Gordon of Huntly arms

The author of this poem was Lord Esmé Gordon, fifth son of the 10th Marquess of Huntly, Chief of Clan Gordon, (whose arms appear above). He wrote it during the Christmas house party at Aboyne Castle in 1893.

Birse Castle is on Deeside in Aberdeenshire.

THE WEALTH OF LEGEND and the impossibility of separating with certainty truth from fancy have given Highland lore a unique fascination. Old tales mingled with modern imagination and retailed in the dark hours still entrance their listeners.

One such is this story of Birse Castle. Despite its author's total disregard for any pretence of authenticity (such as Sir Walter Scott would have attempted), it has a certain charm and is worth preserving.

The castle of Birse in Aberdeenshire, just across the Dee from Aboyne, once belonged to the Gordons of Cluny, and perhaps earlier to the 1st Lord Forbes (who received part of the Forest of Birse from Elizabeth Keith, whose daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Seton and was mother to the subsequent line of Gordon chiefs).

The lands of Birse were held by the Bishops of Aberdeen from the mid-12th century, Lindsays of Beaufort and Gordons of Huntly subsequently acting for them as hereditary Baron-Bailies and doubtless fulfilling those duties from the castle.

Alexander Gordon of Strathaven, 3rd son of the 3rd Earl of Huntly, and brother to William Gordon, Bishop of Aberdeen, received the greater part of Birse while his brother was still in office, and while his father was Baron-Bailie. (After his father's death in 1524, he exchanged the lands of Strathaven for the barony of Cluny.)
Lord Forbes's arms
early Cheyne of Essleton arms
Lord Forbes
Chief of Clan Forbes
Harry Cheyne
of Essleton (15th C.)
Gordon of Cluny arms
attributed Lindsay of Beaufort arms
Alexander Gordon
of Cluny (16th C.)
Sir David Lindsay
of Beaufort (15th C.)
The date of the imagined incident, 400 years, it is said, after the Birse lands first marched with the Aboyne lands of the Gordons, cannot be much earlier than the end of the 18th century, but this is far too late for the scene the poem describes. (In the early days the real Lairds of Birse were the Bishops.)
OLD PARCHMENTS lay before me, old deeds of men long dead,
Who took a deal of pains to write, and thought of what they said,
And among these time-worn papers of the property of Birse
There was one that set me thinking of a quaint old-fashioned curse.
The manuscript was blotched and old, the writing hard to read,
But this is what it meant to say, and this is all we need:
"Whene'er a laird of Birse shall die: on midnight of that day,
Death on a horse shall gallop up and bear his soul away."

So proudly reared the turrets once of that old stately pile,
Where bravery and honesty had dwelt so long a while,
And scarred and battered parapets bore witness of the ways
Its doors and walls were treated in the old invaders' days.
Alas, those walls are crumbling; alas, those doors are gone:
Its glory and its valour and its people all are done:
The nettle grows and flourishes where stood the festive board,
And owls and bats infest the halls where once dwelt Birse's lord.

There blares the sound of revelry, though near the hour of morn,
For forty years ago that day the Laird of Birse was born,
And all his friends for miles around to-day are gathered there,
To do honour to the house of Birse, and justice to its fare.
There are chieftains from the banks of Don and from the braes of Dee,
Hard men to meet in angry moods, but goodly men to see:
Forbes had proposed "His Country" and Esslemont "The King",
And Johnny Coutts of Castletown had just been asked to sing,
When from the table's further end there rose a mighty cheer,
For Huntly had arisen, Scotland's first and proudest peer:

"For twice two hundred years," he cried,
"Our lands have marched with Birse,
His folk and mine together fought for better or for worse,
And I am proud to rise tonight once more before you all,
And wish my neighbour happiness in his ancestral hall.
The history of our fathers has a glorious lesson taught,
For liberty and honour have they always boldly fought.
Look thro' the deeds of Scotland, at the souls for ever fled,
And find a man of all our clan of whom 'twas ever said,
He betrayed his king and country to further some design,
Then may my God curse every clod belonging me and mine.
And may we in the future, in the days that are to be,
When the years have dragged us downward, as the waters of the Dee
Cast the pine-stems of Glentana in the ocean's breast at last ~
May we look back with pleasure on a bright and peaceful past:
May we glide down life's long river with this one great aim in view:
To do unto our neighbours as we would wish them do."

