Written by Gwen Sinclair with Guest Contributors Todd Ferguson and Dr Callum Watson
Most people know that investigating history offers up a variety of pathways to follow- and the further back through time you travel, the more intrepid a journey it can become to establish fact from legend, or indeed fact from popular opinion! This has been true of our exploration into the lives of the people once connected to Royal Dundonald Castle and for which recently, it was the turn of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, who was the 3rd surviving, and most likely much loved son of Robert II and his first wife, Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan – made Lord of Badenoch shortly after his father’s ascension to the throne in 1371.
In doing, so we discovered from responses to our findings on social media that there seems to be another side to Alexander’s story, other than the somewhat popularised villainy which seems to surround Alexander! It also seems that there could well be a certain bias in the historical telling of his story from earlier chronicles! So, in order to help us explore this seeming dichotomy surrounding Alexander Stewart, we decided it was time to open the subject up for further debate – and so warmly welcome guest contributors Todd Ferguson – who has a first class honours MA in Archaeology/History from Glasgow University and will be volunteering at Dundonald Young Archeology Club in the coming months, and Dr Callum Watson – who has a PhD thesis entitled Attitudes Towards Chivalry in Barbour’s Bruce and Hary’s Wallace from University of Edinburgh, as well as his own popular blog: https://drcallumwatson.blogspot.com/ – who both think that there was more to tell!
GS: Thank you both for joining us to help us to take a wider look at the life of Alexander, and so let’s begin with sources assuring that Alexander was responsible for what we might call his Highland spring of terror in May and June 1390. This found him sacking Forres, Pluscarden Abbey, as well as both Elgin, and its cathedral – and after which he became infamously known as The Wolf of Badenoch. Do you think that this is a fair assumption or is there more to this story?
Todd: In my opinion, there is definitely more to the events which transpired in the early summer of 1390. If we were to view the sacking of Forres, Pluscarden, and Elgin in isolation, then Alexander Stewart would be well deserving of his infamous nickname the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ and it is no surprise that the attacks of 1390 gave late medieval chroniclers a corpus of negative press through which to blacken Alexander’s name. However, it must be remembered that many of the sources that provide information on Alexander’s character were written by chroniclers, such as Walter Bower and Hector Boece, who were, first and foremost, churchmen. The chronicles were written from the perspective of the church, and it does not require a historian to be able to see the inherent biases towards Alexander in those sources. Furthermore, the 1390 attacks could be described as the culmination of a long-standing dispute between Alexander and the Bishop of Moray, Alexander Bur. In 1370 Alexander had made an obligation to ‘protect and defend the men and lands’ (protector et defensor hominum et terrarium) of the Bishop of Moray (Registorum Moray, 154). This obligation was more than likely necessary following Alexander’s imprisonment of 1368, which could have been due to cateran attacks on lands belonging to the Bishop of Moray (in fact Alexander also swore that his friends and men would similarly be responsible for protecting the Bishop of Moray’s lands). Feuding over twenty years with one of the most powerful church magnates in Scotland demonstrates the immense power that Alexander could wield. However, this creates a dilemma in understanding Alexander. There is the big, bad, ‘Wolf’ perpetuated by later adherents of the church and there is also Alasdair Mor mac an Righ, ‘Great Alexander the king’s son,’ the byname given to Alexander by contemporary Gaelic society. It’s important that we continue to reassess these two diametrically opposed views of Alexander so that it is possible to do justice to one of the great Gaelic magnates of Scottish history.
CALLUM: It is certainly true that Alexander was responsible for the attacks of 1390, that these horrified the community at large, and confirmed Lowland commentators like Andrew of Wyntoun and Walter Bower in their opinion that he was a source of disorder in the Highlands. But equally, the subsequent curtailing of Alexander’s influence only served to destabilise politics in the region for almost a generation, and it was not until Alexander’s son and namesake – Alexander Stewart, earl of Mar – was able to establish himself in a similar position that royal authority could again be rigorously practiced in the North.
Andrew of Wyntoun (c1350-c1425), was a canon of St Andrews, Prior of Loch Leven, Scottish poet and most famous for ‘Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland’ written in 11 manuscripts (exact date uncertain).
