“Robert the Keith, a michty man,
. . . . .
In Formaretine at Fivy,
Assieged his aunt, a gud lady.”
– Wyntoun’s Cronykil.
HE Castle of Fyvie, in the district of Buchan, is described as being “alike remarkable for its commanding situation, its antiquity, its connection with interesting events in Scottish history, and as a noble specimen of baronial architecture.” It is formed by four massive towers, designated respectively the Preston, the Meldrum, the Seton, and the Gordon Towers. It stands, a stately strength, in the “Howe of Fyvie,” on the North-Eastern bank of the pearl-bearing water of Ythan, and is environed with hills thickly clothed with flourishing woods. Although of considerable antiquity, it is not the original Castle of Fyvie, but was probably built upon the foundations of that fabric, some other portions of which may have been incorporated with the new structure. A notable event in the history of the old castle was the visit of the English monarch, Edward I., which happened on Saturday, 21st July 1296, while he was overrunning the North of Scotland with his victorious troops after the Battle of Dunbar. He was on his way from Kintore to Banff, when he halted at Fyvie for a single night. In this subjugating progress he met with no resistance, the spirit of the country being for the time crushed by the recent defeat. The lands of Fyvie were then a deer-forest, an appanage of the Crown, and thither the Scottish kings had occasionally resorted to enjoy the pleasures of the chase. Edward never came back. Wallace speedily took the field, rousing the dejected energies of all true Scots; but during the War of Independence Fyvie Castle would seem, from the silence of both history and tradition, to have had no association with the glorious struggle – though we cannot but fancy that the billows of the strife must have now and again beat around its old walls. We only know that after King Robert Bruce was established on the throne he sometimes repaired to Fyvie, apparently during the hunting season.
The Bruce’s great grandson, Robert III., about the year 1380, gifted Fyvie Castle and lands to his cousin, Sir James Lindsay, Lord of Crawford and Buchan, and High Justiciar of Scotland, whose mother, Egidia, was the sister of Robert II.
Lyndsay was a valiant soldier and a steadfast patriot, as became a scion of the Brucian stock. Still, a dark, indelible blot stained his escutcheon, namely, his slaughter of Sir John Lyon, a youth who had been his protege, and whom he introduced to the special favour of Robert II. The King was so well taken with the young man that he installed him as his private secretary, and afterwards gave him the Castle and lands of Glamis, with the hand of his second daughter, Jane, and ultimately raised him to the office of Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland. Lyndsay, to his shame be it spoken, viewed this rapid promotion with jealousy “cruel as the grave,” thinking that one or other of the royal gifts should have been bestowed upon himself. Unhappily common in that age was the mode he took of gratifying his spleen, and that was by striking at his supposed rival’s life. Chancing, at the head of a strong following, to encounter Lyon at the Moss of Balhall, near Forfar – rather, perhaps, having laid an ambuscade for him there – Sir James attacked his slender party and slew him, and immediately fled the country, seeking an asylum across the Border. Pardon being soon obtained, Lyndsay returned to Scotland, and distinguished himself in the intermittent hostilities with England. He fought at Otterburn, where Douglas fell, and the two Percies, Hotspur and Sir Ralph, his brother, were made prisoners. Whilst the Southrons were flying in confusion, Lyndsay, attended by a single squire, pressed hard in pursuit of Sir Matthew Reedman, Governor of Berwick, and one of Hotspur’s captains. The Governor was a solitary fugitive. The chase lasted long, but ended in his being overtaken, and after a brief combat compelled to yield. And now occurred a fine example of the spirit and usages of chivalry, which Froissart has appreciatingly recounted. Sir Matthew, on making his surrender, said – “Well, sir, what will you now that I shall do? I am your prisoner; you have conquered me. I would gladly go again to Newcastle, and within fifteen days I shall come to you into Scotland, wherever you shall assign me.” Answered Sir James – “I am content. You shall promise by your faith to present yourself within three weeks at Edinburgh, and wheresoever you go, to report yourself my prisoner.” These conditions the English knight swore to observe, and so was allowed to proceed on his way. Lyndsay and his squire turned their steeds towards the Scottish Border; but night having now come on, and a thick mist gathering about them, they lost their road, and, wandering about at random, fell upon a band of more than 500 English soldiers, led by the Bishop of Durham. whom they mistook for a party of their own countrymen. The two Scots were in the midst of the enemy before discovering their mistake. To fight or flee was hopeless, and they were made captives. Such are the strange fortunes of war. The Bishop conducted his prisoners to Newcastle, where Sir Matthew Reedman had already arrived. The latter, on hearing the news, hastened to the Bishop’s lodging, and dined with Sir James. Quoth Lyndsay – “You shall not now need to come to Edinburgh; we shall make an exchange, one for another.” And thus it was agreed. King Richard II. of England was averse, however, to Lyndsay’s release upon these terms, but was eventually induced to give his assent.
