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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter I. The old lordship of Badenoch—The earlier castles—The Earls of Huntly—The siege of the castle in 1594—The battle of Glenlivet.


“We then look to the peaceful seats of our modern landowners, the smiling fields, the well-filled stackyard, and the fearless flock, and cannot but feel grateful for the change, and rejoice that it is no longer necessary to renew our castles or keep them in repair. We may therefore turn from these remains of massive walls without regret, while the breezes that sigh among their ruins

“Tell of a time when music’s flow,
In bridal bower or birthday hall,
Hath often changed from mirth to woe,
From joyous dance to vengeful call;
Tell of a time when from their steep
The mournful bier oft wound its way,
And kindred scarce had time to weep
When summoned to the bloody fray.
Enough—my heart can bear no more
But sickens as those scenes increase,
And gladly turns from fields of gore,
To praise the Lord of love and peace.
Hail, pure Religion! let our hearts
Thy spirit feel, thy virtue own;
Let Industry and peaceful arts
Our home with love and plenty crown!”

—Dr Longmuir.

"I CANNOT,” says Shaw the historian of Moray, in giving an account of the old lordship of Badenoch—“I cannot trace the possession of this country higher than to the Cummines, Lords of Badenoch, who, I doubt not, were lords of it in the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century.”  “By an agreement in 1225 between the Bishop of Moray and Walter Cumyn of Badenoch, the bishop,” says Skene, “frees him from any claim he had for the title of the ‘ Can ’ of his lord the king from the lands of Badenoch.” In an agreement between the same parties “ between a.d. 1224 and 1233, regarding lands in Badenoch, it is provided with regard to the native-men (nativi), that the bishop shall have all the cleric and two lay native-men—viz., Gyllemaluock Macnakeeigelle and Sythad MacMallon, with all their chattels and possessions, and with their children and all their posterity, and the chattels of their children; and Walter Cumyn to have all the other lay native-men of lands in Badenoch; and when, after the War of Independence, Robert the Bruce erected the whole lands extending from the Spey to the Western Sea into an earldom of Moray in favour of his nephew, Thomas Randolph, the earldom was granted, with all its manors, burgh townships, and thanages, and all the royal demesnes, rents, and duties, and all barons and freeholders (libere tenentes) of the said earldom, who hold of the Crown in capite, and their heirs were to render their homages, fealties, attendance at courts, and all other services, to Thomas Randolph and his heirs, and to hold their baronies and tenements of him and his heirs, reserving to the barons and freeholders the rights and liberties of their own courts according to use and wont; and Thomas Randolph was to render to the king the Scottish service and aid due as heretofore for each davoch of land.”

History does not record by whom or at what time a castle was originally built here. Tradition has it that the first castle bearing the name of Ruthven was erected by one of the Comyns, but what was its form, for what period it stood, or when or by whom it was destroyed, is involved in obscurity. In the latter half of the fourteenth century the castle of that time was the principal stronghold of Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, on whom his father, King Robert II., in 1371 bestowed the lordship of Badenoch. On the failure of the Wolfs descendants the lordship reverted to the Crown. In 1451 the castle was seized and demolished by John, Earl of Ross, who had broken out in open rebellion when King James II. was exerting himself to weaken the power of the Douglases, with some of whose adherents the young Earl was connected by marriage. From the sixth or seventh decade of the fifteenth century downwards the castle was possessed, except for short intervals, by the powerful house of Gordon, which for a period extending to nearly four centuries—first under the title of the Earls of Huntly, and afterwards under that of the Dukes of Gordon—exercised as the feudal superiors and Lords of Badenoch such potent sway in the district, and figured so prominently in Scottish history. Indeed, since the middle of the sixteenth century so intimately were the successive castles associated with the Gordon family that the subsequent history of the one is to a great extent embraced in that of the other. The power of which the Earls of Huntly were possessed was almost uniformly exerted in support of the royal authority, and the many baronies which they received from their sovereign were conferred in reward of their loyalty and valour. About the year 1451 the king, in reward for signal services, granted the lordship of Badenoch to Sir Alexander Gordon, who in 1449 had been created Earl of Huntly. In a confirmation of this Earl’s lands by the king in 1457, the onerous cause is said to have been “ for keeping the crown on our head.” George, the second Earl, who succeeded to the title on the death of his father in 1479, founded, it is related, Gordon Castle and the Priory of Kingussie. So important were his services considered in the way of extending the royal authority in the north and west Highlands, that in 1508-9 he was appointed to the heritable sheriffship of Inverness. His jurisdiction under that sheriffship embraced not only that county, but also the counties of Ross and Caithness, and he was empowered to appoint deputies for certain divisions of his sheriffdom. These deputies were to hold their courts respectively at Kingussie for the district of Badenoch, at Inverlochy for that of Lochaber, at Tain or Dingwall for Ross, and at Wick for Caithness. Alexander, the third Earl, was made Hereditary Sheriff of the County and Constable of the Castle of Inverness; and obtained a charter of the Castle of Inverlochy in Lochaber, and the adjacent lands.

