Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Right to Reply - Scottish History

For the latest in the series, I asked three authors of novels set in Scotland to answer my questions. Can they agree, or at least agree to disagree?
Let's see how Louise Turner, Malcolm Archibald, and Margaret Skea responded to the challenge:~

Welcome all. Firstly can I ask you to name your 'champion' Scottish (non-fictional) figure, and tell me why?

Louise: I had a really tough time choosing this one, but I’m going to make a case for Hugh Montgomerie, 1st Earl of Eglinton. He was a survivor - he made it through the turbulent aftermath of Flodden, and he may even have made it through the battle itself.  We know he was a proficient fighter – he put in such a good performance fighting for James IV that his conduct on the field was noted by his new monarch. Having been acquitted of murder by the age of 25 we know he must have been pretty handy in a fight off the battlefield, too. He was a skilled politician in his own right – a Privy Councillor by the age of 30 – and so respected by his peers that in the post-Flodden period, he was made a tutor to the infant James V. This monarch also appointed him Vice-Regent later in the reign when he faced the prospect of a temporary absence from his kingdom.  

Portrait of James V

And setting aside all the acts of summary execution and judicial sleight of hands he performed in his life (i.e. he was pretty darned ruthless when he had to be), he seems to have had a sound grasp of Scots law, which would make him a useful ally in times of peace as well as war. Still active in politics until the age of 78, the experience he’d have gained by this time would make him an invaluable advisor on matters of state. 

If he has one failing, it lies in the fact that he always allowed himself to be distracted by issues close to home, putting the needs of his own family and its success before the needs of the state, but in that respect, that makes him no different from most of the nobility who were active in the medieval and late medieval periods.

Malcolm: If we are looking for somebody distinctively Scottish, somebody who epitomises the Scottish character, then it narrows down to four individuals:

Number one is Black Agnes, scion of the Black Douglas, who defended Dunbar Castle against a massive English army? ‘Come they early, come they late, they found Agnes at the gate.’ I have a lot of time for that lady. Reminds me of the wife, really.

Black Agnes in H E Marshall's 'Scotland's Story', published in 1906.

Number two: Wallace. Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland who, along with Andy of Moray led the resistance against Edward Longshanks, King of England, who was arguably the man who did most to poison Scottish-English relations. Wallace, a man of the people, with a name that signifies he was of the old British blood, stood tall when most of the nobility jacked in. His example put iron in the Scottish soul. 

Number three: King Robert the First, victor of Loudon, Glen Trool, Brander, Bannockburn and I don’t know how many other battles and skirmishes against the English and their allies. Enough said about His Grace.

Number four: James of Douglas, the Good Sir James, the Black Douglas who was King Robert’s eyes, ears and sword on the Border.

The Black Douglas' final resting place

Of these four I will opt for Agnes. Left alone, with her husband elsewhere, facing massive odds, she refused to surrender, mocked her attackers and held out. As I said, she reminds me of my wife, defending her home and people. You can’t get better than that. 

Margaret: This was easy for me. Macbeth (yes that Macbeth) was a good king, with all the qualities a king needed in his period. Kingship in medieval times was not a matter of divine right, but of might – a good king was one capable of ruling effectively, bringing stability to the country he governed, and crucially, protecting both country and populace against their enemies. On all these counts Macbeth scores highly. 

He was a strong leader, in both military and social terms, popular with his people, and so far as we can tell a man of integrity according to the norms of his time. Yes, he became king as a result of the death of Duncan, but that was in battle, not through murder, and it was a battle that Macbeth did not seek, rather it was Duncan who was the aggressor. 

He subsequently married Gruoch, which provided her with protection, support and status, and all the evidence suggests that he treated her son well, despite his lack of ability. And while we cannot judge his measure of faith, he did go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which indicates more than mere lip service to religious belief. 

Most important of all, during his rule Scotland enjoyed seventeen years of peace.  A considerable achievement at that time. 

What was the most significant period/event in Scottish history, and why?

Louise: I’m going to opt for the fateful decision made in the late 1690s to launch the Darien Scheme. It bankrupted Scotland, it bankrupted many of the country’s ruling class, leaving the door wide open for the Union of Parliament in 1707.  

