The tale of Kinmont Willie

Born William Armstrong, of Kinmont in around 1550, but better known as Kinmont Willie; was a Scottish border reiver, freebooter and outlaw active in the rough Scottish Borderlands during the late 1500’s, whose first recorded raid had taken place in August of 1583, against one of the two most formidable of English border families; the Milburn’s of Tynedale; the other being the Charltons, both of whom had fast roots within Northumberland during that time. Yet despite their supposed might, such an act of aggression would not have been at all surprising, for this was the age of the horse-bound border reiver; with the people of Tynesdale just as apt to carry out similar raids on the lands of Liddlesdale, north of the border in Scotland.

Scottish border reivers
Scottish border reivers

And during this time, and despite the peace between Scotland and England, it would not have been all that uncommon to happen across one of a dozen small battles being waged all across the Borderlands, from Annandale down through to Carlisle and everywhere in between; the countryside filled with troops of rogue cavalrymen, armored in steel and with lance in hand; their spear, sword, and axe strapped fast to their saddles, and flags and banners flying in rebellious irreverence. Many among their number would have been veteran soldiers, or sons born to the trade, but all united in rustling and banditry regardless. In a way, the Borders were akin to the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy; a truly lawless place, wherein neither Scotland’s King, nor England’s Queen held any authority over the rough men inhabiting it. Though despite the peace between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, no doubt due in large part to the latter’s warring with Spain; Scotland itself was still party to the sort of infighting of which it had long grown accustomed. Such internal strife however, was not to last, as by October of 1585, the Earl of Angus, and many other Scottish exiles, had finally been granted permission to return from their refuge in England, and assist in the ousting of the Earl of Arran and his regime; major contributors of the aforementioned infighting. And it was in this ousting campaign, that one Kinmont Willie was involved.

With the successful capture of the town and castle of Stirling, sometime in early November, which had culminated in Arran’s defeat, and the restoring of many ancestral lands to their rightful owners, as well as signaling Arran’s opponents as being back in the Royal favor; it is clear that Kinmont was, if anything, an experienced soldier familiar with both raiding, and actual organized fighting. And so it should come as no surprise that eight years after that incident, he was next spotted back down in Tynedale, and this time with around one thousand men, carrying off over two thousand beasts, and some three hundred pound’s in loot. To say that his was a long and successful career, is perhaps an understatement, as even up until the turn of the century he was often said to continue undertaking large scale raids into England at the head of a band of around three hundred men known as “Kinmont’s bairns“, and that by the mid-1590s (fifteen or so years before his death) he had become the most wanted man on either side of the border; with the English especially keen to get their hands on him.

Now, during that era, it was common, every once in a while, for such events as ‘Truce Days’, or ‘Days of truce’ to occur; social gatherings that soon became great fairs attended by many a reiver family; an event where all could come together to socialize and discuss issues of mutual interest in a neutral environment, whilst also having the added bonus of allowing family and friends, normally separated by the border, to catch up safely. And it was whilst attending one such Truce Day, on 17 March 1596, that our man Kinmont, despite his ‘safe conduct’ order, was illegally, and without warning, set upon and arrested by the men of the English Warden of the West March, Sir Thomas Scrope, before being taken swiftly to Carlisle Castle in chains, where he was then imprisoned. As you might have guessed, this act of treachery did not sit very well with Kinmont’s bairns. And thus, an audacious rescue plan was soon hatched by one, Walter Scott of Buccleuch ‘the Bauld Buccleuch‘, keeper of Liddesdale, and on whose land our man had been unjustly captured.

Side note: Before I go on, I should explain that the fighting amongst the border reivers wasn’t always Scotland versus England, but rather, Scotsmen and Englishmen acting for the sake of booty and coin alone; if your target just so happened to be an Englishman, then it was his wealth which compelled you into attacking him, and not necessarily his nationality. These men really owed no nations monarch their allegiance, but, they were still more than ready to come to the aid of their own homelands should they be required to do so, as was the case with many a latter day Moss-trooper during Cromwell’s invasion. If it could be plundered, then they would take it regardless of where it lay; but if the English invaded Scotland, or vice versa, then such bandits could swiftly become a seasoned troop of cavalrymen at a moment’s notice.

And so, after much fruitless negotiating and endeavoring on the part of Buccleuch, between him and the English warden, and which had amounted to nothing more than Warden Scrope pointedly refusing to release Kinmont. The Keeper of Liddesdale resolved then to commit himself to a more direct course of action. And, on the 13 April, 1596, he did just that; personally leading a daring band of eighty men across the border, and into England; intent on securing our man’s release from his prison within Carlisle castle. Now, such a blatant act as this, of which had rarely been undertaken beforehand, would go on to have serious ramifications for the relationship between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, than perhaps any involved had then considered; and certainly they could not have foreseen that their intrepid foray might very well have sparked a war between both countries as a result.

The rescue of Kinmount Willie by Angus Mcbride
The rescue of Kinmont Willie: Angus McBride

Now, the details are vague in regards to what occurred during the rescue, with some sources claiming that the castle guards were bribed into allowing Buccleuch and his men into the castle, whilst others maintain that the guards were actually subdued by force. As it stands, I really have no idea, but would imagine that were it men of an English reiver family guarding the prison, then perhaps a bribe really would have been all it took to gain admittance. Otherwise, eighty men either scaling a wall, or just simply infiltrating a castle likewise would not have been unheard of. Regardless of how, the bold Kinmont Willie was once again a free man at the end of it all. And, having very much captured a major English stronghold, our plucky Scots simply wheeled their steeds noses northward, and then rode back for Scotland. All in a nights work.

And there you have it; we’ve now reached the end of Kinmont’s tale, and despite the warden Scrope having hunted for him far and wide; ceaselessly upturning the surrounding land in a desperate and relentless effort to recapture his ill-gotten prisoner; raising the lands of Annan and Dumfries as he did so; Kinmont Willie was never again recaptured. In 1600; he was free to attack the village of Scotby, burning it down with one hundred and forty riders. And again, in 1602, he was still a free enough man to have mounted his last major foray into England, going so far south as to have passed Carlisle. His four sons, who had all helped in his earlier rescue, also survived the Wardens reprisals, for they were frequently named as having taken part in later Border raids. Kinmont died peacefully in his own bed in around 1610, at the age of 60.