George, fourth Earl of Huntly, who succeeded his grandfather in 1524, was the possessor of wealth and power little less than princely. In 1549, for his eminent services in maintaining the public tranquillity, he obtained a grant of the earldom of Murray, with its lands and revenues, and of the sheriffship of Elgin and Forres; and he had also tacks and possessions in Orkney and Shetland, besides the bailliary and tacks of the earldom of Mar and lordship of Strathdee. He was Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, and in 1543 he obtained a commission of “Lieutenandry of the Northe.” Under this commission his right extended from the Mearns to the Western Ocean, and comprehended the whole northern parts of Scotland, and the islands within the shire of Inverness, as well as those of Orkney and Shetland. The authority thus conferred on him was of the most unlimited description, giving him the power of governing and defending the inhabitants within these bounds, and, when necessary, of raising armies and compelling the lieges to join them. He was empowered to bear the royal banner, and to make such statutes and ordinances for the preservation of justice as he might deem expedient. He might invade those who rebelled against his authority with fire and sword; imprison, punish, and “justify” them as their offences required; take their castles, and appoint constables to them; and, if necessary, he was empowered to treat with the rebels, so as to bring them back to their obedience and duty. He held the king’s castles of Inverness and Inverlochy, and he had belonging to himself the castles of Strathbogie, Bog of Gight (now Gordon Castle), Darnaway, Ruthven in Badenoch, Drummin in Glenlivat, besides having the command of several houses of defence in the counties of Aberdeen and Banff, which were either in possession of members of his own family, or of parties on whose allegiance he could depend.

In the year 1556, according to Bishop Lesley, Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent, “makeing hir voyage in the north partis, come in the month of Julii to Invernes, accompaneit with the Erles of Huntly, Argyle, Atholl, Merchall, Bishop of Ros and Orknay, and syndre uther nobill men, and hir foirsaid counsaloris of Frenchemen [Monsieur Doisel, the resident French Ambassador, and Monsieur Rubay, Vice-Chancellor], quhair sho held justice aris with the most extreme and rigorous punishment.” According to the account given by Gordon of Straloch, it was during this tour that her Majesty, with a great retinue, principally composed of Frenchmen, was received by the Earl of Huntly in his Castle of Strathbogie, which he had recently enlarged and adorned at great expense. After a stay of some days, lest she should incommode her host, the Queen prepared to depart. Huntly, who had always been her Majesty’s firm supporter, entreated her to prolong her visit. She wished to inspect the cellars and well-filled store-houses of her guest, where there appeared an incredible quantity of fowls and venison. The Frenchmen, on asking from whence a supply so large, and at the same time so fresh, could be procured, were informed by the Earl that he had many hunters and fowlers dispersed in the mountains, woods, and remote places of his domains, from whence they daily sent to him the game which they caught, however distant their quarters might be. On which Doisel exclaimed to the Queen that such a man was not to be tolerated in so small and poor a kingdom as Scotland; and, with reference to the evils which had resulted from the overgrown power of the Douglases in former reigns, he said that Huntly’s wings ought to be clipped, lest he should become too arrogant.

In 1561 the Earl of Mar, who regarded the Lord Chancellor Huntly as a dangerous rival, had acquired such a predominant influence in the councils of Queen Mary, that he succeeded in wresting from Huntly the title and estates of the earldom of Murray. Instigated by Murray, the Queen in 1562 set out on an expedition to the north with the view of crushing the power of the Gordons. At Murray’s instance Sir John Gordon (a son of Huntly) had previously been imprisoned in connection with a scuffle between him and his brother-in-law, Lord Ogilvy, but had made his escape from prison, and had proceeded to his father’s castle. Murray prevailed upon the Privy Council to adopt the resolution that the Earl of Huntly “ shall either submit himself, and deliver his disobedient son John, or utterly to use all force against him, for the subversion of his house for every

