The Douglas Tombs on Paris’s Left Bank

Earl of Angus St Germain Des Pres

St Germain Des Prés is a beautiful old church on the left bank of the Seine in the centre of Paris, which I had the pleasure of visiting at Christmas.  It is what remains from a major abbey of the same name.  The church predates Notre Dame, and was the place where the Parisian upper classes worshiped. The French philosopher René Descartes chose to be buried. It also has several 17th century Douglas tombs.   But who were they, and how did they end up so far from Scotland?  The date of death is the clue.

During what is called the “Auld Alliance” (Old Alliance), Scotland had a close relationship with France.  England was often both countries’ enemy, and on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it was in Scotland and France’s interest to have a close relationship.  But that changed in about 1560, when Scotland became officially Protestant.  Rather as we see between Sunni and Shia Muslins today, at the time there was real ill-feeling and often conflict between Protestants and Catholics, so Scotland’s religious reformation created a major religious divide between Scotland and Catholic France.  However those Scots who were Catholic still saw France as their ally and a place of safety.

William Douglas (c.1554–1611), who was to become the 10th Earl of Angus, visited France in 1577, and converted to Roman Catholicism.  Shortly afterwards Douglas was ordered to leave Scotland because of his faith, but didn’t do so.

In 1591 he inherited the earldom of Angus on the death of his father.  This allowed him to become a major player in the politics of the time.  In 1592 he was accused of involvement in a conspiracy to land Spanish troops in Scotland, to impose Catholicism on the Scots and to invade England.  This was only four years after the Spanish Armada, so Spain was seen as a deadly enemy of England.  England and Scotland were then becoming much more friendly, particularly as King James of Scotland hoped to inherit the English crown when his relation, Elizabeth I of England, died.

Because of Angus’s likely involvement in the plot, King James imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle, but Angus escaped after six weeks.  There are two versions of his escape.  One is that his wife smuggled a rope into his cell, the other that one of the warders helped him.

Angus made his way to the North of Scotland where he joined with two other Catholic earls, Huntly and Erroll.  After several years, sometimes trying to raise an insurrection and at other times in hiding, he was reconciled with the king, and given a royal appointment to police the unruly Scottish Borders.  But his barely disguised Catholicism increasing became a problem with the staunchly Protestant church, and in 1609 the church took proceedings against him and he was forced to retire to France, where he died in 1611.  His tomb, with a statue of the earl in armour, is in a prominent side chapel in St Germain Des Pres, an indication of his high status.


MacDonalds and France

Happy New Year!

I am a Douglas, but my wife is a Macdonald, so I am interested in Macdonald as well as Douglas history.

I was in Paris recently, to visit the Douglas tombs in the Église St Germain Des Prés.  I also took the opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles.  Totally by chance in Versailles I came across a picture of E J J A MacDonald, Duke of Taranto which I thought I should share (sorry, the photograph was taken at an angle.  The area was roped off, so I could not take it straight on).

The following was news to me, although I am sure it won’t be news to some readers, who know much more about Clan Donald history than I do.  A google search about EJJA MacDonald led to Wikipedia, where he has his own page. Even more information is available on the BBC website at

In the briefest summary Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexander MacDonald was born in Sedan, France in 1765.  His father, Neil MacEachen, later MacDonald, was from a Jacobite family from Howbeg in South Uist, and a cousin of Flora MacDonald.   MacEachan\MacDonald was a tutor to the children of the chief of Clanranald.  He was involved in the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and escaped to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie.  There the BBC suggests that he changed his name from MacEachan to MacDonald because the French found MacEachan too difficult to pronounce.

In 1785 his son Jacques MacDonald joined the Irish legion, and eventually, because he was in love with the daughter of an enthusiastic revolutionary, joined the French revolutionary army.  He was involved in a great deal of fighting, and in 1799 was invited to lead a coup d’état to topple the French government.  He refused, and as a result Napoleon led the coup d’état.  Had MacDonald accepted, he might have become Emperor MacDonald of France!  However, he was promoted to Marshal of France by Napoleon in 1809.

Well, I am not aware a Douglas has ever been made a Marshal of France!

Best wishes

Ian Douglas   MacDonald Marshal of France

Orchardton Tower

Orcharton Tower Orchardton is the only round tower house in Scotland of its era, although there are at least 23 in Ireland.  It is situated in Galloway, post code DG7 1QH.  The nearest town is Dalbeattie.