But, our the chain of events sparked by his rescue dont end there, for in the immediate aftermath of the incident, so enraged by the peacetime incursion against one of her border fortresses was Queen Elizabeth I of England, furious with Scotland’s King James VI; who was the recipient of not only a promise of a generous pension, but the very throne of England itself; had vigorously set about demanding an explanation for the unwarranted hostility; and no doubt threatening war and all manner of other nasty reprisals if it wasn’t resolved satisfactory. King James VI, caught between popular will and his allegiance to his own people, with that of his vital relationship with the Queen, and his sizable pension; was ultimately left with no other choice but to relent, even managing to convince our Bold Buccleuch to go and travel down to England, meet with the Queen herself, and then see if he couldn’t go and smooth out the now incredibly strained Royal relationship; perhaps even thwart a war between the Kingdoms whilst he was at it. And, being the daring soul that he was, Buccleuch agreed; for the safety of his country, he would travel to a hostile court, and give an account of himself to none other than the Queen of England.

And needless to say, and to cut a long story short, our man did indeed go down and speak to the Queen, and so enamored was she said to have been with that ‘dashing‘ and ‘charming‘ man, that she forgave his trespass outright; as simple as that. No war, no strife, nor struggle; she simply forgave him. And that, is the story of how a winning smile was all it took to stop a war between Scotland and England.

Walter Scott of Buccleuch
The dashing Walter Scott of Buccleuch

P.S: before I go, I want to leave you with an account of an incident which had taken place between a group of Scottish and English reivers. Now, I can’t quite recall the exact details, or where I read it, though I think it may have taken place in some skirmish between that of Scotland and England. Anyway; apparently, whilst in the midst of the battle, when they should have been hacking and stabbing at one another; both factions were found to have been having a casual conversation, right there in the heat of battle! And, when they realized they had been rumbled, had halfheartedly pantomimed a fight until the coast was once again clear, before quickly lowering their weapons to continue chatting amongst themselves.

The fiddling fighting freebooter

Qi Xing painting 'As if James MacPherson had ever played fiddle to a white stag'
Painting by Qi Xing ‘As if James MacPherson had ever played fiddle to a white stag’

This is the story of my favorite folk hero, Jamie MacPherson. Now, whilst his life and exploits don’t exactly share the same level of fame and national significance as that of Rob Roy; in MacPhersons tragic story, his origins set the tone of a tale in the archetype of so many romantic tales concerning outlaws; with tragedy being central; whereas, Rob Roy’s story simply embodies the swashbuckling exploits of an itinerant rogue, full of adventure and the outwitting of lords and soldiery, yet lacking in any sense of intrigue or emotion on the part of the man himself’. It’s a fascinating and fun account, like that of an action movie wherein you already know that the hero is really in no danger. Whereas with MacPherson we find an intriguing figure in every sense and from the get go: mysterious origins, and appearance; tall, swarthy and of unusual strength, and said to have been an exceptional and self-taught swordsman, as well as a gifted fiddler, and composer.

The product of an illicit affair between a Highland laird, and that of a beautiful Tinker; upon his birth, Jamie’s father, one MacPherson of Invereshie, touchingly, actually acknowledged the infant as his own, even going so far as to take him into his home at Invereshie House near Kincraig, were he was raised to childhood; the circumstances of his lowly mothers life, in comparison to that of his own good fortune was surely not lost on the boy who would go on to become the charismatic, and in some instances, morally upright leader of a band of Tinkers (Scottish Gypsies).

Yet, sometime in the early 1680’s, tragedy struck that young man’s (so far) charmed life; his father, having been made aware of the location of some stolen cattle, rustled from Badenoch, had then went to the location with an armed party of men with which to recapture the purloined beasts. Once there however, he had had the unenviable task of defeating a band of hardened reivers to do so, and was slain in the attempt. Thus, the young Jamie found himself back with his mother’s Tinker kin. Yet, he was not so unfortunate as to have lived so harshly, for the men and women of his own Clan, Clan MacPherson, had endeavored to see him and his mother done right by; clothing and feeding him often, as well as providing her with money.

As he grew older, it seems he had inherited a great deal from his mother’s exotic appearance; his jet-black hair and swarthy skin certainly very uncommon in Scotland at that time; and so had soon grown into a man described by the first volume of the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ as:

“in beauty, strength and stature rarely equaled.” 

Side note: This magazine also helpfully informs us that neither MacPherson, nor his men, had to wear tights under their Kilts.

Starting his early career buying and selling horses, whether legitimately or not is impossible to know (Though I suspect it was the latter); he and his band of Tinkers were said to have been fairly well liked among the common folk during this time, perhaps due in no small part to MacPherson’s objection to unnecessary violence, and unwillingness to rob widows, the poor, and to harming either children, or the vulnerable. Sadly, in the end, it was such righteousness that would prove his undoing; though that part comes later in this tale.

At some point in his relatively short life, MacPherson had become such a well-known figure in the north east of Scotland, specifically Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray, that he had gathered behind himself a great number of powerful enemies due to his criminal activities; nobles, lairds, and gentlemen farmers chief among them; so that soon he found himself being chased through the low country of Aberdeenshire and Banff by as formidable a posse as such men could muster. And although he was captured several times during this period, no doubt thanks in large part to his willingness to stand and fight his pursuers, rather than skulk and hide; he was always able to escape them shortly afterwards. In one account, it was said, whilst being held at Aberdeen, one of his cousins, by the name of Donald MacPherson, along with a Tinker, Peter Brown (Then spelt; Broune), were able to so thoroughly rile up the local populace, that they aided the two men in his’ rescue. Another unlikely escape took place not long after that, wherein he was once again captured, but was this time aided by only one; the laird of Grant. As to the reason why a laird aided him, I have no idea. But, it wasn’t uncommon for such men to strike bargains with those like MacPherson, an investment of sorts; or even employ them as cattle-guards and agents with which to carry out their less gentlemanly affairs. Whatever the case was, MacPherson was a free man again, and now under the protection of the aforementioned laird. Though true to form, such freedom was never going to last very long if MacPherson’s boldness was to have a say in it.

