Pit Prisons and the Bottle Dungeon

I always assumed that the dungeon at St Andrews Castle, carved out of rock and worn smooth by its many occupants, was unique.

Named the bottle dungeon for reasons which are soon obvious to any visitor, it is indeed unique – in shape. But the principle of keeping prisoners in a pit prison was fairly universal.

There were of course others forms of punishment, often about humiliation more than pain

masks of shame the castilians
Masks of Shame displayed in Mdina, Malta

Cardinal Beaton, who was instrumental in the death of George Wishart was himself held prisoner at Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle

but, as a rich and powerful man, Cardinal Beaton’s incarceration was quite different from that of general prisoners

Cardinal Beaton's prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors
Cardinal Beaton’s prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors

Of course Beaton had to pay for his comfortable living, but then any prisoner had to rely on family or friends to provide food, heat, bedding, bribes and a ransom…so if you were poor you were in desperate straits.

The Cardinal did end up in the bottle dungeon a few years later, where the Lairds who murdered him are said to have kept his mutilated body…

Leslie wants the Cardinal’s body brought out of the dungeon and laid to rest somewhere more fitting. Will hangs his head over the bottle neck and quickly hauls it out again. The smell is bad: dank, airless and putrid. Surely the Cardinal can’t still be rotting after more than a year pickled in salt.

bottle dungeon St Andrews Castle

The men below shout up; they need help. Will sighs, grasps a rope and slides down to join them. No doubt they will soon be imprisoned here themselves, and he would prefer it if the Cardinal was first removed.

They balance awkwardly on the curve of the hollowed-out floor of the dungeon. The coffin slips and crashes to the ground. The ill-fitting lid slides open.

Will looks down upon the tightly packed body and the Cardinal’s face stares up at him. He steps back with a sharp intake of breath, and he’s not the only one. He rubs his eyes hard, God’s blood, he would swear on his life he saw Beaton’s unquiet spirit escape.

They ram the lid back on and get the coffin tied up, and hauled to the surface without any further mishap. He climbs back up the rope and the group, staggering under the weight as they slip and slither in the muck, take it in turns to carry it across the rain-soaked, cannon- blasted courtyard. Will notices that Norman Leslie takes no further part in proceedings.’

The Castilians , currently on the Amazon BEST SELLER List, is on offer until 16 September.

The sequel, The Conversos, will be released on 30 November.

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