The tower is thought to have been built for John Cairns.  The land was originally owned by the Douglases, but is likely to have been confiscated from them when they were toppled from power by James II in 1455.

The builder may well have come from Ireland – then as now much there would have been a great deal of contact between Dumfries and Galloway and Ireland. Orcharton Tower inner.jpg

The tower house is in fact quite narrow, and much of the accommodation would have been in an attached building that now only exists in a few layers of stone above ground.  The tower is now a shell, but there is a spiral stairway which allows the visitor to walk to the top.  Like many tower houses for defense the entrance door was on the first floor.

Carlisle Castle and the Escape of Kinmont Willie Armstrong

Carlisle is in the news as I write this, because rainfall we are supposed to see only once in a hundred years has flooded parts of the city, and parts of Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.  I spent several weeks in and around Carlisle last summer when researching and photographing for my book “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders”, so I thought I would share some images with you of Carlisle Castle in better weather, and the story of the most jailbreak in Borders’ history, involving Kinmont Willie Armstrong.

Carlisle’s massive castle was the centre of English administration in the English western Borders.  It was close to being impregnable. Once through the outer walls which are shown in one photograph, any attackers who survived that far came up against a gatehouse, called the Captains Tower, which controls access to the inner ward, the centre of the castle.  The other photograph shows the Captain’s Tower.

In front of and below the Captain’s Tower is the Half Moon battery, a semi-circular artillery fortification built in the 1540s to provide additional firepower to protect the Captain’s Tower.  In more recent years the ground level in front of the Captain’s Tower was raised to create a parade ground.  Before that the Half Moon battery’s field of fire would have been deadly, if attackers had reached that far.

Even that was not considered strong enough to defend against the Scots.  At one time there was a moat and drawbridge in front of the Captain’s Tower and Half Moon battery, to further protect access to the castle’s inner area.  Beyond the Captain’s Tower was the castle’s keep, the centre of the castle and its last redoubt.

Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a notorious reiver, who was arrested by the English on what was supposed to be a truce day.  Willie deserved to be arrested, but arresting him on a truce day was illegal.

Willie’s arrest on a truce day caused outrage throughout the Borders.  After negotiations for his release came to nought, the reiver families decided to take action. But Carlisle was too strong to be taken by frontal assault, even though the reivers could have easily organized an army of several thousand men.  Stealth was the answer.

On a dark, rainy night, similar to what Carlisle has been suffering in recent days, a group of about 80 reivers, led by the head of the Scott clan, made their way to a small postern gate in the outer wall of the castle.  A postern gate is a small secondary gate, not the main gate.  It isn’t clear whether they had help from inside, or they removed several stones surrounding the door bolt to open the door (a common reiver tactic when attacking fortified towers and farmhouses).  Then they were in, and released Kinmont Willie, who luckily was being held in the outer ward of the castle.  Thankfully they were able to release him through stealth, and not bloodshed.

The incident outraged Queen Elizabeth I, who put pressure on King James VI of Scotland, who eventually made the head of the Scott clan travel of London to apologise to her.


Exploring History in the Scottish Borders Published


Exploring History book cover

At last!  The final stages took far longer than I anticipated, but my new book, Exploring History in the Scottish Borders, is now available on Amazon.

The Scottish border area is steeped in history. This is the crossroads between the north and south of Britain and the often fraught relationship between England and Scotland has left its mark.  Centuries of war and bloodshed didn’t produce Robin Hood characters, it produced a tough and often violent people, the border reivers.  In the 16th century the Scottish borderland made the American Wild West of the 19th century look like a kindergarten.

Illustrated by many full color photographs, “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” provides an overview of the history of this turbulent area. The Borders’ past has left a legacy of splendid castles, beautiful ruined abbeys, and a depth of history few other areas can match. This book tells the story of the of the English/Scottish borderland from the time of the Romans, through the Scottish wars of independence, the turbulent 16th century and Henry VIII’s “rough wooing”, up until the reopening of part of the Waverley Line by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.

But after centuries of conflict what was once the most violent part of the UK is now one of the most peaceful. It is a great place to visit – for many visitors it has more to offer than the nearby Lake District. Like the Lake District the Borders has beautiful countryside and strong literary connections, but the Borders also has a depth of history that the Lakes just cannot rival. It is also much less crowded and commercialized.