In 1700, at the small town of Keith, Moray; the Saint Rufus Fair was in full swing; Alexander Duff of Braco, ancestor of the Earls of Fife, and a large company of men were among the revelers present that day, and if some sources are to be believed, it might not have been a coincidence, for that very same fair was paid a visit by none other than MacPherson and his band of outlaws who, according to a report in ‘The New Statistical Account of Scotland’, published by William Blackwood and Sons, in 1845; had a habit of visiting such market days in places like Forres, Elgin or Banff, were he would just swagger on in in as boldly as could be, he and his band armed to the teeth and with a piper leading them.

Now this is the part in the tale where things get a little murky for a moment, for some sources suggest that the reason for Duff’s presence at the fair might have been orchestrated by betrayal. Months earlier, MacPherson had supposedly gotten into a heated exchange with a particularly brutal member of his group whose intentions were to attack the house of a gentleman, despite the man’s wife and young children being present. MacPherson refused…firmly; and thus, may have gained himself a knife at the back for his trouble.

Whatever the case may be, armed boldly as he and his band were, which was an offence during that period; Duff, the laird of Braco, and his men fell upon them swiftly and a great battle ensued, with MacPherson fiercely displaying his frightening personal strength in the midst of that hectic fray; his Claymore, wielded by such raw power as it was, able to cleave grown men in two, amputate limbs, and part heads from shoulders; not a single man it was said could gain any measure over him. However, as the fighting shifted to a narrow street, those in the apartments above begun to drop blankets atop the battling MacPherson; covered now in layers of cloth and wool, and fighting for his very life on all sides, he half-freed himself and took away “seeking to reach the gable of the church”; “parrying the attack of his enemies by the way”. And he did indeed reach the Churchyard, but not the gable, for “he fell over a gravestone” and was, unfortunately, swiftly detained; as were two more of his number, one by the last name Gordon, and “twa Brouns”. It’s quite possible that one of those twa Brouns (two Browns) was the Peter Brown who had helped rescue him earlier.

Regardless, this was to be Macpherson’s final brush with the law. His trail took place at Banff, before Nicholas Dunbar, the Sheriff of Banffshire, on the 8th of November, 1700. Now, if it wasn’t bad enough that he was a known outlaw, “wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner”, it should be noted also that it was actually a capital crime to be an ‘Egyptian’ (I.E Gypsy) within 18th century Scotland; and it was under such a statute that MacPherson (part Gypsy) was tried. Needless to say, and to cut a long story short, he was unsurprisingly-

“-to be taken to the Cross of Banff… to be hanged by the neck to the death by the hand of the common executioner… betwixt the hours of two and three in the afternoon…”

And it was whilst in jail, during the week before his execution, that MacPherson’s fame was truly cemented within the folk memory of Scotland, for it was then that he was said to have composed the song now known as MacPherson’s Lament, or, MacPherson’s Rant; the very same tune that he was then said to have played on his fiddle, beneath the gallows that would see him dead. When the bold MacPherson was finished, he had offered his instrument “to anyone in the crowd who would think well of him”, but, perhaps out of fear of betraying their familiarity to the condemned, not one among neither his Clan, nor band, accepted the parting gift. Incensed, MacPherson proceeded to break the fiddle, either over his knee, or that of the executioners’ head, and then tossed the ruined instrument into the crowd, snapping:

“No one else shall play Jamie MacPherson’s fiddle then!”

MacPherson's fiddle
MacPherson’s broken fiddle, on display at the MacPherson Clan Museum

On the 16th of November, 1700, Jamie MacPherson, freebooter and fiddler, aged 25 yrs.’ old and with a noose around his neck, leapt from the gallows, to hang on his own terms.

P.S. In some parts of the North East, it is still widely held that a reprieve from the laird of Grant was inbound, but that Duff had seen the rider approaching, and had then set the village clock 15 minutes ahead so as to ensure MacPherson was executed before the pardon could arrive. The magistrates were apparently punished afterwards, and the town clock was kept 15 minutes before the correct time for many years after. Even to this day, the town of Macduff has no west-facing town clock visible so the people of Banff cannot see the correct time.

PPS It’s also worth noting that his bones were later found close to the site  of his hanging, and actually seem to corroborate the description of him having been (even by today’s standards) a very tall, and very muscular individual.

Alexander Pedan: a lamb in fox’s clothing

Alexander Pedan was born sometime in 1626, at Auchincloich Farm, in what today would be East Ayrshire, in the northern part of the Parish of Sorn. The firstborn among his siblings, Pedan was the heir to his father’s fair holding, which was apparently not too unsubstantial by the standards of the day. As a result, he was to become an educated individual, well connected and intelligent; completing his education at the University of Glasgow, and supposedly with many a blue-blood counted among his circle as a result. Whilst in his mid-twenties or so, he had been teaching at Tarbolton, whereupon, accusations arose of his supposed ‘Wronging’ of a woman. This accusation, it turned out, was false, with evidence swiftly being presented to the court which cleared him of any such charges. And yet, we can assume, that with the stress of having excommunication looming above his head, it was no surprise that the obviously religious-minded Alexander eventually sought to enter the Church; gaining a license from the Presbytery of Lanark and Biggar in the process. It was said to have taken him a fair few try’s before going on to be ordained, and then appointed the Parish of New Luce, in Galloway. However, with the Ejectment Act in 1663, like many a passionate individual of his faith, compelled by the snapping jaws of enemies, or the spur of life’s purpose even, Alexanders spark was seemingly not to be content with Monastic tedium, nor could it be, and so followed a period of great wandering for our itinerant preacher; through all of the south west of Scotland he wandered, passing the Clyde, and into Renfrewshire and down into Dumfries and Galloway. Yet persecution ever loomed, and soon, our intrepid Alexander set sail for Northern Ireland, where he preached at Kells and Glenwherry in County Antrim for a time.

