Originally known as Yestred (from the Brythonic Ystrad, meaning strath or dale), the barony of Yester was granted by King William the Lion to Hugo de Giffard, a Norman immigrant given land in East Lothian during the reign of King David I.
The original stone keep, built before 1267, is generally considered to be by Sir Hugo de Giffard. A grandson of the first Laird of Yester, he served as a guardian of the young Alexander III of Scotland, and was by repute a magician and necromancer. Alexander III is known to have been at Yester on and around May 24th 1278, where he corresponded with Edward I of England. Following the Scots Wars of Independence, Yester was rebuilt as a castle of enceinte.
In 1298, during the Battle of Falkirk, Alexander de Welles, Master of Torphichen Preceptory, was killed. Based on the heraldic evidence there is very little doubt that Alexander de Welles was a member of the Lincolnshire Welle(s) family. Also at Falkirk was Adam de Welle(s) of Lincolnshire and of the Castle of Yester in Lothian, to whom the English King Edward I gave various properties.
In 1357, there being no male line left of the Giffards, Joanna, a daughter of the last Sir Hugo de Giffard, married Sir William Hay of Locherwart (now known as Borthwick, Midlothian), the Sheriff of Peebles. He was invested with the barony and lands of Yester through his wife. The barony has stayed with the Hay family ever since.
David Hay of Yester was in 1487 created a Lord of Parliament, as the first Lord Hay of Yester. In 1513 during the disastrous Battle of Flodden, John, second Lord Hay, was killed along with a great proportion of the country's fighting men. Later that century, in 1547 during the period known as the Rough Wooing, Yester was attacked by an English force, and was defended stoutly by John, 4th Lord Hay. Lord Hay was to be captured later that year at the retreat from the Battle of Pinkie and was held in the Tower of London for three years.
1557 saw the death of the 4th Lord Hay. His son, also John, abandoned the castle and moved into a new tower house on the site of the present day mansion of Yester House. In 1646 the 8th Lord was created Marquess of Tweeddale. The castle gradually fell in to disrepair, and by the late 1600s was in a very parlous state, the stones having been much quarried for building material. Although the castle almost disappeared completely, Sir Hugo's original Goblin Ha' was tenanted by the Marquess' falconer until 1737. Yester House with its Adam interiors was sold in 1972 to Italian/American operatic composer Gian-Carlo Menotti whose adopted son, Chip, still lives there.
The Wizard of Yester
Sir Hugo de Giffard was known as the 'Wizard of Yester', and was considered to be a powerful warlock and necromancer. It is in the undercroft of the castle that he was thought to practise his sorcery. 14th century chronicler John of Fordun mentions the large cavern in Yester Castle, thought locally to have been formed by magical artifice. Legend supposed that Hugo was able, via a pact with the Devil, to raise a magical army to his aid, and use them to carry out his will. It is this army of hobgoblins that was considered the builders of Yester Castle. The vaulting of the Goblin Ha' is one of the earliest examples of secular gothic arch building, and this may have contributed to that opinion, given the superstitious nature of the age.
The Colstoun Pear
When his daughter Margaret was to marry, Sir Hugo gave her and her husband-to-be, Broun of Colstoun, a hand picked pear with the proviso that should anything happen to this fruit it would spell disaster for the Broun family. The pear was encased in a silver box and kept safe; the Brouns prospered.
A few hundred years later however, in 1692, on her wedding night, the fiancée of Sir George Broun, a Baronet of Nova Scotia and inheritor of Colstoun estate, decided to remove the pear from its casket. The fruit looked as good as when it was picked, and she could not resist taking a bite. Misfortune quickly followed. Sir George Broun amassed enormous gambling debts and was forced to sell the estate to his brother Robert. Robert with his two sons was soon after killed, en route to Edinburgh; they were swept away by a flash flood caused by the River Tyne bursting its banks. In destitution, Sir George died in 1718 without a male heir. It was said that after the pear was tasted it turned as hard as rock, and with its bitemark in evidence, it is still at Colstoun House to this day.
For his supposed role in the struggles between King Haakon of Norway and King Alexander, ultimately culminating in the Battle of Largs, Sir Walter Scott immortalises Giffard in Marmion:
- List of castles in Scotland
- List of places in East Lothian