“With what show of reason,” says Sheriff Glassford Bell, “the unfortunate Huntly could be subjected to so severe a fate, it is difficult to say. He had come to offer his obedience and hospitality to the Queen on her first arrival at Aberdeen ; he remained perfectly quiet during her journey through that part of the country which was subject to him ; he sent to her, after she returned to Aberdeen, the keys of the houses of Findlater and Deckford, which she had summoned unsuccessfully on her march from Cullen to Banff; and he delivered to her out of his own castle a field-piece which the Regent Arran had long ago given to him, and which Mary now demanded. He added that ‘ not only that which was her own, but also his body and goods, were at her Grace’s commands.’ His wife, the Countess of Huntly, led Captain Play, the person sent for the cannon, into the chapel at her castle, and placing herself at the altar, said to him: ‘Good friend, you see here the envy that is borne unto my husband. Would he have forsaken God and his religion as those that are now about the Queen’s grace, and have the whole guiding of her, have done, my husband had never been put at as now he is. God, and he that is upon this holy altar, whom I believe in, will, I am sure, preserve, and let our true meaning hearts be known ; and as I have said unto you so, I pray you, let it be said unto your mistress. My husband was ever obedient unto her, and so will die her faithful subject.’

“That Mary should have given her sanction to these iniquitous proceedings, can only be accounted for by supposing, what was in truth the case, that she was kept in ignorance of everything tending to exculpate Huntly, whilst various means were invented to inspire her with a belief that he had conceived, and was intent upon executing, a diabolical plot against herself and government. It was given out that his object was to seize upon the Queen’s person—to marry her by force to his son, Sir John Gordon—and to cut off Murray, Morton, and Maitland, his principal enemies. Influenced by these misrepresentations, which would have been smiled at in later times, but which, in those days, were taken more seriously, the Queen put the fate of Huntly into the hands of Murray. Soon after her return to Aberdeen, an expedition was secretly prepared against Huntly’s castle. If resistance was offered, the troops sent for the purpose were to take it by force, and if admitted without opposition, they were to bring Huntly a prisoner to Aberdeen. Intimation, however, of this enterprise and its object was conveyed to the Earl, and he contrived to baffle its success. His wife received the party with all hospitality ; threw open her doors, and entreated that they would examine the whole premises, to ascertain whether they afforded any ground of suspicion. But Huntly himself took care to be out of the way, having retired to Badenoch.

“Thus foiled again, Murray, on the 15th October, called a Privy Council, at which he got it declared that unless Huntly appeared on the following day before her Majesty, ‘to answer to such things as are to lay to his charge,’ he should be put to the horn for his contempt of her authority, and ‘his houses, strengths, and friends taken from him.’ However willing he might have been to have ventured thus into the lion’s den, Huntly could not possibly have appeared within the time appointed. On the 17th of October he was therefore denounced a rebel in terms of the previous proclamation, and his lands and titles declared forfeited. Even yet, however, Huntly acted with forbearance. He sent his Countess to Aberdeen on the 20th, who requested admission to the Queen’s presence, that she might make manifest her husband’s innocence. So far from obtaining an audience, this lady, who was respected and loved over the whole country, was not allowed to come within two miles of the Court, and she returned home with a heavy heart. As a last proof of his fidelity, Huntly sent a messenger to Aberdeen, offering to enter into ward till his cause might be tried by the whole nobility. Even this offer was rejected 3 and, goaded into madness, the unfortunate Earl at length collected his followers round him, and, raising the standard of rebellion, not against the Queen, but against Murray, advanced suddenly upon Aberdeen.

