Reign of James the Sixth, 1585-1590, pp.99-123.


THESE years were chiefly marked by the struggles of the more zealous clergy to replace the church upon a purely Presbyterian basis, and to maintain their assumed independence of the civil power. The king found his power encroached on, upon the one hand, by nobles richer, and having a greater command of followers, than himself; on the other, by divines who repudiated all subjection to civil authority in matters ecclesiastical, and yet arrogated powers which greatly concerned the secular rights and liberties of the people. At the same time, seeing that the Catholics were friends of monarchy, and might have something to say in the English succession, he desired, if possible, to avoid offending them past forgiveness. Even the ultra-zealous Presbyterian clergy, who came to remonstrate with him, in his own palace, on his public acts or his private foibles, he could treat with such pleasantry as often disarmed them, when a more strenuous policy might have failed.

In February 1586-7, the unfortunate Mary was beheaded in Fotheringay Castle, a victim to the necessities of the Protestant cause.

In 1588, when this cause was threatened with destruction by the Spanish Armada, King James and his people manifested the greatest zeal in preparing for the defence of their part of the island. They entered into a Covenant or bond, in which they made solemn profession of the Protestant faith, and avowed their resolution to oppose popery by every means in their power.

In the latter part of 1589, James effected his marriage with the Princess Anne of Denmark. His young bride being detained in Norway for the winter, in consequence of a storm, he sailed for that country (October 22), and solemnised his nuptials at Upslo (now Christiania). In May 1590, the royal pair arrived amidst great rejoicings at Leith. The first year of the king’s married life was strangely disturbed by a series of trials for the imaginary crime of witchcraft, in which the character of the age is strongly marked.



Apr. 18. – The Earl of Eglintoun, ‘a young nobleman of a fair and large stature’ (Moy.), was murdered by Cunningham of Robertland.

Montgomery and Cunningham were the Montague and Capulet of Ayrshire in the sixteenth century. The feud had sprung up nearly a hundred years before the above date, in consequence of the Earl of Glencairn disputing the title of the Earl of Eglintoun to the bailliery of the district of Cunningham. There had been attempts at a stanching of the feud, and even a marriage had been proposed by way of fixing the parties in amity; but at a time when peace had nearly been effected, enmity was renewed in consequence of a Montgomery killing a Cunningham in self-defence.

‘The Cunninghams, being grieved hereat, made presently a vow that they should be avenged upon the fattest of the Montgomeries (for these were their words) for that fact. This vow was sae acceptable to them all, that a band was concludit, subscrivit with the chiefest of their hands, to slay the young Earl [of Eglintoun] by whatsoever mean could be devisit, and that whasoever wald take the turn in hand, and perform it, he sould not only be sustenit upon the common expenses of the rest, but sould also be maintenit and defendit by them all from danger and skaith. At last ane Cunningham of Robertland took the enterprise in hand, whilk he accomplished in this manner:

‘Twa year before his treasonable attempt, he insinuate himself in familiarity and all dutiful service to the said young earl, whereby he movit him to take pleasure without ony suspicion till he conqueist [acquired] sic favour at his hand, that neither the gold, money, horses, armour, clothes, council, or voyage was hid from him, that this same Robertland was made sae participant of them all, even as though they had been his awn; and besides all this, the confidence and favour that the earl show unto him was sae great, that he preferrit him to be his awn bedfellow. Hereat Lord Hugo, auld Earl of Eglintoun, took great suspicion, and therefore admonist his son in a fatherly manner to beware of sic society, whilk, without all doubt, wald turn to his skaith; for he knew weel the nature of these Cunninghams to be subtle and false, and therefore willit him to give them nae traist, but to avoid their company altogether, even as he lovit his awn life or wald deserve his fatherly blessing. To this counsel the son gave little regard; but that was to his pains; and the domestic enemy was sae crafty indeed, that he wald attempt naething during the life of the father for many respects. But within short time thereafter [the father died June 1585], as the noble earl was passing a short way in pastime, accompanied with a very few of his household servants, and evil horsit himself, Robertland, accompanied with sixty armed men, came running furiously against him on horseback; and the earl, fearing the thing that followit, spurrit his horse to have fled away. His servants all fled another way, and he was left alone. The horsemen ran all upon him, and unmercifully killed him with shots of guns and strokes of swords.

‘The complaint of this odious murder being made to the king, he causit the malefactors to be chargit to a trial. But they all fled beyond sea. Robertland, wha was the first to make the invasion, passed to Denmark, where he remainit at court till the king came to Queen Anne. And because nane of the rest could be apprehendit, the king ordanit their houses to be renderit to the earl’s brother, to be usit at his arbitrament, either to be demolishit or otherwise; and he swore the great aith, that he sould never pardon any of them that had committit that odious murder. Yet, how soon his majesty was arrivit in Denmark, his pardon was demandit of the queen for the first petition, and the same was obtenit, and he was receivit in grace there in presence of them all. Thereafter he came hame in the queen’s company, and remains as ane of her majesty’s master stablers.’ – H. K. J.


Feb. – A few days before the death of Queen Mary in Fotheringay Castle, the king, her son, ‘to manifest his natural affection towards his dearest mother, whose preservation he always earnestly wished, required the ministers to pray for her, at all preachings and common prayers, after the following form: “The Lord illuminate and enlighten her spirit, that she may attain to the knowledge of His truth, for the safety of soul and body, and preserve her from the present peril.”

