Last week, I kicked off my blog series about the folklore that inspired my short story, “Jenny Redcape,” by giving a general rundown on redcaps. This week, we’ll revisit the subject to talk about two famous redcaps in particular.
In my last post, I explained that redcaps dwell in places of bloodshed along the Scottish-English border. Well, there are fewer places where more blood has been shed than Hermitage Castle. Called the “guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Britain,” it overlooked a territory frequently afflicted by violence. But according to legend, it wasn’t just the chaos in the surrounding territory that contributed to the castle’s bloody legacy. In the 1300’s, Hermitage Castle was ruled by Lord William Soulis (or de Soules). Referred to as “Terrible William” or “Bad Lord Soulis,” he was believed to be a practitioner of the black arts who made a deal with the devil for the fulfillment of his desires and conjured infernal spirits to do his bidding. Rumor had it that children in the area disappeared during his reign, never to be seen again. Slaughtered, perhaps, during his lordship’s dark rituals. It was said that the weight of the sins committed in the castle pushed it deeper into the earth, as if Hermitage Castle, itself, sought to hide from the eyes of God.
One poem recounts how the Chief of Keeldar stumbled upon Hermitage Castle while he and his men were out hunting, and Lord Soulis invited them in to feast. No sooner had they settled in to enjoy his hospitality than did the nefarious lord double-cross his guests, casting a spell that locked the chief’s men into an eternal slumber. Somehow, the chief managed to escape both the spell and the castle, fleeing into the forest. Lord Soulis and his men pursued him. Upon catching up with him, they discovered that their weapons could not pierce his armor, so they drowned him, instead. The body of water that served as the scene of the crime is still known as the Cout O’Keeldar’s pool.
But of course, Lord Soulis couldn’t cause all this mischief on his own. He had supernatural forces to aid him in his misdeeds. Chief among the spirits Lord Soulis conjured to do his dirty work was Robin Redcap, who served as his familiar and adviser. Most famously, the redcap cast a charm to protect him from being harmed by steel weapons. According to a poem recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s Mistrelsy of the Scottish Border, the redcap promised Lord Soulis:
While thou shalt bear a charmed life,
And hold that life of me,
‘Gainst lance and arrow, sword and knife,
I shall thy warrant be.
Nor forged steel nor hempen band
Shall e’er thy limbs confine,
Till threefold ropes of sifted sand
Around thy body twine.
Unfortunately, the loophole in the redcap’s guaranty came to pass, as such prophetic loopholes often do. (Just ask Macbeth.) There are varying accounts of how this happened. One ballad claimed that Lord Soulis kidnapped a flaxen-haired beauty named May of Goranberry with the intention of forcing her into marriage. He also abducted her beloved, the heir to Branxholm. After taunting sweet May with the promise of seeing the man she loved serving as her bridesman in her wedding to Lord Soulis, the sorceous nobleman took Branxholm’s heir out into the forest to force him to choose a tree to be hanged from. The young lord took his time choosing, stalling just long enough for his brother to catch up. The subsequent confrontation proved to be Lord Soulis’ undoing.
There are also versions of the legend in which the locals became tired of Lord Soulis’ tyranny and sent petitioners to the Scottish king. Annoyed by their complaints, the king told them dismissively, “Boil him, if you please, but let me hear no more of him.” Too late, the king regretted his hasty words and sent his messengers to make sure that the petitioners did not act upon them. However, his messengers arrived too late to do anything but witness Lord Soulis’ demise in the very manner the king had suggested.
Regardless of who participated in Lord Soulis’ downfall, you might be wondering how they managed to circumvent the redcap’s protection. The answer, of course, is that they fought fire with fire. Among those confronting Lord Soulis was Thomas of Ercildoune, who was also a magician. He used a leaden belt filled with sand to bind Lord Soulis. Once the dark sorcerer was subdued, he was borne to a circle of druidic stones known as Nine Stane Rig. There, as a poem in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border recounts:
On a circle of stones they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine;
They heated it red and fiery hot,
Till the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him in the cauldron red,
And melted him, lead, and bones, and all.
