When it comes to ruinous buildings on the Scottish landscape, is there anything more iconic than a castle? Take, for example, Kilchurn Castle. Mist dances around the stone walls whilst mountains strike up, disappearing into thick, grey layers of cloud and the black waters of Loch Awe lap against the shore. Poetic, sort of. I could go on and describe numerous castles in this way but I’d rather not. Sometimes the grandeur of a castle doesn’t come from its location but instead, it comes from its turbulent history. Yester Castle, which resides in the forests of East Lothian may not have the immediate visual appeal of Eilean Donan or Dunnottar Castle but if the time is taken to explore this magnificent place, I firmly believe it’s Scotland’s finest.
Explorers who set off in search of Yester Castle today have what could only be described as a quest ahead of them. Approaching this secretive place requires battling through a thick woodland which flanks the side of a steep gorge. Even before you get there, the castle and its surroundings are already conjuring up a mythical feeling. Then, once the castle is reached, all that can be seen are a few old walls and a small enclosure atop steep slopes which flank three sides of the site. Why is this place getting so much praise? It could be any old ruin. What sets this castle apart is the Goblin Ha’, which is located underneath the ground. Entering the chamber for the first time counts as one of the greatest experiences I’ve had whilst exploring the ruins, tunnels and abandoned buildings of Scotland. Nothing quite prepares you for how awe inspiring the Goblin Ha’ is.
Of course, a space of this grandeur requires a story of a similar magnitude to back it up and I’m pleased to say that Yester Castle delivers on everything it promises. Wizards, goblins, portals to Hell all play a role in the exciting history of this castle. The oldest part of the castle is the Goblin Ha’ which supposedly dates back to 1267. It was constructed for Hugo de Giffard by what history records as goblins. However, if you look more closely at this claim, the goblins were actually Portuguese slaves.
Hugo de Giffard, who was also known as the Wizard of Yester gained a reputation for being a necromancer. Within the darkness of the hall, a set of steps lead further still into the hillside. These steps descend to the castle’s well but due to the reputation Hugo had gained, the local population firmly believed the well was in fact, a portal to Hell. I suppose there’s only one letter of difference so you could see how they got confused… The locals took it upon themselves to fill the well with rocks and boulders to stop beasts and monsters rising from the earth. If you go down there today, the rocks still exist, blocking the freshwater supply the castle once had.
As much fun as it is to talk about the mythological aspects of Yester’s history, what happened later is just as interesting. In 1357, the castle passed from the Giffards to the Hays and during that time, extensive remodelling took place, leaving the Goblin Ha’ as the only original feature of the castle. Skip forward to 1547 and you’ll find a castle that has been heavily fortified with the 4th Lord John Hay of Yester at the helm. Try to imagine the scene, English forces are slowly making their way towards your home as part of the Rough Wooing. You’re probably outnumbered and discouraged after the defeat at Solway Moss a few years back but when the English forces did reach Yester Castle, John Hay led a victory against his attackers, proving the value of Yester’s defensive location.
Unfortunately, despite everything that happened here, after John Hay passed away, the 5th Lord of Yester abandoned the castle and moved to Yester House. Sadly, the castle had become a ruin by 1646 but that doesn’t stop this place being any less majestic. Sure, the castle might not be in the most romantic of locations but it more than makes up for it when the mists of intrigue dance around the people that wander into the Goblin Ha’ for the first time. It’s a castle that inspires with a rich history that disappears into thick layers mythology and turbulence. Surrounded by rivers and streams, these flowing black waters protected the castle from harm. As I said before, any castle can be described this way but Yester Castle truly deserves all the accolades it receives.