Stirling Castle and the 8th Earl of Douglas

Last week I visited Stirling Castle. It is my favourite castle in Scotland – I prefer Stirling to Edinburgh Castle.  In Edinburgh the main royal palace is a mile away at the bottom of the royal mile – Stirling is both a defensive castle and a magnificent palace. Also Historic Environment Scotland has spent many millions of pounds restoring part of the castle to what it would have been like in the 16th century. Some photos of this great castle follow.  

But Stirling has a dark connection to my clan.  The Earl of Douglas was murdered here by James II in 1452. At that time the Black Douglases were the most powerful family in Scotland apart from the royal Stewarts. James II was concerned that the Earl might be conspiring against him, and so invited him to Stirling Castle, enticing him with a safe conduct.  There he personally stabbed the earl to death, and some of his courtiers joined in the murder. The Earl of Douglas’s body was thrown out of one of the windows in James’s palace into what from that time has been known as the Douglas garden. 

When a child James had also been witness to the murder of a previous earl of Douglas. In 1440 when James was only 10 years old, and Scotland was being ruled by his advisors, the 16 year old 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother were invited to Edinburgh Castle, and in what is known as the Black Dinner were executed by James’s advisors on trumped up charges. Young James tried to stop the murders, but to no avail. It is safer to live in the 21st century than the 15th!

Rather fittingly James II was to die when one of his cannon’s exploded at the siege of Roxburgh Castle.  I for one am not unhappy about that!

There is one other more touching thing to see in the Douglas garden. When the infant Mary Queen of Scots was held in the castle for her safety, she was too small to see over the battlements.  So a hole was made in the battlements so she could look out on her realm.

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The main gate to the castle in medieval times. The towers beside the gate would have been considerably higher – they were lowered in the 1700s as by then high towers were vulnerable to artillery fire.

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The Douglas Garden in the castle.

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Mary​ Queen of Scots little “window” in the battlements.



Today I went to Salisbury with my photographic group. The weather wasn’t suitable for outdoor photography, so we spent most of it in the cathedral.


The first photo is the mechanical clock which used to be in the cathedral’s bell tower, but is now in the cathedral itself. It is the oldest mechanical clock in the world, built in the 14th century. It has no face – it simply rings the hours, you have to guess the minutes when between hours. It was in constant use until 1884, but now is only operated on special occasions.
Pictures 2 and 3 are the famous font – really impressive, and providing beautiful reflections of the cathedral. Just seeing the font itself is reason enough to go to Salisbury.
Work was being done on the massive cathedral organ, and consequently scaffolding ruined some standard cathedral images. Also the Magna Carta which Salisbury holds wasn’t on display. Following an attempt to steal it last year (when luckily it wasn’t damaged), a more secure case is being developed for it. So I looked for other things.
Image 4 is nearby Stonehenge. Well not exactly Stonehenge itself, but a replica in the chocolate shop near the cathedral!

Mary Queen of Scots Film

I saw the Mary Queen of Scots film yesterday and was disappointed in it. I think they really needed two films, and MQoS 1 and 2, just to cover Mary’s personal reign in Scotland – only six years and nine months, but such an eventful time. I would have ended part 1 at the birth of her son, in many ways the highlight of her reign. Part 2 would have been Mary’s downfall.

Because of the time constraints they missed so much out, as well as summarising events and therefore introduced historical inaccuracies. Overall disappointing, and too many inaccuracies. And the weather, though not exactly great in Scotland, isn’t that bad all the time. VisitScotland must have been ringing their hands – not a great advert for this beautiful country. Though I imagine the rain and mist helped cover up quite a few 20 and 21st century power lines, roads etc. from the camera.
I am also really surprised they couldn’t use more relevant sites – Mary isn’t associated with Blackness Castle which seemed to be her home as far as the film was concerned. Why not use Edinburgh Castle, Falkland Palace etc.


Mary’s Queen of Scots in Scotland

Mary Queen of Scots must rival Robert the Bruce as the most famous Scottish monarch, and the period in which she lived was one of the most exciting and turbulent in Scotland’s history. And since much of Scotland’s history is turbulent, that is quite an accolade.

