On rare and infrequent occasions the sound of a fervently beaten drum echoes around Cortachy Castle in Aberdeenshire. The sound heralds death, but not for the person who hears it.
The legend of the phantom drummer of Airlie dates back many centuries to a time of clan feuds and frequent violence. The Earls of Airlie, chiefs of the Clan Ogilvy, were as proud and likely to turn to violence as any of the clan chiefs, especially if their traditional enemies, members of Clan Campbell, were involved. It was one of Ogilvys of those days who killed the drummer who still haunts the family.
Exactly what you are told the drummer had done to raise the anger of the Earl of Airlie depends on whom you talk to. According to one legend the drummer was watchman on the castle ramparts, but he took the money of the Campbell so that he would not sound his drum to give the alarm during a raid. When the Earl found out about the drummer’s treachery, he stuffed the man into his own drum and threw him to his death from the castle battlements. Another legend recounts that the drummer was actually a Campbell messenger sent to deliver a demand for surrender. The drummer’s death by being flung from the battlements was the answer of the Clan Ogilvy. A third version of the legend holds that the drummer became the lover of the Lady Airlie while the Earl was absent and that he was thrown from the battlements on the Earl’s return.
But however he met his death, the drummer faced it bravely. All legends agree that before being flung to his death the man cursed the Earl and all his family. The drummer then promised to haunt the Airlies for all time, and to return from the dead to accompany the cursed ones on their journey to death.
Sure enough, the legends go, the phantom drummer was seen a short time later beating out a tattoo of mad violence as he marched around the tower from which he had been thrown to his death. Next morning the Earl dropped dead. From that day to this, whenever a member of the Ogilvy family died the sound of drumming is heard around Cortachy Castle to announce the death of yet another of the cursed family.
One respectable Victorian lady recorded how she had been invited to stay at Cortachy Castle in the time of the 7th Earl. During the night she heard a strange throbbing noise which, when she opened her window, became clearer as the sound of a drum being played rapidly and violently. Knowing nothing about the old legend, the woman asked over breakfast who could have been playing a drum so late at night. She said the Earl turned pale and hurriedly changed the subject. Unknown to the guest, Lady Airlie was ill at the time and died a short time later. The 7th Earl’s death is said to have been heralded by the drummer who followed a shooting party out on to the moors of the estate the day before the Earl died.
The 8th Earl met his end while on active service with the 12th Royal Lancers in the Boer War. No phantom drumming is recorded at the time of his death, but any drumming sound may have passed unremarked in a military camp in which dozens of drums and drummers were to be found. The 9th Earl died in the USA, but on the night he died Lady Dalkeith, who was staying in Cortachy Castle, was awoken by the sound of the phantom drummer. After the news of the death of the Earl arrived, Lady Dalkeith checked the timings and found she had been awoken about one hour before the sad event. The death of the 12th Earl in 1968 seems to have been untroubled by the phantom drummer. At least, nobody reported hearing the ghostly spectre march about the walls of Cortachy Castle.