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The Castle in the High Street 

By JOAN BIGGAR Published in The Scots Magazine February 1981 (Photos by Gordon Snead)

JoanBiggar@ayrshireroots.com 

 

 

An ancient building five storeys high, with a square tower, fairytale turrets and seven-foot thick walls, sounds like the kind of place you couldn’t fail to notice and admire. Yet this describes the old castle at Maybole, which many people pass by without realising it’s there. 

Unlike many of our castles that stand in solitary splendour on a hill top, mound, cliff or rock, the Maybole one is in the High Street which is also the busy trunk road to Stranraer. 

Built possibly around the time Mary Stuart returned to her native land in 1560 as Queen of Scats, the castle was the imposing town house of the Earl of Cassillis (pronounced Castles) and his family. From it they conducted forays and feuds, planning many a ploy to outwit their rivals, the Bargany family, in a perpetual power game. But as time passed the fighting and feuding became less fierce. The later earls and their followers could not so easily take the law into the their own hands and mete out rough justice, so they began to spend less time at their Maybole stronghold and more in their peaceful summer seat, Cassillis House, near Dalrymple

In 1805, one of the Cassillis earls gave permission for that part of the castle formerly housing retainers, such as blacksmiths, armourers and grooms, to be demolished to make way for the road. Like the rest of his ancient town house it was sorely neglected, but he stopped the rot by having the remainder of the castle re-roofed and restored. 

Modern Maybole clusters round its castle. When a new library was built in 1905, and a Post Office in 1913, they were given embellishments such as crow-stepped gables to ensure that their architecture merged harmoniously with that of the castle which stands directly opposite the Post Office. 

People hot on the Burns trail are those least likely to notice Maybole Castle, for their attention will be caught by the bust of the poet above butcher’s shop along the street. This marks the spot where the Bard’s parents first met at a fair. His mother, Agnes Broun, was a Maybole girl, and as the young Robert loved folktales and legends, she no doubt regaled him with the one about Lady Jean, wife of the 6th Earl of Cassillis, who ran off with Johnnie Faa and his band of gipsies. 

This is said to have happened in early 17th century, probably around 1625. While the Earl was away from his Maybole home, Johnnie Faa threw the glamourie over the Countess. According to local legend, gipsy Johnnie had her completely in thrall, and the story of heir reckless, romantic adventure has been told ever since, through the centuries, in various versions of the ballad beginning: 

The Gypsies came to the castle gate,

They sang so high, they sang so low,

The lady sat in her chamber late,

And her heart it melted away like snow. 

There are many variations on this familiar theme, but Maybole folk say the first line is, and always was : 

The gipsies cam tae Cassillis yett (gate). 

The song goes on to tell how the Countess kicked off her shoes of Spanish leather and, barefoot and starry-eyed, turned her back on painted rooms and gracious living to declare :

Last night I slept in a goosefeather bed

With the sheet turned down so bravely oh,

But tonight I shall sleep in a cold open field,

Along with the raggle-taggle Gypsies oh! 

Her rapture was short-lived, for when the Earl returned to Maybole he set out in pursuit, accompanied by a strong band of friends and retainers. The party caught up with the gipsies at a ford over the River Doon - the place is still known as “The Gipsies’ Steps“. The gypsies were taken back to the castle where Johnnie Faa and his men were all hung from the Dule Tree, the hapless Lady Jean being forced to watch the execution from the casement window of a room high in the castle tower. She was kept locked up there for the rest of her life. 

Around the little oriel window are carved nine stone heads, as grisly memorials to the gipsies’ fate. There’s nothing of the conventional gargoyle about these rather sonsie faces, and it’s almost impossible not to believe they do indeed represent Johnnie Faa and his men who are known to have had a camp nearby at Culroy. More carving, in the shape of male and female heads and fertility symbols, embellishes the corbels to the roof of the Countess’s room, surely too sunny and comfortable to be called a cell although it was her prison. 

