By Tim Porteus

I’VE always loved history for as long as I can remember. What exactly fostered it I cannot say, but for sure the stories of ‘Madam Butterfly’, a teacher at Preston Lodge, was part of it, and perhaps also the history that I was visibly surrounded by when I left Prestonpans and moved to Edinburgh’s Old Town as a teenager.

What I do remember from these times is a powerful feeling that I was lucky to have this interest. It kept me going when I was having bad times, because there was always something that interested me or stimulated my fascination.

I have realised now that part of history’s appeal is the images it creates for us, of a time that is different to ours. No matter how many ‘facts’ there may be, it’s our imaginative interpretation of them which makes this information interesting or fascinating.

This is why archaeology can also be particularly interesting. It’s a tantalising glimpse into the past but leaves lots of scope for our own imaginative recreations. This connects to the fact that we often hold fascination for things we have lost because we cannot physically experience them anymore.

For me, this is the case every time I travel through the Hardgate in Haddington. Until the 1950s, a building stood on the east side of the street, where now there is a small grassy park. Locals nicknamed the building Bothwell Castle, although it wasn’t a castle in the real sense, but an impressive town house owned by the Cockburns of Sandybed, hence its original name, Sandybed House. Old photos of it show it in a rundown condition even a hundred years ago, but still looking magnificent.

Nobody now will remember what it looked like inside before its dilapidated state. A drawing of the interior from the 1800s shows it had wooden panelling, described as “excellent examples of native craftsmanship”.

The most prominent feature from the street was perhaps the circular stair tower, which also had the original entrance. It was this feature that made the building look like a castle, I reckon. Inside there was a sunken floor, two upper floors and an attic. It enclosed a courtyard and the building ran eastwards to the banks of the River Tyne.

There is a scarcity of historical information about this building, which was demolished to widen the road, after various attempts to save it failed.

But there is at least one story which lights my imagination whenever I am standing in the small green park where Bothwell Castle once stood.

It involves the notorious James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, the man who murdered Mary Queen of Scots’ husband Darnley and then married her himself, after seemingly abducting her.

But the story takes place before all this, during the time when Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was fighting the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. Despite being a Protestant, Bothwell was on the side of the Catholic queen. He was young but one of the most powerful nobles in the land.

In 1559, Bothwell received information that a huge sum of money was being sent by an English nobleman called Sir Ralph Sadler to help the Lords of the Congregation. He lay in wait and attacked the carrier of the money, both robbing and wounding him.

This act enraged the leaders of the Protestant cause and some time afterwards the leaders, the Earl of Arran and Lord James Stewart, headed for Haddington to capture Bothwell.

The house he was staying in was close to the River Tyne. But he saw the soldiers approaching just in time and fled. He got to the river and waded along its banks until he reached Sandybed House.

He knew he had likely been spotted and his pursuers were hot on his heels. So he entered Sandybed House by the back door. He could hear the shouts from the soldiers outside and knew he had little time to hide, but where?

He ran into the kitchen, where a spit boy sat turning the spit. There was not a moment to lose.

“Quick, gie me yer claes tae wear,” Bothwell commanded. The young lad, unable to refuse an order from such a powerful noble, immediately obeyed. Bothwell, being a slim young man himself, was just able to slip them on.

Then Bothwell sat by the fire and began to turn the spit, pretending to be the spit boy, whom he commanded to leave and to take his clothes. We have no account of the moment the soldiers entered the kitchen. It will have been a tense one. Bothwell will have felt the heat, both of fear and of the fire on his face and hands; just a small and very short taste of the harsh life of a spit boy.

The soldiers did not recognise that the spit boy was actually Bothwell sitting in disguise in the half dark flickering light of the kitchen. Servants with such a lowly status were barely even noticed anyway by the noble class. They were almost like part of the furniture to them.

There is a story that he then fled to his castle at Hailes dressed as a woman. It is said he later rewarded Cockburn of Sandybed for not giving him away, but one wonders if the spit boy was also rewarded.

I suspect not. However, I like to think he was somehow able to keep Bothwell’s clothes, and I wonder if the woman got hers back.

No doubt the spit boy often told his story as he turned the spit, cooking it as much as the meat.

Sadly, the kitchen where this took place has gone now, of course. But is it?

In 2013, a community archaeology project was undertaken, part funded by the Peter Potter Gallery Monument project. Archaeologist David Connolly explains in a fascinating YouTube clip that the dig revealed parts of Bothwell Castle. He shows that the lintel above the door into the kitchen lies just under the ground. In fact, the remains of the kitchen are just part of a mass of archaeological finds in the Hardgate, going back to Medieval times.

These finds are covered up now, but if you venture yourself to the wee park in the Hardgate you can still see the disturbed ground where they took place.

And look closely at the wall by the road, next to the southern entrance. There is a strange curve in the wall here. That’s because the lower section of this part of the wall is in fact the remains of the circular stair tower of Bothwell Castle.

A buddleia butterfly bush was growing by it when I visited last week, but my long-suffering family waited as I ventured under the bush to take a photo of what I believe to be the old stonework of the stair tower.

I then told them the story of the spit boy as we sat on the location of the kitchen. The river is just beyond and as we left the park I couldn’t get an image of Bothwell dressed as a washer woman out of my head.

As I say, history can be fascinating because it stimulates our imaginative interpretation!