The Burning of Frendraught, pp.202-235.

[Narratives from Criminal Trials Contents]

   A LONG conflict between two great houses in the North reached its climax in a tragedy so strange and horrible, that it became marked and renowned among the thousands of feudal outrages which fill the history of the period. Though common fame stamped it as an act of feudal vengeance, its secret history was never entirely explained. Investigations which were apparently, at least, judicial, and which professed very laboriously and impartially to strive after the truth, left the matter doubtful; and the most prejudiced historians could never say that their dark suspicions were entirely proved. With pretty abundant materials, it is impossible, even at the present day, entirely to clear up the mystery; but we can see by what machinations inquiry was baffled, and we can draw the natural inference. We can see who holds the curtain before it, though we may not see who is acting the tragedy. 

   Before the great families of Scotland lost their power, the Gordons ruled it from the northern slope of the Grampians, through Aberdeenshire to the Murray Firth. In the seventeenth century, a rival family – that of the Crichtons – which had risen in formidable emulation in the same district, bid fair to overwhelm and supersede the old power of the Gordons. But in the events we are going to relate, they sunk in the contest, and disappeared from the territorial aristocracy of Scotland, leaving nothing behind them in the northern part of the country but the remembrance of their power and tyranny. 

   In the southern shires, however, where they obtained their earliest position, they took a place in history. The common mistake of historians to suppose that the history of the court is that of the nation, makes those branches of a family who lived near Edinburgh, conspicuous political personages; while others, who had semi-regal powers at a fortunate distance from Holyrood House, are as obscure in history as fox-hunting squires. In the ordinary sources of information little is said about the Crichtons of the North, but the portion of the family who settled near Edinburgh occupy a considerable space in the annals of the earlier Jameses. In the middle of the fifteenth century the family had a struggle for supremacy with the Douglases in the South, as they afterwards had with the Gordons in the North. They seem never to have been very scrupulous of the means by which they obtained their ambitious ends; and among a series of violent, not to say criminal acts, the reader of history will readily remember the slaughter of the young Douglases in Edinburgh Castle, when a black bull’s head was presented to them, as a token that the hospitable board to which they were invited was converted into their place of execution. 

   Of this southern branch of the Crichtons, however, more pleasing recollections are preserved in the beautiful remains of their palace stronghold, standing on a wild moor, at the head of the Scottish Tyne; but covered with those rich oriental-looking decorations which justify Scott’s luxuriant, yet accurate, description of them in “Marmion,” commencing, 

“Nor wholly yet hath time defaced 

Thy lordly gallery fair, 

Nor yet the stony cord unbraced, 

Whose twisted knots with roses laced, 

Adorn thy ruined stair.” 

   But let us look northward, where, as the southern branch of the family who had endeavoured to rise by court intrigue and influence were gradually declining, their cousins were adding acre unto acre, and effectually but quietly acquiring great signorial powers. They founded houses in the shires of Perth and Aberdeen, continuing in the old Scottish fashion to support each other in their feuds. Thus, in 1599, we find that Sir Robert Crichton of Cluny, charged with the slaughter of William Meldrum of Montcoffer, gets his kinsman, John Crichton of Invernytie, in Aberdeenshire, to be his security; and his trial is postponed, because it is understood that he is to appear in court accompanied by so large a band of followers, that his majesty thinks it necessary to adjourn the proceedings, lest “great inconvenience may ensue, to the disquieting of our peaceable subjects and present estate.”1 There is a temptation to notice this small incident, in the circumstance that the marvel of heroism and rhetoric – the Admirable Crichton* – was a Crichton of Cluny, and appears to have been the brother of this Sir Robert. 

   The principal residence of the Crichtons in Aberdeenshire was the fortalice of Frendraught, the mouldering remains of which, just rising above the ground, amid some venerable trees, are looked on with mysterious awe, as if they were yet some day to reveal the dread secret of their transmutation in one night from a fair hall to a black heap of ruins. The traditions of the peasantry always associate the extinct race of the Crichtons with a career of oppression and violence, and archæological vestiges of a far earlier period are generally assigned, after the usual custom of tradition, to some real or imagined event in their evil history. Thus a topographical writer in a periodical of the year 1761, says: “About a quarter of a mile west of Frendraught, on the roadside at Tarvis burn, is to be seen an old cairn or heap of stone, the tradition about which is, that at this place the last Dunbar of Frendraught was murdered in regard he refused to consent to his daughter’s marriage with Crichton, and which was perpetrated by some of his followers, after which he married the lady and took possession of the estate. A mile south-east of Frendraught, on the roadside towards Glen Mellen, is Murray’s cairn, at which place Murray of Cowbardy was murdered by the Crichtons upon some slight quarrel. Half a mile north from Frendraught, on the top of the Riach hill, stood the gibbet, upon which many suffered, as may be seen by the remains of their graves; and a little below the bridge of Forgue are to be seen the graves of a gang of gipsies who suffered death by drowning. The lords of Frendraught were severe justiciaries within their own regality. Many other accounts of their severity might be here added.”2 