“This resolute proceeding excited considerable alarm at Court. Murray, however, had foreseen the probability of such a step being ultimately taken, and had been busy collecting forces sufficient to repel the attack. A number of the neighbouring nobility had joined him, who, not penetrating the prime minister’s real motives, were not displeased to see so proud and powerful an earldom as that of Huntly likely to fall to pieces. On the 28th of October, Murray marched out of Aberdeen at the head of about 2000 men. He found Huntly advantageously stationed at Corrachie, a village about fifteen miles from Aberdeen. Huntly’s force was much inferior to that of Murray, scarcely exceeding 500 men. Indeed it seems doubtful whether he had advanced so much for the purpose of fighting, as for the sake of giving greater weight to his demands to be admitted into the presence of the Queen, who, he always maintained, had been misled by false counsel. Perceiving the approach, however, of his inveterate enemy Murray, and considering the superiority of his own position on the hill of Fare, he relinquished all idea of retreat, and determined at any risk to accept the battle which was offered him. The contest was of short duration. The broadswords of the Highlanders, even had the numbers been more equal, would have been no match for the spears and regular discipline of Murray’s Lowland troops. Their followers fled; but the Earl of Huntly and his two sons, Sir John Gordon and Adam, a youth of seventeen, disdaining to give ground, were taken prisoners. The Earl, who was advanced in life, was no sooner set upon horseback, to be carried triumphantly into Aberdeen, than the thoughts of the ruin which was now brought upon himself and his family overwhelmed him; and, without speaking a word, or receiving a blow, he fell dead from his horse.”

His son, Sir John Gordon, who was pronounced the author of all these troubles, was soon afterwards tried at Aberdeen, condemned, and beheaded. His youth and magnanimity, we are told, excited the compassion of the beholders, which was deepened by the manner in which he was mangled by the unskilful executioner. The Queen is said to have witnessed his death with many tears.

“Adam Gordon was indebted to his youth for saving him from his brother’s fate. He lived to be, as his father had been, one of Mary’s most faithful servants. Lord Gordon, the late Earl’s eldest son, who was with his father-in-law, the Duke of Chatelherault, at Hamilton, was soon afterwards seized and committed to prison, Murray finding it convenient to declare him implicated in the Earl’s guilt. Having remained under arrest for some months, he was tried and found guilty, but the execution of his sentence was left at the Queen’s pleasure. She sent him to Dunbar Castle ; and as Murray could not prevail upon her to sign the death-warrant, he had recourse to forgery; and had the keeper of the castle not discovered the deceit, the Lord Gordon’s fate would have been sealed. Mary was content with keeping him prisoner, till a change in her administration restored him to favour, and to the forfeited estates and honours of his father.”

Of George, the fourth Earl of Huntly’s three daughters, Lady Elizabeth married John, Earl of Athole ; Lady Margaret, John, Lord Forbes ; and Lady Jane, the infamous James, Earl of Bothwell, from whom being divorced in 1568, she married Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, who died in 1594, and surviving him, she married Alexander Ogilvie of Boyne, who subsequently became Earl of Northumberland.

George, the fifth Earl of Huntly, was one of Queen Mary’s Privy Council, Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, and Lieutenant-General of all her Majesty’s forces in the north. George, the sixth Earl, a favourite at the Court of James VI., finding himself in danger from the prevailing faction, retired to his possessions in the north for the purpose of improving his estates and enjoying domestic quiet. One of his first measures, we are told, was to erect a castle at Ruthven in Badenoch, in the neighbourhood of his hunting-forests. It is related that he “ built the castle twice, it being burnt by a venture or negligence of his servants after he once finished the same.” This Earl, who was created Marquess of Huntly in 1599, enjoyed the family honours for the long period of about sixty years. Spalding pronounces a glowing eulogium upon him as one who in time of trouble was of invincible courage; a lover of rest and quietness ; a moderate and temperate liver in his diet; a builder and planter of all curious devices; a good neighbour in his marches—disposed rather to give than to take; in youth a prodigal spender, but in age more wise and worldly, mightily envied by the Kirk for his religion, and by others for his greatness. “He departed this life a Roman Catholic; being about the age of threescore and fourteen years, to the great grief of his friends and lady, who had lived with him many years both in prosperity and adversity.” He died at Dundee in 1636, on his way home from Edinburgh, and was buried by torchlight in the Cathedral of Elgin.

In a rare and curious little volume, published at Glasgow in 1764, entitled ‘ The History of the Feuds and Conflicts among the Clans in the northern parts of Scotland, &c., from the year mxxxi unto mdcxix, now first published from a Manuscript wrote in the reign of King James VI.,’ an interesting account is given of the discovery in 1592 of the so-called “Spanish Blanks,” or Spanish conspiracy, which at the time created such consternation, and two years subsequently led to the siege of Ruthven Castle and the battle of Glenlivet.

