Hello everyone! This post was prepared a few weeks ago, in the first flush of Autumn, but a trip to Italy’s heel with the wife’s family has delayed its finalisation. Since our return, Halloween had to happen, plus Bonfire Night, & with the kids are satiated with sweets & activities, & my head is now relatively free of clutter enough to return to my Walking East Lothian series.
Since our last post, the world saw the death of Rennie McOwan, without whom I would never have obtained the audacity to create this blog. Born in Menstrie, Clackmannashire, in 1933, as a small boy he encountered a recalcitrant landowner denying access to land. Rennie replied, ‘why cant we go this way?‘ a moment which energized a life agitating for the right to roam, a human glory was finally codified in Scotland in 2003. Along the way, when countryside associations were wary of criticizing the landowning fraternity – they were all pals in a rather feudalistic fashion – he acted like a bull in a china shop, & told them to just sort it out.
When Rennie addressed the Landowners Association in 1996, his address was describ’d as being ‘statesman like,’ & just as men like Frederick Douglass spoke oratories which induced the demise of slavery, thus breaking the bond a human had over fellow humans, so Rennie ended the privilege between human & land, reducing it to mere equity & opening up nature’s beauties to all – at least in Scotland anyway.
So god bless Rennie, & let us now take ourselves on a wee tour of the Yester Estate, currently in the hands of an Aberdeen oil family, headed by Ian Wood. Before the Woods, there was the Italian composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, who had lived at Yester into his 90s until 2013. At the age of 7, under the guidance of his mother, Gian began to compose songs, and four years later he wrote the words and music of his first opera, The Death of Pierrot. The Consul, Menotti’s first full-length work, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle award as the best musical play of the year in 1954. Flush with money from his efforts, he bought Yester in 1972 from two antique dealers who had bought the estate from the Hay Marquises of Tweeddale a handful of years earlier.
In 2018, access to the Yester Estate from the Gifford side is a bit sketchy – the Woods have blocked off access & created rodent-like runs for the villagers. On first moving in they even dropped huge tree trunks at entrances villagers had been using for years. These were soon chainsawed through, however, & a ceasefire akin to that of the Kashmir disputed territory has since ensued.
For those wanting to enjoy the Estate in the traditional fashion – ie freely – there is a beautiful walk which commences by Danskine Loch. One must park up across the road from the entrance to the loch, beside a gateway to a world of verdant glory – tinged with Autumn of course at this time of year. For me & Daisy, we had the happy circumstance of the wife bobbing along, & all was well in the world.
Me & Daisy were not the first travelers to this corner of East Lothian, sprawling towards the Lammermuirs from picturesque Gifford village. Just under three centuries ago, Daniel Defoe was here on his Grand Tour of Great Britain, recording his visit with the following ;
Here we turn’d out of the way to see the Marquess of Tweedal’s fine park, and which is, indeed, the main thing, his fine planting at Yester, or, as Antiquity calls it, Zester; I say the park, because, tho’ there is the design of a noble house or palace, and great part of it built; yet, as it is not yet, and perhaps, will not soon be finished, there is no giving a compleat description of it.
The old Earl of Tweedale, who was a great favourite of King Charles II. tho’ not much concern’d in politic affairs, at least, not in England, yet took in from the king the love of managing what we call forest trees, and making fine vistas and avenues: The very first year after the Restoration the king laid out, with his own hand, the planting of Greenwich and St. James’s parks, and several others, and the said earl had seen them, and was extremely delighted with the method.
This occasion’d his lordship, as soon as he went down into Scotland, to lay out the plan and design of all those noble walks and woods of trees, or, as it might be call’d, forests of trees, which he afterwards saw planted, and of which a gentleman, whose judgment I cannot doubt, told me, that if ever those trees came to be worth but six pence a tree, they would be of more value than the fee simple of that estate; not meaning by that estate the land they grow on, but the whole paternal estate of the family: Nor is it unlikely, if it be true, that his lordship, and his immediate successor, planted above 6,000 acres of land all full of firr-trees; and that, where-ever it was found that any tree fail’d, they were constantly renew’d the next year.
It is certain, that many of the trees are, by this time, of much more value than six pence a tree; for they have now been planted near three-score years. And tho’ it is true, that a firr-tree is but a slow grower, and that most, if not all the trees I speak of, are firr; yet it must be allow’d that, the trees thriving very well, they must, by this time, be very valuable; and, if they stand another age, and we do not find the family needy of money enough to make them forward to cut any of them down, there may be a noble estate in firr timber, enough, if it falls into good hands, to enrich the family.
The park itself is said to be eight miles about, but the plantation of firr is not simply confin’d to the park, nor, indeed, to this estate; for the family of Tweedale has another seat near Musclebro, at Pinkey, where the same lord planted also a great number of trees, as his successors have likewise done at another seat, which they have in Fife, near Aberdour.
