Mary Queen of Scots Stayed Here

Amongst the exhibits at Blairs Museum, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, is a full length portrait of Mary dressed exactly as she would have been on the day of her execution. 
Reproduced from a miniature smuggled abroad by one of her ‘Mary’s in waiting’, the portrait was returned to Scotland many years after her death, having been saved from the mob during the French Revolution by being rolled up and then hidden in a chimney-breast.
Mary of course had strong links with the North-east. In September 1562 she set out on one of her several journeys around Scotland. Each of her tours, known as Progressions, lasted for weeks at a time and in consequence she stayed at various castles and country houses along the way.

Estimates vary wildly however it is likely that at least 80 historic houses in Scotland can rightly make the claim that “Mary Queen of Scots stayed here” in their respective guidebooks. Some such as Pitcaple Castle can really only lay claim to the fact that the monarch visited briefly along the way. Seemingly Mary stayed overnight at nearby Balquhain Castle before taking breakfast at Pitcaple.

After her meal the queen stayed on just long enough to plant a thorn-tree which survived until 1856 when it blew down in a gale. It was later replaced by a red maple planted by a later Queen Mary in 1923.

In 1562 Mary was a spectator at the Battle of Corrichie near Banchory. The conflict had resulted from a dispute in which the Earl of Huntly came out against the Queen. The Earl’s forces were soundly defeated but before he could be brought to justice, the unfortunate man died of apoplexy.

His demise was summed up graphically by a witness who recorded that “without either blowe or stroke he sodenlie fawlethe from his horse starke dedde!”

Many of the captured rebel leaders were executed and even in death, Huntly did not escape punishment. His corpse was transported to Aberdeen Tolbooth where a local surgeon was charged with embalming it. In February 1563, with Mary Queen of Scots in attendance, his by now putrefying corpse, was put on trial in Edinburgh and found guilty of high treason. The sentence was forfeiture of all of his lands and possessions. In 1566, when passions had cooled, the guilty corpse was returned to his family for burial at Elgin Cathedral.

As for Mary, she was beheaded in 1587 following trial and conviction for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth. Her last words were a Latinised version of “Into thy hands, O Lord I commend my spirit” after which the executioner, in a supremely botched execution, drove his axe deep into the back of her head.

Duncan Harley is the author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire


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