle's ghost!”
As we collapse into laughter, Gordon takes me by the hand for one last picture at the castle’s front doorway, leaning me just so under the heavy stone bust of the first Laird Glamis. As if I own the place. Then we begin our long walk back to the Devil Gates. The Deil Gates. As if the real owner of Castle Glamis is Auld Clootie himself.