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The Blackhalls of that Ilk and Barra
Chapter V. — The Eve of the Forfeiture of the Blackhalls


THE eastern boundary of the estate of Balquhain touches the western boundary of Blackhall. It has been in the possession of the Leslie family ever since Sir George Leslie, the first of Balquhain, received it from his father, Sir Andrew de Leslie, the sixth of that Ilk, some time prior to 1340.

The house of Balquhain has produced many men of worth, ability and power. In 1571, however, John Leslie succeeded his father as tenth laird or baron of Balquhain. His forcefulness showed itself in ways, which were profitable neither to himself nor to the Blackhalls, and as he had an important influence on their fortunes, it is necessary to consider shortly what manner of man he was. The keynote of his character, as delineated by the late Colonel Leslie, his representative, and the historian of his family, was a pride and self-assertiveness which led to ruinous extravagance, and a shifty unreliability which made him a bad partner both in public and in private life. He had a somewhat varied connubial record also, having divorced one wife, been divorced by another, and questionably married to a third. One of his sons, Walter, by his third wife, also a forceful character, became a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, owing to the part he played in the assassination of Wallenstein, the only palliation of which crime was the suspected treason of that great soldier. He became wealthy in foreign parts, and helped to redeem mortgages or wadsets on his old home, which were the consequences of his father’s and his eldest brother’s improvidence. (Historical Records of the Family of Leslie, by Col. Leslie of Balquhain, Vol. III., p. 248).

John Leslie, the tenth of Balquhain, was Sheriff-Principal of Aberdeenshire for many years, and as late as 1597. After the death of William Blackhall of that Ilk in 1589 without male issue, he entered an interdict against the succession of his heir, ultimately retoured never* theless as Alexander Blackhall of that Uk, Coroner and Forester of the Garioch, but this only with the consent of his interdictor, and to make good a transaction between him and Alexander Blackhall of Barra, to be mentioned presently.

What the motives of John Leslie were in taking this action can only be surmised, for the reasons of the interdiction are not definitely assigned in the document which chronicles the fact. Dr. Burnett (op. cit., p. 35) suggests that the interdict was due to what lawyers call the “ facility or profession ” of the heir, but the point has not been examined with any care by Burnett, who is more anxious to prove that the hunting horn in the arms of the Burnetts was not derived from the Forestership of the Blackhalls than anything else, and there is nothing to show that he was in any way ineligible for the succession, which was soon afterwards agreed to under other circumstances by John Leslie himself. The words used in the deed (Reg. Mag. Sig., Lib. 14, No. 20) by Alexander Blackhall are “Noveritis me cum expressis consensu et assensu honorabihs viii Joannis Leslie de Balquhane cui interdictus sum meis utilitate et commodo, in hac parte undique previsis et diligenter consideratis ex certis causis rationi consonis animum mcum ad hoc moventein et precertim pro adimpletione, &c.” We have seen that William Blackhall was the fifth in descent from Sir William Leslie, the fourth baron of Balquhain, John Leslie being the sixth in descent from the same person. As cousinship used to be reckoned in those days, this was a by no means remote relationship. When this fact is taken in connection with that of their being neighbouring lairds, it is quite possible that Leslie may have considered it necessary that the conditions of the tenure of Blackhall should be carefully examined in the interests of the only daughter or sister of the late Coroner of the Garioch, before the formal acknowledgment of the male heir. A reference to the wording of the letter granting the ward of Blackhall to the Strachans of Tibbertie might moreover be construed as implying that an heiress might under certain circumstances succeed (p. 30). If such a possibility was considered, the conclusion must have been reached very soon, not only that an heiress could not succeed at that time, while a male heir was known to be 11' existence, but also as to who that male heir was; because we find Leslie consenting, in 1590, to the sale by Alexander Blackhall—who, in the year following, was retoured to both Blackhall and the offices—of Blackhall and those offices, to Alexander Blackhall of Barra. This transaction in itself was illegal, as the royal consent to the proceeding had not been obtained, although, without doubt, sale first and confirmation afterwards often took place. Just at that time, however, such action was not without danger, as the event proved. What can have been the object of the action of Alexander Blackhall of Barra in this matter?