Today, the castle, which belongs to the Marquis of Ailsa, present Earl of Cassillis, is the oldest inhabited house in Maybole. Until recently it was occupied by a succession of factors for the Cassillis and Culzean estates, and still houses the estate-office. The present tenants of the living accommodation are Kenneth Roy-the well-known broadcaster now programme controller and managing director of Radio Ayrshire -his wife Margaret, and their young sons, Stephen and Christopher. 

A tangle of honeysuckle surrounds the great door of the castle which is still the comfortable family home has always been. 

I particularly like the old thick walls,” Margaret told me. “The give such a feeling of security.  

Another thing I’m fond of is the way each room of the upper storeys seems to have its own roof. There are so manv different levels of roofs and chimnevs. Strangely enough, considerjng its age, the castle has no ghosts; the atmosphere seems happy and full of good vibes.” 

From the vaulted cellars, some of them still with heftv iron hooks in the curved ceilings from which whole carcases of meat could be suspended in the cool atmosphere, to the prospect room, that eyrie high in the tower where the erring Countess is it said to have spent her imprisonment, the castle is the perfect place for hide- and-seek. One of the first things  Christopher, Stephen, and their young friends noticed was that there were windows with no rooms behind them ! These are rogue windows, a status symbol of many castles, added to the walls to increase the impression of space and splendour. Although only decorative, they’ve been roguishly responsible for tricking many folk into believing in hidden rooms, or cupboards housing ancestral skeletons. 

My climb up the spiral staircase of the castle tower to the prospect room was long, steep and eerie. In places the winding stair was pitch black even on a brilliant summer afternoon. But when I stepped into the little room I found it flooded with bright sunlight. The panoramic view from the window was magnificent and probably Lady Jean spent a lot of time gazing pensively out over those cold open fields, and the rough moorland tracks and villages of the kingdom of Carrick of which Maybole is the ancient capital. 

She also busied herself with sewing beautiful tapestries which were used to line the bare walls of her room, making them lookrich and colourful. In winter it would be snug as a squirrel’s dray, for a great carved stone fireplace almost fills one entire wall, and looks as though an ox could be roasted there. 

Lady Jean felt very real to me, although some people insist that the story of her escapade with the gypsies amounts to defamation of her character and that she was as deuce a wife as any man could wish for. They claim that the episode in the ballad dates from before her time when a young knight named Sir John Faa disguised himself as a gipsy and made off with a now forgotten lady. 

The main rooms of the castle are spacious and well proportioned, and although Margaret says she’d like to see them filled with rare antiques and Persian carpets as befits a castle, to my mind the drawing room as it is could not be more elegant. The kitchen cosier, or the dining room, which has a charming collage made by 12-year-old Stephen on the wall, more comfortable. 

I was interested to learn that the castle had aroused the enthusiasm of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The famous architect made extensive sketches of the exterior and interior when planning the Glasgow School of Art and Cranston’s tea rooms, which were considered ultra-modern by our Edwardian ancestors. 

There are other legends about Maybole Castle besides that of the gipsies and Lady Jean. Margaret mentioned one concerning Janet Dunlop, who was convicted of witchcraft in the early 17th century and burned at the stake. “ She was very poor,” said Margaret, “ until she met a strange character calling himself Tam Reid. Whatever spell or incantation he taught her, she became immensely rich. But he could not be traced, and according to the evidence at her trial he had disappeared into the solid wall of Maybole Castle.” 

“ We don’t know whether he’s still there,” remarked Kenneth, “ but if he is, he keeps himself very much to himself! We’ve never encountered him.” 

There is also supposed to be a secret passage leading from Maybole Castle to Culzean  - so secret that nobody can find it now. 

If you pass through Maybole on your travels, remember poor Johnnie Faa, who died for love or perhaps only the love of adventure. He and his band of merry men will be watching you as you come down the High Street. If you look up into their weathered faces, it’s very, very easy to believe in the old legend and spare a sigh for Scotland’s “ barefoot contessa “, the  adventurous, but ill-fated, Lady Jean.  

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

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