When the first dark and jagged towers of Crichton Castle slowly peak over the top of the winding hill road to its gate, one cannot help but be reminded of the verses of Sir Walter Scott's Marmion describing its ruin and abandonment. In fact, it would be hard to know even upon reaching the gate that this seldomly visited location was not still unused. For some reason, it has been ignored for more popular castles and tourist sites, and still sits alone among empty fields and hills. On our visit this summer we only saw a  lone staff member and one visitor who quickly left. While the wind howls around it, it may whisper the sordid tales of its past owners.

The land here was first granted to the Crichtons in the 1100s, and they were to build a simple tower house there in the 1300s in the reign of King Robert III. In time its ruler, William Crichton would take advantage of the child  King James II to proclaim himself Lord Chancellor of Scotland. Alongside Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar and James Douglas the Earl of Avondale, he would orchestrate a horrifying feast that would later inspire the Red Wedding. This grisly feast would claim the lives of the teenage William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother, David, and assure the rise of the fortunes of William Crichton who further expanded the castle. William, as no stranger to treachery, would also go on to assist in the murder of William Douglas the 8th Earl of Douglas before being exiled for treason and dying in 1493.

Around this time the castle passed to the Hepburns, under Sir Patrick Hepburn. They would continue its strange legacy of betrayal and murder as the Earls of Bothwell over the next two centuries. The second Earl and his son would die at the Battle of Flodden, and the 3rd Earl of Bothwell "The Fair", would in time flee under charges of treason swearing loyalty to English King Henry VIII. In the 1550s, James Hepburn would become the 4th Earl soon becoming entangled with the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. First suspected of the murder of her late husband Lord Darnley, he would eventually kidnap and marry her. Soon facing a rebellion, he led her forces at Carberry Hill to a decisive defeat and fled to Norway where he was captured and put to trial for infidelity two his then 3 wives. He was kept as a political prisoner and died, insane, chained to a pillar. His mummified body was kept on display and buried 400 years after his death.       

The last of the lords of Crichton Castle would become tied as if a noose around the neck to the witch crazes of the Renaissance. Francis Stewart would become the 5th Earl of Bothwell, and was known for his literacy, his dueling, and his growing mental instability. He was to add the last sections to the castle, which are unique in Scotland and inspired by ornate Italian architecture. Francis would, after becoming a thorn in the side of the crown become the main focus of the North Berwick Witchcraft Trials. Claimed to have risen storm to killed King James VI, he would barely escape execution but in the end be repeatedly jailed, pardoned, and exiled,  before dying in Naples in 1612. 

The last and 7th Earl of Bothwell was to follow a similar path, being accused of witchcraft and eventually selling the castle to a related Hepburn branch. Over the centuries the castle would decay before being bought by the Callenders of Preston Hall. In 1921 the castle became a monument, and in 1956 it was given to Historic Scotland by its then-owner, Major Henry Callander. It has since been used in films like Rob Roy. Today it stands, alone in windswept fields and hills, and from afar or while wandering its dark halls you may still experience a feeling of a place not much altered since its long-ago abandonment. An obscure and unique home of tragic feasts, vile murder, witchcraft, and treachery.          

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