‘Some of the ministry agreed to that form of prayer, thinking it very lawful, since it was his majesty’s pleasure; but some of them, especially the ministers of Edinburgh, refused to pray but as they were moved by the spirit.’

‘On the 3d of Febuary [five days before Mary’s execution], the king appointed Patrick, Archbishop of St Andrews, a man evil thought of by the ministry and others, to preach in the kirk of Edinburgh, and resolved to attend the preaching himself.1 When the day came, Mr John Coupar, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, accompanied with the rest of the brethren, came in and prevented the bishop, by taking place in the pulpit before his coming into the kirk; and as the said John was beginning the prayer, the king’s majesty commanded him to stop; whereupon he gave a knock on the pulpit, using an exclamation in these terms: “This day shall bear witness against you in the day of the Lord. Woe be to thee, O Edinburgh! for the last of thy plagues shall be worse than the first!” After having uttered these words, he passed down from the pulpit, and, together with the whole wives in the kirk, removed out of the same.’ – Moy. R.

It gives a striking idea of the difficulty attending the transmission of intelligence in those days – in connection, it must be owned, in this instance, with the deceitful and stealthy conduct of Elizabeth – that Mary had been upwards of a fortnight dead before her son King James was fully apprised of the fact in Edinburgh. On the 15th, he received a message from Kerr of Cessford, the warden of the Borders, informing him that the English warden had just communicated to him this sad intelligence. Not believing it on this authority, the king went to hunt at Calder, but at the same time sent his secretary to Berwick to make inquiry. This gentleman returned on the 23d, with certain information of Mary’s death. ‘This put his majesty into a very great displeasure and grief, so that he went to bed that night without supper; and on the morrow, by seven o’clock, went to Dalkeith, there to remain solitary.’ – Moy. R.


Moy. – The French poet Guillaume Sallust, Sieur du Bartas, paid a visit to Scotland. For any eminent literary man of either England or France to travel north of the Tweed, was as yet a rarity and a marvel. The king, however, had contracted an admiration of Du Bartas, and translated some of his poetry; and now a royal invitation had brought him to Holyrood. It would be curious to learn what were the sentiments of the polite Frenchman on coming in contact with James’s circle at the palace, or seeing the rude state of the people generally throughout the country.

We learn that ‘he was received according to his worthiness, entertained honourably, and liberally propined’ – that is, favoured with presents. At the end of June, the king made an excursion to St Andrews, taking the French poet along with him, that he might see the principal seat of learning in Scotland. We have some curious particulars of the visit from the Dutch pencil of James Melville. St Mary’s College, the principal theological seminary of the country, was now presided over by the faithful Presbyterian Andrew Melville, the man of most marked talent and energy in the Scotch church after the days of Knox. In the Castle lived, in much reduced state, the nominal archbishop, Patrick Adamson, a man of fine literary talents, but weak in character, and, upon the whole, not a credit to Scottish Episcopacy. James admired and patronised Adamson; but he had a trembling faith in the powerful wit and inflexible courage and integrity of Melville. The king, ‘coming first without any warning to the new college [St Mary’s], he calls for Mr Andrew, saying he was come with that gentleman to have a lesson. Mr Andrew answers, “that he had teached his ordinar that day in the forenoon.” “That is all ane,” says the king; “I maun have a lesson, and be here within an hour for that effect.” And indeed, within less than an hour, his majesty was in the school, and the haill university convenit with him, before whom Mr Andrew extempore entreated maist clearly and mightily of the right government of Christ, and in effect refuted the haill acts of parliament made against the discipline thereof, to the great instruction and comfort of his auditory, except the king alane, wha was very angry all that night.’

The Sieur du Bartas was ‘dismissed in the harvest, to his majesty’s great praise, sae lang as the French tongue is used and understood in the world.’ – Ja. Mel.

The small merchant-craft of Scotland was much troubled with pirates, chiefly of the English nation. James Melville gives a lively account of an affair with an English piratical vessel, which took place in connection with the Fife port where he served as pastor.

‘At my first coming to Anstruther there fell out a heavy accident, whilk vexit my mind mickle at first, but drew me mickle nearer my God, and teached me what it was to have a care of a flock. Ane of our crears,2 returning from England, was beset by an English pirate, pill[ag]ed, and a very guid honest man of Anstruther slain therein. The wilk loon3 coming pertly to the very road of Pittenweem, spulyied a ship lying therein, and misused the men thereof. This wrang could not be suffered by our men, lest they should be made a common prey to sic limmers.4 Therefore, purchasing a commission, they riggit out a proper fly-boat, and every man encouraging another, made almaist the haill honest and best men in all the town to go in her to the sea. This was a great vexation and grief to my heart, to see at my first entry the best part of my flock ventured upon a pack of pirates, whereof the smallest member of the meanest was mair in valour [value] than a shipful of them. I neither ate, drank, nor sleepit, but by constraint of nature, my thought and care always being upon them, and commending them to God, till aucht or ten days were endit, and they in sight returning, with all guid tokens of joy, flags, streamers, and ensignie displayed, whom with great joy we receivit, and went together to the kirk and praised God.

