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A Group of Scottish Women
Chapter 1 - Scotswomen of early times - Dervorguilla (1213 - 1290)


It is extremely difficult to form any definite idea of the position held by women in Scotland during that somewhat primitive age that preceded the Reformation. The brief glimpses that we get of them throughout the lurid pages of early Scottish history are shadowy and elusive. The Scotswomen of that period are not easily followed into the privacy of their homes, and the part they played in the wider public life of their day is never very clearly shown.

In the pictures of Scottish life presented to our gaze by the chroniclers of early times – many of whom seem to have relied very largely upon their imaginations for their facts – the women are kept so consistently in the background as to be obscured by the scenes of violence and bloodshed which occupy by far the larger portion of the canvas. But the pursuit of such indefinite figures is an absorbing if an intricate task, and the subject though perplexing is one that amply repays investigation.

For many centuries the condition of Scottish women of the humbler classes was deplorable. The wives were for the most part mere beasts of burden, the girls slaves. Even as late as the year 1750 a traveller in Scotland [Thomas Pennant] has drawn a realistic and disagreeable picture of the peasant women turning their patient backs to the dunghills to receive in their baskets “as much manure as their lords and masters thought fit to fling in with their pitchforks,” and then trudging in droves of sixty or seventy to deposit their unsavoury burdens upon the fields.

The young women of that day, as Arnot the historian tells us, [History of Edinburgh, by Hugo Arnot, p.193. [Edinburgh, 1788.]] if they were unfortunate enough to get into trouble, were harassed and terrified into crimes which brought them to the scaffold; and the old, “under the absurd imputation of witchcraft, were tormented by the rabble, till, by the confession of an imaginary crime, an end was put to their sufferings.” [In 1678 no less than ten women were tried for witchcraft before the Court of Justiciary and burnt at the stake. (See Stark’s Picture of Edinburgh, p 286.)].  Indeed the cruel practice of “scoring” or drawing blood from a supposed witch’s forehead, as an antidote against the effect of incantations, was performed in a Scottish parish as late as the year 1776. [My Own Life and Times, by Thomas Somerville, D.D., p. 366. (Edinburgh, 1861.)]

From the correspondence of travellers in Scotland one might hope to obtain a good idea of the general characteristics or, at any rate, the appearance of the women with whom they happened to come into personal contact. But the accounts given by tourists are almost invariably vague and indefinite, if they do not actually contradict one another. Even in the earliest days there were always a few foreigners touring through Scotland who were not, as a rule, loth to record their impressions frankly and candidly; but on the subject of women they maintain a strange reticence. Perhaps the women of that day occupied so unimportant and inferior a position as to be considered unworthy of comment. Perhaps the chivalry latent in the breast of every man – even of a tourist – exercised some restraining influence upon his powers of criticism. Whatever the reason may have been, it is certainly true that we find but little mention of the softer sex in the correspondence of those English strangers who made their way across the country. And if we seek for notice of a favourable nature, we are force to turn to the letters of foreigners from the continent of Europe.

Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Pius II., who visited Scotland in the middle of the fifteenth century, found the women good-looking and comely. He disapproved very strongly, however, of their moral character, and especially of their lavish distribution of kisses, reproachfully declaring that they gave their lips as freely and readily as did Italian women their hands. A Spanish visitor, Don Pedro de Ayala, ambassador of Ferdinand and Isabella, who came to Scotland at about the same time, describes the women as being exceedingly courteous and honest, though he too cannot refrain from criticising their boldness. They are very graceful and handsome, adds the polite Spaniard, dress much better than Englishwomen, are so fond of foreigners that they dispute as to who shall entertain them, and are absolute mistresses of their own homes, and even of their husbands. [Calendar of Letters, Dispatches, and State Papers, relating to Negotiations between England and Spain, preserved in the Archives at Simancas, Vol. i. p 169. (Edited by G. A. Bergenroth, 1862)]