Did the financial impact of Darien lead to a desperation –particularly in the north – which in turn fuelled Jacobitism and then led to the appalling actions of the British government in the Highlands? Maybe… 
Did this hardship then fuel the zeal for Improvement which led to massive changes in land tenure and the mass-eviction of tenants who then emigrated to the United States and Canada and Australia, etcetera? Potentially…

So, ladies and gentleman, I give you Darien.  It has to be Darien… (Although can I note as a personal aside that this was the first time since the 1460s that a Montgomerie and a Cunninghame had actually worked together for a change instead of feuding. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? Hmm, we’ll have to let history speak for itself, won’t we?)

Malcolm: Again, it is hard to tell. The period of formation when the small nations merged into one; Dalriada, Fortrenn, Circinn, Strathclyde and all the rest  all coalescing together in a union that looked uneasy but which has stood the test of time. With Scotland being one of the oldest continually existing nations in Europe despite all the ups and downs of history, somebody did something right.

A second vital period was the gradual removal of the Norse from the North and West and the revival of Gaelic culture. With so much of Scottish history having a ‘southern’ or even ‘Edinburgh’ bias, that period is often glossed over. 

A third vital period: the Wars of Independence when Edward Longshanks tried to remove Scotland from the map. He failed of course and died a bitter old man, cursing the nation he could not break. 


A fourth was the pre-Union period, when famine stalked the land, causing terrible devastation, killing thousands and bringing the nation to the point of starvation so the people sought relief in colonial enterprises and an unequal, desperate union.

Most significant? Arguably the removal of the Norse. The revitalisation of the Gaelic culture gave Scotland a distinctive identity, a fusion of Gaelic and Scots. 

Margaret: James VI inherited a Scotland riven by clan feuding and governed by nobles who jostled for position and for control over the infant king. As an adult and a ‘king-in-waiting’ he wanted, when the time came to move to London, to leave behind a more stable and settled society. 

He therefore set out to subdue the nobles, to establish law and to raise up a ‘middle class’ from among the lairds, who would have a vested interest in stability and security. His success is vividly illustrated in the changes in domestic architecture. 

James VI & I

In 1567, when he came to the throne, the lairds and the nobility for the most part lived in dark and inhospitable tower houses, built more for defence than for comfort, replete with arrow slits and protective iron grids at their entrances
By 1625 the Scots, no longer so preoccupied with the threat of attack at home, have begun to extend their properties, enter at ground level, and generally turn their dwellings into homes rather than fortresses. 
That’s the positive. 
And the negative? 
After James’ accession to the English throne, he only returned to Scotland twice more, and the practical outworking of first, the Union of the Crowns, and ultimately the Act of Union, and thus government from London, paved the way for the resentments that have continued to beset life and politics north of the Border up to the present day.    

You have the chance to right a wrong in Scottish history - which would it be, and why?

Louise: I want the body of James IV brought back home to Scotland and buried with full pomp and honour, in the manner befitting a king.  It’s happened to Richard III, so I’m still hopeful….  I mean, it’s not too difficult is, it?  To locate the cemetery in London (I think they’ve got a pretty good idea where it is already), to look for a headless corpse of a middle-aged man in robust good health who died a violent death.  We could carry out a DNA test and some AMS dating, and then – voila!

James IV

Malcolm: One glaring wrong stands out above all others: the cultural genocide against the Gaelic culture, and physical genocide against the Gaelic people. From the time of James IV at least, Lowland Scotland engaged in a cultural war against the Gaels. Rather than engaging in mutual aggression, the two cultures should have fused, with the amazing vitality of one of the oldest languages in Europe joining the steel-cored Lowlanders and Borderers who had resisted invasion and still kept trade and personal links with Europe and beyond. Since devolution there has been a partial resurgence in the Gaelic culture, but there is a long way to go before it has parity with English in schools and in the streets.

Margaret: Louise has talked of returning the body of James IV to Scotland. I am less concerned where someone lies after their death than that memory is retained of their activities during their lifetime, good or bad. 

With a daughter-in law who is a native Gaelic speaker and 3 grandchildren who will be bi-lingual, I accept the relevance of Malcolm’s point. 

But if I was to reverse just one wrong, it would be the Duke of Cumberland’s ‘no quarter policy’ following the Battle of Culloden. No visitor to the battle site can fail to be moved by the many simply marked grass-covered mounds, each one signifying the grave of the members of a particular clan who fell that day. Many were wounded and shot, clubbed and bayonetted where they fell, after the battle had been won. Many others were pursued as they fled and slaughtered without mercy. 

Cumberland - by Reynolds

It is thought at least 1000 men died in the post-battle suppression across the Highlands. Today it would be recognised as a ‘war crime’; even then the horror was acknowledged in the name ‘Butcher Cumberland.’ 