‘The captain for the time, a godly, wise, and stout man, recounted to me truly their haill proceeding. That they, meeting with their admiral, a great ship of St Andrews, weel riggit out by the burghs, being fine of sail, went before her all the way, and made every ship they forgathered with, of whatsomever nation, to strike and do homage to the king of Scotland, shawing them for what cause they were riggit forth, and inquiring of knaves and pirates. At last, they meet with a proud stiff Englishman, wha refuses to de reverence; therefore the captain, thinking it was a loon, commands to give them his nose-piece,5 the whilk delashit6 lights on the tie of the Englishman’s main-sail, and down it comes; then he yields, being but a merchant. But there was the merciful providence of God, in staying a great piece of the Englishman, lying out her stern in readiness to be shot, whilk, if it had lighted amang our folks, being many in little room, without fence, wald have cruelly demeaned them all. But God, directing that first shot, preserved them. From them they approached to the shore at Suffolk, and finds by Providence the loon [rogue], wha had newlins taken a crear of our awn town, and was spulying her. Howsoon they spy ane coming warlike, the loons leave their prize, and run their ship on land, our fly-boat after, and almaist was on land with them; yet, staying hard by, they delash their ordnance at the loons, and a number going a-land, pursues and takes a half-dozen of them, and puts them aboard in their boat. The gentlemen of the country and towns beside, hearing the noise of shooting, gathers with haste, supposing the Spanyard had landed, and apprehending a number of the loons in our men’s hands, desirit to knaw the matter. The whilk when the justices of peace understood, and saw the king of Scotland’s arms, with twa gallant ships in warlike manner, yielded and gave reverence thereto, suffering our folks to take with them their prisoners and pirate’s ship, whilk they brought with them, with half-a-dozen of the loons; whereof twa were hangit on our pier-end, the rest in St Andrews; with nae hurt at all to any of our folks, wha ever since syne have been free from English pirates. All praise to God for ever. Amen.’

May. – King James at this time attempted what Dr Robertson, with somewhat too much complaisance, calls a work worthy of a king. Many of his nobility were at feud with each other on account of past grievances. For example, Glammis bore deadly hatred against the Earl of Crawford, in consequence of the killing of his father by some of Crawford’s people at Stirling in 1578. With the Earl of Angus, whose piety and love of the clergy induced James to call him the Ministers’ King, it was sufficient ground of hostility against the Earl of Montrose that he had sat as chancellor on the jury which adjudged Morton to the Maiden. The Earls of Huntly and Marischal had some mutual grudge of their own, perhaps little intelligible to southern men. So it was with others. The nobility being now assembled at a convention, James, who never could check outrages amongst them by the sword of justice, did what a good-natured weak man could to induce them to be reconciled to each other, and call it peace when there was no peace. Assembling them all at a banquet in Holyrood on a Sunday he drank to them thrice, and solemnly called on them to maintain concord, threatening to be an enemy to him who should first disobey the injunction. Next day, after supper, then an early meal, and after ‘many scolls’ had been drunk to each other, he made them all march in procession ‘in their doublets’ up the Canongate, two and two, holding by each other’s hands, and each pair being a couple of reconciled enemies. He himself went in front, with Lord Hamilton on his right hand, and the Lord Chancellor Maitland on the left; next after, the Duke of Lennox and Lord Claud Hamilton; then Angus and Montrose, Huntly and Marischal, Crawford and the Master of Glammis. Coming to the Tolbooth, his majesty ordered all the prisoners for debt to be released. Thence he advanced to the picturesque old market-cross, covered with tapestry for the occasion, and where the magistrates had set out a long table well furnished with bread, wine, and sweetmeats. Amidst the blare of trumpets and the boom of cannon, the young monarch publicly drank to his nobles, wishing them peace and happiness, and made them all drink to each other. The people, long accustomed to sights of bloody contention, looked on with unspeakable joy, danced, broke into songs of mirth, and brought out all imaginable musical instruments to give additional, albeit discordant expression, to their happiness. All acknowledged that no such sight had ever been seen in Edinburgh. In the general transport, the gloomy gibbet, usually kept standing there in readiness, was cast down, as if it could never again be needed. Sweetmeats, and glasses from which toasts had been drunk, flew about both from the table of the feast and from the responsive parties on the forestairs. When all was done, the king and nobles returned in the same form as they had come. – Moy. Bir. Cal. H.K.J.

Healing measures like these were not nearly so good as they seemed. In less than two months, we find six or seven of the nobles quarrelling about priority of voting, and Lord Home passing a challenge to Lord Fleming – ‘wha were not sufferit to fecht, albeit they were baith weel willing.’

In consequence of a bad crop in 1586, there was ‘great scant and dearth’ this year, ‘and great death of people for hunger.’ – H.K.J.

Sep. – Patrick Hamilton, brother of the Laird of Preston, and captain of Brodick Castle in Arran, was denounced rebel for not appearing before the king and council, to answer a complaint of Abacuck Bisset, writer to the Signet in Edinburgh. It appears that Patrick, accompanied by two nephews, had attacked Mr Bisset in St Giles’s Kirk in Edinburgh, during the sitting of parliament, with a sword, and cut off ‘the haill fingers of his left hand.’

