Stories from Garleton: A Castle’s Tale

In a very entertaining talk David Connolly led us through some of the complexities of the construction and history of Garleton Castle sited at East Garleton. Specifically, he had been tasked as an archaeologist to investigate a building in one corner of the site: the south west lodge. This was a substantial residence, remaining so until recent times and which long outlasted the castle tower which was allowed to fall into a ruinous state during the 18th century. The lodge now consists of a ground floor, first floor and attic space, with a stair tower (now without stairs) on the south elevation; originally it was much taller with a second floor. It seems likely that the upper floor was removed and the roof lowered and remodelled accordingly in the late 18th century under the ownership of the Wemyss and March estate.  It is likely that this was because the original roof and upper stories were in poor condition. The building was thus converted into two cottages for agricultural workers, and seems to have served this function until the early 1960s after which it was used to store farm equipment.

The ground floor rooms have vaulted ceilings and one of them contains a large fireplace. After removing a substantial depth of accumulated detritus, including rubble probably derived from the demolished upper floor, the original ground floor surfaces were exposed. Further work revealed the presence of a bread oven in a space behind the fireplace, apparently accessed from a room next door (a rather strange, not very practical set-up). Wooden stairs from the tower led to a landing above the bread oven, and remaining evidence in the building structure infers the presence of a significant space under the stairs at this location. This was probably a designed-in priest hole, not surprising in that the family who built the lodge were devout Catholics living in a time of persecution by the protestant state. Among other finds was one dating to the late 18th/early 19th centuries, an identifiable bottle and clear evidence of an illicit still. More recent artefacts found as the floor was cleared were a Babycham bottle and a couple of copies of a 1971 edition of ‘The Scotsman’!

The history and personalities associated with Garleton added life to the stone and mortar. The first definitive evidence of residence at Garleton dates from the 13th century when the lands were held by William Noble – a knight and vassal of de Vaux of Dirleton. It is likely that the dwelling at that time consisted of some kind of fortified manor, although no physical evidence of this has been uncovered on site. Similarly, although it seems highly probable from circumstantial evidence, like the Anglic name ending ‘ton’ in Garleton, that a settlement existed there from the 7th or 8th centuries (when the area was part of Northumbria) there is also a lack of physical evidence. The Nobles held the estate until the late 1300s, when it then passed fairly quickly via William Napier and the Douglas family to Sir John Towers. The Towers family also held lands around Edinburgh (their main seat was Inverleith) and gradually accumulated significant wealth and power, with its apogee under a later Sir John in the 16th century. Throughout this time, and into the later 18th century, the settlement continued to be known as Garleton Noble

Towards the end of the 16th and into the early 17th century the Towers were responsible for the construction of the castle and associated buildings, the ruins of which we see today. It seems that this branch of the Towers family was developing a power base in East Lothian. Political events around the religious unrest mid-century dropped the family into serious debt and in 1643 the property was sold to the Seton Earl of Winton. The Setons then held Garleton Noble until just after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion when it passed to Colonel Charteris of Amisfield. One or two colourful events cast light on personalities – in particular the Setons of Garleton – in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

We begin by recognising the family as devout Catholics, often at odds with the political and religious circumstances of their times. They were strong supporters of the Jacobite cause after the replacement of the Catholic James II by William of Orange and Mary in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. At that time Garleton was in the possession of Sir George Seton (2nd baronet). He was host for a time, illegally, to Jesuit members of the Scottish Mission, sent by Rome to convert protestants back to the ‘true faith’ and who may well have made use of the priest hole in the lodge house from time to time. (As it happens, the Scottish Mission was not noted for its effectiveness!!).

George’s brother John and cousin James contributed to the Jacobite subversion of the state by holding up the ‘post boy’ from Cockburnspath and stealing official dispatches from him. These Seton ‘highwaymen’ dressed in their finery and bestride horses of quality, all easily described by their victim, nevertheless felt that by wearing masks they would escape detection. Amazingly, they were caught! However when the Haddington town Bailey progressed to the kirk in due ceremony, the Town Officers marched with him. The Setons took their opportunity to escape and, for their negligence/stupidity, the Bailey and Town Officers were jailed instead.

Another story concerns Sir George himself. Married to Barbara, the daughter of another staunchly Catholic family, he conducted a long and barely concealed series of adulterous liaisons in Edinburgh with one Anna Cheisly. On Hogmanay 1704, having heard enough of this scandalous business, the Kirk Session heavies broke in on the couple, finding Sir George wearing only a night shirt and Anna rather less. This, together with many other transgressions, led Barbara to take out divorce proceedings against her errant husband – a very major undertaking for anyone then, but more especially for a Catholic. She won her case despite her husband declaring that she could not be granted a divorce because she was a Catholic!

From the late 18th century, before its refurbishment, there is the legend of a ghostly visitation to the lodge house. This was reported by one Miss Janet Hepburn a very eccentric and devout woman who lived there with a lady companion and one servant. The ‘ghost’ was an old man who entered the house through a locked outer door, had creaked his way up the wooden stairs to her room, and entered. Assuming him to be a thief she asked who he was and what he wanted, he replied “This is my native place, and I have a long history to tell you!” She did not listen further and invited him to take any valuables and leave her. Next morning nothing had been taken or disturbed and the outer door was still locked. Was it Sir George, or a dream? True or not, documentary evidence confirms occupation by Janet Hepburn and her death at Garleton in 1784.

A heartening coda to this archaeological and historical account is that work is afoot to refurbish the lodge house and return it to use as a comfortable country residence.

Peter R