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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXIII - Linlithgow


THE road from Edinburgh to Linlithgow is pleasant enough when you once get clear of the overgrown suburbs. It is up hill and down dale, with neat fields, comfortable country houses and farm steadings of the conventional Lothian type. Now and again are patches of coal mines, marked by huge hillocks of dross, ugly blots on the landscape.

"Oh, had I all the wealth
Hopetoun’s high mountains fill,"

sings Allan Ramsay. The lines occur to one with a comic touch in connection with those same hillocks. It is the Hopetoun country, though the guess at the owner is as like as not wrong.

The best thing on the way is again the view of the hills! I know not where the Pentlands look better than from parts of this road. You are at the right distance, far enough to catch the general aspect and the relation of one top to another, near enough to note delicate sunlight and sunset effects, the shadow of rain-cloud, the comforting presence of house and hamlet. About Corstorphine is the best standpoint. That place nowadays is an Edinburgh suburb. It has an unusually interesting kirk.

Linlithgow itself is not likely to impress you favourably. It is a plain, untended town, and from the frequency of business places to let, not, you guess, thriving. A curious fountain arrests you in the High Street. A quaint little figure is perched thereon with the legend, "Saint Michael is kind to strangers." You judge the Archangel Michael is meant, and think this a very charming and appropriate device to set up over the town gate—the east port, to use the old Scots nomenclature. It beckons you encouragingly onward, for spite of first impressions there are things in Linlithgow worth notice.

"Glasgow for bells,
Lithgow for wells."

So begins an old Scots jingle. You find them all over. There is the Palace well, the Cross well, the Lion well, the Dog well, in addition to St Michael’s well. To understand a place like this you have to think yourself back into other conditions of life, when folk had no thought of bringing in water from far-off hills and a supply of that commodity was of itself enough to determine a site. Probably the fashion of adorning these wells derives from the famous fountain at the Palace. St Michael bulks large in Linlithgow. The parish church is his, and he has one side of the town’s arms, whereon, with extended wings, he treads down a serpent. A Latin inscription expresses the pious wish, "May the power of Michael gather us all together into the heavens." The obverse has a greyhound chained to an oak tree. "My fruit is fidelity to God and the King," runs the motto. All of note in Linlithgow is within a half mile from the east end of the High Street. By what is now the railway station there was once a square picturesque tower, but that is vanished. It was part of the lands of the Templars, and looks quaint enough in the cuts that adorn the old guide-books. The street is broad and spacious to the Cross Well. Here if you turn sharp to the right up the Crossgate you pass the west end of St Michael’s Church, and are presently in the precincts of the Palace. The church is partly within those same precincts. If you follow the High Street you find it much contracted. It descends a little way and almost immediately you spy a tablet in the wall of the County Court Buildings to the left. From there the shot was fired which closed the life of the Regent Moray, and near about where you stand was the place where he fell. The street, having reached a level, presently ascends, but you do not care to climb it. You rather get you to the Palace grounds, sit you down on a seat by the loch and consider your surroundings. Here is what history has to say. The stately ruin before you was not the first castle on the site; there are confused legends of all sorts of other buildings. You get solid ground when you come to Edward I., about whose remarkable personality there is always the definite and the actual. One of his various conquests of Scotland was 27th July 1298 at Falkirk. The night before the battle he slept in the fields here. His horse pressed on and wounded him, and a wild rumour of his hurt ran through the army. Though in sore pain he mounted his steed and rode among his troops. They saw the dim form by their watch-fires on the early dawn of a northern summer and their unrest was calmed as by magic. He conquered Scotland and he tried to hold it, and here in 1301-2 he built a strong castle, well garrisoned and well furnished. It stood out till the very eve of Bannockburn; but the Scots were getting back their own everywhere. A farmer called Binnock supplied the garrison with hay. In reply to his last order he promised a "fothyr" better than any before—a grim, bitter jest characteristic of those truculent old Scots. He had conceived a plot to re-take the castle and this was his chance. He placed an ambush in the hay-wain. Eight of the very pick of his merry men lay concealed in a thin covering of hay. He himself drove the cart, and by him stalked his comrade with an axe. All seemed right to the sleepy warder as he heaved up the portcullis, the axe promptly descended on the trace, and the waggon thus kept open the ingress to the castle. The watchword rang out, the men rushed forth, and Linlithgow was restored to the national cause. The gratified Bruce rewarded Binnock with lands, the just recompense of his skill and daring.