If we explore the writings of English tourists, we find a very different and far less agreeable picture of the sex. Thomas Kirke, who wrote a “Modern Account of Scotland” in the seventeenth century, is hardly a fair example, as he does not appear able to discover anything good to say of the country or its inhabitants. According to him, the Scottish people are arrogant, vainglorious, “bloody, barbarous, inhuman and proud.” [A Modern Account of Scotland by an English Gentleman. (1679.) (Thomas Kirke took a particular dislike to the skirling of the pipes – an aversion to the national instrument which he shares with many other Englishmen. “Musick they have,” he writes, “but not the harmony of the sphears, but loud terrene noises, like the bellowing of beasts.”]  But perhaps his definition of pride coincided with that of another Englishman who paid a visit to Edinburgh in 1704 and stated that “the people here are very proud, and call the ordinary tradesmen merchants.”  Kirke’s jaundiced view of things Scottish did not stop short of the women, whom he included in his general denunciation, styling them “strong-posted timber” – a discourteous allusion, probably, to the thickness of their ankles. Further, as he avowed that they “dislike Englishmen because the latter have no legs or (like themselves) posts to walk on,” [Ibid.] one cannot help suspecting that it was the peculiar exiguity of his own calves that impelled him to inveigh with such bitterness against the more stalwart extremities of the good ladies of Scotland.

Sir Anthony Weldon, too, is ungallant enough to write somewhere that “the beasts of Scotland be generally small – women only excepted, of which there are none greater in the world.” He was notoriously prejudiced against Scotland and Scotsmen (who, as he averred, “christen without the cross, marry without the ring, receive the sacrament without reverence, die without repentance, and bury without divine service”) and particularly venomous on the subject of their womenfolk, whom he describes as being mere slaves, kept by jealous husbands in a state of complete domestic subjection. “It be [the] mountaines affords no monsteris (he says), but weemen, of which the greatest ones, as countesses and ladies, ar keiped lyke lyones in iron grates. The merchantis wyves ar lykewayes prisoners, but not in such strong holdes. They have wooden cages, lyke as English borefrankis, through which sumtymes peeping to catch the ayre, we ar almost choked with the sight of them.” [A Perfect Description of the People of Scotland, by Johnne E. (1659.) (N.B. Throughout this volume, wherever quotations have been made from ancient books or documents, neither spelling nor punctuation have been altered, except in a few instances where the sense demanded some minor correction; but in place of the old-fashioned and confusing letter “f” its modern equivalent has been substituted.)]

But his suggestion that the women of that day were entirely under the sway of their husbands is contradicted by the fact that, during the insurrection of 1678, when Monmouth called upon the gentry of Scotland to join the King’s army against the rebels, a number of those who failed to respond to this summons gave as an excuse the reason that their wives would not allow them to fight.

If we seek for some kindly words of praise from the pens of Englishmen to set against this chorus of depreciation and disapproval, we must turn to writings of more modern date. Thomas Pennant, in spite of his horror of the servile condition of the female peasantry, declares that the townswomen of Scotland “fully emulate the character of the good wife so admirably described by the wisest of men.” [A Tour in Scotland. (1769)]. Captain Burt, too, another eighteenth-century tourist, gives it as his opinion that, “among the better sort,” there is a “full proportion of pretty women” all over Scotland, though he hastens to add a rider to the effect that women grow handsomer and handsomer the longer one stays away from home! [Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland. (1759.)].

A cursory examination of such authorities as these does not bring much light to bear upon the subject. We are consequently forced to consider the matter from an entirely modern point of view, and by a study of the actual doings of such women as peer shyly forth from the pages of Scottish history, form our own conclusions as to their virtues, their qualities of mind and body, their national peculiarities and characteristics.

