The Monster of Glamis
Today we have a good old fashioned ghost story, and it even comes from a famous, dark old castle in Scotland. Glamis Castle is the ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore, and has been since 1372, when King Robert II of Scotland gave it to Sir John Lyon. His descendants eventually acquired the title Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and a Lyon of that title has ruled the castle ever since. The Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who died in 2002, grew up in the castle as a young girl, as a daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore. Thus Glamis' history has been a highly public and visible one that ties our modern world all the way back with medieval times. And throughout all those centuries, it's held a secret. Legend says that the secret has been known only to the Earl himself, and passed on from elder son to elder son. The secret concerns a hidden room and a living beast known only as the Monster of Glamis.
Our task today is to look at what's known about the Monster, and come to an informed best-bet conclusion to whether it really ever existed at all; or indeed, may even still haunt the grounds today...
The castle has fabled ghosts, of course. Any castle worth its salt has its share of those. There is the Tongueless Woman, alleged to be the spirit of a girl mutilated by castle guards for illicit relations with the Earl. There is the ghost of Jack the Runner, a black slave boy, said to have been killed by the Earl and his mounted party by their dogs in a variation of fox hunting. The grounds have a White Lady, and the chapel has a Grey Lady. And one the early Earls — variously described as either the second or the fourth — is said to have demanded a game of cards on the Sabbath, and when none of his guests would accommodate him, the Devil appeared at the castle gate and played cards with the Earl all night long. Some say he still plays in a secret, hidden room, condemned to gamble for eternity for his sin.
But it was during the reign of the 11th Earl of Strathmore that the Monster first came into the world. The wife of the Earl's son Thomas George, who would later become the 12th Earl, gave birth to a son, heir to the title on October 21, 1821. The boy was named Thomas Bowes-Lyon, and sadly, history records that the infant died that same day, and the title eventually passed to the second son, Claude, born in 1824.
But the legend says that young Thomas did not die, though perhaps it might have been better if he had. He was described as so horribly deformed that to look upon him was to invite madness. The poor infant was sent to a special hidden room and kept out of sight, as they expected him to die quickly. But he did not. The Monster lived and grew to manhood, fed by a single trusted servant through a grate in his door. He was said to be fat and round like an egg, with no neck, and only small, nearly useless arms and legs. The author James Wentworth Day first made this description public in his 1967 book The Queen Mother's Family Story. His unnamed source, whom some researchers believe to be the Queen Mother herself, gave the following description:
The tale goes on to say that on moonless nights, the same trusted servant would walk the Monster along the castle's battlements, and that section is still to this day called "The Mad Earl's Walk". What did lumber along the ramparts late at night, bellowing its mournful regrets, and scaring the flimsier ghosts back to their effigies?
Another story from Wentworth Day's book is that sometime in the 1870s, a stonemason engaged in remodeling encountered something that frightened him, and perhaps even discovered the secret room. The castle was equipped with a telegraph, and the Earl was summoned back from Edinburgh. He questioned the stonemason, then paid him a large sum to move to Australia.
Legend has it that the secret of the Monster is passed from father to son, from Earl to Earl:
Now there's one thing that should raise a big red flag for you when you hear talk of a "family secret". Real secrets are secret, and you wouldn't be hearing about them on a podcast if they were so. At the bottom of this page you'll find a list of references discussing this so-called "secret". So, clearly, if there was a secret, there were always at least a handful of people who knew it (trusted servants and factors at least), and it sounds like just about everyone else knew about it. At least, enough of them to furnish James Wentworth Day with enough material for his book.
But Wentworth Day's account is suspect on at least one level. According to the Queen Mother (he says), her own grandfather had insisted that the family secret not be given to him, and so it never was. So it's hardly likely that he could have then passed it down to his son, her father. How, then, could she have learned of the Monster? And why do we have accounts of both her father and grandfather issuing warnings about the secret?
It's a question we could chew on, but it may not be necessary to do so, when we look closer at our source. James Wentworth Day wrote over forty books on various subjects, but one of his favorite genres was — you guessed it — ghost stories. His bibliography includes such works as Here Are Ghosts and Witches (1954), A Ghost Hunter's Game Book (1958), and In Search of Ghosts (1969). He was not so much an historian as he was a weaver of illustrious tales. Nearly all the accounts you'll read of the Monster of Glamis reference Wentworth Day's 1967 book.
