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Legends of Castles and Keeps

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 29.6, November / December 2005

During the Middle Ages, the castle (from the Latin castellum, “small fortification”) arose as the private fortress of a monarch or nobleman. Its central tower (like the Tower of London) is a keep, a term also applied to a fort or other stronghold, even a jail.

Castles offer a romantic, often gothic allure. If they’re not haunted, I like to say, they ought to be! And not only are they supposedly inhabited by specters, but they are usually the focus of other legends as well.

I have explored and written about many castles and keeps—including Burg Frankenstein and Plassenburg castle in Germany (Nickell 2003a; 2003b), the Kremlin fortress in Moscow (Nickell 2002), the Old Melbourne Gaol in Australia (Nickell 2001), and others. Here are some additional ones I have investigated over the years and report on here for the first time.

Blarney Castle

The well-known term blarney refers to the gift of eloquence, attributed especially to the Irish. It is variously defined as cajoling, flattering talk; smooth, deceitful speech; or even nonsense. Legendarily, kissing the Blarney Stone is supposed to endow one with the powers of eloquence and persuasion.

Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth I (1533—1603) coined the term blarney during the lengthy, tiresome negotiations concerning control of the fortress. The titular owner, Cormac McCarthy, Earl of Blarney, dutifully following the protocols of sixteenth-century diplomatic prose, wrote grandiose letters that praised the queen, without, however, relinquishing the land. Her regal feathers ruffled, Elizabeth was said to have huffed, “This is all blarney—he never says what he means!” (O’Dwyer 2000, 222).

The stone is located in the castle at Blarney, in County Cork, Ireland. Built in 1446, it is among the largest Irish tower castles. A spiral stone stairway leads up to three levels. (Originally, the first tier consisted of the kitchen and armory, the next the dining hall, and the third the chapel.) A smaller stair leads to the battlements and the Blarney Stone.

The stone is actually one of the great lintels in the parapet, and is reached by dangling upside down in the gap between the parapet and the wall (as shown in a photo in Constable and Farrington 2004, 94). Even though there are parallel iron bars at the bottom of the small shaft that would potentially keep one from plummeting to one’s death, and a pair of vertical iron rails to hold onto, and even with a firm grip from the “Keeper of the Stone,” the experience can be somewhat frightening. This is especially the case for one with acrophobia (fear of heights); as for me, I don’t even like being this tall! I survived the experience in 1971, but instead of getting “the gift of gab” I was left speechless! (Of course, since I am of Irish ancestry, that was very brief.)

One legend about the castle is intriguing, and may stem from the fact that a limestone cave and dank dungeons are located near the castle (O’Dwyer 2000, 223; Nickell 1971). In 1651, after Oliver Cromwell’s forces had conquered castle after castle—Limerick, for example, falling to siege tactics—Blarney claimed a sort of “moral victory” over the rebels. Allegedly, the castle’s entire garrison secretly escaped through a tunnel beneath the massive tower—at least “according to Irish folklore” (Constable and Farrington 2004, 118).

The similarity of the word blarney to the American baloney (or boloney), meaning “nonsense,” cannot go unnoted—especially since the latter is a popular skeptics’ epithet. (For example, Carl Sagan, in his 1995 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, included a chapter titled, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”) Attempts to explain baloney as deriving from bologna sausage (e.g., Barnhart 1988, 73) are unconvincing. Some sources note that that connection is conjectural or frankly admit that the etymology is unknown (Webster’s 1986, 34), while others offer different theories—for instance, that it may come from the Spanish pelone, meaning “balls” (Hendrickson 1997, 87).

I have long suspected baloney might actually be a corruption of blarney itself. Frequently foreign or other unfamiliar expressions are corrupted to a familiar one. For example, “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a corruption of Pennsylvania Deutch (i.e., German immigrants).

I finally discovered one scholarly source that acknowledged baloney was “possibly influenced” by blarney (Lighter 1994, 82). In any case, a fine distinction between the two words was expressed by Fulton John Sheen in 1938: “Baloney is flattery so thick it cannot be true, and blarney is flattery so thin we like it” (Bartlett 1955, 973).

