We set out on a clear and sunny day to East Lothian and the site of Yester Castle and Goblin Ha'. My companions know where to go. I sit back and enjoy the view, vistas of fields, some already harvested, and trees mostly still green, but with touches of yellow and occasional flame red.
From a golf course car park near Gifford (the sign said that walkers were welcome to park their cars here, if they could just let them know) we set off on the path. At first it skirts the golf course before passing a magnificent sycamore tree, and then it leads into a wood. We come across the ruins suddenly for the wood is thick with trees. The pink stone ruins of the high tower are magnificent. The tower stretches up like a stone lamp gleaming in the sunlight, through the treetops, to the sky.
And what about the so-called Goblin Ha'
, which, according to local lore, could only have been built so quickly with the help of dark demonic forces such as a team of goblins?
Yester Castle was first built by the Norman, Hugo de Giffard, in the 12th century and continued by his heirs in the 13th. The South East Tower (which we came across first on the path) was built in the 15th century when ownership of the castle had passed to the Hay family. At the same time, the old 13th-century keep was demolished and a huge wall was built around the hill site of the castle. But the underground cavern below the keep (known as Goblin Ha') was preserved.
There are foundation stones all around the tower for several metres, showing it was once a vast complex of buildings. History, or at least its stonework, sinks into the ground, trees grow between the stones of buildings and then their roots take over, entwining around the stones and peeling them away from each other. So vegetation both hides and carefully disassembles the work of previous centuries. Then there are the people who, over the centuries, have taken the loosened stones to use for their own building work, clearing more space, so more trees grow, and the dilapidation (from the Latin for stone, lapidus
, so we have the undoing, the prising apart, the loosening, or the removal of stones from their original construction) continues. But what is astonishing (to me) is that so much of the construction remains.
It is not just trees that wind and insinuate themselves around the ruins, but stories do as well. Like Michael Scott, known as 'the Wizard' (who supposedly, with the power of his magic wand, cleft the Eildon Hills in the Scottish Borders, turning one hill into three), those with power and/or education, those who came from elsewhere or who had travelled in (then) distant lands (Michael Scott studied in the great universities of Spain and Italy), rumours circulate about these people, and their powers and purposes. For some reason, these rumours often involve association with the Devil or his lesser minions. It would seem that in the popular imagination, the powers that come with learning (or with strangers from elsewhere who have been granted power and land by the rulers) may have dark origins.
From the South East Tower, you walk on towards the huge (over nine metres high) wall, glowing in the sunlight in shades of pale and darker pinkish purple. Considering how many centuries it has stood there, it is remarkably preserved. Going down a few steps, you can go right up to two arched and barred windows set in the wall. These are the windows of the underground cavern itself (Goblin Ha').
To reach the cavern, you then go back up the steps and walk through the Postern Gate in the wall, continue for several metres, and then follow the path that doubles back, steeply downhill. And there is the entrance to the hall. Looking inside, you can only see darkness. The light from my phone is only strong enough to bring pale visibility to a few stones in front of my feet. But there is a smudge of light ahead, the tunnel ends, and we enter the cavern.
The small amount of light comes from the two arched and barred windows that we first saw from the outside, and which now give a view out onto the wooded hillslope. And once our eyes have adjusted, we can make out the remarkable, high vaulted ceiling. To me, the hall felt more like a place of sanctuary than a demon-infested den. And though it is very dark, with only a little natural light filtering through the windows, the beautiful vaulted roof is more reminiscent of a chapel.
Still, in the depths of winter, or even on a grey and cloudy day, this cavern below ground would not be somewhere I would want to spend a lot of time in. I was glad to go back through the tunnel, climb the steep path and return to the tower perched on the highest elevation, and drink in the sunlight.
Photo at top of page by Morelle Smith
: Yester Castle