The History of Leith

April 11, 2012


There are many people who worship in this ancient
and beautiful Church who are quite ignorant of the
historical associations which cluster around it. Some,
perhaps, cannot be awakened to take any interest in
such matters ; but it was in the hope that others
may be susceptible to the . charm of the past that
this Commemoration Lecture, delivered annually, was
The tremors which went from end to end of the
Church and country when the Reformation period
commenced did not subside for several generations.
It was a matter of immense difficulty to initiate and
carry through the Reformation in face of the determined
opposition of Queen Mary, who had fallen completely
under the thumb of her bigoted uncles, the Guises,
while she lived in France. It was hardly less difficult
to consolidate the work then begun when her son,
James VI., was’on the throne. He shared to the full
the idea that a king had a divine right adhering to
his position, and was very sensitive to the possible
influence of any form of Church government which
might weaken j the Royal prerogative. His first idea,.
.evidently, was not ” what is most in harmony with the
spirit of Christianity and the teaching of the Scriptures,”
but rather “what has been in existence for long, and
has proved itself compatible with absolutist notions
of government.” In 1591-92, however, James was.
compelled by the pressure of Scottish public opinion to
grant the Church of Scotland its great Charter, which
put Presbyterianism on a firmer footing than it had
formerly occupied. Roman Catholicism was overthrown,
and the national religions life was loosened not only
from the ‘control of the Pope, but even from that
“hankering” after such longings for alliance with
Rome which James now and again revealed that he
could cherish. There is a connection of this tendency
with the “Bonnie Earl of Moray” which at first sight
may not seem evident. But his untimely end was
undoubtedly linked up with the intrigues which James
and his friends entered on, either to restore or to
retain as much of the ancient regime in Church and
State as was possible. When shortly after the tragedy
the Earl of Argyle was in the north seeking vengeance
on the Earl of Huntly for the murder of the Earl of
Moray, he made the startling discovery that a ” Band ”
or agreement had been completed between Huntly,
Errol, and Maitland (the Chancellor) against Moray,
Cawdor, and Argyle, in order to bring about their
deaths, by assassination if need be, so that the conspirators
might obtain possession of the lands and possessions
of those whom they hated. He found good
reason to believe that King James was acquainted with
and approved of this dastardly scheme. Huntly was
the leading Romanist in the north, and there had been
a family feud between him and the Morays ever since
the time of the ” Good Regent Moray.” It ought to be
remembered, and it is for the purpose of emphasising
the fact that I do so, that the Good Regent had been
more influential than any one, with the exception of
John Kuox, in setting forward the Reformation. His
untimely murder in Linlithgow by Hamilton of Botbwellhaugh
created a very critical situation in the
political and ecclesiastical life of the country. Had he
survived, it is at least probable that the influences
afterwards brought to bear by him on the young King
James would have shaped him differently. Is it not
likely that the Popish taint which remained in the
hearts of the Stuarts until the end might have been
eliminated under his wise and consistent tutorship of
the youthful monarch ? It was no mere jealousy of the
Bonnie Earl’s manly beauty which led James to favour
his “enemies. It has been alleged that some unguarded
words of admiration which fell from his Queen’s lips
had awakened this demon in the royal heart. But in
reality it was much more the strife between the warring
factions of his nobility that interested James; the
personal matter—the implied comparison between the
Earl’s comeliness and his own ungainliness—can only
have slightly fanned the flame. With the hope of succeeding
to the throne of England, James could only
afford to forsake Protestantism if a successful alliance
could be arranged between the Romanists of both
countries with what aid the Pope and the Continent
could give. But, on the other hand, the more firmly
settled England came to be on the side of the Reformation
the less forcible was the appeal of such a scheme
to James. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in
1587 it must have become more and more unlikely of
realisation in his eyes. But James and Maitland were,
as unfortunately most politicians of the age were also,
adepts in the game of duplicity and prevarication, and
at the time when the secret ” Band ” was framed they
had strong personal motives for trying to get rid of
the leading Reformation earls, and of annexing their
possessions or bestowing them on other favourites.
”'”It is now necessary that I should say a few words
about the ancient Earldom of Moray. It was held by
Randolph, who became famous for his capture of Edin
Castle, and still more for his valour by the side of
Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn. Afterwards,
until we come to the time of the Regent Moray,
there is nothing specially worthyjjjf remark among the
holders of the title. The Regent was a natural son of.
James V. and was born in 1531, being thus a halfbrother
of Queen Mary of Scots. He was early given
ecclesiastical preferment, as was the corrupt fashion of
the time. Much of his early life was spent in France,
and he seems to have been unusually well educated. His
natural disposition—and natural disposition means such
a lot for most people—was one of open,, intelligence,
prudence, courage, and seriousness. He early took the
side of the Reformation. The relations between him
and his half-sister, the Queen, must always have been
difficult after this change of religious profession, yet no
one can say that he showed anything but the utmost
consideration for her in her romantic, capricious, unwise,
and unfortunate career. When he accepted the office
of Regent it was simply because it had become evident
to the whole country that the Queen was incapable of
ruling the country in such a way as would avoid religious
conflict and civil turmoil. After his assassination in
1571, in the very zenith of his power and usefulness,
the Earldom became extinct in the male line, as he
only left tw’o daughters. On the marriage of the elder
to the son of Lord Doune—also a Stuart—the Earldom
was revived in her favour, and also in that of her
husband, who was allowed to use the title of Earl of
Moray. This was the “Bonnie Earl,” and it will be
remarked that he was the son-in-law, not the son of the
Great Regent. He seems to have been a great favourite
with all classes, not merely because of his manly beauty,
but also because of his great skill in all martial exercises,
and his kindly and genial way with all sorts of people.
The feud, which was one of the main causes which led
to his death, started in 1561 when the Regent Moray
harried the lands of the Earl of Huntly, who had at
one time also borne the title of Moray. It was after
this contest, which was conducted with all the warlike
skill for which Moray was famous, that the powerful
Huntly seems to have left no stone unturned to regain
his power and honours, and he handed on the feud to
his grandson, a contemporary of the “Bonnie Earl.”
The accusation was made against Moray that he had
aided Bothwell in the factious strife which he had
fanned into flame mainly because of his hatred to
Thirlstane the Chancellor. James took the step,
certain to lead to trouble, of entrusting Moray’s mortal
enemy, Huntly, with the duty of apprehending him.
The order had previously been given that Moray was
to leave his stronghold of Darnaway in the north and
take up his abode at Donibristle, near Aberdonr, where
he was more easily under Royal surveillance. On the
night of the 8tn February 1592, when he had no
suspicion of violence, his castle was suddenly Attacked
by Huntly and his followers. They had stolen away
from a hunting party of the king’s near Holyrood on
the pretext of going to meet Bothwell. Moray refused to
surrender, and immediately his house was set on fire.
First of all the Sheriff of Moray. Dunbar, broke through
the door and rushed out, but he was soon surrounded
and killed. Afterwards Moray himself broke through
the ring of his foes and escaped to the shore. He had
almost made his escape good in the darkness when he
was discovered by his hair, or some say the tassels- of
his cap, streaming in flames behind him. The fire had
caught him as he emerged from the house. His pursuers
tracked him to a recess or cave among the rocks, where
he was brought to bay by the force of superior numbers.
Huntly himself was at their head, but he seemed unwilling
to strike the fatal blow. Then one of his followers,
Gordon of Bnckie, is said to have upbraided him for his
hesitancy, and practically forced him to plunge his
weapon into the fallen Earl at the same moment as he
himself struck a blow. As Huntly slashed him about
the face, Moray is reported to have said, with grim
– humour, ” You have spoiled a better countenance than
your own ‘. ” It is well known that the corpses of the
Earl and Dunbar were brought over the Forth to Leith
on the next day. It is believed that it was the intention
of Lady Doune, the mother of the murdered Earl, to
cause the coffin of herson to be carried through Edinburgh,
“accompanied by a banner, on which the naked body
of the Earl was represented, with a cloth round the
loins, and exhibiting the marks of the deadly wounds
he had received. This banner is’ still preserved at
Donibristle.” Finally, the body was to have been brought
to the king, as Lady Doune was convinced that he was
implicated in the murder. Becoming aware of this, and
alarmed by the popular clamour, James ordered the
Magistrates of Leith to arrest the bodies, so that the
threatened procession through Edinburgh should not
take place. ISpottiswoode says that” the clamours of the
people, on this murder being known, were so great that
the King, not esteeming it safe to abide at Edinburgh,
removed with the Council to Glasgow ! ” What happened
to the bodies ? It is here that the connection with South
Leith comes in. “The corpses of the Earl and the
Sheriff were brought to the Church of Leith in two
coffins, and there lay divers months unburied, their
friends refusing to committ their bodies to the earth
till the slaughter was punished.” What a scene of
horror and excitement must have occurred within this
sacred building ! The ban on the procession would not
prevent thousands of sympathisers from Edinburgh and
Leith coming to the Church and causing its walls to
resound with their cries of grief and indignation. Death
always brings woe : but there is an added pathos when
it comes to blight the hopes that have heen cherished
of a fair, honourable, and prosperous career. The
feeling of a nation is often memorably expressed in its
ballads and songs: they embalm an incident or acharacter,
and reveal to other ages the depth of an emotion. The
well-known song—”The Bonnie Earl of Moray” now
to be quoted, is an instance of this :
Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands, 0 where hae ye been ?
They hae slain the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the
green :
He was a braw gallant, and he played at the ring,
And the bonnie Earl of Moray, he might hae been a King.
0 wae betide ye, Huntly, and wherefore did ye sae ?
1 bade ye bring him wi’ ye, and forbade ye him to slay :
He was a braw gallant, and he played at the glove,
And the bonnie Earl of Moray, he was the Queen’s love.
0 ! Lang will his Ladye look frae the Castle Doune,
Ere she see the Earl of Moray come sounding thro’
the toon !