   The great rivals and enemies of the rising house of Crichton were, of course, the Gordons. With the one or the other every person was required to enrol himself in clientage, and woe to him who should attempt to live independent of both. In that day it was the practice for those who did not belong to some considerable family in alliance with the dominant house, to take its name. To be without a chief involved a kind of disrepute; and those who had no distinct personal position of their own would find it necessary to become a Gordon or a Crichton, as prudence or inclination might point out. It was a not unfrequent practice to come under written obligation to take the surname of some great house. Thus, we have seen of so late a date as 1711, a bond by which John and James Macgregor say we “bind and oblige us, our heirs and successors, and all that ever shall come of us and our families whatsomever, to call ourselves and to be Gordons, still attending and depending on the noble family of Huntly, and that both in word and write in all time coming: and we further oblige us that we never shall subscribe to or sign any papers but Gordon as aforesaid.” 

   Gordon of Rothiemay having estates which, being contiguous to those of Crichton, had to bear all the evils of a frontier territory, there were conflicts in the law courts, followed out by hand-to-hand battles with broadsword and matchlock. One of these engagements took place in 1630, and was fought with great obstinacy. Rothiemay was mortally, wounded and only survived for a few days. The relations of the slain man made arrangements for taking signal vengeance; and in addition to their own followers, they obtained the aid of a kind of mercenary soldiery, ready at that time for any service in any part of the world – the Highland freebooters, of whom 200 well armed, were encamped round the house of Rothiemay, under two renowned robber chieftains named Grant, against whom the law had in vain been fulminating for years together. The head of the Gordons, however, the Marquis of Huntly, and his relation, Sir Robert Gordon, used all their efforts to arrest the threatened “harrying,” as it was termed, of the territory of the Crichtons. They were unusually successful in producing at least an apparent reconciliation, “and so all parties having shaken hands in the orchard of Strathbogie, they were heartily reconciled.”3 

   The Crichtons agreed to pay a sum of 50,000 merks to Rothiemay’s widow “in composition of the slaughter.” A follower or client of Crichton, called John Meldrum, of Redhill, had been wounded in the fray with Rothiemay. He expected some reward for his services which he did not obtain, and took umbrage at his chief. For a gentleman of landed property his method of seeking redress would in the present day be considered somewhat strange. “Whereupon, John Meldrum cometh secretly, under silence of the night, to the park of Frendraught, and conveyeth away two of Frendraught’s best horses. Frendraught taketh this lightly, and calleth John Meldrum before the justice for theft. He turneth rebel, and doth not appear.”4 He was sheltered in the strong fortalice of his brother-in-law, Leslie of Pitcaple. Frendraught and his relation, Crichton of Conland, met by accident the son of Leslie of Pitcaple, and high words passed about the sheltering of Meldrum. In the middle of the dispute, Crichton of Conland drew forth a pistol, and shot young Leslie. Thus out of a family who had been their warm friends, the Crichtons made bitter feudal enemies. Frendraught, alarmed apparently at his position, appeared desirous to conciliate the Gordons, and asked the Marquis of Huntly to use his influence to heal the feud with the Leslies. But young Leslie was lying in his father’s hall, between life and death, and a reconciliation under such circumstances was impossible. Frendraught had urged his suit when on a visit to Huntly’s castle, and the chivalrous chief of the Gordons was desirous that he should, at all events, be safe in returning from the Castle of Strathbogie to his own home; a very unlikely consummation, since an armed band of the Leslies were on the watch to waylay him. Huntly, after having entertained him for a few days, sent his son, Lord Aboyne, and the young Laird of Rothiemay as his escorts. 

   When they reached Frendraught, they were desired to remain there and partake of its hospitalities. The Lady Frendraught was especially anxious that they should seal the abandonment of the old feud between the Gordons and the Crichtons in conviviality. In the words of an old ballad: 

“When steeds were saddled, and well bridled, 

And ready for to ride; 

Then out came she and false Frendraught, 

Inviting them to bide. 


