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Old Slains


painting by Andrew Spratt


painting by Andrew Spratt

In the north east of Scotland almost halfway between the coastal towns of Aberdeen and Peterhead, astride windswept cliffs, stands the fragmented shell of Old Slains castle, an ancient seat of the Hay family, Earls of Erroll. The lands of Slains were gifted to Sir Gilbert Hay by King Robert the Bruce of Scots (1306 - 1329) in recognition for his loyal service during the 'wars of Independence' against the English. He was also appointed Hereditary High Constable of Scotland. Sir Gilbert was succeeded by his son Sir David Hay, who accompanied King David II of Scots (1329 - 1371) to the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346,where Kind David was captured and Sir David killed. He in turn was succeeded as 3rd High Constable by his son Sir Thomas, who married Princess Elizabeth Stewart, a daughter of King Robert II of Scots (1371 - 1390). His grandson William became 5th High Constable and was created Earl of Erroll and Lord of Slains by King James II of Scots (1437 - 1460) as a reward for Hay support during the King's war with the rebel 'Black' Douglas Lords and their allies the Lyndsays, Earls of Crawford and the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles.

These rebel Lords were eventually defeated by the combined efforts of Alexander Gordon,1st Earl of Huntly in the North (ie the battle of Arbroath in 1446, Brechin in 1452 and Dunkinty in 1454) and by George the 'Red' Douglas 4th Earl of Angus in the south (ie battle of Arkinholm in 1455 and Lochmaben in 1458). Militarily the Gordons were allied to the Hays of Slains, while their kin the Hays of Yester castle in East Lothian were in league with the 'Red' Douglases.

The tower of Old Slains dates from around this time or slightly earlier. It consisted of an oblong keep some five storeys high, with a basement vault entered at courtyard level, while the 2nd storey was accessed by an exterior collapsible wooden staircase. Likely the battlements were furnished with bartizans (open turrets) on all four corners with an overhanging box machicolation directly above the staircase entrance. Not only to protect this entrance but to ensure the destruction of the staircase preventing access during times of siege. Within the tower itself was a stone turnpike staircase which reached all levels above the 2nd storey.

Initially in the 15th century the tower would have been surrounded by a wooden palisade, protected on three sides by cliffs and by a ditch on the landward side. By the early 16th century this palisade would have been replaced by a stone 'Barmkin' wall with a gatehouse to provide further protection and positions for small anti-personnel cannon. Inland beyond the first ditch would have been the 'Castle town' village which flourished beside such towers. Made up of a cluster of wood n' wattle buildings, many with thatched roofs, consisting of stables, storage barns, workshops, shelters for livestock during times of war etc, likely surrounded by an outer wooden palisade also protected by an outer ditch.

In 1488 at the Parliament held at Edinburgh castle by King James III of Scots (1460 - 1488) both William Hay,3rd Earl of Erroll and John Hay of Yester were among the many Lords who sided with the King while a rebel army, using Prince James (later James IV) as a figure head, marched from Linlithgow. In fact William was one of the Lords who insisted the King should flee to Fife as the rebels reached the outskirts of Edinburgh. The rebels, allegedly led by the 'Red' Douglas Archibald 'Bell the cat' ,while pursuing the King to Leith seized several wagons containing some of the King's money and cloths. William was also with the Lords who marched north with the King to Aberdeen to muster support in the highlands to oppose the rebels in the south. But at the battle of Sauchieburn near Stirling the Hays like so many of the other Lords at the Parliament abandoned the King to his own fate. The Royal army was routed by the rebels and the King badly wounded, fled to a nearby mill house where he was murdered by a rebel pretending to be a priest. By 1489 we find William Hay supporting the new regime under King James IV of Scots (1488 - 1513). In 1513 the Hays of Erroll and the Hays of Yester with 87 gentlemen of their same name were all killed at the battle of Flodden along with King James IV of Scots.

In 1594 both Old Slains and the Hay house of Delgatie castle were destroyed with gunpowder and cannon by King James VI of Scots (1567 - 1603) in retribution for the Hays involvement in the Roman Catholic/Spanish plot known as the 'Treaty of the Spanish Blanks'. Allegedly signed by Hay Earl of Erroll, Gordon of Huntly and the 'Red' Douglas Earl of Angus. Such political/religious plots had simmered away for years from 1585 to the arrival of the Spanish Armada in Scotland in 1588,and then on to the battle of Glenlivet in 1594,not far from the Gordon stronghold of Auchendoun. Where the forces of Francis Hay,9th Earl of Erroll and George Gordon 6th Earl of Huntly routed the Campbells of Argyll and the MacLeans who were fighting on behalf of King James VI. Francis himself was wounded in the leg by a MacLean arrow while leading the mounted charge. As the King marched north personally to besiege Dalgatie and sack Old Slains, Francis fled into exile and only returned to Scotland in 1597. Instead of trying to repair Old Slains he opted to rebuild Bowness castle north of Old Slains and renamed this castle the New Slains.

