Welcome back to Aberdour, where we’re continuing our visit by exiting the church, turning left, and entering the grounds of Aberdour Castle. This is no grand structure like Edinburgh or Stirling Castles, but served an equally defensive purpose when it was constructed for the Mortimers in the twelfth century.
The Mortimers were a Norman family, having come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. They bought and married into land all over Britain, and Alan de Mortimer was no exception. By marrying an heiress of the du Vipont family in the early twelfth century he became Baron of Aberdour. His family would hold Aberdour for the next two centuries or so, building the church and castle, and we’ve seen how William de Mortimer contested with the canons of Inchcolm over who would be vicar of St. Fillan’s. Marvel fans might be interested to know that the name ‘Mortimer’ comes from a village in Normandy which had been surrounded by a stagnant lake, and thus means ‘Deadpool’ in French. It was one of the earliest hereditary surnames in Europe.
The castle at this time was a simple rectangular structure – four walls and two stories – with an outer wall for defence. The top story would have been a hall, with the other rooms beneath. Outside, to the west, was a service courtyard with kitchens and a brewery.
William’s descendant Alan Mortimer would grant a mill to Inchcolm Priory, in exchange receiving a family burial plot on Inchcolm Island with a promise of masses to be said after his death, shortening his time in purgatory. This was a common practice amongst the nobility. But not all the monks appreciated his generosity, and it seems he managed to anger some of them. Legend says that after his death, when they were transferring his body to Inchcolm, they dropped his body in the channel. To this day the stretch of water between Aberdour and Inchcolm is called Mortimer’s Deep.
We don’t know what happened to the Aberdour Mortimers. Perhaps they supported the ‘wrong’ side in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Certainly by the 14th Century they had disappeared from the history books.
When we consider the events of the Scottish Wars of Independence, it’s useful to consider how those living at the time would have thought about loyalty to ‘Scotland’ or ‘England’. The concept of a state as we understand it today wouldn’t have existed, and loyalty would have been to whoever was most likely to win, or give the best outcome if they won. Example of this are Robert Bruce and William Oliphant, who fought each other multiple times, with both switching loyalties part-way through the Wars. As for ordinary people, their lives wouldn’t change much whoever was their lord.
The understanding of what a ‘king’ is was also very different. In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, everything was a hierarchy, with the king the top noble of all the nobles. The land he held was called a ‘country’, and then he would parcel it out to the lords under him to manage down to the lowest levels of nobility. Even the common people beneath that had a hierarchy. For someone to gain in noble rank was an honour only the king could grant, and to fail the king would be to lose not only their noble rank, but also their life.
The nobles we’ll meet today were products of this feudal system. We’ll see shifting loyalties between Scotland and England; a traitor will be stripped of his title before his death; and even the king’s deaf and dumb daughter will be too good to marry a mere Baron.
The first holder of Aberdour Castle was Robert the Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph the First Earl of Moray (pronounced ‘Murry’). He’d become a valued commander in the Scottish army, having stood out at Bannockburn and in reclaiming Edinburgh Castle from the English. He was even one of the original signers of the Declaration of Arbroath, proclaiming Scottish independence. A few years later he persuaded the Pope to accept Robert Bruce as the independent King of Scotland.
Being made Earl of Moray was one of his rewards for his allegiance to his king, and he was granted land across Scotland. In 1325, Robert granted the lordship of Aberdour to his nephew, extending the Earl’s existing lands at Dalgety a few miles to the west.
King Robert died just a few years later, and his five-year-old son David was made king. Since a child cannot rule, Thomas Randolph was made regent over him and continued in this position until his death in 1332.
1332 was the year that English nobles began a private war against Scotland to take back their lost lands, and had Edward Balliol installed on the Scottish throne. The transition period after the death of a regent would certainly have been a good time for this. Thomas Randolph’s second son, also called Thomas, took up arms against the invaders.
Tragically Thomas did not live long, and died in battle. His brother John took up the reigns and was much more successful, defeating Edward Balliol in December 1332. With the threat quashed – for now – the Third Earl of Moray took up his father’s old position as Regent of Scotland.
War between England and Scotland was a fact of life for the next few decades. John Randolph often led the Scottish army against their southern neighbours. Included in this number were William Douglas and Alexander Ramsay. After John was captured in battle in 1335, William and Alexander waged guerilla war against the English from the caves and forests of the Borders. This was the only defence in the south of Scotland at this time.