That the welfare of women was not altogether neglected even in the most distant days is proved by an Act of Parliament, obviously intended to promote their well-being, which was passed as early as the thirteenth century. Queen Margaret was hardly likely to forget those of her subjects who happened to belong to her own sex, and by the terms of this Statute, the responsibility for which is attributed to her, it was ordained that, “during the reine of hir maist blissit Magestie, ilk maiden ladye of baith highe and lowe estait shall hae libertie to bespeak ye man she likes; albeit, gif he refuses to tak hir till be his wyf, he sall be mulctit in ye sume of ane hundredth pundid or less, as his estait mai be, except and always gif he can mak it appear that he is betrothit to an either woman, then he shall be free.” [Hislop quotes this in his Book of Scottish Anecdote,  p. 6 (1874), but it is not given in The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland from 1124, nor does it appear in Skene’s  Ancient Lawes of Scotland.]  If the very modern proposal to tax recalcitrant bachelors had been formulated and put into effect in Scotland nearly six hundred years ago, one may readily assume that the women in whose interests such a statute was drawn up cannot have been the slaves and chattels of the English tourist’s too vivid imagination. In Scots law, women have always enjoyed much freer control of their estates, even when married, than their English sisters. Far from sinking their status in that of their husbands, they continued until recent time to sign with their own family name. Not only does the happiness of the softer sex appear to have been considered in those far-off days; the subject of their morality was also a matter of national importance which was not allowed to suffer neglect, in Scotland at any rate, as the world grew older. An ancient statute, passed about the year 1454, prohibited women from going to drink at beerhouses without their husbands. And in 1695, in the records of the bye-laws enacted by the Common Council of Edinburgh, there is a reference to another regulation forbidding the employment of barmaids, and thus anticipating a form of domestic legislation for which some of our most zealous temperance reformers of modern times have long struggled in vain. [This statute enacted that “no vintner, Inn-keeper, or Ale-seller shall hereafter presume to employ any Female Servant in drawing or selling any Ale or other Liquors in any of their Houses, under the Penalty of Three Pounds Scotish Money; nor any Woman to keep any of the said places for the Sale of Liquors, or to hire herself to any Person, to be employed in that Service, under the like Penalty.” (Maitland’s History of Edinburgh, p. 111.)

Domestic heroines, as they may be termed, are plentiful in Scottish history. From the early days of Robert III., when an unknown Catherine Glover – Scott’s “Fair Maid of Perth” – took pity on the wretched Duke of Rothesay, who was being starved to death in a dungeon of Falkirk Castle, and supplied him with milk from her own bosom, the annals of Scotland are rich in heroic women. A few examples will suffice. There are Catherine Gordon, the “White Rose of Scotland,” a woman of extraordinary beauty and accomplishments, who by her loving fidelity to Perkin Warbeck, amid ever reverse of fortune, gained the sympathy and respect of even her bitterest enemies. The wife of David Home, of the fighting house of Wedderburn – the first of his family to suffer a natural death, 2 [A.D. 1574] all the rest having died in defence of their country – was another. Such a paragon of benevolence was this woman that she was always known as the “Good” Lady Wedderburn. [The expression “Lady” is used throughout these pages in the Scots sense, as being the courtesy title conferred by general usage upon the wife of the laird.]  So too, Christian Fletcher, Mrs. Grainger, is still remembered as the woman who, when the English in 1652 besieged the Castle of Dunottar, where the regalia of Scotland were preserved, escaped with the crown, sceptre, and sword concealed about her person, and kept them safely hidden until the Restoration eight years afterwards.

