The Rose and the Wolf

 Mary Leslie was the only child of Robert Leslie, an early laird of Rothes Castle, and hers is one of the most romantic and enduring Speyside stories. Mary’s mother had died in childbirth, an all too common event back then. Jenny Hossack, a young serving lass at the castle was entrusted with Mary’s care as both wet nurse and foster mother to the bairn. So faithfully did Jenny discharge these duties that she never left the lassie's side and through time Jenny became her most trusted companion and confidante. Together they spent many joyful hours walking and riding over the wild woodland paths by the Conrock hill and through the vast hunting forest of Sourden that surrounded the castle at that time.

It was clear from an early age that Mary loved the countryside around her home. She enjoyed watching the birds and the wild animals that abounded in the forests though she was frightened of the wolves that roamed in these parts sometimes coming very close to the walls of Rothes Castle. Her days spent roaming the countryside with Jenny were precious to her for much of the year but during the long days of summer when sunlight warmed the Spey valley, the banks of the river were where she longed to be. There she would meet her young friends, the children of the castle servants and guards, though her favourite companion was young Malcolm Grant the eldest son of the laird of Arndilly whose lands lay on the opposite bank of the Spey. Malcolm was a very handsome boy who would row the little maiden round the river in his small leather skinned currach, a local variety of coble. Laird Leslie realised the strong bond of love that was growing between his daughter and the young Master of Arndilly. As long as they were children, her father had made no objection but Mary was growing into a beautiful and graceful young woman who was loved by all in the surrounding area. Tales of her beauty spread far and wide and she had come to be known as ‘The Rose o Rothes’. Her father had become increasingly wary of Mary’s relationship with young Arndilly and one day sternly forbade Mary ever to see Malcolm again or to go to the banks of the Spey. Having seen their relationship blossom, over the years, Jenny Hossack feared for the young couple’s future happiness as she was well aware that though there was a growing expectation locally that the two would someday marry, the Laird o Leslie’s ambitions for Mary were set higher than the son of a lesser noble such as Grant of Arndilly. But Mary, being the determined lass that she was, obeyed the latter part of her father's command, but would secretly tryst with her lover at the ‘Toprun’ the local name for an ancient Holy well called Tobar Tombnaich (1) that rises in the woodland to the east side of the back burn of Rothes. Though close by the castle the well was quiet secluded and was at that time surrounded by a wild thicket of sloe and bramble bushes. Jenny, acted as chaperone at these trysts but was known to frequently turn a discreet eye during them. Young Malcolm had developed into a handsome young man who caused many female hearts to skip the occasional beat. Malcolm however only had eyes for his Mary. Malcolm’s family deemed that his future was to be in the Church as his uncle was the Bishop of Elgin. And so it was that one Mid-summers eve the couple, now deeply in love had a sad parting by the Holy well as Malcolm, shared a last lingering embrace with Mary before they bade a tearful farewell. He was heading for the Holy land to fight in the crusades having been persuaded to do so by his uncle the Bishop of Elgin. Time passed slowly and life at Rothes Castle was uneventful but Mary pined for her love. On midsummer’s eve, the following year, ‘The Rose of Rothes’, accompanied by Jenny Hossack, walked to Tobar Tombnaich to make their offerings. Mary dropped in a Pater bead from her rosary as she said a prayer for the safety of Young Arndilly of whom nothing had been heard for a twelve-month.. Almost another year had passed before a wild looking messenger arrived at the main gate of Rothes with a message for the Laird. The message was short and direct. Alexander Stewart 1st Earl of Buchan, was intending to hunt in the great forest of Sourden in the coming days and would be availing himself of Lord Leslie’s hospitality. Leslie thanked him but as the messenger galloped away, the Laird wore a worried frown. He knew young Sandy Stewart’s reputation for indiscriminate killing and often violent seduction and rape of young women in Buchan, and the surrounding areas. Accounts of Mary’s beauty were told all over the land and ,with good reason, Mary’s father was concerned that Stewart’s intended hunt might be for a quarry nearer home than Sourden forest. Stewart was gaining a fearsome reputation as the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, a cruel and vindictive man who respected neither the power of the church or the laws of the land. This lad wis nae a cheel tae be footered aboot wi for sure. (2) Some days later when Stewart and his tail of followers arrived. This large following was described by locals as a band of of ‘wild, wykked Hieland men.’  At Rothes Castle the Laird greeted him at the castle gate. Mary stood with her father and Jenny as Stewart dismounted but a chill of fear ran through her when she saw how Stewart was eyeing her form. She clutched Jenny’s arm as one of the Wolf’s henchmen rode up to his master’s side. Mary shivered in horror at the sight of this man. He was a dwarf and dark haired with a twisted back and cold, emotionless gaze. This creature was introduced as ‘The Hawk’ by Stewart who added that .this grotesque man was his most trusted aide. Mary though him well named as she stared at his face ‘The Hawk’ had a large, hooked nose and a livid scar running down from his left eyebrow and ending just short of his cruelly set mouth. That evening as they dined in the main hall of the castle, the wolf sat by the Laird’s side, all the while gazing, with eyes full of lust, at Mary who was seated with Jenny throughout the uncomfortable meal. Mary retired to bed as the men began discussing arrangements for the next day’s hunt, washing down their food with large amounts of ale, wine and whisky from the Castle cellars. Sandy Stewart went to his chamber late with a drunken determination that The Rose of Rothes was one to be plucked and he would be the gardener ! The next morning, Sourden forest rang with the sound of hunting horns, men yelling excitedly and the thunder and jangle of horses as they flushed the large animals of the woods, from their