As a preacher, I have read that he was very gifted; an orator of considerable skill and vigor; conducting his sermons with an air of pageantry, yet in a way accessible to the layman; laden with dramatic pauses and stirring suspension; often said to pause mid-sentence as though conversing with some unseen force, nodding and whispering the whole time as if God himself, had taken the time out of his busy schedule with which to enter into a dialogue. Charismatic and vibrant, and with a flair for the theatrical, it is no wonder that our wandering preacher soon gained an almost mystical reputation among his flock.

This reputation, compounded by his obvious intellect, had allowed him time and time again, to escape the clutches of a multitude of enemies; escaping those who sought him through sudden mist and storms it was said; God seemingly sending down screens of tempestuous fury with which to cover our man’s retreat. In one such event, he was remarked to have displayed a somewhat cavalier recklessness toward hypothermia; escaping from pursuing dragoons by plunging into a river all but iced over; leaving his pursuers on the far shore, none too eager to take the plunge in after him. And again, whilst pursued by Dragoons, our bold preacher was said to have prayed aloud to the Almighty for assistance, before a thick mist suddenly fell across the land, through which he was able to again make his escape. The event is described by one, Howie, in Scots Worthies: “Let us pray here , for if the Lord hear not our prayers and save us , we are all dead men…. “Lord it is Thy enemy`s day, hour and power; they may not be idle. But hast Thou no other work for them but to send them after us? Send them after them to whom Thou wiltt give strength to flee, for our strength is gone. Twine them about the hill, Lord, and cast the lap of Thy cloak over Old Sandy, and thir poor things, and save us this one time; and we`ll keep it in remembrance, and tell it to the commendation of Thy goodness, pity and compassion, what Thou didst for us at such a time.”

Alexander Pedan's bible
Reverend Alexander Pedan’s Bible

Undoubtedly, he was an individual well-versed in the reading of his fellow man; shrewd and up to date with the Covenanter goings-on; it is safe to assume that it was not so much divine intervention that aided our wily preachers survival, but his own innate intelligence; keen observations of men, politics, and a wariness garnered over many years of dogged strife. Yet, despite the sharpness of his mind and despite even the providence of God himself, our daring preacher soon found himself the ever increasing object of attention of the authorities. Enter the fabled mask (Whether or not he wore it before hand, I don’t know. He probably did. Yet now is as good a time as any to introduce it into the story)

Alexander Pedan's mask

Above, is the rather absurd looking mask in question, which he used to disguise himself during his travails amid The Killing Time. Rudimentary by today`s standards of course, it is made from leather, with real human teeth and hair. But despite its awkward construction, it evidently worked to some reasonable effect; was this Gods work? Considering the absurd image above, I’d be inclined to believe it might have been; either that or our man Pedan had an audacious sense of humor.

In June 1673 however, whilst conducting a conventicle at Knockdow, near Ballantrae, Alexander was captured by one, Major William Cockburn, and subsequently sentenced to four years and three months imprisonment on the Bass Rock. In October 1677, he was then moved to the Edinburgh Tolbooth for a further fifteen, to eighteen months. In December 1678, he and sixty seven of his fellow prisoners were sentenced to banishment, and then put on board the “St Michael“, a ship bound for the state of Virginia.

Extract from sentacing

Praying for a fellow deportee, James Law, Alexander was remarked to have said: “lord, let not James Law`s wife miss her husband, until thou return him to her in peace and safety, which we are sure will be sooner than either he or she is looking for.”

On board the America-bound ship, our lone wanderer was said to have quipped to his fellows that; “If we were once in London we will all be set at liberty” Which I take to mean something along the lines of that once clear of England’s grasp, not to lose hope, or wallow in grief or in doubt, for freedom will be found among the free-spirited colonists.

And yet again, and as though by some higher power, Alexander made good his escape; the American captain, upon hearing of the reason behind the groups banishment; that they were good Christians and not a rabble of criminals as he had been led to believe; released them immediately, refusing to traffic in such cargo; an early American displaying that streak that would go hard in the proving of his kind. Received warmly by the people of Gravesend, Alexander and the majority of his fellow prisoners made their way back to Scotland shortly after. Another unlikely Prophecy fulfilled.

Spending his time between Scotland and Ulster, and referring to it as going “from one bloody land to the other bloody land“ He returned eventually to Scotland for the last time, to his brothers house, Ten Shilling Side, Auchinleck, in February 1685. Behind his brother’s home, there was said to be a cave on the River Lugar, in which our adventurous preacher would spend his nights hidden safely away from chance-discovery. When close to death, he was said to have left behind such damp conditions for the warmth of his brother’s hearth, where he was met by his sister-in-law. Fearing discovery, she was said to have pleaded that he return to his clandestine resting place; he refused, saying; “I have done with that for it is discovered. But there is no matter, for within forty eight hours I will be beyond the reach of all the devils’ temptations and his instruments in hell and on earth, and they shall trouble me no more.”

