“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”.
The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.
Glamis Castle is mentioned by Shakespeare—Macbeth, that most cursed of characters, was Thane of Glamis—and in 1034 the Scottish King Malcolm II died there,perhaps murdered. But the present castle was constructed only in the 15th century, around a central tower whose walls are, in places, 16 feet thick. Glamis has been the family seat of the Strathmore Earls since then, but by the late 18th century it lay largely empty, its owners preferring to live somewhere less cold and drafty, less isolated and less melancholy. I can understand why.
In their absence, Glamis was left in the care of a factor, or estate manager, and it was to this factor that a youngWalter Scott applied in 1790 to spend a night in one of its rooms. Scott became the first of several writers to note the castle’s oppressive atmosphere. “I must own,” he wrote in an account published in 1830, “as I heard door after door shut, after my conductor had retired, I began to consider myself as too far from the living and somewhat too near to the dead.” What was more, the great novelist added, Glamis was said to hide a secret room—a useful addition to any residence in 15th-century Scotland, where violence was seldom far away. Its location was known only to the Earl, his factor and his heir.
In one sense, however, the most interesting thing about Scott’s account is what it doesn’t say. The novelist wrote nothing to suggest that the castle’s hidden chamber had an occupant. Yet, within half a century of his visit, it had begun to be rumored that the room concealed an unknown captive—a prisoner who had been held there all his life.The first reports of Glamis’ unknown prisoner appear to date to the 1840s. According to a correspondent to the journal Notes & Queries, writing in 1908,
The mystery was told to the present writer some 60 years ago, when he was a boy, and it made a great impression on him. The story was, and is, that in the Castle of Glamis is a secret chamber. In this chamber is confined a monster, who is the rightful heir to the title and property, but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession.This may sound like the plot of some Gothic novel, but believers in the theory point out that the family has dealt with some of its members in ways that outsiders might consider harsh. After the First World War, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, both cousins of the present queen, were born mentally disabled. Both spent their lives locked away in homes and hospitals, ignored by their family…
The only detailed description emerged early in the 1960s, when the writer James Wentworth-Day spent time at Glamis while writing a history of the Bowes-Lyon family. From the then-Earl and his relatives, Wentworth-Day heard the legend that “a monster was born into the family. He was the heir—a creature fearful to behold. It was impossible to allow this deformed caricature of humanity to be seen—even by their friends.… His chest [was] an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toylike.” But “however warped and twisted his body, the child had to be reared to manhood,” kept safe and occasionally exercised. That job was given to the factor (and I do wonder how they persuade him to take on this job).
Yet another visitor to Glamis was Virginia Gabriel, a singer who, according to her niece, returned from a long stay in 1870 “full of the mysteries, which she said had greatly increased since the death of the previous owner.” It is to this visit that we owe a strange reminiscence of the Glamis factor, Andrew Ralston—a dour, hard-headed man who, Gabriel reported, refused ever to spend a night in the castle. During her stay, a sudden snowstorm one evening blanketed the estate with drifts several feet deep. The Earl begged Ralston to take a spare room, but the factor refused, instead rousing every servant in the house to have them dig a path to his home a mile away. Gabriel also recorded an ominous conversation that she had with the Earl’s wife:
Lady Strathmore once confessed to Mr Ralston her great anxiety to unravel the mystery. He looked earnestly at her and said very gravely: ‘Lady Strathmore, it is fortunate that you do not know it, and can never know it, for if you did, you would not be a happy woman.’ Such a speech from such a man is certainly uncanny.
The mystery that was spoken of in hushed terms during the nineteenth century was generally a different one, for though the existence of a hidden room with the castle walls was widely rumoured, even then, it was then believed to conceal not a living creature, but rather the grisly evidence of an ancient crime. According to this now mostly forgotten portion of the legend, a large party of Ogilvies, members of a rival clan, once sought sanctuary from their enemies at Glamis, only to be betrayed and murdered there. In this version of the castle’s story, the fugitive Ogilvies were shown into the hidden chamber, then barricaded in and left to starve. Their skeletons, still scattered on the floor, were the secret that the Lyons family was so anxious to conceal…