Where diverse religious beliefs and local superstitions grow, curses seem sure to follow – and Scotland is no different. Below is a variety of curses from throughout the country’s history – read on for stories of mummies, cursed fields, powerful stones and more…
The Scottish Play
The Macbeth curse is perhaps the most famous curse associated with Scotland – it’s the belief that one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, a tragedy of political ambition based on several historical (and often fairly fictionalised) tales of Scottish kings. The most famous aspect of this curse is that, for actors taking part in performances of Macbeth, it’s considered bad form, and a harbinger of bad luck, to even say the name of the play – instead, it’s referred to as ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Bard’s Play’. Performers who speak aloud the name of the play when off stage are required by superstition to circle the theatre three times, before spitting on the ground to rid themselves, and the rest of the cast, of the curse.
While I’m not sure of the exact origin of those names, the curse itself can actually be dated back to the first ever public performance of Macbeth in 1606, when the actor playing Lady Macbeth (at the time only men were allowed to perform on stage, so all female roles were played by male actors), was killed at the first performance by a real dagger which was mistaken for a prop (a classic on-stage play death). This reputedly led to King James banning the play, a fact which displeased the Bard, who had written Macbeth as a tribute to James’ Scottish heritage. Later, actors as famous as Lawrence Oliver and Charleston Heston have had misfortunes while taking part, both inside and outside the theatre and there are also numerous reports of theatres going out of business not long after putting on a performance of the Scottish Play, and even more stories about them burning down.
One of the most common explanations of the curse claims that the spells recited by the witches coven in the play are in fact real spells, and that the fact that it’s actors and not real witches performing those rituals is what brings the bad luck on any performance.
The Learmouth Gardens Mummy Curse
You never really hear of people robbing the graves of ancient Egyptians any more, and it’s possible that the number of stories about curses coming about as the result of a queen’s shinbone pilfered from the Pyramids of Giza may have helped. A Scottish tale of vengeful Egyptian spirits took place in the 1930s, when the family of Alexander Seton, a baronet who lived at Learmouth Gardens in Edinburgh visited the Temple of Luxor, and Seton’s wife picked up a small bone and brought it back with her to Scotland. It was placed in a glass case in the dining room as a gruesome memento of their trip, and presumably as something to show off to guests.
A short while after they became to hear bangs and crashes from empty rooms, with furniture and ornaments thrown about and smashed. Lady Seaton herself fell ill, and doctors were unable to diagnose her, and a mysterious spectral figure in long robes was seen several times in the house. These incidents occurred in the presence of both the family and their guests – at one point the bone was removed to the house of a friend of Alexander, and to ghost followed it there, and unsurprisingly many of the Seaton’s once-loyal servants found employment elsewhere.
The poltergeist-like activity in Learmouth Gardens continued until Alexander, now himself very ill, passed with bone to a priest. It was burned, and the Seaton family were finally able to rest easily as the incidents stopped.
One of the reoccurring features of curse stories, and perhaps one of the reasons why they are so popular and ripe for recounting is that many have a sense of justice being served about them – that the victims of the curse often suffer when they bring it on themselves through some horrible misdeed. That seems to be the case in the above story of the stolen mummy bone, and it’s the case again in the curse placed on John Scott, a laird who resided on the Shetland isle of Unst in the 1800s. Scott lived in the House of Lund, which was built by his family, the Scotts of Greenwell. He was an atheist, openly opposing religion, and he resented the parishioners who crossed his fields and tied up their horses on his land on their way to church. To get back at them he coerced a young boy into being painted all over with black paint, and to have horns and a tail fitted to him, before being pushed into the church in the middle of a service. Several people fainted in shock, and the minister of the church cursed Scott, saying his family name would soon die out.
Soon after, Scott’s only son died after being thrown from his horse, and Scott himself became dreadfully ill. On the night he died his servants, who, like many on Unst, believed he was now fully in league with the devil, hid in the kitchen of Lund House with a church elder for protection. There was a rumbling, and sounds of steps going up the stairs, followed by a thunder crack and a strong smell of sulphur coming from the room, where the laird was now lying dead. The House itself allegedly has a hoofmark from the devil someone on the exterior.
As a bonus Unst story, the Burrafirth area of the island apparently contains a cursed field, and it’s said that anyone who plants a spade in the earth of the field is soon struck by tragedy. One woman dug in the field and then saw her best cow die, and when she persisted her husband followed soon after.