“Said, ‘Stay this night until we sup, 

The morn until we dine; 

‘Twill be a token of good ‘greement, 

‘Twixt your good lord and mine.’ ” 

   They remained, and thus Frendraught had under his roof the son of his great feudal enemy, Huntly, and the son of the man for whose slaughter he had to make pecuniary compensation. Part of the Castle of Frendraught was the grim, windowless, old square tower, so common in Scotland. Each floor had but one chamber, the thick walls occupying the greater part of the space. The lowest chamber was vaulted, the others were covered with wood. The owners of such edifices were sometimes jealous of permanent stairs, and in the centre of the vault at Frendraught there was a round hole for reaching the floor above by a ladder. In the room thus entered slept Aboyne, with his follower Robert Gordon, and his page “English Will.” In the floor above slept Rothiemay with some of his followers, and in the third another band of followers; it was observed that the whole of the party who had escorted Frendraught from Strathbogie were lodged in this tower. After a convivial evening they slept soundly. What afterwards happened, cannot be better told than in the simple words of a contemporary annalist: 

   “Thus all being at rest, about midnight this dolorous tour took fire in so suddent and furious a manner, yea, in one clap, that this noble viscount, the Laird of Rothiemay, English Will, Colin Ivat, another of Aboyne’s servitours, and other twa, being six in number, were cruelly brunt and tormented to the death, but help or relief, the Laird of Frendraught, his lady and whole household, looking on without moving or stirring to deliver them fra the fury of this fearful fire as was reported. 

   “Robert Gordon, called Sutherland Robert, being in the viscount’s chamber escaped this fire with his life. George Chalmer, and Captain Rollok being in the third room, escaped also this fire, and, as was said, Aboyne might have saved himself also if he had gone out of doors, quhilk he would not do, but sudaintly ran up-stairs to Rothiemay’s chamber and wakened him to rise; and as he is wakening him the timber passage and lofting of the and lofting of the passage hastily takes fire, so that none of them could come down stairs again. So they turned to ane window looking to the close, where they piteously cried help, help, many times, for God’s cause. The laird and the lady with their servants, all seeing and hearing this woful crying, but made no help nor maner of helping, which they perceiving, they cried often times mercy at God’s hands for their sins, syne claspit in each other’s armes and cheerfully suffered this cruel martyrdom. Thus died this noble viscount of singular expectation, Rothiemay, a brave youth, and the rest, by this doleful fire never enough to be deplored, to the great sorrow and grief of their kin, friends, parents, and hail country people, especially the noble marquis, who for his good-will got this reward.”5 

   This tragedy, round which many of the traditions of the north centre, has been told in rhyme as well as prose, and as we shall see in more than one language. “The fire of Frendraught” is well known to the students of Scottish ballad literature. Often has the writer of this notice heard it in early childhood sung or chanted near the spot, and not sensibly varying in the various mouths which gave utterance to it; the evidently genuine version of it in Motherwell’s minstrelsy gives it to the reader exactly as the peasant would repeat it to the curious listener. This embodiment of the deep popular indignation of the time has already been noticed, and a further quotation from it will readily dovetail into this part of the narrative: 

“They had not long cast off their cloaths, 

And were but now asleep, 

When the weary smoke began to rise, 

Likewise the scorching heat. 


“ ‘O waken, waken, Rothiemay, 

O waken, brother dear, 

And turn you to our Saviour; 

There is strong treason here.’ 


“When they were dressed in their cloaths, 

And ready for to boun, 

The doors and windows was all secured – 

The roof-tree burning down. 


“He did him to the weir window 

As fast as he could gang – 

Says – wae to the hands put in the stancheons, 

For out we’ll never win. 


“When he stood at the weir window, 

Most doleful to be seen, 

He did espy her Lady Frendraught, 

Who stood upon the green. 


“Cried, ‘Mercy – mercy – Lady Frendraught; 

Will ye not sink with sin? 

For first your husband killed my father, 

And then you burn his son.’ 


“O then out-spoke her Lady Frendraught, 

And loudly did she cry: 

‘It were great pity for good Lord John, 

But none for Rothiemay. 

But the keys are casten in the deep draw-well;6 

Ye cannot get away.’ ” 

   The event was described and lamented by a poet of higher aspirations and wider ambition. Arthur Johnston, the rival of Buchanan, dedicated two Latin poems to the Frendraught tragedy; and, as they were printed and chiefly read in Holland, he might speak out. He writes like one who had stood among the horrid ruins; and we know that he lived near the spot, since he commemorates in one of his curious and pleasant epigrams the shadow of the neighbouring hill of Bennochie just touching his paternal estate in the horizontal sunlight of the equinox. After many of the common places of the imitators of the classics, as, 

“Horruit aspectu tellus et pontus et æther,” 

he descends to particularities, which show that his sympathy, if not some stronger feeling, was embarked in the sad history: 

“Innocuos juvines, patriis in finibus, inter 

Mille clientelas et avito sanguine junctos 

Hospitii dominos, omnis damnique dolique 

Securos – somnoque graves, et noctis opacæ 

Vellatos tenebris, animatis sulphure flammis 

Vidimus extinctos, et tracta cadavera fœdis 

Indignisque modis, postquam sunt ultima passi. 

