Youngblood Blog

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Phantom’s Child and the Scent of Roses

PHANTOM’S CHILD

Fyvie eastern front, showing contrast between older apartments and Seton's grand front

‘FYVYNS riggs and towers
Hapless shall your mesdames be,
When ye shall hae within your methes,
From harryit kirk’s land, stanes three–
Ane be in Preston’s tower,
Ane be in my lady’s bower,
And ane below the water-yett,
And it ye shall never get.’
Thomas the Rhymer

In November last year a group of us writers decided to take part in the NaNoWriMo marathon: a project to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. One of the carrots dangled before our writerly eyes — slaving over our Muse-filled computers — was the offer by Amazon’s CreateSpace that ‘winners’ who reached the target would have their novels published by them: one proof copy provided free. Too good to be true. Several of my blogging friends took part and we had until June 30th 2010 (today) to edit, rewrite, get feedback on and submit the resulting MS. It was truly a marathon. I and a number of my blogging buddies miraculously succeeded in reaching the wordcount. Below is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my entry: ‘Phantom’s Child’. Another was featured on this blog back in November last year. The evocative bookcover (shown below) was designed by my talented illustrator friend Joris Ammerlaan. Thank you, Joris.

A haunting scent of roses follows Lady Lillias

‘I AM not as I appear. I have taken many forms. The greatest of these is the one they call the Greene Ladye, but I am many. I have always lived, never died. It is my wraith they see in the drawing room, but my spirit is abroad for all Time. I cannot die.’

History is a strange thing: its tellers and retellers say one thing, historians in books something else. Mother’s tale had such immediacy, such clarity; I might have been there with her.

Kings, queens and courts of old had royal bards recite their oral history. This clever method of continuity made the past sound real. In the earliest times, when only clerics and kings could write, it served a dual purpose: to keep tradition alive (books and manuscripts could be burned and stolen), and to instill in the young a pride and knowledge of their heritage, so that they, too, would pass on a love of nationhood to their children.

Mother’s tale had such tragedy and yet it was full of poignant meaning, I didn’t want her to stop. At first I had no idea why she was discovered searching the Fyvie Charter Room for what I thought was the wedding dress of her ancestor at Straloch. It was only after some details emerged that I knew, not only was she living the life of her Straloch ancestor in her mind. She was being dragged through the minds of all her ancestors; my ancestors; through a long line of past lives.

Dame Lillias Drummond, the wraith who haunts the Ladye's Bower

I have since wondered whether she has passed on to me the ability she expressed that fateful day in the car on the way home with the boys. They were quite oblivious, lost in their ‘I Spy’.

I have many times since then felt myself in my mind standing in a room I do not recognize. If I had been able to ask Mother, I would have tried to find out what to expect. As it turned out, her need to express the tale was so vital, her slight frame shaking throughout, it was beyond us to make her stop. And after the tale was told, I’d already lost my opportunity.

Mother was already in the realm of the ancestors, caressed by their timeless fingers – a flimsy ribbon of time and space, of genealogy and upbringing – which holds the family together.

* * * * * * *

OF course I’d heard of the Fyvie curse. We all had. Many families in the Shire had similar stories. When your family tree is a product of generations of intermarriage and strategic connections, there’s bound to be an overlap. It’s understandable.

Fyvie started out as a domain of kings. Even before 1200 there were royal charters. But in the mists of unrecorded time, local knowledge, a few recopied Pictish Chronicles, and placenames in the countryside were all one had to go on. We knew there was a Pictish royal settlement, nay, even a royal lineage through the female line there, but records were sparse.

The only real window, though, the window of history, had some significant dates.

One I learned at school was the event with ‘all-the-2s’: Alexander II of Scotland held his court there on February 2nd 1222. He was not the only king to make his residence in the turreted stone keep. William I ‘the Lion’ was there before him and probably had something to do with the earlier curse – the curse of the weeping stones.

Mother was less concerned about the stones and more about the second part of its pronouncement,: that, as these displaced sacred boulders would never be found, the ladies of Fyvie would be cursed forever; to survive in the knowledge that they could not bear sons who would live to reach maturity.

