Tuesday 3 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 3

4. The Black Dinner.

One of the most infamous incidents from Scottish history, the 'black dinner' of James II was gruesome enough to inspire George RR Martin's 'red wedding' in the Game of Thrones novels. When James I died (see previous post), his son and heir, James II, was only six years old. The keepers of the two most powerful castles in Scotland, Stirling and Edinburgh, connived to increase their own influence and power by holding the young king effective prisoner. Only William, the vigorous young Earl of Douglas had the power to shake them. The castellans conferred with the earl's uncle, who would inherit the earldom should anything happen to young William. With a nod and a wink, he confirmed that he would not interfere. The groundwork laid, William Douglas and his younger brother were invited to dine with James II by the keeper of Edinburgh Castle. In front of the horrified king, who pleaded for their lives, they were seized and summarily beheaded. Acording to legend, as the dinner drew to an end, a platter was brought in bearing the head of a black boar - the traditional symbol of death, and signal to act to the assasins.

3. Kenneth II. 

Of all the deaths on this list, none can be as colourful or as unlikely as that as that of Kenneth II, who died in 995. Legend has it that after Kenneth had executed the son of the Mormaer of Angus as a traitor, the boy's mother, Fenella, vowed revenge. When the king was hunting in her area she approached him, vowed loyalty, and said she had information of a conspiracy against him if he would just follow her to a house on the estate. Intrigued, Kenneth entered the house where he saw an incredible sight: a statue of himself, holding a golden apple. The king lifted the apple out the statue's hand. But the statue was a booby-trap, and moving it triggered hidden crossbows, which skewered the king with arrows.  

2. Sigurd the Mighty. 

Sigurd the Mighty, Jarl of Orkney, had already conquered Scotland north of the River Oykell for the Norwegian king, when he issued a challenge to Máel Brigte, the Mormaer of Moray. Meet me on the shores of the Moray Firth with 40 men, said Sigurd, and we will see who is the better warrior. Máel  turned up with 40. But Sigurd brought 80 men to the fight, and killed and beheaded Máel Brigte. Máel was famous for having a crooked tooth: and as Sigurd rode home with his enemy's head tied to his saddle as a trophy, the tooth grazed his leg. The wound went septic, and Sigurd died, buried in 892 at Cyderhall (Sigurd's Howe) at the edge of the land he had conquered.

1. Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty.

A polymath who translated Rabelais and created a new mathematical system, Urquhart was also a committed royalist during the War of Three Kingdoms. He paid for his support for Charles II with capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and busied himself in the production of works such as Logopandecteision, a universal 'perfected language', with eleven cases, eleven genders, and eleven tenses. Such an eccentric genius deserves a notable end, and you'll be pleased to know that is exactly what he gave himself. On hearing of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Urqhuart laughed so hard he died.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 2

Happy New Year! Last time, we looked at three notable deaths. Today let's continue the countdown of top ten Scottish deaths with these memorable moments from history:

7. James I.

James died for a game of tennis! Having annoyed and alarmed his nobles with persecutions and land grabs, aggrandising his own position at their expense, James probably should have preferred the stout walls of castles to poorly defended houses. For while relaxing in the undefended Blackfriars in Perth in 1437, a minor noble with a grudge burst in with a small band of assasins looking for the monarch. James fled for the sewer, but his way to safety was blocked - just days earlier he had the exit covered over as he kept losing tennis balls down the hole from the court next door. His assasin cornered the unfortunate monarch and stabbed him to death.

6. Percy Pilcher. 

Pilcher was an English naval engineer based at Glasgow University as the 19th century drew to a close. On the gently sloping land near Cardross on the Clyde, he perfected his designs for a hang glider. But Pilcher had grander ambitions: heavier-than-air powered flight. Having built a plane, he intended to demonstrate it on 30 September 1899 in front of sponsors at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. The weather was too bad to fly: Pilcher went up in his glider instead, and crashed. Pilcher's death is a case of lost opportunity: had he lived a few more months who knows, he may have added heavier-than-air flight to the list of Scottish inventions.

5. William Wallace.

No list of historic Scottish deaths could be complete without the end of Sir William Wallace. Like Joan of Arc he died resisting English invasion, in a cause that would ultimately triumph: in part, thanks to the inspiration of his own example. Wallace was betrayed by a Scottish noble who had made peace with Edward I of England - as, to be fair, had the rest of the nobility. Wallace was taken to London and tried as a traitor, which he denied:

"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I owe him no allegiance."

Wallace was hanged, taken down while still alive, had his genitals cut off, disembowelled and his organs thrown in a fire, and finally beheaded. His body was quartered and his limbs sent to be placed on spikes above the town gates of Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth as an example to the population.

Edward had found he could beat Wallace when he had been a fugitive and alive. It was another story once he became a dead legend. 

Read on for the last in the installment of top ten Scottish historical deaths!