This Abacuck Bisset was clerk to Sir John Skene, Lord Clerk Register. The father of this worthy writer was caterer to Queen Mary. One day, as she was passing to mass, he acquainted her with his having a child to be baptised, and desired her to assign the infant its name. She said she would open the Bible in the chapel, and whatever name she cast up, that should be given to the child. The name cast up was that of the prophet Habakkuk, which, in the form of Abacuck, was accordingly conferred on the future writer.

‘The pest brake up in harvest in Leith, by opening up of some old kists, and in Edinburgh about the 4th of November. It continued in these two towns this winter till Candlemas.’ – Cal.

This pest ‘strake a great terror in Edinburgh and all the coast-side,’ says James Melville. He adds: ‘By occasion thereof, we began the exercise of daily doctrine and prayers in our kirk, whilk continues to this day with great profit and comfort, baith of the teachers and hearers.’

In October 1588, the town-council of Glasgow was in great apprehension of a visit of the pest, as it was then in Paisley. They made arrangements for guarding the ports, to prevent the entrance of people from the infected district. – M. of G.


May 28. – Alison Peirson in Byrehill, was tried for witchcraft. The verdict recites a number of strange and incoherent charges which had been proved against her, but whose entire tenor only shows that she was a sickly nervous woman, who took her own dreams and fancies for realities. According to her own account, she had learned unlawful arts from her cousin, Mr William Simpson, son of one who had been the king’s smith at Stirling, and who had acquired his skill from a big Egyptian, by whom he had been carried away in his childhood and kept for twelve years. Being in her own youth afflicted with loss of power in one of her sides, she had applied to Mr William in Lothian, and he had not only cured her, but taught her by charms to be a healer of disease herself. Since then, she had haunted the company of the Queen of Elfame,7 but had not seen her for the last seven years. At one time she had many good friends in Elfame; but they were all dead now. Sometimes she would be in her bed quite well, but could not tell where or in what state she might be next day. Lying down sick in Grangemuir, near Anstruther, she had seen a man in green clothes, whom she asked to help her: he went away at that time, but appeared afterwards with a multitude of people, when ‘she sanit her [blessed herself] and prayit, and passed with them further nor she could tell; and saw with them piping, and merriness, and gude cheer, and was carried to Lothian, and saw wine-puncheons with tasses [cups] with them.’ ‘Oft-times they wald come and sit beside her, and promised that she should never want gif she wald be faithful and keep promises, but, gif she wald speak and tell of them and their doings, they sould martyr her.’ For the last sixteen years, Alison had been frequenting St Andrews as a practitioner in unlawful methods of healing, and where among her patients had been no less a person than the titular Archbishop Adamson – a fact of which his enemies did not fail to take advantage in pasquinading him. For the healing of his grace, Simpson had bidden her ‘make ane saw [salve] and rub it on his cheeks, his craig, his breast, stomach, and sides, and siclike gave her directions to use the ewe-milk, or waidrave [probably woodruff], with the herbs, claret wine; and with some other things she gave him ane sodden fowl; and that she made ane quart at ance, whilk he drank at twa draughts, twa sundry diets.’ Poor Alison was convicted and burnt. – Pit.

July 21. – At the very time when the Spanish Armada was at sea, a Catholic pair of high rank, much though secretly interested in favour of that enterprise, were wedded at Holyrood. The bridegroom was the young Earl of Huntly, and the bride Henrietta Stuart, eldest daughter of the late Duke of Lennox. The affair was conducted with ‘great triumph, mirth, and pastime;’ but some of the other circumstances were of a more remarkable nature. The Presbyterian clergy, in a paroxysm of apprehension about the Armada, took up the strange position of refusing to allow the marriage to be performed by any clergyman capable of showing his face in the country, unless the earl should first sign the Confession of Faith – that is, abjure his religion. Huntly was induced to profess an inclination to comply, but professed to stickle at some of the Protestant doctrines. The king, on the other hand, who felt as the father of the bride, and knew that Huntly was in reality his friend, favoured and facilitated the match. To the great chagrin of the Presbyterian clergy, the ceremony was at length performed by Patrick Adamson, archbishop of St Andrews – who, however, was afterwards brought to their feet as an abject penitent, declaring among other things, ‘I married the Earl of Huntly contrair the kirk’s command, without the confession of his faith, and profession of the sincere doctrine of the Word; I repent, and craves God pardon.’

Aug. – Great excitement prevailed throughout all Scotland, in apprehension of invasion by the Spanish Armada. There was not wanting a party prepared to co-operate with the Spaniards, if they had landed in Scotland. In this exigency, the king was compelled to forget his anger at Elizabeth on account of the recent death of his mother; he made all possible preparation for resistance, and when Sir Robert Sidney, the English ambassador, told him that if the Spaniard took England, the king might expect no greater kindness at his hand, James ‘merrily answered: “That he looked for no other benefit of the Spaniard in that case than that which Polyphemus promised to Ulysses – namely, to devour him after all his fellows were devoured.” ‘ – Spot.

