The History of Leith

January 28, 2012

The murder of Bailie John Macmorran

In the inner part of Riddell’s Close stands the house of Bailie John Macmorran, whose tragic death made a great stir at its time, threw the city into painful excitement, and tarnished the reputation of the famous old High School. The conduct of the scholars there had been bad and turbulent for some years, but it reached a climax on the 15th of September, 1595. On a week’s holiday
being refused, the boys were so exasperated, being, chiefly ” gentilmane’s bairnes,” that they formed a compact for vengeance in the true spirit of the age; and, armed with swords and pistols, took
possession at midnight of the ancient school in the Blackfriars Gardens, and declining to admit the masters or any one else, made preparation to stand a siege, setting all authority at defiance.
The doors were not only shut but barricaded and strongly guarded within; all attempts to storm the boy-garrison proved impracticable, and all efforts at reconciliation were unavailing. The Town
Council lost patience, and sent Bailie John. Macmorran, one of the wealthiest merchants in, the city (though he had begun life as a servant to the Regent Morton), with a posse of city officers,
to enforce” the peace. On their appearance in the school-yard the boys became simply outrageous, and mocked them as ” buttery carles,” daring any one to approach at his peril. ” To the point likely
to be first attacked,” says Steven, in his history of the school, ” they were observed to throng in a highly excited state, and each seemed to vie with his fellow in threatening instant death to the man who should forcibly attempt to displace them.
William Sinclair, son of the Chancellor of Caithness,, had taken a conspicuous share in this barring out, and he now appeared foremost, encouraging his confederates,” and stood at a window overlooking one of the entrances which the Bailie ordered the officers to force, by using a long beam as a battering ram, and he had nearly accomplished his perilous purpose, when a ball in the forehead from Sinclair’s pistol slew him on the spot, and he fell on his back.
Panic-stricken, the boys surrendered. Some effected their escape, and others, including Sinclair and the sons of Murray of Springiedale, and Pringle of Whitebank, were thrown into prison. Macmorran’s family were too rich to be bribed, and clamoured that they would have blood for blood.
On the ether hand, “friends threatened death to all the people of Edinburgh if they did the child any harm, saying they were not wise who meddled with scholars, especially gentlemen’s sons” and Lord Sinclair, as chief of the family to which the young culprit belonged, moved boldly in his behalf, and procured the intercession of King James with the magistrates, and in the end all the accused got free, including the slayer of the Bailie, who lived to become Sir William Sinclair of Mey, in 1631, and the husband of Catherine Ross, of Balnagowan, and from them the present Earls of Caithness are descended.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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