This weekend sees the release of a major film on Mary in the USA. When writing this I don’t know how historically accurate the film will be – often films diverge from the historical facts.  I have been fascinated by Mary and her time since I was a teenager, and have just published a book about her.  I haven’t seen the film yet, as it will not be released in the U.K. until 18 January, but based on the trailer there are some inaccuracies in the film.  I have just published a book which is the true story of here Scottish years – details at the end of this post.DSC_0360

Linlithgow Palace, where Mary was born.

Mary was Scotland’s queen from a few days after her birth at Linlithgow Palace, as her father James V died before she was a week old. When she was an infant England’s King Henry VIII wanted her to be contracted to marry his son Edward.  This in practice would have given Henry control of Scotland. Initially the Protestant faction in the Scottish court agreed to this, but this arrangement was rejected when the Catholic faction in Scotland regained ascendancy. Henry’s response was to send armies to devastate much of the Scottish borders and lowlands, in an attempt to terrorise Scotland into agreeing to the marriage. These terror tactics were to become known as the “rough wooing”.

The English raids and military incursions continued for several years.  So at five years seven months Mary was sent to the sophisticated court of France for her safety, and in preparation for her marriage to the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. At fifteen she married the fourteen year old Dauphin, who when his father died in a jousting accident shortly afterwards, became King of France.  Mary was for a short time the Queen of France, but had to return to Scotland at eighteen following the death of her young husband from an infection.

Mary attempted to rule Scotland at one of the most tempestuous times in its history, only one year after the country had officially become Protestant, and when a very substantial minority of the population were still Catholic. Mary was a Catholic when many, although not all, of the Scottish nobles were Protestant, a recipe for conflict at a time of religious strife.

Scotland had adopted an austere version of the Protestant religion. Although the Scottish church eventually matured into the tolerant and compassionate church it is today, the 16thcentury was a time of religious extremism. Catholics and Protestants struggled for supremacy, and many people in both churches were bigoted and intolerant, seeing adherents of the other religion as heretics rather than fellow Christians.

In some ways Scotland then was like Afghanistan is today, a country with a weak central government, where much of the real power lay with warlords. Again like Afghanistan the county had been racked by war and the intervention of foreign powers for decades.  In Scotland’s case England and France, in Afghanistan’s first Russia and then the West. Mary’s task of ruling the country was almost impossible.

Mary’s rule when she returned to Scotland started well.  She was an attractive and charming young queen, and initially her subjects took to her.  Her policy was one of religious tolerance.  She insisted on practicing her Catholic faith, but did nothing to threaten the official Protestant faith of her country, although the Protestant church undoubtedly felt threatened.

But she made several significant errors of judgement. She married Lord Darnley, a superficially attractive young aristocrat, but as mentioned earlier in reality egotistical, stupid, sexually promiscuous and possibly bisexual, and a drunkard.  She also had too many close French and continental Catholics in her entourage, including her personal secretary David Rizzio.  Rizzio infuriated Mary’s nobles by his haughty attitude and tendency to require a bribe before allowing any favours or access to Mary.

To cut a long story short, a group of nobles, including Mary’s husband Darnley murdered Rizzio when he was dining with Mary.  This shows how weak her position really was.

Three months later Mary gave birth to the future James VI of Scotland in the security of Edinburgh castle. Thirty-seven years later, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James was to become James I of England as well.

Mary’s marriage to Darnley had irrevocably broken down.  However obtaining a divorce would have been difficult, and would have resulted in her son being considered illegitimate, and therefore under the legal code that existed at that time, unable to inherit the throne.  Divorce therefore wasn’t an option.

Rather conveniently Mary’s husband Lord Darnley was murdered a year after Rizzio. The person responsible was almost certainly Lord Bothwell, one of Mary’s key supporters and possibly by then lover. Historians argue to this day whether Mary was involved.  But Bothwell was too powerful to be convicted.

Bothwell pressured Mary to marry him, and possibly raped her.  Mary then made a disastrous mistake. Three months after the murder of her husband she married Bothwell. Because she had married the man who was generally accepted to be her husband’s murderer, many people thought Mary little better than a prostitute, and said so. Scotland was seething with insurrection. Also many nobles detested Bothwell, and were frightened that he would use his position as the Queen’s husband to threaten their positions.  They therefore rose in revolt.

