Wizardry and Hobgoblins, Robert the Bruce, composer Carlo Menotti and Lady Gaga all have links to a mysterious 13th century ruin hidden deep in a Scottish wood, known as the Goblin Ha' - an underground chamber built by Hugh de Gifford, the famous Wizard of Yester, where he reputedly practised his art with the help of an army of goblins. This painting contains impressions from our first journey to the Goblin's hall.
On the way to the Goblin Ha'
The wilder grounds of Yester House where the ruin sits became one of our favourite places when we lived in Scotland; a tangled wood of beech, oak, rowan, and birch. In early spring we would follow the Yester stream, gathering baskets of wild garlic leaves growing in the damp shaded soil, one of the earliest edible green plants of the year. No matter how much we gathered, it was never enough, with two hungry children eating handfuls of raw leaves on each visit; by the time we returned there was barely enough left for soup.
Walks to the ruins took a longer trail. Rather than crossing the mown lawns of Yester House, we circled around the grounds, following deer trails through the woods.
With the vaguest of directions, we crossed the stream on the remnants of an overgrown 13th Century footbridge. The lower stones still arched around the stream, a halo of lichen and moss, but many of the upper stones lay half submerged in the bog. We rambled along steeply wooded banks towards the higher ground until suddenly, between the trees, we were confronted by this mysterious anachronism.
Completely obscured until you are almost upon it, there stands a ruined tower hidden between leafed trees. There is no path, just the fungal fragrance of sweet beech mulch beneath your feet.
The tower has arched windows. Some say the upper one was a door. The lower is almost sunk into the earth. It dates to a time before 1267, when Hugh de Gifford, the renowned magician, first built it.
You have to search for the way in. Around the side we found it, hidden on a steep bank high above the stream- a goblin-sized arched door and passageway. Every stone is beautifully cut and tooled, shaped and fitted precisely around the curve.
Stepping from the green, song-filled wood, we crouched our way along a dark passage until it opened into a hall, lit by shafts of light from the upper "window". The height, age and beauty of the vaulted ceiling took us by suprise. It is one of the oldest examples of its kind, and is still perfect and completely unexpected after tunneling under tree roots.
It is said that the wizard worked his magic in this chamber, summoning the help of faeries or goblins. Some suggest he was an educated mage, a man of science, returned from his travels with small dark skinned 'helpers' that appeared like goblins to local villagers.
Across the hall an even darker passageway of descending stone steps goes deeper into the earth. An ancient wall now seals off whatever lies beyond, a dungeon, a well?
The owl feather that began the painting
On the way back from our first visit, at the ruined stone footbridge, a barn owl's pale breast feather fluttered in the breeze, resting on damp liverworts. Inspired, I carried it back with some gathered liverwort, birch bark and leaves. They were the starting point for this painting. The owl feather is on the right, and around it other things from that first walk. I planned a silhouette of the ruined tower - but what emerged was an underground chamber filled with light and ethereal figures. The trees also suggest the shape of the arched structure. The owl sits between the two realities. Above the ground another figure, half seen, dances in moonlight.
And what of the famous necromancer, the Wizard of Yester, Hugh de Gifford? He was a well-known local character, both in magic and politics. This one tower and underground chamber are all that has survived of the magnificent castle he built.
One other thing did, a wedding present he gave his daughter Margaret a pear, kept in a silver box. He told her as long as the pear was cared for, her family would suffer no misfortune. For 400 hundred years, generations of her family prospered, until 1692, when the bride of the family's head, Sir George Braun, was tempted.
She removed the pear from its silver casing. It looked unnaturally fresh, and she tried a bite. It was rock hard - and the spell was broken.
Within a short time, Sir George lost the whole estate to gambling. His brother Robert bought it, but soon after Robert and his two sons were drowned on their way to Edinburgh, when an unusual flash flood caused the River Tyne to overflow its banks, washing them off the road.
Since that time, the pear has been kept safe in its silver box, and today remains in Colstoun House near Haddington.
Map of Yester estate (outlined in red), Gifford, East Lothian.
The wizard of Yester's reputation was earned in his own lifetime. Less than a hundred years after his death, the chronicles of John of Fordun mention the underground chamber where he worked his magic.
In 1308 the castle was illegally occupied by the English. In later years it was one of many destroyed by Robert the Bruce trying to prevent an English occupation.
By 1557 a later castle was abandoned, and the owners built a more comfortable tower-house where Yester House sits today.
The last mention of the Goblin Ha' in use was in 1737, by the Marquess' falconer.
Yester House has always been a house of music. Harp tunes survive which were written in years past in honour of generous patrons. The current Yester house with its Adams interior was sold in 1972 to the composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was impressed by the fine acoustics. A few years ago his son put the property on the market, and it became Scotland's most expensive piece of real estate.
Last year world headlines announced that final papers were signed, and Lady Gaga would be the new owner of Yester House and the famous Goblin Ha'. It was easy to imagine one of her videos being shot in this location, but the rumours were untrue, and it remains unsold.
This link has photos of the beautifully cut stonework surviving at the Goblin Ha' chamber and passageway. It also gives an indication of the surrounding woodland. If you want to see pictures of the house, or surviving harp tunes just google 'Yester House' and scan the hundreds of pictures.