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Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle


Postby BlackPanther » Fri Oct 05, 2012 1:51 pm

Date walked: 18/09/2012

Time taken: 2 hours

Distance: 5 km

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I love ghost stories (though I'm a reasonable person and I don't exactly believe in them). There are a couple of such legends in my family, passed on from generation to generation. One involves my great-granddad's meeting with an apparition of a hangman :shock: :shock:, another one tells about my great-uncle's experience with a ghostly German soldier, but these aren't stories to tell here and now. I better stick to Scottish ghosts :lol:
The legend of five headless ghosts from Dunphail is locally known and popular - the story was even mentioned in M. Coventry's "The castles of Scotland". I was intrigued by this tale and hoped to visit the haunted ruin at some point of my explorations.
Dunphail is in my husband's delivery area and he knows all the tracks and private roads in this corner - otherwise it would be a bit tricky to locate this ruin! Last year we attempted to walk to the castle from the bridge over the river Divie (just past Randolph's Leap), but we only managed maybe 200m, the path here was boggy, the banks of the gorge collapsed in a few places, and eventually we were stopped by a pile of fallen trees. Still I didn't give up visiting the ruin and a good opportunity came during our September holidays, on a showery Tuesday, when weather wasn't nice enough to attempt a mountain yet acceptable for a shorter stroll.
The tracks around Dunphail House and along River Divie are all private but we assumed we wouldn't do any harm to the landowners if we simply walked along the tarmac road and stayed away from the buildings. We parked by the church near Divie Viaduct (there is a large, free car park by the war memorial) and enjoyed a short but nice stroll through the forest. An intense shower came and went after a few minutes, leaving the ground dotted with puddles. Even on a dry day it is practical to wear good hillwalking boots on this walk - the final climb to the castle is pathless and steep!
How to get there:

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After 2.5km, past Dunphail House and a few more farms we came across a little pond. I stopped there to take a few photos and...
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... suddenly Kevin grabbed my shoulder:
"Hey, look up there"! he pointed at the very top of the steep cliffs to the east of us...
And here it was...
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Dunphail Castle!
It's hard to spot from the road below! We almost missed it!
We studied the approach to the ruin - it is situated on the very edge of the cliffs, overgrown from all sides and there is no path up! The only way to get close to this ruin is to simply tackle the steep slope. Here, good boots are very useful!
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The vegetation was wet and somehow tricky to climb on but we were determined to finish what we started :lol: and soon we were standing by the ruin. The first feature we encountered was a vaulted cellar:
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Views west towards the river:
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The castle was, according to "The castles of Scotland", a 14-th century stronghold of the Comrys and this vaulted cellar is most likely part of the original building. The main part of the ruin though, looks like a later structure, maybe 16-th or 17-th century tower house, but as I'm no expert on dating ruins then I can't say for sure.
Generally speaking, the ruin is in a VERY BAD condition, unsafe and unstable, we were very careful exploring it and we didn't venture inside the main building. It's much more dangerous than Castle Craig and even Boyne :( . Another ruin soon to be lost.
Enjoy a short exploration of Dunphail Castle with us...
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The much overgrown remains of the western wall:
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A few stones from the collapsed wing:
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Sometimes it's hard to say what's part of the ruin and what's just vegetation:
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The Eastern side, still standing:
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The house appears to have been built as an L-plan but again, this is just what we guesses, judging by the layer of the collapsed parts...
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Ground floor entrance:
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One of the few surviving window holes:
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A look inside the existing wing:
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All right, now when you tasted the climate of this place, let's get back to the infamous five headless ghosts. A paragraph from "They Still Serve: A Complete Guide to the Military Ghosts of Britain" by Richard McKenzie will tell the tale:
"Here Scottish folklore says there was a famous siege. The Earl of Moray was besieging the castle and the situation was desperate for the defenders. With food running low Alastair Cummings and a few brave companions escaped the blockading force and stealing some bags of meal threw them over the wall to feed their starving friends. Unfortunately these brave men were caught in the act and promptly beheaded. The severed heads were then thrown over the walls with the famous cry 'Here is beef for your bannocks!' The noise of fighting is said to still be heard both within and without the walls of this castle. The severed heads of Alastair and his companions are also claimed to appear from time to time within the castle."
:shock: :shock: :shock: Oh, I love spooky stories!!! :shock: :shock: :shock:
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Just to be precise, the siege took place in 1330 and the cruel execution was ordered by the Regent Andrew Moray. The surviving remains of the garrison tried to flee, but were slaughtered by the Regent's men. In the 18th century five skull-less skeletons were found near the castle - does it prove the legend to be true?
Of course, as it was a bright day, all the ghosts were hidden away...
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We said good-bye to Dunphail Castle and this time it probably is fighting a losing battle, the ruin is forgotten, falling apart and the way I see it, far beyond the saving point :( :(
We scrambled down the slope and headed back to the car park on the track. There are some very big trees along the road:
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Just to show you the real size of these forest giants (mind you, they were all planted :lol: ):
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It was still early enough to do some more lurking so we headed for Daltulich Bridge, but the second part of this walk will be posted in a separate TR, just to keep them shorter :wink:
I hope you enjoyed this spooky story, folks. From now on it will be more about mountains and climbing, but we're not finished with old ruins and surely we will discover more places like this in the North of Scotland. Meow!
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby Mountainlove » Fri Oct 05, 2012 2:20 pm