I doubt whether the original builder realized he was desecrating sacred ground when he took three stones to build the first stone tower. It’s called the Preston Tower, but it was standing long before that family owned Fyvie in the early 15th century.

Mother didn’t concern herself with such details. She said she was sure it was a Pictish citadel before the Normans took it over in the 12th century, and the Picts hadn’t moved the stones, because they held sacred heritage dear. So it couldn’t have been them.

I guessed the Normans — after 1066 — were the culprits. It’s a long time for a lineage to pay the price of something as simple as moving three sacred boundary stones from Churchlands and building a tower on top of one of them. But that, it seems, is what caused the curse.

And while two of the stones have been found — one in the foundations of the Preston Tower and one residing in a bowl of its own tears in the Charter Room where Mother was caught red-handed — the third is never going to come to light. Thomas the Rhymer, author of the sad song of ‘hapless mesdames’, was fairly clear on that.

Mother said he had it in for Fyvie because he thought they were inhospitable and slammed the great door in his face.

‘But it was only the wind.’ She spoke in a whisper, as if she remembered the day personally.

Great Iron Yett swung shut when Thomas the Rhymer approached

‘Thomas of Ercildoune. Berwickshire was his home. What he was doing up this way, I cannot fathom.’ She continued. ‘He liked to think he was a seer of sorts. He warned Fyvie of his visit, and admonished them to keep the yett open, but it took him two years to arrive. I imagine by that time they’d forgotten or were concerned with other things. He was singing ballads and pronouncing oaths and prophecies at the feast tables of all the nobles between Edinburgh and the North. Anyway, when he finally arrived, a fierce storm arose and the winds caused the great iron yett to slam shut before he reached it. They say, too, that while the castle was surrounded by a vortex of high wind, he stood in a pool of calm just a stone’s throw away.’

His curse certainly had a far-reaching effect. Not just through time in this amazing place, but through generations of families in other houses in the county as well.

It was common knowledge in our circle that since 1433, the castle, its lands and its title of barony had failed to descend through the firstborn son. Since the mid-fifteenth century until it was purchased by the National Trust for Scotland in 1984, the firstborn male of every generation at Fyvie died. The castle changed hands too. So the curse wasn’t family-specific. Mother made me remember that. Or rather, she used to tell me: ‘it goes with the family AND with the house.’

That meant the female line was cursed too, even if it married into another line.

I was never very sure — until that day in the car — whether our family had Fyvie links or not. But now I am certain of it. And, if you believe in curses – and this one seems ironclad – there isn’t much one can do about it.

In 1290 it was king Robert III of Scotland who gave Fyvie to Henry Preston, whose tower remains. He had no male heir, so the castle changed hands through marriage in 1433, passing with Preston’s eldest daughter to the Meldrums. It is known that they did indeed build the second tower to mirror the first.

Their firstborn son died.

However, as the Meldrums had houses elsewhere, they chose not to live at Fyvie and somehow escaped the curse for a generation or two.

The Meldrums sold Fyvie to the Setons, another great Northeast family with houses all round the county. Sir Alexander Seton, first earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of Scotland who bought it in 1596 had no time for the curse; his dreams of creating a dynasty did not include ‘such nonsense’, Mother said; and he began plans to make it an architectural masterpiece.

Alexander Seton's great south front at Fyvie

His building of the grand southern front which greets visitors today, was inspired by castles he had visited in the Loire and valley of the Rhône, and his vision was truly spectacular. He consolidated the south front with a five-storey wing connecting both the Preston and Meldrum towers and built a great extended work of staterooms and offices stretching out back toward the North. His glorious south façade culminated in central twin towers which greeted his famous guests and royal visitors: it is this Great Entrance which is called the Seton Tower. In dividing his time between the court in Edinburgh, a palace in Dunfermline and creating such grandeur in Aberdeenshire, he had little time for his wife and four daughters. He had no male heir.

‘It was during his grandiose schemes that time passed and he forgot about me.’

I jumped. I had forgotten Mother was still consumed by her persona as one of the Fyvie ladyes: Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me to ask which of the ‘hapless mesdames‘ of the castle had become the one with which she identified the most.

