The Doom of Mar
It goes without saying that every self-respecting ancient family should be afflicted by a traditional curse, and (to be rational for a moment) the more ancient the family, the greater the opportunity for time and chance to wreak misfortune, of course.
Greatest Mysteries of the Unexplained: A Compelling Collection of the World's Most Perplexing Phenomena, Lucy Doncaster & Andrew Holland, Arcturus Publishing, 1 Sep 2012, 382 pp
The ruins of Alloa Tower in Scotland are now all that remains of a vast manor, the hereditary seat of the Erskine family, the Earls of Mar. The fate of the place was interwoven with that of the family who lived there, not just because they had lived there for generations, but because of the curse that predicted and assured the doom of the family and the seat of their power.
It is believed that this curse was uttered against the Earl of Mar by the Abbot of CambusKenneth during the sixteenth century. In destroying the Abbey at CambusKenneth, the Earl had unwittingly sealed the fate of his lineage for years to come, for many of the predicted details of the curse, although cryptic when uttered, were to come shockingly true.
Remarkably, it was not unusual at that time for Scottish curses to predict suffering that would last for several generations, but this particular curse was very specific about certain matters. Most importantly, and typically for a curse of this kind, it was foretold that the Erskine family would become extinct – a fate which was the ultimate disaster for any hereditary aristocratic lineage. The curse elaborated further: before the family died out, all its estates and property would fall into the hands of strangers – again, this would have been a horrifying concept to a family of landed gentry.
At this point it might have been expected that even the Abbot's rage would have been satisfied, but the curse continued. It predicted that a future Erskine would later live to see his home consumed by flames while his wife burned inside it and three of his children would never see the light of day. Moreover, adding further disgrace to the name of Erskine, the great hall of the family seat would be used to stable horses and a lowly weaver would work in the grand chamber of state. The curse was predicted to end only after all this had passed and an ash sapling had taken root at the top of the tower. Although the curse must have worried the Earl of Mar, he managed to live his entire life without seeing any of the predicted events come true and, on his deathbed, he must have reflected that the family had escaped from the Abbot's wrathful utterings. In this, he was greatly mistaken.
This seems to have been a patient curse because it was a while before certain events began to show the truth behind the predictions. In 1715 a subsequent Earl of Mar declared his allegiance to James Stuart, the son of James VII of Scotland, who was known as 'the Old Pretender'. The Earl led a failed Jacobite rebellion against the crown in an attempt to install James Stuart as king. He was defeated and, in retribution, the family were stripped of their land and titles – in this way, one part of the curse had come true. Whether the Earl actually attributed this to the curse is unknown, as he might have merely viewed events as a punishment for his own actions. However, more of the predictions were to be borne out within a few generations.
Almost a century later, in 1801, it was John Francis Erskine who was unlucky enough to bear the brunt of the prophecy, and so pay the price for his ancestor's mistakes. To begin with, three of his children were born completely blind – thus, as the curse had foretold, they would 'never see the light of day'. Then Alloa Tower, all that remained of the family's former glory, was devastated by fire and Erskine's wife perished in the flames.
The main body of the curse had now come true and only the details were left to be completed. Sure enough, a troop of cavalry used the half-ruined hall as shelter for their horses while they were moving around the country. Subsequently, a homeless weaver took up residence in the ruins of the building and plied his trade in the nearby town. In around 1820 a small ash tree was seen to have taken root in the ruins of Alloa Tower. The curse had now been fulfilled in every detail.
Of all the questions that spring to mind in this case, the first revolves around the existence of the curse – was it ever really uttered or could it have been made up after the events to explain and justify the demise of the Erskines and serve as a useful warning to other potentially rebellious landowners? Certainly, both historical fact and local folklore indicate that the curse was true, but there is always the possibility that, rather than having the ability to bring about such terrible events, the Abbot was simply in possession of astonishing visionary powers.
Either possibility could apply in this case. Perhaps the Abbot did have the power to seal the destiny of the Erskine family through a curse, or maybe his powers of divination were comparable to those of a prophet, although this would appear to be the only instance of such a prediction from the Abbot. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems that the mystical powers of the Abbot of CambusKenneth were so great that they are remembered to this very day.
The excellent website from which I first learned of the Doom of Mar doesn't mention that John Francis Erskine (1741 – 20 Aug 1825) lost his wife in the great fire of Aug 1800 which devoured the mansion that had been built to complement the Tower, possibly because the wife in question, Frances Floyer, had died eighteen months previously, on 20 Dec 1798.
But it does say that his five (?four) daughters all died unmarried, and that the three youngest children had all been born blind. Half a curse is better than none, of course, to the maledictor himself.
Alloa Tower is in Clackmannanshire, some miles to the east of Stirling, and its Castle, with which the Erskines had a long and not altogether untroubled association as Keepers and Governors. Unsurprisingly, the Curse of Alloa could extend beyond the borders of The Wee County:
The Earls of Mar & the 'Curse of Alloa Tower'
'Proud Chief of Mar, thou shalt be raised still higher, until thou sittest in the place of the King. Thou shalt rule and destroy, and thy work shall be after thy name… Thy work shall be cursed and shall never be finished.… Then, when thou seemest to be highest, when thy power is mightiest, then shall come thy fall; low shall be thy head amongst the noblest of the people. Deep shall be thy moans among the children of dool [sorrow]. Thy lands shall be given unto the stranger, and thy titles shall lie among the dead…Thou, proud head and daggered hand, must dree thy weird [lament your fate], until horses be stabled in thy hall, and a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state…'
So begins the 'Curse of Alloa Tower', supposedly placed upon John Erskine, 17th Earl of Mar by the fiery Abbot of Cambuskenneth.
