Wars of Independence

Tom A'Chasteil

Today, close by Strowan and opposite Monzievaird, one sees the monument commemorating the life and works of Sir David Baird of Seringapatam. It is a modest, but striking obelisk. It sits atop a hill called Tom a Chasteil and centuries before it was the site of a castle. The castle was one of the seats of the Grahams.

Tom a Chasteil with the Sir David Baird Monument

After Bannockburn, several families were awarded tracts of lands as rewards for services to the Crown. The Grahams were amongst those who shared in the wealth and one of them built a stronghold on this knoll. They became, as will be seen, a very powerful family in the affairs of Scotland, eventually becoming Regents of the country. There were several branches of them and our story focuses on the Strathearn branch. Like others they were highly protective of their considerable estates and were quick to take offence. The sword or axe was never very far away. By the reign of James the First they were well ensconced at Tom a’ Chasteil.

At this time the King, Robert III, was surrounded by a group of powerful nobles and he had great difficulty in keeping them in order. In fact the only way that this could be accomplished was to bribe them. The bribes took the form of awarding them tracts of lands, or money or titles. The Graham family did very well out of this arrangement. The King knew that amongst his nobles were several dangerous ones whom he was not able to control. They were an arrogant and bumptious lot. They were cunning and devious, and would not hesitate to thwart the King’s commands or undermine his influence if it would end up to their own advantage. These loose nobles (canons, or is it cannons!) plotted and schemed continuously with the intent to seize more power, more land, and more money!

In view of the lack of safety for himself and his surviving son, James, Robert decided that James would have a safer upbringing and a better chance of survival if he was brought up in France. He therefore sent young James aboard a ship which sailed on the tide from Leith. Unfortunately the vessel was captured by an English merchantman off Flamborough Head and the future King James I taken prisoner. He was only twelve years-old but a considerable prize. Within a month his father died and regency declared, with the Grahams acting as Regents.

James was sent to prison in the Tower and thereafter to Windsor Castle. His formative years were spent as a guest or prisoner of Henry IV, King of England. James turned out to be very strong and athletic with all the social graces. He played several musical instruments and was skilled in drawing and painting. He was romantic and wrote the “Kings Quair” which described his love for his future wife, Lady Jane Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset. He was also autocratic, rigid and avaricious. His small-mindedness easily created enemies.

As a prisoner in England, the nobles of Scotland immediately started negotiations to secure his release and the price was high! Scotland had to raise a ransom of £40,000 to secure his release. As Scotland was the poorest country in Europe (and still is!), this was a colossal amount. The Regents in the country, the Grahams, were also in no hurry to accomplish this task. After all they were now running the country and had a free reign over matters. Their tardiness in securing the release of the King was to prove fateful.

As collateral, five scions were selected to forfeit a son as a hostage for a period of time. This transaction acted as an assurance that the ransom would be paid. The ransom was paid in annual installments and when partial payments were received a son would be released. Young (Mellis) Malise Graham, the Earl of Strathearn, was one such selected and the moment recorded.

Malise was a gay young man of just seventeen years. He had never known his parents and only asked about them on occasion. He had been superbly trained throughout his youth in all the social graces. He was educated well, was an accomplished swordsman and a good dancer. He enjoyed his youth and, like many other sons of wealthy families had a soul-mate whose name was Ferguard Moray. Ferguard himself was from a well-heeled lot! Together, as boys, they rode the countryside and became involved in several adventures, Ferguard’s responsibilities included looking after Malise and he acted as both a foster-brother, (chena chrois), and minder!

On one occasion they had both been out searching for the eggs of eagles on Dunmore Hill. Seeing an eagle’s eyrie Malise climbed up the sheer rock face of the hill but halfway up he found that his rope had become entangled in clumps of bushes and sprigs of heather. He was in serious trouble.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact each of the two parent eagles would sweep in to attack him...one cannot blame the eagles…after all they were just defending their nest! Malise started to swing at the end of the rope and was soon out of control. Well, think about it! He was trying to ward off the eagles with one of his arms while holding on to the rope with the other with his feet scraping on solid rock. And with a drop of several hundred feet below him! Not an easy manoeuvre!