Oh what a lovely story! I was not aware about this and it calls for a visit in misty conditions :o I think
It is a shame that some castles will be soon gone, but I am still surprised to see some standing after being build hundreds of years ago. The trees are lovely as well...so huge. Thank you for sharing...dont you want to share your other ghost stories with us?? :D :D
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby HighlandSC » Fri Oct 05, 2012 3:14 pm

Very interesting :)

Having grown up just down the road in Forres, we'd often be cycling around as youngsters up that area but mostly ending up down by the river at Sluies/Randolphs/Relugas. Didn't know that castle existed. Some good history there :)

There are some HUGE trees around there. Further down the road, not far from the distillery, there was a group of massive trees, one in particular is massive. We'd call it the punching tree - its bark was so thick and soft you could punch it very hard with no affect!
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby Lenore » Fri Oct 05, 2012 4:30 pm

Definitely enjoyed it! Which part of Scotland is this?
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby The Rodmiester » Fri Oct 05, 2012 5:45 pm

Hi Black Panther, you should start up your own website on Scottish Castle Ruins, it would be a hit I'm sure.
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby BlackPanther » Fri Oct 05, 2012 7:15 pm

I'm glad you enjoyed this short trip, folks :D :D I'm heading out for the hills this weekend (or at least I hope to), so the next portion of reports still pending has to wait until Monday...

Mountainlove wrote:Oh what a lovely story! I was not aware about this and it calls for a visit in misty conditions :o I think
It is a shame that some castles will be soon gone, but I am still surprised to see some standing after being build hundreds of years ago. The trees are lovely as well...so huge. Thank you for sharing...dont you want to share your other ghost stories with us?? :D :D


I'd love to tell these family tales but wouldn't the Admins mind? At the end of the day, it's Walkhighlands and my ghost stories didn't even happen in the UK... Maybe I will with my next spooky ruin-report. or maybe we could set up a separate thread about ghosts on general discussion forum :lol: :lol:
HighlandSC wrote:Very interesting :)

Having grown up just down the road in Forres, we'd often be cycling around as youngsters up that area but mostly ending up down by the river at Sluies/Randolphs/Relugas. Didn't know that castle existed. Some good history there :)

There are some HUGE trees around there. Further down the road, not far from the distillery, there was a group of massive trees, one in particular is massive. We'd call it the punching tree - its bark was so thick and soft you could punch it very hard with no affect!


Yep, I was impressed by the big trees too (didn't train any punching though :lol: :lol: ). Plenty of different species of mushrooms as well. I'll post two more TR's from the area along River Findhorn... As soon as I find time.

