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The Haunting of Hailes Castle

This week we take you on a virtual trip to East Lothian to explore Hailes Castle which is nestled in a lush valley alongside the River Tyne. Yet don’t let the sunny photos fool you because the Castle is rumoured to be filled with ghostly spirits.

On the day we visited, the sun was brightly shining, and Scotland was in spectacular form. But we were there for a bit darker and more ghostly mission as we wanted to delve into the paranormal side of Hailes Castle. We were inspired by Scottish Paranormal (also known on YouTube as ‘Haunted Scotland’) and some of their videos of Hailes Castle.

A word of caution- be sure to drive careful when travelling along the road to Hailes because, if you are not vigilant on the narrow and winding, single-lane road, you could end up a ghost! Nevertheless, we got to the car park safely and jumped out of our Wee Walking Tours ‘Mystery Machine’ (instead of Scooby and Scrappy Doo, we just happen to have Finn-y and Sawyer-y Doo 😉).

As you approach Hailes Castle, your first impression might be that the site is rather small and unassuming. However, as you get closer, it quickly becomes clear that it is much larger in scope than when viewed from afar. In fact, Hailes Castle is of historical note as it is one of the few stone castles (along with Dirleton Castle) still standing from the 1200s. As with most other castles in Scotland, Hailes Castle has also seen its share of sieges, invasions, and political drama.

A Brief History

In the mid-1300s, the Hepburn family took over Hailes Castle in the aftermath of the Wars of Independence. They expanded the original tower house and created a more imposing fortress including an additional pit prison (more on this a bit later). These fortifications proved to be useful as the Castle faced sieges and attacks throughout the 1400s.

However, one of the more notable attacks took place in the 1500s as part of the infamous ‘Rough Wooing’. According to Historic Scotland, Lord Grey of Wilton took over Hailes Castle n 1548 for the English. This only lasted briefly as the Scots recaptured the Castle and were said to have dramatically taken the iron gates to Edinburgh Castle.

Hailes Castle was eventually forfeited by the Hepburn family to the Scottish Crown in the mid-1500s, being passed on to a few different Scottish families (notably the Setons) in the following centuries. In 1650, it faced its final demise as a “noble residence” when it was invaded by Oliver Cromwell’s troops who thoroughly damaged the Castle. It was bought by the Dalrymples in 1700, but only seven years later they decided to move to much larger and grander accommodation near Musselburgh, naming their new home ‘Newhailes’. Hailes Castle has been in state care since 1926.

Touring Hailes Castle Today- Ghosts and All!

We start off our virtual walking tour at the site of the East Range which has been mostly destroyed along with the connecting curtain walls and the buildings (most likely servants’ quarters, stables, and guest lodgings) being in crumbled ruins.

Yet, if we walk a bit closer to the Castle, we see some beautiful parts are still intact.

Historic Scotland describes the Great Hall as the “heart and soul” of Hailes Castle. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the lavish banquets the Hepburn family (who built the Hall) held in this grand room. Looking closer, it becomes obvious there is more to this space than just a place to feast. To the left of the doorway is a stone basin built into the wall. This was a piscina where the altar vessels were rinsed after the celebration of the Mass. Additionally, there is an aumbry- a cupboard built into the wall- where they possibly stored the altar vessels. Historians believe that one end of the Great Hall was once “partitioned off as a private chapel for the lord and his family”.

Next to the Great Hall is the West Tower which was the main residence of the Hepburn family. Fortunately, sections of the Tower have survived and give an idea of its former glory. Let’s head down into a section of Hailes that also had quite an important role in the daily life of the Castle’s former inhabitants.

Looking at the picture below, that dark, cavernous space served two purposes during medieval times. First, it was the bakehouse where they would have baked bread in the massive ovens for the residents of the Castle. Secondly, the large vats that still survive, are where they would have made the necessary ale that was drank by all (even children) as it was safer to drink than water. Historic Scotland points out that the shelf life of the ale was only about one week, “and demand for fresh supplies of ale was constant. Brewing took a fortnight, involved kilns, wooden vats and metal kettles and was often done by women”.

While, so far, our walking tour of Hailes Castle seems to be rather standard, there are much darker tales to be found if we delve a little deeper beneath the surface. And we mean that quite literally because the Castle has two pit prisons as the laird was responsible for the law and order of his lands.

Knowing the history of Hailes Castle, and the back-and-forth power struggles it faced, one can only imagine the numerous prisoners that once filled these pits. They were more than just local criminals as there were also some high-profile prisoners. One of the most famous examples of a political/religious prisoner was the Protestant martyr, George Wishart. He was detained at Hailes Castle prior to being moved to St Andrews Castle where he was burned at the stake as a heretic.

If you were to look into some of the videos from the paranormal investigations, you would come across some voice recordings taken from the pit prisons. Could one of them be George Wishart? But of course, many other stories could be uncovered as the recordings reveal both men and women with different accents from other countries. Some recorded voices were quite friendly while others were pleading for help. Even scarier were the menacing voices that told investigators to get out and leave the Castle. Although, don’t be too scared- we cannot leave just yet. We are still in search for the most famous haunting of Hailes Castle- the Lady in White!

The Lady in White has been seen by numerous visitors to Hailes and is said to move around the Castle and grounds with a royal air about her. This has led many to wonder if it is the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots.

The most notable resident of Hailes Castle was James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Their marriage was very unpopular among many circles in Scotland because he was implicated for the murder of Lord Darnley- Mary’s second husband. As the implications and pressure grew, Bothwell and Mary (pictured below) moved about the Scottish countryside with Hailes Castle being a convenient stop between Dunbar (Bothwell’s main castle) and Edinburgh. Eventually, Mary was forced to abdicate, and Bothwell decided to leave her and flee to Norway and Denmark. It is said, in his later years, he went insane and was detained in Dragsholm Castle in Denmark until his death. Could it be that his tortured soul has returned to Hailes- his place of birth?

While Bothwell’s spirit being at Hailes Castle is speculative, the more commonly seen ghost is the Lady in White who is believed to be his wife, Mary Queen of Scots. Regarding Mary at Hailes, some historians say that her visits might not have exactly been on her own accord. They believe that, at the time, she was being held captive by Lord Bothwell who was using her as leverage as he tried to evade the consequences of Lord Darnley’s murder.

Of course, there are jokes that her ghost is quite well-travelled because accounts of seeing it are common throughout Scotland. Then again, she did spend time all over Scotland as Queen and later as a prisoner of the English Queen, Elizabeth. Therefore, her tragic story lends to the possibility of her soul restlessly roaming Scotland.

After searching for the Lady in White, our tour wraps up along the beautiful, wooded banks of the River Tyne. Here, we have a wonderful view of the ruins of Hailes Castle. However, don’t be too complacent and think that you have found a peaceful refuge because, in Scotland, it is known that various spirits and magical creatures are often found near and within bodies of water.

Lastly, we are excited to include the following video where you can do a 360-degree VR (where you can control the camera) exploration of Hailes Castle (make sure to turn up the volume for added ghostly ambience):

Video Credit: Haunted Scotland

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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