William’s actions in particular stood out, and he became known as ‘the Flower of Chivalry’. Having previously been just a gentleman with a small landholding, he would capture a number of key sites and be granted lands and titles. One in particular was Hermitage Castle on a key invasion route through the Borders, with the title ‘Lord of Liddesdale’.
But his fortune would change somewhat in 1342, the year after Earl John Randolph was returned to Scotland in a prisoner exchange. Through jealousy and anger, his actions would show a less chivalrous side to his nature.
He had been injured in a duel the previous December, and was unable to strike back when the English took one of his castles, at Roxburgh. Instead Alexander Ramsay led the fight, driving the enemy out. In gratitude, King David had him made Keeper of Roxburgh Castle. William’s title.
William. Was. Fuming. Angry at his king and jealous of his former friend, he marched his men up to Hawick, kidnapped Alexander, and brought him back to Hermitage Castle. He stuck the poor man in an oubliette (the name comes from the French ‘to forget’) where he starved to death after seventeen days. King David was naturally furious with William, and until the end of the year refused to forgive him. But eventually the Lord of Liddesdale returned to royal favour.
This was also around the time that John Randolph granted Aberdour Castle and Easter Aberdour to William Douglas, as recognition of his service to Scotland.
England paused its battle with Scotland to turn its gaze south across the channel to France. The ‘Auld Alliance’ between Scotland and France had begun during those first days seeking for independence, at the end of the 13th Century. Now France called in Scotland to meet the terms – to prevent the full force of the English armies falling on them, Scotland would provide a distraction by invading from the north.
English and Scottish forces came together at Neville’s Cross, near Durham. The Scottish armies were led into battle by King David and our two Aberdour-connected nobles – John Randolph and William Douglas. William’s rise from gentleman to noble was complete.
It was a long, bloody, one-sided battle. The English suffered few casualties; the Scots were slaughtered. Many prominent noblemen were killed, including John Randolph. Many others were captured. William and King David soon found themselves on their way to new accommodations in the Tower of London.
Six years passed. Edward III’s desire to fund his wars caused him to offer David up for ransom, and the Scotsmen were even let out temporarily to go around Scotland trying to round up the money. It seems incredible to us today, but being knights they were trusted to hold to a code of conduct that would have them return when they failed. William was not called the Flower of Chivalry for no reason, and David also held to the code.
When they returned in failure, Edward changed tack. He attempted to have the two men submit to him. While David remained firm, and would eventually be acknowledged by England as an independent monarch, William turned to the English side in 1352. As part of the deal, William’s dependents – his daughter and nephew – would be brought to stay in the Tower of London for two years. Meanwhile William would lead the English army north to invade.
It was at this time that William Douglas handed his land – but not the castle – at Aberdour to his nephew James Douglas. This fact was noted in 1361 after King David’s release, in one of the first known mentions of Aberdour Castle.
William returned to Scotland, readying for the English invasion. But he would not live to carry out his promise. The next year he was hunting in Ettrick Forest when he came upon his godson, also called William Douglas. The younger William killed his godfather.
The new Lord of Aberdour, James Douglas, was being held in England at this time. He would continue to be held there until William’s widow Elizabeth agreed to marry an Englishman, so that Hermitage Castle and Liddesdale would fall into English hands.
The First Earl of Morton
James Douglas and his wife Agnes – the First Earl of Moray’s granddaughter – had a son who was also called James, born in their primary home at Dalkeith. It would only be much later, during the Civil War period, that Aberdour would become the family’s primary home. Many of the heirs of this family would be called James and William, so to make sure we keep track I’ll try to use titles where possible.
In 1386 the lordships of Dalkeith and Aberdour were combined into a single barony, making this younger James the First Lord Dalkeith. His wife Elizabeth was the daughter of King Robert III, and they would have five children together. Their descendants continued as Lords of Dalkeith until the mid 1450s.
In 1456, the Third Lord Dalkeith resigned all his estates and titles to his son, James Douglas. I’m not entirely sure why, but this would turn out to be a significant event in the life of Aberdour. Indeed, it was this James Douglas who, as Earl of Morton, was approached by John Scot, vicar of St. Fillan’s, for permission to build a hospice for pilgrims.
So why would King James II of Scotland want to elevate James Douglas to Earl? What great achievement brought him this new recognition?