In later times we have many more: Lady Grizel Cochrane, who turned highwaywoman for a single day in order to rob the Royal Mail of her father’s death warrant; Helen Walker, whom Sir Walter Scott has immortalised as Jeanie Deans; and another Helen, “of Kirkconnell,” who saved her lover’s life at the cost of her own, and is the heroine of one of Wordsworth’s poems. [“Ellen Irwin,” or “The Braes of Kirtle,” probably the worst set of verses that Wordsworth ever penned.] Nor must a niche in the Temple of Fame be denied to the devoted women of Jacobite times, from Flora Macdonald to poor Clementina Walkinshaw whose liaison with Charles Edward gave rise to so much scandal and ended so disastrously. From the lives of such women as these, who, flaming like meteors across the sky of history, by some supreme act of self-sacrifice or by a lifelong devotion to duty, earned an eternal place in the hearts of their countrymen, we can gain some idea of the thought and feelings of Scotswomen of the past. And, as we study these early histories, it is impossible not to be struck by the simplicity of their natures and the singular piety of their lives. Religion had a firm hold over their hearts; and it was a religion which expressed itself in charitable acts, and was not merely confined to devotional exercises. The best proof of this lies in the numerous individual instances of feminine philanthropy which stand out with such notable prominence in the early chronicles of Scotland. Many were the ladies of ancient lineage who “went about doing good”; many the convents, the hospitals, the churches, built and endowed by such women. [See A perfyte inventor of all the pious donations govin to kirks and hospitalls since the dayos of King James the first to the reigne of King James the sixt, preserved among the MSS. In the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh.]  Queen Matilda, the Scottish wife of Henry I., founded in 1117 the Hospital for Lepers at St. Giles in London, [Wilson’s Memorials of Edinburgh, vol. ii. P.217.] to the chapel of which institution, the Church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields (where Andrew Marvell lies buried) owes its origin. Another leper-house was built, in Glasgow, by the Lady or Lochow, daughter of Robert, Duke of Albany, in 1580. [Chambers’s Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. i. p.226]  The convent at St. Bothan’s in Berwickshire was endowed by Euphemia, Countess of March, and that at Haddington in East Lothian by the Countess of Northumberland; while Isabel, Countess of Lennox, built the Collegiate Church at Dumbarton. But it is not necessary to scour the country to discover examples of feminine charity. Edinburgh itself is rich in memorials of the beneficence of wealthy women of the past, the most diminutive but not the least important being the tiny Chapel of St. Margaret, founded by the Queen of Malcolm Canmore. Another chapel, St. Mary’s, in Niddry’s Close (from which the oldest lodge of Scottish Freemasons derives its name) was founded by Elizabeth, Countess of Ross, daughter of the Great Chamberlain of Scotland, [James, Lord Livingston.] and widow of John, Lord of the Isles. As early as 1293 there is a record of a certain Lady Donoca making a gift of all her possessions to the Abbey of Holyrood; and in the Cowgate stood Magdalen Chapel, originally a Maison Dieu, which, having at some time or other fallen into disrepair, was rebuilt by one Janet Rynd, “widow of Michael Macquhen,” in the middle of the sixteenth century. [Wilson’s Memorials of Edinburgh, vol. ii. P.251. The scene of the famous meeting held by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Reformed in 1578.]

Lady Yester’s Church is, perhaps, one of the best known relics of bygone philanthropy. Margaret, Lady Yester, was a granddaughter of Mark Ker, Abbot of Newbattle. She built a number of churches in various parts of the country, including this famous one in Edinburgh at the corner of the old High School Wynd. With the lapse of years the original building gradually fell into disrepair. It was rebuilt, however, in 1803, with the old materials on a new site, the founder’s memory being kept green by a monumental inscription

[Its needless to erect a Marble Tomb;
The Daily Bread that for the hungry Womb,
And Bread of Life thy Bounty hath provided,
For hungry souls all Times to be divided,
World lasting Monuments shall rear,
That shall endure till Christ himself appear.
Pos’d was thy Life, prepar’d thy happy End,
Nothing in either was without Commend.
Let it be the care of all who life hereafter,
To live and die like Margaret, Lady Yester.”
]

engraved above the place of her supposed burial, and by the four original communion cups and collecting plates which are still preserved.

In more recent times the chapel founded by Lady Glenorchy in 1772 is but another of many similar memorials to the piety of notable Scotswomen.

Of those ladies of noble birth who devoted themselves, their talents, and their wealth to the cause of their country’s welfare there is no earlier and certainly no more remarkable example than that supplied by the Lady Dervorguilla. As the mother of a Scottish king she has some right to be remembered; as the co-founder of one of the most famous colleges in the whole world her claims to immortality cannot be lightly disregarded.

