In Search of the Glamis Monster

Glamis Castle Scotland

By Lee Weinstein: While Scottish castles are famously noted for their ghostly hauntings, only Glamis castle is reputed to be not only haunted, but allegedly once the home of a monster, a flesh and blood one.

It was August of 1995, Diane and I were in Edinburgh after the World Science Fiction convention in Glasgow, and we decided to visit the former home of the legendary monster.

I had read, years earlier, accounts of the so-called monster; supposedly a badly malformed heir to the title of Earl of Strathmore, who had been kept hidden from view in a secret room.

In the 19th century such people were often termed “monsters,” and well into the 20th century, badly malformed fetuses and infants were still termed “monstrosities” in medical literature.

 I recalled reading about the Glamis monster years earlier in a book of oddities, with an illustration showing a hunched figure from the back, sitting in an empty room.

I had also seen a horror movie on TV back in the sixties called The Maze (1953) about a deformed heir to the title of baronet, who was kept hidden.  It was only years later, after I had come across several accounts of the Glamis legend, that I realized the movie had been based fairly closely on it.

While touring Scotland, I discovered that the castle was open to tourism, in part because it had been the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and the birthplace of Princess Margaret.  In addition, MacBeth, in Shakespeare’s play, was titled, “Thane of Glamis.”

We had traveled to Edinburgh after the convention and it seemed like we were close enough to Glamis to take a trip there, before proceeding to Wales and England.

As we discovered, the castle is in a rather remote location, about five miles from the closest town, and somewhat off the beaten track for us, but we decided to go for it.  Who knew when another opportunity would present itself? As it turned out, it was a somewhat lengthy and roundabout trip.

We caught a train in the morning to Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city, some sixty miles away and where Mary Shelley had lived just before writing Frankenstein. We arrived in Dundee after about an hour-and-a-half of riding the rails through the picturesque countryside of the Scottish lowlands, but we had little time to do any exploring. There was no direct bus to where we were going, so we had to find and catch a bus to the town of Forfar, an additional fourteen mile ride. The half hour trip took us through more of the green Scottish countryside. Once in the town, we had to flag down a cab for the final leg of the journey, which turned out to be only a ten-minute jaunt. The cab took us up the long drive leading to the castle and deposited us by entrance.

Lithograph of Glamis Castle from around 1850.

The castle itself is an enormous, imposing structure with multiple towers, which dates back to at least 1372, but in its present form to the early 15th century. It was, and still is, owned and occupied by the Bowes-Lyon family, but portions of it are open to the public. We entered the lavish entrance hall and signed up for a guided tour. Our tour guide, a pleasant middle-aged woman, first told us of how the present Queen Mother had spent her childhood there. As we went through the beautifully appointed rooms she pointed out the numerous portraits of the family’s ancestors. It was years ago, but one that I remember in particular was of a previous earl clothed in somewhat unusual-looking armor. She explained it was “fantasy armor” invented by the artist. She eventually got to the tales of the ghosts who haunt the castle. One was the ghost of Janet Douglas, wife of the sixth lord of Glamis who was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1537. Other ghosts include that of an unknown woman with no tongue and of a madman allegedly seen on a part of the castle roof called “The Mad Earl’s Walk.” The guide finished up with the oft-repeated tale of the Earl of Beardie, who committed the sin of playing cards on the Sabbath and was walled up by the Devil to play forever.  She told us of a bricked-up window, supposedly to that room, which could be seen from the outside.

However, the one tale she did not tell was the one that had brought us there, the deformed earl who was kept hidden away in a secret room. I was puzzled. I thought it was the most well-known story connected with the castle.

At the conclusion of the tour I asked her about it. She looked at me with a quizzical expression that said “Oh, really”? I went on to tell her of a story I had read, that years ago a group of guests had hung towels out of all the windows, trying to find the secret room.

She merely smiled and replied, somewhat dismissively, “Oh, you’ve heard all the stories, haven’t you?”

That was disappointing. Afterward, in the gift shop, I repeated the story of the deformed heir and the secret room to the woman behind the counter, and she, at least, admitted to having heard it, but she didn’t think there was any truth to it.  She also said the bricked up window we were told about had led to a passage for the earl to walk without the servants seeing him.

After leaving the castle, we had no way of calling a cab, so we took a long walk back to the main road. Before we had gone too far I turned around and saw the bricked up window we had heard about, in plain sight. I’m not sure how far it actually was to the highway, but it seemed like at least a mile.  All in all I felt it had been worth the somewhat circuitous trip to get there.