The answer is marriage. Marriage not just to any woman, but to one of King James’s sisters. The First Lord Dalkeith was able to marry Elizabeth Stewart without needing a promotion, but the same could not be said of Joanna. Even with her disability, which would sadly have lowered her status, it seems he still needed a higher title to match her. Or perhaps it was a gift from James to celebrate his sister’s marriage, and ranking had nothing to do with it.
James and Joanna were closely related (James’s grandmother was Joanna’s aunt) so they got special dispensation from the Pope to marry. Poor Joanna had been engaged twice previously – her first had ended with her fiance’s death, and the second to the Dauphin of France had ended in failure, perhaps due to their difficulty communicating.
Not that Joanna was unable to communicate. Records show that she was able to use sign language, and even had interpreters to explain what she meant – the first time in history we see sign language interpretation. But it was considered uncivilised to use sign language in public, so perhaps the French had a dimmer view of this than the Scots.
It’s important to note that as a noblewoman her experience of being deaf would have been far above what an ordinary deaf person would have experienced. Most deaf people were considered unteachable, and it is only in the eighteenth century that any serious effort was made to teach sign language and allow those with hearing impairment to participate in society.
The elevation in rank and marriage to Joanna both took place in 1358, and the new Countess of Morton would do her wifely duty and bear her husband four children. It seems they had no issues with communication. The title of Lord Dalkeith remained in the family, being always granted to the Earl’s heir.
It was during this time that modifications were made to the original castle design. The tower was heightened to create a third story, with a great hall above the kitchen, and the former first floor hall was divided up into rooms. The top floor also had private rooms. The stone used was much nicer than the earlier rough masonry. A spiral staircase was also added in the south east to navigate between the floors. But while the castle went upwards, its outward expansion would have to wait for later generations of Douglases.
Soon after the Earl and Joanna were married, King James II died, and was succeeded by his son, James III. But the new king was just nine at the time, so regents were appointed over him, to rule Scotland on his behalf. One of these was Robert Boyd, the First Lord Boyd.
Robert conspired with the Bishop of St. Andrews to marry his son off to King James’s oldest sister, Mary, and they tried to bring Morton into this by marrying his son to Robert’s daughter. That was the way alliances and connections were done in those days. In return, the Earl expected to get back some lands that had been taken from him in the regular wars between Scottish noblemen. The king was by now in his mid-teens, and when he found out about this marriage he was furious! He had Robert’s son and the Bishop arrested, and Morton was on the jury who found them guilty of treason.
Fortunately for Robert, he was out of the country when this happened, arranging James III’s marriage to Margaret of Norway. As part of her dowry, Scotland obtained the Orkney Islands, which will be an important part of the Mortons’ future history.
James and Joanna died within months of each other, and are buried together at Dalkeith Castle. The tomb bears a carving of their likenesses, and is one of the earliest-known representations of a deaf person in the world.
There’s little to say about the Second and Third Earls of Morton. They were quiet and careful, building up their lands and wealth, and making note of the valuable coal resources untapped and inaccessible beneath the ground.
But as for the Fourth Earl, he could be a whole episode in himself if we let him. We’re not going to, but only because at some point we need to visit other places in Britain.
The Fourth Earl of Morton
The sixteenth century saw great change in Scotland. Factionalism increased at court, particularly during the reformation, which would lead to the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in favour of her one-year-old son. James VI’s lifetime would continue to be marked by various factions competing to control the king. James Douglas, Fourth Earl of Morton, led one of these groups.
The Fourth Earl was one of many Scottish nobles in the south of Scotland who accepted the protestant faith. But while the majority were Presbyterian, he was a quiet supporter of the English Episcopal system. He would be happy to get involved with political struggles, but would stay out of things religiously.
In 1563 he reached the heights of power when he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Scotland. He built supporters around him, and in March 1566 was well-placed to take care of someone many in the court did not like: Mary’s private secretary, the Italian David Rizzio. The pair were quite close, and rumour had it he – not Lord Darnley – was the real father of her unborn baby.
Mary, her sister and David were dining at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, when the plot was triggered. The first conspirator, Mary’s own husband Lord Darnley, arrived unexpectedly to sit and chat with his wife. This was not his usual behaviour, and suspicions were aroused.
Then came the next conspirator, the deathly-ill Earl of Ruthven. He felt so strongly about this matter that he’d left his sickbed. From the door he called for David to “come forth of your presence, for he has been overlong here.”
