The Red Cap of Ninestane Rigg
My post for September is a fairly complex one, taking in the story of Hermitage Castle in the Liddesdale valley, the evil magician ‘Bad’ de Soulis who dwelled there in the 14th century, his compact with a devil in a red cap to render him invulnerable to weapons, and his final gruesome destruction by the local people, by being boiled in oil at a neolithic stone circle called ‘Nine Stane Rigg’.
This is all leading up to another post in which I’ll examine whether ‘Robin Redcap’, the devil in the tale, is truly a border equivalent of the Irish Fear Dearg, or Red Man, of if conversely the two trickster spirits are unconnected, one finding its origins in the Irish lore of the solitary fairies, the other being based on belief in witchcraft and black magic in the Borders region of of Scotland.
Where to begin? Hermitage Castle stands in Liddesdale in Roxburghshire and was originally built by Nicholas de Soulis in the 13th century. It was later the home of William de Soulis (probably the ‘Bad’ de Soulis of the legend) until the 1320s, when de Soulis was killed for conspiring against Robert the Bruce (King of Scotland at the time), and ownership of the castle was passed on to loyalists.
In medieval times, however, it was said that William de Soulis himself had built the castle, using cruel methods to get the local people working as hard as possible on its construction, such as drilling holes in their shoulder blades (to make them more flexible, I presume?). This legend is discussed over at the Nine Stone Rigg page on the Modern Antiquarian site. It seems likely that Bad de Soulis was a composite figure representing a noble family hated over several generations culminating in William.
The redcap, in general terms, is said to be a supernatural creature that haunts the towers of castles in the Borders region and dyes its cap with the blood of human victims. The main source for most material on the web is, inevitably, a Kathleen Briggs work, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. From here we learn that:
- Redcaps are short, wiry and with ragged pointed teeth and claws like steel. They have beards and aged, wrinkled faces.
- Recaps must kill regularly, for if the blood staining its hats dries out, they die.
- Redcaps carry heavy iron pikes and have iron-shod boots.
- Outrunning a Recap is quite impossible; the only way to escape one is to quote a passage from the Bible. They lose a tooth on hearing it, which they leave behind.
Powries and Dunters appear to be very similar to the Redcap, and Mysterious Britain suggests that all three are in fact folk memories of church foundation sacrifices, that is, the ghosts of the first person to be buried in a churchyard, who was charged with the responsibility of watching over all the rest. Like much folklore of this kind, there is little evidence in the way of narrative account or even folk memorate; the redcap has become a ‘creature of the list’ and the de Soulis legend is the talismanic episode, the example which all sources use. I have no other examples of these creatures as part of a narrative.
The medieval legend regarding de Soulis and Robin Redcap is very well-known but the sources of it are rarely referenced. I have the following:
- Strange Pages from Family Papers, by T. F. Thiselton Dyer (1895). Online at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/17050
- William Henderson, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties.
- ‘The Folklore of Nine Stane Rigg’ Jeremy Harte pp.25-29, Northern Earth # 24
I’ve copied a post by Rhiannon at the Modern Antiquarian which is a nice summary of the Dyer account:
It is popularly said that Lord Soulis, “the evil hero of Hermitage,” in an unguarded moment made a compact with the devil, who appeared to him in the shape of a spirit wearing a red cap, which gained its hue from the blood of human victims in which it was steeped. Lord Soulis sold himself to the demon, and in return he was permitted to summon his familiar, whenever he was desirous of doing so, by rapping thrice on an iron chest, the condition being that he never looked in the direction of the spirit. But one day, whether wittingly or not has never been ascertained, he failed to comply with this stipulation, and his doom was sealed. But even then the foul fiend kept the letter of the compact. Lord Soulis was protected by an unholy charm against any injury from rope or steel; hence cords could not bind him, and steel could not slay him. But when at last he was delivered over to his enemies, it was found necessary to adopt the ingenious and effective expedient of rolling him up in a sheet of lead, and boiling him to death, and so:
On a circle of stones they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine;
They heated it red and fiery hot
And the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead–
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him into the cauldron red
And melted him, body, lead, bones and all.
This was the terrible end of the body of Lord Soulis, but his spirit is supposed to still linger on the scene. And once every seven years he keeps tryst with Red Cap on the scene of his former devilries.
And still when seven years are o’er
Is heard the jarring sound
When hollow opes the charmèd door
Of chamber underground.
Interestingly, another Hermitage legend relates the story of the Cout O’ Keilder. The Cout was a giant who wore magical armour that made him impervious to the blows of his enemies. He terrorised the people around here until they found a way to knock him from his horse into the nearby river where they held him under with their lances until he drowned. Perhaps de Soulis’ own invulnerability is really a folk memory of the difficulty of harming a Norman-era knight in full plate armour.
That Ninestane Rigg stands hard by the castle is a fact you’ll read ad nauseum if you use the internet the research this legend, but what does it actually mean? In fact the exact references are OS REF: NY517973. sheet 79, which is over thest Whitrope burn, across a ridge and into the forest, about a mile away. Rigg simply means ‘bumpy fell or ridge’. The stone circle is an unremarkable one, although area is in the process of being cleared and there is some evidence that it was one part of a much larger series of monuments (see that Modern Antiquarian page again…). And of course, William de Soulis was actually imprisoned by Robert the Bruce and was never really captured by the Liddesdale locals. I think they simply wished they had boiled him in lead. which by all accounts he thoroughly deserved.
So, what of the Irish Fear Darrig or Dearg, the red-capped solitary fairy who is known for dark pranks and mischief? There is often a Scottish equivalent of Irish mythological or folkloric motifs. Is the redcap a direct translation, or a home-grown Borders tale with real historical antecedants?
Maybe I’ll think about that next week…