Bones of contention for the Scottish Borders

untitled-1Evidence of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, having a sense of humour is particularly thin on the ground.

You can understand it. Born into the turbulent times of 16th century Scotland he was destined to be marked for controversy and a target for extreme vilification from his contemporaries throughout his life.

And anyone who called home the grim looking Hermitage Castle in the heart of the Scottish Borders Reivers country  in upper Liddlesdale deserves some sympathy.

That Bothwell played for high stakes is undoubted. His marriage to the catholic Mary Queen of Scots, following the ambiguous murder of her second husband Darnley, in Edinburgh is the measure of a highly ambitious man.

A well known figure in the courts of France, Scotland and England, at the age of 21 Bothwell succeeded to the hereditary title of Lord High Admiral of Scotland on the death of his father.

Living in the rarified atmosphere of Scotland’s enobled elite, Bothwell aspired to play a part in shaping the future of his nation. His ace was Mary, who he wed in 1567, but the suit turned out to be spades.

For over twenty years Mary and Elizabeth, like two queens facing each other across a chessboard played out a deadly game of royal rivals – but it was never a fair contest.

As one became an all powerful regent, dominating those around her, the other was reduced to the role of pawn as Scottish nobility squabbled; about who controlled what, about religion and power.

Into this lethal world of intrigue, deceit and double dealing Bothwell strode confidently centre stage with all the subtlety of a force eight gale blowing across the the Forth.

His marriage to Mary sparked off rebellion leading to her imprisonment (she was later to ‘escape’ to England and incarceration in Fotheringay Castle) while he was outlawed and forced to flee the country.

Bothwell-TiBothwell ended up in Dragsholm Castle in Denmark where he spent the last eight years of life tethered to a pillar in the dungeons. He reputedly went mad and died in 1578 at the age of 44. High stakes indeed.

Ever since Bothwell has been the victim of a pretty bad press; murderer, rapist and a power hungry egotist are the main charges laid at his door by detractors.

It’s a state of affairs that makes his modern day supporters extremely hot under the collar and one they are determined to redress. Bothwell, they say, is a man more spinned against than spinner.

We could forgive our hero breaking into a broad smile at the thought of this exercise in rehabilitation. Maybe he deserves a break after all this time – it’s been over 430 years.

For all of that time Bothwell’s mummified remains have been held at Faravejle Church near Dragsholm, sometimes on public display as a gruesome tourist attraction. They currently rest in an oak casket in a side chapel and are still a draw for visitors.

His descendant Sir Alastair Buchan-Hepburn, 8th Baronet of Smeaton (top), is the rallying point for an international campaign that seeks to restore Bothwell’s reputation and have his remains returned from Denmark for decent burial in Scotland.

“It would be wonderful if he were brought back. We believe he should be recognised as a Scottish patriot who was loyal to his queen. His rightful place is back in Scotland. I read about him as a boy and have always felt he had been unjustly treated, unbribable by the English unlike much of the Scots nobility.

“He should be considered one of the great Scots but it’s winners who write history. There is a view that his aim was self-aggrandisement but I don’t accept that. By bringing him home I hope to establish a proper place in Scottish history for him,” said Sir Alastair.

Shortly after launching his campaign, winning enthusiastic support from Scots at home and abroad including the Bothwell Society and Stuart Society, French historian Catherine Hermary-Vieille joined the cause.

She had a best seller in France, Lord James, and leant backing to the school of thought that holds Bothwell to be a patriot. “He was kept in Dragsholme Castle on a false charge of piracy and because he was a useful political pawn.

“After his death he was entombed in the church’s crypt where the sea-salt air helped to preserve his body in remarkably good condition. I visited the church as part of my research and you can see it is him because of the shape of his mouth, his broken nose and the scar on his head.

“He is imprisoned every night when the church doors are locked instead of being home in his beloved Scotland,” she said.

Catherine continues to play her part in keeping the campaign alive. This autumn Lord James, translated into English, has been released through Edinburgh publishing house Luarth Press. Bothwell is back in business.

And it may not stop there as there are whispers that campaign has caught the attention of Hollywood’s film fraternity. “The Borders has a long reach when it comes to contacts and a local landowner, who lives most of the time in the USA, has informed me that Bothwell’s story is arousing a lot of interest in film circles. That’s a development in progress so we’ll have to see how it fares.

“We believe we can persuade the Danish authorities with the right sort of backing but that has to come from national level. At this moment we have a fundamental blockage at Scottish Government level,” said Sir Alastair who has agreed to undergo DNA tests to prove the authenticity of the remains reposing in Faravejle.

An impassioned plea for the Government to support the campaign was made by Conservative MSP Ted Brocklebank. “There’s no reason why his wish to return home should not be treated with equal respect to that of the Czarina Maria whose body was reinterred in St Petersburg. She was consort to the Tsar of Russia and Bothwell was consort to the Queen of Scotland. Both were buried in Denmark, a place they didn’t want to be,” he said.

He and Bothwell supporters around the world have so far failed to bring action from the Scottish Government. In the land of the Homecoming, Bothwell it seems is one returnee they are prepared to overlook.

Nevertheless, Sir Alastair vows that the campaign will continue.  And should Bothwell ever make the journey home it is hoped the collegiate church of Crichton in Midlothian, which played an important role in the story of Bothwell and his ill-fated Queen, will provide his final resting place.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave A Comment...