Loud was the clink of glasses, and hearty the applause,
And then a silence seemed to fall for no apparent cause:
Whilst still the silence lasted there broke on every ear
The well-known sound, on the distant ground, of a horseman drawing near.
Clattering, clattering, clattering, nearer and nearer it grew,
And the strong and the hale turned stern and pale, for each the story knew:
Galloping, frenzedly galloping ~ each man put a hand to his dirk ~
The rider drew near to the Castle door, and stopped with a sudden jerk.
They heard the clank of heavy spurs as he mounted the granite stairs:
While squires and lords soft drew their swords, and quietly muttered prayers.
He paused at the door a moment ~ then loudly rang the bell,
While all seemed to feel it was no one real, but a messenger from Hell:
Or why did not someone answer the door ? Why did they not go see ?
But tho' each man heard, not a servant stirred to learn who this man might be.
Then up rose Grant of Dinnet. Fiercely hissed he, "By the powers,
No honest folk can brook a joke at these unseemly hours.
Now I, with your permission, will answer to this bell,
And short and sharp must the story be, this horseman has to tell:
Yea, by the Gods above me, and by my father's name,
'Twill be quickly said, or I'll strike him dead, and his not mine the blame."
With this he seized his claymore and passed into the hall,
And others rose to follow him ~ but Birse moved not at all:
He lay quite helpless in his chair, with face so set and pale.
Was it only the fear that his hour was near, and did he believe the tale ?
Now came the creak of a bolt shot back, and the fall of a heavy bar,
And a voice cried out, as the door flew back, "Now tell me who you are "
Only the hoot of an owl near to, only the wind in the trees,
Only a sigh from the brook hard by, only an icy breeze.

But the breeze passed on thro' the outer hall into the banquet-room,
It was the breath, they knew, of Death, now drawing a soul to its doom.
Slowly the guests returned to the hall, gently they bade good-night,
Yet not a word from the Laird was heard, and his hands were cold and white.
They bore him away from the banquet-room, his kinsfolk by his side,
But ere the dawn of the coming morn the Laird of Birse had died.
Never the prattle of children now, never a merry shout,
Weird are the calls in the old grey walls when the light of day goes out,
And herdsmen say that oftentimes, when fog enshrouds the moor,
They hear a horse spring up the course towards the Castle door:
There sounds the clanging of a bell, they see a flickering light,
And then two horsemen gallop on ~ far out into the night.


It is difficult now to assess whether Lord Esmé had a specific personality in mind for his Laird of Birse. As the scene is set many years later than is consistent with the "twice two hundred years" it is probable that he was not seeking a high degree of realism.

However, if we put the scene back two centuries or so, forget the Bishops and consider the Baron-Bailie as the Laird, then Sir David Lindsay of Beaufort could fill the rôle (although his age at his death is unknown).

Other names associated with the lands include Mackintosh, Grant and Farquharson ~ the first two renowned for using the forest of Birse as a safe haven from which to plunder the surrounding country. The Mackintosh clan, part of the great federation of Clan Chattan, claimed Birse, probably because they held it prior to it being granted to the Bishops of Aberdeen. As early as 1382, Bishop Adam complained to the King of the terror inspired by Ferchard M'yntoschy, grandson of the Mackintosh chief and progenitor of the Farquharsons of Finzean, and the King's response implicitly recognised grounds for a Macintosh claim to Birse. So perhaps a Farquharson could be the imaginary Laird. (Finzean is within the bounds of Birse.)

The text of Huntly's speech, which indicates clearly that the Laird of Birse was not of his own clan, eliminates the candidature of a Gordon of Cluny.

Others mentioned, and more easily recognised, are Forbes and Esslemont. The former can be only Lord Forbes; the latter, depending on the year assigned to the birthday feast, could be a Cheyne, William Keith of Ludquharne, Alexander Forbes of Pitsligo, or a Gordon. On balance, history favours a Cheyne.

The musical Johnny Coutts of Castletown and the intemperate Grant of Dinnet offer less for speculative thoughts. Castletown could be anywhere, and there were many Coutts forenamed John. Dinnet is on the Aboyne side of the Dee six miles upstream of Birse Castle.

Volume II ~ No. I ~ De Vere
Mists of Antiquity ~ Volume I
Volume II ~ No. II ~ Hay
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