Glamis Castle, in Scotland, is a famous place: a picture-postcard tourist destination, birthplace of the late-lamented Queen Mother Gawd Bless ‘Er™, and – not incidentally for the purposes of this blog – notoriously the most haunted ‘house’ in Britain. Any number of spook stories are associated with the castle, from tales of ghosts materializing in visitors’ bedrooms to the legend of the infamous Earl Beardie, the so-called “Tiger Earl” – a fifteenth century Earl of Crawford whose soul is said to have been claimed by the devil while he unrepentantly played cards at Glamis upon the Sabbath day.
Best known by far, however, is the strange story of the Monster of Glamis, which (thanks in large part to its vague royal associations) has some claim to be ranked among the more pervasive legends of the twentieth century. In its evolved form (and it took some time to evolve, as we will see), this legend relates how, in the early nineteenth century, the wife of the then heir to the Earl of Strathmore gave birth in the castle to an boy who was so hideously deformed that the family took the decision to lock the child away in a secret room, denying him the chance to succeed to the earldom. Malformed though he was, however, the hideous infant proved to be surprisingly long-lived. Supposedly he survived well into the twentieth century, dying only in the 1920s, and knowledge of his existence became the dark secret of the Strathmore family, passed down from father to son just before the boy came of age at 21. Aside from the present Earl and his son, the only other person privy to the secret was supposedly the family’s chief factor – the manager of the Glamis estate.
Several facts are usually adduced in support of the Monster’s existence. The malformed child is generally said to have been the first son of Thomas, Lord Glamis, who was the eldest son of the 11th Earl. Thomas married, in 1820, to a Hertfordshire girl named Mary Carpenter, and both Douglas’s Scots Peerage and Cockayne’s Complete Peerage state that the couple had a child, a boy, who was born and died on in October 1821. Next year they had another son, who they called Ben, then a third, named Claude, in 1824. So in the couple’s mysterious first son (whose existence was first ferreted out and made much of by the journalist Paul Bloomfield, who published an article on the Monster in The Queen magazine for December 1964) there is at least a candidate for the man who was the Monster, though certainly no proof that the boy survived, or was in any way disabled.
As for what happened next, I can do no better than to quote from the book in which first read the story of the Monster – Jacynth Hope-Simpson’s Who Knows?, a work for children (though a superior one) first published in 1974:
Ben became earl of the death of his grandfather in 1846. He married, but insisted on ‘refraining from parenthood,’ and for this or some other reason he and his wife separated. She died at the age of 28; according to her nephew’s wife of a ‘broken heart,’ but according to her sister of peritonitis. Ben died childless in 1865, so his brother Claude became the thirteenth Earl of Strathmore. He was, by all accounts, a kind, conscientious man, who was married with five children. From the day of his succession, three very strange things happened.
The first was a startling change in the new Earl himself, thought to date from his having been told the secret of Glamis. Apparently, not being an eldest son, he had not heard it before. He said to his wife that they had often joked about it together, but now, ‘I have been into the room, I have heard the secret, and if you wish to please me you will never mention the subject again.’ A famous gossip, Augustus Hare, who visited the house, commented on how happy and lively the family were. ‘Only Lord Strathmore himself had ever a sad look.’
The second happening was that a workman ‘became alarmed’ at something he saw along a passage near the chapel. The Earl was summoned from Edinburgh by telegram, and closely questioned the workman. ‘He and his family were subsidized and induced to emigrate.’ The third occurrence was a violent outbreak of haunting…
It is, perhaps, inevitable that stories like this should grow up in such a place, but now, in the 1860s, it was suddenly claimed that these phantoms had reappeared, almost as if they were trying the frighten the new owners away. The Bishop of Brechin heard of the haunting and offered to hold a service of exorcism. According to Augustus Hare, the Earl was deeply grateful, but said that ‘in his unfortunate position no-one could help him.’
arises in 1876. The heir, who was later to be the father of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, came of age and asked his father not to ‘initiate’ him into the family secret. Was it because he had seen the effect on his father, and did not feel he could not bear the burden himself? Or was it a way of announcing to anybody around Glamis who may have suspected the truth that the secret no longer existed: in other words, that the heir had died, and the Earl of Strathmore was truly the earl in his own right at last?