If your family comes from the Borders, or you are interested in Scottish history, you will want to read this book.

Available now from Amazon in paperback and kindle format.  29,000 words and 33 original photographs.  The book will also shortly become available from bookshops.

A Hidden Door to the Pharaohs? And Some Exciting Personal News

We may be on the brink of the most exciting archaeological find of the decade, possibly the 21st century.  Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist who is based at the University of Arizona, has studied some very high definition photographs taken by Factum Arte, a Madrid and Bologna based organisation which works with museums and galleries to record and reproduce museum collections.

Factum Arte recently build a facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, sited about a mile away from the original, which tourists can visit without endangering the actual tomb.  To plan this, they took extremely detailed photos and scans of the original.  By carefully examining the photos of the walls for indentations and cracks, Reeves believes he has identified two sealed doorways leading from the tomb.

Reeves speculates that the doorways could lead to the tomb of Tutankhamun’s step-mother, queen Nefertiti, one of the few major figures whose tomb hasn’t yet been identified.  Initial confirmation that there is a sealed tomb or at least an area leading off Tutankhamun’s tomb could be obtained by carrying out a radar scan.  This would not damage the existing tomb.

It is wait and see.

And My Exciting News?

A project I have been working on for 18 months now is nearing completion.  I have carried out a detailed study of Scottish Border’s history, and visited and photographed the key sites.  I will be publishing the result as an Amazon Kindle book in September.  Normally I want to post once a week, but to allow me to concentrate on this project for the next few weeks I may not post again until the book is published.

The Faroes

Torshavn, capital of the Faroes
The first stop on our islands’ cruise was the Faroes, a small archipelago 200 miles (320 kilometres) north west of mainland Scotland, and 200 miles south east of Iceland.  The first people to live on the island are believed to have been Irish monks from about 400 A.D., but by about 800 they were replaced by Norsemen (or Vikings as we know them).  Archeological digs were underway when we visited to try to learn more about the history of the islands. 

The Faroes, like Greenland and Iceland, became a Danish possession.  In 1948 the Faroes were granted substantial autonomy, although Denmark still remains responsible for defence, foreign affairs, legal matters and currency.  The population is 49,000, with about 20,000 living in or around the capital, Torshavn (in English Thor’s Harbour).  The other 29,000 are spread over the 540 square mile archipelago of volcanic islands.

During our visit the weather was overcast (a very common experience in the Faroes!).  In the morning we took an organised tour to the Vestmanna sea cliffs, and in the afternoon we spent several hours walking round Torshavn.
Some of the Vestmanna sea cliffs
We took the tourist excursion to the fishing village of Vestmanna, on the west of Streymoy, the Faroes’ main island.  We left our bus and boarded a sightseeing boat with about 40 other tourists.  The cliffs rise to about 600 metres above the sea, and are peppered with grottos and caves, with sea stacks just off shore.  The scenery was spectacular, but unfortunately there seemed to be something of a scarcity of birdlife, or I missed the best shots.
A sea stack off the Vestmanna cliffs
It was an interesting experience to try to take photos from the boat though, and I soon discovered the disadvantages of a DSLR.  Several times I was wrong-footed in my choice of lens as the boat weaved in and out of the grottos and around sea stacks.  When a wide angle would have been useful to record the view on entering a grotto in the cliffs I had my telephoto lens mounted.  On other occasions when I needed a telephoto to record birdlife at a distance I had my wide angle on.  Also I was concerned that when changing lenses in the mist and spray I would get water in the camera.  I wished I had a good quality bridge camera like a Panasonic FZ1000 or Olympus Stylus 1s, which would have allowed me to cover a range of distances without changing lenses.

The guide told us that, in his words, it was a sport to climb and put lambs on some of the larger sea stacks in the spring, and to collect them fattened in the autumn!

In the afternoon we walked round Torshavn.  There were plenty of coffee shops!  In many ways it reminded me of Norway.  Some of the older buildings in Torshavn and during our bus journey to Vestmanna had grass covered roofs.  Apparently rather than cutting the grass (difficult in view of the slope) the owners put a lamb on the roof!
The Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, site of the first Viking parliament