The Earls of Mar & the 'Curse of Alloa Tower'
'Proud Chief of Mar, thou shalt be raised still higher, until thou sittest in the place of the King. Thou shalt rule and destroy, and thy work shall be after thy name… Thy work shall be cursed and shall never be finished.… Then, when thou seemest to be highest, when thy power is mightiest, then shall come thy fall; low shall be thy head amongst the noblest of the people. Deep shall be thy moans among the children of dool [sorrow]. Thy lands shall be given unto the stranger, and thy titles shall lie among the dead…Thou, proud head and daggered hand, must dree thy weird [lament your fate], until horses be stabled in thy hall, and a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state…'
So begins the 'Curse of Alloa Tower', supposedly placed upon John Erskine, 17th Earl of Mar by the fiery Abbot of Cambuskenneth.
The ruins of Mar's Wark, Erskine's townhouse, loom over Stirling's Broad Street. The Wark's wide façade once stood three storeys high. Its towers proudly display the coats of arms of Mar and his Countess. Courtiers, mermaids, gargoyles, mythological monsters and the Royal Arms of Scotland look down from its crumbling walls, alongside the headless weatherworn figure of a woman being burned at the stake carved on the north wall. This, the guidebooks tell us, may be 'Jeannie Dark' – Joan of Arc – though why her image should adorn these walls is, like so much about the Wark, a mystery. Another figure, rendered headless by time and strife, holds a book out to us revealing an intriguingly cryptic inscription:
'TRATOVR TYM REVELLIT OVR CRYM' ('Traitor Time revealed our crime').
Those few words have been cited as proof of murder. Not just murder…infanticide…. Regicide too, if local legends are to be believed. Mar and the Wark itself, we are told, were cursed as punishment for the crimes of the wicked and ambitious Earl.
Erskine is a rather unlikely villain. In 1542 he had personally escorted the six year old Mary, Queen of Scots to the safety of France during the destructive rampage of Henry VIII's 'Rough Wooing', loyally earning his Earldom in 1562 – along with the guardianship of the Queen's heir, the young Prince James, the year following her return from that country. Mary's abdication in 1567 increased his influence, and in 1571 he was appointed Regent – the third to bear that burden during the boy's infancy (the first having been assassinated, and the second accidentally shot by his own men).
Ah, the local gossips say, this was all a show...
Received wisdom (according to T.F. Thiselton Dyer's delightfully cracked 'Strange Pages From Family Papers' (1898)) has it that the Protestant Erskine 'commanded the destruction of Cambuskenneth Abbey, and took its stones to build himself a palace'. The homeless and vengeful Catholic Abbot is said to have appeared in rags and tatters before the doors of Mar's baronial seat, Alloa Tower, and damned the destiny of that noble house.
On the surface, the 'Curse of Alloa Tower' is astonishingly accurate, The Wark was never finished. It served as a barracks and stables in the 17th-century ('horses [shall] be stabled in thy hall') and as a Workhouse by the middle of the next, where beggars earned their keep by operating hand-looms ('a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state').
The opening salvo – 'thou shalt be raised still higher, until thou sittest in the place of the King' – might refer to Mar's elevation from Guardian to Regent, but could equally apply to another local legend...that Mary's heir had died – or been murdered – and been replaced by a bairn born of Erskine blood. That is, that a Mar literally sat 'in the place of the king'. James VI (I) was no Stuart, then, but a 'Mar Changeling'. Many older inhabitants of the Burgh swear blind that the skeleton of a baby – King James himself – was unearthed in the ruin within the lifetimes of their own parents or grandparents, and that its weeping can be heard at the site in dead of night.
Strange that this epoch-altering discovery is completely unknown to historians.
So does the 'Curse' confirm Mar's villainy?
Returning to the prophesy that 'a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state' we find a hint as to the true nature of this tale. This is a reference not just to the Wark's use as the 18th-century Burgh Workhouse, but to a very particular dithering descendant of the Regent Mar – the Jacobite 23rd Earl – known as 'Bobbing John' because his political allegiances bobbed to-and-fro like a weaver's shuttle from Hanoverian to Jacobite, and cost the latter faction the 1715 Battle of Sherriffmuir. His lands were, as the Abbot's prophesy promised, 'given unto the stranger', and his titles revoked ... and the first mention of the 'Curse of Alloa Tower' is made the following year. And the Wark's ruinous state...? Well that is down to the folly of later Jacobites, in 1746 – when Bonnie Prince Charlie foolishly set up cannons on the roof of the Workhouse, only to be blasted by the Castle guns.
The 'commonly known' ancient Curse is actually an exercise in political spin, written long after the events it described. And in politics – just like ghost stories – you should never let a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story!