Up to the very beginning of the eighteenth century the progress of civilisation in the north was an extremely slow affair. Speaking of Scotland in the fifteenth century, Carlyle says that it is a country without a soul, “nothing developed in it but what is rude, external, semi-animal.” Yet on the question of popular education Scotsmen do not appear to have been altogether behindhand. Even in very primitive times the flickering torch of literature was to a certain extent kept alive in those monastic institutions for which the country was famous. St. Columba had founded his first monastery in Iona in the sixth century. Here his successors continued to devote themselves earnestly and successfully to the cause of education. Iona soon became the very centre of learning, the spring of knowledge. Hither came the young from all the neighbouring countries – from Scotland, from Ireland, from England, even from Scandinavia [Scotland in the Middle Ages, by Cosmo Innes, p.100. (1860)] – to acquire learning. Hence went forth priests and bishops to the ends of the earth, converting, instructing, and, above all, founding similar institutions elsewhere.

Throughout Scotland the schools were for the most part under the direct control of the monasteries, to which indeed they generally owed their existence. Those in the city of Perth, for instance, were endowed by the monastery of Dunfermline in the time of William the Lion; the monastery of Kelso had schools in the town of Roxburgh as early, and we read of the widowed Lady of Molle, a great landowner in the Merse, resigning part of her dowry lands to Kelso on condition that her son was educated at the monastery schools. The importance of a scholastic education was not disregarded, nor were the efforts of the monks unappreciated or undervalued. During the reign of James IV. A statute was framed which ordained that a school should be provided in every parish in Scotland. And an Act of Parliament passed in 1496 required all barons and freeholders of substance to put their eldest sons to these schools “far Thai be eight or nine years of age, and to remained at the grammar sculls quail Thai be competently found it and have permit Latina.” [Scotland in the middle Ages, p.271] Scottish barons who failed to keep their sons at school were liable to a fine of £20 in King James IV's time. Scotsmen still continued to realise the advantages of a classical education in the eighteenth century, when a large proportion of the scholars in the country towns learned Latin, many of the children of mechanics and others in the same humble station spending two or three years at the grammar schools for this purpose. [Dr. Somerville (Life and Times, p.348) tells us that the fee for being taught Latin at the Kelso schools was 2s.6d. per quarter]

Dr. Johnson once declared that the learning of the Scottish people was “like bread in a besieged town: every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal,” [Boswell’s Life of Johnson p.251] But at the time that captious critic wrote the standard of education in Scotland was gradually reaching a level higher than that of almost any other country – a level, be it said, from which it has never declined – and inspired Sir Robert Peel to remark sarcastically that “England, like Aberdeen, has two universities.”

In the earliest days it was very uncommon, as Sir Walter Scott tells us, to find men of the higher ranks who did not possess a “general tincture of letters,” or, thanks to their excellent system of parochial education, individuals even in the lowest classes without the knowledge or reading, writing, and arithmetic. [Tales of a Grandfather, p.376.] the Scottish student in his thirst for learning submitted to penury and difficulties innumerable in order to educate himself: his parents were only too content to suffer poverty and practise self-denial to assist him in attaining this worthy object. [the following extract from the accounts kept by Prise Lockhart Gordon during his first year at Aberdeen University gives some idea of the modest way in which students lived in the eighteenth century. His whole expenditure during the year only amounted to £17.4s.3d., and that sum he considered excessive. (See Personal Memoirs, vol. i. p.15: 1830.)

                                                                                                            £  s.   d.

