Listen to the Stones

Last June, on a perfect afternoon, I strolled down to the grounds of  Blackness Castle, a favourite haunt of mine. Ruined, but still retaining great dignity, the ancient stones of this extraordinary boat-shaped stronghold thrust out into the waters of the Forth as if ready for sea. I love to come here for the view, the peace and the special atmosphere that it holds.

The castle has played a major part in the country’s history and, in  turn, has been a defence against Norsemen, an artillery depot, a military barracks and, most notoriously, a state prison for nobles. The place simply reeks of history and if its stones could speak, as they say, they’d surely have tales to tell.

So, I was encouraged to take a seat on a bench and, as usual, as if seeing it all for the first time, drank in the stunning, panoramic view to the east. The mighty Forth Bridges, the wide fast flowing river, the indications of industry and the bright sun-dappled fields of Fife and Lothian. The warmth and peace fed my reluctance to move on – rather stay a while. So I settled down to do just that.

But then, suddenly, the view began to change. Startlingly, the two great bridges had gone, all signs of commerce had disappeared and the river banks, on both sides, sported thick forest. Just as startling, the old castle was wholly restored, with colourful pennants fluttering from twin towers and spear-carrying, helmeted soldiers in chain mail pacing the walls. Overall a bustle of people going about their business and the all-pervading scent of wood smoke and cooking.

On one side, smocked gardeners carefully tended rose gardens, whilst others scythed and swept the lawn. On the other, a constant procession of hot-and-bothered looking women, obviously cooks and kitchen maids, scurried to unknown destinations, bearing steaming platters and cauldrons. Across the courtyard paced two white-robed and hooded figures, heads bowed, hands working rosaries and the scene made complete by the sound of sweet, haunting music from a brightly red and orange clad individual, whose fingers skilfully plucked at some sort of stringed instrument.

Then, clattering and jingling into the courtyard came a glittering, horsed company, at its head a large, bearded individual clad in half armour, with the red heart of Douglas emblazoned on his surcoat. At his side rode a pale, gingerish youth dressed in rich velvet and a circlet of gold around his head. When the bearded man addressed this latter as ‘Jamie’, I realised, from my passing knowledge of Scottish history, that the boy could only be King James V, son of that other gallant James who fell at Flodden along with most of the Scottish nobility. His burly escort must then be no other than the Regent, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, and, incredibly, this was the sixteenth century.

Meanwhile, the horsed party had dismounted and, whilst their steaming mounts were led away, an official of some sort from the castle made his black-robed obeisance and, with great respect, ushered the visitors into the main building. It wasn’t long before Black Robe reappeared and, to my bewilderment, strode purposefully across the courtyard towards me.

“With me, clerk!” he commanded and, gripping my own robe, (where did that come from?) hustled me into the castle building. Now I was really scared. The coridors were dark, damp-smelling and, after reaching a narrow spiral staircase, we mounted to a large chamber above. Huge fires blazed at either side, a mass of candles provided the light and the bare stone walls were a stark background to the massive central table and   heraldically adorned chairs.

Sit there!” said Black Robe, indicating the foot of the table. “There you will find sufficient pens, ink and paper to do your work. Be sure to make a good record of all – miss nothing – at your peril. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” I heard myself say in a small shaky voice.

The scene continued to unfold as a door in the thick wall opened and there entered twenty or so finely dressed characters who took places round the table. Then all conversation ceased and, with a scraping of chairs, everyone rose as in stalked a scowling Earl, followed by the young, nervous-looking King Jamie. Both took places on a dais at the far end of the room and Angus stood to address the gathering – he said something like:

“My lords, you are welcome to this Blackness stronghold and to the presence of His Grace, James, King of Scots. “As you know I, as Regent, hold his Grace safely in my protection until he reaches sufficient age to rule.”

Rumblings from the assembly.

“We are here today to review the year-long imprisonment in this place of Cardinal David Beaton, immured on a count of treason against his Sovereign. The pleadings of various parties and important letters received, not the least from His Holiness, make this necessary so, let us be on with it. Bring in his eminence, the prisoner.”