Rock of Cashel

Another Irish castle represents an impressive sight: in county Tipperary, atop a gigantic limestone outcropping that rises abruptly to a height of 358 feet, stands a stone fortress wall enclosing the ruins of great medieval structures, including the Irish-Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel (consecrated 1134), a thirteenth-century gothic cathedral, and a ninety-foot round tower. The latter, built shortly after 1101, remains the oldest part of “one of the most interesting assemblages of ruins in Ireland” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. [1910], s.v. “Cashel”). It is known as the Rock of Cashel but is also called St. Patrick’s Rock.

Legends about the castle range from the fanciful to the historical. The former is typified by a tale claiming that the rock was hurled by the Devil when he spied a church being built at Cashel. Fortunately the evil one had bad aim, and the Christians were undaunted (O’Dwyer 2000, 179).

On much more likely grounds, it appears that St. Patrick—the Briton who legendarily endured danger and hardship to convert Ireland to Christianity—did baptize King Aenghus of Munster at Cashel about a.d. 450, thus establishing Cashel as a bishopric.

Patrick himself is largely a legendary figure. While pious tales have him single-handedly Christianizing Ireland, the fact is that “this work took many more years than these legends allow” (Jones 1994, 189).

The most famous legends of St. Patrick have him using the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity and expelling snakes from the isle; hence these became his emblems (Jones 1994, 189). However, although snakes are indeed absent from Ireland, that fact is not due to saintly magic since there were never any snakes to expel. Instead, their absence results from the same factors that have also excluded other reptiles (except the newt) as well as such common English mammals as the mole, the weasel, and two varieties of mice. The absences are due to climactic conditions and Ireland’s having become separated by the Irish Sea from the other British Isles before they were separated from Europe (Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., Macropedia, s.v. “Ireland”).

Not surprisingly, some say St. Patrick’s Rock is haunted. I saw no ghosts when I visited many years ago, but I can understand how folk have fancied “sper’ts av kings an’ bishops that rest on Cashel” (McAnally 1888, 49). I wrote at the time in my journal (Nickell 1971) that “the wind added ‘atmosphere,’ and with the cold grey sky, the cold grey stone, and the old graves, made an eerie place of ‘The Rock.’”

Heidelberg Castle

Perched atop a ridge overlooking Heidelberg, the Schloss (castle) is the centerpiece of the scenic views of the city. Its grandiose ruins of striking red sandstone are well preserved and represent “one of Germany’s finest examples of a Gothic-Renaissance fortress” (Schulte-Peevers 2002, 543).

During the second World Skeptics Congress held in the picturesque city, July 23—26, 1998 (see Frazier 1998), I found time to visit the castle, accompanied by fellow skeptic and former U.S. Air Force Major James McGaha.

Legends there abound. For example, one swirls about the castle terrace, where one can see a supposed “footprint” in the stone. This is purported to have been caused by a knight having leapt from a third-story window when a prince made an early return to his wife’s bedroom (Schulte-Peevers 2002, 543).

Of course such an “explanation” of the alleged imprint is ridiculous on the face of it, since it would have taken a superhuman leap to have so impressed stone. Indeed, the common “footprint-in-the-stone” story element—or motif, as folklorists say—is typically attributed to the supernatural (see Nickell 2003a).

Still another legend at Schloss Heidelberg is obviously recounted not for its factual value but for its punchline. The tale focuses on the Grosses Fass (“great cask”), an enormous wine vat standing two stories tall in the cellar. Once the largest functioning wine vat in the world, it was reputedly made from 130 oak trees and has a capacity of some 50,000 gallons.

