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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Victor Hay, Lord Kilmarnock, was brought up in Slains Castle and became the 21st Earl of Erroll. His novel Ferelith about a lonely ghost and his amorous adventures in ‘Gowrie Castle’, a Slains Castle lookalike, was published in 1902.

Strange to say, about four or five years ago, somebody posted on the internet that the ghost of Victor Hay now haunts Slains Castle, and this, having been repeated numerous times, has now become accepted ‘fact’. Stuff and nonsense of course.

Mind you, Victor Hay’s ghost story in Ferelith is also ridiculous. It goes like this: Bill Bramble, seeking a rich wife, marries Lady Ferelith Sidlaw, and then buys Gowrie Castle, which lies next to the cliffs ‘on the very edge of the rock'. Bill Bramble moves in with his wife, and his sister Anne joins them. It is Anne who now narrates the tale. She mentions the portrait of the long-dead Lord Gowrie hanging on the wall, ‘it was dark and handsome, but if ever black sin showed in a countenance it was there.’ The ghost of Lord Gowrie walks the stone floors of the castle at nights.

Bill Bramble is getting nowhere with his attempts to be accepted by high society despite having bought a castle, so he departs to America for a year, leaving his wife and sister in the care of the servants. While Bill Bramble is away, the ghost of Lord Gowrie appears to his wife. He tells her, ‘I bode you no ill. I am but an unhappy spectre, and I long for a moment’s sympathy’.

Lady Ferelith falls in love with him - and as she records in her diary - the lonely ghost comes into her bedroom one night and chances his luck. She begs him to stop, but there’s no holding back the unscrupulous spectre.

‘”Nay, nay. You are mine – mine after a hundred years,” his lurid voice hissed at me, and he threw the last shreds of restraint to the winds... for ghostly arms were about me, arms that strained me to a ghostly breast...’

Weeks later, Lady Ferelith writes in her diary: ‘I am going to be a mother. The idea seems too fantastic.’


There are a couple of curiosities to note about the book. Victor Hay lived in Slains Castle until just before the Hay family left the castle for good around 1900 or so. His book provides the only known description of Slains Castle by one of its residents, and his time there may not have been a happy one:

‘ first impressions remain the most vivid – a dim, shadowy mass, grey and impalpable in the mist, lonely, uncanny, weird. This is what it will always be to me... its real self is as I first saw it, mournful and hopeless in the drizzling mist.’

And he also hints at friction with the fisherfolk in the nearby village (Port Erroll, now Cruden Bay):

‘Few people were to be seen, most of the fishers being away for the herring season. There was an unpleasant smell of stale fish about. A few haddocks were drying on a tumbledown railing.

We met one man, weather-beaten and grizzled, and with a very dour face. He did not even look at us. William addressed him. “Is there going to be a storm?”

“A dinna ken [I don’t know],” was the answer, and the old fisherman went on his way.

William was annoyed. We walked on further till we came across a little knot of fisherfolk, men, women and children, some twelve in all. They regarded us suspiciously and ceased their talk.

William was embarrassed and could find no appropriate remark to break the ice. He stammered out: “What sort of fishing have you had?”

None answered him.

The second curiosity of the book is that it appears to pay tribute to Bram Stoker and his novel Dracula. Victor Hay undoubtedly knew Bram Stoker, a regular visitor to Port Erroll. Lady Ferelith comments: ‘I become intoxicated with the magic touch of his filmy arms, I drink red nectar from his gossamer lips.’

Victor Hay, Lord Kilmarnock.

Born in 1876, Victor Hay was named after his godmother Queen Victoria. He was a career diplomat before succeeding to the earldom and becoming the 23d Earl of Erroll. Within a year of doing so he was dead at the age of 51 having suffered heart failure.

Let's point out some highlights of his life:

In August 1910 he attended a shooting party on the moors near Balmoral Castle in the company of King George V, when he was accidently shot and wounded by one of the sportsmen, Captain Hood (later Admiral Hood, who died at the Battle of Jutland in 1916). Captain Hood had been tracking a bird and fired without noticing that Victor Hay was in his line of sight. Hay was peppered with pellets at a distance of forty yards, one penetrating his right ear, another his nose, two hitting his arm, and a fifth breaking his spectacles, but witout causing harm to his eye. The lord was hurt but not seriously injured.

And could Victor Hay plausibly be the Lord Kilmarnock mentioned in the novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man by Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, and the winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature?

Mann’s novel makes out the character he calls Lord Kilmarnock to be a homosexual, and hints that he had been smitten at first glance by Felix Krull, the waiter who served him in a Paris restaurant. After some initial coyness, the lord summons up the courage to engage the waiter in conversation.

Felix recounts that ‘Bit by bit I learned that he owned a castle not far from Aberdeen, where he lived alone with an elderly sister... Near Aberdeen it was very beautiful, the city afforded every kind of entertainment for those interested in that sort of thing, the air blew in from the North Sea strong and clean.’

Lord Kilmarnock gets bolder, and now offers Felix a job as his valet at the castle where ‘his duties would be confined entirely to personal attendance on me’.

Felix turns him down, whereby the Lord gets desperate: ‘I am childless and master of my own affairs. There have been cases of adoption... You might wake up one day as Lord Kilmarnock and heir to my possessions.’

But no.

Although Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man was published in 1954, it was based on a short story written in 1911. At this time, Victor Hay was Secretary for the British Embassy in Stockholm. When the novel came out in the UK, the name ‘Lord Kilmarnock’ was changed to ‘Lord Strathbogie’ for legal reasons.

And Victor Hay’s son, Josslyn Hay, the 22d Earl of Erroll was murdered in Kenya in 1941. His body was found in a car – he had been shot in the head. This was probably a murder of passion, and the ins and outs of this famous murder still excites much debate today. The film White Mischief starring Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance is a dramatization of the events – it's an excellent film well worth watching.


If you like these articles, why not read my latest book North Sea Heroes: True Stories from a Scottish Shore. It tells seven stories from the east coast of Scotland, stories are that truly epic, adventurous, together with flashes of selfless humanity.

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