‘Terrible was the fear,’ says James Melville, ‘piercing were the preachings, earnest, zealous, and fervent were the prayers, sounding were the sichs and sobs, and abounding was the tears at that fast and General Assembly keepit at Edinburgh, when the news were credibly tauld, sometimes of their landing at Dunbar, sometimes at St Andrews, and in Tay, and now and then at Aberdeen and Cromarty Firth. And in very deed, as we knew certainly soon after, the Lord of armies, wha rides upon the wings of the winds, the keeper of his awn Israel, was in the meantime convoying that monstrous navy about our coasts, and directing their hulks and galiots to the islands, rocks, and sands, whereupon he had destinat their wrack and destruction. For within twa or three month thereafter, early in the morning, ane of our bailies came to my bedside, saying (but not with fray): “I have to tell you news, sir. There is arrivit within our harbour [Anstruther, on the coast of Fife] this morning a ship full of Spaniards, but not to give mercy but to ask.” And sae shaws me that the commanders had landed, and he had commandit them to their ship again till the magistrates of the town had advisit, and the Spaniards had humbly obeyit; therefore desirit me to rise and hear their petition with them. Up I got with diligence, and assembling the honest men of the town, came to the tolbooth; and after consultation taken to hear them, and what answer to make, there presents us a very reverend man of big stature, and grave and stout countenance, gray-haired, and very humble-like, wha, after meikle and very low courtesy, bowing down with his face near the ground, and touching my shoe with his hand, began his harangue in the Spanish tongue, whereof I understood the substance, and being about to answer in Latin, he having only a young man with him to be his interpreter, began and tauld ower again to us in gude English. The sum was, that King Philip, his master, had riggit out a navy and army to land in England for just causes to be avengit of many intolerable wrangs whilk he had receivit of that nation; but God for their sins had been against them, and, by storm of weather, had driven the navy by the coast of England, and him, with a certain [number] of captains, being the general of twenty hulks, upon an isle in Scotland, callit the Fair Isle, where they made shipwreck, and where sae mony as had escapit the merciless sea, had mair nor sax or seven weeks sufferit great hunger and cauld, till, conducting that bark out of Orkney, they were come hither as to their special friends and confederates to kiss the king’s majesty’s hand of Scotland (and therewith becket [bowed] even to the yird), and to find relief and comfort thereby to himself, these gentlemen captains, and the poor souldiers whase condition was for the present maist miserable and pitiful.

‘I answerit this meikle in sum: “That, howbeit neither our friendship, whilk could not be great, seeing their king and they were friends to the greatest enemy of Christ, the pope of Rome, and our king and we defied him, nor yet their cause against our neighbours and special friends of England could procure any benefit at our hands for their relief and comfort; nevertheless, they should know by experience that we were men, and sae moved by humane compassion, and Christians of better religion nor they, whilk should kythe in the fruits and effect plain contrair to theirs.” Sae [I] show him that the bailies granted him license with the captains to go to their lodging for their refreshment, but to nane of their men to land till the ower-lord of their town was advertised, and understand the king’s majesty’s mind anent them. Thus, with great courtesy, he departed.

‘That night, the lord being advertised, came, and on the morn, accompanied with a gude number of the gentlemen of the country round about, gave the said general and the captains presence, and after the same speeches, in effect as before, receivit them in his house, and entertained them humanely, and sufferit the souldiers to come a-land, and lie altogether, to the number of thirteen score, for the maist part young beardless men, sill [weak], trauchled [worn-out], and hungred, to the whilk a day or two kail, pottage, and fish was given.’

The shipwrecked Spaniards were not everywhere so well treated. The kirk-session of Perth, May 18, 1589, ordered the keepers of the town-gates to exclude Spaniards and other idle vagabonds and beggars, and commanded that all such persons now in the town should immediately leave it.


July. – A sad accident occurred in the family of Lord Somerville, at Drum, near Edinburgh.

‘The Lord Somerville having come from Cowthally early in the morning, in regard the weather was hot, he had ridden hard to beat the Drum by ten o’clock, which having done, he laid him down to rest. The servant, with his two sons, William, Master of Somerville, and John his brother, went with the horses to ane shot of land, called the Pretty Shot, directly opposite to the front of the house, where there was some meadow-ground for grazing the horses, and willows to shadow themselves from the heat. They had not long continued in this place, when the Master of Somerville, after some little rest, awaking from his sleep, and finding his pistols that lay hard by him wet with dew, he began to rub and dry them, when unhappily one of them went off the ratch [lock], being lying on his knee and the muzzle turned sideways. The ball struck his brother John directly in the head, and killed him outright, so that his sorrowful brother never had one word from him, albeit he begged it with many tears. A lamentable case, and much to be pitied, two brave young gentlemen so nearly related, and dearly loving one another, who besides their being brethren by birth, were entirely so in affection, communicating all their affairs and designs one to the other, wherein they were never known to differ in the least…