Within three hours of his words, the troopers discovered his cave, but, they did not discover our maverick prophet, for he had hidden in a pile of straw. After the soldiers had gone away, Pedan told his friends that, upon his death, they were to bury him where they would, and prophesied that he would be lifted again*; within a few hours, he was dead; buried then in Auchinleck Churchyard, in the Boswell family vault. Forty days later, *he was dug up by soldiers from Sorn Castle, and then hung from the gallows in the town of Cumnock. But once again, our wandering preachers old friend intervened, HE, and one William Crichton, 2nd Earl of Dumfries, to be exact, wherein, Alexander was cut down and buried at the foot of the gallows his corpse had swung from. The local people were said to have then steadily buried their dead around his resting place, so that soon enough, a veritable graveyard had sprung up around it. And, in 1891, a monument was erected to mark the spot. It reads:

In Memory

[ A native of Sorn ]




Because of his penchant for masks, and what today would be viewed as comical disguises, I’ve often heard Reverend Pedan referred to as ‘Mad‘, or as an ‘Eccentric old hermit‘, as though he were little more than an old, and raving wood-bound fool; and yet, for one to be so committed to one’s own beliefs, that they would risk their very life over it, that silly mask doesn’t seem so silly in light of the reality of swinging from the Hangman’s noose. In Alexander Pedan, I see a somewhat endearing figure, akin to the old Druids; holding Covanticles in ancient, gnarled forests, and aside millennia old Standing Stones; braving wind and rain to boldly deliver his sermons to huddled, yet fervent gatherings. In Alexander Pedan, I see a defiant man of strong character, who willingly faced down death to be a guiding light for many an errant soul. And again, in his mask, I see a man struck with a courage better suited to that of a man of action, than a humble preacher, for God can hide you only so well.

Cinead MacAlpin

A Tale of Two Hearts

This is the tale of one man’s mortal heart, and that of another’s figurative heart. This is the true story of how two heroes met their deaths; two legendary warriors of their time. One at peace in his bed, after a lifetime spent in the saddle with sword in hand, and the other, outnumbered twenty to one.

The tale

On the 7th of June, 1329, Robert the Bruce lay dying in his bed. At around this time, the Reconquista, a concerted effort by Christian forces to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim invaders, which had been raging for several centauries prior, was still in full swing, with forces drawn from all over the Christian world participating. This ‘Crusade’ was to have been joined by none other than the Bruce himself, but dying as he was, his penance in the eyes of God would have to be confined to death bed absolution instead. Concerned by this, it was then that he had his close friend and Lieutenant, one Sir James Douglas (The good Sir James/The Black Douglas) brought to his bed side.

There, he asked him a favor; that upon his death, James was to cut the heart from his chest and carry it to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the heart of the Holy Land, as a mark of penance, and that it should also be carried into battle against “God’s foes”, so that his ambition of Crusading would be fulfilled. And when he had died, his friend did just that, and his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket, which Sir James Douglas then wore around his neck. Several months later, Douglas, as Knight Bannerette, with seven other Scottish Knights and some twenty or so squires and gentlemen in tow, traveled to Berwick upon Tweed, armed with a safe conduct letter from Edward III of England, and a letter of recommendation to King Alfonso XI of Castile. Arriving there in good time, they soon set sail for Sluys in Flanders, France.

There, the Scots then waited for around a fortnight onboard the ship in which they had made the crossing, no doubt awaiting news of the situation with King Alfonso XI and the Moorish forces, the Crusade against Granada, and of the general consensus of the situation; Douglas even holding court with his Knight’s, as the late King would have done; spreading the word of his arrival, and of his planned expedition, and seeing who among the other foreign Knights would be interested in joining his party. Then, sometime around June, news reached Douglas that despite some, if not all, of King Alfonso’s allies having withdrawn their support from the conflict, the King still intended to go to war, quickly set sail for Spain. One tempest later, they found themselves at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, and then disembarked upstream at the ancient city of Seville. And once again, it seemed, fate had placed the Scots on the side of the underdog.

It was there in Seville that Douglas met with Alfonso XI, and presented him with his credentials. And, it was said that Alfonso was so impressed by Douglas’s reputation, and the task set for him by the late Bruce, that he sought to lavish him with expensive gifts of gold and war-horses, fine armors’ and jewels; all of which Douglas was said to have graciously declined, replying only that he and his men sought to fight for the King as ‘humble pilgrims‘ and gain absolution for their sins in the process. Accepting this, the King then provided veteran soldiers of his own to act as advisers and mentors to the Scottish party, accustomed as those men were to fighting on Spanish terrain, and against the Moors. And it was there in that Spanish city, that Douglas soon found himself the centre of much chivalric attention and curiosity, with numerous foreign Knights seeking him out so as to pay their respects. There was even a good number of English Knights who sought him out also, men who only recently would have called him their mortal enemy, now coming as well-wishers and brothers-in-arms.  An exchange was said to have occurred between Douglas and an English Knight, whose name escapes me at the moment, which revolved around the fact that Douglas was relatively free of battle scars, and how that was unusual for a Knight, especially one as hardened and seasoned as Douglas was. It went something like this:

You can’t possibly be the man they call the Black Douglas, for there isn’t a scratch nor scar upon your face‘ The Englishman remarked; like most Knights, he was heavily battle scarred.

Ah, yes, but when you’re as good a fighter as I, the enemy has less chance to disfigure you‘ Sir James quipped.

Soon, however, such friendly pursuits were to give way to battle; it was time for King Alfonso’s Castilian army to enter the field and begin the war in earnest. Giving command of all foreign Knights to Douglas, the army then advanced south, marching through Ecija and Osuna, then southward still to the meadows of Almargen, which lay some five miles west of the castle of Teba, where they arrived and shortly after began their siege; their camp and intentions quickly drawing the notice of one Berber nobleman, Uthman bin Abi-l-Ulá, who, with six thousand cavalry, and thousands of infantry, had been marching up from the Guadalhorce valley to relieve the castle in case of just such an emergency. Crossing into a second valley, Uthman then made his camp ten miles south of Teba, between two fortresses; Turon, and Ardales castle.

Meanwhile, Alfonso’s siege engines had arrived from Ecija, and were soon given the task of opening up a breach made in the fortress’s wall previously. Despite this, things were not exactly going smoothly for Alfonso’s forces, as the Castilian army soon found the surrounding water sources unsupporting, and had to drive their horses and other livestock further and further afield until they were travelling up to two miles away just to water their beasts. This of course caused mounting tension throughout the multi-ethnic army as the water situation worsened, with five hundred Portuguese knights shortly after declaring their term of service expired, before abandoning the army completely. Even then, Moorish forces had been harrying those seeking water at every conceivable opportunity, so much so that to even drink, Alfonso had needed to provide a small army just to hold back the enemy long enough. Things were not going well, indeed. Worsened further when late one night, forces from Teba sailed out and attacked the besieging army’s frontline; leaving a siege tower in flames as they withdrew.

