OTD 1394: The Wolf of Badenoch Dies After a Game of Chess with the Devil

Lochindorb Castle near Grantown-on-Spey – a favored secluded hideout of ‘The Wolf’. PIC: www.geograph.co.uk/coldwaterjohn.

Many knew it as the Wolf of Badenoch while others called it the Celtic Atilla. It has been debated whether he was indeed the meanest man in Scotland.

The wolf died on this day in 1394 at Ruthven Castle near Kingussie with a legend claiming he met his maker after playing chess with the devil.

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19th century depiction of the destruction of Elgin Cathedral, which was set on fire by the wolf. IPC: Creative Commons.

The story is perhaps a fitting ending for a man who forged his reputation with a series of rampages in the north of Scotland and his terrifying appetite for the destruction of his enemies.

He set fire to the towns of Forres and Elgin, where the cathedral was burnt down and the chaplains and canons burned from their homes.

It is believed that Pluscarden Abbey was also lit by the wolf as he struggled against the influence of the Bishop of Moray. The driver of much of his rage was his marriage to Euphemia I, Countess of Ross, which was unable to give him a legitimate heir.

The tomb of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, at Dunkeld Cathedral. IPC: Creative Commons.

However, he is said to have had seven children with his mistress, Mairead nighean Eachann, with other accounts claiming the wolf fathered up to 40 children with other women.

The wolf was fueled by a poisonous combination of anger and power given to him by his father, King Robert II, who made his son Earl of Buchan in 1382 and Chief Crown Advocate in the North of Scotland.

The wolf’s territory stretched from Moray to the Pentland Firth – with much of its inhabitants to feel the full force of this “varied and cruel” figure, according to Sir John Scott Keltie in his 1875 publication, A History of the Scottish Highlands .

In 1390, as the Earl lay in his secluded isle of Lochindorb Castle, the wolf touch paper was lit when the Bishop of Moray, Alexander Bur, refused to annul his marriage.

He was later to excommunicate the Wolf. The earl was “enraged…to such a degree of fury” that he was burnt to ashes key parts of his territory.

Keltie writes: “In the month of May, 1390, he descended from his heights and burned the town of Forres, with the choir of the church and the presbytery of the archdeacon.

“And the following June he burned the town of Elgin, St Giles Church, the House of God Hospital and the Cathedral, with 18 houses of Canons and Chaplains at Elgin College.

“He also plundered these churches of their sacred utensils and vestments which he took away.”

It is likely that the Priory of Pluscarden was burnt down at the same time with traces of fire still visible today in the building.

The Wolf, whose other homes included Drumin Castle near Glenlivet, Garth Castle near Glen Lyon and Ruthven Castle near Kingussie, was pursued and punished by his father but ultimately absolved of his crimes and recovered by the church.

According to accounts, Pope Clement V later annulled the marriage in late 1392 after Countess Euphemia complained to Rome that her marriage was meaningless given that the wolf was cohabiting with another woman.

The Wolf of Badenoch is said to have died in 1394 after playing chess with the devil at Ruthven Castle, according to legend.

It is said that he was visited by a tall man dressed in black and the pair played all night, with a storm evoked when the visitor called “check” and “checkmate“.

In the morning, the wolf was found dead in the banqueting hall, and his men were also found dead outside the castle walls. The wolf’s grave is in Dunkeld Cathedral.

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