Walter Bower (1385-1449) from Haddington was Abbot of Inchcolm Abbey and a chronicler who between 1440-1447 wrote ‘The Scotichronicon’ which was an updated version of the 1360s ‘Chronica Gentis Scotorum’ History of Scotland by John of Fordun (c1330-1384).
Hector Boece (1465-c1536) was the first Principal of what became the University of Aberdeen, as well as lecturing in divinity and medicine, was the author of ‘Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen’ in 1522 and ‘Scotorum Historiae a Prima Gentis Origine‘, which charted the history of Scotland up until the life of James III (1460-1488) printed in Paris in 1527.
GS: What we do know is that this took place not long after the death of his father, Robert II who passed away at Dundonald Castle on 19th April 1390. This had in my mind connected up to be the potential reactionary inducement of Alexander’s reputed outrageous behaviour, and yet, could it be for other reasons?
CALLUM: The king’s death was undoubtedly the catalyst for Alexander’s actions in 1390, but not for the reasons one might think. Robert II had been tolerant – perhaps even encouraging – of Alexander’s influence in the North, but King Robert had been increasingly sidelined in the administration of the realm since 1384. During the guardianship of John Stewart, earl of Carrick (Alexander’s eldest brother and the future Robert III), from 1384-8 Alexander’s authority remained largely unchallenged, although the ‘lawlessness’ of the Highlands had been one of the complaints levelled at their father that Carrick had exploited to become guardian. When Robert Stewart, earl of Fife (later duke of Albany), became guardian in 1388, the situation changed…
Unlike Carrick, whose personal interests were mostly focused on the South, Fife had extensive interests in the North and was keen to expand these northwards, at Alexander’s expense. Thus, in 1389 Fife appointed his son Murdac justiciar (chief legal officer) north of the Forth in place of Alexander. Fife’s influence has also traditionally been identified in the timing of Alexander’s wife Euphemia’s petition to Alexander’s local rival Bishop Alexander Bur of Moray for an annulment (also in 1389), which threatened Alexander’s position in Ross.
In 1390 then, Alexander’s star was on the wane in the North. But his father’s death and the accession of Robert III raised the prospect that Fife’s guardianship might come to an end. Since Robert III had been happy to give Alexander free rein in the Highlands (and might have reason to reverse Fife’s influence in the region), this must have seemed like an opportunity to stage a comeback. The attacks on Forres, Pluscarden and Elgin were probably intended to demonstrate his continued power in the region to the incoming administration, but he grossly miscalculated. Fife retained effective control of the royal administration, and the destruction of these religious houses galvanised the opinion of the community of the realm against him. This in turn saw him reduced in status for the remainder of his life.
TODD: I think you are correct to highlight the death of Robert II as one potential cause for the attacks of 1390. To explore this, we must look at the similarities between Robert and Alexander, and the methods used to exert control over their lands. They both utilised cateran forces – essentially bands of armed men that were used to enforce authority on behalf of magnates such as Robert and Alexander. It is interesting to note that it was Robert and Alexander that were incarcerated in 1368 by David II, even though the act of parliament mentions others that were not imprisoned, including Alexander’s two older brothers. The obligation of 1370, mentioned above, was prior to Alexander being created lord of Badenoch in 1371, upon the ascension to the throne of his father. Given that this was the territory of his father it is possible that father and son were working in tandem in the region. Robert had relied upon local Gaelic kindreds (Robertsons of Atholl) to further promote his regional authority; this would be a tactic employed by Alexander during his own tenure.
In 1382 there were complaints made to parliament by, Adam de Tyningham, Bishop of Aberdeen, about one Farquhar Mackintosh who had attacked church domains to such an extent that people were too scared to work their land. The man tasked with bringing Farquhar to heel was Alexander – unsurprising considering he was the arm of royal authority in the North. However, by the time that Hector Boece wrote his Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen in 1522, Alexander was being blamed for leading the attacks: ‘[Alexander was] joined by certain vile creatures…He divided as he pleased the lands stolen from the church and gave them to be cultivated by certain wicked men who had no regard for God or man.’ The bias of Boece cannot be misunderstood as he was a close associate of William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, but it does explain that negative feelings about Alexander were still being felt more than a hundred years following his death. Robert was accused of taking a rather light approach to reprimanding Alexander over the course of his reign. However, Alexander had never perpetuated attacks to the scale that were reached in 1390. I believe that Robert fully understood the methods required to control lands on the fringes of Gaelic society, after all he had employed similar methods, and this is why he did not take a heavy-handed approach to restrain Alexander while alive. Nonetheless once Robert died in 1390 the restraints were removed and Alexander took advantage to settle some old scores with the Bishop of Moray.
