Of lofty roof and ample size,
Beneath the castle deep it lies;
To hew the living rock profound,
The floor to pave, the arch to round,
There never toiled a mortal arm;
It all was wrought by word and charm.
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion.
While I’m on the topic of Scotland (and before I go back to boring you with my French adventures) I wanted to write about an awesome place that I didn’t get round to talking about while I was still in Edinburgh.
Just outside the town of Gifford in East Lothian, the ruins of Yester Castle nestle amongst quiet, thorny, woodland. There are plenty of ruined castles in Scotland so that’s not particularly interesting. What is interesting is the castle’s supernatural history. Legend has it that below the castle lies a subterranean chamber, known as the Goblin Ha’ (Ha’ pronounced like ‘hall’ with the l’s dropped). It’s called that because the castle was allegedly built by goblins after the powerful warlock Hugo de Giffard made a pact with Satan himself.
As someone who loves history and loves ghost stories, as soon as I found out about this place I knew I’d have to go.
The castle isn’t signposted and isn’t a tourist attraction. To get there you have to scramble through farmland, along the edge of a golf course, and finally into an eerie glen where you will start to see the remains of the castle emerging above the trees.
This day trip is a must for anyone who likes their excursions weird and wonderful. Wear sensible shoes and try not to get the heebie jeebies…
Lord Gifford, deep beneath the ground,
Heard Alexander’s bugle sound,
And tarried not his garb to change,
But, in his wizard habit strange,
Came forth,-a quaint and fearful sight;
His mantle lined with fox-skins white;
His high and wrinkled forehead bore
A pointed cap, such as of yore
Dire dealings with the fiendish race
Had mark’d strange lines upon his face
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
Let’s talk a little big more about Hugo de Gifford, the Wizard of Yester, whose deal with the devil resulted in a beautiful castle that today lies in ruins; and has done since the 16th Century.
Hugo De Giffard built Yester Castle in the 13th Century. He was widely regarded by the locals as having magical powers (as you can see from the poem above). When his daughter Margaret decided to marry Broun of Coulston, Hugo gave her an enchanted pear. “Keep the pear safe” he told her, “and no harm will come to your husband’s family.”
Margaret and her new husband locked the pear in a silver box and the family prospered for a couple of hundred years. Then in 1692 George, the heir to Coulston House, was preparing to marry his fiancee. Obviously he forgot to tell her about the pear because she found it, and it looked so ripe and delicious that she took a bite.
The pear instantly turned to rock, and the Brouns soon found themselves drowning in debt. George sold the house to his brother, but his line was wiped out en route to Edinburgh when the River Tyne burst its banks. George died penniless and without an heir. The pear, bite-mark and all, is kept in Coulston House to this day.
Even though I’m a bit of a skeptic, I want to believe, and these interesting tales of The Wizard of Yester just made me even more excited to visit the ruins of a castle that I’d never even heard of (despite living 20 miles away for most of my life).
If you fancy visiting Yester Castle for yourself: you’re not going to get a tour guide for this one. It’s really off the beaten path!
Sadly, I reckon this quest would be nigh on impossible with public transport. Hire a car and drive to Gifford. It’s in East Lothian and well signposted so not too hard to find. There’s a hotel here called the Goblin Ha’ but it’s not the one we’re after. Drive to the Castle Park Golf Club, which backs onto Yester Castle, and ask for directions to Yester Castle from there. This way they’ll know that you’re going to be on their land and they won’t chase you off with their golf clubs!
When we asked, they were very friendly and warned us that it can be a bit muddy round there after a rainstorm. They directed us along the road and to the left, where we parked outside a barn. We climbed a couple of fences, wandered across a field, and then over a fence into the golf course. Nobody seemed to mind. I’m guessing they get ramblers quite often.
Walk along the golf course and into the woods. As you walk along, the remaining towers will start to appear and you can climb up the hill to explore. You can see into the Goblin Ha’ from the front, but it’s not obvious right away how to get in. We went down the wrong side and ended up wandering around quiet woods for ages. There are some really large chunks of masonry still standing; we had to step back quite a way to get a photo of this humungous curtain wall!
We figured out (eventually) how to get into the Goblin Ha’. Go through the door in the high wall and you should see a sort of path on the left wending around and down the hill. Follow that. You’ll come to a wee tiny door, just big enough for a hobgoblin. Even James and I had to crouch down to go inside, and we’re not the tallest of people. Inside you’ll find one of the oldest surviving gothic arched ceilings in existence.
There’s another door with a flight of stairs going down, straight across from the door you come in. We didn’t realise this, and James was like “ooh there’s a door here!” I heard him shriek as he almost fell down the stairs, and I went crazy because I thought he was pretending a goblin or a ghostie had gotten him.
Although it was apparently built by demonic forces, and the Wizard of Yester used to practice black magic down there, it doesn’t feel haunted or creepy at all. I am starting to wish we’d downloaded the Ghost Radar app before going though, just to check and find out! The room used to be split into two floors and you can still see the remains of a fireplace near the ceiling. I’m guessing that, since it would have been quite far underground back in the day, the windows would have been secret entrances.
Sadly the downstairs passageway is blocked off; apparently there’s nothing down there but an old well anyway. The steps are quite slippery so I wouldn’t recommend going down there…
With Halloween coming up, I reckon this would make a perfect spooky day trip. Although it’s pretty cool at any time of year!