The Swans of Closeburn: 1700s

swan

Whenever any member of the Kirkpatricks of Closeburn in Dumfries-shire was about to die, a swan that was never seen but on such occasions was sure to make its appearance upon the lake surrounding Closeburn Castle, coming no one knew whence and passing away mysteriously when the predicted death had taken place. In connection with this omen the following legend is told: In days gone by the lake was the favourite resort during the summer season of a pair of swans, their arrival always being welcome to the family at the castle, from a long-established belief that they were ominous of good fortune to the Kirkpatricks. No matter what mischance might have before impended, it was sure to cease at their coming, and so suddenly as well as constantly that it required no very ardent superstition to connect the two events as cause and effect.

But a century and a half had passed away, when it happened that the young heir of Closeburn, a lad about thirteen years of age, in one of his visits to Edinburgh, attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the theatre. In the course of the play he was surprised to hear Portia say of Bassanio that he would

Make a swanlike end.

Fading to music.

Wondering whether swans really sang before dying, he determined at the first opportunity to test the truth of the words for himself. On his return home he was one day walking by the lake, when the swans came rushing majestically towards him, and at once reminded him of Portia’s remark. Without a moment’s thought he lodged in the breast of the foremost one a bolt from his crossbow, killing it instantly. Frightened at what he had done he made up his mind that it should not be known, and as the dead body of the bird drifted towards the shore he lifted it and buried it deep in the ground.

No small surprise, however, was created in the neighbourhood when for several years no swans made their annual appearance. As time passed it was thought that they must have died, but one day, many years later, much excitement was caused by the appearance of a single swan with a deep blood-red stain upon its breast. As might be expected, this unlooked-for occurrence occasioned grave suspicions even among those who had no great faith in omens; and that such fears were not groundless was soon abundantly clear, for in less than a week the Lord of Closeburn Castle died suddenly. Thereupon the swan vanished and was seen no more for some years, when it again appeared to announce the loss of one of the house by shipwreck.

The last recorded appearance of the bird was at the third nuptials of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first baronet of that name. On the wedding day his son Roger was walking by the lake, when, on a sudden, as if it had emerged from the waters, the swan with the bleeding breast appeared. Roger had heard of the mysterious swan, and although his father’s wedding bells were ringing merrily, he himself returned to the castle a sorrowful man, for he felt convinced that some evil was hanging over him. On that very night the son died, and here ends the strange story of the swans of Closeburn.

The Occult Review March 1916: pp. 164-5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Some might take this as a warning about the evil influence of the play-house on Impressionable Youth.

The exact quote is

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.46)

Of course, the term “swan-song” is proverbial; swans were believed to burst into beautiful song as they were dying.

Swans are also considered to be a death omen for the Marquises of Bath. When the Marquis is about to die, it is said that one of the swans flies away from the lake at Longleat and does not return.

“The present Lord Bath told author [Christina Hole] that during World War I, when his elder brother, then the Marquis, was fighting in France, his mother saw a swan fly away as she stood by a window. Five swans flew toward her, then circled the mansion. One swan then turned out of the formation and flew into the distance while the four returned to the lake. The following morning she received the official telegram informing her of her son’s death.” The Psychic Power of Animals, Bill Schul

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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