While travelling all over Scotland we’ve discovered a great number of ruins and visited some of them, from the grandiose remains of castles, abbeys and churches, often set in dramatic landscapes, to the more modest and heartbreaking crofts and villages burnt during the infamous period of the Highlands evictions in the 18th and 19th centuries…
We’ve also visited a number of churchyards. Not that we feel particularly attracted to the macabre but we do love the peaceful atmosphere of these solitary places, the beautiful pages written on the stones, some in a most melancholy and pathetic tone, others in the epitaph’s irresistible style, and we also like very much the funeral art which is particularly interesting in Scotland. Last but not least, as Janice happens to have Scottish roots, and as she is trying to find clues on the graves about her family history, we’ve been haunting the Scottish graveyards in 2006 and 2007, to find stones bearing the name of ‘Mitchelson’, even extending our field of investigations to that of ‘Mitchell’…
‘The pillared arches were over their head,
And beneath their feet were the bones of the dead.’
(Sir Walter Scott – The Lay of the Last Minstrel II – 7)
In Melrose churchyard we’ve lingered some time, puzzling, as usual, over the cryptic nature of some grave symbols but if a Scottish king and a wizard are actually buried on the site we may well have walked on their grave without knowing they were there. We did not know either that Sir Walter Scott had had a stone erected there in memory of Tom Purdie, his much loved servant. Sure, we’ll have to put our Sherlock Holmes suit when we go back there, for it doesn’t seem obvious to find these tombs. Legend or reality? Let us try to know more …
We first learned about the king and the wizard tombs on reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Strange as it may appear today, in a world of hi-tech cinematography, our interest aroused from the first lines of this long narrative poem dating back to the 1860s and which tells us about a still more ancient story taking place on the Scottish Borders at a time of feudal wars, in the 16th century.
Quite appropriately, Sir Walter Scott has been called the “magician of the north” and his magic is still working today for those who make the effort to read him. Line after line, like a magic wand, his pen conjures up images: Melrose Abbey in the moonlight, the old monk bent with age and penance (‘A hundred years had flung their snows/On his thin locks and floating beard.’), the strong armoured knight bursting noisily in the silent place in the middle of the night (‘The arched cloister, far and wide,/Rang to the warrior’s stride’), a warrior not much inclined to go to church nor even pray, except for an ave maria in case of great danger, both contrasting characters sitting side by side on the royal grave and waiting for the hour when the luminous red cross is due to fall on the tomb (‘Lo, Warrior! now the Cross of Red/Points to the grave of the mighty dead; /Within it burns a wondrous light,/To chase the spirits that love the night’), and finally the climax of action with the opening of the tomb by the frightened warrior and the terrific figure of the magician in his tomb holding the magical book in his cold hands… these are pages full of suspense and mystery which would not have been out of place in a novel by JK Rowling orTolkien…
‘They sate them down on a marble stone,
(A Scottish monarch slept below;)’
(Walter Scott – The Lay of the Last Minstrel – Canto II 12)
In these two verses from The Lay of the Last Minstrel we learn about the existence of a king’s tomb but no indication is given in the poem about its location in the Abbey nor even about the name of the king. There is a foot note, however, which must have been written by Sir Walter Scott and which reads : “A large marble stone, in the chancel of Melrose, is pointed out as the monument of Alexander II, one of the greatest of our early kings; others say, it is the resting-place of Waldeve, one of the early abbots, who died in the odour of sanctity.”
Alexander II was the 28th Scottish king and a great king too. He fell ill and died in 1249 on the Isle of Kerrera, near Oban, while fighting the Norwegians. Is he actually resting at Melrose? Who knows, many kings have been buried on the isle of Iona, not far from Oban.
I have found more clues about the tomb and its royal occupant in Magnus Magnusson’s The Story of a Nation, a very interesting book I’m glad to have in my library. As it can be seen on the back cover of this hardback edition, Magnus Magnusson who was a very popular Scottish author (he died in 2007), was also a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott.