That's not to say that he invented the stories at all; I'm merely suggesting that he compiled and codified the history of the Monster, the hidden room, and the accompanying "family secret" into the version we have today. It turns out that for each of these story elements, Glamis Castle's earlier history provides a more concrete precedent, and one that is, conveniently, out of reach for researchers.
Glamis Castle has, since its earliest days, had a tale of a hidden room with a gory secret. In 1486, the 2nd Lord Glamis offered sanctuary to a fleeing band from a rival clan called the Ogilvies. But he betrayed them. They were led to a room, the door was locked and barricaded, and it was over a month before anyone ventured to look inside. Only one Ogilvie was still alive, having survived by eating the starved corpses of his companions. He was killed, and the room was permanently bricked up and sealed, to conceal the crime of having betrayed a promise of sanctuary. Though no known proof exists of this crime, it is consistent with the actual history of the day. And so Glamis Castle acquired a family secret, and a secret room that remains hidden. The purpose of passing the secret from father to son might well be to insure that the room is never opened.
In 1882, the New York Times published an account, many times retold and altered, of a party of guests who heard about the secret room and hung fabric from every interior window they could find. When they looked outside, a few windows had been missed, usually described as two adjacent windows in the central square tower. Many versions of this story exist, and in a castle as expansive as Glamis, secret or inaccessible rooms should surprise no one.
Wentworth Day even had a source for the stern warnings about revealing the secret, a 1925 autobiography by A.M.W. Stirling called Life's Little Day: Some Tales and Other Reminiscences.
All of this leaves us with one item to explain: the origin of the story of the Monster himself. No history exists for young Thomas Bowes-Lyon, so the unfortunate infant probably did die of his birth defects. But hanging in the castle is an enigmatic family portrait from 138 years earlier. It depicts the 3rd Earl of Strathmore with his three sons. The Earl had five children, but this portrait includes only the male members of the family. The Earl himself is seated in the portrait. To his right stands his son and future Earl John, and to his left are two boys, one perhaps a young teen and the other a small boy. Two dogs stand with them, and watching over is an angel winging about in the sky. Glamis Castle identifies that portrait as having been painted in 1683 by the artist Jacob de Wet; in fact, we even have a diary entry noting the payment for "2 great Pieces for my Lord and his 3 sonns". We also have a contract from 1688 for de Wet to create a number of other artworks for the castle. So the portrait's provenance is well established.
But there is still a problem concerning the number of boys in the portrait. The Earl's two younger sons, Charles and Patrick, were not even born until 1692 and 1695, respectively; nine and twelve years after their portrait was painted. And Charles, the middle son, is recorded as having died in childbirth.
This has fueled rampant speculation that Charles did not actually die, but was horribly deformed, yet politely "cleaned up" by the artist. The painting is almost certainly the original source of the rumor of the Monster, but could it also be evidence that he was real?
Well, it certainly could be, but there's a much more rational explanation. It was common in past centuries, when a family picture was an expensive and time-consuming project, to depict babies and young children as older. We know for a fact that de Wet referenced "3 sonns" when only one had been born. At the time of the portrait's commission, the Earl and his wife may well have planned for more sons, and so chose to add two children to the picture. Both were eventually born, but one sadly died, and is now remembered only by the strapping teenage image of the young man he may have become.
Much of Glamis Castle is now open to the public and is easy to see, but much of its history has been lost to centuries of interclan squabbles, bureaucracy, remodeling, and the gradual merging of fact and fiction. Plenty of evidence exists of the circumstances in which the Monster of Glamis might have lived out his tormented years; but of that he ever actually had them at all, we have mere legend. The pitiable dear beast now resides with the White Lady only in the twilight land of legend. We may get more answers one day, when archaeology tells all Glamis Castle's secrets. Perhaps a few poor unfortunates can be buried on that day, and help us all rest a little easier.
Correction: An earlier version of this said England where Scotland was intended. Oops. —BD
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