The Wreckers of Dunraven



Dunraven Castle, or manor house as it really was, is recorded as having been a place of habitation from earliest times. It is said that Caractacus, the old Welsh chieftain lived there and also Iestyn ap Cwrgan. It then became Norman, the home of the Botteler (Butler) family of the knights who severed directly under de Londres, the Lord of Ogmore. The name derives from the Welsh Dindryvan, meaning a triangular shaped fortress. The house was in existence until recent times when a dispute arose between the owner, who had wished to develop it, and the local authority who refused permission. The owner then demolished the premises and little of it remains today.

There is a famous legend about Dunraven Castle concerning the Vaughans, a family who came to the fore as the Tudor ‘new nobility’. How much of the story is true and how much is legend we have no means of telling, but it is a historical fact that Walter Vaughan, the head of the family, had three sons who were drowned in the nearby waters of the Bristol Channel. Here is the legend.

Walter Vaughan, the Lord of Dunraven, once saw a shipwrecked on the dangerous nearby reefs. Swimming out with a rope he managed to save many lives. He then worked out a scheme of sea-rescue and took his plans to the government of the day. Unfortunately for many, the powers-that-be refused to consider the plans. The rebuff changed Vaughan’s nature and he became an embittered man, spending his money in reckless extravagance. He married and had several sons but his new-found character  made for poor family life, his wife dying of a broken heart and his favourite son deserting him to begin life in a foreign land.

Later another wreck occurred which Vaughan, as Lord of the Manor, claimed as his. The unfortunate ship yielded much wealth and this set Vaughan thinking, for his spending had depleted the family coffers. If one ship had saved him from bankruptcy, why not a few more? The people living along the coast between Dunraven and Nash Point (especially those in Wick) had long had the reputation for deliberately wrecking the sailing ships of the day, their favourite ploy being to put lanterns on sheep and oxen, thus confusing the unfortunate sailors. The leader of the wreckers in the area was a man with an iron hook in place of an arm, known as ‘Mat of the Iron Hand’. Vaughan fell in with this reprobate, overlooking the fact that many years ago, as the local magistrate, he had ordered the seizure of Mat for a misdemeanour and that, in the ensuing arrest, there had been a struggle in which the wrecker had lost his hand in a knife thrust. Perhaps Vaughan thought that Mat had forgotten, or would not harbour a grudge when profitable business was in the offing: it was a mistake that cost him dear.

Having entered the wrecking business, Vaughan’s fortune began to prosper but it was not long before Nemesis began to play a hand. First two of his sons were drowned. They had set forth in a small boat to do some fishing but a sudden storm arose, driving the craft on to the feared rocks. Vaughan had to watch helplessly from the cliffs as the two boys met their death: and, as though that was not enough, in the resulting turmoil (with all the servants rushing from the castle to watch) his youngest son fell into a vessel of whey and was also drowned.
These events were regarded as just retribution for an evil man. Vaughan must have thought so to, for he began to try and make amends for his bad deeds; but his final punishment was now approaching in the shape of Mat the Iron Hand.

One day, during a terrible storm, Vaughan saw a ship trying to seek shelter near the coast. It might have made it but, as it got dark, Mat put out his false lights and the ship was lured to its doom. Amid the shrieking of the wind and the buffeting if the waves the crew tried to swim towards the beach but only one man made it alive. It was the rule amongst wreckers that no sailor, if he got ashore, should be allowed to live in case ge became a future witness in court: so Mat, being the ring leader, advanced on the exhausted swimmer and killed him. No sooner had he done so that he recognised his victim and his sadistic nature felt a surge of exultation.  He reached down and cut off the sailor’s hand.

Back on the cliff-top Vaughan was watching. He saw Mat approaching and as the ruffian came up to him he saw the bloody hand of the murdered man. Mat held out the hand and on one of the fingers Vaughan saw a ring. Slowly disbelief turned to despair and terror as the nobleman realised the full enormity of what had happened.

The hand and the ring were those of his favourite son who had left home such a long time ago.



Illustration by Margaret Wooding
Images: Dunraven Castle

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