THE SCOTS LORDS AND THE SPANISH ARMADA 1585 to 1597

In 1588 the Hays of Erroll of Old Slains castle were among several other Scots Lords alleged to be in league militarily with the Spanish Armada. These included George Gordon,6th Earl of Huntly of Huntly castle in Grampian, some 25miles inland from Slains. Archibald the 'Red' Douglas,8th Earl of Angus of Tantallon castle, perched on cliffs beside the Firth of Forth in the south east. Lachlan MacLean of Duart castle on the Isle of Mull on the west coast. And finally the Maxwells of Caerlaverock castle in Dumfries beside the Solway Firth in the far south west.

It could be speculated that the castles of Tantallon, Slains, Duart and Caerlaverock because of their proximity to the sea, would be ideal sites for ships to moor nearby to load on supplies and troops for an invasion of England. Likely the Hay, Gordon and Douglas forces could attack down the east coast. While MacLean and Maxwell with the aid of Irish forces (also allegedly involved) could strike down the west coast.

But five rouge Scots Lords and their troops could hardly constitute a viable invasion, even with Spanish aid. This was merely the tip of the iceberg. Many other Scots/Irish Lords and their castles were involved but, after the defeat of the Armada in 1588,went to great lengths to denounce such alliances. Many myths and tales abound of Scots and Irish forces capturing ship wrecked Spanish sailors then handing them over to the custody of the English to prove their innocence in this regard. One such tale claims some Irish forces found the bodies of several Spanish sailors washed ashore, so they chopped off the hands of the corpses and gave these macabre trophies to the local English garrison commander claiming they had killed the Spaniards themselves.

The background history to this proposed Spanish/Scots/Irish invasion of England in 1588 is not only complexed and confused but sketchy, because of religious, political and national affiliations. King James VI of Scots (1567 - 1603) as a Protestant wanted nothing to do with the Armada and wished to keep the peace with the English. Even though they had executed his Mother, Mary Queen of Scots (1542 - 1587) who was a Roman Catholic. Her murder, in fact, cleared the way for him to inherit the throne of the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I of England (1558 - 1603). Interestingly some of the other Scots Lords alleged to have links with the Spanish were Protestants but wanted to invade England anyway because they would be fighting the 'Auld Enemy'.

Consequently, King James VI was furious with any of his subjects who might undermine his chances of obtaining the English throne because of entanglements with the Spanish. This anger extended so far in 1588 that he even invited an English army, into Scotland, with a great cannon similar to 'Mons Meg' (on display in Edinburgh castle) to besiege Lochmaben castle which was being held by the Maxwells and Spanish troops in the name of King Phillip II of Spain. Eventually the walls were torn down by this great bombard and the castle entered by storm. The Spanish who survived were taken in chains to England, while the Maxwells were handed over to the wrath of King James.

Three myths have been repeated again and again by some historians when recounting tales of the Armada and these have to be addressed to set the records straight. First and foremost the Armada was not the invasion on its own but the key part of an even bigger plan. The fleet of 130 ships only carried 20,000 troops and was in fact an escort for the Duke of Parma's army of 16,000 to 30,000 waiting in barges to cross the English channel from the Netherlands. If the English fleet could been engaged or drawn off by the Armada. These 30,000 veterans (having served their time in several campaigns) could cross safely landing at Dover and Margate. The Armada would then disembark only 6,000 of its troops to aid Parma in his assault on London while the remaining troops would join with the Scots/Irish and English rebels marching from the north, perhaps 20,000 in number. It was claimed that within a week London would fall and Queen Elizabeth I of England would be dead by assassins or overthrown had everything gone to plan. Likely, King James VI of Scots, who was known as the 'wisest fool in Christendom' (because of his astute political double dealings behind a facade of boyish ignorance) could offer his services as King of England on behalf of the Spanish to help quell the civil unrest which would follow such a daring military coup. However the Spanish also appear to have been behind plots to overthrow King James as well, so this offer would ultimately be declined.