‘The father, hearing the shot, leapt from his [bed] (being then in the chamber of dais), to the south light, and seeing his son and servants all in a cluster, called aloud to know the matter; but receiving no answer, he suspected some mischief, and thereupon flew hastily down the stair, and went directly to the place where they were, which the gentlemen observing, they advised the Master to take him to his house until his father’s passion and fury should be over, which at length, upon their earnest entreaty, he did, taking his direct way for Smeaton, where his lady-mother then lived by Smeaton Ford. The father, being come upon the place, first hears the lamentation of the servants, and then sees the sad spectacle of his son all bloody and breathless, with his head laid upon a cloak, whereon he falls himself, and cries aloud: “My son, my son, dead or alive? dead or alive?” embracing him all the time, which he continued for some space, and thereby giving opportunity for his eldest son to escape. At length, finding no motion in his dear son all in a fury he arises and cries aloud: “Where is that murderer? who has done the deed? Staring wildly about, missing the Master, he cries out: “O heavens, and is it he? Must I be bereft of two sons in one day? Yes, it must be so, and he shall have no other judge nor executioner but myself and these hands.” And with that immediately mounts his horse, commanding two of his servants to attend him, making protestation in the meantime that they sould both go to the grave together. But God was more merciful, for by this time the Master was past Smeaton Ford, and before his father came that length, he was at Fallside House, out of all danger… Coming now a little to himself, he [the father] began much to condemn this unwarrantable attempt of his, upon second thoughts. Before he came back, the sad object of his sorrow was removed to the place of Drum, and the corpse decently handled by the ladies of Edmonston, Woolmet, and Sheriff-hall, near neighbours, for in less than ane hour the report went over all the country. Yea, before the king rose from dinner he had notice of it, being then in Holyroodhouse, with the circumstance of the father’s following the other son with intention to kill him; for which the king, within three days thereafter (the Lord Somerville coming to wait upon his majesty), reproved him by saying “he was a madman, that having lost one son by so sudden an accident, should needs wilfully destroy another himself, in whom, as he was certainly informed, there was neither malice nor design, but a great misfortune, occasioned by unwary handling of the pistol, which should have rather been a matter of regret and sorrow to him that the like had happened in his family, than that he should have sought have sought after revenge. Therefore he commanded him to send for his eldest son and be reconciled to him, for he knew he was a sober youth, and the very thoughts of his misfortune would afflict him enough, albeit he were not discountenanced by him.” ‘

The unhappy principal in this tragedy was in reality an amiable young man, insomuch as to be called the Good Master of Somerville. ‘I have heard it reported that Sir James Bannatyne of Newhall, one of the senators of the College of Justice, asserted there was not a properer youth trod the streets of Edinburgh, nor one of whom there was greater expectation, than William, Master of Somerville; but when God designs the ruin of a family, all supports are removed, that the fall may be the more sudden, as happened in this young nobleman’s case, who after he had contracted in the latter end of February, and should have been married in April 1591, that very month he took a fever, which kept him long, and so weakened his body that he never recovered, but continued under a languishing sickness for more than ten months. It was supposed the thoughts of his own great misfortune in killing of his brother, the disagreement of his parents… hastened his death. He died at Cowthally in the month of January 1592… A devote gentleman, William Inglis of East Shiel, as the corpse passed the outer gate, struck upon his breast, and cried out to the hearing of many: “This day the head is as clean taken off the house of Cowthally, as you would strike the head of a syboe!”8 And indeed it proved so.’

Aug. 30. – The king, now hourly expecting the arrival of his Danish bride, is found writing pressing letters, to all persons of substance who bore him any good-will, for contributions of means towards the proper outset of the court on the occasion. From the Laird of Barnbarroch he entreated ‘sic quantity of fat beef and mutton on foot, wild-fowls, and venison, or other stuff meet for this purpose, as possibly ye may provide and furnish of your awn or by your moyen [influence].’

Sep. – The storm which impeded the Princess Anne’s voyage from Denmark to Scotland was also felt very severely in our country, and a passage-boat between Burntisland and Leith was lost.

Oct. 22. – The king hearing of the detention of his bride by stormy weather, resolved to go to Denmark to bring her home. On the day noted, he set sail, with other five ships in company, and after outriding a gale for some time in the Firth of Forth, proceeded on his course with fair winds. Landing on the 28th at Flaikray, in Norway, he, after somedays’ rest, commenced a difficult land journey to Upslo – now Christiania – where the princess had taken up her residence for the winter. ‘Immediately at his coming (November 19), [he] passed quietly with buits and all to her hieness… he minded to give her a kiss after the Scots fashion, whilk she refusit, as not being the fashion of her country. Marry, after a few words spoken privily betwixt his majesty and her, there passed familiarity and kisses.’9 They were married four days after at Upslo, and spent the remainder of the winter in Denmark.


July 22. – Two extraordinary trials took place, affording the most striking illustrations of the vices and superstitions of the time.

The family of Monro of Foulis, in Ross-shire, is one of great antiquity, and even so far back as 1576 was represented by the seventeenth baron in succession. Holding possessions on the borders of the Highlands, it hovered between the characters of the Celtic chief and the Lowland gentleman. Ross of Balnagowan was a rich neighbour of similar character. At that time, the Lady Foulis – to use her common appellation – was Catherine Ross of the latter family, the second wife of her husband. She had a son named George; but the succession was barred to him by two sons of the previous marriage of her husband, Robert and Hector.