Not everybody agrees with this. It has even been suggested that the hidden-away heir lived on to an immense age, and did not die until the early 1920s. Because of this refusal to hear the secret, nobody now knows how to enter the secret room, for all who once knew are dead.
Thus the basic Glamis story, though there are various elaborations on it. The best known of these, certainly, relates that a party of houseguests at the castle once decided to make a search for its famous hidden room. Waiting until the Earl was absent, shooting, they took towels and hung one from each window in the building, then went outside to inspect their handiwork. A single window (some versions of the tale say four) was found to be unadorned. This story certainly goes back to the middle of Victoria’s reign, and a variant on it can be found in the New York Times for 17 April 1882. Another anecdote concerns a loyal retainer, Andrew Ralston, whom various legal records confirm was indeed the factor of the Glamis estate for many decades in the middle nineteenth century [cf. Scottish Law Review and Sheriff Court Reports for 1889, p.267]. Ralston, so this version of the legend goes, was initiated into the mystery, saw whatever there was to be seen, and was so discomfited by the experience that he refused thenceforth ever to spend a night in the castle again. On one occasion, after a heavy fall of snow, he is said to have refused an invitation to take a bed there and instead roused the servants and had them clear a path to his house, more than a mile away [Peter Underwood, Hauntings (1977) p.115]. It was also Ralston who – so it is said – was badgered into discussing Glamis’s secret with Frances, Countess of Strathmore, who was the 13th Earl’s wife and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The Countess – again according to legend – begged Ralston to reveal the secret to her, but the factor rebuffed her, saying “very gravely”: “It is fortunate that you do not know it and can never know it, for if you did know you would not be a happy woman.” This addition to the story was current as early as the late 1860s, and seems first to have been made by public by AMW Stirling in her autobiography Life’s Little Day (1924) p.326. Stirling attributes the Ralston story to an aunt who stayed at the castle in 1870 “and returned full of the mysteries, which she said had greatly increased since the decease of the previous owner in 1865.” The same account, mostly forgotten, was dug out and repackaged by the author Helen Cathcart in her 1965 biography of the Queen Mother.
Now, mention of Helen Cathcart brings us on to a noteworthy aspect of the Glamis story. Keen-eyed readers will have spotted that we seem to know an awful lot about a deadly secret said to have been vouchsafed only to a tight-knit group of people – a secret not known even to the Lyons family, who supplied the Earls of Glamis, after the 13th Earl expired in 1904. Where, then, did the tale of the Monster come from? Who told the story first, and why?
The answer to this question, oddly, is that the source was almost certainly members of the Lyons clan itself. James Wentworth-Day, the author who first put the full tale into circulation in his The Queen Mother’s Family Story (1967), states that he had his information from “a member of the Queen Mother’s family” [Wentworth-Day pp.133-36], and a number of writers have speculated that his informant was actually the Queen Mother herself. Wentworth-Day’s material is certainly dramatic, and his picture of the Monster is quite detailed: “His chest an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toylike.” The question of quite where his informant obtained his or her information, however, remains unaddressed. If the 14th Earl really made certain that he never learned the secret, he could hardly have passed it to his son, who was the Queen Mother’s father. Knowledge of Glamis’s terrible secret should have died out long before Wentworth-Day’s sources could have learned of it, for it is hard to imagine one of the family’s factors – loyal servants, but servants just the same – forcing it back onto an unwilling lord.