Knowing that he could never beat the Christian army in open battle, Uthman bin Abi-l-Ulá waited there in his hidden camp, waiting and watching for any opportunity, any advantage to strike; sending out skirmishing forces here and there, scrutinizing the enemy response and the actions they took against his men; noting their tactics, and formations. He could never beat them out in the open, that much was clear, and so he devised a plan; a pincer attack; three thousand Moorish cavalry would make a diversionary attack across the river where the Castilians collected their water, while Uthman himself, would take another three thousand upstream to directly engage King Alfonso’s camp with an attack on its flank. A daring, if predictable move. And one that Alfonso saw coming, thanks to his scouts. And when Uthman’s force sprang from their concealment and rode against his camp, seeing what he thought was a portion riding off to engage those attacking across the river, found instead, the entire camp bristling with ready weapons; the ‘army‘ riding for the divisionary force had simply been a scouting party led by Don Pedro Fernández de Castro to check on the situation at the river. His ruse had failed, and upon seeing his divisionary force beginning to become routed, Uthman had fallen back to support them, but when King Alfonso then dispatched two thousand men to reinforce those already in battle at the river, could do little but join them in retreat.

The Moorish cavalry were routed, and soon began heading back in the direction of their camp at Turon, and it was whilst they were doing so, that Douglas, believing that those of his own men about himself were indicative of a greater force giving chase, did just that, and raced after the enemy with haste; his fellow Scottish Knights, with several other foreign Knights in tow, were to turn out to be his only companions in that pursuit. Having outstripped all but a handful of those men, Douglas suddenly found himself far out in front; his allies far behind him, and the nimble Moorish cavalry not far ahead. Seeing the error of his way, he quickly wheeled his mount around and began to head back for the Castilian main, when he suddenly spied Sir William St. Clair of Rosslyn, a fellow Scottish Knight, battling a company of Moors that had surrounded him after seizing the opportunity to counter their small number of pursuers.

With only a handful of Scottish Knights, Sir William Keith, the brothers Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig and Sir Walter Logan, John St. Clair, younger brother of Sir William, Sir Simon Lockhart of Lee, Sir Kenneth Moir, William Borthwick, Sir Alan Cathcart and Sir Robert de Glen, Douglas galloped out across the valley, turning wide and swinging back around to head directly for the foe. Facing several thousand enemy warriors, he and his nine brave countrymen spurred their steeds forward and raced across the field toward them, to rescue Sir William if they could, or go to God, absolved of their sins as they would. They hurtled into the enemy in good order, with Douglas managing to fight his way to Sir William and seize the reins of his horse, yet could do nothing for the corpse that rode atop it. With his men dying all about him, and the overwhelming sea of enemies breaking over him, Sir James tore the casket from his neck, that which contained the heart of the Bruce, and threw it at the enemy, so that it landed deep among them, crying:

Now pass thou onward as thou wert wont, and Douglas will follow thee or die.

Good sir james at teba
Painting depicting Douglas preparing to throw the heart of Bruce among the enemy

And of course, it was not long until all of that brave party was slain.

Douglas memorial at teba
Memorial to Sir James Douglas at Teba, Spain

Yet so impressed was the enemy said to have been with such courage and sacrifice, that they had collected the remains of the Knights and the enameled casket from the battlefield, and then boiled the flesh from the bones, so that they could be more easily transported back to Scotland. Sir William Keith, from Ayrshire, was tasked with returning them, having missed the battle due to a broken arm received in earlier fighting. Returning home to Scotland, he deposited the bones of Douglas at St Bride’s Kirk, in Douglas, South Lanarkshire, With Bruce’s embalmed heart taken to Moray, to Melrose Abbey, and interred under the high alter therein.


Since then and to this day, the Douglas arms display a heart motif; that of the Bruce’s, and was awarded to the Clan in honor of Sir James Douglas’s aforementioned heroism at the Battle of Teba.

Douglas arms of subsequent Douglases after Sir James
Douglas Arms

Cinead MacAlpin


John Barbour’s, The Brus: Thoughts

For a while now I’ve been reading John Barbour’s epic, The Brus, and one of the things that most fascinates me about the poem is that it gives us an undeniable window into the mindset of a man who lived during that time; whereas so much of history is told to us through dusty old texts and boring lectures, where one man’s opinion, or the opinions of a small group is often times how we ourselves interpret what it is we are reading, in The Brus, however, we are listening to a man speak, and not just factually state his approximation of events that transpired, but of how he himself would have known and told them; how he did, in fact, tell such stories to the Scottish court and to King Robert II, Bruce’s son. John Barbour was a man who had actually meet those brave Scots who had fought alongside the previous King Robert; he existed around the time that these events had taken place, and had meet and spoken to those now elderly warriors, or their children, about such events; and so again, what fascinates me is when he says a line to the effect of “I heard it once told” or “as I heard tell” that through these anecdotes, and his own personable approach to telling this history, the reader is able to gain an insight into that time through just one man, John Barbour; who links us to the man at Bannockburn, or the man who fought alongside Bruce in Glentrool forest.

Bruce stone at Glentrool
The Bruce stone at Glentrool

And even if you’re not solely interested in Scottish history, the book nonetheless is a great read in that it manages to lend humor and a sense of personality into an historical subject in a way that a history book, or text, simply cannot. It is its firsthand and secondhand accounts that help lend a sense of character to the people and places from the perspective of a man who knew those people, and those places, and during the time in which they existed. For me, it truly is an invaluable source of information of the time of The Scottish Wars of Independence; it’s a Scottish source, and unashamedly so; it champions Scotland and her heroes (Whilst being more than fair to her enemies), and tells their story in what is widely considered to be a more than reasonably true account of such matters; both historic victory, and historic defeat being encountered there in the pages as they happened.

