THE STORY OF CASTAILLE DUBH
IN a hollow near the foot of the Athole hills there stand
the ruins of an ancient castle. They have little beauty,
these ruins; they are but high, thick, windowless walls
with the remains of round towers at the corners, and
the space within is filled with dark pine-trees. So old
is Castaille Dubh, or the Black Castle, as it is now
more commonly called, that tradition is almost silent as to its
origin, though the villagers have much to tell of black deeds
that were done in it, of the black fate which befell it, and of the
curse that still clings to its very stones. Much treasure of
gold and silver lies buried there, they say, but not the boldest
nor the most covetous among them has dared to seek for it.
The more timid will not venture to pass the castle by night;
its name is spoken by them only to satisfy the curious stranger,
or to terrify into obedience some wayward child.
The scene around is peaceful enough. About the castle lie
cultivated fields with rich, black, loamy soil; a rocky height
rises behind it, a range of low, wooded hills in front, and
through the valley a quiet river winds. But the fertile fields
were once a treacherous bog, and valley and hillsides were one
dense forest with here and there a clearing, where men daily
disputed the soil with the wild boar, and toiled hard to protect
their families and their flocks from the wolves.
For the valley where this ancient castle stands was once the
very heart of the great Caledonian Forest, ‘dreadful for its
dark, intricate windings, its dens of bears, and huge, wild, thick-
maned bulls.’ Within the dingy halls of the castle itself the
first Earls of Athole lived in security, and with a certain squalid
splendour. They oppressed their own people, it is true, but
they protected them from the oppression of others: so their
people loved them, and what they had to give they gave freely,
even to their lives, for was it not their Chief who had need?
As generations passed, more and more of the land was reclaimed
from the forest; the struggle of man against wild beast became
less keen; of the weak man against the strong harder, more
hopeless than ever. All Scotland was convulsed with civil war;
the Highlands were harassed with petty feuds; the Earl of
Athole forfeited life and lands, and the earldom was bestowed
upon an alien.
The people now were the slaves, not the children of their chief.
They had to give up their sons for the service, their daughters
for the pleasure of a tyrant, to whom they were bound by no tie
of kinship, no link of love.
The powerful High Stewards soon found Castaille Dubh too
strait for them, and they left its use to one of their many base-
born sons. One sore winter Sir Walter Stewart held high
revel there with boon companions from the South. There was
constant coming and going, and the people’s scanty stores were
rifled again and again to keep Sir Walter’s larder well furnished
for his guests.
With the New Year came one Uninvited Guest.
Quickly the news spread through the valley that the Sickness
had come, and that in the castle men were dying almost un-
heeded by their panic-stricken comrades.
That night the heads of the villages met, as was their wont, in
a secret hollow far up a rocky glen. There were a score of
haggard, hungry, desperate men, and with them the grey-haired
priest, a gentle old man whom little children loved. The snow
lay thick around them; the wind blew icily overhead. A single
pine-torch, sheltered under an overhanging rock, threw its
fitful light over the scene, showing gaunt, half-clad figures,
shaggy, unkempt locks, faces wild-eyed and wan. Long and
earnestly the men talked, giving free vent, in this new terror,
to the pent-up bitterness of years.
‘Why should we,’ the bolder among them cried, ‘why should
we risk our lives to succour those who have made life so hard
for us? Why should our wives and our little ones be sacrificed
for men who have robbed some among us of both wife and
child? What are these Southerners to us? They are no kith
nor kin of ours.’
‘Nay, my children, speak not so,’ said the old priest mildly;
‘are we not all sons of the same Mother Church? And
Sir Walter himself—is not he of your blood? Was not his
‘Ay, his father’s mother!’ broke in a dozen angry voices.
‘Have not our mothers told us how she was dragged by the
Earl’s men, on just such a bitter night as this, from the very
arms of the man she had but newly wed. That man was
of our blood; his wrongs are our wrongs!’
The good priest pleaded, exhorted, commanded—all in vain.
The only answer was a dogged ‘Nay, father, let them die; we
will not go.’
‘Then I must go alone,’ said the old man sadly. ‘To-morrow
at daybreak I will go, that, if these unhappy men may not live,
they may at least make their peace with the Church before
Sullen and half-ashamed the men dispersed to their miserable
homes, all but three, who lingered, and, standing close together,
‘He will go to-morrow: then we must go to-night.’
Silently and resolutely the three made their way down the glen
and strode towards Castaille Dubh.
It was the ‘wolfs month,’ and, as they skirted the forest, they
heard the howling of the hungry pack, but they heeded not.
As they passed not far from the edge of a hidden tarn, the
dread white water-bull bellowed from his lair, but even that
could not daunt them then.
The thin ice crackled under their feet as they stepped on the
surface of the frozen swamp, but they held on their way,
At length the castle towered darkly before them, its gates all
unguarded, for the sickness within left little room for thought
of foes without.
. . . . . . . .
A red glow spread slowly over the sky and lighted up the
dazzling snow. For a brief space the roar of the flames, the
crash of falling masonry, and the shrieks of dying men
mingled with the baying of the impatient wolves.
Thomson, Margaret. “The Story of Castaille Dubh.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4, Winter 1896-7, pp. 128-131. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv4_thomson_castailledubh/