Wigtown Book Festival’s closing event tells the true story behind Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor and Donizetti’s great opera
In 1669 Scotland was gripped by the tragedy of a lovelorn teenage bride whose husband was stabbed in their bedchamber on the night of their forced marriage. A few weeks later she was dead.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the terrible events at Baldoon Castle in Wigtownshire, and the bicentenary of The Bride of Lammermoor, the Walter Scott novel they inspired.
This in turn led to a famous painting by John Everett Millais. But it didn’t stop there.
The story of Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the Viscount of Stair and David Dunbar (heir to the castle and its lands) also gave rise to the great 1835 Donizetti opera Lucia di Lammermoor, in which the central role has been performed by the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. All that survives of Baldoon Castle today are fragmentary ruins.
But the 21st annual Wigtown Book Festival, which takes place near the castle, is staging a special event to mark the anniversary of the incident and of the publication of Scott’s romanticised version.
Taking place on Sunday, it will be the closing event of the 2019 festival and will feature three international opera singers performing arias from Donizetti’s work, interspersed with a telling of the true story.
The Bride of Lammermoor event has been organised by Wigtown resident Rosemary Bythell, who spent years researching what happened and is author of a booklet entitled The Real Bride of Lammermoor.
She said: “It’s a story that rocked Scottish society at the time – and due to the novel, the opera and the painting it continues to echo down the centuries. But few people are aware of the real story, or that it all took place near Wigtown.
“So we decided that the time was right to hold an event to tell Janet’s story and bring people some of the arias from the magnificent opera it inspired.”
And the truth is as gripping as any novel – all the more so at the time as it involved two well-known and influential families. Janet’s father used his legal power over her to make her accept a marriage that suited the family’s ambitions.
Her heart lay with Archibald Rutherford, who came from a titled family, but was a younger son and had few prospects.
She was taken away from her home and loved ones, made to endure a wedding ceremony, and was then transported to Baldoon Castle (which is now privately owned and not open to the public) and sent off to a wedding bed.
Cries were heard from the chamber and David was found with stab wound to his groin – Janet is recorded as saying to the people who rushed in “now tak yer bonnie bridegroom”.
Some claimed that the jilted Archibald had climbed through an open window to avenge himself on David. But most believe it was Janet who wielded the dagger. However an element of mystery remains as the groom never revealed what happened.
Three weeks later Janet died. Donizetti claimed she had gone mad, but Rosemary suspects something more complex.
She said: “I have no firm evidence, but I think she had stopped eating some time before and that in those days they didn’t have a name for what we know of as anorexia.”
And perhaps inevitably given such dark associations, even though very little remains of the castle, there are rumours that the ruins are haunted by a spectral bride, complete with bloodied wedding dress.
• The Bride of Lammermoor: Festival Marquee, Sunday October 6, 6pm. A narrated concert that intercuts the real story of Janet Dalrymple with Donizetti’s glorious music performed live by three leading opera singers. In association with Classical Musicians Scotland.
For full details of Wigtown Book Festival go to wigtownbookfestival.com.
Picture: Colin Tennant.