Through the same door strolled a handsome, elegant middle-aged man – presumably the famous David Beaton, who, judging by his appearance, seemed to have survived his year of confinement in the state prison rather well. Pacing up to the dais he bowed deeply to the King but, noticeably, not to the Earl.
Angus frowned at this and, with a flourish, unrolled a scroll from which he read.

“My Lords, hear the will of his Grace with regard to the prisoner before you : It is my will and pleasure to restore my well-beloved David Beaton to my royal peace and favour. His wise counsel has been missed.”
More rumblings seemed to indicate some disapproval.

The King himself, obviously well schooled, then rose and, in slightly faltering voice, said, “Cardinal Beaton, do you affirm allegiance to me as your Sovereign and do you promise to use your best offices forthwith to benefit this my  realm?”

Spreading his arms, Beaton replied, “Your Grace I assure you that all my past actions, though perhaps misunderstood by some, were for the weal of the realm and I affirm will so be  for the future.”

“Then enter into my peace,” said the King, stepping forward and embracing the Cardinal.

Quickly now, a fierce-looking Black Robe was at my side obviously intent on collecting the written record of all this.  Fiercer-looking when he saw that I had failed to make any record whatsoever – apart from the date, 1562. This the result of my total captivation by the drama in progress.

Much alarmed, I knew that I was in big trouble when Black Robe seized my arm and began shouting and shaking…..shaking…….shaking.  Suddenly though, and strangely, I felt a gentle rain on my face and his words changed to, “Come on sir, it’s five o’clock and I’ve got to shut the castle and, forbye, you’re getting a wee bit wet.”

With pounding heart and shaking hands I was suddenly back sitting on the original bench amidst some twenty first century rain: the view was quite restored and there was no sign of the things and the people that I’d seen.

So what had I seen? Had I merely been dreaming? If so, how could I have imagined all that vivid detail, even now so amazingly clearly remembered? No, it hadn’t been a dream; I knew that I’d been given a unique opportunity in this special place.

It’s true when they say that the stones bear the marks of times gone by.

A few days later, having resolved to research my experience, I visited the National Archives repository in Edinburgh.

Given freedom to explore using the microfiche system, I selected the film reel for 1562 and crossed my fingers. Records for this year were somewhat sparse but at least the records of the Scottish Parliament, in this turbulent year, seemed to have been reasonably maintained. I trawled through difficult-to-read reports and records of decisions and events that had taken place and laws on farming, taxation, military training and trade with neighbouring states till I reached the date of June 14th. This was it!

Excitedly I read that the Regent, Earl Angus, and a deputation of Lords of Parliament had escorted King James to “Blackness Castle on the Forth Shore” for the purpose of  considering the terms of imprisonment in that place of Cardinal David Beaton: the reason for this apparently being a lately received letter from “His Holiness in Rome”.

June 15th – No entry for this date

June 16th –My heart nearly stopped when I read….

“In this year of our Lord 1562, at the Royal Castle of Blackness, his Grace James, by the grace of God, King of Scots and the puissant Archibald Douglas, Earl, Regent and protector commanded an assembly of all Nobles and other suitable personages.”

The document went on to state that the previous decision to release Cardinal Beaton had not been ratified by Parliament as no record of the event was kept at the time. In view of this, a record was to be made in retrospect by attending clergy and submitted to parliament, due to meet in three months time. In the meantime Cardinal Beaton would remain in prison and the Blackness Chancellor, responsible for ensuring that records were kept, would also be imprisoned in his own dungeon, for the said three months, to atone for his failure.

I scrolled forward through the records till the next reference to all this caught my eye –
September 12th – Parliament did meet in Edinburgh and high on the report it was declared that the release of Cardinal David Beaton had been agreed and confirmed and would take place forthwith.

There was no mention of the fate or even the release of “Black Robe”, the unfortunate Chancellor.

Perhaps my next ‘dream’ will continue the story.

2 thoughts on “Listen to the Stones”

  1. Outstanding contribution towards Scottish history, waiting for the next installment.

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