sheltered places. Wolves, foxes .wild boar and deer fled through the undergrowth as they tried desperately to escape the hunters. At the rear of the main body, Stewart rode beside Mary who listened to the man’s boasting of his power and wealth as he tried to impress her with his great standing in the land. Mary was not impressed by the braggart and tried to concentrate on the small Kestrel perched on the thick leather gauntlet that protected her right arm. Removing the bird’s eye blinders. Mary raised her arm and smiled as the bird flew off in search of prey. Mary watched as the bird hovered above the trees, suddenly her gaze was averted further skywards as the shrill cry of an eagle sounded. Mary shouted out in alarm as she watched the larger bird swoop towards her kestrel. Some of the hunting party saw what was occurring and loosed their arrows at the Eagle. All missed their mark but as the eagle neared its prey an arrow fired from the opposite bank of the Spey struck home and the Eagle dropped to the ground dead. Mary looked to the opposite riverbank and cried out for joy as she recognised the figure of the archer. It was her Malcolm, newly returned from the crusades. Malcolm rowed his currach to the Rothes bank and the couple were joyfully reunited. They sat together to dine in the hall that evening, but, as the night‘s celebrations wore on, Sandy Stewart drank heavily nursing a simmering anger as he noted the intimacy between the young couple. The following day, Stewart was in sullen mood as he left Rothes Castle with his party, some of whom were still worse the wear for the previous evenings drinking. Laird Leslie thanked his guest for honouring Rothes Castle with his presence and told him that he would welcome another visit from the Earl of Buchan at any time. It was with a degree of trepidation that Leslie heard the man’s gruff response that he did indeed intend to return. The band of wild,wykked Hieland men then set off towards the Wolf’s lair as his castle in Lochindorb on the Dava Muir was rnown throughout the North. On the march homewards the Wolf drew his favourite dirk that he always wore at his side and gave it to his friend The Hawk saying that when he next saw this wicked blade it should be “smoored wi the bluid o young Arndilly” A week or so later on midsummer’s eve as it happened Malcolm and Mary, accompanied by the devoted Jenny Hossack walked in the late evening to the Toprun well to give thanks for the young man’s safe return and their reunion. Despite the fact that the Laird o Leslie was still set against their relationship. The couple lay on the grass by the well and embraced each other fondly as Jenny took a discreet walk to the bank of the Burn o Rothes. Jenny sat by the burn side pondering deeply in her heart the difficulties that faced the faithful lovers, when she became aware of movement in the brushwood behind her. She stared, aghast and cried out a warning as a small hooded figure crept stealthily towards the young couple and plunged a dirk up to the haft in the defenceless back of the young knight, who fell lifeless into the arms of his lover. Mary moved to protect her Malcolm from further blows but the assassin’s second strike entered poor Mary’s heart in error. The lass groaned pitifully as she slumped over Malcolm’s still figure. The hooded assassin fled into the depths of the forest and Jenny knelt wailing in distress over the two bloody young bodies all that dreadful night. The following morning a search party discovered the grisly scene and as they retrieved the bodies of the lovers they noticed that the two bodies were twined in the growth of a bush that none could recognise or name. Jenny was carried home to the castle a raving maniac, and placed in what was known ever afterwards as "’The Cradle Tower,’ for there she sat for many years, rocking Mary’s baby cradle until death came and took her away to join the spirit of her beloved Mary. Jenny was said to haunt the castle and for many generations her ghostly form was seen, it was said, sitting by a corner of the ruined wall, rocking a cradle all the night long as she sang a gentle cradle song to Mary Leslie ‘the Rose o Rothes’.The bodies of Mary and Malcolm were buried together in the graveyard by the ancient church of Arndilly. (3) Their grave marked by a simple rough boulder into which were carved two M’s in the shape of a crown and underneath, the legend; ‘In death they were not divided’. The identity of the murderer of young Arndilly and Mary Leslie was never known for certain though it is said that, nothing was ever seen or heard of the devilish Hawk again and the Wolf of Badenoch was seen to be sporting his favourite dirk some days after the murder. Strangely it was noticed by pilgrims to the Holy well that at the very spot where the blood of the lovers had mingled and seeped into the ground there had indeed sprung up a beautiful plant that grew into a bush. The leaves resembled a cross, and in autumn they became scarlet, while the berries it bore were white. It is said by some that this ‘Nameless Bush’ still grows secretly by the wishing well to be found by those who seek and that the ghost of Mary Leslie haunts the area of the Toprun Well on Midsummer’s eve searching for young Arndilly. But if ye dae gang there tae seek, mind and check wha micht be hidin in the bushies roon aboot!

Footnotes:

(1) Tobar Tombnaich:   Toprun Well, Lady Well , Fairy Well: This Holy Well was frequented by devotees since before Pictish times. Traditionally people threw into it their offerings of beads, pins, and other personal ornaments appealing to their gods for good health and good fortune. Different generations have known it by different names and is now called the Fairy Well. Sadly it is hidden under a concrete cover.

(2) The Wolf of Badenoch:   Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, more commonly known as the Wolf of Badenoch, lived from 1343 to 24 July 1394. He was the fourth illegitimate son of the future King Robert II of Scotland and of Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan, but became legitimated in 1349 upon his parents' marriage: he was also the younger brother of the future Robert III. It is said that Alexander fathered 40 illegitimate children with various women.  Alexander was a guest at the “House of Rothayes’ towards the middle of the 14th. Century.

(3) The Lovers grave:  The grave and marker stone of Mary and Malcolm is lost to us now as the ancient church and graveyard of Arndilly was destroyed when the first Arndilly House was built on the site.

"In death they were not divided"