This resulted in a standoff rather than a battle between Mary’s forces and her enemies – no one really wanted a civil war.  Mary surrendered to the nobles seeing that her position was weak, and believing she would be treated with honour.  However they had different ideas.  They imprisoned Mary in Loch Leven Castle on an island in the middle of the loch.  She was threatened with death and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son.

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Loch Leven Castle, a castle on an island.  Mary was forced to abdicate as Queen of Scots here.

But Mary wasn’t finished yet.  After almost a year in captivity she managed to charm George Douglas, the young brother of the castle’s owner, and he helped her make a daring escape.  Her supporters rallied behind her, and she soon had an army of 6,000.  But at the battle of Langside Mary’s forces were beaten by the nobles.  Mary decided to escape from Scotland and seek support from her cousin Elizabeth I of England, a disastrous mistake.

Elizabeth, a Protestant queen, saw Mary as a threat, a possible rallying point for the large Catholic minority in England. Therefore rather than support Mary, Elizabeth kept her under house arrest.  After 19 years Mary became desperate, and became involved in a plot to depose Elizabeth. As a result, Mary was tried and executed.

Mary only spent just over twelve years of her life in Scotland, five years and seven months before being sent to France, and six year nine months when she returned, speaking with a French accent and strongly influenced by her French education. But Mary is the most famous Scotswoman ever. Many books have been written and films made about her life, including the new “Mary Queen of Scots”, released this month.

The book is available as a printed book on Amazon now.  There are three ways to get to the book. Please click on the link, or paste it into your browser, or search on Amazon for “Exploring Mary’s Scotland – Mary Queen of Scots’ Life in Scotland”




Mary Queen of Scots’ Life in Scotland


MQOS front cover border big

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book – “Exploring Mary’s Scotland – Mary Queen of Scots’ Life in Scotland” which is available from Amazon.  The book is in two parts.  The first is an outline of the tragic queen’s life, and the second part is a guide to the most significant Scottish sites closely associated with her.

On 8 December in the USA and 18 January in Britain, a major new film “Mary Queen of Scots” staring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbins and David Tennant will be released. I can only base my comments on the trailer, since I can’t see the film until 18 January.  The trailer has two error. Firstly Mary and her cousin and rival Queen Elizabeth never actually met.  Secondly it is unlikely Mary spoke with a Scottish accent, she is more likely to have spoken with a French/Scottish accent, having left Scotland at five and not returned until she was eighteen. However, together with “Outlaw King” about Robert the Bruce, it is to be commended if it increases interest in Scottish history.

Long before I knew that the film was being produced I started to research Mary’s fascinating life and times for the book.  There are many books in print about Mary and her struggle to rule Scotland at a tumultuous time in its history.  How does “Exploring Mary’s Scotland” differ from the rest?

As well as providing an overview of Mary’s life, and particularly her life in Scotland, it takes the reader on a tour of the Scottish sites closely associated with her. I believe this helps to bring her life and times alive.  And of course if you want to visit the sites, either in person or from an armchair, the book can be your guide.  It is a substantial expansion of my previous book, “Mary Queen of Scots – a Brief History,” as it is more than 2.5 times the size.

And if you read the book you will be able to judge the film, and point out to your friends and family all the historical inaccuracies!

The book is available as a printed book on Amazon now, and should be available in December as a Kindle book as well.  Links for the print book on Amazon are:







A few images from the V&A in Dundee, which I visited today.

This peculiarly shaped building on Dundee’s waterfront consists of a vast common space, with two galleries off it. The vast common space was full today, but it was a Saturday and only three weeks since it opened. I wonder if in time it will be seen as a waste of space.

One gallery is a permanent exhibition of Scottish design, which has a wide range of exhibits from an Adam fireplace, part reconstruction of a Macintosh tearoom, to Paisley pattern clothes and an Endura cycling bodysuit used to break the hour cycling record. The second gallery is for special exhibitions and at the moment has an interesting exhibition on ocean liners – certainly worth seeing. The Scottish design gallery if free to enter, the special exhibition has a charge (£12 for adults).