GS: It was also said that Alexander and his father, Robert Stewart were imprisoned for a spell in Loch Leven Castle in 1368 by David II – do you think that there is any truth in the thought that this was mainly due to Alexander’s misbehaviour, and his father’s refusal to keep him in check?
CALLUM:I think there’s every chance Robert and Alexander’s imprisonment was connected to his behaviour as lord of Badenoch, but this ties into a broader problem of developing misunderstanding between Highland-Lowland communities in the period. Increasingly from the middle of the fourteenth-century, the community as a whole (dominated by voices from the South) came to view with distaste the highly militarised lordship practiced in the North (discussed below). For David, he was probably just happy for another excuse to interfere with the interests of his nephew Robert, who had been a figure of suspicion through David’s personal reigns.
Todd: As mentioned above the imprisonment of Robert and Alexander in 1368 is interesting because others were mentioned in the June 1368 Act of Parliament including Alexander’s two older brothers John, lord of Kyle, Robert, lord of Menteith, and another major magnate, Thomas, earl of Mar. This Act is concerned with unrest in the lands of these nobles, and specifically concerned by the propensity of certain ‘malefactors wishing to harm others.’ Alexander is not named in the Act, but that is not unusual because his father was still lord of those territories in 1368 and as such, it was his responsibility to enforce royal authority. It is probably the inability to control Alexander, or perhaps an unwillingness to do so, that led to father and son being imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in early 1369 (Alexander was released by March 1369). Given the 1370 obligation of Alexander to promise to ‘protect and defend’ the Bishop’s lands, it is possible to suggest that the target of these ‘malefactors’ was Alexander Bur, Bishop of Moray.
GS: Sources say also that Alexander’s behaviour led to him being eventually taken to task by his father – with what some might say was merely a smack on the wrist at the King’s Council of in 1388 – what do you think of this?
Todd: Steve Boardman argues that the personality of the ‘Wolf’ only began to appear after events of 1388. Alexander’s elder brother Robert, now earl of Fife and Menteith, became guardian of Scotland in 1388, and would become the major threat to Alexander’s northern regional lordship1. Alexander would employ strong-arm tactics whenever he felt that his authority was coming under threat. It is almost ironic that 1388 seems to be the high-water mark of Alexander’s power. He was at the absolute height of his powers 1387-88, as earl of Buchan, lord of Ross and Badenoch, lieutenant of the king and justiciar of the North. However, Alexander now had to contend with the added problem that his brother, as well as bearing all the support of being the new guardian, was also a magnate with lands north of the Forth. The ‘smack on the wrist’ censure is almost irrelevant as by this time the power of Robert II had significantly diminished. I am not entirely sure that even at this late stage he was capable, or even willing, to bring his son to heel. Given that Robert II had personally appointed Alexander as Justiciar of the North, it was the stripping of this title that probably set the wheels in motion to the events of 1390.
CALLUM: Although the judgment of the council in 1388 is expressed in the name of the king (as was the norm during the guardianships of 1384-8), we should really see Fife’s hand behind its production. Fife had been made guardian at the same council, and this was the beginning of his efforts to intrude himself and his kin into Alexander’s traditional sphere of influence. Although negotiations to conclude the on-going war with England and the succession crisis over the earldom of Douglas would initially take precedence, within a year Fife would turn his attention to curbing Alexander’s authority, and securing the council’s condemnation of Alexander’s performance as justiciar laid the groundwork for this.
GS: Born around 1343, some sources have implied that Alexander could well have been described as a strong contender for the most unpleasant character in Scotland’s history – placed on the list just a wee bit ahead of his brother by the same mother – Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany – who is said to have manipulated his way into power in Scotland by devious or violent means during the reign of his father Robert II (1371-1390), his brother Robert III (1390-1406) and his nephew James I (1406-1437) Is this a fair assumption?