Lenore wrote:Definitely enjoyed it! Which part of Scotland is this?


It's just south of Forres, south-east of Nairn, Moray area, east of Inverness. A lot to explore and because we live just west of Inverness, we often take the advantage of having these lovely walks so close.

The Rodmiester wrote:Hi Black Panther, you should start up your own website on Scottish Castle Ruins, it would be a hit I'm sure.


I must admit I'm not very good at computers, would probably struggle to create my own page not to mention running it :lol: :lol: I will keep posting here on Walkhighlands unless the Admins get fed up with my far too long TR's :wink:
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby ChrisW » Mon Oct 08, 2012 12:10 am

Another beauty BP, I love your exploration of Scotland and the history you manage to find out along the way, not sure about the heads of long since decapitated folks appearing around the place though :shock: that would make a great misty halloween hike :lol: Another really enjoyable read :clap:
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Re: Five headless ghosts from Dunphail Castle

Postby pandamitchell » Tue May 07, 2013 9:03 pm

This is part of the Moray Walking Festival 'Three Rivers Walk' so here is some History about Dunphail Castle we use when guiding walkers around.

Hidden in deepest Moray, 7miles South west of Forres, there stands the ruin of a medieval castle on the top of a conical hill near to the river Divie which is surrounded on all sides by ancient woodlands.
Exact dates of the castles early history are hard to come by, but it is believed to have been built by the Red Cumyns of Dunphail in the 12th century. This was a time when the Cumyns were very powerful and widespread throughout Scotland and Dunphail Castle was a fortress of considerable importance. The river level in those days was said to have been some 60 feet higher and flowed around most of the castle where only ponds now exist. You can imagine what a formidable barrier this must have provided against any foes of the Cumyns intent on storming it.
Our only clues to it’s type of construction is from what remains of the castle today. Look carfully for a large arched structure close to ground level to see all that is left of the medieval vaulted rubble undercroft. Above this and to the left is a large ivy covered chimney and fireplace of the original great hall, and the taller square structure is a two storey 17th century extension built by the Dunbar family. It is not known exactly when the castle was last lived in, but it was probably abandoned in 1829 when Major Cumming Bruce built Dunphail House nearby.
The End of the Cumyns at Dunphail
Like most castles in Scotland, Dunphail is steeped in local history and has it’s own legends to tell. One particular event of note dates back to the 14th century when the Cumyns were very powerful and were indeed, contenders for the Scottish crown. This however, was denied to them by Robert the Bruce and as a result they were persecuted by the king and his followers. One such supporter was Randolph Earl of Moray, to whom Robert had granted a Royal Charter, making him the Darnaway Forrester.
The Cumyns of Dunphail resented this curtailment of their hunting rights and in an act of defiance, Alistair Bane, the son of Old Cumyn, organized and led a large hunting party to raid the Darnaway stronghold, but their plan was betrayed and Randolph ambushed the Cumyns at the Battle of The Lost Standard. Most of the Cumyns were put to death, but a few, one of which was Alistair, managed to escape into the surrounding woods. After the battle Randolph laid siege to Dunphail Castle to finish off what remained of the Cumyns.
While the castle was besieged, Alistair, who had managed to conceal himself within a nearby cave, supplied food at night to his relatives in the castle. At length, his hiding place was found by bloodhounds and Alistair was smoked out and beheaded. His head, still fresh from dispatch, was flung over the castle walls to the horrible taunt of ‘Your son has provided you with meal, and now we send you flesh to eat with it!’ Old Comyn recognized his sons head and as he wept over it he replied ‘ It is a bitter morsel indeed, but I will gnaw the last bone of it before I surrender!’ Soon after the castle fell and the remaining Cumyns were put to the sword.

Join us for the 3 Rivers walk on June 20th for a 11 mile circular walk on the Findhorn, Divie and Dorback. Go to the Moray Walking Festival web site for the details.
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