Mary Queen of Scots – The Last Month in Scotland ~ A guest post by Ian Douglas

Loch Leven Castle, where Mary was held prisoner for eleven months and forced to abdicate, before making her audacious escape. (Photo copyright: Ian Douglas)

In May 1568, four hundred and fifty years ago, Mary Queen of Scots fled from Scotland to seek sanctuary with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary had tried to rule Scotland during one of the most turbulent times in Scottish history. Scotland was a land of warlords and had just gone through the Protestant Reformation. But Mary was Catholic, and Scotland officially Protestant.

Mary’s personal life was turbulent too. She was married three times by the age of twenty-four. Her first marriage was probably unconsummated and was to the French Dauphin (Prince). The Dauphin became King of France in 1559 at age fifteen, one year after the marriage, when his father, King Henri II died in a joust. Mary returned to Scotland two years later, after her young and sickly husband had died of an ear infection.

Her second marriage was to her cousin Lord Darnley, a licentious, arrogant, dim-witted drunkard. Darnley was the father of Mary’s son James. Mary may have been complicit in murdering her husband. Her third marriage, only three months after Lord Darnley’s murder, was to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, a clan warlord who had certainly been involved in murdering her second husband. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Mary’s life is an extreme example!

Mary’s marriage to Bothwell was her undoing. Many of her nobles feared and detested Bothwell, and were concerned that he would use his new position as the Queen’s husband to dominate them. They rose in revolt, and after a stand-off rather than a battle at Carberry Hill east of Edinburgh, Mary surrendered to them. Rather than treat Mary with respect, they imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle, on an island in Loch (Lake) Leven, 30 miles north of Edinburgh.

Mary was pregnant with twins by the Earl of Bothwell, but at about three months term, and around four weeks after arriving at Loch Leven she had a miscarriage. She was in a depressed and vulnerable state following all that had happened, including her miscarriage. Using threats the Lords forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son James. James was crowned James VI of Scotland when he was thirteen months old in a Protestant ceremony at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling, a hundred yards or so outside Stirling castle. Many years later in 1603, when Elizabeth I of England died childless, James was to become King of England as well.

As time passed Mary started to recover, and the legendary Stuart charm returned to this still beautiful twenty-four year old woman. The owner of the castle, Mary’s gaoler Sir William Douglas, had a younger brother George. They also had a young relation, Willie Douglas, living with them. Soon Mary had charmed George and Willie, and they were intent on helping her to escape.

On 2 May 1568 they took their chance. Lady Douglas, the wife of Sir William, had given birth and the garrison was preoccupied with celebrating this, rather than guarding Mary. As Sir William Douglas was eating and no doubt a little drunk, young Willie Douglas managed to steal the castle keys. Meanwhile Mary changed into old clothes, and made her way down to the landing stage via a postern gate (a small secondary gate). Then together with Willie and a servant woman they made their way by boat across the loch. Meanwhile one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting dressed in Mary’s clothes, made sure she was seen from a distance so it appeared that Mary was still in the castle.

Once Mary and her party reached the shore, as prearranged a group of her supporters, including George Douglas, were waiting with horses to help her leave the area. Mary headed to the territory of the Hamilton family in west central Scotland. They were likely to support her as they had aspirations to control Scotland by having custody of the queen, or by marrying her into their family.

Before many days had passed the story of Mary’s dramatic escape was known through much of Scotland, and adherents were rallying to her colours. Supporters flocked to her side, not just Catholics, but Protestants who strongly believed in the hereditary right of monarchy, and that she was the legal monarch. These weren’t just the common people; nine Lords and nine bishops also joined her ranks. Mary’s intention was to get to Dumbarton Castle, where she could be reinforced from France if France was prepared to help her. Dumbarton Castle was a strong castle on the Firth of Clyde (the estuary of the river Clyde), west of Glasgow.

The rebel Lords mobilised their forces under the Earl of Moray, Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, and a convinced Protestant. Moray could not rule Scotland as king since he was illegitimate, but was ruling Scotland as regent, on behalf of Mary’s infant son. Mary’s and Moray’s armies met in battle on 13 May 1568 at Langside, now a Glasgow suburb but then a small village south of Glasgow. Mary’s forces, although at 6,000 men significantly larger than the 4,000 men Moray had available, were badly led by the less than competent Earl of Argyll. Moray’s arquebusiers (soldiers armed with an early form of rifle) quickly established themselves in the village, led by Kirkcaldy of Grange, an experienced and competent soldier. To try to dislodge them Mary’s cavalry charged along Langside’s single street into the arquebusiers’ fire, not a winning strategy.

After heavy fighting Mary’s troops were beaten, but not decisively so, and she could have fought another day if she wished. Whether Mary panicked or just didn’t want further bloodshed we shall never know, but she decided to retreat and leave Scotland. Langside now is a busy Glasgow suburb, with no physical remains from 1568. But in 1887 a monument was erected to commemorate the battle.

Mary’s Last Night in Scotland

Mary and a small party of twenty supporters spent an uncomfortable two days travelling the ninety miles to south west Scotland. Mary cut off her long auburn hair to reduce the possibility of being recognised. But this was a forlorn hope. A young woman of nearly six feet, speaking with a French accent and protected by a party of twenty supporters could only be the queen fleeing after the defeat at Langside.

Dundrennan Abbey, where Mary spent her last night in Scotland. Like many abandoned medieval buildings, it has been robbed of stone for newer buildings, but enough remains to show what a magnificent abbey it would have been (Photo copyright: Ian Douglas)

Mary spent her last night in Scotland in Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth. Dundrennan, now a ruin, had been a major Cistercian Abbey. As Scotland had become officially Protestant eight years before in 1560, Dundrennan’s days were numbered and it would have been in decline. Many of her counsellors advised her to go to France, but against their advice Mary decided to seek sanctuary with her cousin Queen Elizabeth in England. She hoped Elizabeth would help her reclaim her crown.

On 16 May 1568 she left Scotland in a fishing boat from Abbey Burnfoot, sailing from the abbey’s small harbour on the Solway Firth, about a mile and a half from the abbey itself. Her destination was Workington in Cumbria, a four hour crossing of the Firth. She had already written to Elizabeth’s representative in Cumbria’s capitol Carlisle, asking for sanctuary. What happened to her in England is another story.

Mary had arrived in Scotland as queen in 1561, travelling in a royal galley in great splendour. She left only six years nine months later, exhausted and terrified, shorn of her once beautiful auburn hair, in a small fishing boat, no doubt smelling strongly of fish.


Ian Douglas has been fascinated by Scottish history for over forty years. He has just published a short biography of Mary, “Mary Queen of Scots – a Brief History” and is the author of “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders”. Both books are available from Amazon US, Amazon UK and Apple iBooks.