We have seen that on a former occasion, in 1503, James IV., not wishing any harm to his beloved William Blackhall, confirmed his possession of Fola-Blackwater, although acquired without the royal consent. But at the time we are now dealing with, the reckless but virile victim of I’lodden was not on the throne, and the Royal Exchequer was very empty. Herein lay the danger of such transactions. At the period we are at the moment considering, the Octavians were not yet appointed. Then finally abortive efforts did not commence till some five years later, but the conditions of royal need were somewhat pressing, and the royal ingenuity, and that of the King's advisers, was being exercised to discover a means of replenishing the treasury. With the fatuousness usually characteristic of those whom the gods have determined to destroy, the incarnation of the feudal system—the king, determined to support his throne by undermining its props—the feudal aristocracy. ‘ The revenue of the country,” writes Burton, “ was in a wretched condition—the civil officers of the Government unpaid and nothing available by which the Crown could in case of an emergency co-operate with the feudal force in defence of the country. The source from which the treasury might be replenished was the forfeiture of estates. From the recent succession of convulsions and re-actions, with their forfeitures and remissions, it may easily be inferred that the ownership of a large breadth oi the landed property of the country was in a complicated and dubious state. To extricate it would require much hard work of a delicate kind. It would have to be considered whether a forfeiture should be carried to extremities, or the opportunity should be taken to get cash in hand by remitting it for a fine. Estates forfeited would have to be turned into cash in the most profitable manner; and many cases of doubtful possession would have to be examined, with the frequent result that the doubtful title would be rendered a firm one for a money consideration. To do alt this work a financial committee of eight men was appointed, who from their number were called the King’s Octavians.” "They were Alexander Seton, the Lord President; Lindsay of Balcarras; Walter Stewart, secular Prior of Blantyre; John Skene, Lord Clerk Register . . . , Peter Young . . . , the King’s tutor; Sir David Carnegie; Thomas Hamilton, the King’s Advocate; and James Elphin-stone, one of the Lords of Session.” (History of Scotland, Ed. 1870, Vol. VI., p. 69.) Peter Young was a scholar who knew how to combine erudition with “ an eye to the main chance,” and died possessed of considerable landed property. As might have been expected, the efforts of these gentlemen were not appreciated by the flock it was proposed to fleece, and as there were some of the latter about the Court and person of the king, the attempt, like many another effort of incompetent and incongruous power, only resulted in embittering relations between the king and the aristocracy, and was shortly abandoned. The mass of the people had not yet discovered their power, and a people rising in its might, led and rendered coherent by an indignant fraction of the aristocracy, was to be the object lesson afforded by defeudalised England in the next reign. One can but pity Charles the more when we realize the “divine right” which he imbibed with his mother’s milk, with the added misfortune of having a pedantic father who tutored his youth, untaught himself by his own failures. Charles in his need turned to that very aristocracy which his impecunious father plundered, and they responded to his call magnificently—too magnificently.

The case of the Blackhalls is interesting, as will be presently shown, because it is an example of the feudal ingratitude and foolishness of King James, before his depredations in this direction had been regularised into a system. Alexander Blackhall of Barra’s intrusion in this affair was therefore probably actuated by the desire to obviate or minimise the consequences of some accusation of feudal irregularity, which, as we shall learn, had already, in 1590, deprived of their lands the Kings co-portioners of Barra with the Blackhalls.

To resume our narrative, we know Alexander Blackhall of Barra, and we have just made the acquaintance of John Leslie of Balquhain. Who was that other Alexander Blackhall, the heir to the Coroners of the Garioch, and the third party in these negotiations of delay and obliquity ?

In the deed in which he sells and alienates the titulum onerosum of Blackhall and the offices to Alexander Blackhall of Barra, with John Leslie’s consent, and which is dated in October, 1590, he already acts as “Alexander Blackhall de eodem,” although his retour as such did not take place till the following year. This no doubt was a legal formality, as I have stated, in anticipation of the ultimate confirmation of the transaction by the King. That confirmation took place, indeed, but not till 1610, and much happened in the interval.


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