Alexander II fell ill in Kerrera Sound. He died there, either on his ship or on land, on 8 July 1249; no cairn commemorates the spot, but a grassy field beside the shore is known to this days as ‘Dalrigh’ – Gaelic for ‘the field of the king’. He was buried in Melrose Abbey, in accordance with his last wishes; his unmarked tomb is in a recess in the wall of the presbytery to the south of the High Altar, but there is no plaque to identify it for visitors, as yet. (Scotland: The Story of a Nation – The Thirteenth century; Alexander II and III – Magnus Magnusson HarpersCollinsPublishers 2000)
In my old edition of The Life of Sir Walter by John Lockhart, I’ve also fallen on a very interesting and funny text about this tomb :
[Footnote 73: [From the journal of three English ladies, travellers in Scotland in the summer of 1817, we get another glimpse of Johnnie Bower, and a pleasant sketch of Sophia Scott:--
"In the chancel Miss Scott, a very charming, lively girl of seventeen, pointed out to us 'The Wizard's Grave,' and then the black stone in the form of a coffin, to which the allusion is made in the poem, 'A Scottish monarch sleeps below,'--said to be the tomb of Alexander II. 'But I will tell you a secret,' she half whispered; 'only don't you tell Johnnie Bower. There is no Scottish monarch there at all, nor anybody else, for papa had the stone taken up, not long ago, and no coffin nor anything was to be found. And then Johnnie came and begged me not to tell people so. "For what wull I do, Miss Scott, when I show the ruins, if I canna point to this bit, and say, 'A Scottish monarch sleeps below'?"' As, however, he had the pleasure of saying this to us the evening before, Miss Scott thought we might fairly have her secret....
Now, if it may appear quite irreverent to walk on a royal tomb (as on any tomb indeed!), how more perilous it would be to awaken a wizard, so we’d better try to solve the mystery of his grave before going back there!
“In these far climes it was my lot
To meet the wondrous Michael Scott,
A wizard, of such dreaded fame,
Than when, in Salmanca’s cave,
Him listed his magic wand to wave,
The bells would ring in Notre Dame!
Some of his skill he taught to me;
And Warrior, I could say to thee
The words that cleft Eildon hills in three,
And bridled the Tweed with a curb of stone:
But to speak them were a deadly sin;
And for having but thought them my heart within,
A treble penance must be done.
(Sir Walter Scott – The Lay of the Last Minstrel – XIII)
Here’s another extract, picturing the climax of this fantastic scene :
Before their eyes the Wizard lay,
As if he had not been dead a day;
His hoary beard in silver roll’d,
He seem’d some seventy winters old ;
A palmer’s amice wrapp’d him round,
With a wrought Spanish baldric bound,
Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea :
His left hand held his Book of Might ;
A silver cross was in his right ;
The lamp was placed beside his knee ;
High and majestic was his look,
At which the fellest fiends had shook,
And all unruffled was his face ;
They trusted his soul had gotten grace.
(The Lay of the Last Minstrel – Canto 22 19)
Quite impressive is the character described in The Lay of the Last Minstrel. But it’s poetry and how far legend and reality mingle here, as well as in the collective imaginary, we don’t know exactly. The character of Michael Scott seems to have been in life as impressive as in fiction. He left his mark all over the world as a scientist but he is also said to have tried his hand in more occult matters such as astronomy, alchemy and even sorcery…
I’ve found a lot of very interesting information in the Appendix added by Sir Walter Scott, at the end of his Lay of the Last Minstrel (Note 2 C. entitled “The wondrous Michael Scott” ). I’ve typed the whole of this text for those who want to know more about the character of Michael Scott and also to show how important it is not to take literally what is described in fiction or poetry, be it historical or not. Sorry too for the Latin, Italian and old English passages. We can try to guess what they mean since I’ve found no note translating these passages and I only have a French version of Dante’s book in my library Anyway I wanted to transcribe the whole passage for readers who can be interested. Here again, I will need my magnifying glass to decipher the text in my old book! People must have had an extremely good vision at the time of Sir Walter!
Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie flourished during the 13th century, and was one of the ambassadors sent to bring the Maid of Norway to Scotland upon the death of Alexander III. By a poetical anachronism, he is here placed in a later era. He was a man of much learning, chiefly acquired in foreign countries. He wrote a commentary upon Aristotle, printed at Venice in 1496; and several treatises upon natural philosophy, from which he appears to have been addicted to the abstruse studies of judicial astrology, alchymy, physiognomy, and chiromancy. Hence he passed among his contemporaries for a skilful magician. Dempster informs us, that he remembers to have heard in his youth, that the magic books of Michael Scott were still in existence, but could not be opened without danger, on account of the malignant fiends who were thereby invoked. Dempsteri Historia Ecclesiastica, 1627, lib. xii. p. 495. Lesly characterises Michael Scott as “singularie philosophiae, astronomiae, ac medicae laude prestans ; dicebatur penitissimos magiae recessu indagâsse.” Dante also mentions him as a renowed wizard ; -)
“Quell altro che ne’ fianchi è cosi poco,
Michele Scotto fu, che veramente
Delle magiche frodè seppe il guioco.”