Seeing this predicament, Ferguard, down below at the foot of the rock face, took out his bow and strung an arrow. When one of the eagles had just left Malise after one of its attacks he drew the bow and fired the arrow which hit and killed the eagle. The other eagle was distracted and took its attention away from Malise who made his way up to the top no doubt very grateful to his saviour! My sympathy rests with the eagles! On another occasion Ferguard saved Malise from drowning in the Lednock. All around, Ferguard was a really good person!

Malise’s uncle and guardian, Robert Graham, had not long prior told Malise about the boy’s deceased parents. His mother had died in childbirth and his father, Herries Graham, had been killed in battle under odd circumstances. Somehow or other the Douglases had been involved in his demise!

It was therefore a fateful summer’s evening when Sir Evan Douglas and a small party of retainers were seen approaching Tom a’ Chasteil on horseback. Sir Robert Graham, who at this time was forty years old, was a solid looking-man with a bronzed complexion. Down one side of his face was a deep battle scar. He and his nephew, Malise, the youthful Earl, were watching a brilliant sunset over the Aberuchill Mountains. Sir Robert sensed and remarked that Douglas, whom he knew as treacherous, bold, unscrupulous and mercenary, was the bearer of bad news. Coming straight to the point Douglas informed them that the Duke of Albany had decided that Malise was to be offered as a hostage for the King’s release and both were summoned to see him at the court. The following morning they all set out for the court and, unknowingly, Malise, the Earl of Strathearn, was seeing his home for the last time. He was never to return to it! As soon as the hostages arrived at Windsor, James appeared at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, and there, pronounced King.

At Windsor, Melise was accorded every honour. His smallest need was catered to and his wishes considered as commands. The only thing that he lacked was his freedom. Along with Ferguard he was able to enjoy the amenities of the place, but as time passed he hankered after his home. One day a stranger came to his room and asked to speak to him privately. Agreeing to the request he bade Ferguard to withdraw. Ferguard went outside and as he was walking slowly along the terrace he saw a darkly-dressed stranger below a nearby tree. The stranger was stringing his bow and fired an arrow at Ferguard who ducked to the ground. Just at that time he heard a strangled cry from Melise’s room and gathering himself dashed inside.

Here he saw Malise fighting with the person who had requested an audience. The visitor had a knife at Malise’s throat. Diving on top of him he wrenched the knife out of the assassin’s hand and plunged it into his chest. Bending over the assassin he demanded to know who had sent him. A little twist of the knife as persuasion allowed the assassin to blurt out that he had been sent by Sir Evan Douglas to kill Malise. In his final moments the assailant told them he was Murdoch Douglas and that he was acting under the orders of Sir Evan who had sworn the death of young Malise but that he did not know why he had been ordered to do the deed. Then he died. After they had collected their wits and the body removed, they reflected on all that had occurred. It was true that there had been bad blood between the Grahams and the Douglases but sending an assassin was just not...cricket!

At a later point in time Malise was wandering through Windsor and by accident came across a concealed door. It led to a set of stairs which he climbed and eventually came to another door somewhere close to the top of the tower. Entering he came across a wizened old man with a long white beard (shades of Merlin!) The old man was dressed in a long-flowing robe and sported a green turban with a gold-coloured crescent set in it. He had matching slippers and he held in his hand an ebony rod which had a gold tip at one end and an ivory tip at the other. It sounds very much like a person who was dressed in similar fashion that I met during the sixties at a party!

It transpired that he was a Mohammedan called Abu ben Assad and he was in effect the Astrologer-Royal to King Henry. His desks and tables were covered in mathematical instruments, parchments, astrologer’s maps, letters, glass phials, instruments of varying descriptions, glass spheres and long tubes, and other paraphernalia. He recognised Malise and beckoned him to sit at the table. Malise did so and the astrologer took from his sleeve a letter which he handed to the young man. Malise saw that it was addressed to Roland Crosby of Aldersgate and contained an offer of one hundred rose-nobles to assassinate Malise Graham. The letter was unsigned. The astrologer then said that in fact its originator was none other than Sir Evan Douglas and that Malise had better take good care of himself as this man was as “cruel as a tiger and cunning as a fox, and he had sworn by the God of the Christians that he will have thy life.” News like this is always distressing! A subsequent assassination attempt was made on him when he made a day trip to London. This too failed, but it had the hand of the Douglas written all over it.