Secondly, the Armada was not a sudden venture put together over a few months. Between 1585 and 1588 there were fifteen separate plans to invade England, seizing a foothold in some peripheral area, either Ireland, the Isle of Wight or Scotland as a base of operations. This goes some way to explain the actions of the Maxwell family of Caerlaverock castle, who in 1585 routed their arch rivals the Johnstones destroying Lochwood castle, near Moffat,in what appears then, to have been a local feud. But in fact this was to clear the way for the Maxwells, in 1588,to not only garrison Caerlaverock but also to seize the old Douglas castles of Morton in Nithsdale and Lochmaben totally unchallenged. They then held these castles in the name of King Phillip II of Spain awaiting the arrival of Spanish support. Also in 1588 the Gordons of Sunderland distant kin to the Gordons of Huntly attempted to seize the coastal Sinclair fortress of Girnigoe. Wither this was just a local feud or part of a plan to use this castle for the Spanish is not recorded. Many skirmishes between various Clans during 1588 have been largely ignored by historians when they may have been part of a bigger Spanish plot.

The famous attack on Cadiz bay by Sir Francis Drake in 1587,though failing to stop the Armada did delay it for another year. Had it not been for the continued skirmishes with Drake and Howard in 1588 at Portland and off the Isle of Wight (where the Spanish appeared to try a landing) and the fire ships which scattered the Armada at Calais. The great storm which blew the Armada east through the channel, combined with the unseasonably low tides caused by the storm which trapped the Duke of Parma's barges until after the Armada was passed. Historians might well have a very different tale to tell.

The third injustice by historians on the Spanish is the myth of their incompetence as sailors because of the many (official and unofficial) Armada wrecks that litter the coastline of Scotland and Ireland. In many instances these wrecks were the results of desperate attempts to moor too close inshore to warn Scots/Irish Lords not to invade England because the Duke of Parma's troops hadn't reached the English mainland.

Such wrecks are claimed to be off Tantallon castle while trying to contact the 'Red' Douglas (timbers from this wreck were found near Dunbar five miles south east of Tantallon), and beside St Andrews castle, though it is unclear who the Spanish were trying to contact here and off Old Slains castle while contacting the Hays. The castle garrison must have had a bird's eye view of this vessel as it floundered nearby before finally sinking. Wither the Hays tried to send boats out to save the drowning sailors isn't recorded but unlikely because the storm was so sudden and severe that all three of these ships were wrecked at the same time. Interestingly it is claimed the 'Red' Douglas Archibald 8th Earl of Angus died on the same night. Which might of been taken as a bad omen by the Douglases as they don't appear to have fielded an army during the 1594 'Spanish blanks' rebellion against King James VI.

The 'Castello Negro' has been suggested as the name of one of these castle wrecks. But since there were allegedly some 60 ships lost between Calais, Scotland and Ireland its difficult to say which ships were which without dives on each wreck to find some clear identification. There are also claims of wrecks off Orkney Shetland and Norway but again no names or clear evidence are available. Returning to documented accounts the 'Barca Amburg' floundered south west of the Fair Isle, but was able to split her crew between the 'El Gran Grifon' and the 'Trinidad Valencera'. The 'El Gran Grifon' while trying to find a haven to effect repairs destroyed itself on the cliffs of the Fair Isle. Eventually the crew were taken to Orkney then to Anstruther in Fife then Edinburgh. Where they were entertained by the Roman Catholic community including Francis Stewart Earl of Bothwell a known rebel who was plotting to overthrow King James VI.

The 'Gerona' and the 'Trinidad Valencera' were wrecked in Irish waters,but again there are unofficial claims of many more nameless wrecks as many as seventeen. The 'San Juan de Sicilia' is the famous wreck on the west coast of Scotland beside Tobermory Bay. Allegedly it was blown up by the MacLeans of Duart castle. However it was more probably destroyed by an English spy or the MacDonalds who were at war with the MacLeans. In fact Lachlan MacLean celebrated the arrival of the 'San Juan' by borrowing some troops and cannon from the ship to besiege Mingarry castle held by the Mclans kin to the MacDonalds. As MacDonald reinforcements arrived to save Mingarry the MacLeans and Spaniards withdrew burning and sacking lands throughout the region. So it is highly unlikely that MacLean would blow up his Spanish allies "Great ship" which was of such use to him in his feud with the MacDonalds.

Shortly after the MacLeans and Spanish appear to have landed on the Island of Islay and besieged the MacDonald fortresss of Dunivaig an ancient base for the MacDonald galley fleet. Which would make an ideal shipyard for the Spanish to repair the 'San Juan' and any other Armada vessels that might be nearby. There doesn't seem to be a clear account of this siege but it did fail. Also the 'San Juan' never sailed to Islay so either the MacLeans used their own small war galleys for the raid or another Spanish vessel was involved as local oral tradition claims an Armada ship was wrecked off Islay. But as yet no official site has been located.

