Love Legends in the South

by Sara Barton, 11th February 2022
Sweetheart Abbey | New Abbey
Love Legends in the South

Love is all around the south of Scotland. Be it ill-fated love or a happily-ever-after endings, there are legends and tales woven into ballads and stories across the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. Romance abounds in some of the great houses, landscapes are the settings for dramatic events and even when the course of love seems to be secure, fate has a habit of throwing in a twist. Bring alive your visit with stories of love and a cast of characters as varied as any created by Scotland’s great writers.

Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway celebrates her love

Place: Sweetheart Abbey

Sweetheart Abbey was founded in 1273 by Lady Devorgilla of Galloway in memory of her husband John Balliol. She was the eldest daughter of Alan Lord of Galloway and very unusually for the time, she inherited the title and lands from her father when he died. She used her considerable wealth and power to plan a new Cistercian abbey near the Solway Firth in memory of her husband to whom she was devoted.

Dervorgilla had Balliol’s heart embalmed and placed in an ivory and silver casket. She named this casket her “Sweet Silent Companion”. When she died in 1289 she was buried on the altar of the Abbey with her husband’s casket alongside her. Today a memorial stone marks this spot.

The Monks of the Abbey composed a poem and described the love story as “Dulce Cor” which translated from Latin as Sweetheart and from that point the Cistercian buildings became known as Sweetheart Abbey.

Although classed a ruin, the red, sandstone structure is still remarkably complete and an awe inspiring place to visit 700-plus years later. It is definitely worth a trip with a stop in the picturesque village of New Abbey for food and drink after you have contemplated this monument to love.

10 reasons to visit Dumfries and Galloway: Sweetheart Abbey
Sweetheart Abbey, built as a testament to her love for her husband by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway for John Balliol.

Thomas the Rhymer falls in love with a Fairie Queen

Place: Eildon Hills; Rhymer’s Glen near Melrose

In the 13th century Scottish Borders lived an Earl called Thomas of Ercildoune (now known as Earlston), who became known as Thomas the Rhymer.

The legend has it that as he sat beneath the Eildon Tree near Melrose, he heard the tinkling of silver bells and the sound of a horse’s hooves. A beautiful lady approached, riding a beautiful white horse.  Thomas fell under her spell and followed her into the hollows of the Eildon Hills, for the lady was the Queen of Elfland.

He lived with her for seven years and she gave him the gift of prophecy. When he returned to live with men once more he was unable to lie. He foretold of significant events in Scottish history and was gifted as a poet, hence his name.

This romance became legend when Sir Walter Scott expanded a ballad of the tale into three parts, incorporating the prophecies Thomas made and adding an epilogue where Thomas returns to Elfland to be with his lady love.

Today you can walk the Eildon Hills where Thomas is said to have met his fairie Queen and where Sir Walter Scott would also frequently walk  – it is a magical spot even if you don’t believe in fairies.

Romantic legend surrounds the Eildon Hills with love stories such as that of Thomas the Rhymer who kissed a fairy queen and was taken to the Otherworld beneath the hills.
Thomas the Rhymer supposedly spent 7 years in the land of the faeries buried beneath the Eildon Hills.

William Scott of Harden raids Elibank Castle and marries Muckle-Moothed Meg

Place: Elibank Castle ruins; Tweed Valley; Abbotsford

Indeed we would not have Sir Walter Scott’s fanciful rendition of Thomas the Rhymer were it not for another story of love, or at least marriage in the early 1600s. In the Scottish Borders there lived two neighbouring families with a long running feud: the Scotts of Harden and the Murrays of Elibank. In 1611, the eldest son of Auld Wat Scott, William Scott, set off from his home at Aikwood Tower to raid the cattle of his father’s oldest enemy.

From Elibank Castle, set high up on the southern side of the Tweed Valley the raiders were seen and captured.  William Scott was thrown into the castle’s dungeon. He was given a choice – hang or marry Agnes, known as Meg, the eldest Murray daughter. Initially, or so the story goes, Willie Scott refused.

Meg was described by James Hogg in his account of the matter “The Fray of Elibank”:

“Now Meg was but thin an’ her nose it was lang, and her mou’ it was muckle as could weel be. Her een they were grey and her colour was wan, but her nature was generous, gentle and free”

At the last minute Willie changed his mind and married Muckle-Moothed Meg of Elibank on 14th July 1611.

A direct descendent from this seemingly unromantic liaison would be Sir Walter Scott, who himself created great romantic novels set in the very Scottish landscape that his ancestors once raided. His home at Abbotsford is just 19km from Elibank ruins, along the Southern Upland Way.

If it were not for the liaison of Willie Scott of Harden and Muckle-Moothed Meg, we may never have had Abbotsford House or Sir Walter Scott.
If it weren’t for Willie Scott marrying Muckle-Moothed Meg, Abbotsford and Sir Walter Scott may never have existed.

English couples elope to Scotland

Place: The Blacksmiths Shop, Gretna Green

In 1754, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, made it illegal for couples in England and Wales to marry without their parent’s consent under the age of 16. And so began a tradition of star-crossed lovers to flock across the border to Scotland. Glowing in the night skies, the Blacksmith forge was usually the first building couples saw on entering the Scottish border town of Gretna Green. Couples made directly for shelter and to find someone to marry them as soon as possible.

Under Scottish law, provided there were two witnesses present, anyone could marry simply by declaring themselves wed in front of these witnesses. And so the blacksmith and his wife began ‘marrying’ couples.

