The King, the Queen, her lover and his death: The Bonnie Earl of Moray.

Donibristle House site of Donibristle Castle
There is very little left of the original Donibristle Castle, the site of the brutal murder of James Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Moray. There was a major program of rebuilding, and Donibristle House was built on the site of the castle in 1700. It may seem strange to some in the 21st century that we are even stopping to remember a murder that took place over 400 years ago. Indeed, without the existence of the ballad I suspect the murder would have been long forgotten. And that, surely, is the point. A ballad such as the one we are stopping to look at this week has well served its purpose. It was written to be a reminder of a hideous and dreadful crime, and it has done so with great style. So wherever you are, come with me as we whistle down the old road to 16th century Scotland.
The north east coast of Scotland
James Stewart, 2nd Earl of Moray was very keen to extend both his influence and his power. He became Earl in 1580 through marriage to Elizabeth, oldest daughter of the 1st Earl. As King James sought to position himself as the heir to Queen Elizabeth of England, he was doing his best to keep in her favour. As the Spanish Armada threatened England and Elizabeth, James promised that Scotland would come to her aid. The King appointed James Stewart, the ‘Bonnie’ Earl, to be a commissioner to fight against the armada should it seek to land on Scottish shores.
One of Stewart’s noble neighbors, George Gordon, 1st Marquess of Huntly was said to be very jealous of Stewart’s good looks and his ease of being. It was also said that Gordon was angry at the decision of the King to give to Stewart the wardship of the Earldom of Moray. Indeed, it is believed that Gordon sought the Earldom for himself. Adding spice to the mix of contemporary politics in Scotland at this time, Gordon was a Roman Catholic, which was a fairly dangerous thing to be at this time in Scottish history. The King’s mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, and many noble families still grieved for Mary and kept to the Catholic faith.
The father of James Stewart’s wife, the 1st Earl of Moray, had been the King’s Regent, assuming that office because of the King’s age at the time his mother, Queen Mary, had been forced to abdicate. Such were the turbulent times in Scotland that the 1st Earl of Moray was assassinated by James Hamilton, who was a Roman Catholic, in Linlithgow in 1570.
Painting of James Hamilton prior to his assassination of the 1st Earl of Moray
This assassination of a head of state is believed to be the first one done by using a gun. To highlight the tensions that destroyed families in Scotland at this time, it is worth remembering that the 1st Earl of Moray was the illegitimate son of King James V and was Mary Queen of Scots’ half brother.
The 1st Earl of Moray
King James VI grew up having become King because his mother had been forced to abdicate and then later beheaded. His uncle, the Earl of Moray was assassinated while he was about ten. He faced plots and counter plots throughout his early years, as the various warring factions within his nobles sought to gain power for themselves. He also believed that witches were out to get him and damage his kingship. One could understand if James felt somewhat paranoid! As King, James was very quick to react when someone shouted ‘treason,’ and this leads into the story behind the ballad.
In his ambition to increase his power and influence, James Stewart (the 2nd Earl) made a fatal mistake. In  1590 he entered into an alliance with his wife’s cousin Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell. The Earl of Bothwell had once been close to the King, but had fallen out of favour partly as a result of stating his belief that the Scots should invade England after the English had beheaded Mary Queen of Scots. King James became very suspicious of Bothwell and believed he wanted to remove him from his throne. Bothwell was charged by the King with treason and witchcraft.
Meanwhile George Gordon, the Marquess of Huntly was currently attacking the Laird of Grant, an ally of the Earl of Moray. James Stewart decided to come to the Laird’s aid. This resulted in Gordon fleeing to Edinburgh and making huge claims about conspiracies and seeking the King’s permission to go after Bothwell and all associated with him. Due to James Stewart’s decision to get involved with Bothwell, he gave Gordon a political weapon to use against him. The King ordered that both Stewart and Gordon come to Edinburgh and appear before him. However, because of Gordon’s skillful political manipulation of the situation, he now gained the right to bring Stewart to the King.