Tristis et infelix et semper inhospita turris; 

Momento succensa brevi, semul ima supremis 

Miscuit, et tumulos thalamis et funera somno, 

Et famulis dominos, quorum confusa jacebant 

Obruta ruderibus cinis, ossa, cadavera; namque 

Corporis unius, memini, pars ossa fuerunt 

Pars cinis immundus – tostum pars igne cadaver; 

Quam sors dura fuit! vivos dum pascitur ignis 

Nemo manu, præce nemo juvat, nec abire parantes 

Quisquam animas pius ore legit, vocesve supremas 

Aure bibit, dextra vel lumina condit amica, 

Nemo sacra cineres turbatos excipit urna.”7 

   The ashes of the dead were however collected in separate caskets or coffins, and conveyed to the church of Gartly, where the country people will still show the vault in which they are traditionally said to lie. These pious duties being performed, the Gordons of course turned their thoughts to vengeance. Spalding, the chronicler, says it was resolved that to propitiate them, on the day after the tragedy, the Lady of Frendraught, in a white plaid or wimple, “and riding on ane small nag, having ane boy leading her horse without any more in her company,” went weeping to the gates of Strathbogie beseeching an audience of the Marquis of Huntly, but was sternly repulsed, “and returned back to her own house the same gate she came – comfortless.” Some polemical writers have endeavoured to prove that the boy who so accompanied her was her confidential adviser – a Jesuit in disguise. There is curious evidence that the lady kept such a person in her employment, though her husband was a professedly zealous Presbyterian, whom the Catholics charged with a religious enmity to the house of Gordon. A certain Gilbert Blackhal, who had been a secret and dexterous agent of the Jesuits in the most dangerous times and places, left a journal of his adventures, in which he says: “My lady of Frendraught did send to me praying me to come to her to be her ordinary, for the frère whom she had before was departed from this life. I refused absolutely to see her, because she was suspected to be guilty of the death of my Lord of Aboyne, who seven years ago was burned in the castle of Frendraught.”8 

   While the lady was on her penitential mission grave council was held in the Castle of Strathbogie, whether Lord Errol and other distant partisans of the Gordons had hastened. We are told that the assembly, “after serious consultation, concluded this fearful fire could not come by chance, sloth, or accident, but that it was plotted and devised of set purpose; whereof Frendraught, his lady, his friends, or servitors, one or other was upon the knowledge.” Having come to this conclusion, it was held that the criminality of the parties was so open to proof, that private vengeance or feudal war would be unnecessary – it was better to seek redress at the hands of the law. Thus the belief entertained by the Gordons, and generally participated in, was that the demon of family hate had driven Frendraught to the murder of the confiding guests, though it could only be accomplished by the destruction of his own fortalice. 

   Frendraught went immediately to Perth, where the chancellor was residing, and threw himself on the protection of that powerful officer, passing with him to Edinburgh, where he declared that he was prepared to abide all investigation, maintaining that the act “was committed by some devilish and odious plotters against him, his life, and estate,” and begging in the mean time that he might receive protection in his person and property from the fury of his enemies. Thereupon commenced a series of tedious and perplexing legal proceedings, wherein with bustling pomposity the most untiring efforts appear to have been made to discover the criminal. In the midst of a general confusion of commissions, dittays, questions with the boots, deliverances, “summonds, exceptions, replies, duplies, indices, and presumptions produced and used therewith,” one figure ever appears in the midst of the confusion calm and undisturbed – this is Frendraught himself, who resides with his friend the chancellor, attends the meetings of the privy council occasionally, and is never troubled or questioned, while the pursuit after minor personages becomes ever hotter and fiercer. The privy council seemed for some months to have no other business but this inquiry. They commenced it on truly inductive principles. The Earl Marshal, the Bishops of Aberdeen and Murray, with some others, were appointed as a committee of the privy council “to sight and view the house of Frendraught, and to consider the frame and structure thereof, and how and by what means the fire was raised within the same, and if the fire was accidental or done of set purpose by the hand of man, and if there be any possibility or probability that the fire could have been raised by any persons without the house.” The committee were appointed on the 1st of February, 1631. On the 4th of April they made a report on the spot distinct enough so far as it goes: “We find by all likelyhood that the fire whereby the house was burnt was first raised in a vault, wherein we find evidences of fire in three sundry parts; one at the farthest end thereof, another towards the mids, and the third in that part which is hard by the hole that is under the bed which was in the chamber above. Your good lordships will excuse us if we determine not concerning the fire, whether it was accidental or of set purpose by the hand of man, only this much it seemeth probable unto us, after consideration of the forme of the house and other circumstances, that no hand without could have raised the fire without aid from within.” 

