The ancient red-sandstone royal burgh of Annan – named for the river on which it stands – was a stronghold of the Bruce’s and the home of Robert de Brus ‘The Competitor’, Lord of Annandale, grandfather of Robert I, The Bruce.
Ever since the 12th century, the Bruce’s considered themselves cursed. Robert Bruce believed his contracting leprosy was ‘the finger of God upon me’ and a consequence of the family’s execration. Folklore says the bad luck came about in this way.
During his visit to the then castle-hamlet of Annan in 1138, the Irish Bishop of Armagh, Maolmhaodliog ua Morgair, named St Malachy O’More, was entertained at the Bruce’s castle (the last traces of which were removed in 1875). While he ate, Malachy overheard servants speaking about a robber who was to be hanged. Malachy asked his host – the chief lawman of the district – to spare the robber, and Brus agreed to do so.
Malachy left soon after his repast and as he rode out of the town he saw the cadaver of the robber hanging by the roadside. Angered that Brus had lied to him, Malachy laid a curse on Brus, his family, and the little castle-hamlet. After Malachy died in 1148, Robert de Brus paid for lights to be maintained at the shrine of St Malachy at the monastery of Clairvaux, France, where the soon-to-be saint had died. But folklore has it that Malachy’s curse was never expiated.
The curse of Annan
Another story was also associated with ‘St Malachy’s Curse on Annan’. Celtic myth speaks of blood-drinking spirits, even though the romanticism of the vampire is largely an eighteenth century invention, and Scottish folklore does not dwell much on the vampire of folklore even though some devotees point to Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, as the supposed birthplace of the inspiration that gave the Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847-1912) his Count Dracula.
It seems that no long after the laying of Malachy’s curse the plague came to Annan, spread by a man on the run from Yorkshire. The Bruce’s had given the man sanctuary, but Annan soon regretted the family’s generosity as the man continued the ‘wickedness’ that had led him to flee, but the man succumbed to the plague.
Not long after he had been buried, locals reported seeing the man around Annan accompanied by ‘a horrible crowd of dogs’. Terrified by the sight of the ambulant ‘rotting corpse’, the good folk of Annan sent for priests to come and cleanse the place with their prayers. Alas the plague raged, all spread, said the locals, by the undead visitation.
One evening the Bruce’s were holding a banquet for the clergy visiting the burgh to drive out the plague with new prayers they had composed, when two brothers started a conversation concerning the death of their father in the plague. The upshot was that they volunteered to rid Annan of the dread monster and wreak their own revenge for their father’s death.
As the banquet went on the two young men slipped out of the castle and through the silent streets of Annan to where the plague man had been buried. They resolved to disinter the cadaver and destroy it by fire, so they both set about digging.
At last they came to the body and observed that it had ‘swollen with much enormous corpulence, and the face red and swollen above measure’. Yet the clothes in which the man had been buried seemed to have been cut as if the body had been trying to escape from its mortal trappings.
One of the two men could not contain his anger any longer as he remembered the fate of his father and, taking up the sharp spade with which he had dug the grave, he brought its point down upon the chest of the corpse with great force. He let free a huge issue of blood which soaked their feet as they stood in the shallow grave.
It was more blood than any human body might have contained and the two young men realised that they had disinterred a vampire still full of its victims’ blood.
The cadaver was hauled out of the grave and dragged through the streets to the edge of town, where the two young men placed it on a pyre. Remembering the old superstition that the vampire could not be destroyed without removing the heart, this was done by a few deft strokes of the spade. As they tossed the heart separately into the flames the cadaver let out a huge sigh and was consumed. Thereafter Annan was never affected by the plague again.