The Twins of Edzell
Now the villagers were suspicious of outsiders but courteous enough. She had married into a well-respected local family, and soon people began coming to Jess to have their fortunes read.
By Cara Silversmith
Many years ago, in the time of Robert the Bruce, the county of Angus was a rich and verdant land. Thick forests of oak, ash, yew, pine and birch covered the landscape. In these forests wandered the red deer, much bigger than the ones we have on our hills now. Stags with antlers as wide as a man is tall. If you walked under this canopy of green you would be greeted by a symphony of bird song. There were the ever present signs of wild boar, beaver, and of course the wolves…
Through these woods every year came wandering the travellers. Bringing their stories and songs, working on farms and in the villages before vanishing once more into the wild places. Their appearance marked the seasons of the year. And while they were outsiders, some got to know the farming families they worked with. One young woman, Jess, arrived in Edzell with her family year after year ever since she was a small girl. Over this time she had built a relationship with one of the young farmers of the district. When they were both of age Jess agreed to be his wife and turned her back on the roaming life to settle, to lay roots and become bound to place.
Now the villagers were suspicious of outsiders but courteous enough. She had married into a well-respected local family, and soon people began coming to Jess to have their fortunes read. Who will I marry? When will my son return home? Will the harvest be plentiful this year? and so on. Jess would think for a while then give an answer. Most of the time it would come to pass just, as she’d said. People would also come for maybe for a little love potion or two, or something to lift the spirits on dark days. She and her man were happy. They worked their little farm and Jess got to know all the best spots in the woods to gather her herbs and to find solace in the comfort of the trees.
Eventually, Jess and her husband were expecting their first child and a happier couple you could not meet. Everyone commented on how Jess was radiating joy. However this joy did not last long, shortly before Jess was due to start her confinement her husband was killed in a terrible accident on his way back from the mill. The villagers were shocked and poor Jess was left alone to await the birth of her babe. She did not have to wait long and before the village talk had moved away from the death of her husband she gave birth to not one, but two boys.
Beautiful twin boys with a shock of red hair and a birthmark each. One boy had the mark covering one side of his face, the other had the same mark across his forehead right down to his eyes. Now Jess loved her boys with a fierce passion and would glare at anyone who made a comment about their strange appearance. With two new mouths to feed however she soon had to take on extra work. She turned to what she knew, weaving baskets, making pegs, collecting herbs and offering potions and treatments to the local inhabitants.
As the boys grew it became clear that they were both deaf. They could not hear a word, nor speak one. Jess taught them to communicate through signs they made with their hands and the villagers found it strange to watch them talking through movements. Then the rumours started. There was some sort of magic at work in that family, they were not to be trusted. Jess heard the rumours of course, and worried for her two boys, so she taught them to fight. She taught them to hunt and learn the ways of the woods should they ever need it. Sir Crawford of Edzell Castle also heard the rumours and gave the family money from time to time, because their father had died, although it was probably to make sure he kept on the right side of them just in case.
The boys both grew big and strong. As they grew Jess worried about them a little less because they could take on anyone who would dare to challenge them. But nothing stopped the rumours or the increasing jealousy of the local lads. The boys were better hunters than anyone else in the area and resentment only made them less welcomed.
Now about the time the twins were coming of age a new wolf pack had arrived in the area. Whereas the wolves who usually roamed back and forth between the glens and the mountain were wary of the people and chased the scattered herds of deer, these wolves were bolder and hungrier. They had mixed with the wild dogs on the battlefields of the fallen. When the bodies dried up they started raiding farms, killing livestock, and on one or two occasions children. One night the pack fell on the king’s sheep and a call went out for all the lairds in the area to raise a band of their best huntsmen to track down and kill this pack of marauding wolves. Sir Crawford called on all men who had use of a weapon to come and help with the wolf hunt and all the young men of the village appeared at the castle gate with fine spears and javelins. As the band was making to leave the twins walked up, with no fine spears, just a rough woven sack over each of their shoulders and a small dagger in their belts. The men all laughed at them and their lack of weaponry and strange birthmarks, but Crawford knew there was more to them than met the eye and welcomed them into the hunting party.