You're about to go into battle - what is your weapon of choice, and why?

Louise: I’m a traditional kind of gal.  I’m going to opt for the good old long sword, hand-and-a-half sword, bastard sword, call it what you will.  When used in the hands of a skilled practitioner, schooled in the manner proposed by Hans Talhoffer and his ilk, I don’t think it can be matched. 

Unarmoured longsword fencers (plate 25 of the 1467 manual of Hans Talhoffer)

Except perhaps by a mobile rocket propelled grenade.  Or a gun (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for the proof of this in action….)  But let’s not go there, shall we?  Though personally I suspect that Hugh Montgomerie’s preferred method was to use a gang of hired goons (probably made up of close relations and familiars) who could be used as an impromptu lynch mob….

Malcolm: That would depend who is in charge! If it is one of the Champions mentioned in the first question, then I will take my place in the schiltrom, or heft my Highland claymore and have the dirk in my oxter. However, too many Scottish nobles were just numpties when it came to leading, and allowed their men to be slaughtered at long range by Welsh or English arrows. So in that case I will revert to my Border ancestry (the first known Archibald was in Jedburgh) as opposed to my Ross or Stewart Highland forebears, and ride into battle with my 9-foot lance, backsword and dag. 

A lance tip from the re-enactment of the Eglinton Tournament (1839)

I will fight my ain way, hit and run, until I think the time has come for a stand. As the mediaeval period has long gone, and Scottish history still continues, I will fight with whatever the latest and best automatic rifle is available, use Bruce’s tactics, the skills of the SAS (created by a Scotsman, of course) and the guile of Sir James of Douglas, together with the sheer courage of Wallace, Gaelic fire and the determination of Black Agnes.
  That would be something now!

Margaret: There is something very appealing in being able to cut down your enemy at 400 yards (always supposing, of course, that his range and expertise only allows for 380 yards). Ideally I would defend the ramparts and my arrows would fly true.
I do have a certain skill in archery, or at least I seemed to when I tried it for the first time as an accompanying adult on a primary school trip, and disappointed all the kids lined up behind me by bursting the balloon on the bull’s eye with my first arrow. 

I would require a specially made bow, weighted in proportion to my own size and strength, and I would only be of use in battles that took place prior to 1648. (By the end of the 30 years war archery was on the wane as artillery developed, but that’s ok; my chosen period is the 16th century anyway.) I’d like to have my skill tested at the first organised archery competition, which took place at Finsbury in 1583, though how I would compare against the other 3000 competitors I’m not sure. Nor if they would have had anything quite so enticing as a bright red balloon to aim for.  

[all above images are in the public domain]

Louise Turner is an archaeologist and author who lives in Scotland. The follow-up to her novel Fire & Sword, The Gryphon at Bay, has just been released. 
Find Louise and more about her books at her website

Malcolm Archibald was born in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and educated at Dundee University. His first published article was at the age of 17, his first book, 'Scottish Battles' was published in 1990 and in 1999 his 'Mother Law' was a runner up at the inaugural Dundee Book Prize; in 2005 his 'Whales for the Wizard' won it outright and in 2011 his 'The Darkest Walk' was a winner in the People's Book Prize.
Find more about Malcolm and his books on his website 

Margaret Skea is originally from Ulster but her books, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided are set in 16th century Ayrshire. Find Margaret and more about writing on her website 


  1. Thanks for another great post, Annie & guests! These are a great way to get a glimpse at new eras of history and new authors. Love it!

    1. Thanks Samantha,
      It has been a lot of fun putting this series together and receiving such wonderfully diverse answers from all these fantastic authors :-)

  2. Beautifully put together, Annie, thank you!

    1. Thanks Margaret for your insights - this was a lively discussion and the answers were incredibly diverse. Thanks so much for taking part :-)

  3. What a great post and very intriguing to read. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks Cindy - so glad you enjoyed it. It's been a lot of fun putting this series together and all the authors have been amazing.

  4. Thank you for another great post. How Butcher Cumberland could have been left to run rampant is beyond belief. What a cruel individual.

    1. Thanks Deborah. It was such a joy to put this series together and to hear what all these different authors had to say. You can see why I asked them; they are all so passionate about their subject. I was talking to another author of Jacobite novels, and she made the observation that Cumberland was very attentive to his own troops. It adds another dimension to his cruelty, knowing that he was not brutal to those who weren't the enemy.