I pass over 250 years to the chief historical event connected with Linlithgow and its palace, and that is the death of the Earl of Moray. In 1567, when Mary resigned the throne, he, as Regent, had taken up the reins of government, and not even his enemies could deny that he was bringing order out of chaos, and giving Scotland a firm and settled Government. So much the better he did this so much the worse for his enemies, and the faction of the Hamiltons decreed his death. They found a ready tool in James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. He had been taken at Langside four years before, had been doomed to die, but pardoned at the intercession of Knox. He seems to have had some personal spite against Moray, though the legend that his wife had been driven in cruel circumstances from Woodhouselee, "the haunted Woodhouselee" of poetry and romance, seems quite mythical. At any rate Moray had nothing to do with it, but as a traitor Hamilton had lost his all and possibly that was sufficient. It was purely a political plot. The details were prepared in a perfectly diabolical manner. Moray had been enticed away from Edinburgh, and it was known he must return by Linlithgow. He slept here in the house of the Provost his last night on earth, and on the morning of the 23rd January 570 he set forth eastward. On the south side of the street was an empty house belonging to the Archbishop of St Andrews, a Hamilton who was shortly afterwards to pay with his life for his share in the plot. Another Hamilton furnished him with his own carbine (still preserved as a Hamilton relic) and a swift horse. The house had a wooden balcony in front and a garden at the back, as was the case with most of the old Scots town houses, where the garden wall and the house wall served as two lines of defence against attack. The floor of the room was padded. A black cloth hung on the wall to darken the shadow of the occupant. The lane that led to the back of the house was choked with bushes to retard pursuit. The gun was carefully loaded with four pellets. Moray had scarce started when Hamilton took deliberate aim and fired. The Regent fell mortally wounded. He was carried to the guard-room of the Palace, where he died at eleven the same night. He was dignified and reticent to the last. He was of the Royal house of Stuart, and all the Stuarts knew how to die. The Palace was the home of his race. His father, James V., was born there, 10th April 1512. Mary, his half-sister, one-time friend and benefactor but now deadly foe, was also born there on 8th December 1542. None of the three lived to be old. The lives of all the actors in those tragic scenes appear to us now wondrous short. The assassin got safely away. The story goes that he was hotly pursued, and only escaped by forcing his horse across a ditch so broad that his pursuers failed to follow:

"Whose bloody poniard’s frantic stroke
Drives to the leap his jaded steed."

He went abroad, and in France and Spain was received like a hero and a Master in the art of assassination. Admiral Coligny and William of Orange were pressed upon his attention as proper subjects for his skill. His would-be employers could scarce understand his decided refusal. Mary expressed the frankest approval, and all her party were jubilant. Scott’s somewhat savage ballad of Cadyow Castle truly expresses, you cannot doubt, the sentiments of his enemies. To his friends it seemed that chaos had come again. They were in a passion of rage, horror, grief and consternation. They burned down Hamilton’s house, so that the building that was shown some fifty years ago as the original was at the best but a successor. Even that is now gone. Moray’s body was taken to Holyrood, and on the 14th of February was interred in St Giles.’ Knox preached to a vast audience of three thousand. They were dissolved in tears. Their emotion still touches you as you read the pathetic words of his prayer: "He is at rest, O Lord, and we are left in extreame miserie." Yet he blamed the dead man for the foolish mercy he had shown his half-sister Mary, and this is perhaps the best defence the Regent’s memory could have against those who reviled his conduct.

I have said that going by Crossgate to the Palace you pass St Michael’s Church. Like every church of the kind it has suffered restoration, but not harmfully. It lives in human memory as the theatre of one great scene, half history, half romance. Here appeared the dread vision to King James IV. that warned him to so little purpose against the Flodden expedition. It was in June 1513, as he prayed in the south transept, which is dedicated to St Katherine, that a man about fifty years old, in a blue gown, with his hair to his shoulders, but bald before, suddenly appeared and spake: "Sir King, thow sall not fare well in thy journey nor non that is with thee," and he solemnly adjured James to turn back. "This man evanished away and could be no more seene," though Sir David Lyndsay, the Lyon King-of-Arms, and John Ingles, the Marshal, tried to stop him. So Pitscottie tells the story. It has been said few ghost stories are so well authenticated. Lyndsay went over the whole thing to Buchanan, who reproduces it in his History. It is usually explained as a device of the peace party thrown into prominence by the tragic issue of Flodden. The account which Sir David Lyndsay is made to give in Marmion of this incident, and the words with which it open; rise in your memory as you pass into what one of the old Scots acts calls the King’s great Palace:

"Of all the palaces so fair
Built for the royal dwelling,
In Scotland far beyond compare
Linlithgow is excelling."