There are many other claims of wrecks down the west coast but these too are vague. One claim which obviously has some substance is the tale of two vessels beaching in the Solway Firth to unload troops to aid the Maxwells in their defense of Lochmaben castle. Certainly Spanish soldiers and sailors were captured by the English during this siege so their presence alone proves the existence of at least one wreck nearby.

It has been suggested that the Spanish and some Scots Lords may have planned to rescue Mary Queen of Scots (held captive by the English since her defeat at the battle of Langside in 1568)and install her as Queen of England. The Spanish actually used Mary's murder by the English as an excuse to justify the Armada as a 'holy' war. Because the heritic Queen Elizabeth I had killed the Roman Catholic Queen Mary of Scots. The Pope even offered to pay one million ducats if Spanish troops set foot on English soil.

There are many tales of plots to save Mary and some may merely be fables. The Setons of Seton Palace in East Lothian who aided Mary after her escape from Loch Leven castle and at the battle of Langside spent some time in exile in Flanders. It was here, some claim, that the Setons tried to mass an army to rescue Mary from England. Likewise it is also claimed that the Kerrs of Ferniehurst castle near Jedburgh hatched a plan to raid England and effect Mary's rescue but this plan was leaked and Mary moved to different locations to confuse such plots. (It should also be noted that the Kerrs sheltered Spanish sailors at their Manor house beside Newbattle Abbey in 1588. The Spanish chess that remains there today stands testimony to this visit.) Even the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza was implicated in Francis Throckmorton's attempt to release Mary and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I in 1584.

But politically Phillip viewed Mary as a puppet to France and since he was backing both Catholic and Protestant rebels in France to continue the civil unrest there. He couldn't count fully on Mary's support if he installed her as Queen of England. So Phillip's efforts to save Mary appear somewhat half hearted. The conspiracies focused around Mary also involved blatant attempts to assassinate Elizabeth by the Scots, Spanish, French and even English Catholics. One such plot was used as a trap to arrest Mary in 1586 (which hardly makes sense since she was held captive in various English castles since 1568). Then on the 8th February 1587 she was beheaded at Fotheringay castle. The axeman failed to cut through Mary's neck with the first blow then had to saw with the second blow to separate the head from the body. He then lifted the head up by the hair to show the audience but didn't release it was a wig so Mary's head flew off into the crowd the final indignity.

The Armada failed for several reasons, the skirmishes with Drake where long range cannon were used instead of ship to ship boarding, the storms which blew the Armada east, the same storms which trapped Parma's barges and also the failure of the English Catholics to rise in support of the Armada. Reports to Phillip in 1587claimed that one-third of the English population was ready to rise in support of his troops. This never happened apparently Elizabeth had struck a deal with the English Catholics to give them more religious freedom in exchange for their loyalty during the threat of Armada. The Scots though did rise in 1588. But lacking the support of their fellow countrymen and the promised 16,000 Spanish troops this led to nothing and is largely forgotten by historians. Fortunately the Hays, Gordons and Douglases were able to conceal their involvement at this time, unlike the Maxwells who seriously thought the Spanish would land in Dumfries. Inadvertently making themselves rebels without a cause.

The defeat of the Armada didn't destroy Spain as a naval power. In fact it turned it into a naval superpower. But the shadow of the defeat in 1588 prevent Spain from ever fully showing it's naval might again. Even before the remains of the Armada returned twelve new galleons were being built in the Cantabrian shipyards to reconstitute the fleet. Within two years it was claimed a fresh Armada was massing to invaded again and had some success skirmishing with the English at the Battle of Flores. Interestingly at the same time Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell with a small army besieged King James VI in Falkland Palace attempting to capture the King. But the local townsfolk clashed with Bothwell's forces and the King was able to escape. Could this be another Spanish plot or just coincidence?

But in 1594 there must have been the expectation of some military aid from Spain for both the Hays of Erroll and Gordons of Huntly to come out in rebellion against King James VI. But alas, again no Spanish ships appeared and Old Slains castle was destroyed while Huntly was sacked. In 1597 the Armada was ready yet again, this time with eighty four mostly new galleons fitted with long range cannon assembled at Galicia. This time the Scots Lords as a whole, including the Hays, Gordons and Douglases, given their past experience would have nothing to do with the Spanish so this Armada never ventured into English or Scottish waters.

article by Andrew Spratt
December 2000A.D
spratt@supanet.com



 



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