Yester Castle, East Lothian
Despite the fact that it was once one of the most impressive and important medieval fortresses in south east Scotland, you won’t find Yester Castle in any guidebooks or on many maps. Its romantic ruins sit in wild woodland just a couple of miles outside the pretty town of Gifford, on private land belonging to the later Yester House. Finding the castle is not easy – I parked up on a farm track, walked across some fields, climbed a couple of fences and cut across the corner of a golf course before I spotted the tips of its craggy walls rising above the treetops.
Yester was originally built by one Hugo de Giffard, a 13th Century nobleman who also dabbled in the dark arts. The famous Goblin Ha’, which was reputedly built by a band of hobgoblins, is the only remaining part of his original castle, and also the location of the warlock’s supposed magical experiments. Ever since the castle fell into ruins in the 16th Century, tales of strange sounds and lights emanating from this underground lair have circulated, a result perhaps of de Giffard’s alleged pact with the Devil.
On a grey, drizzly winter day Yester Castle can seem rather forbidding. Slipping and sliding in the leaves and mud as I scrambled up a low rise to reach the ruins, I quickly regretted my totally unsuitable canvas trainers, but it was worth the treacherous climb. At the top sits a tall fragment of ancient masonry, a barrel-vaulted room at the base and some intricately carved moulding towards the top giving a tiny hint of the long-lost grandeur of this once imposing building.
Wandering further through the trees, I suddenly came upon a huge stretch of curtain wall, its grey stonework almost camouflaged amongst the muted colours of the woodland.
The wall is still impressive and solid, punctured by just a small arched doorway, but down to my left I spotted a set of stone stairs, inevitably covered at this time of year in slimy brown leaves. At the foot of these stairs lies two dark, iron-grated windows, and beyond them the reason for my visit, the Goblin Ha’.
Getting down to the windows without breaking my neck was the next challenge. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they did the sharp gothic vaulting of the subterranean chamber below became clear. The Goblin Ha’ is wonderfully spooky from the outside, but I wasn’t going to stop there. I had read somewhere that it was still possible to gain access to the mythical hall. And so I began the search.
Once through the door in the curtain wall I was able to make out the subtle line of a path which curved down the side of the hill. As I followed it I became starkly aware of the huge drop to the gushing river far below. Squelching and sliding precariously along the tiny path I began to wonder whether I wasn’t being slightly foolish, but by then it was too late to turn back. At the end of the path, tucked in at the base of the ruinous corner of the curtain wall, I found a tiny, stone lined doorway, with a low, murky passageway beyond. I took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders and headed in.
The Goblin Ha’ is even more impressive on the inside. The two grated windows give some light, but it is still pretty dark in there, particularly on an overcast winter’s day.
It was only when I used my flash to take a couple of photos that I noticed something in the shadows of the blackest corner – a narrow set of stairs descending into the shadows below. Of course, my first thought was how I could get down there to find out what lay at the foot of the stairs. In the absence of a torch, could I somehow use my camera flash to guide my way? Could I edge down in the darkness and then flash away to reveal what lay beneath?
Then the reality of my situation hit me. I was standing in a dark, reputedly haunted castle cellar in the middle of nowhere. No one knew I was there, and as far as I knew there was no one for miles around. I was considering heading down some dark, wet stairs to find God-knows-what at the bottom. My heart began to pound, Sweat prickled my brow. I glanced around at the desolate, dank hall with its impenetrable shadows and dark corners.
Within seconds I was up the passage, out of the door, and slithering my way back up that muddy path to safety. I blame it on a lifetime of ghost stories and horror movies, combined of course with the unmistakeably creepy atmosphere of the Goblin Ha’. It took me a good few minutes of brisk walking to recover from my overwhelming feeling of cold terror. Yester Castle is certainly extremely magical, but visiting the strange, decidedly spooky Goblin Ha’ is not an experience I will be rushing to repeat, at least not without some sturdy shoes, a torch and a brave companion…