They knew immediately this would be the Italian’s last moments. Mary attempted to shelter her companion behind herself, while the Earl waved his pistol at the guards to keep them away. Then, the Earl of Morton’s men burst in, grabbed David and dragged him out. He was stabbed more than fifty times before his body was dragged away and buried in the nearby church.
Mary’s position and pregnancy meant she could not be dealt with so easily. They held her under guard in the palace with Darnley to prevent her escape. That should have been enough, but Mary reasoned with her husband, showing him that the plotters would never let him have power once they succeeded. Darnley turned to his wife’s cause and they fled to safety through the palace’s secret passages.
Morton knew he was in trouble, and hurried across the Forth to Aberdour where a messenger soon arrived
to search, seek, intromet [enter] and make inventory of part of the escheit goods [goods reverting to the state], corns, cattle and others whatsover pertained to James Earl of Morton, being in Aberdour.
Soon after, a summons was sent, charging him with the murder, but he’d already fled to England for safety.
He did not remain south of the border for long, and by Christmas he’d returned, back in Mary’s good books. Darnley died in a suspicious explosion that February, and her power was soon fading. James’s birth had seen the succession secure, and Morton persuaded her to abdicate the throne.
For the next four years he would advise the new king’s regency council, and then in 1572 became regent himself, for a period of six years.
It was during this time that James Morton began an expansion of Aberdour Castle. He converted a great hall on the east of the building into a three story range, today the central range of the castle. On the ground floor was a kitchen and basement, in the middle were his private rooms, and on the top were his wife Elizabeth’s private rooms. This section of the building is particularly notable for having corridors, an unusual feature at a time where most rooms would have connected only by stairs or straight into other rooms. A corridor was an extravagance and show of wealth, that not all the space in a building needed to be used for living.
Outside, the keen gardener would convert his sloping grounds into a four-level terraced garden, which would have been admired by the Privy Council when they met here in August 1567. And this was another extravagant show. When most people were living hand-to-mouth, this noble could convert his grounds into a grassy terraced lawn with use only for pleasure, and barely feel the cost.
But his downfall would come from jealousy and anger from his rival nobles. They believed he had used his position to take land and block their own promotions, and he was forced into resignation in 1578.
He didn’t stay in obscurity for long. Two years later he took control of Stirling Castle and the king, and forced his way back into his old position as regent. Soon after, one of his rival regency councillors died, with James suspected of his poisoning.
There was still plenty of hate out there for the Earl of Morton, so when James VI’s cousin Esme Stewart accused him of Darnley’s murder in 1582, he was immediately arrested and soon convicted of treason. He was stripped of his title, which was then given to his nephew James, Lord Maxwell.
Earlier in the century, James Douglas had introduced the Iron Maiden into Scotland to be used for beheadings. Now it would be used against him. His body was buried in a commoner’s grave at Greyfriars Kirk Edinburgh, while his head was stuck on a pike outside the notorious Tollbooth prison.
James had no children of his own. His closest heir had been Archibald Douglas, another nephew, but Archibald was too close to his uncle and had supported him through the trial. So once his uncle was sentenced to death he’d fled to exile in England.
In 1584 a new faction rose to power in James’s court, favourable towards Archibald and his claim to the Earl of Morton title. He returned to Edinburgh, becoming Sixth Earl of Morton, and persuaded King James to allow him to remove his uncle’s head, and have it buried with the rest of him at Greyfriars Kirk. In the late 16th Century all the gravestones were removed from the kirkyard, so we do not know exactly where he was buried.
But the faction didn’t last long, and Archibald went back into exile ‘beyond the Spey’, to Elgin in Moray. This was about as far and remote as you can get. And eventually he was forced into England, where he joined a number of Scottish exiles close to the court of Queen Elizabeth.
In November 1585 an English-supported army came north, re-captured Stirling, and power shifted once again at James’s court. William remained at the centre of Scottish power until his death at Dalkeith in 1588.
The title passed to Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, a great-grandson of the fourth Earl, since Archibald had no male heirs. It was during William’s time that an orchard was planted to the south west, below the terraces, including peach and apricot trees. It is also around this time that a large ‘doocot’ was built, a spiralling circular structure that housed pigeons whose droppings would be used as fertiliser.
Next week we’ll return to Aberdour, starting with another influential figure in castle’s development and connections – the Eighth Earl of Morton, William Douglas.
Aberdour Castle official souvenir guide, Heritage Scotland