All day the party hunted for the wolves and eventually they were spotted on the north flank of the White Caterthun. The men fanned out to block the wolves’ escape and Crawford’s dogs were sent forward to attack. But the wolves were too strong and they sunk their yellow teeth into the dogs, ripping their throats and killing them. The men threw their fine spears but the wolves were too swift and each one failed to find a target. Eventually, the twins signalled that everyone should hold their positions and they crept forward silently through the forest to a small clearing where the wolves had been chased to. There they swung down their packs and opened them, out flew seven hawks who flew up and circled before descending with outstretched talons grabbing the wolves by the head and neck drawing blood before pecking out their eyes. The wolves bayed and howled, blinded and in confusion. The twins stepped forward and taking their daggers from their belts they slit the throat of each wolf. Crawford and his men stood aghast. They had never seen the like. At the end of the day, Crawfords party was weighed down with the furs of all those wolves while other lairds and their parties were lucky to have caught one or two. Crawford of Edzell and his men were the undoubted champions and gained great favour from the King.
The twins were handsomely rewarded and offered a place in the castle as part of the household, acting as chief hunters to the Laird. But Crawford and the villagers never really extended the hand of friendship to the twins or their mother, they remained outsiders and the rumours, along with the jealousy of the other men grew.
As time went by another rumour started, that the twins were doing their own illegal hunting and selling venison to smaller settlements in the area. Crawford had them watched day and night. However it is not easy to catch such skilled hunters, they came and went on silent feet evading those who were watching them.
One night, one stormy night in late September Sir Crawford and his wife held a dance to celebrate the harvest and everyone from the village attended, except for the twins and their mother Jess. In their absence, all minds turned to them, who were these strange people who never came to any of the village events, who kept to themselves and knew magic. Some of the Estate workers decided to do a bit of their own spying and set out for the twins’ cottage. Before long they were back with the Twins tied up in front of them. They told Crawford they had seen the twins emerge from the woods with an enormous stag slung between them. And there was the stag with a single arrow in its heart. Crawford sent the twins to the castle dungeon until daybreak. You see, the punishment for hunting on the laird’s land without permission was death.
In the morning, despite the still raging storm, the twins were strung up and hung on the old oak tree overlooking the castle. Crawford and his wife looked on from the window while all the village folk came to cheer as the hangman did his work. At that moment Jess came running from the woods and begged for her sons to be cut down, but it was too late. She turned to Crawford and howled in fury cursing him and his wife to hell. She said they would know the pain of losing their own son and die agonising deaths. Crawford’s men tried to catch her up but she slipped from their grasp and disappeared into the forest to never be seen again. Later that day when servants were sent to cut the bodies down, they found the tree to be empty, Crawford found that unsettling but at least everyone had seen them die.
A few days later Crawford’s young son caught a fever, but nothing could be done. He got worse and worse and before the week was out he lay dead in his mother’s arms as she howled, now suffering from the same fever that took her boy. The grieving mother was dead three days later. Crawford did not sicken, and while he grieved the loss of his wife and son after a year he took a new wife in the hopes of producing another heir. On the eve of the wedding, a great hunt was planned, the biggest since the day the twins had killed all those wolves. Men came from far and wide to take part.
On that bright autumn morning, Crawford led all the men out into the woods. Shortly a stag was sighted and they gave chase. The stag led the hunting party across the foot of the glen and up the side of the White Caterthun, Crawford being on the swiftest horse was in the lead as they entered a hushed clearing. The stag stopped and turned to face him. Crawford suddenly realised this was the clearing where all those wolves had been killed by the twins. From each side appeared two enormous wolves. They pulled Crawford from his horse and before his companions had made it up the side of the hill they heard his screams as he was torn to pieces. Entering the clearing his men found the ground awash with blood and bones scattered all around. Looking up from the body there were two wolves, one with a strange mark down one side of its face and one with the same mark across its forehead and down to its eyes.
The party fled in terror. Today, the castle has been replaced with a more modern building and the old oak tree is gone, but for many generations, people would swear that one stormy night the spirits of the twins signing to each other could be seen under that tree as the wolves howled from the woods.
You can also find a version of this tale in Angus Folktales by Erin Farley.