The ruins of Mar's Wark, Erskine's townhouse, loom over Stirling's Broad Street. The Wark's wide façade once stood three storeys high. Its towers proudly display the coats of arms of Mar and his Countess. Courtiers, mermaids, gargoyles, mythological monsters and the Royal Arms of Scotland look down from its crumbling walls, alongside the headless weatherworn figure of a woman being burned at the stake carved on the north wall. This, the guidebooks tell us, may be 'Jeannie Dark' – Joan of Arc – though why her image should adorn these walls is, like so much about the Wark, a mystery. Another figure, rendered headless by time and strife, holds a book out to us revealing an intriguingly cryptic inscription:
'TRATOVR TYM REVELLIT OVR CRYM' ('Traitor Time revealed our crime').
Those few words have been cited as proof of murder. Not just murder…infanticide…. Regicide too, if local legends are to be believed. Mar and the Wark itself, we are told, were cursed as punishment for the crimes of the wicked and ambitious Earl.
Erskine is a rather unlikely villain. In 1542 he had personally escorted the six year old Mary, Queen of Scots to the safety of France during the destructive rampage of Henry VIII's 'Rough Wooing', loyally earning his Earldom in 1562 – along with the guardianship of the Queen's heir, the young Prince James, the year following her return from that country. Mary's abdication in 1567 increased his influence, and in 1571 he was appointed Regent – the third to bear that burden during the boy's infancy (the first having been assassinated, and the second accidentally shot by his own men).
Ah, the local gossips say, this was all a show...
Received wisdom (according to T.F. Thiselton Dyer's delightfully cracked 'Strange Pages From Family Papers' (1898)) has it that the Protestant Erskine 'commanded the destruction of Cambuskenneth Abbey, and took its stones to build himself a palace'. The homeless and vengeful Catholic Abbot is said to have appeared in rags and tatters before the doors of Mar's baronial seat, Alloa Tower, and damned the destiny of that noble house.
On the surface, the 'Curse of Alloa Tower' is astonishingly accurate, The Wark was never finished. It served as a barracks and stables in the 17th-century ('horses [shall] be stabled in thy hall') and as a Workhouse by the middle of the next, where beggars earned their keep by operating hand-looms ('a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state').
The opening salvo – 'thou shalt be raised still higher, until thou sittest in the place of the King' – might refer to Mar's elevation from Guardian to Regent, but could equally apply to another local legend...that Mary's heir had died – or been murdered – and been replaced by a bairn born of Erskine blood. That is, that a Mar literally sat 'in the place of the king'. James VI (I) was no Stuart, then, but a 'Mar Changeling'. Many older inhabitants of the Burgh swear blind that the skeleton of a baby – King James himself – was unearthed in the ruin within the lifetimes of their own parents or grandparents, and that its weeping can be heard at the site in dead of night.
Strange that this epoch-altering discovery is completely unknown to historians.
So does the 'Curse' confirm Mar's villainy?
Returning to the prophesy that 'a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state' we find a hint as to the true nature of this tale. This is a reference not just to the Wark's use as the 18th-century Burgh Workhouse, but to a very particular dithering descendant of the Regent Mar – the Jacobite 23rd Earl – known as 'Bobbing John' because his political allegiances bobbed to-and-fro like a weaver's shuttle from Hanoverian to Jacobite, and cost the latter faction the 1715 Battle of Sherriffmuir. His lands were, as the Abbot's prophesy promised, 'given unto the stranger', and his titles revoked ... and the first mention of the 'Curse of Alloa Tower' is made the following year. And the Wark's ruinous state...? Well that is down to the folly of later Jacobites, in 1746 – when Bonnie Prince Charlie foolishly set up cannons on the roof of the Workhouse, only to be blasted by the Castle guns.
The 'commonly known' ancient Curse is actually an exercise in political spin, written long after the events it described. And in politics – just like ghost stories – you should never let a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story!
As for the tale of the murder of the infant James, future King of England and Scotland, G K Chesterton once said via Father Brown in The Curse of the Golden Cross,
'It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand.'
He could believe the impossible, but not the highly improbable. Even as a devout Catholic, he would regard the substitution of a Protestant changeling for a dead Catholic prince, with no strategic advantage to be gained, as being indisputably in the latter category. And so, as an ardent admirer of GK, I don't think that the 85 years of religious, political and military turmoil during the Stuart monarchy need be blamed on the Erskines!
Now just the Tower remains, but it does its best to continue the spooky family tradition, with recurrent allegations of ghoulies, ghosties and suchlike:
Hauntings and Ghost Stories of Alloa Tower
… Many people have reported a very uneasy presence. Alleged phenomena centre on different floors of the building, there have been regular sightings of an apparition on the first floor, and an apparition has been witnessed on the turnpike stair. Members of staff and guests have also had the feelings of being touched or followed. Sensitives have claimed to sense different atmospheres in the building.