Callaly Castle stands around 9 miles west of Alnwick. Converted into private apartments, there’s currently no public access.
Yet the castle features an odd history, and the fairy folk make an appearance in the story of its foundation.
So what we’re going to ask ourselves today is…
Was the location of Callaly Castle really picked by fairies?
Near the main building lies an Iron Age hill fort. Callaly Castle originally started out as a pele tower, built in the 14th or 15th century. The tower became the west wing of the house built in 1619 by John Clavering.
Sadly most of these early features disappeared beneath later additions in 1707.
But it’s not the building’s history after it was built that we’re interested in. Oh no.
This post goes back to the point before construction.
Let’s go back to the 12th century!
Lord and Lady Callaly wanted to build a new castle. They toured the estates, and Lord Callaly believed he’d found the ideal spot. Perched on a hill overlooking the village, it would be easily defended in case of an attack by the Scots.
Lady Callaly disagreed. The high location also made it incredibly windy. She favoured a site in the valley. Comfort came before defensibility.
They couldn’t reach an agreement so Lord Callaly sent for Master James, a highly sought-after castle builder. He surveyed the site on the hill, and came up with a design to suit both parties. The location and defences suited Lord Callaly. But he included sheltered rooms and a garden for Lady Callaly.
They finally agreed and work began.
The foundations were sunk and all seemed well. But when the stonemasons and builders began to lay the courses for the walls, everything went awry. The team returned to the site each morning to find their work from the day before had been torn asunder.
Blocks of stone lay strewn all over the site.
Work began anew each day. Master James got bored with the disruption, and assumed someone was playing a trick on them. One night he sent the men home for the day, but remained behind, hidden on the hill.
The fairies only appeared when the last light was extinguished in the village. They tore up the stones, flinging them around the hill as they went. A song accompanied their demolition work.
Callaly Castle built on a height,
Up in a day, down in a night.
Build it down in the Shepherd’s Shaw,
It will stand for ever and never fall.
Mysterious Northumberland, Rupert Matthews, p45
Master James ran down to Lord Callaly to make his report. He knew exactly where to find Shepherd’s Shaw, and sick of the endless disruption, decided to build the new Callaly Castle there instead.
Surprise surprise – it’s still there.
But the story doesn’t quite end there.
Maybe Lady Callaly spun a cute story to explain how she got her way.
I even remember hearing a version when I was little in which the Lady was in cahoots with the fairies!
Northofthetyne.co.uk also references another version of the story which places Lady Callaly in the role of villain. She dressed a servant as a boar and sent him to pull down the building work. Lord Callaly’s men panicked when they saw the boar. When it cried out its advice about prospective locations, Lord Callaly decided to obey.
According to ParanormalDatabase.com, the stones fell down during building work. A disembodied voice passed on the rhyme, not fairies or a boar. They also claim the new castle is plagued by noises, allegedly made by a phantom priest.
But we must turn to archaeology to find out if any of the story was true.
Archaeologists arrived on the site to do some exploratory work. They had little interest in the pele tower/manor house stood in the valley. Instead, their interest lay in the Iron Age hill fort. The locals believed this fort to be the site of the unfinished castle.
While excavating the fort, they discovered the foundations of a stone castle, dating to the 12th century!
Perhaps the original, unfinished castle, abandoned because of the fairies?
According to northofthetyne.co.uk, the remains aren’t that exceptional. The unfinished work is ascribed to financial difficulties, or the lack of a need for a castle at the time.
It certainly makes sense. After all, the pele tower is smaller than a castle would have been. If you were having financial problems, you’d go for the cheaper option.
Though consider this. The foundations of the unfinished castle date to the 12th century.
But the pele tower dates to the 15th century.
Why would a family wait 300 years to build their castle?
So essentially it’s up to you. Did the intended castle fall foul of the local fairies? Did Lady Callaly use her servants and local superstitions to con her husband into building on a site of her choosing? Or did they just do their sums and realise the money didn’t add up?
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