TODD: There is no doubt that Alexander was capable of some extremely violent acts. You would be hard pressed to find many medieval magnates that were not – for example in 1394 the earl of Moray made a deal with John of the Isles in relation to ‘protection’ of his lands from cateran forces indicating that Alexander was not as unusual as he is sometimes described! However, the issue with Alexander’s reputation is that we are almost entirely reliant on the writings of men who were from the church. This causes obvious issues when trying to understand characteristics. It is hardly to be expected that the church would write favourably about someone who was responsible for burning Elgin Cathedral. It is not possible to let Alexander away with everything and at certain periods in his career he perpetuated some aggressive tactics to restore his authority. The interesting point of view, which has not been discussed here in detail, is that of a clash of cultures (Highland and Lowland if you will). Alexander employed tactics that were not considered unusual in Gaelic society. It would have been foreign to north-eastern church magnates and their tenants. Bower would refer to the ‘wyld wykkyd Heland-men’ and this was a period that saw a literary increase in defining a Highland and Lowland divide. Some sectors suggest that Alexander was somewhat responsible for the widening chasm, and there is some mileage but given the evidence, I think we have to look at the excessive bias in church sources and chronicles, and on the balance of reality assume that Alexander was, in all reality, probably not that different from other powerful magnates in late medieval Scotland.
CALLUM: Alexander was practicing a form of highly-militarised lordship that in Ireland would be known as ‘coyne’. Essentially, this involved the maintenance of large groups of armed mercenaries – ‘caterans’ – which could be used to intimidate the lesser local lords into submission. To Lowland observers, this looked like simply rule by coercion (which it was in essence). The financial cost of maintaining large numbers of caterans also placed an intense economic burden on the lands under Alexander’s control and caused particular tension with churchmen (like Bishop Bur), who felt that Alexander was encroaching (as he probably was) on the church’s rights in order to pay his mercenaries.
But with royal authority in medieval Scotland focused so closely on the person of the king – and thus being difficult to establish in the Highlands in any lasting way – the alternative to a single potent figure like Alexander was these lesser lords struggling amongst themselves in pursuit of their private interests. This was broadly the result of Alexander’s ‘downfall’ after 1390, and is why even his older brother Robert, duke of Albany, ultimately came to promote Alexander’s son Alexander, earl of Mar, as his local ‘strongman’ to keep a lid on things in the Highlands, using similar tactics as his father had done. James I continued to use Mar in this role. The main difference between Alexander and his son was not their policy towards the communities they sought to control, but Mar learned from his father’s experience that royal approval was necessary to protect him from criticism by the wider community.
GS: Lastly, The Wolf of Badenoch had several lairs – Drumin Castle, Lochindorb Castle, Castle Garth and as well as most likely, Royal Dundonald Castle where we’re sure he would have visited with his father for a weekend or two of hunting and feasting (where we hope he behaved himself) and Ruthven Castle, where he is said to have met his final demise, in a cautionary tale, seemingly as equally dramatic as his life. Legend has it in 1394 or 1405, Alexander received a visitor dressed all in black who challenged Alexander to play a game of chess. Overnight there was a terrible thunder and lightening storm and by morning the stranger had gone, the castle servants were all dead, we might assume struct by lightening, and Alexander lay dead in the banqueting hall, his body apparently unmarked, with all the nails in his boots torn out! He was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral where his tomb is one of the few Scottish royal burial sites to have survived from this period. Do you think that there is any truth to this dark and grisly tale?
CALLUM: The tale of Alexander’s fateful meeting with the devil (not, it must be said, given in any medieval source) has gained popularity largely I think because it seems to confirm the condemnatory attitudes of Lowland chroniclers like Wyntoun and Bower, and provides some degree of punishment for all of Alexander’s supposed wickedness. His real legacy is somewhat more complex than this.