At the above date, she and Hector, then representative of the family, were tried separately for sundry offences, committed as far back as 1576, Hector being, strange to say, the private pursuer against his step-mother, although he had immediately after to take his own place at the bar as a criminal. The dittay against the lady set forth a number of attempts at serious crime, partly prosecuted by natural means, and partly by superstitious practices. It appeared that she had desired to put her step-son Robert out of the way, not, as might have been supposed, to favour the succession of her own offspring, but that her brother, George Ross of Balnagowan, might be free to marry Robert Monro’s wife; to which end she also took steps for the removal of the wife of George Ross. It appears that she was not only prompted to, but assisted in her attempts by George Ross himself, although no judicial notice was taken of his criminality. Catherine Ross, described as daughter of Sir David Ross of Balnagowan, was also concerned. Having formed her design some time in the year 1576, Lady Foulis opened negotiations with various wretched persons in her neighbourhood who practised witchcraft; and first with one named William McGillivray, whom she feed with a present of linen cloth, and afterwards with sums of money. One Agnes Roy, a notorious witch, was sent by her to secure the services of a particularly potent sorceress, named Marion McKean McAlister, or more commonly Lasky Loncart, who was brought to Foulis, and lodged with Christian Ross Malcolmson, that she might assist with her diabolic arts. Christian, too, was sent to Dingwall to bring John McNillan, who appears to have been a wizard of note. Another, named Thomas McKean McAllan McEndrick, was taken into counsel; besides whom there were a few subordinate instruments. Some of the horrible crew being assembled at Canorth, images of the young Laird of Foulis and the young Lady Balnagowan were formed of butter, set up and shot at by Lasky Loncart with an elf-arrow – that is, one of those flint arrow-heads which are occasionally found, and believed by the ignorant to be fairy weapons, while in reality they are relics of our savage ancestors. The shot was repeated eight times, but without hitting the images; so this was regarded as a failure. On another day, images of clay were set up and shot at twelve times, yet equally without effect. Linen cloth had been provided, wherewith to have swathed the images in the event of their being hit; after which they would have been interred under the bridge-end of the stank of Foulis. The object of all these proceedings was of course to produce the destruction of the persons represented by the images. This plan being ineffectual, Lady Foulis and her brother are described as soon after holding a meeting in a kiln at Drimnin, to arrange about further procedure. The result was a resolution to try the more direct means of poison with both the obnoxious persons. A stoup of poisoned ale was prepared and set aside, but was nearly all lost by a leak in the vessel. Lady Foulis then procured from Lasky Loncart a pipkin of ranker poison, which she sent to young Monro by her nurse on purpose to have destroyed him. It fell by the way and broke, when the nurse tasting the liquor, was immediately killed by it. It was said that ‘the place where the pig [pipkin] brake, the gerse that grew upon the samen was so heich bye [beyond] the nature of other gerse, that neither cow nor sheep ever previt [tasted] thereof yet; whilk is manifest and notorious to the haill country of Ross.’ Lady Foulis is accused of afterwards making renewed attempts, not merely to poison young Monro, but many of his relations, particularly those who stood in the way of her own son’s succession. There seems, however, to have been no success in this quarter. Matters turned out better with the innocent young Lady Balnagowan. Regarding her, Lady Foulis is represented as thus expressing herself, that ‘she would do, by all kind of means, wherever it might be had, of God in heaven or the devil in hell, for the destruction and down-putting of Marjory Campbell.’ By corrupting a cook, Lady Foulis contrived that some rat-poison should be administered to her victim in a dish of kid’s kidneys. Catherine Niven, who had brought this poison, ‘scunnerit [revolted] with it sae meikle, that she said it was the sairest and maist cruel sight that ever she saw, seeing the vomit and vexation that was on the young Lady Balnagowan and her company.’ By vomiting, death seems to have been evaded, but the lady contracted in consequence what is described at the trial as an incurable illness.

Not long afterwards, these events became the subject of judicial investigation, and Christian Ross and Thomas McKean were apprehended, brought to trial, convicted, and burnt, November 1577.

It is alleged that, a few days before they suffered, Lady Foulis came into their presence, and referring to the common reports against her, accusing her of sorcery and poisoning, declared herself ready to abide a trial; when, there being no one present to accuse her, she asked instruments to that effect; after which, mounting a horse which had been kept ready, she rode away to Caithness, and remained there three-quarters of a year. By the intercession of the Earl of Caithness, she was then taken back by her husband; and there seems to have been no further notice taken of her case for several years. At length, in 1589, her husband being dead, his successor, Robert Monro, purchased a commission for the trial of certain witches and sorcerers, aiming evidently at retribution upon his wicked step-mother. According to the dittay: ‘Before any publication thereof, and ere he might have convenient time to put the same in execution, in respect of the troubles that occurred in the north, thou, knawing thyself guilty, and fearing to bide the trial of ane assize, fand the moyen [found the means] to purchase ane suspension, not only thy awn name, and sic others as was specified in the said commission, but also certain others who were not spoken of… whilk, gif thou had been ane honest woman, and willing to abide trial, thou wald never have causit suspension of ony sic commission, but wald rather hath fortherit the same.’ In the same year, Robert Monro died, under what circumstances does not appear, leaving the succession to his brother Hector, who now appeared as nominal prosecutor of his step-mother.