We get a sense from the words of the ballad that James Stewart was a very popular figure. It is believed he was handsome and rumors circulated that King James’ Queen, Anne of Denmark was very taken with him. In the ballad we read that he was regarded as being very able and sportive. He was also regarded as being a true gentleman.
Anne of Denmark around 1612
Francis James Child in his collection of ballads from Scotland and England recorded two versions of the Bonnie Earl of Moray. The words to first one are recorded here:
YE Highlands, and ye Lawlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And they layd him on the green.
‘Now wae be to thee, Huntly!
And wherefore did you sae?
I bade you bring him wi you,
But forbade you him to slay.’
He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny Earl of Murray,
Oh he might have been a king!
 He was a braw gallant,
And he playd at the ba;
And the bonny Earl of Murray
Was the flower amang them a’.
He was a braw gallant,
And he playd at the glove;
And the bonny Earl of Murray,
Oh he was the Queen’s love!
Oh lang will his lady
Look oer the castle Down,
Eer she see the Earl of Murray
Come sounding thro the town!
This is probably the most well known of the versions. Both versions can be found here. The ballad opens with a cry to the nation and a declaration of failure. The Earl of Moray has been killed and where were you? The second verse seems to come from man who ordered the arrest of Moray, namely the King. The King did not come out of this incident well. Suspicion fell on the King, and many questioned his motives and his involvement with Gordon. Indeed, the ballad makes these suspicions very real as it explicitly states that Moray could have been King himself, and declares that he was the Queen’s love.
As James Stewart headed south to Edinburgh, George Gordon headed north seeking to find him. It is not known if Stewart knew that Gordon was after him. Eventually, Gordon tracked Stewart down to Donibristle Castle near the north shore of the Forth across from Edinburgh. Gordon was refused entry and besieged the Castle. Gordon and his men set fire to the castle. Stewart tried to escape and it is said that while he was escaping along the shore it was spotted that plume of Moray’s helmet was on fire and this was what alerted Gordon and his men.
If Gordon had received an order from King James not to slay him, he completely ignored this. It is said that Gordon himself, filled with rage, killed James Stewart. Gordon slashed the face of Stewart and Stewart was said to have remarked “You have spoilt a better face than your own.” If Stewart really did say these words then clearly there were not designed to persuade Gordon from stopping. Stewart was repeatedly stabbed and shot.
News of James Stewart’s murder was greeted with shock across Scotland. In particular, his mother Margaret Campbell was so dismayed by his murder that she commissioned a painting showing every wound suffered by his son.
The portrait of James Stewart showing his wounds.

This painting hangs in Darnaway Castle near Forres in Moray which is the seat of the current Earl of Moray. The speech bubble shown above coming out of the dead Stewart contains the words “God revenge my cause.”

Suspicion about King James’ involvement in this murder increased when it became clear that George Gordon would suffer no punishment for the murder of Stewart.
It is said that on a dark night a ghostly image of the slain Moray haunts the shore line around the old castle at Donibristle still.
The author of these words and the tune itself have long been lost to history. That the ballad is still sung today is testament to both of them.


‘Mondegreen’ is a mishearing of some words in the first verse of this ballad. The writer Sylvia Wright wrote in an article in Harper’s magazine in 1954 how she had thought that the first verse of this ballad contained the words:
“Ye Highlands, and ye Lawlands,
 Oh where have you been?
 They have slain the Earl of Murray,
 And the Lady Mondegreen.”
Since then, this term has come to designate a mishearing of lyrics in a song. There is even a website dedicated to mondegreens that has the evocative title of ‘Kiss This Guy,’ itself a wonderful mondegreen of Jimi Hendrix’s song Purple Haze. The website can be found here. There is also a short but interesting piece from the New York Times that can be found here.
I will end with The Corries haunting version of the song.

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