I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful Huntingtower Castle yesterday and while it is best known for murderous plots, kidnapping and attempted assassinations there was one story in particular which caught my imagination: The Maiden’s Leap.
Before we get to that tale though, first a very brief history of what Huntingtower is better known for – dirty deeds!
The castle is located on the outskirts of the city of Perth, roughly three miles from the city centre and is just south of the Highland Line where the rolling south of Scotland lurch upwards into the towering mountains and glens of the north. It was built originally as a single tower house in the 1400s with a second tower house added towards the end of the century. The two towers were set 9 feet apart but linked by a wooden bridge below the parapet level. It is believed this was for defensive purposes. If one tower was attacked and taken the family could move safely into the other and destroy the bridge between them.
By 1582 the castle, then known as Ruthven Castle, was in the possession of William Ruthven, the 1st Earl of Gowrie who formed a band of confederates to seize control of Scotland and limit feared Catholic influences on the monarch by controlling the young king James VI, the fifteen year old son of Mary, Queen of Scots who had visited Huntingtower at least twice in her life. James VI was invited to visit the Earl where he was seized on the 22nd of August 1582, and held captive for 10 months.
King James VI as a child
The main conspirators as listed by the 17th-century historian David Calderwood named the Ruthven Raiders, as they became known, as the Earls of Mar and Gowrie, the Master of Glamis, the Laird of Easter-Wemyss, Lewis Bellenden, Lord Boyd, Lord Lindsay, the Abbot of Dunfermline, the Abbot of Dryburgh, the Abbot of Paisley, the Prior of Pittenween, and the Constable of Dundee.
To prevent a rescue attempt by the king’s supporters led by the Earl of Arran, the Earl of Mar stationed an armed force at Kinross to break their march north. The Earl of Arran’s brother, William Stewart reached Ruthven and fought the raiders, lost two fingers and was captured. Arran himself arrived and was captured leaving the young king firmly in the control of the Raiders.
The resultant Gowrie regime favoured what has been described as an ultra-Protestant regime and was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as the ‘late act of the Scottish reformation’. The Regime was approved by influential ministers of the Kirk of Scotland from the pulpit. Queen Elizabeth I of England, herself an ardent Protestant who saw Catholic conspiracies everywhere, backed the Gowrie Regime to the extent of paying £1000 towards funding the king;s guards.
Elizabeth’s support proved to be ineffectual and the King finally regained his freedom in July 1583.
William Ruthven, despite being the ring-leader of the Gowrie conspirators was actually pardoned by the king. However he hadn’t learned his lesson and was caught once again plotting against James in 1585. This time there was to be no leniency: he was tried for treason and beheaded. Ruthven Castle was seized by the crown but returned to the family a year later.
By 1600 the sons of William, 1st Earl of Gowrie were following in their father’s footsteps and plotting against James VI. John Ruthven, aged 23, and his 20 year old brother Alexander lured James to their townhouse, Gowrie House in Perth, under the falsehood of having captured a mysterious foreigner who had a large sum of money on him. What happened next is a confused picture of deceit, treason and attempted assassination. Whatever really happened in Gowrie House it left the brothers dead and James determined to put an end once and for all to the Ruthven’s trying to uusurp his rule.
He abolished the name of Ruthven and decreed that any successors would be ineligible to hold titles or lands. Thus the House of Ruthven ceased to exist and by royal proclamation the castle was renamed Huntingtower. The Castle remained in the possession of the crown until 1643 when it was given to the family of Murray of Tullibardine. In 1694 Lord George Murray was born in Huntingtower, he would go on to be the military genius who masterminded every Jacobite victory during the ’45 Rising. The one time Bonnie Prince Charlie completely ignored his advice was at the Battle of Culloden which ended in absolute disaster for the young prince and his cause.
The Maiden’s Leap where Dorothea jumped from one tower to the other
Now we turn to the meat of the matter, a beautiful young woman named Dorothea Ruthven, the daughter of William, 1st Earl of Gowrie (yes, the chap who abducted the king, and sister to the ill-fated brothers) At the time the castle was still two separate towers with the family in one and staff and visitors in the others. Young Dorothea was head over heels in love with a young man in the East Tower while she pined in the West Tower. What was a girl in love to do? Simple. Sneak across the bridge to have a late night liason with her young beau. And this is exactly what she did. Unfortunately while she was happily getting to know the lucky young gallant her mother was harbouring suspicions about what was going on under her roofs. After brooding on the matter for some time she determined to discover the truth. Finding her daughter’s bedchamber firmly locked she turned her attention elsewhere. By the light of a lantern she set out across the bridge, her footsteps echoing off the planks.
Young Dorothea, probably gathering her breath after enjoying the loving attention of her companion heard the unmistakable clatter of her mother’s angry footsteps. What to do? She can’t go down the twisting turnpike stairs for that would lead her directly into her mother’s path. She can’t hide in a closet, she would be found within seconds. Her only choice was upwards to the roof, and this is where she went. Shivering on the narrow parapet clad only in a flimsy nightgown and hearing her mother demanding to know where her daughter is. The poor young man, desperate to buy her some time denies everything but to no avail. The mother is searching the room and will eventually think to look up.
Dorothea, still shivering looks out into the moonlit night until a desperate plan comes to her. The gap between the towers is nine foot wide with a dizzying drop to the stones far below. Drawing in a deep breath she gathers her courage as she climbs onto the ramparts, says a quick prayer and leaps out into the night. From being head over heels in love she is now on the verge of tumbling head over heels to her death…
Artist’s depiction of the castle in the 16th century. Point 1 shows where Dorothea jumped from while point 2 shows where she hoped to land
Miraculously she manages to land on the opposite parapet without tumbling to her death and once she has gathered her wits hastens to the window to her bedchamber which she had fortunately left open to allow fresh air in.
The new section built in the late 17th century to connect the towers into one.
A few minutes later her mother is once more hammering on her door. This time feigning sleepiness our heroine opens it to prove to her mother that she has been safely sleeping all along in her own bed. Still suspicious but unable to prove anything her mother eventually returns to her own bed but only after ordering a servant to keep watch on Dorothea’s bedchamber door to make sure she doesn’t leave.
The following day the young lovers knowing that the eye of suspicion is firmly fixed on them take every precaution to avoid arousing any further notice. Separately they slip out of the castle, meet and elope.
From then on their story is unrecorded but I fervently hope that they lived, and loved, a long, happy life together and Dorothea managed to escape the curse which seems to have hung over the rest of her family.
These days the castle is a beautiful, peaceful site where you are more likely to see some of the resident bat colony than daring, flying maidens but the gap between the towers is still known as The Maiden’s Leap.
Another view of the scene of Dorothea’s leap