The Erskine Family Curse
The Erskines were a historic clan and powerful family who are most strongly associated with the Clackmannanshire and Stirlingshire areas of Scotland – their historic seat was Alloa Tower, and it was John Erskine, the 7th Earl of Mar, who started construction of Mar’s Wark in Stirling. Both play an important role in this curse.
The Wark, currently a ruin, sits near the Holy Rude Church and Stirling Castle, a location in the historic capital of Scotland which shows the then importance of its owner. Erskine was appointed the guardian of both King James V, and Mary Queen of Scots, and would in his later life become Regent of Scotland. Perhaps this was why he felt like he had the right to order the demolition of Cambuskenneth Abbey – itself another important building in Scottish history, the site of two of Robert The Bruce’s parliaments – with the rubble used to build Mar’s Wark, which was intended to be the principle residence of the Erskine family. After this the Abbot of Cambuskenneth, now homeless and jobless, appeared at the door of Alloa Tower to damn the Erskine bloodline with a curse promising that the Wark would never be completed, their lands would fall into the hands of strangers, and that the family would cease to exist. Some more of that curse:
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, until horses be stabled in thy hall, and a weaver shall throw his shuttle in thy chamber of state…
The Abbot was, if some tellings are to be believed, a necromancer, and indeed the Erskines would go on to loose their land after backing the failed 1715 Jacobite uprising. ‘Sitting in the place of the king’ sounds alright, but this is actually a reference to the rumours that Erskine had the infant King James murdered and replaced with a child from his own family, ensuring that an Erskine indeed would be raised still higher – a rumour that did huge damage to the reputation of the family, as did the actions of another John Erskine, the 22nd Earl of Mar, who is most well known now for being a ditherer – given the nickname Bobbing John for his frequent changing political stances and inability to strongly capitalise on victory in battle. He bobbed, it has been said, like the shuttle on a weaver’s loom. Later the larger house around what remains of Alloa Tower would burn down, and three of the eight children fathered by the 7th Earl were born blind, with another dying of an opium overdose.
It wasn’t until 1815 that the curse was lifted – an ash sapling, a sign indicated by the Abbot that the cloud of ruin and despair above the family’s head was finally to clear, was spotted growing from the roof of the Tower.
The Miracle Stone of Spey
This story begins in the 1700s, at the River Spey in the Highlands. It was here that a Protestant saint named Holy Mary of Luirg, who was terminally ill was attempting to cross the Spey near the town of Boat of Garten to be buried next to her husband, who was in a grave on the other side of the flooded and fast-flowing river. When her own funeral procession got to the bank, the waters miraculously parted, and the group carrying the coffin were able to cross on dry ground and fulfill the woman’s dying wish. Some people even tried to gather up some of the fish which had been stranded on the now-dry river bed, but the flow of water returned before they had a chance.
Whatever your opinion on that story, you certainly don’t have the same belief in its veracity as ‘The Men’, a 19th century Calvinist group reknown for their staunch piety, their belief in the supernatural alongside orthodox Christian figures, their commitment to speaking Gaelic, and their uniform of a long blue cloak and spotted hankie tried around their long hair. A command from one of their notable members, William Grant, a man who supposedly had powers of psychic sight, saw them create the Miracle Stone of Spey to commemorate the crossing. It was erected in 1865, and stood on the banks of the river, five ft tall and inscribed in both English and Gaelic.
This installation infuriated the Free Church, as it solidified the fast growing belief amongst locals that The Men and their ancestors were able to perform miracles that the Free Church couldn’t, and also because it suggested that a random old woman who lived in the Cairngorms could perform miracles that hundreds of Christian saints from across the world had been unable to. They launched a campaign of mockery of the stone in newspapers and encouraged their members to decry it during Church services. Just two years after it’s installation the stone was thrown into the river by a group of Free Church members, and parts chipped off as trophies.
Now the stone, which remains in the river to this day, is said to be protected by aquatic demons (kelpies, in some tellings) who capture anyone attempting to move it or further tamper with it and drag them to their watery grave. While it’s not known what happened to the original culprits, a family who removed the stone to use as a doorstep at their farmhouse allegedly died off one by one in strange circumstances, the deaths only stopping when the stone was returned to the river bed.