Minutes away from the A9 and perched atop an artificial mound sits one of Scotland’s best preserved barracks. From the distance, these roofless and imposing structures look more castle than barracks to our American eyes. In fact, two castles once stood in its place serving the same purpose the barracks once did: as a fortification against attacks. But like its castle predecessors, the Ruthven Barracks fell victim to mankind’s unfortunate tendency towards destruction.
The original fortified structure was built in 1229 and was later used by Alexander Stewart, the 4th illegitimate son of the future King Robert II of Scotland. Alexander Stewart had many names: 1st Earl of Buchan, Lord of Badendoch, Earl of Ross, the Celtic Atilla, but he is best known as the villainous Wolf of Badenoch for his ruthlessness. His behavior was so ruthless, he was censured by the King’s Council and later excommunicated by the Church for abandoning his wife. When Alexander sought a divorce (she was unable to bear him heirs. He was however rumored to have fathered about 40 illegitimate children), the Church came down on her side when the divorce was granted by returning all her holdings to her. The Wolf of Badenoch retaliated by burning down Elgin Cathedral, the monastery of the Greyfriars, St Giles parish church and the Hospital of Maison Dieu. Hell hath no fury like
a woman an Alexander scorned.
Alexander Stewarts’ reputation for terror gave birth to an infamous legend: on July 24th, 1394, a stranger dressed all in black arrived at Ruthven Castle and challenged him to a game of chess. In some variations of the legend, the game was of cards. Chess or cards, Alexander was playing against the Devil and was foolish enough to bet on his immortal soul as the prize. When the Devil won, a massive thunderstorm erupted. The following day, the bodies of Alexander’s servants were discovered strewn outside the castle walls, apparently killed by lightning. Alexander himself was found in the banquet hall: dead, with the nails in his boots torn out, and empty bottles of Coors, the banquet beer, littered everywhere. Just kidding about the banquet beer in the banquet hall but supposedly on July 24th, 1394, the Wolf of Badenoch died. But it’s also said he died in 1405. Or did he? *cue ghostly music*
In 1451, the castle was demolished only to be replaced by another. This second castle was severely damaged in 1689 by the Jacobite uprising. Throughout both our travels through the United Kingdom and Ireland, I’ve often wondered who these Jacobites were, causing the destruction of so many beautiful castles. The Jacobites were essentially Roman Catholics who wanted to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James (VII of Scotland & II of England and Ireland), and his heirs to the throne. So why weren’t they called The Jamesters? Probably because it sounds too much like a boy band. They had those back then right?
Oh those Jamesters, always jamesing about, always destroying things after their concerts. There goes another castle. Goodbye Eilean Donan.
Instead they’re called the Jacobites, from the word Jacobus, the Renaissance Latin form of James. And the battle between them and the Protestants in the Jacobite Rising of 1689 destroyed the second Ruthven castle. In 1721, new barracks were built over the remains in response to continued Jacobite unrest. In 1746, Ruthven Barracks were overtaken by the Jacobites during the Battle of Culloden. 10 days later, a hopeless Prince Charles Edward Stuart told them to retreat and go home. On their exit they decided to destroy the barracks. The structures built upon this hilltop are seemingly cursed. Is it because the Wolf of Badenoch’s ghost is rumored to haunt it? Some say he and his ghostly comrades can still be seen playing chess (or cards) with the Devil in some dark corner of the barracks.
No game playing ghosts in this dark corner.
The skies were cloudy and sprinkling the day we visited but when the storm brewing overhead broke out, we took off before a stranger in black could challenge us to a chess game. We’d like to keep our souls for a bit longer, thank you.
Ruthven Barracks Overview
- Coordinates: 57.071617, -4.038459
- Fees: Free
- Usage: light
- Recommended time: Less than 1 hour
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