Expenses of journey to Aberdeen (50 miles) performed        

In two days. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .         0   2  4

College fees to bellringers and sacrist. . . . . . . . . . . . .           0   5  0

My share of coal and candles for the winter. . . . . . . .           0 17  6

Pens, ink, and paper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .          6  6  6

Breakfast of bread and milk at rate of 9d per week

(26 weeks). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .            0 19 6

Board (dinner) at college table at 14s. per month. . .             4  4 0

Bread, cheese, butter, smoked haddocks, small beer,

and other luxuries for supper. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .            1  4 0

Tea and sugar once or twice a week. . . . . . . . . . . . .             0 12 0

Fees to the Greek Professor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .           1 11 6

Ditto to Professor of Humanity (Latin). . . . . . . . . . . .           0 15 0

Charity in Church. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .            0  1 1]

“Any young man,” says Lockhart, “who can afford to wear a decent coat and live in a garret upon porridge and herrings, may, if he pleases, come to Edinburgh, and pass through his academical career just as creditably as is required of expected.” [Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, by J.G. Lockhart, vol. i. p.196] Even the fifteenth century, though as troubled and turbulent a time as any in Scottish history, saw the foundation of three of the oldest universities in Scotland – those of St. Andrews, of Glasgow, and of King’s College, Aberdeen. [A.D. 1410, 1450, and 1495.] And two centuries earlier we find the Lady Dervorguilla furthering the advance of education by the foundation of yet another college, though not, it must be admitted, in her own country.

The family of Balliol is as old as any in the three kingdoms, and can be traced back to the Conquest. Bernard de Baliol, one of those English barons who opposed King David at the Battle of the Standard, was its head, and Barnard Castle, in Northumberland, where his descendants subsequently dwelt for so long a period, was built by him. He it was, too, who marched with the English barons from Newcastle to Alnwick in 1174 to oppose William the Lion, who had invaded England. And when his troops lost their way in a fog, and some of the nobles were for retiring, “If you should all turn back,” he said, “I would go forward alone!” His great-grandson, John de Baliol, a noble who combined great wealth and political consequence with a love of learning and a benevolent disposition, married a woman who was even wealthier than himself and as much of a philanthropist.

Through his wife Dervorguilla, daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway, and granddaughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, Baliol acquired vast estates in England as well as half the Scottish county of Galloway. To the children of this union Dervorguilla also brought that title to the crown of Scotland which one of them was subsequently destined to assume with such unhappy results.

In the year 1260 we first hear Sir John de Baliol mentioned as coming into collision with one of those English bishops – true types of the Church militant here in earth – who guarded the border so zealously against the invading Scots. How Sir John offended the prelate is not clear, though an early chronicler suggests that he had “gotten himself drunk with beer, quite contrary to the fair esteem befitting his rank, and had done other evil disrespectful to the church.” Baliol’s crimes, whatever they may have been, were duly reported to the English king, and he was condemned to do penance at the door of Durham Cathedral. Here he confessed his sin and was publicly scourged by the bishop of the diocese. By way of making still further amends for his wrongdoing, the humiliated nobleman undertook to provide for the perpetual maintenance of sixteen poor scholars in the University of Oxford, where they were finally established six years later.

Oxford was not a new foundation even at this time. The collegiate system had begun as early as the reign of Henry III., when his chancellor, Walter de Merton, obtained a charter to incorporate the “Scholars of Merton” into an independent society. In 1249 William of Durham, founder of University College, bequeathed a legacy of 310 marks for the support of a dozen poor Durham masters at Oxford. Between that date and the foundation of New College in 1386 by William of Wykeham, three other colleges, Exeter, Oriel, and Queen’s, as well as Balliol, had sprung into existence.

John de Baliol died in 1269 without having made any provision for his beneficiaries, and the duty of maintaining these scholarships devolved upon his wife, who proved herself fully qualified to undertake the task. Dervorguilla had been educated in England at the home of her grandfather, and seems to have inherited none of the proverbial wildness of her Galloway ancestors. She passed the days of her widowhood in good works, and applied her vast wealth to various worthy objects, among the most deserving of which was the Oxford college which her husband had founded and which, thirteen years after his death, she placed on a permanent financial footing. This she effected by the purchase of land in Stamfordham and Howgh, in Northumberland, which she assigned to the Balliol scholars, for whose accommodation she had first hired a house in Horsemonger Lane, and afterwards bought Mary’s hall, Oxford. [A.D. 1284.]