Today the town is still a romantic lure and is one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Scotland!

Love stories abound at the Blacksmith shop in Gretna Green where English couples have been eloping to get married since 1755.
Gretna Green – a beacon for young lovers since 1754.

Love for a King

Place: Traquair House

Traquair House is the longest continually inhabited home in Scotland. And it looks the part of a perfect setting for a romantic period drama. 

And indeed there is an intriguing story about love here, although this one is love for a sovereign.

Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at the house visiting Charles, fifth Earl of Traquair during his March to London in 1745. On his departure, the Jacobite supporting Earl of Traquair closed and locked the Bear Gates at the entrance, swearing they would not be reopened until a Stuart Monarch sat on the Throne.

Those gates, built in 1739, have remained closed and padlocked ever since.

His dedication to the cause was admirable, if ill-fated, as was the dedication of his wife. When Charles, the fifth Earl, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his support of the Jacobite cause after the 1745 rebellion, his new wife Theresa Conyers volunteered to join him in prison. He was released on bail in 1747 and confined to his estates.

Traquair House Ltd
Traquair House where the Bear Gates have been shut since 1745.

Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour

Place: Ellisland Farm; Burns House, Dumfries

Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour had a hard road to their happy ending. Had they lived in the modern day, their romance would surely have been daily Twitter fodder and covered the tabloid front pages. To start with there was the stern disapproval from Jean’s parents who did not like Burn’s reputation as a womaniser. Indeed Burns arranged a secret marriage while Jean was pregnant with his twins. But the family kept them apart and did not recognise them as married.

Burns interpreted this separation as rejection and shifted his affections to Mary Campbell, known as Highland Mary. His first book was published, he moved to Edinburgh and became the toast of the town. A visit back to his hometown, however led to Armour falling pregnant once more and her parents throwing her out. Around this time, while supposedly continuing to court Jean, Burns was sending letters and visiting Agnes/Nancy McLehose, who he had met in Edinburgh on publishing business in 1787.

Agnes was technically still married, although her husband had immigrated to Jamaica. Agnes was a lover of poems and Burns and she began a correspondence. These intimate letters show Burns professing all for Agnes to the detriment of Jean. Agnes, while honouring her marriage vows made it clear she had feelings for Burns. But when Burns pressed for a fuller relationship, Agnes refused. Finally Agnes left Scotland and Burns returned to Jean, marrying here in 1788.

Together they moved into Ellisland Farm and then on to Dumfries in what is now called Burns House.  Settled at last, it seems Burns finally found his true love.

Robert Burns House in Dumfries., Dumfries Museum
Robert Burns and Jean Armour married in 1788, moving first to Ellisland Farm then to this house, now known as Robert Burns House in Dumfries.

The 8th Duke of Roxburghe marries an American heiress

Place: Floors Castle

Long before Sir Julian Fellowes penned a word of Downtown Abbey, there was real life transatlantic love story at Floors Castle….

Mary Goelet was a wealthy American heiress with a large dowry, affectionately known as May. As a bridesmaid at Consuelo Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Duke Marlborough in 1895, May attracted the eye of Henry, 8th Duke of Roxburghe.

He proposed to her in August 1903 and the wedding was the event of New York high society that November. May’s mother set about organising the event of the new century, although the Duke was reportedly appalled by the high profile it was being given. He found the American press intrusive wanting intimate details of him and his family.

Despite the press and the crowds and the ejection of uninvited guests from the church, their big day was a success. Most importantly it was a marriage of love, admiration and trust. Today, the interiors of Floors Castle bear testament to the influence of its American-born Duchess.

Duchess May filled the house with beautiful French furniture, and her elegant style can still be seen today. She was responsible for refitting the Drawing Room in 1930 to incorporate ‘The Triumph of the Gods’, a set of Belgian tapestries that were inherited from her mother.

A classic love story, American heiress weds Scottish Duke led to beautiful Belgia tapestries being installed inside the drawing room of Floors Castle.
May, 8th Duchess of Roxburghe refitted the Drawing Room at Floors Castle to accommodate these Belgian tapestries, Triumph of the Gods.

Tragic death on the Titanic

Place: Obelisk to commemorate two victims of the Titanic, Dumfries Dock Park

John Law Hume from Dumfries was just 21 when he sat on the deck of the Titanic and played Nearer My God to Thee with his seven bandmates as the ship was sinking into the freezing North Atlantic. He was the first violinist and had been working on cruise ships since he was 15.  He had taken the job to save money for the family he and his fiancé Mary Costin had on the way.

Hume had promised to marry pregnant Costin when he returned from the crossing three weeks later. Tragically he perished in the early hours of 15 April 1912. His body now lies in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Documents from the Titanic Relief Fund showed that in 1915, unmarried Mary Costin was receiving 15s 2d a month for her fatherless infant, a girl named Johann. Until recently this was thought to be the end of this ill-fated love. A century later and the search for further information about his famous grandfather, led Johann’s son, Christopher Ward, to discover a secret.

John Hume had sired a son with a barmaid during his time as a musician at a Jamaican hotel just months prior to his departure on the Titanic.  Ward followed the trail and discovered a new branch of his family. Ward’s book And the Band Played On outlines his joy at the discovery but also his relief his mother did not know.

Dumfries was home to John Law Hume and Mary Costin, betrothed but destined never to be married.