Once we got back to the main road, Diane asked some locals about a bus for the return trip, and they showed us where the bus stop was. This was not the same bus route we had taken on the way there, but it had the added benefit of going through the town of Kirrimuir, which is the birthplace of Sir James Barrie. The driver pointed out the famous statue of Peter Pan as we passed through and eventually we reached Forfar and finally Dundee for the train to Edinburgh.

* * *

Back in the States I now wondered if there had been anything to the story of the “Glamis monster” or whether it was just an urban legend. Using the internet I did some further research on the subject. I had previously only read some accounts in books which were collections of strange facts. But now with the internet at my disposal I discovered, the legend was far from forgotten, and there was a great deal of material online. I discovered the legend specifically refers to Thomas Bowes-Lyons, 11th earl, and his wife, Charlotte, whose first born son, also named Thomas, was born in October of 1821. Contemporary records show he died shortly after birth on the same day.  However, rumors began to spread at the time and long afterward that the baby didn’t die; that he was badly malformed and so unpresentable that he was kept hidden away in a secret room.

Tales were told repeatedly that as he grew older the succeeding generations of presumptive earls, when they reached the age of 21, were shown the secret room, and the true earl, often referred to as the “family secret,” at which they were both shocked and horrified.  I read the 13th Earl’s heir noted a terrible change that came over his father after he was told the family secret, and he himself declined to be initiated.

There was an oft-repeated quote of the response of one of the earls to a visitor: “If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret, you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

I also found variations of a story dating to about 1865 that a laborer in the castle accidentally discovered an unused tunnel and saw something at the other end he shouldn’t have. When he reported this to the castle’s manager, he was paid off to leave the country and resettle elsewhere.

Whether the legend is true or not, it was well enough known that Swiss author Maurice Sandoz based his novel The Maze (1945) on it, albeit somewhat fictionalized. It was illustrated by Salvador Dali. It tells of Gerald McTeam, next in line for the baronetcy after his uncle the baronet dies.

He mysteriously breaks his engagement to a young woman, takes up residency in the McTeam castle, and is found to be prematurely aged and a nervous wreck. He had been sworn to secrecy after being introduced to the legitimate baronet, who had the form of a human-sized toad, but the intelligence of a man.  This true baronet was supposed to be 175 years old. (Accounts vary greatly of the age of his alleged real-life equivalent at death.) The titular maze was a hedge maze behind the castle where the true baronet was taken to exercise in private. The film I had seen, also titled The Maze (1953) was an accurate adaptation and had been filmed by John Cameron Menzies in 3-D.

Because of the numerous online references, as well as the novel and the film, I found it extremely odd that the tour guide had ignored it. I could only conclude that the family simply didn’t want the story repeated.

I continued my research and finally found excerpts from a book called The Queen Mother’s Story (1967), which contained what is apparently the only description of the alleged malformed true earl.  The author, James Wentworth Day, had interviewed family members for his book and reported 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.”

However, there are no other sources for this and some members of the family have denied it. The varying death dates for the malformed earl, which range from 1905 to the 1940’s also detract from the credibility.

While the film, and the novel, do both build up an eerie atmosphere, the ending is ultimately a letdown.  The novel’s denouement happens offscreen, and some critics have called the film unintentionally humorous, with the revelation of the baronet, as in the book, being a huge toad.  There are some things that are better left unseen and unknown, like the legendary monster that inspired it.

[Click here to visit Lee Weinstein’s website.]

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2 thoughts on “In Search of the Glamis Monster

  1. Kirriemuir’s more famous in these parts for a famously ribald song. The town’s Wikipedia page didn’t mention what might be its most famous aspect for many years due to a longrunning disagreement on whether, or how, to cover it.

    The Queen Mother at that time was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, mother of Elizabeth II and grandmother of Charles. Rumour has it she was a more interesting character than official channels let on, and she was a very popular character on Spitting Image. She died in 2002 at 101.

    I’ve never been to Glamis. Apparently there’s a statue of Charles I. Here in Edinburgh we’ve got a statue of Charles II, which is unfortunately too historic to vandalise. Parliament in London have one of Oliver Cromwell. They probably have the right idea.

  2. Mm….that statue of Cromwell, just mentioned, is (just) inside the railings (for safety?) within the Houses of Parliament grounds in Parliament Sq in Central London. I’m told that it is traditional for any Irishman passing by, to spit thereat..! I admit I’ve done so a few times (and partly for dramatic effect to those with me), on some of my twice yearly, free, Prisoner (No 6 etc) location tours in that City…!! [ Next one, by the way, is pm on Sun 15 Sept 2024, with a Danger Man (Secret Agent) London event that same am -plus an Elstree and Borehamwood (UK’s Hollywood, up in north London and easy by local train) event -on the day before: Sat 14th!…Best and BCNU!! ]

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