It is said that the body lay in this Church for over six
months. When the burial took place, it is not recorded
where the body was laid. The fitting place undoubtedly
was in St. Giles’, beside the body of his father-in law.
It may, however, havj, been in some part of South Leith
Church, which is at least possible, since the body lay
so long within its precincts. Long afterwards King
James, tried to atone for his complicity in the
murder, which he had abetted to suit his own ends,
by affecting a reconciliation between the eldest son
of the second earl and Huntly, now a* marquis, the
murderer of his father. To seal the new and more
Christian feeling, the young earl married Lady Anne
Gordon, Huntly’s daughter. The well-known Moray
House in the Canongate came into the family by the son
of this union marrying the elder daughter of the Earl
of Home. The present occupant of the Earldom of
Moray is descended from this union. He himself is
honourably “distinguished as a lover and patron of the
arts. His family rendered notable service during the
war. thus maintaining the’honourable reputation of their
distinguished progenitors. The fact that the Moray
familv are the largest heritors in the Parish of South
Leith has no connection with the pathetic theme of th
lectnre of this evening. On the execution of Lord
Balmerino on Tower Hill in 1746, after the crushing
of the Rebellion, his lands fell into the possession of the
Crown, and were purchased by the Earl of Moray of that
period. But one cannot help thinking that the scions
of the noble house ought to know the connection^ of
their family, not only with the Parish, but also with
this ancient Church.

source-South Leith Magazine-1920

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