I am in two minds about the architecture of the museum. To my mind the height of Scottish architecture was around 1800, with developments such as Edinburgh’s New Town. I am a traditionalist. I would have preferred a modern interpretation and development on from that type of architecture, rather than this concrete clad steel building. However I have to admit that it is striking, and that it and the other developments along the waterfront such as the Discovery museum have certainly vastly improved what was for a time Scotland’s most down-at-heel city.

But the absence of any form of barrier between the walkway outside the museum and the water it bound to result in children, and indeed adults who aren’t concentrating, falling in!

V&A Dundee

The Battle of Bosworth

On 18 August I attended the Battle of Bosworth Re-enactment at the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre.  For any readers not aware of the history, the Battle of Bosworth took place on 22 August 1485.  The claimant for the crown was Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII. The king he was fighting against was Richard III, who was to die in the battle. Henry had his crowning backdated to the day before the battle, so he could charge anyone who fought against him with treason, and confiscate their lands!

Henry Tudor had been in exile in Brittany and France for 14 years.  He was the last significant Lancastrian claimant to the crown, and many of his relatives had been killed in the War of the Roses.  Henry landed in South Wales with a small army of French and Scottish mercenaries, and was joined by Welsh supporters (the Tudors were a Welsh family).  His smaller force took on Richard’s larger army near Market Bosworth in the Midlands.  Rather embarrassingly, recent research backed up by metal detecting has concluded that the battle took place about 2 miles from the Battlefield Heritage Centre, which was built on the then supposed site to commemorate the battle.

Richard III was not a popular king.  He had locked his young nephews in the Tower of London (the Princes in the Tower). They were the sons of Edward IV, and the elder boy should have been reigning as Edward V.  But Richard, who was supposed to be their protector, usurped the throne, and probably had his nephews murdered.

Although Richard’s forces on paper outnumbered Henry’s, when it came to it they seemed to lack commitment.  The Earl of Northumberland and a large detachment of Henry’s forces which the Earl commanded did not get involved in the battle.

Richard didn’t lack courage though.  Seeing Henry separated from his main army and only surrounded by a small bodyguard, he led an attack aimed at killing Henry.  Richard’s force was overwhelmed and Richard killed when a detachment commanded by Lord Stanley, who had been sitting on the sidelines waiting to become involved when he knew which side was going to win, intervened.

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The re-enactment was excellent, with I estimate at least a hundred well costumed participants on each side, plus a range of displays, such as jousting.

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But photographing re-enactments has is difficulties.  It is difficult to avoid including spectators, portaloos and Ford Transits in the image, as I know to my cost!  Also participant are clearly having a great time – about 90% of my images had to be deleted because participants were laughing, smiling or talking to the opposition, rather than looking terrified and aggressive.  Out of 450 images I only got 6 or so I was happy with.

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There were many displays, including the fletcher, that is the arrow maker.  The arrowhead is made by the arrowsmith (a blacksmith who specialises in arrowheads), and the rest of the arrow by the fletcher.  There are a surprising number of types of arrowheads.

  • The top one on the panel beside the fletcher is for starting a fire.  Cloth and tar are placed in the gap in the arrowhead, and set alight.
  • The second down makes a whistling noise when travelling through the air.
  • The third down is for hunting.
  • The fourth is for going through chain mail.
  • The fifth and sixth are for piercing plate armour.
  • The seventh is another one for chain mail.

Another display was the joust.  Great fun to watch.  They were moving at some speed. so I imagine rather dangerous to take part in!

Bosworth knight

History and Me

My fascination with history has resulted in three books, which are available from Amazon and Apple’s ibooks.

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Mary Queen of Scots – a fascinating woman trying to rule Scotland at a tumultuous time.

Exploring History book cover

Exploring History in the Scottish Borders.  The border area is now a tranquil, beautiful area, but its history is far from tranquil.  In the past it made the American “wild west” of the 19th century look like a kindergarten!

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The true story of an ordinary soldier who fought and was captured in North Africa.  Bert was transferred from PoW camp to PoW camp, eventually gaining his freedom after the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, in the chaos of a disintegrating Germany.  I helped Hazel Spencer, Bert’s daughter, prepare Bert’s diaries for publication.