Dervorguilla was not of those philanthropists who confine their beneficence to the mere providing of money, leaving others to work out the scheme of its expenditure. So facile a form of charity was not popular in her time, even had she felt drawn towards it. The practice of presenting a large cheque to a Royal Hospital Fund and then patiently awaiting the publication of the New Year’s Honours’ List had not as yet come into fashion. She took an intelligent interest in every undertaking which she supported, and for the benefit of the scholars who owed their education to her generosity drew up a statute embodying a number of rules by which the conduct of their daily lives was to be governed. In this she was ably advised and assisted by a Franciscan monk name Richard of Silkeburne, who seems to have acted as her public almoner.

By the terms of Dervorguilla’s careful code, the scholars of Balliol were bound to attend divine service of Sundays and feast-days, and to celebrate three masses annually for the souls of their pious founders. They were also bidden to elect a principal, whose duty it was to preside over their gatherings and undertake the responsibility for their good behaviour. Eightpence a week was the allowance paid to each scholar, who was provided with two meals a day at the common table. If the cost of subsistence exceeded the aggregate of allowances, Dervorguilla particularly enjoined that the poorer scholars were on no account to suffer, but, in order to make up the deficit, each was to be assessed according to his means, and the “poor” were never to pay more than a penny a week. Furthermore, one “poor scholar” was always to be maintained upon the crumbs of the common table.

It was further laid down that all conversation should be carried on in the Latin tongue. Any scholar who did not obey this rule was, for a first offence, to be reproved by the principal. If he sinned three times in this respect, he was sentenced to have his meals alone at a separate table, where he was served last of all. An offender who, at the end of a week, still remained incorrigible or impenitent was expelled. Dervorguilla also commanded that a bi-weekly “disputation” should be regularly held under the presidency of the principal, and delegated to him the business of settling the subject under discussion and keeping order during the debate.

It may be supposed that many of Dervorguilla’s countrymen took advantage of her generosity to become Balliol scholars, and by the end of the fourteenth century Oxford was much patronised by young Scotsmen anxious to increase their stock of learning. [Oxford seems to have provided many attractions for youthful students. Aubrey, in his Life of Dr. Kettle, President of Trinity College, declares that several charming ladies, among whom was Lady Isabella Thynne, daughter of the Earl of Holland (“she lay at Balliol College”), were wont to come to chapel every morning “half dressed like angels.”] One of the most famous of these was Henry Wardlaw, afterwards Bishop of St. Andrews. But Scotsmen do not appear to have been as popular as they were prevalent at the University. Their presence was not altogether appreciated by their English fellow-scholars. Indeed, in 1382 Richard II. Was obliged to address a writ to the chancellor and proctors forbidding them to molest Scottish students, notwithstanding the latter’s “damnable adherence to Popish heresies,” [Scotland in the Middle Ages, p.274.] – for Scotland, like France, adhered to the Antipopes at Avignon, while England was still obedient to the Popes at Rome.

Of Dervorguilla’s personality or appearance little is known. Even the question as to the proper spelling and pronunciation of her name is a doubtful one. Henry Savage, in a quaint and rather confused little treatise on the history of Balliol College, published in 1668, entitled Balliofergus, states that “the orthography is Dervorguille, which by a Gallicism usual in the English tongue, is pronounced Dervorgille, and the latter E at the end of the name, by another Gallicism of E feminine, is pronounced almost like A” – an observation which does little to enlighten the obscurity. The name still survives in Scotland in the Gaelic Diorbhail, and is not uncommon today.

The seal upon Dervorguilla’s statute contains what is presumably a portrait of the founder. Walter Hearne, the historian, speaks of her as the “leading Oxford beauty of her day,” while an equally reliable chronicler declares that the face upon the seal was that of another Oxford beauty, and apothecary’s daughter, bearing the unromantic name of “Reeks.”