There remains, also, a second puzzle, for though any number of sources touch on Glamis’s celebrated ‘secret’, those published during Victoria’s reign only rarely hint at the existence of a Monster. The mystery that was spoken of in hushed terms during the nineteenth century was generally a different one, for though the existence of a hidden room with the castle walls was widely rumoured, even then, it was then believed to conceal not a living creature, but rather the grisly evidence of an ancient crime. According to this now mostly forgotten portion of the legend, a large party of Ogilvies, members of a rival clan, once sought sanctuary from their enemies at Glamis, only to be betrayed and murdered there. In this version of the castle’s story, the fugitive Ogilvies were shown into the hidden chamber, then barricaded in and left to starve. Their skeletons, still scattered on the floor, were the secret that the Lyons family was so anxious to conceal.
Several versions of the Ogilvy story were published during Victoria’s reign – in T.F. Thistleton Dyer’s Strange Pages From Family Papers (1900) pp.98-103, for instance, and in Chambers’s Journal for 1898, pp.627-8 – and similar accounts can still occasionally be found today. On the whole, though, one’s impression is that the Glamis saga is one in which an existing legend has transmuted,over a period of years, into another, and the date when this change happened is the greatest clue to what occurred. For if the Ogilvy account was prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, it was apparently replaced quite early in the twentieth by the Monster story, and this shift coincides quite nicely with the death of Earl Claude – supposedly the last Lyons initiate – and the succession of his son, who never knew the family secret.
There seems no doubt that there was a good deal of confusion, and a great deal of gossip, concerning the precise particulars of the Glamis “mystery”, especially late in the nineteenth century, and this certainly suggests that the potential existed for old stories to be perverted and new ones conjured up purely for the purposes of entertainment. Lord Ernest Hamilton, who stayed at Glamis as a schoolboy during the early 1870s, makes this unexpected facet of the problem quite explicit in a book of memoirs, Old Days and New (1923) p.248, in which he states that for “years after” the “delightful visits” he made there as a boy
the slightest allusion to my visit in the drawing-room or dining-room would instantly surround me with a bevy of gaping, palpitating open-mouthed maidens who eyed me with a sort of reverential awe which was quite gratifying to my youthful vanity. “Had I seen the ghost?” “Did Lord Strathmore wear a terrified, hunted look?” “Was it true that none of the family smiled except on Tuesdays?” etc. etc.
Hamilton insists that he never gave in to the temptation to embroider his experiences (“It was, I cannot deny, with a certain feeling of regret that I was forced to deprive these poor maidens of all these pleasing fantasies”), but it does not seem too unlikely that other visitors to Glamis encountered the same high levels of interest in their experiences there, and yielded to very similar pleadings.
Is it possible, then, that the story of the Monster, with all its baroque elements so redolent of fiction (ghastly creatures concealed in hidden rooms being a feature of dozens of well-known books, from The Mysteries of Udolpho to Jane Eyre) was simply an invention, conjured up in the imaginations of the castle’s visitors or by members of the Lyons family as they conjectured what their long-forgotten ‘secret’ might have been? The Queen Mother, after all, was an infamous gossip, and one source that I uncovered in the course of my research strongly suggests that the latter solution to the Glamis saga deserves a closer look. In the autumn of 1905 – very soon, in other words, after the death of the 13th Earl – the Lyons’s played host to another Scottish noble: David Lindsay, the urbane Earl of Crawford. And Crawford – who very fortunately kept a detailed diary – not only noted the “phenomenal ignorance” that his hosts displayed of even quite recent family history, but also observed the delight that the Lyons’s took in spinning supernatural tales, “inventing stories to suit the idiosyncrasies of each guest.” His diary for that visit records:
And the mystery of the hidden room at Glamis? After a few hours with the Lyons family, Crawford thought he knew the answer to that puzzle too.
[Source: The Crawford Papers: The Journals of David Lindsay, Twenty-Seventh Earl of Crawford… during the years 1892-1940 (Manchester University Press, 1984) pp.86-87]