For instance, in Book 2, line 349, The Battle of Methven is recorded, wherein; the bridle of King Bruce’s horse is seized by Sir Philip Mowbray, who then calls out ‘Help! Help! I have the new-made King.’ Christopher Seaton then fly’s to the aid of the King and strikes Mowbray unconscious, thus releasing King Robert, which is followed shortly after by a retreat of the Scots force; and yet despite this mention of dramatic heroism, the account of the battle is still rightly attested to, and that Bruce and his men were defeated, is made clear. It’s a warts and all history that mentions the good times, and the bad; heroism and betrayal; its content easily being corroborated by other sources from that era, both Scottish, and English.

Now, I will say, that within the pages; liberally sprinkled among the numerous accounts of valorous deeds, and acts of ‘great courage’; are the use of words such as chivalry, stoutly, boldly and bravely; and whilst these words make for good story telling, their frequent usage can become noticeable, even a little heavy handed. Yet if an eyewitness was to tell Barbour that Bruce fought valiantly, as is often reiterated dramatically within the pages of the poem, or that a battle went this way or that way; then why would I choose to disbelieve that? Bruce was a fighter, and very much a warrior King; he fought a multitude of battles and wars, and survived them all. No one would doubt his prowess, or even that of his chivalric enemies, and so when lines attest to as much, and are reiterated heavily; mentioning his great chivalry and his overwhelming courage etc. I choose to believe it as a true characteristic of the man’s nature, and given by those who had witnessed him in such moments. For instance, the forces Bruce led where usually dangerously outnumbered, and yet he was often victorious. This alone should go some way to making such favorable descriptions of the King’s prowess and bravery, and that of the men who followed him, at the least believable.

“in his youth he was a match for the super athletes of today”
“a privileged and muscular man, with large, broad features”

But regardless of the fast paced action sequences, it’s the lines which give you a rare glimpse into how men shaped by that time viewed each other, and the world around them; of how the nature of war and conflict were viewed through the lens of the prejudices and social norms of that period, which really interest me: Book 3, line 153:

There was a baron, Macnaughton, who paid great heed in his heart to the King’s (Bruce’s)chivalry, and he esteemed him greatly in his heart. He said to the lord of Lorn, ‘Assuredly, you can now see the heaviest trespass-payment taken that you ever saw taken in your lifetime. For yon Knight, by his bold deed and by his superhuman (outrageous manheid) qualties, in a short time has killed three men of great pride (Noblemen or Knights). He has discomfitted all our company so that no man dare go after him, and he turns his horse so often that he seems to have no fear of us.’ Then the lord of Lorn said, ‘You seemed to be pleased, perfay, that he kills our men like that.’ ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘as God is my witness, saving your presence, it’s not like that. But whosoever wins the prize in chivalry, be he friend or foe, men should speak faithfuly of it. And assuredly, in all my life, I never heard tell, in song or verse, of a man who achieved great chivalry so vigerously.’

Now contrast that glowing endorsement of the King, by non-other than an enemy, with how the King himself makes statement after the battle: Book 3, line 187:

‘For being discouraged,’ as he said then, ‘is the worst thing possible. For through great discouragement men often fall into despair, and when a man is in despair, then he is utterly beaten. If the spirit is discouraged, the body is not worth a jot. Therefore,’ he said, ‘above all keep yourselves from despair, and remember that, though we now feel injuries, God may yet relieve us well.’

Bruce and the spider
Bruce contemplating the spiders determined resolve

So whilst others begin to champion his legend, we see a hint of the concern of the here and now that Bruce and his men must surely have found themselves in, and no doubt often dwelt upon; yet unconcerned with whether or not history would remember them as heroic, or how ‘right manfully’ the country thought they conducted themselves; Bruce simply try’s to lift his men’s spirits in those closing moments after the battle, knowing that lives had been at stake, and that the men around him had faced down real danger; regardless of the glory to be won in the hindsight. It’s often difficult to remember that these were real men who had no idea then, that they would eventually be victorious. At that point in time, they were just a handful operating within a violent country, and surrounded daily by literal armies of enemies at every turn in the road. Did he say, verbatim, those exact words written above? Who can say? Did he ever actually utter similar words to his beleaguered army? It’s very possible.


But of course, no one will ever truly know what had really gone through the mind of the Bruce during that time, with the same being true of the men who followed him. Did they fight solely for Scotland, or did they simply hate the English? Did they fight for their lands that had been seized, or did they truly fight for the sake of liberty and the cause of freedom alone? Is it naive to assume some of them did fight for that? I don’t know, it’s all subjective and an exercise in educated guesswork to try and read the minds of people long dead, and from an era with a vastly different morality scale. What I do know however, is that the book itself is pretty entertaining, insightful and interesting in respects to mindset of the 1300’s, and one that I would highly recommend.

John Fordun: Indeed he is said to have said to his Knights one day when worn out by such…hardships and dangers, ‘Were I not moved by Scotland’s freedom still, for rule of the world I would not bear this ill.’

That all the punishment and strife he endured, Bruce wouldn’t have suffered so for the sake of the world, that he continued onward for Scotland, and Scotland only, to who he owed his allegiance, in my humble opinion, should never be doubted.

Bruce and Wallace at Stirling
Wallace and Bruce at Stirling

Cinead MacAlpin.

Alasdair the Devastator: Part two

Mac Colla has often been credited with refining the tactic known as the ‘Highland charge’; a tactic which was utilized in the Civil Wars, wherein a large body of men would run at high speed toward the enemy infantry, fire a volley of pistols at close range, and then finish with the foe, hand to hand. And this tactic proved remarkably effective, in part due to the musket’s slow reloading time, as well as the shock and awe it inspired. In combat, Mac Colla’s unit was usually placed on the wings, and he was infamous for charging out ahead of his men, chopping the enemy pikes and spears in half with his claymore as he did so; claiming the honor of being the first among his men to spill the enemy blood as the battle begun.