But if little is known of Dervorguilla’s life or looks, there is ample evidence to prove her wisdom, her strength of character, and her active benevolence. She constructed a much-needed bridge over the Nith at Dumfries, and Balliol College is not the only institution of which she was the founder. She built the Wigtown Priory for the Dominican monks, and the House of Grey Friars at Dumfries. At the latter place, too, she founded a convent, and another at Dundee, and in 1275 the monasteries of Holy Wood in Galloway and Lincluden Abbey, beneath the shadows of whose ruins Robert Burns is said to have composed several poems. [Pococke’s Tours in Scotland p.8. (Scottish Historical Society, 1887.) She also built, in 1273, Dulce-Cor, (or Sweetheart) Abbey, afterwards known as New Abbey, in Kirkcudbright, eight miles from Dumfries, of which nothing now remains but a few ruins. Here her husband’s heart, embalmed and encased in an ivory box bound with silver, was placed in the wall near the high altar. [The chapel of the abbey, standing opposite the refectory, was used for divine service until 1731, when it fell into decay, was pulled down, and replaced by a new church.]

It is said that Dervorguilla insisted upon carrying her husband’s heart about with her for a long time in a casket, and that this gruesome relic was always placed on the table in front of her at every meal. Such an ornament would not appeal perhaps to the modern mind as a very suitable decoration for the breakfast-table; but tastes, like manners, were essentially primitive in the days of Dervorguilla. The habit of looking upon the heart as the seat of the affections, and consequently the most important part of the human body, came into vogue about the time of the first Crusade. [Chambers’s Book of Days, p.415.] It was long a common custom for a person to bequeath his heart to a friend or to leave it to an abbey or church as a legacy of priceless value. Even when no such bequest was made, the relations of the deceased would often cause it to be embalmed, and preserved for all time as a family heirloom. Thus Robert Bruce’s heart, after many wanderings, found a resting-place in Melrose Abbey. That of Isabella, the sister-in-law of Henry III. And daughter of William, Earl of Pembroke, after her burial at Beaulieu in 1239, was sent in a silver cup to be entombed before the high altar of Tewkesbury Abbey. In the same way the heart of Robert, Earl of Leicester, one of the early Crusaders, who died and was buried at Preaux in 1118, was by his own order preserved in salt and conveyed to the hospital which he himself had founded at Brackley. That on Montrose was extracted from the mutilated body, after his execution, by some adventurous spirits, at the request of Lady Napier, who enclosed the relic in a small steel case made from the blade of the dead patriot’s sword. (This case was placed in a silver urn and stood on a table by Lady Napier’s bedside, but she subsequently had the contents embalmed and sent in a rich gold box to Montrose’s eldest son.) [Life and Times of Montrose, by Mark Napier, p.497.] And the heart of Louis XIV. Was, it will be remembered, absent-mindedly swallowed by Dr. Buckland, to whom it was being shown by an ancestor of the Harcourts, and is presumably buried with the omnivorous Dean in Westminster Abbey.

Dervorguilla died at Castle Barnard on the Feast of St. Agnes in the year 1290. In the arts of peace she had long excelled, spending her time, her money, and her energies in the service of education, and exercising a wise discretion in the various philanthropic schemes of which she was the initiator. As Wyntoun says in his Kronykil: -

“This lady
Dyd all thir dedys devoutly.
A better lady than sche wes nane
In all the yle of Mare Bretane.
Sche wes rycht plesand off bewté,
Here wes gret taknys off bownté.” 

She was buried in the monastery of Cistercians which she had founded at Dulce Cor (or Duquer) in Galloway. By her will she bequeathed a legacy of “100 to the principal and scholars of Balliol College. Here prayers are still daily offered up for her soul and that of her husband by scholars of whom the majority know little or nothing of their founder’s history, and only associate her name with that of the “Dervorgilla Club,” whose members forgather for the purpose of enjoying refreshment which is not exclusively intellectual.


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