While he does seem to have overly concerned himself with the day-to-day administration of law and order in his role as justiciar, and he appears to have alienated both the royal administration and potential local allies like the Bishop of Moray and even his own wife in equal measure, he cannot reasonably be said to have been any more cruel or dishonest in his efforts to maintain and expand his authority than other contemporary Scottish magnate. His brother Fife proved just as ruthless and opportunistic in dismantling Alexander’s power after 1388, and ultimately vindicated his style of lordship by giving his approval to Mar’s exercise of authority on behalf of the royal administration from around 1411.
To an extent, Alexander’s fearsome reputation is based on the misunderstanding of Gaelic lordship in the most influential sources to survive to us. Yet in his own lifetime, Alexander’s chief failing was a political – not a moral – one. He enjoyed his greatest success during his father’s personal reign and his brother Carrick’s guardianship, when he had the support, or at least tolerance, of the royal administration. His unwillingness to maintain this connection to the government presented Fife with an opportunity to undermine him, and his alienation of influential Highland figures such as Bishop Bur and his own wife Euphemia gave Fife potent ammunition to use against him. His ham-fisted attempt to stage a comeback following his father’s death in 1390 – culminating on the burning of Elgin Cathedral – only serves to reinforce the point that he lacked the political acumen that had typified the careers of his father, his brother Fife, and later his son Mar. But this hardly singles him out as a particular wicked individual!
TODD: The legacy of Alexander has become a mythology all of its own and isn’t it true that all of the best ‘monsters’ from history have their own stories highlighting the mysterious demise of the characters we love to loathe? What cannot be mistaken is the impact Alexander has left upon us all. Here we are some six hundred and sixteen odd years after his death still discussing the pros and cons of his life. To be able to have the surviving effigy of Alexander should also speak volumes of the man. These types of medieval tombs have rarely survived in Scotland. There are of course European and British examples but for me it says something of the reverence and awe in which Alexander was held, that we can still gaze upon him today.
To link characters such as Alexander Stewart to Dundonald Castle is what makes history come alive, and I for one am delighted to be able to share my own thoughts on the enigma that surrounds one of Scotland’s most fascinating characters.
GS: Many, many thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts and ideas on the story of Alexander Stewart. This has helped to be able to add balance to the early chroniclers’ tales of terror which had appeared from my initial investigations about Alexander. It’s interesting too that in 2016 a two metre tall sculpture of Alexander, standing under a four metre tall arch (which represents Elgin Cathedral) was unveiled in Elgin near the roundabout with High Street and Alexander Road, entitled The Wolf by artist David Annand. This has made me think that some sense of historic forgiveness has prevailed.
Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but if you have any thoughts on Alexander’s life – we’re always pleased to hear any points of view – so do get in touch. Also if you want to find out more about the people once connected to Dundonald Castle, subscribe to our YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBoPBB6r2EiMtswf9q-NiaAA or click back to more of our blogs – or why not make a day of it and come visit the site? Dundonald Castle Museum showcases the timeline of Castle Hill, and its story of The Stewarts – who began their long and colourful journey through Scotland’s history in 1136 when they were granted these lands by King David I – Dauíd mac Maíl Choluim (1124-1153) to build what is thought to have been their earliest stronghold.
1Boardman, S. 1996, Lordship in the North-East:The Badenoch Stewarts I. Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, Lord of Badenoch, p.10. Edinburgh University Press
The Wolf of Badenoch Tomb at Dunkeld: wiki commons no attribution
Todd Ferguson portrait image by Todd Ferguson
Dr Callum Watson portrait image by Dr Callum Watson
Loch Leven Castle By Euan Nelson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13582933
Destruction of Elgin Cathedral : By Thomas Allom – Scotland : illustrated in a series of views taken expressly for this work by Messrs. T. Allom, W.H. Bartlett, and H. M’Culloch (London 1835-1838), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3827652
Drumin Castle by Mike Searle, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103375683
Ruthven Barracks (on the site of Ruthven Castle) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=965397
Lochindorb Castle By ronnie leask, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13670804
The Ruins of Garth Castle By Professor James Wilson Andrew Brown Donaldson(1854) – Original publication: Scotland Illustrated in a Series of Eighty Views from Original Drawings by Celebrated Artists:Immediate source: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PLRCAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA3-PA38&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false, PD-US-expired, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59208600
Stewart Knight at Dundonald Castle Museum by Gwen Sinclair
Dundonald Castle by Chris Russell