In the circumstances under which the trial took place, the jury being a packed one of humble dependents on the Foulis family, a conviction was not to be expected. Lady Foulis was ‘pronounced to be innocent and quit of the haill points of the dittay.’ Her own son, George, having died in 1590, Hector Monro was, immediately after his step-mother’s trial, placed in turn at the bar, charged by her with having brought about the said George’s death by sorcery and witchcraft; but he likewise was acquitted. – Pit.

Dec. 26. – A series of extraordinary trials for witchcraft and other crimes commenced at this date.

One David Seton, dwelling in Tranent, suspected his servant-maid, Geilie Duncan, of a supernatural power of curing sickness, and, having subjected her to the torture of the pilniewinks (a screw for the fingers), soon extorted from her, not only a confession that the devil had given her the power of a witch, but information inculpating a number of persons in the like criminality. Among these were John Fian (alias Cunningham), schoolmaster at Prestonpans; Agnes Sampson, a midwife at Keith; Barbara Napier, the wife of a citizen of Edinburgh; and Eupham McCalyean, a lady of rank, daughter of a deceased judge of the Court of Session. The confessions of these persons, for the most part wrung from them by torture, form a strange jumble of possible and impossible, of horrible and ludicrous things.

Fian, who was a young man, confessed to some wicked arts which he had practised for obtaining the love of a young woman of his neighbourhood. There was nothing in them or their effects but what is easily reconcilable with natural fact, even to the striking of a rival with a sort of madness, under which, when brought into the king’s chamber, where Fian was under examination, he fell a-bounding and capering with an energy which it required many persons to restrain, and this for an hour together, at the end of which he declared that he had been in a sound sleep. But Fian also admitted, though only under torture, his having had conferences with the devil; he had attended various meetings of witches with the Enemy of Man, some of which took place in North Berwick kirk, and on these occasions he had acted as registrar or clerk of proceedings. He had also been one of a party of witches which went off from Prestonpans one night to a ship at sea, which they sunk by their incantations. He had chased a cat at Tranent, with the design of trowing it into the sea, in order to raise storms for the destruction of shipping; and in this chase it was alleged that he was borne above the ground, and had leaped a wall, the head of which he could not, but for witchcraft, have touched with his hand. Fian soon after contrived to escape from prison, but was retaken and brought back, when, being found to deny his former confession, the king expressed his belief that he must have entered into a new compact with the Prince of Darkness. His person was searched for marks, but in vain; and he was then subjected to tortures of the direst kind, with a view to bringing him back to his confession. The nails of the poor wretch were torn away with pincers; needles were thrust up to the heads in his fingers, and his legs were crushed in the boots till ‘the blood and marrow spouted forth.’ He resisted all, and thus only impressed the king and others with the conviction that the devil had entered into his heart. He was then arraigned, condemned, and burned.

The trials of three of the women inculpated took place in the course of a few ensuing months – that of Agnes Sampson on the 27th of January 1591.

On Sampson’s trial, some of the transactions first revealed in Fian’s case came out in greater detail, particularly the night-meeting of the sorcerers of the district with their grisly master at North Berwick kirk. ‘John Fian blew up the doors, and blew in the lichts, whilk were like meikle black candles sticking round about the pulpit. The devil start up himself in the pulpit, like ane meikle black man, and callit every man by his name, and every ane answerit; “Here, Master.” Robert Grierson being namit, they ran all hirdy-girdy, and were angry; for it was promisit that he should be callit “Robert the Comptroller, alias Rob the Rower,” for expreming of his name. The first thing he demandit was, “gif they [had] keepit all promise and been guid servants?” and “What they had done since the last time they had convenit?” On his command, they openit up the graves, twa within and ane without the kirk, and took off the joints of their fingers, taes, and knees, and partit them amang them; and the said Agnes Sampson gat for her part ane winding-sheet and twa joints, whilk she tint negligently. The devil commandit them to keep the joints upon them, while [till] they were dry, and then to make ane powder of them, to do evil withal. Then he commandit them to keep his commandments, whilk were to do all the evil they could.’ The devil then ordered them to perform an act of homage towards himself, which does not admit of description, but which may be said to have been at least one degree more humiliating than the kissing of the papal great toe. In the account of the confessions, it is stated that they inveighed against the king, and, being asked why he had such a hatred to him, answered: ‘By reason the king is the greatest enemy he hath in the world.’ According to the dittay, the devil ‘had on him ane gown and ane hat, whilk were baith black; and they that were assembled, part stood and part sat. John Fian was ever nearest the devil, at his left elbock; Graymeal keepit the door.’

Mrs Sampson was adjudged to be taken to the Castle-hill, and there strangled at a stake, and her body burned to ashes.

The year 1590 was marked by ‘a plague amang the bestial.’ – Chron. Perth.



1  It is understood that this was the place of worship formed out of the choir or eastern portion of the church of St Giles. Opposite to the pulpit, which was attached to the first pillar from the east end, was the royal gallery or loft, also attached to a pillar. Thus the king and the minister were sufficiently near each other for the colloquies in which they occasionally indulged. See Wilson’s Memorials of Edinburgh.
2  A light bark with one mast.
3  Rascal.
4  Worthless fellows.
5  A gun in the poop of the ship.
6  Discharged.
7  Elfhame or Elfland, that is, Fairyland.
8  A small kind of onion (O. Fr. cibolle).
9  Moysie’s Memoirs.