And this seemingly insane strategy worked incredibly well as back in the 17th century, the Covenanters were using muzzle-loading gunpowder muskets (a process that could take anywhere from 20 to 40 seconds depending on how skilled the musketeer was), as mentioned above; but Mac Colla himself didn’t really see how such an awkward and time consuming weapon was much of an advantage in battle; especially over the tried and true sword-and-shield technique of yesteryear. So, capitalizing upon the effectiveness of the charge, he set about further developing and refining it into what it would eventually become.

And as you can imagine, his efforts proved the charge to be an extremely effective tactic against all manner of formations and troop types. In one of his first battles alongside Montrose, Mac Colla hadn’t enough weapons to provide to his troops, and where any other commander would have conceded defeat; Mac Colla simply had his men charge toward the enemy armed only with a large rocks. They reached the enemy in good order, having ducked and rolled beneath several musket volley’s to arrive; and then, with rocks in hand, slew those they found there; taking the weapons of the dead, and then using those for the remainder of the battle; which they soundly won, severely outnumbered as they had been. Using this fear-inducing tactic, combined with what must have looked to the enemy like an almost unparalleled lack of self preservation; Mac Colla’s 2,000-man unit routed and annihilated a Covenanter force that outnumbered him three-to-one. At the Battle of Kilsyth he charged uphill against orders and ended up breaking the enemy formation there with a perfectly-timed charge. At Auldearn, his 500 men were surprise-attacked by a coordinated attack from four full regiments of musketeers, but he managed to somehow hold off the attack long enough for Montrose’s cavalry to get around the enemies flank and break their formation. This ambush it was said, so enraged Mac Colla that he ordered all of his men to run the enemy down on foot, through moor and over hill, and kill as many of them as they could.

It was during this campaign that Alasdair Mac Colla and Clan MacDonald eventually completed their vengeance on the Campbells; an act they accomplished while fighting with Montrose at the Battle of Inverlochy in 1645. Mac Colla marched through a dense bog to flank the Campbell castle, and then charged straight into the enemy formation sent out to defend it; crushing them swiftly, he captured the ancestral seat of Clan Campbell in a matter of moments. As mentioned in Part one, he was knighted by Montrose shortly after; making him Sir Alasdair the Devastator. But those happy times were not to last forever. For whilst things were going well in Scotland, the situation back in England was a different matter entirely. It turned out that Oliver Cromwell had defeated King Charles’ forces, and that the King had ultimately issued an order for Montrose, and all Royalists, to lay down their arms and surrender as a result.

Mac Colla of course, being the man he was, refused.

Montrose however, left the war as was the Kings wish, whilst Mac Colla continued to fight an increasingly futile series of battles over the next two years; constantly surrounded by enemies and often without back-up. Outnumbered, and out gunned being the routine; he was finally slain in 1647 at the Battle of Knocknanauss. Today, he’s a larger-than-life folk hero in several bagpipe tunes and Scottish drinking songs, though most non-Catholics who would be aware of him might continue to think of him as little more than a monster. I, even as a protestant, regardless, see him simply as a hero to my Clan; Clan Donald; Clan MacDonald, Sept of Clan Donald; MacDonald of Clanranald, Sept of Clan MacDonald.

Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish Covenanter. Born in Wigtown, on a farm near Newton Stewart to Episcopalian parents; young Margaret, surrounded as she was by male family members, had either been influenced, or sought the acceptance of, her brothers and their covenanter ideals. As the movement raged on, Margaret threw all caution to the wind and cast passionately in with the Covenanters and followed her elder brothers into the fray. But soon, as the movement began to falter, and with her brothers then scattered to the wilds of the Highlands, hiding as outlaws from the authorities, and with ever harsher punishments brought in against ‘rebels‘ such as her and her kin, Margaret subsequently took her convictions under ground; attending small gatherings of like-minded people when and where she could. Soon however, even these appointments were scuppered by the strict rules imposed by the crown.

Millais' illustration of Wilson's martyrdom

Illustration by John Everett Millais

But despite the risks, and the newly imposed death penalty for doing so, Margaret began attending conventicles with her younger brother Thomas in increasing fervour, possibly beginning in earnest when there was an opportunity at a local conventicle to see the charismatic James Renwick, who had just taken control of the more zealous branch of Covenanters known as the Cameronians. In February 1685, Margaret and her younger sister Agnes traveled on a secret trip to Wigtown, to visit allies of their cause. One such ally was an elderly widow by the name of Margaret McLachlan. The young sisters Margaret and Agnes were taken prisoner shortly after arriving in the town, possibly after declining to drink to the King’s health, and were subsequently arrested. There in chains, they refused to take the Abjuration Oath which renounced the Covenant and accepted the king. On the following Sunday, Margaret McLachlan was arrested, and was also put into the “Thieves hole” with the Wilson girls. Not long after, the three women were taken before the local sheriff of the Government Commissioners for Wigtownshire.

And on the 13th of April, 1685, after several reprieves, and somewhat of a pardon, they were ultimately proclaimed guilty of Rebellion, guilty of Bothwell Bridge and Aird’s Moss, of 20 Field Conventicles and 20 House Conventicles. The three women were sentenced to death shortly after. Chained like dogs on the banks of the Solway Firth, and with the tide waters rushing in, the proudly defiant Margaret Wilson was afforded a chance to pray for forgiveness from the king. She was said to have refused. And so, refusing to renounce or abjure the covenant she so dearly held, her hair was taken roughly and her head was forced beneath the water’s surface. She was said to have begun singing psalms from the bible; her voice faltering only when the air in her lungs was replaced with sea-water.

The Martyr of Solway, by John Everett Millais, 1871

The Martyr of Solway. John Everett Millais, 1871

tied to palisades fixed in the sand, within the floodmark of the sea, and there to stand till the flood o’erflowed them

P.S. I’m vaguely aware of there being some debate as to whether or not this incident actually occurred, or if it was simply a fabrication for one purpose or another. But, at the end of the day, it’s an interesting story set in an interesting time in Scottish history, so make of it as you will. Though just remember, there is a reason one often remarks that Scotland’s history is written in blood.