Inferno, Canto xxmo.
A personage, thus spoken of by biographers and historians, loses little of his mystical fame in vulgar tradition. Accordingly, the memory of Sir Michael Scott survives in many a legend ; and in the south of Scotland, any work of great labour and antiquity, is ascribed, either to the agency of Auld Michael, of Sir William Wallace, or of the devil. Tradition varies concerning the place of his burial ; some contend for Home Coltrame, in Cumberland ; others for Melrose Abbey. But all agree, that his books of magic were interred in the grave, or preserved in the convent where he died. Satchells, wishing to give some authority for his account of the origin of the name of Scott, pretends, that, in 1629, he chanced to be at Burgh under Bowness, in Cumberland, where a person, named Lancelot Scott, showed him an extract from Michael Scott’s works, containing that story ; -)
“He said the book which he gave me
Was of Sir Michael Scott’s historie ;
Which history was never yet read through,
Nor never will, for no man dare it do.
The ryche and pure him menyde bath,
For of his dede was mekil skath.”
Some years ago, a person digging for stones, about the old castle of Hermitage, broke into a vault, containing a quantity of chaff, some bones, and pieces of iron ; amongst others, the curb of an ancient bridle which the author has since given to the Earl of Dalhousie, under the impression that it posssibly may be a relic of his brave ancestor. The worthy clergyman of the parish has mentioned this discovery in his Statistical Account of Castletown.
Young scholars have pick’d out something
From the contents, that dare not read within.
He carried me along the castle then,
And shew’d his written book hanging on an iron pin.
His writing pen did seem to me to be
Of hardened metal, like steel, or accumie ;
The volume of it did seem so large to me,
As the Book of Martyrs and Turks historie.
Then in the church he let me see
A stone where Mr. Michael Scott did lie ;
I asked at him how that could appear,
Mr Michael had been dead above five hundred years ?
He shew’d me none dust bury under that stone,
More than he had been dead a few years agone ;
For Mr. Michael’s name does terrifie each one.”
(History of the Right Honourable Name of Scott)
In an old edition of John Lawson Stoddard’s Lectures, in the volume 9 dedicated by the great travelling writer to Scotland, England and London, there is a picture of a place in Melrose Abbey showing a stone supposed to be the wizard’s tomb as well as a very strange statue of a man wearing a turban:
When we visited the Abbey, we didn’t see the stone supposed to be the wizard’s tomb nor the statue with its turban. However, in 2001, our son took a picture a part of which looks like Stoddard’s old black and white photo, featuring an ogival window, two niches in the wall and some bits of tombstones on the ground…
We’ll pay more attention next time we go there and will ask a guide, a descendant of Johnny Bower to tell us more about this mystery…
Before leaving Melrose Abbey and its unsolved mysteries let us have a silent thought in front of the moving stone Sir Walter had had erected in memory of Tom Purdie, his faithful servant and much cherished friend. One of our readers happens to be one of his descendants. He may be pleased to read again Lockhart’s passage about the death of his relative and the beautiful elegy written by one of the greatest Scottish writers :
The close of the autumn was embittered by a sudden and most unexpected deprivation. Apparently in the fullest enjoyment of health and vigour, THOMAS PURDIE leaned his head one evening on the table, and dropped asleep. This was nothing uncommon in a hard-working man; and his family went and came about him for several hours, without taking any notice. When supper was ready, they tried to awaken him, and found that life had been for some time extinct. Far different from other years, Sir Walter seemed impatient to get away from Abbotsford to Edinburgh. ‘I have lost,’ he writes (4th November) to Cadell, ‘my old and faithful servant—my factotum—and am so much shocked, that I really wish to be quit of the country and safe in town. I have this day laid him in the grave. This has prevented my answering your letters.’
The grave, close to the Abbey at Melrose, is surmounted by a modest monument, having on two sides these inscriptions—
_In grateful remembrance of the faithful and attached services of twenty-two years, and in sorrow for the loss of a humble but sincere friend; this stone was erected by Sir Walter Scott, Bart., of Abbotsford.
Here lies the body of THOMAS PURDIE, wood-forester at Abbotsford, who died 29th October 1829, aged sixty-two years.—’Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things._’—St Matthew, chap. xxv. ver. 21st.”
The Life of Sir Walter Scott, CHAPTER XV, John Lockhart.
Now, I’m leaving for a short trip to visit a very picturesque Stuart town in France and also a witchcraft museum… YES ! and it will be the subject of my next “Scottish-French connection” post on Scotiana.
So, stay tuned!
A bientôt. Mairiuna