'Phantom's Child', 2009 NaNo winner picked up by Amazon CreateSpace publishing arm

So it was Lady Lillias Drummond, wife of Alexander Seton, later to be known as the ‘Greene Ladye’.

I might have known. Lillias was a sad soul. She gave him five daughters, all hale, healthy, nubile and ready to marry into the best families of the land. But because of his position, or perhaps because he had to prove that the curse was no match for his power and wealth, he wanted a male heir. The long awful tale began with his plan to marry another.

In order to do that, however, he had to be rid of Lillias.

‘I was too strong. He couldn’t poison me and, while he tried, he was unable to starve me to death. I died of a broken heart.’ I’d read many versions of the tale, but wanted to hear it from Mother’s lips.

Lillias heard of her husband’s plan to marry Grizel Leslie and gave up early in 1601. Her husband had her locked in her bower, the so-called Murder Room, and fed her gruel. They said she died there and her body was left to decay. Another story is told of her being walled up in a secret panel. However, Mother was not going to let me dwell on details.

‘He left me there to die, but for the sake of decency, did not take a second wife until October of that year. I was in my room from May till October.’ She made her own death sound quite surreal; her disembodied voice came from another layer of reality. ‘Only on their wedding night, I declared I’d had enough of the charade. He needed to be punished. He did not believe in the curse. He and Grizel were going to have a son, whatever happened to me. I made sure they remembered their act was murder. I stalked them that night. I stalk them still.’

The tale is told to present-day Fyvie visitors that on the night of October 27th 1601 the newly-wed couple had to spend their wedding night in the bedchamber above the Charter room in the old tower, because the new apartments Alexander was decorating for his bride in the Seton Tower were not yet finished. They were disturbed by strange scratching sounds outside their bedroom window, accompanied by heavy sighs which went on through the night. In the morning they discovered a name scratched on the outside window sill upside-down:

‘D. LILIES DRUMMOND’.

As the bedchamber is on the fourth storey, fifty feet above ground in the old defensive wall which has no footholds, it was thought the carving might only be achieved by someone with powers of levitation — or the ghost now called the Greene Ladye.

Mother loved this part of the story. I know she liked being Lillias. She said it was because she has free rein to wander throughout the apartments at night, as she did when she was mistress, but I think it is something simpler.

Lillias always left the room with a lingering scent of roses

Mother always loved her garden and roses were her particular favourite. Whenever I found her in latter years, she had, season permitting, a rosebud in her hand. Lillias, or the Greene Ladye, has been seen by many Fyvie custodians. She is one of their favourite ghosts. And whenever there is a chance encounter, or one of the guides or visitors feels a presence over his shoulder, it is usually accompanied by the scent of roses as the apparition moves through the room.

Mother read my thoughts.

‘Yes,’ she said. I am glad. They took my home, my children and my life. But I was able to bring my roses.’ She smiled and I was certain that she was right. For a moment, in the old family car filled with noise, childish laughter and song, on Mother’s last drive from the coast to the security of home I was sure I smelled the scent of roses.
©2010 Marian Youngblood
This is an excerpt from one of the chapters of Marian Youngblood’s forthcoming historical novel ‘Phantom’s Child’, published by Amazon CreateSpace

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June 30, 2010 - Posted by | authors, belief, culture, history, novel, Prehistory, publishing, traditions, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Such a spellbinding, magical mystery that I wanted to keep reading. I loved how you brought the mothers intensity, spirit & knowledge through. I think this is a A+++. Kudos my beloved friend. Your eternal RoseBud ;~)

    Comment by Annie | July 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. awww darling Annie – THANK you for visiting and saying such lovely things – coming from you, it means a lot. You can tell I had fun writing this one! Bless you & Lily for reading.
    My proof copy of Phantom’s Child arrived yesterday!! I couldn’t believe how excited I was to hold it in my hand…I knew each page (electronically) but the real copy was something else. Now have to make sure there are absolutely NO typos etc before I OK it to go on Amazon. Can’t really believe it’s happening…

    Comment by siderealview | July 21, 2010 | Reply


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