   It was necessary to let the virtuous fury of the law loose on some obscure victims. A young woman, named Margaret Wood, was accused of the crime, on what ground it is hard to say. The account of her treatment is sickening. After she was subjected to the torture of the boots, she would yet make no admission justifying further proceedings against her for the murder. She seems, indeed, to have provoked the fury of her judges by directly accusing Frendraught, in whose service she was; for, according to the record of the Court of Justiciary, she “did compear before his majesty’s council, and so far as in her lay, did lay the odious and treasonable crime of burning the house of Frendraught upon a baron and gentleman of good quality, and thereafter, in her several depositions made before the said lords, did openly and manifestly perjure herself, blaspheme the name of Almighty God, and abuse, with her false lies and calumnies, the said lords of his majesty’s council.” And therefore the poor woman, because, under the effect of torture, she so far forgot herself as to point to the powerful man whom all believed to be guilty, was sentenced to be “scourged through the burgh of Edinburgh, and banished the kingdom.” John Tosh, a follower of Frendraught, was next accused and brought to trial. The dettay, or indictment, sets forth that Tosh, “upon what devilish instigation altogether unknown,” in the dead hour of the night, when all the people and servants of the place were at rest, “passed secretly to ane chamber where one Thomas Joss, ane of his fellow-servants within the same place, and ane keeper of the key of the vaults, whilk was directly under the tower wherein the said Lord Viscount of Melgum [Aboyne], the said Laird Rothiemay and their company lay, and secretly staw (stole) and brought away with him the key out of the said Thomas Joss, his breeks and pouches thereof, the said Thomas being in bed and fast a’ sleep for the time; and thereafter came to the said vault or laigh seller, beneath the said tower; and having opened the door thereof, and drawn in and conveyed thereintil certain fagots, timber, powder, flax, and other combustible matter provided and prepared by him; he, the said John Tosh, out of ane devilish and desperate humour, fired the same, by the firing and kindling whereof, the said loftings above the said vault, especially the chambers in the said tower wherein the said lord viscount, the Laird of Rothiemay, and their servants and followers, to the number of six persons, Christian souls, were most pitifully burned to dead.” 

   To urge him to confess this preposterous story, he was put “to the torture of the boots,” and next “to the torture of the pilniwinkies;” yet, as his counsel expressed it, he “in all his sufferings of baith the said tortures, constantly and upon his great oath, declared that he was no ways the burner of the house of Frendraught, acter, nor accessorie thereto, or that he knew anything anent the burning of the said house, nor who was the doer thereof.” It appears that there was some reason for charging him with possessing for a short time, on that memorable night, the key of the vault. He went thither, it seems, to get a drink of water; and it was adduced against him, that one time he said it was for Domingo, the chief cook, and at another time for Buck, the under cook. He was asked about a “great kist,” or chest which stood in the vault, supposed to have contained combustibles; but he could afford no revelations about it or anything. There was not a shadow of real evidence against him, though the crown counsel said poetically, that “all the particular indices being massed together, they may well be counted as stars to see the night with.” 

   It was impossible to make out a case against Tosh; and, as a victim must be found, the next attack made was on Frendraught’s enemy and ex-retainer, Meldrum. In the charge against him allusion is made to the abduction of the horses already mentioned – an offence aggravated by the insolent manner in which Meldrum rode about the country with them. It was laid down, that as he stood in dread of just punishment at the instance of Frendraught, he resolved to revenge himself by blowing up the castle, through the aid of the Highland freebooters headed by John Grant, “ane notorious sorner, outlaw, thief, and rebel.” It certainly was shown that he had expressed sufficient bitterness against Frendraught, and threatened that he would bring together as many Highlanders “as would sup him in brose.” He frequently said an evil turn would overtake Frendraught, and according to some witnesses alluded to fire as the form it should take. Grant himself was caught and examined; he said that Meldrum held conversations with him, and that he was evidently “bent upon revenge, and had ane purpose to enter on blood;” but that he, Grant, had too many other affairs on hand to enter into his views. The only further specific evidence appears to have been the statement of an individual since executed, that on the fatal night he met several horsemen in a road leading to Frendraught, “among whom he knew John Meldrum, riding on ane mirk grey horse with ane millon cloak.” When Tosh was charged with the crime, it was held that it must have been perpetrated by persons having access to the building. Meldrum and his abettors were on the other hand charged with executing it externally, “having brought with them ane large quantity of powder, pitch, brimstone, flax, and other combustible matter, provided by them for the purpose, and put and conveyed the same in and through the slits and stones of the vault of the said great tower of Frendraught.” The impossibility of his doing this without aid from within, was urged by his counsel; while it was ingeniously put that if he had an accomplice in the mansion, that accomplice must have known that the vengeance on that night would fall not on Frendraught, but on Meldrum’s own friends. A sentence or two may be taken as a specimen of forensic pleading in Scotland at that period: 

