FRANCES ABBOT looks at the bloody and ghostly history of Rait Castle in the Scottish Highlands
A 20-minute drive from Inverness following the coast of the Moray Firth will bring you to the town of Nairn and a few miles from there you will find the impressive ruins of the 800-year-old Rait Castle. How it fell into such a ruinous state is an interesting story.
From earliest days the clan system of the Highlands of Scotland often saw bitter feuds, clan fighting clan over territory and power, changing allegiances, taking opposing sides in the political battles of the day. One such feud occurred between the Mackintoshes and the Comyns (Cummings)
The fourth chief of the Mackintoshes was the first occupant of Rait Castle. He was granted the lands in the mid 13th century. His son fell heir to the title and the castle, but when he died in 1274 leaving only a young son behind, the Cummings seized the advantage and took over the castle and other Mackintosh holdings. They were known as the De Rathes from their Norman background and the castle became Rait Castle.
The Cummings and Mackintoshes were on opposite sides during the Wars of Independence with Mackintoshes fighting for Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Being on the winning side he put forward his claim to Rait Castle in 1305 but the Cummings were left in occupation.
Clan memories were long then and the trouble between the two clans bubbled to the surface again in 1424 when The Cummings hanged some Mackintosh men. Retaliation after retaliation followed until the Cummings hatched a cunning plan. They would seek a reconciliation and invite their enemies to a grand feast at the castle, but on a given signal rise up against their guests and kill the lot. Everyone was sworn to secrecy, but the chief hadn’t reckoned on his daughter’s love for a Mackintosh lad. And it was his undoing.
The lovers meeting place was a certain stone outside the castle still called The Stone of the Maiden. There the girl, not breaking her oath to her father, told the stone of the plot that awaited the guests, knowing that her lover was standing behind it. Forewarned the guests arrived with short dirks hidden in their clothing.
There seems to be some confusion about the signal. One source gives it at the height of the feast when a bull’s head was ushered into the hall, another at the standing for a toast. Whichever it was, the excitement was at its height, fuelled no doubt by drink and anticipation on both sides, when the sign was given. During the scene of death and carnage that followed the chief escaped and ran in fury to his daughter’s chamber knowing of her Mackintosh lover and sure of her crime in bringing this upon her family. The girl tried to escape his rage by the only route open to her – the window. As she was hanging from the opening her father brought his broadsword down on her hands and cut them off.
Local tradition has it that from the night of the massacre blood stains the walls of Rait Castle and a wraith-like figure of a girl with no hands can sometimes be seen walking nearby.
Tradition aside, the Mackintoshes were granted a charter for what had been their castle and lands in 1442. But in that year Rait Castle was abandoned.
And abandoned it still is. Fifteen years of lobbying to get work done to save the castle form the vegetation eating away at the ancient mortar has been unsuccessful. You can follow the fortunes of the castle by the Save Rait Castle Facebook Group.
FRANCES ABBOT has gone from writing plays to be performed by children and arts/community groups to writing short stories and is now writing a crime novel. You can follow her on twitter @AbbotFabbot.