On a bend in the River Tyne, a mile or so downriver from Pencaitland, there sits an ancient chapel in which generations of the Sinclairs of Herdmanston rest.

The chapel has its origins in the 13th century, although it was restored in 1840.

The castle and mansion which used to stand beside the chapel have now gone, and so this ancient burial place of one of East Lothian’s oldest noble lines seems strangely marooned atop of a ridge and surrounded by fields of grazing cows.

I searched for this place last week, brought here, of course, by a story. I knew that nothing was now left of the mansion or older castle which was once the home of the Sinclairs of Herdmanston, except a lone pillar which was once part of the west gate. But I wasn’t quite so prepared for the atmosphere of the site.

It’s not advisable to visit the chapel at this time, as cows with calves graze the surrounding field. However, I was lucky as the cows were well away in a field further away on the day of my visit. Mud was the main obstacle, but my attention was quickly drawn to the truly massive and ancient beech trees which stood on the site of the old mansion and castle. They seemed like sentinels, guarding the past from intruders.

At first I had no sense that I was anywhere near the old castle, but then I suddenly spotted an old dovecot on the other side of the river. Birds still swirled around it, and a gaping hole in the roof gave a perfect view of the bird boxes inside. I must be close, I realised.

Then, suddenly, there it was, the pillar that was once the west gate, close to the chapel itself. I did a quick reckoning and realised that, yes, the old trees were surely guarding the original site. Perhaps centuries ago they had been planted close to the walls, which now have gone.

I stood for a moment just soaking up the atmosphere of this place. It could have been so easy to just enjoy its tranquil natural beauty and not even notice the evidence of its medieval past. But story and history hung in the air.

The Sinclair connection goes back to 1162, when Henry De St Clair was granted a charter for Herdmanston.

It was a descendant, Sir Willaim St Clair (not to be confused with the namesake from Roslyn), who fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Such was his bravery at that battle that The Bruce gave him an engraved sword with the words in Latin: “The King gave me, Sinclair carries me.” But it was a tale about a later Sir William Sinclair which had brought me to this place. Or to be more precise, a tale about his two nieces, Marion and Margaret, two young and beautiful noblewomen.

The tale begins in 1472, with the death of the young women’s father, John St Clair of Herdmanston. He had also held the estates of Kimmerghame and Polwarth in the Borders and so left these estates to his daughters, Marion inheriting Kimmerghame and her sister Margaret got Polwarth. They were both sizeable and desirable inheritances. Herdmanston went to John’s brother, another William St Clair.

All well and fair, you might think, except William was not so satisfied. He had an eye on his nieces’ estates.

He was sly at first, putting ideas into their heads that they would be better off allowing him to be guardian of their land, that he could run their estates better. But the young women were having none of this. They were confident of their own abilities and, besides, they hoped soon to marry, for they both had young suitors, George and Patrick Hume of Wedderburn, who would take on the responsibilities of running the estate. Marion desired Sir George, while Margaret had eyes for Sir Patrick. They were both, it seems, determined to marry the brothers, despite their uncle’s opposition.

So William invited his two nieces to his castle at Hermanston for a party in which an array of alternative suitors would be present. It would be a veritable Magaluf by the Tyne! If after meeting all these young and suitable potential husbands they still wanted to marry Patrick and George, then he would accept this.

But Margaret, the younger sister, was suspicious. She had faint memories of an overheard conversation between her mother and father in which they talked of her uncle as untrustworthy. Perhaps that is why their uncle was not appointed as guardian of their estates, as tradition would have expected.

But Marion argued that they should be more conciliatory: “Come, sister, let us go and indulge our uncle’s desire to sway us, and perhaps when he sees our hearts and minds are set he will finally accept our decision.” And so the two young women made their way to their uncle’s castle at Herdmanston, accompanied by only one servant each.

Their uncle gave them a hearty welcome as they arrived at the castle gate, but the moment the doors closed behind them, his face changed. There were no guests, no party atmosphere. Instead, their now grim-faced uncle lectured them on their disrespect of his wishes and that as women they should listen to the advice of their male superior.

The two sisters huddled together, but refused to agree to sign control of their estates over to him.

“Very well,” he said, “you will languish here until you realise there is no other course.” After two days in the dank prison, the door opened and their uncle entered. He smirked as he enquired as to their comfort and told them that they could gain their freedom if they married two cousins, over which he had control. He gave them eight days to consider his proposal, with the clear threat that if they declined then it would be a matter of great regret for them.