   “Gif there was any slit therein (in the wall) it was very narrow, and the wall ten foot thick, or thereabout (now ye see good men of inquest how necessar it is that the assisers should have been countrymen who could have known thir things best), so that neither could a man without wield his hand well to cast, put, or shoot in combustible, or kindle the same where it fell; but some in the dark would have escaped the inputter and fallen by the way (the wall being ten feet thick), and would have come back by that same slit, whereof great vestiges would have been found even from without (whilk was not – neither can ye of the assize know, not being of the country). Then what possibility to wield ane spear through a slit ten foot thick, and so narrow, to make anything touch the hole of the vault that is alleged to be under my Lord of Melgum (Aboyne) his bed, without direction within, and (that) is already cleared not to have been. Then the force of the powder and that other matter if it had fallen against the meal arks, it had broken if not burnt them; and if it had not come back to the slit (as likely it would, because it could not lie far from it, for the uneasiness of the inputting of the same as said is), at least going to the hole or O in the vault, it should have broken the ladder, and being redacted in angustias, that is to one great straigtness, it would have blown up some of the vault near the head or O with ane great noise, and my Lord Melgum to have been first slain before burnt; where only the constant report is, that there was ane great smoking before he did awake, both in his chamber, and the other where a boy was suffocate, and gave him liberty to put on his clothes, and by the will of God went up the stair when he ought to have come down.” On the absence of direct evidence, he says: “Fand nane him to go out? Did not the doors or yets of the house geig and make a noise, or how was the yet of Pitcaple opened? Fand nane him to return? Did nane meet him? Did nane see him but a vacillant, variant, contradictory villain, what was scourged and burnt on the cheek for the same; and thereafter being tane for ane other crime, was paneled and condemned.   *   *   *   Item, there were ane number of horse; unlike preparation for such a business. Also, he might well be refuted by your wisdoms, as that other by the Amphictions, who testified that he saw in the night Alcibiades, and kenned him casting down the statue of Mercurie at Athens. But to leave him in his darkness, I go on and speirs (ask). How runs the panel so quickly, ten or twelve miles, etiam cum tot impedementis, and burdens that he behoved to have, if the dittay be true? Went he on foot or horse? Wha held the horse? Whare, also, was the combustible matter coft? In what market, or booth, or fra whom gotten? Wha caried the fire? How did the combustible matter so wall or join with the fire; and if there was tinder buist, where, or how gotten? How had the panel all this leisure and time to set all thir things in order when he came to the slit? Was there no din nor crak heard – no dog to bark?” 

   Meldrum was found guilty, condemned, hanged, and quartered, the quarters being spiked on conspicuous places “in example of others to do the like,” as Spalding quaintly says. The belief of the country, as handed down by tradition, was, that Frendraught had thus been able to strike another enemy. It will be seen that no evidence against him was received – that it was considered an offence to accuse him. Popular fame charged him, however, with the murder; and in the narrative of Father Blackwell – not, however, to be much relied on, as he nourished a strong theological hatred of the Crichtons – it is asserted that Frendraught kindled the fire, and stood armed in the court-yard to slay his victims, should they escape. Frendraught appears to have endeavoured to propitiate the clergy, since in the parish church of Forgue there are communion cups and a paten of silver, with the inscription: “Giftet to God and his Kirk, by James Crichton, of Frendraught, 1633.”9 He appears, too, to have re-fitted the interior of the parish church, and to have carved many pious inscriptions on the pews. These propitiations were, perhaps, rendered the more necessary by the recusancy of his lady, who was born a Roman Catholic, and appears to have kept the renowned Presbytery of Strathbogie in continual turmoil. In the Index to “Extracts from the Presbytery-book of Strathbogie,” printed by the Spalding Club, the head “Frendraught, the Lady of,” commences thus: “To be dealt with; promises to hear the word; offers to go to the church to which her husband goes; out of the country; gets liberty to attend at Forgue; is willing to hear the word in any kirk but Aberchirder; to be summoned for her avowed Papistry; required to subscribe the covenant; she promises to consider of it; subscribes it; promises to give up the detestable ways of Popery or Popish idolatry;” and so on. The chief complaint against her is for only occasional, instead of steady attendance at sermons; and her vindications are sometimes petulant and amusing. She seems, on the whole, to have shown a pertinacity and passive obstinacy which exhausted the restless energies of the inquisitorial presbytery, who, after declaring her to be “pertinax,” appear in the end to have been obliged to content themselves with very general assurances of conformity, which they seem to have known that she did not follow. On one of the occasions in which her case is brought on, her husband applies to the presbytery to allow him a tutor of “good life and conversation,” and given to “frequent exercises,” for the instruction of his children; as if he desired to keep the minds of the reverend gentlemen fixed on something which might weigh against the lady’s heterodoxy. 

