When you walk around the hollow corridors and cold empty rooms of Linlithgow Palace, you could be forgiven for glancing over your shoulder into the dark corners and listening for footsteps on the stairs.
Often overlooked by visitors to Edinburgh and Stirling castles, Linlithgow doesn’t have quite the same groomed magnificence (it’s a burnt-out shell, after all) but it certainly has the history. Built in 1425 by James I, its walls have seen generations of Scottish monarchs come and go – their births, marriages and deaths, their hopes, joys, fears, victories and losses.
It was here, in April 1512, that the future James V of Scotland was born; a year later, his father, James IV, faced the Earl of Surrey’s army at the Battle of Flodden Field while his mother, Margaret Tudor, watched from the high north-west turret for her husband’s safe homecoming.
But he didn’t return: a resounding victory for England, Flodden was Scotland’s worst military disaster, leaving James IV and a generation of Scottish nobility dead on the battlefield. James V became king before he was two years old.
In 1538 James married Mary of Guise, cementing Scotland’s ties with France. For the extravagant wedding celebrations, it’s said that Linlithgow’s famous courtyard fountain was made to flow with wine. You’ve got to admit that these folk had style!
James V and Mary had two sons, both of whom died in infancy. At the age of 30, James V also lay dying, apparently of cholera, in nearby Falkland Palace, while his wife was giving birth to a daughter in Linlithgow. Their daughter would be Mary Queen of Scots.
Most of her predecessors had made some additions or embellishments to Linlithgow during their reign, but Mary Queen of Scots probably had more to worry about than castle repairs. Caught in a deadly game of conspiracy, ambition and treachery, she was kidnapped several times, imprisoned for much of her life, and made two ill-advised marriages to men whose ulterior motives were very questionable.
Pursued by her own corrupt noblemen, Mary threw herself on the mercy of the English queen, Elizabeth I, who imprisoned her for over 30 years and then finally beheaded her.
Mary never saw her son, James VI, after he was a year old – although he did finally become the King of both England and Scotland in 1603, achieving in his lifetime what Mary was unable to do.
The daughter of James VI, Elizabeth of Bohemia, lived in Linlithgow for a while, but after the Union of the Crowns the royal court was based mainly in England. In 1607 the northern part of the Palace fell down, prompting the Earl of Linlithgow to write a letter to James VI asking for help with re-building.
Between 1618 and 1622 Linlithgow Palace was repaired, painted and gilded on a lavish scale, and the work was supervised by master masons and architects. However, the only subsequent reigning monarch to stay there was Charles I, who spent just one night at the Palace in 1633. After that, the Earl of Linlithgow moved into the new north range.
In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart stayed at the Palace, passing through Linlithgow on his way to Edinburgh in his attempt to gain the throne of England as well as Scotland. Less than a year later, the Jacobite uprising had suffered a fatal blow at Culloden, Prince Charlie was on the run for his life, and Linlithgow was occupied by English troops under the notorious Duke of Cumberland. I can’t help hoping that the spirits of long-gone Scottish monarchs gave them some sleepless nights. Before they left Linlithgow for good, the soldiers apparently ‘forgot’ to put their fires out, leaving the flames to engulf the wonderful building and reduce it to a charred roofless shell.
When we visited Linlithgow in April this year, it was definitely ‘out of season’ and we were the last visitors of the day; we had the place pretty much to ourselves, although there was a very helpful and knowledgeable attendant.
There’s definitely an atmosphere about Linlithgow, but it’s hard to capture the essence of what it would have looked like in its heyday. Blackened empty fireplaces on many levels mark the places where floors would have been, and dark stone staircases lead up and down in tight spirals to even darker chambers.
Back in the time of the Stuart kings, there would have been warmth from massive log fires, and the walls would have been hung with tapestries. I’d love to see just one ‘snapshot’ of a banquet or celebration 500 years ago – ladies and gentlemen in sumptuous clothes, fine jewels, hundreds of servants, perhaps a choir or a band of minstrels, tables heaving with food. It would have been a vibrant, happy place, nothing like the gloomy, abandoned relic that remains.
This brings me to the ghosts of Linlithgow – we do like a good haunting! Research tells me that the ghost of Queen Margaret has been glimpsed in her bower, the high turret where she watched for her husband’s return; and a ‘Blue Lady’ is often seen in April and September, crossing from the Palace entrance to the nearby church of St Michael.
Whether or not you believe these tales, I’m not sure I’d be all that relaxed about spending a night within these cheerless walls. I see that organised ‘Fright Nights’ are being held at Linlithgow in October, but I expect there are a few actors on hand to add to the experience!