Linlithgow Palace

The form of the place is a mansion round a courtyard. It stands on a knoll at the foot of which are the waters of fair Linlithgow Loch. There are towers at the corners, and as you pace round it the walls seem yet fit and strong, and the ornamentation which French artists put there still fascinates your eye. Even on the great east entrance you do not greatly miss the figures of pope and knight and labouring man, emblems of the three estates that once adorned it; but within all is desolation. The fountain is little better than a defaced mass. The great Parliament ball which runs for 100 feet along the first floor of the east end, and the chapel to the south of the same first floor, are still fine rooms, but they are bare and gloomy. Hang tapestry on the walls, strew rushes on the floor, let fires roar up the huge empty chimneys, crowd them with the parti-coloured throng of medieval life, reconstitute the old world, and how delightful were the great Palace! But this long succession of bare stone walls and stairs and passages fills you with infinite dreariness, with a sense of desolation. You stroll listlessly through the apartment where Mary Stuart was born, and identify without conviction or interest the window from which Queen Margaret looked in vain for the return of James from Flodden Field. There are royal memories about every stone, for this was the chosen abode of the Stuarts from Robert II. to James VI., that is, for some two centuries and a half, though as building it dates mainly from the time of the fourth and fifth James. And then it was left in desolation, though it seems Charles I. meant to, and James VII. and II. did visit it. Finally in quite a dramatic way, it literally and appropriately flares in the ‘45. Prince Charlie came here to the huge delight of a certain dame, Mrs Glen Gordon, then housekeeper. She set the Palace well running with wine, and would have set the ancient fountain running too had it not been "off the fang." But the vision of the fair laddie passed away—the vision that was to be so abiding and hopeless a memory in so many Scots lives, and was lost for ever. And next year Hawley’s dragoons came clattering in from their defeat at Falkirk at as brisk a rate as Johnny Cope’s dragoons had taken after their defeat at Prestonpans. And the old lady, much against the grain, you believe, had to serve them of her best, not content with which they must needs set the place on fire. The housekeeper’s remonstrances had scant attention from the General. She was roughly advised to look after herself. "Oh, she could do that; she could flee from fire as quick as any dragoon in the land." And so with a grin of satisfaction on her hard Scots features, and having plainly the best of the encounter, the Glen Gordon vanishes from authentic record. But the Palace was hopelessly ruined. Various schemes were from time to time suggested to restore and utilize it in some way. but fortunately none of them came off. Save for needful repairs the place has been left in impressive ruin; so impressive that you may still re-echo the words of Mary of Guise and vow you have never seen a more princely palace. I remember an autumn day when I sat long in the grounds. The quiet loch in front; the mighty wall of the castle behind, and set round was a circle of fair hills, chief among them Glowr’our’em, so called, it is fabled, from the prospect it commands. Here is one of those choice spots fair in themselves, fairer still in their memories. I thought kindly of the town as I passed again through its streets. Had the Stuarts themselves not called it their faithful town of Linlithgow, and the burghers had shown their devotion in a fashion grotesque as that of Bottom the weaver and his fellows? The Stuart King, you are sure, was always gravely polite. Yet he must have been hard put to it now and again. When James VI. revisited Scotland in 1617, who should greet him at Linlithgow but the local dominie, done up in plaster as a lion, addressing him in the maddest doggerel?

"Then, King of Men,
The King of Beasts speaks to thee from his den,
Who though he now enclosed be in plaster,
When he was free was Lithgow’s wise schoolmaster."

Like greater folk the burghers changed with the times. After the Restoration they burned the Solemn League and Covenant, and after the Revolution, in mortal terror, tried to prove it was not a town affair at all. And still once a year the past lives again in Linlithgow. In solemn state they ride the marches of land they have long lost, and from the castle hill of Blackness summon vassals who, if they exist, at any rate never come. However there is much feasting and

"There are, maybe, some suspicions
Of an alcoholic presence."

But it is only once a year! We entered the Palace with lines which Scott gives to Sir David Lyndsay. We leave it and the town with the words Lyndsay himself gives to the King’s Papingo:

"Adew, Lithgow, whose palyce of plesance
Might be ane pattern in Portugall or France."


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