The Phantom of Loch Leys
Our story is set in a castle that no longer stands on an island, that is no longer an island, in a loch that is no longer a loch….
By David White
This is a story I first read in a book by Fenton Wyness, that book being Legends of North East Scotland (1970). This book was in turn based on his earlier books from the 1940s, The Books Of Legends duology. The story, however, is much older, and believed to date back to the mid-16th century.
Our story is set in a castle that no longer stands on an island, that is no longer an island, in a loch that is no longer a loch. The ancient castle of the Burnetts stood proud against the elements on a small island in what was then the Loch of Leys and it is here with the not yet 17 year old Laird Alexander Burnett, the 9th Laird of Leys, that our tragic story unfolds.
The Lady Agnes, mother to the young Laird, had managed the barony since the 8th Laird’s untimely passing 11 years past. She was a strong and regal woman, but also shrewd and cunning as she needed to be to maintain her family’s position with the rivalling baronies. One evening, Lady Agnes’ servant came to her, informing her that a very distant relative, Sir Roger De Bernard, whose branch of the family had long since departed Scottish shores for France, was on the banks of the loch along with his daughter and a full retinue of staff. He sought to visit his ancestral homeland – a pastime still favoured by those of distant Scottish origin to this day. You see, Scotland has a pull for those that came from here, too much history, love, hate and dare I say, magic has been shared between Scotland and its people for it to be so easily diminished by a jaunt over the sea. In the case of our tale, however, Sir Roger’s visit was also, at least in part, due to trouble in France that may have put his family at rather unhealthy odds of being killed. Of course, Lady Agnes sent boats and greeted her guest, speaking fondly of the ancient ties between their people.
Sir Roger and his retinue stayed the night at the castle and upon the following evening were the guests at a feast thrown in their honour. When the time came for Sir Roger to give a speech, he did so with great gusto and concluded with a thanks and stated that while he must return to France to protect his interests, his daughter, Bertha, would remain. This was a statement the young Laird gladly welcomed for in the day he had spent with Bertha, he had grown rather fond of her, and when thanking Sir Roger for his kind words, he caught Bertha’s eye from across the room and saw she was beaming. Clearly, she too had enjoyed their time together. What the young Laird had not seen however, was the dark clouds that gathered in his mother’s eyes as she stared at Bertha with thinly veiled venom.
Lady Agnes was not a bad person. No, she would be delighted for her darling son to fall in love and marry… so long as the girl was a daughter of one of the Lords of Lorne. Unfortunately, Bertha didn’t quite make the cut but for this evening, she said nothing. As the days and weeks went by, as expected, the Laird and Bertha grew closer and closer while Lady Agnes’ concern and anger at the situation grew and grew. After a while, it was evident to everyone, including Bertha, that Lady Agnes resented her deeply. Lady Agnes had tried in vain over the weeks since Bertha’s arrival to entire the young Laird with other high-born ladies. She threw banquets with various Lords of Lorne as guests in the hope the Young Laird’s attentions would drift. But, alas, no other matched the charm, wit, and beauty of our French maiden, Bertha.
Lady Agnes could not, alas, prevent the young Laird from seeing Bertha for he was now a man and head of the family, and even if she sought to intimidate Bertha directly, the Laird was never more than a few steps behind her, shooing her away from Bertha any time her temper started to fray. But, there came a day the young Laird had to go away to meet the Abbott of Arbroath in order to resolve a land dispute. Such things could take a while to resolve, but he did his best to assure Bertha he would be back in due course. Not quite believing him, and in any event not wanting to cross paths with Lady Agnes, Bertha resolved to lock herself in her room until the Laird’s return. The weeks passed and the Laird did not return and Bertha, now mixed with anguish for her love and fear of Lady Agnes, still refused to leave her room or see anyone. As the weeks turned into months, and the season changed, Bertha grew frail and ill. Still the Laird did not return.
One misty June morning, the Laird did return and having got the boat to the island, expected to be greeted in royal fashion, but to his astonishment, there was no one in sight. As he approached the front of the keep, he still heard nothing, saw no one, until he reached the throne room. There, he saw before him a quiet room full of stony-faced people, and in the centre a bier bearing the lifeless corpse of his love. The Laird quickly reached for a goblet of wine resting on a windowsill in order to steady his nerves, but before the wine could even touch his lips, Lady Agnes dashed the goblet from his hand, its contents flying through the open window. It soon became apparent to the Laird, from his mother’s actions and the subsequent glance she made between the splatters of wine that fell short of the window and Bertha’s corpse, that his love had been poisoned.
The Laird mourned for a time but, being young and full of life, the memory of Bertha soon began to fade. It was not until the sudden appearance of Sir Roger a year later that it all came flooding, as raw as it had been the day he had returned from Arbroath. Sir Roger had heard of his daughter’s untimely passing and its cause, and unlike the castle servants, who would not accuse Lady Agnes of any wrongdoing (unless they were several drinks down in the tavern), Sir Roger was not so shy. He bowled into the Great Hall unannounced and accused Lady Agnes of Bertha’s murder. As Lady Agnes stood to protest Sir Roger’s damning accusations, a cool air swept the hall. The candles flickered and the banners moved. Lady Agnes stared, eyes fixed on the door, as she let out a scream, “She comes! She comes!” Then, with a witch-like cackle, she fell to the floor, dead.
Once a year at midnight, it is said that a ghostly figure of a woman rises from the site of the old castle and glides across the land to the new Crathes Castle built by the Laird, in an attempt to escape the cursed events of the old keep. Some say the ghost is Bertha’s, venturing from the place of her untimely death to see the beautiful new castle commissioned by the lover. Others say it is the ghost of Lady Agnes, damned to walk this mortal plane for eternity in repentance for her evil deed.