Our own experience of Yester sent us off along a straight path between two steepish slopes of trees, following the course of the Gifford Water. Eventually we came to a rather muddy section, where the main path continues straight, but we turned a sharp, uphill left.
We were now free in the Estate, lovely wild country which must be traversed to the forward & to the ight until one comes to a drystone wall, from where wide open fields lead to the Lammermuirs. Me & Daisy reached this point at the edge of an old pheasant pen.
Turning right at the wall we found ourselves on a path which eventually began to descend to the valley floor. This eventually looped back on itself, bringing us to the bonnie banks of the Hopes Water sharp on our left.
A little while after this we came to an old stone bridge which we used to cross the Water to our left. We were now at the foot of the slightly crescentic peninsula on which stood the original Castle of Yester, & climbing a steep slope brought us to those very hewn stones, some portions of which clinging stoically to its former magnificence.
The story of Yester & Gifford begins with Hugh de Giffard, an influential feudal baron in 12th century Scotland, who obtained the lands at Yester (Jhestrith) from Malcolm IV of Scotland. There is a charter dated between 1166–1171 by William The Lion which states that Hugh held these lands “by grant from my brother King Malcolm and Ada the Countess, my mother”. His grandson, another Hugh, built the castle on a promontory between the Hopes Water and a little tributary, the Gamuelston Burn.
Sir David Dalrymple, in his annals, relates that ‘Hugh Gifford de Yester died in 1267; that in his castle there was a capacious cavern, formed by magical art, and called in the country Bo–Hall, i.e. Hobgoblin Hall.’ A stair of twenty-four steps led down to this apartment, which is a large and spacious hall, with an arched roof; and though it hath stood for so many centuries, and been exposed to the external air for a period of fifty or sixty years, it is still as firm and entire as if it had only stood a few years. From the floor of this hall, another stair of thirty-six steps leads down to a pit which hath a communication with Hopes-water.
Statistical Account of Scotland
Daisy loves to roam the castle area, which I let her do while imagining the medieval activities which tumbled about the place. The best part of visiting the castle, however, is the Goblin Ha,’ an oblong subterranean cavern, 37ft by 13ft 2ins, built of ashlar & said to have been constructed by magical means by Sir Hugo, who was also known as the ‘Wizard of Yester.’ Legend also supposed that Hugo was able, via a pact with the Devil, to raise a magical army to his aid, and use them to carry out his will. It is this army of hobgoblins that was considered to be the builders of Yester Castle.
A Clerk could tell what years have flown
Since Alexander fill’d our throne,
(Third monarch of that warlike name,)
And eke the time when here he came
To seek Sir Hugo, then our lord:
A braver never drew a sword;
A wiser never, at the hour
Of midnight, spoke the word of power:
The same, whom ancient records call
The founder of the Goblin-Hall.
The Goblin Hall was featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, as in the stanza above. Scott at the time was a quartermaster for the Edinburgh cavalry, & was based in Musselburgh from where he explored East Lothian & wrote some of his greatest poetical works. The king mentioned – Alexander III – is known to have been at Yester on and around May 24, 1278, where he corresponded with Edward I of England.
In the 14th century, the Giffards had no male heir, & so Joanna, the daughter of the last Sir Hugo de Giffard, married Sir William de la Haye of Peebles, who was invested with the barony and lands of Yester through his wife. The barony has stayed with the Hay family ever since & the Estate, as we have seen, until the 1960s.
To reach the Hall, pass through the door in the great keep wall, & follow a track in down & the left, wher you will reach the entrance. While Daisy guarded the portal whimperingly, the wife & I explored the Hall through the torch on my phone, We even started to follow the tunnel to the Hopes Water as mentioned in the Statistical Account, but found it blocked by rubble. It is eerily cool down there, yeah, & yes, well worth a visit – a very evocative place & in amazingly good condition – perhaps it was goblin-hewn after all!
The last person to dwell at the castle, according to Francis Turner Palgrave, was the estate’s falconer. Palgrave notes, ‘in 1737, the Goblin Hall was tenanted by the Marquis of Tweedale’s falconer, as I learn from a poem by Boyse, entitled “Retirement,” written upon visiting Yester.’ Leaving the Castle ourselves we return’d to the old stone bridge, after crossing which we turned left. After a while a stick plunged in the ground notified us of the climb we had to make up another steep slope. This took us to a regular path where we turned left.
We were now returning to the main Yester path, & after crossing a bridge marked ‘unsafe structure’ (it was fine) we found ourselves at one of the green signs placed by the Woods to mark out their rat-runs. Turning left here would eventually lead to Gifford, but we need to head back to the car, & so turned right.
A lovely stretch along the leaf-carpeted path home saw unveiled the ancient erosion work undertaken by the Gifford Water on the Yester bedrock, quite gorgeous actually, & of course the magnificent trees praised with gushes by Defoe. Then it was the car & the happy drive home.