The History of Leith

July 2, 2007

Murder in the High School

0n the morning of September 15, 1595, Hercules Rollock, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh, arrived at the school at his usual time. He found the boys were ahead of him. They had barricaded the school doors and windows, and were ready to hold the building against all comers. Some of them appeared at an upper window and explained to the rector that they were staying inside until the school was granted a holiday.
Hercules Rollock’s heart must have sunk within him as it dawned that he was in for yet another “barring out” or school revolt. He would have been even more dismayed if he could have foreseen how the morning would end – in perhaps the most sensation al event in the long history of the school.
At that time the school had already played its part in Edinburgh’s history. It had its origins in the Abbey of Holyrood in the eleventh century. There the sons of those who had influence at Court were educated along with the future clergy. Later the lay scholars were separated from the clerical, and formed a “grammar scule in the town. Until the Reformation the school was under the Abbot of Holyrood, who appointed the “Maister”, though even before that the Town Council had been bearing the financial burden.
These holy associations make the school a strange setting for an act of homicide.
In 1519 the Town Council gave the school something of a monopoly by forbid ding the citizens to ‘ their bairns till ony particular scule within this toun but the principale grainar settle.” Then in 1566 Queen Mary gifted the school to the Magistrates of Edinburgh along with other Franciscan and Dominican properties. The “hie schule,” as it had come to be called, was patronised by James the Sixth, who conferred on it the proud title of Schola Regia Edimburgensis, which it still bears.
The Royal High School is proud of its former pupils. They make an impressive and varied list, ranging from famous writers to the inventor of the telephone. How ever, there was one boy who brought no credit on his school, but only disgrace and trouble. Yet in the imagination of every High School boy he has a place of honour among former pupils second only to that of Sir Walter Scott himself He was William Sinclair, the chief actor in the great “bar ring out” of 1595.
When William Sinclair was a pupil there, the High School was housed in a new building in the grounds of the former Blackfriars Monastery, in the place still called High School Yards. It had entered on a flourishing period under Hercules Rollock, a scholar of great distinction. But it took more than a scholar to cope with the High School boys.
At this period the boys were particularly turbulent. Several cases of “barring out” had occurred. In these days school holidays were not very long, and “barring out” was the recognised method of obtaining an extra holiday. The first step was to approach the Town Council with a request. Almost invariably it was refused. Then the agreed to follow to the end. During the night they took possession of the school and laid in a store of provisions and lethal weapons. The masters arriving in the morning found, as Hercules Rollock did, that they and other representatives of authority were “barred out.” A spokesman would appear at a window and demand a holiday. If it was refused, as it naturally would he, a state of siege commenced. Sometimes the boys held out for several days, and occasionally they won their holiday More often the Rector appealed successfully to his patrons, the Magistrates, and the building was taken by storm.
In 1580, nine of the boys were lodged in prison after a “barring out.” They were fined forty shillings each to pay for the door which was broken in “at their taking.”
Another “barring out” occurred in 1587. This time the Lord Provost himself took command of operations. The Council records describe the scene. The boys not only took it on themselves “to bald the schole agains their Maister, bot also maist proudlie and contempteously agains my Lord Provost and the bailies.” The latter were therefore “compellit to ding in pieces ane of the doors.” On entering they found the scholars armed “with pistols, swords, halberts, and uther weapouns and armour agains all guid order and lawes.”
A fine was imposed on nine ringleaders to pay for any damage. They were also sen tenced to suffer “the correctioun of their maister in the sicht of thair codisciples.” We can assume that the “correctioun” was painful. It is interesting to note that one of the offenders named was “Alexr, Napier, son to the Laird of Merchestoun.” The Laird of Merchiston was then the famous mathematician, John Napier, the inventor of logarithms.
As a further punishment for this “barring out”, the annual school holidays were restricted to the one week from May 15 to 22, “and at na uther tymes.” Any scholars even requesting an extra holiday were to suffer corporal punishment. Two years later the Council relented and allowed the boys eight days in May and eight in September.
No doubt the authorities thought that they had stamped out unruliness by this drastic treatment. For some years there was, in fact, comparative quiet. Then, in September 1595, a new storm gathered. As the autumn vacation approached, the boys became unusually restless, and bold enough to sue for an extra holiday before the vacation. On September 14th they went in a body to the Council chamber to make their request to the Magistrates. It was peremptorily refused. Smouldering with righteous indignation, the bolder spirits among the “bairnis” prepared them for action. During the night they laid in “meat, drink, pistol, and sword,” and barricaded the school to with stand a siege. Thus it was that the morning of September 15 found Hercules Rollock standing in High School Yards arguing with a group of excited but determined bairns who crowded to a window above him.