The sisters locked arms and Margaret wanted to say something, but her sister touched her arms. ”Hush, sister, leave alone, we are in no position to argue,” she said.

The door closed and dank semi-darkness descended again. Marion now wept. She felt such guilt. She should have listened to her sister’s warnings and now blamed herself for their awful predicament. But Margaret comforted her.

“When George and Patrick hear of this they will come rescue us,” she said.

“But no one knows we are here,” replied Marion, despondently.

“We will find a way to alert them,” was her sister’s confident reply. But how?

Well, here is where the tale takes a romantic twist. Just as the eighth day was approaching, the sisters heard the sound of singing and musical instruments. It was a group of gypsies, led by none other than Johnny Faa himself, the self-styled ‘King of the Gypsies’.

The sisters seized the moment and called out desperately through the barred narrow slit window that was their only source of daylight.

“Our uncle holds us here against our will, please will you tell Patrick and George Wedderburn, for they will surely come to rescue us,” the said.

Johnny Faa agreed with the grace of a gypsy king. “With haste, maidens, I will spare not my pony,” he said.

And so he galloped his faithful pony over the Lammermuirs to Wedderburn Castle. The sight of Johnny Faa at the gate in such a state roused much alarm. Patrick Hume met the gypsy with great suspicion, and insultingly called him nothing but a king of gaberlunzie men.

But Johnny then conveyed his message: “The maiden who loves you is imprisoned in her uncle’s castle at Herdmanston, along with her sister. They will not survive long, for their uncle has an eye on their estates.” Sir Patrick was stung into action. He apologised for his rude behaviour and quickly informed his brother George. Within hours they had over a hundred men at arms!

“To Herdmanston!” was their cry, and the heavily armed force galloped over the Lammermuirs into East Lothian, led by the two brothers.

It was daybreak when they arrived at Herdmanston. The sound of their approach was heard by the sisters, who could just glimpse the sight of their rescuers through their narrow window. The banner of the Humes was fluttering in the wind! The sisters knew their lovers had come to rescue them!

But Sir William had a force of his own. He summoned 50 men and sent messengers for further aid. His men rushed out of the gates and met the brothers’ force head on. Battle ensued, the noise of bones splitting, men and horses dying filled the air. Margaret and Marion strained to see, but all was confusion.

Then William Sinclair’s neighbours arrived with more men and the tide turned in his favour. The Hume brothers fought gallantly but they were now outnumbered. All seemed lost for them, until suddenly a new force arrived. It was Johnny Faa, with a contingent of gypsy warriors.

Now the battle drew to a quick close. Sinclair’s forces fled, and Sir William found himself at the end of Sir Patrick Hume’s sword, begging for mercy.

Mercy was given, but the two brothers rushed into the castle and rescued the women they loved. The battle had lasted all day, and so the journey back to Wedderburn was by the moonlight.

Within a few weeks, the sisters were married to the brothers; Margaret married Sir Patrick, and Marion married his brother Sir George. They danced around a thorn tree at Polwarth Green, to the music of the gypsies. The double wedding is a tale in itself.

And it ends this story, first written down in 1835 by John Mackay Wilson, the great teller of tales. But what of the truth of it all? Historical records tell us the characters are real and that there was indeed a dispute about the estates following the death of the sisters’ father. And sure enough, the records also tell us that Marion did marry Sir George Hume of Wedderburn, and Margaret married his brother Sir Patrick Hume of Wedderburn.

And so the essential facts are there. But did Wilson weave a tale around history so fact and fiction dance with each other? The historical records say the dispute was resolved by mediation. But let us remember that medieval records don’t always tell the truth either, so who know.

But surely the mention of Johnny Faa is fanciful? He was also a real character, but it was in the following century he enters history.

Yet all this just adds to the mystery of this amazingly atmospheric place. As I stood by the banks of the Tyne, I thought what a fantastic story hangs here. Johnny Faa is like Robin Hood. . . he is perhaps a mixture of fact and legend. And he is perhaps more than one person, which is why he seems to time travel.

As I sat there contemplating all this, the cows spotted me and began heading in my direction. Time to go. There are so many more stories about this place to tell, and one of them is the fate of the ‘Sword of Bruce’.

But that will have to be for another day.