James, who had been released in 1424, returned to Scotland and immediately resolved to effect changes, and curb the control seized by the nobles of the time. His reforming zeal did not sit well with those in power and this included the Grahams. These nobles were in no mood to be trifled with and did not wish to relinquish the powers they had accumulated in his absence, and also, no doubt, they wanted a return on their investment. Change of the status quo was viewed in a poor light!

The King had felt that the Grahams had not been particularly zealous in securing his release from the prison of the English King. He was also, furthermore, very intent on getting his hands on the Strathearn lands currently in possession of the Grahams. Taking advantage of the situation, he had the principal Grahams cast into jail, tried and executed. This “pour encourager les autres” philosophy backfired. It became apparent to the surviving nobles that this King had to be controlled by more terminal means!

Malise was eventually released and immediately sought out the King who was in Parliament in Edinburgh. Malise was aware of all the intrigue that had gone on before and he resolved to make an issue about it. He approached the King and placed his hand on his shoulder saying, “I arrest you in the name of the three estates in your realm here assembled in Parliament; for, as your people have sworn to obey you, so you are constrained by an equal oath to govern by law.” “Is it not thus?” He then turned to appeal to the throng and no-one moved and silence reigned. This is not uncommon in situations of this nature where the advocates maintain silence and deniability! Seizing the moment James immediately ordered his arrest and subsequently banished him. This further exacerbated the strained relationship between the King and his nobles who decided that the time had come to dispense with the King’s services and the plotting began in earnest!

James decided to sojourn to Perth and visit the Blackfriars Monastery which he had founded. This beautiful monastery, (later destroyed at the time of the Reformation), was, to him, a safe haven, and he felt reasonably secure in it. On his journey there he had met a soothsayer who warned him of impending danger saying that if he crossed the river Forth he would not return alive. Och no, not another hag with a prophecy!

In the evening of February 21, 1437, King James the First was stabbed to death in the Blackfriars Monastery. The assassination was a result of James’s insistence that as King he could rule Scotland his own way, and that way, was to reduce the power of the Nobles. In so doing he created enemies who were not squeamish! It had been schemed and plotted for some considerable time prior, with the organising force centering on Walter, Earl of Atholl, the King’s uncle, and Robert Graham, uncle of Malise and others. The incident is better known for the actions of one of his ladies-in-waiting, Catherine Douglas, Kate Barlass. It is rumoured, but not recorded, that his last words were on seeing that the door had not been barred because the spar had been removed earlier, “Here hen, stick yer erm through that!”

The perpetrators of the act met a sorry end in a fashion which was typical of the fifteenth century. They were quickly tried and found guilty and sentenced to death. Death, in itself is bad enough, but the methodology was unique. Atholl’s belly was ripped apart and his entrails taken out and burned before his eyes and what remained were quartered; Graham was lifted on to a cart and had his limbs nailed to a gallows erected on the cart. On his progress to Valhalla the executioner thrust red-hot spikes into his arms, shoulders and legs, then his belly was ripped open, his entrails taken out and burned before his eyes, and then he was quartered. This was not a nice way to go! It was recorded that his final words were, “Ye shall see the daye and the tyme that ye shalle pray for my saule for the grete good that I have done to you and alle this reaume of Scotland, that I have thus slayne and delyveryed you of so cruelle a tirant.” No doubt, thereafter he felt some pain! As sometimes happens the King’s son and replacement was not... a super star!

The Strathearn lands of the Grahams and the title of Steward passed into the control of the Drummonds till the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in 1748 and thereafter reverted to the Crown. As for Malise, he disappeared from the scene.

We see from this therefore that the King’s law and power throughout the Stewart reigns and others was limited. The power of the Barons and Nobles, and in the Highlands, the Clan chiefs, who used steel, cunning and treachery, prevailed. At the highest levels in the land self-preservation existed and sleight of hand, as well as the sword-arm and strong-arm tactics, as well as other means, endemic. As our story unfolds we will see that these concepts were passed down the social ladder!

Tom A’ Chasteil with Monument to Sir David Baird