Following his grisly death, it is said that Lord Soulis came to haunt the castle, where the screams of the children he murdered still echo. What’s more, a poem recounts that before he departed his castle for the last time, he threw the keys of the castle over his left shoulder to Robin Redcap, committing the castle to the redcap’s keeping. It is said that Robin Redcap still lurks there, guarding treasure, and that the door to the chamber where Lord Soulis used to commune with his evil spirits opens every seven years to let him out.
While the ballads tell an epic tale, the truth is somewhat less magical. History reflects that Lord William Soulis did not die at the hands of angry peasants rising up against his cruelty, not was he bound by a magician and warriors who were saving an innocent heir from murder. Rather, he was caught conspiring to overthrow Robert the Bruce and crown himself the new king of Scotland. In punishment, his lands and titles were stripped away and he was locked up in Dumbarton Castle, where he ultimately died. Nonetheless, Sir Walter Scott found the legends surrounding Hermitage Castle so compelling that the castle was used in the background in his 1808 portrait painted by Sir Henry Raeburn.
These days, Hermitage Castle is said to be one of the most haunted places in Britain. Not only must visitors beware of Robin Redcap and Bad Lord Soulis, but other ghosts are known to wander its halls. After Lord Soulis’ reign, Hermitage Castle eventually passed into the hands of Sir William Douglas. Sir Douglas had a rival, Sir Alexander Ramsay, who was appointed sheriff of Teviotdale. Sir Douglas was incensed when Sir Ramsay flaunted his power and position by holding court near Sir Douglas’ territory. Sir Douglas responded by abducting Sir Ramsay and imprisoning him in the dungeons of Hermitage Castle. There, Sir Ramsay starved to death, his life miserably prolonged by the occasional bit of gain that drifted into the dungeon from the castle granary upstairs. To this day, some say that the hungry ghost of Sir Ramsay can be seen in the castle.
Mary Queen of Scots has also put in some post-mortem appearances at Hermitage Castle. Her connection to the castle is slight but significant—it is where her beloved, James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, was taken to recover when he was wounded in a nearby skirmish. Despite the fact that she was still married to Lord Darnley and the scandalous nature of her relationship with the earl, the queen rushed to the earl’s side from 25 miles away. After her visit was over and she was leaving the castle, her horse stumbled into a bog. She almost died from the resulting fever. Perhaps she still visits Hermitage in the hopes of finding her beloved beneath its roof once more.
As dark as the legacy of William Soulis and his redcap familiar might be, there is another famous redcap with a far more benevolent nature—the redcap of Grandtully Castle in Perthshire. He is said to grant good fortune to those who see and hear him. Why he differs so drastically from his more unsavory kin, no one seems to know. Nonetheless, that’s at least one redcap that doesn’t necessitate a warding Bible verse. For a picture of the redcap’s tower, click here.
All in all, the folklore surrounding the redcaps is bleak and violent. Theirs is a magic conjured from murder, powered by blood, and associated with at least one reviled legendary figure. However, in writing my short story, “Jenny Redcape,” I drew inspiration from the bad, but use it to reach something good. This story was inspired by the redcap habit of washing clothing in the blood of the slain. Only, for Jenny, is it a matter of justice, not mischief. Jenny seeks revenge for those murdered innocents who conjure her with a dying breath, but she feels a deep compassion and empathy for those she serves. While Jenny’s story is not without violence, it is also about bearing the burden of bloodshed, and coming to terms with having been a victim, herself. During the course of her story, an unlikely friendship becomes a light in the darkness of her legend.
But you can find out all about that when the story is released on July 20, 2017. Until then, stay tuned! I’ve got more bloggy goodness coming up. Next week, I’ll delve deeper into the folkloric inspiration behind “Jenny Redcape” by blogging about the historical roots and various permutations of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
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Scott, Walter. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Vol. 3. Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne, for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme. 1810. Print. (As featured by Project Gutenberg.)