Immediately following the account of these “ blanks,” the narrative in that history proceeds:—

“Afterward, the year of God 1594, the Popish earls, Angus, Huntlie, and Erroll, were, at the earnest suit of the Queen of England’s ambassador, forfeited at a parliament held at Edinburgh the penult of May 1594. Then was the king moved to make the earl of Argyle his Majesty’s lieutenant in the north of Scotland, to invade the earls of Huntlie and Erroll. Argyle being glad of this employment (having received money from the Queen of England for this purpose), makes great preparation for the journey, and addresses himself quickly forward; thinking, thereby, to have a good occasion to revenge his brother-in-law the earl of Murray’s death; so, on he went, with full assurance of a certain victory, accompanied with the earl of Tullibairnie, Sir Lauchlan Maclean and divers islanders, Macintosh, Grant, and Clan-Macgregor, Macneill-Warray, with all their friends and dependers, together with the whole sirname of Campbell, with sundry others, whom either greediness of prey, or malice against the Gordons, had thrust on forward in that expedition, in all above 10,000 men. And, coming through all the mountainous countries of that part of Scotland, they arrived at Riven of Badenoch, the 27th of September, the year 1594, which house they besieged, because it appertained to Huntlie.”

Argyle himself, we are told, “had in his company to the number of sax thowsand men weill provided with muscatis, bowis, arrowis, and twa-handit swordis; of the quhilk nomber there war fyftene hundreth muscateirs and hagbutters.” As the old Scottish ballad has it :—

“Macallan More came from the wast
With mony a bow and brand
To wast the Rinnes, he thought best,
The earll of Huntlie’s lands.
He swore yat none should him gainestand,
Except that he war fay;
Bot all sould be at his command
That dwelt benorthern Tay.”

But “Macallan More” (Mac Chailein Mhoir), though backed by English gold and supported by such a large following, including the Chief of the Mackintoshes, swore and “reckoned without his host.” The Macphersons, under their own Chief Cluny—acting, as they had ever done, quite independently of the Mackintosh Chief—so gallantly defended the castle in the interests of Huntly that Argyle was compelled to give up the siege. Argyle then proceeded through the hills towards Strathbogie with the intention of carrying fire and sword through Huntly’s lands in that district. Arriving near Glenlivet, Argyle found that Huntly and Errol were in the vicinity with 1400 or 1500 men. “ Argyle disposed his army on the declivity of a hill, in two parallel divisions. The right wing, consisting of the Macleans and Macintoshes, was commanded by Sir Lachlan Maclean and Macintosh; the left, of Grants, Macneills, and Macgregors, by Grant of Gartenbeg; and the centre, of Campbells, &c., by Campbell of Auchinbreck. This vanguard consisted of 4000 men, one-half of whom carried muskets. The rear of the army, 6000 strong, Argyle commanded in person. The Earl of Huntly’s vanguard was composed of 300 gentlemen, led by the Earl of Errol, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun, the Lairds of Gight and Bonnitoun, and Captain, afterwards Sir, Thomas Carr. The Earl himself brought up the rest of his forces, having the Laird of Cluny upon his right hand and the Laird of Abergeldie upon his left. . . Argyle’s position on the slope of the hill gave him an advantage over his assailants, who, from the nature of their force, were greatly hampered by the mossiness of the ground at the foot of the hill, which was interspersed by pits from which turf had been dug. But, notwithstanding these obstacles, Huntly advanced up the hill with a slow and steady pace.” The battle raged with great fury for two hours, during which both parties fought with great bravery, “the one,” says Sir Robert Gordon, “for glorie, the other for necessities’ In the heat of the action the Earl of Huntly had a horse shot under him, and was in imminent danger of his life; but another horse was straightway got for him. After a hard contest the main body of Argyle’s army began to give way, and retreated towards the Burn of Alltcoileachan; Huntly pursued the retiring foe beyond the burn, when he was hindered from following them farther by the steepness of the hills, so unfavourable to the operations of cavalry. On Argyle’s side 500 men were killed, including Macneill of Barra and the Earl’s two cousins, Lochnell and Auchinbreck. The Earl of Huntly’s loss was trifling—among them Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun and the Laird of Gight; whilst the Earl of Errol and a considerable number of persons were wounded. At the conclusion of the battle the conquerors returned thanks to God on the field for the victory they had achieved. Among the trophies found on the field was the ensign belonging to the Earl of Argyle, which was carried with other spoils to Strathbogie, and placed upon the top of the great tower. So certain had Argyle been of success in his enterprise, that he had made out a paper apportioning the lands of the Gordons, the Hays, and all who were suspected to favour them, among the chief officers of his army. This document was found among the baggage which he left behind him on the field of battle.


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