For some time the learned Rector argued, threatened and cajoled. But there was no room for compromise. The Rector was determined to uphold authority, and demanded the unconditional surrender of the boys. They stood by their demand for a holiday. Neither side would give in. Realising that arguments and threats were useless, Hercules Rollock sought the aid of the Magistrates. A force of city oflicers soon arrived, under the command of Baillie John M’Morane.
The Baillie called on the boys to surrender. He, too, met with no success. Accordingly it was decided , as usual, to break in the door, The boys inside became more excited and defiant than ever as they saw the enemy below move a joist or beam into position for use as a battering ram. They called on the Baillie to cease operations, threatening to shoot him if he persisted.
The Baillie and his assistants did not take the threat seriously. The boys had had weapons on previous “barrings out,” but they had never actually used them. M’Morane’s assistants set to work with a will, and the heavy beam thudded against the barred door.
At last the door showed signs of giving way under the repeated assaults. The boys became more violent. One scholar cried out to the Baillie to call his men off “uther wayis, he vowit to God, he would shoot ane pair of bulletis throw his held.” Still the Baillie and his officers “ran with the joist to the said door.”
Then as the door seemed to give way, William Sinclair, one of the boys’ ringlead ers, appeared at the window with a pistol in his hand. He leant forward and fired. Baillie M’Morane fell dead to the ground, shot through the head.
A horrified silence fell on the spectators. Then the news spread like wildfire through the town. According to a contemporary diarist, “the hail tounis men ran to the schooll.” The boys were too shocked to resist. Sinclair and seven others were in the Tolbooth.
The Council held an extraordinary meeting to consider what to do. It was decided that the King must he informed immediately. The Lord Provost and a deputation went to break the news to his Majesty at Falkland Palace.
For King James the Sixth, it set a most difficult and delicate problem. He did not want to offend the prosperous burgess of Edinburgh, whose friendship he valued. Baillie M’Morane had been highly respected in the city. On the other hand, the boys were the sons of noble and powerful families whom the King could even less afford to offend. William Sinclair himself was the son of the Chancellor of Caithness, and those Sinclairs were a turbulent lot who could give the King considerable trouble. Moreover, the King had a soft spot for his Schola Regia, though he can hardly have felt pleased with it now.
Of the trial of the culprits there is no existing record, but that they were tried we know from a later report. It is the report of
• the trial of a seventeen-year-old boy, James Middleton, who in 1612 slew his compan ion by stabbing him ‘ ane dirk, tinder the schorte ribis, upon the diaphragma, which is ane noble pairt”.
The defence took objection to the indictment on the ground of the accused’s youth. The case of “the Chancellor of Caithness son and the rest of the bairnes” for “John Mcmorane’s slaughter” was quoted as an authority. The Crown pointed out that, though the boys in the M’Morane case were acquitted, they were all under fourteen years of age, and that the decision was reached “by His Majesty’s expres warrand.” So the King apparently intervened to have the boys released.
Another interesting sidelight on the case is provided by a petition presented to the King and the Privy Council by the seven boys arrested with Sinclair. They all stoutly contend that they are innocent and “are willing to abyde tryale befoir ane unsuspect (impartial) Juge.” Their complaint was that the Provost and Baillies, to whom commission to try them had been given, were partiall, they being in effect baith juge and pairty. ‘They further complain that when they were brought before this prejudiced tribunal, their legal defence proved unassailable. Their “juges, seeing that they could not get their intent, and mynding nathing else bot to wearie and rack thame with expenssis,” continued the case till a further day, so that it seemed likely to go on indefinitely till the boys would be wearied into pleading guilty.
The petitioners craved the privilege of a jury drawn from outside Edinburgh, but the influence of the King would probably have saved those aristocratic little ruffians in any case.
The only sufferers as a result of the incident apart from John M’Morane’s family – were the Rector, Hercules Rollock, who was dismissed; the masters, whose salaries were cut; and the school itself, which suffered a great loss of prestige, as well as of pupils. Parents were naturally afraid to send their boys to the school for some time after the murder.
That was the last of the “barrings out.” The High School boys did not, however, become angels. They figure in the famous “bikers” with the College (University) lads, which went on to a later period. The most noted of these was, of course, the occasion when, led by the Earl of Haddington, Lord President of the Court of Session and himself an old High School boy, they chased the College lads along the Cowgate, through the Grassmarket and out of the West Port. His Lordship then had the gate shut on the enemy, causing them to spend the night in the fields.
But no more is heard of High School boys carrying lethal weapons. Nevertheless, Rule XVII of the School Regulations still reads: No gunpowder, fireworks, or firearms of any description are permitted to he brought within the rounds, under penalty of confiscation, and such punishment as may be necessary.”
(c) Ross MacDonald. Scottish Memories

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