The History of Leith

September 18, 2012

Blood for blood

In the inner part of Riddels 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
I5th 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 tothe
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 other 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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