Callaly Castle stands around 9 miles west of Alnwick. It’s a Grade I listed building, although there’s no public access. Architects divided the house into private apartments in 1987, and it has been a private residence ever since.
Yet the castle features an odd history, as many castles in the north east of England do. The fairy folk make an appearance in the story of its foundation. Though, there’s a slight whiff of the land spirit about these fairies.
So what we’re going to ask ourselves today is… was the location of Callaly Castle really picked by fairies? Keep reading or hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode version of this post!
Who built Callaly Castle?
The rough origins of Callaly Castle date to a pele tower, built in the 14th or 15th century. This stood near an Iron Age hill fort. We’ll come back to that though.
John Clavering incorporated the pele tower into a new house in 1619, and it became the west wing. More alterations changed the fabric of the house in 1676.
Sadly most of these early features disappeared beneath later additions in 1707. The Claverings held onto the house until 1877 when they sold the property. The next owner, Alexander Browne, carried out yet more alterations and restoration work in the 1890s.
So it’s hard to know exactly what Callaly Castle may have looked like in the past.
But we need to go back further, to the point before construction!
To really dig into the story, we need to go back to the 12th century.
Lord and Lady Callaly wanted to build a new castle. They toured their estates looking for the best location. 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 would also make any castle built there incredibly windy. She favoured a much more sheltered site in the valley. For her, 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 compromise to suit both parties. The location and defences suited Lord Callaly. But he included sheltered rooms and a garden for Lady Callaly.
Having each gotten what they wanted, they finally agreed and work began on the new castle.
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.Matthews 2009: 45
Master James ran down to Lord Callaly to make his report. He knew exactly where to find Shepherd’s Shaw. Sick of the endless disruption, he 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!
North of the Tyne also references another version of the story which places Lady Callaly in the role of villain (2007-2022). She dressed a servant as a boar and sent him to pull down the building work. Master James panicked when he saw the boar. He told Lord Callaly, who decided to wait himself. When it cried out its advice about prospective locations, Lord Callaly decided to obey.
I’m skeptical about this one. Surely it would need more than one servant to tear down building work?
According to Paranormal Database, the stones fell down during building work (2022). 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.
Why would fairies interfere with building work?
The idea of a supernatural force tearing down building work is a common one in English folklore. For example, we looked at why the Church of St Mary the Virgin at East Bergholt in Suffolk also has a detached bell house in an earlier post about churches in folklore. In the accompanying legend, the Devil kept pulling down the work done on the tower at night. The workmen gave up and constructed a separate wooden bell-house instead (Westwood 2005: 692).
The trope perhaps explains why a building’s location was moved during the construction process.
I’ve also heard other people theorise that the fairies interfere if building work is too close to their home. It’s understandable. Look at the way people react when they discover a huge building will be started beside their home. They don’t want the extra noise or a building blocking out what little daylight they get. Fairies could be very similar. Or perhaps they just don’t want humans close to them… which would also be understandable.
For Claude Lecouteaux, we can still spot land spirits through the behaviour of any creatures in older tales (2015). Are they keeping watch over the land, perhaps governing who can enter, or who can kill animals there? Are they demanding tributes from humans? Can the creatures command the elements or animals? Stories that include these aspects are more likely to be tales of land spirits.
The boar could have been a man in a costume, or it could have been a land spirit trying to drive off invading humans. Even the rhyme ascribed to the fairies could essentially be a form of their governance over the area. The slippage between whether it’s infernal influence, fairies, or human mischief makes it difficult to tell.
So….is the story true?
We can 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 standing 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 (Matthews 2009: 46).
While excavating the fort, they discovered the foundations of a stone castle, dating to the 12th century! Could it be the original, unfinished castle, abandoned because of the fairies?
According to North of the Tyne, 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 (2007-2022). 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?
Other Callaly Superstitions
There is also a fascinating superstition that links Callaly with the weather. There is a ravine between Lorbottle Moor and Castle Hill. Mist would rise from the ravine and cling to the top of the hill. Locals would proclaim that “Callaly Pot is boiling!” since it foretold rain (Reynolds 1989: 18).
The name came from the fact that the Clavering family had a pot that they boiled every Sunday. They used it to make dinner for the poor people who attend church services as their chapel (Reynolds 1989: 18).
The link between Callaly and fairies isn’t as farfetched as it seems. Callaly Crags are near the castle, and there is a deep fissure among them called Hob Thrush’s Mill Nick. Hob Thrush refers to the local sprite, considered to be a form of brownie. He apparently ground his grain at the ‘mills’. Waterfalls brought stones down into the pot holes, and their rattling sounded like the grinding of a mill (Reynolds 1989: 18).
What do we make of it all?
Essentially it’s up to you. Did the intended castle fall foul of the local fairies? Were the land spirits annoyed about the building project and drive them away? 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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Lecouteaux, Claude (2015), Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices, trans. Jon E Graham, Toronto: Inner Traditions.
Matthews, Rupert (2009), Mysterious Northumberland, Derby: Breedon Books.
North of the Tyne (2007 -2022), ‘Callaly Castle Old & New’, North of the Tyne, https://www.northofthetyne.co.uk/Callaly.html.
Paranormal Database (2022), ‘Northumberland Ghosts, Folklore and Forteana’, Paranormal Database, https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/northumberland/nhumdata.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=72.
Reynolds, Hazel (1989), More Ghosts and Legends of Northumbria, Morpeth: Coquet Editions.
Westwood, Jennifer and Simpson, Jacqueline (2005), The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, London: Penguin.
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