“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”
Between 1840 and 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was surrounded by a “mystery of mysteries”— a bewildering puzzle involving a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements. The mystery persisted through two generations, becoming lost soon after 1900.
One version of the story is that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have the secret revealed to him because it was so dreadful. The mystery of Glamis is kept alive not only by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II), but also by the fact that some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.
The present castle was constructed in the 15th century, around a central tower whose walls are 16 feet thick in places. Glamis has been the family seat of the Strathmore Earls since then, but by the late 18th century it has been more or less empty because its owners prefer living somewhere which is less drafty, less isolated and less melancholy. If Glamis really does have a secret chamber, its location still remains a mystery.
The first reports of Glamis’ unknown prisoner appeared sometime in the 1840s. According to a correspondent to the journal Notes & Queries, writing in 1908, "The story was, and is, that in the Castle of Glamis is a secret chamber. In this chamber is confined a monster, who is the rightful heir to the title and property, but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession."
Just who this indescribable prisoner might be was the subject of considerable speculation. It was generally believed he must have been a member of the Bowes-Lyon family, and commonly suggested that he was the first-born of the 11th Earl, or the heir of that Earl’s son, Lord Glamis. It was frequently reported that a child had been born horribly deformed—whole in mind, perhaps, but so hideously twisted in body that he could never be allowed to inherit the title.
There are tales of strange shadows seen on battlements in a part of the castle known as “the Mad Earl’s Walk.” A story dating to about 1865 says that a workman at the castle unexpectedly came upon a door that opened into a long passage. Venturing in, the man saw “something” at the far end of the corridor, and—on reporting the circumstances to the clerk of works—was pressingly encouraged to immigrate to Australia, his passage paid by an anxious Earl. Other 19th-century accounts referred to the Monster as “a human toad.”
The only detailed description emerged early in the 1960s, when the writer James Wentworth-Day spent time at Glamis while writing a history of the Bowes-Lyon family. From the then-Earl and his relatives, Wentworth-Day heard the legend that “a monster was born into the family. He was the heir—a creature fearful to behold. It was impossible to allow this deformed caricature of humanity to be seen—even by their friends.… His chest was an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toy-like.”
Many members of the Bowes-Lyon family took the mystery very seriously. The last word goes to Rose, Lady Granville, another of Wentworth-Day’s informants and aunt to Elizabeth II. She had been born in the castle, and, asked what she knew of the story, she “looked serious, was silent for a moment, and then said: ‘We were never allowed to talk about it when we were children. Our parents forbade us ever to discuss the matter or ask any questions about it. My father and grandfather refused absolutely to discuss it.’”