Sir James was married to Margaret, daughter of Sir William Keith, the Marischall of Scotland, who bore him two daughters. It seems that some family quarrel, usually so ill to allay, arose betwixt Lady Lyndsay and her nephew, Robert Keith, the son of her deceased brother, John, and his spouse, a daughter pf Robert II. The nephew was now the apparent heir of his grandfather, as stated in Wyntoun’s “Chronicle,” which calls him
“A michty man
By lineage, and apparent then
For to be a lord of micht
Of mony lands of rycht richt;”
and the same authority sets down that the aunt was “a gude lady,” and one “that lived in all her time gude life.” In the year 1395, while Sir James Lyndsay was with the King and court, and his lady residing in the Castle of Fyvie, the differences between her and Robert Keith came to a sudden head, resulting in open strife and much bloodshed.
Wyntoun does not explain the grounds of the quarrel; he only says there was “discord,” and that the hot-headed nephew came with a host of retainers and besieged his aunt in Fyvie. The castle was then of great age and somewhat dilapidated, and Lyndsay had employed men to execute the needful repairs upon it. The men were busy at work when Keith approached, and them he drove away. As Wyntoun says –
“For his masons first gart he
Fra their work removed be;”
thinking doubtless that the insecure condition of the ancient keep would cause him little trouble in seizing possession of it. But the lady shut her gate in her insolent nephew’s face, defied him to do his worst, and, manfully supported by her retainers, prepared to abide the storm, with the courage of Black Agnes of Dunbar. Evidently Keith was destitute of engines and other appliances for attack, and he soon found that the strength of the fortalice, which he had underrated, and the courage of the garrison, precluded all hope of success by open assault; consequently he began a strict blockade, trusting that want of provisions and water would force a speedy surrender.
“And wha that water brocht frae the burn,
He gart them oft with his host spurn.”
But, despite every privation, his aunt still held out, expecting that her good lord would soon bring succour. And so he did.
Tidings of what was going on at Fyvie having reached Sir James at Court, he instantly took action. Having mustered about 400 armed men, he hurried Northwards across the hills. Keith hearing of this advance, drew off his followers from the Castle, and, confident in superior numbers, marched to meet the coming enemy, and, as he anticipated, to discomfit him. It was near the Kirk of Bourtie, in the Garioch, that the rival bands met. Sir Robert probably thought to take Lyndsay by surprise; but whether the latter was surprised or not, he gave battle to his foes. The fight was obstinate, and it ended in Keith’s total rout, with the loss of fifty of his men. He himself escaped from the fatal field; but, as Wyntoun jocosely remarks,
“He passed not to Fyvie
For to assiege that gude lady.”
Next year Sir James Lyndsay and the Earl of Moray were the two Royal Commissioners sent to the Highlands to endeavour to compose the fierce feud in which so many of the clans were engaged and this mission brought about the arrangement for the memorable conflict on the North Inch of Perth.
Sir James died in 1397, leaving two daughters but no son. As to his lady, nothing more is heard of her after the defence of Fyvie. But before his death Sir James resigned Fyvie in the hands of the King, and thereupon it was granted to Sir Henry Preston, who had taken prisoner Sir Ralph Percy at Otterburn – the Royal charter stating that the grant was made for Percy’s ransom, which, we may suppose, had been surrendered to the King. Lyndsay’s daughters, however, still retained certain rights in the barony, which they subsequently made over to Sir Henry.