   Frendraught, though he had with a high hand averted even the pretence of inquiry on the part of the government, did not go unpunished, whether he was guilty or not. There was another power in Scotland in that day besides the law, which found him guilty and executed sentence on him. Avoided and detested by his neighbours, the whole swarm of mountain freebooters considered his broad acres their proper prey. Highland rievers seem to have travelled hundreds of miles for the special purpose of harrying the lordship of Frendraught. The privy council records are filled with eloquently distracted denunciations of them. Thus, on the 13th of November, 1634, certain charges against the Marquis of Huntly and others commence, “For as muckle as the lords of secret council are informed that great numbers of sorners and broken men in the Clan Gregor, Clan Lachlan, and other broken clans in Lochabar, Strathdon, Glencoe, Braemar, and other parts of the Highlands, as also divers of the name of Gordon, and their dependers and followers in the country, have this long time, and now lately, very grievously infested his majesty’s loyal subjects in the north parts, especially the Laird of Frendraught and his tenants, by frequent slaughters, heirships, and barbarous cruelties committed upon them, and by ane late treasonable fire-raising within the said Laird of Frendraught his lands, whereby not only is all the gentleman’s lands laid waste, his kail yards and bestial spoiled, slain, and mangled, some of his servants slain and cruelly demeaned, but also the haill tenants of his lands have left his service, and himself, with the hazard of his life, has been forced to steal away under night, and have his refuge in his majesty’s council.” Another document calls on the sheriffs of the northern counties to raise the posse comitatus, and endeavour to arrest a set of people with unreadable Highland names, “on the suspicion that they are the authors and committers of the late disorders and insurrections in the north, and of the heirships, depredations, fire-raising, and other disorders upon the Laird of Frendraught, his tenants and servants, whose haill goods they have lifted, laid their lands waste, and hanged one of the poor tenants on the gallows of Strathbogie; and with ane high hand of rebellion they have resolved to make themselves masters of the said Laird of Frendraught his haill estate, and to possess themselves therein, and to keep the same by strength of arms in contempt and defiance of law and justice, being assisted in their disorders and rebellious courses by numbers of broken Highlandmen and others, with whom they go up and down the country ravaging and oppressing his majesty’s good subjects, and especially poor ministers who have not power to oppose their violence, and that in so hostile and terrible ane manner as the like has not been heard at any time heretofore.” 

   These “limmers” and “sorners,” who also sometimes receive on the present occasion the curious name of “light horsemen,” were of course hanged in bunches when they could be caught. One of them – the renowned Gilderoy – has already come under our notice in the account of the legal conflicts with the Clan Gregor. His coadjutors, who were generally like himself members of “broken clans,” enjoyed a grotesque variety of names – such as, John Malcolmie, Allaster McInneir, Ewin Macgregor, alias Macawish, John Dow Garr, Neil McInstalker, Ewin Neil McPhadric, Duncan Roy Darg, &c. The charges against these ruffians range from the most extensive to the smallest scale of plunder – from the pillage of houses and the murder of their inmates, to the kidnapping of stray poultry – in a ludicrous fashion. In fact, these gentry were so light-footed as well as light-fingered, that it was extremely difficult to get evidence of their feats; and therefore, any matter, however trifling, which could be proved, must not be lost sight of in the general reckoning. We have seen that Gilderoy was seized by Argyle, the hereditary enemy of the Macgregors, to whom thanks for this great service were recorded by the privy council. So weak an executive as Scotland then had were glad of the aid even of inferior instruments, and they followed the policy of setting rogue against rogue. In the ravages of Frendraught, a certain Finlay McGrimm bore a part. He was attacked and seized by some Macgregors, probably not much more honest than himself, who brought his head to the table of the privy council. This august body “finds they have done good service therein, excusing them from all crime and offence that may be impute to them for this cause. Like as the said lords ordains the bailies of Edinburgh to affix the said Finlay McGrimm’s head upon the netherbow port; and the said lords ordain John Earl of Traquair, his majesty’s depute treasurer, to deliver to the party, bearer and in-bringer of McGrimm’s head, the sum of a hundred merks, in satisfaction of his hazard and charge, and for encouragement of others cheerfully to go on in the like service in time coming.” 