According to the legend, in the eighteenth century the vat’s guardian was a dwarf named Perkeo, a court jester with a tremendous thirst for wine. Some say he could consume the contents of the Great Cask in a single draught (“Perkeo” 2005), while a more reasonable source states that he only attempted to empty it by drinking eighteen bottles daily for fifty years. One day, however, Perkeo substituted a glass of water—by accident, say most raconteurs—and died instantly! (Inowlocki 1999, 70—71; Knight 2002, 303).

The anecdote may have grown from a proverbial kernel of truth. Apparently, under the rule of the elector Carl Phillip, a Tyrolean dwarf, did serve as the court jester—a role that clever dwarfs often filled (Nickell 2005, 107). Perkeo was supposedly a nickname deriving from his response, when offered wine, “Perche no?” (“Why not?”). An antique statue of Perkeo today stands next to the Great Cask (Knight 2002, 303; “Perkeo” 2005).

Castillo de San Marcos

The seventeenth-century Spanish-built Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Constructed of coquina, a soft limestone formed by cemented seashells, it was begun in response to a raid in 1668 by English pirates. Construction started in 1672 and was completed after twenty-three years. It guarded Florida until that territory was ceded to England in 1763, and it imprisoned Americans during the Revolutionary War (Brownstone and Franck 1989, 8). It was returned to Spain in 1783, then purchased by the United States in 1819. Today it is a National Monument, operated by the National Park Service.

Of the many legends of the Castillo, none is more gruesome, more spine-tingling, more often repeated—and less substantiated—than that of the ghostly lovers in the fort’s dungeon. As it is summarized in The National Directory of Haunted Places (Hauck 1996, 125).

An eerie glow accompanied by the faint odor of a woman’s perfume is sometimes detected near a wall in the dungeon of this 1672 Spanish fort. The wall was the ghastly tomb of Señora Dolores Marti and Captain Manuel Abela. Señora Dolores was the wife of Colonel Garcia Marti, assigned to the Spanish garrison in 1784. When Colonel Marti found out his wife was having an affair with Abela, he chained them to a wall in the dungeon and mortared a new wall of coquina stone in front of them.

In the next century an engineer noticed that a section of wall sounded hollow when tapped. “He chipped away the mortar, and the lantern he held illuminated two skeletons” (Moore 1998, 43). At least, this “supposedly” happened, according to another raconteur who stated more specifically that “There before him hung two skeletons, chained to the wall” (Lapham 1997, 147). That writer—along with his illustrator—seems not to know that bones are not wired together like the articulated skeletons in science classes, and instead of hanging as a unit they would have fallen apart, landing in a heap on the floor.

In fact, the legend represents an interesting example of how facts are embellished over time by those intent on fostering mystery.

First of all, there is no “dungeon” in the Castillo (despite its having been used as a prison on various occasions [Brownstone and Franck 1989, 8]). The area in question was actually a small room that was part of the powder magazine; it proved too humid for storing gunpowder and was sealed off. It was rediscovered, not in 1833, 1838, or 1938 as variously given (Hauck 1996, 125—126; Cain 1997, 22) but in 1832 “When a cannon fell through from the gundeck” (National n.d.; Harris 2004).

Reportedly “bones” were found among the debris in the room, but whether they were human appears far from certain. Concedes one source: “Many rumors and stories developed about the bones. Tour guides shortly after the turn of the century concocted all kinds of fascinating tales involving the ‘dungeon room.’” Indeed, “Some stories were quite fantastic” (Cain 1997, 22), including, of course, the fable of the governor sealing his wife and her lover in that chamber. Although one source acknowledges that “history does not record the event” (Lapham 1997, 146), another, while agreeing, nevertheless offers the hope that “perhaps some visitors may still experience an eerie feeling when visiting the small room in the northeast corner” (Cain 1997, 22).

In 2004, when I visited the Castillo (for the third time) I was impressed with the professionalism of the staff. One told me, “There aren’t any ghosts,” explaining that he had slept there all night on occasion and experienced nothing. He said that places with genuine history did not need to use ghosts for tourist promotion—unlike those that “don’t have anything else” (Cipriani 2004). The Castillo de San Marcos certainly has plenty of real history.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at