While sitting on the steps outside Edinburgh’s ‘Dynamic Earth’ visitor attraction the other day our family were admiring the view over to the Scottish Parliament building. My wife pointed to the older whitewashed building that nestles in the heart of the new parliament complex and asked me if that was part of the parliament too. The building in question was Queensberry House. Not knowing a great deal about it I called up the internet on my phone to find out more. Little did I realise that this innocent looking building would hold such dark secrets!
Queensberry House was built in 1667 for Dame Margaret Douglas of Balmakellie. It was bought a few years later to Charles Maitland, Lord Hatton and then sold again in 1689 William Douglas, the 1st Duke of Queensberry. The first Dukes daughter died in the house under horrific circumstances; her apron caught fire, causing her terrible facial injuries from which she died.
When William died in 1695 the estates passed to his eldest son James Douglas who became the 2nd Duke of Queensberry. James was either an incredible shrewd political operator or was incredibly naïve, As Lord High Commissioner for Scotland between 1700 and 1703 he sided with the Jacobites, leading to his resignation. But then in 1705 he pops back into political life, reinvented as Keeper of the Privy Seal. In 1707 he orchestrates the Act of Union and Scotland’s days as an independent nation are ended.
But James had a dark secret and on the very night the act was signed a terrible and ghastly crime would shock the nation and shame the name of Douglas.
The Duke’s eldest son James was referred to in many peerage records to have ‘died young’ there is very little mention of him at all and with good reason. James Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig was completely insane! From childhood he was kept under lock and key in a ground floor room in Queensberry House, the room with windows boarded up and kept in permanent darkness. He was a large brutish boy of great strength and incredibly dangerous.
On the night the Treaty of Union was being signed the city was in uproar! Some were celebrating but many more were rioting! The Duke, perhaps he was celebrating the vast sum that was going to come his way for his involvement in the negotiation of the act or perhaps he was trying to escape the mob, either way he was well away from Queensberry house that night. Fatefully so were most of the staff and most importantly so was the valet charged with the responsibility of watching after the young Earl.
The Earl managed to break out of his room and began to wander the empty house in a lust of hunger and rage. He stalked around the huge mansion for some time until the smell of cooking drew him to one of the many kitchens. There he fell upon a young kitchen boy, quickly overpowering him he proceeded to take the poor child and attach him (by means we will not go into here) to a spit and roast the body over the fire!
It was some time before his escape was discovered and by the time he was tracked down to the kitchen the mad Earl had already devoured parts of the body of the servant boy.
Despite the Duke’s best efforts the story leaked out, a nation already shocked at its betrayal but these so called Nobles was dumbstruck by such an act barbarism and the ‘Cannibal Earl’ was never seen in public again. He was spirited off to England and died there a few years later. The Duke had another problem though, James was the eldest son and as such was the rightful heir to the Dukedom, more swift political and constitutional engineering contrived that this passed to his second son, Charles on his death.
But the story didn’t end there – was there a curse on the name of Douglas? Charles married Catherine Hyde who was also prone to acts of eccentricity bordering on insanity too. She had a vile temper and hated Scotland and the Scots, when in residence in Queensberry House she would deliberately dress like a peasant girl to ridicule her Scottish guests. Their son was also afflicted by the family madness and one day in 1754 while on a journey to London he rode in front of the coach carrying his mother, produced a pistol and shot himself dead.
The fortunes of the house fared little better: in 1801 the house was sold by the inheritors of the Queensberry title. Stripped of all its decoration it was given away for the meagre sum of £900 and turned into government barracks, by 1853 it had become a refuge for the destitute and the adjoining lodge was used for ‘the reception and treatment of female inebriates’.
So was there a curse on the Queensberry’s? Many say the terrible act’s of the ‘cannibal Earl’ were a judgement for his betrayal of the Scottish People for his parcel of English gold. There is one older legend however that suggests a much older curse upon the family. On the day and hour of the death of the first Duke in 1695 a Scottish skipper who was at that time in Sicily swears to have witnessed the sight of a flaming coach and 6 horses driving up the side of Mount Etna and disappearing into its fiery culdera. As it passed he heard a diabolical voice cry out:
‘Make way for the Duke of Drumlanrig!”