   The country had adopted the opinion that the house of Frendraught were doomed, and it brought about the event by treating it as being so. The territory was wasted and depopulated, its owner was hated and avoided, and in little more than half a century after the tragedy the family ceased to exist. At court, however, Frendraught had at first the successful side of the conflict. Huntly, who was charged with the responsibility of the outrages in the north, and who was suffering in spirit from the death of his gallant son, had to repair to court in his old age, and never returned to his castle and his followers. His latter days have been affectionately commemorated by the annalist, Spalding, with whose notice of his redeeming character, the account of the Frendraught tragedy may be concluded.10 

   “This mighty marquis was of ane great spirit, for in time of trouble he was of invincible courage, and boldly bore down all his enemies triumphantly. He was never inclined to war or trouble himself, but by the pride and insolence of his kin was divers times driven in trouble, whilk he bore through valiantly. He loved not to be in the laws contending against any man, but loved rest and quietness with all his heart, and in time of peace he lived moderately and temperately in his dyet, and fully set to building and planting of all curious devices. A well set neighbour in his marches – disposed rather to give than to take a foot of ground wrongously. He was heard say he never drew sword in his own quarrel. In his youth a prodigal spender – in his old age more wise and worldly, yet never counted for cost in matters of honour. A great householder – a terror to his enemies, whom, with his prideful kin, he ever held under great fear, subjection, and obedience. In all his bargains just and efauld, and never hard for his true debt. He was mightily annoyed by the Kirk for his religion, and by others for his greatness, and had thereby much trouble. His master, King James, loved him dearly, and he was a good and loyal subject to him during the king’s lifetime. But here at last in his latter days, by means of Frendraught, he is so persecuted by the laws (which he aye studied to hold in due reverence), that he is compelled to travel without pity so often to Edinburgh, and now ends his days out of his own house, without trial, of the woful fire of Frendraught – whilk doubtless was some help to his death also.”11 

1  Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, ii., 77. 

2  Edinburgh Magazine, 1761. Reprinted in Antiquities of the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, ii., 320. 

3  Gordon’s Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, p. 419. 

4  Ibid. 

5  Spalding’s Memorialls of the Trubles. Spalding Club edition, i., 18. 

6  The editor of another collection of ballads, Mr. Finlay, in reference to this verse, of which he had but an imperfect copy, says, he was told that “many years afterwards, when the well was cleared out, this tradition was corroborated by their finding the keys – at least, such was the report of the country.” There never is a specific tradition of any event without also a tradition or report of some discovery corroborating it. 

7  Johnstoni Parerga, p. 332. Arthur Johnston was the poet whose version of the psalms Benson published in so magnificent a shape, eliciting from Pope the sarcastic couplet which connects it with his monument to Milton: 

“On two unequal crutches propt he came, 

Milton on this – on that one Johnston’s name.” 

   Whether Johnston justly deserved the antithesis which condemns him to the Dunciad order, the reader may perhaps judge from the specimen of his efforts given above. The northern reader, who is not generally deemed well qualified to judge critically of such productions, is content to acknowledge the interest excited by a Latinist, who goes over so many local and personal subjects, on which he may be supposed to have actually felt, instead of adopting “classic models.” He was one of many Scottish Latinists of that age, who had a continental, rather than a home reputation. The English was becoming the literary language of Britain, and the vernacular Scottish so far differed from it, that Scotsmen found it easier to write in Latin than in English. 

8 A Brieffe Narration of the Services done to three Noble Ladyes, by Gilbert Blackhal, p. 58. 

9  Statistical Account of Scotland, xii., 598. 

10  It is curious that of the author of so interesting a book as the “Memorials of the Troubles in Scotland and in England,” nothing should be discovered beyond the bare fact that he was town clerk of Aberdeen. The garrulity his narrative makes it extremely valuable. He was an arrant gossip – but a gossip whose private scandal related to murders and feuds, and whose public news recorded the greatest of civil wars. The Spalding Club, named in honour of him, have just worthily printed an amply annotated edition of his Memorials. 

11  Memorials, i., 73-4. 

*  The Last Days of the Admirable Crichton (From Documents existing in the Archives at Mantua.), by L. E. Marshall is related in Scots Lore Magazine (1895); part 1 & part 2

2 thoughts on “The Burning of Frendraught, pp.202-235.

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