Year of Stories Chapter 8 Part One:Cannons, Culture and the Clashing of Kings


By Gwen Sinclair

Referencing the archeological studies of the 80s and 90s1, our Chronicles of Castle Hill have now reached the period between 1449-1589. This chapter covers the earlier part of this period beginning around the early reign of King James II (1437-60), exploring his life, and later, those who went on to look after Dundonald Castle on behalf on his son, King James III (1460-.88).

In the morning light of perfect tranquility, it is every man’s stumble to imagine it otherwise.

By the mid 15th century, the traditional seat of Stewart power at Dundonald, together with rest of their lands, and the kingship of Scotland, had all now passed to King James II at the tender age of only 6 years old. This was the time when the Renaissance period was said to have begun its journey of roughly 3 more centuries where historical discourse finds mention of great thinkers, writers, scientists and artists, progressing from the presupposed time of medieval superstition, bloodshed and ignorance. 

King James II

Indeed huge advancements in communication were brought to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg’s (c1400-1468) invention of the printing press in 1450, now regarded as a milestone in human development, and one year later, at the age of 14, James II arranged for Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) to issue a papal bull for the foundation of the University of Glasgow as a centre for learning. This followed on from Scotland’s first University established at St Andrews in 1413, during the time that his father, James I (1406-37) was in captivity in England. This may add weight to the general assumption of an age often described as the beginning of civilisation. However, given the events of this chapter, which follow the closing paragraphs of the previous chapter where the heinous crime of regicide was viciously delivered to end the life of the then owner of Dundonald Castle, King James I in 1437, we could well be hard pushed to accept this analogy in its entirety…

Model of Glasgow University at its original location within the grounds of Glasgow Cathedral.

As it was, the early years of James II’s reign, found his cousin, Archibald 5th Earl of Douglas (c1391-1439) acting on his behalf as Scotland’s lieutenant Governor, with Bishop John Cameron of Glasgow (1426-47), its Chancellor. And yet, likely taking advantage of the limitations of their power and the youth of its monarch, murder and general skulduggery ravaged parts of the kingdom. In the northern Highlands the MacKays feuded with the Keiths, in the central Highlands the MacLeans fought the MacKinnons, and not too far from Castle Hill, the Boyds of Kilmarnock locked horns with the Stewarts of Darnley, excusing any bloodshed as the rules of engagement within chivalric code. 

The young king himself faired no better, as he had become a pawn between the keepers of his own castles where Sir William Crichton at Edinburgh and Sir Alexander Livingstone at Stirling conspired to take the power for themselves. At only 10 years of age, King James II had been forced to witness The Black Dinner, where the 24th November 1440, still ranks highly as one of the most notorious dates in Scotland’s story, taking us as far away from any notions of civilisation as we might get.   

Edinburgh Castle

Crichton and Livingstone conspired to be rid of James’ friend and relative, 16 year old William, 6th Earl of Douglas (c1424-40), son of Archibald, who had supported James in his early years as king. William was the leader of the great and expanding Douglas clan who had sworn to protect the King with 5000 knights and pikemen. The Castle keepers invited William and his 12 year old brother, David, to dine with the king at Edinburgh Castle and once there, were duly served a black bull’s severed head on a plate, as a traditional symbol of treachery. This was followed by mock trials for treason for the two brothers, and that same night, both were beheaded in the castle grounds. There can be little doubt that this left young King James II in trauma and anguish, and now under the control of William Crichton, who essentially made himself regent of Scotland.  What followed was years of brutal civil wars between families such as the Crawfords, the Kennedys, the Ogilvies, the Ruthvens, the Hepburns and the Douglases, as well as the arrival of an English army who burnt out Dunbar and Dumfries.

On 3rd July 1449 King James II married Marie or Mary (1433-63), daughter of Arnold Duke of Guelders (1410-73) and Catherine of Cleves (1417-79), great aunt of Anne of Cleves, 4th wife of King Henry VIII of England (1509-47), at Holyrood Abbey.  Marie was crowned Queen immediately after their wedding ceremony, with Scotland’s most famous cannon, Mons Meg, named after the town in Belgium where it was constructed, arriving as a gift to the royal couple from her family from their sumptuous court at Brussels in 1457.  This great siege gun was a game changer for warfare as it could fire cannon balls weighing 150 kg, reaching their target some 2 miles away.  It is thought that this cutting edge technology may well have encouraged James’ life long obsession with gunpowder, and one that he may well have regretted…

Mons Meg

Meanwhile, on 10th July 1451, Queen Marie gave birth to a baby they named James, providing the king with an heir,  and later had five more surviving children – Alexander, David, John, Margaret and Mary.

But life for the 4th Stewart monarch was far from peaceful.  James II’s reign became dominated by the control of rival factions seeking to gain power for themselves, and the king began to have grave concerns about his own safety when rumours reached him that Sir William 8th Earl of Douglas (1425-52), together with powerful lowland lord, Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford (1423–53), and John MacDonald II Lord of the Isles (c1434-1503) were plotting against him. And so, in a familiar act he may well have learned as a child,  King James II invited Sir William to meet with him at Stirling Castle under a code of safe conduct on 22nd February 1452.  James, known as the Fiery Face, due to a birthmark on his face, demanded that Sir William break ties with John MacDonald. When he refused, in a fit of rage, James stabbed Sir William in the neck, and threw his body out of a window. However, retaliation was swift.  Within a month, Sir William’s brother, James, arrived outside Stirling Castle with an army of 6000.  The town was mercilessly plundered and burned as the king and his household watched on in horror from the castle ramparts. Nevertheless by 1455 a final battle at Arkinholm, (where Langholm now stands) saw the Douglas army decimated, and James took their lands and castles in south-west Scotland.

Interior at Stirling Castle


As for the fate of his earlier captors, James had members of the family of Alexander Livingstone, the once keeper of Stirling Castle, imprisoned, their lands confiscated and two of his sons were put to death. 

In the summer of 1460, James II decided to wrest Roxburgh Castle from English hands once and for all. Perhaps keen to use his cannons, Mons Meg was hauled 50 miles south. Its colossal 6 ton weight meant that its team of oxen could only take it 3 miles a day, resulting in a 2-week journey to get there! A siege began, and on 3rd August The Lion, which was the name given to another of James’ mighty cannons, exploded, seriously injuring the king, who died from loss of blood shortly afterwards. At only 29 years of age, James II was buried at Holyrood Abbey, and was succeeded by his nine year old son, King James III (1460-88).

“The ruins of castle of Roxburgh, favourite of Scottish kings, seated on its massive grassy mound between the Rivers Tweed and Teviot.” watercolour painting by : E. W. Haslehust 1920

Now the King’s Castle at Dundonald and its estates were placed within the keeping of the young King’s cousin, Sir Gilbert Kennedy, 1st Lord Kennedy (1405-c1489) the son of Sir James Kennedy, Younger of Dunure, and Lady Mary Stewart, daughter of King Robert III (1390-1406). Gilbert also became Chamberlain of Dundonald, Carrick, Leswalt, Menybrig, and Barquhany, and was appointed Constable of Stirling Castle in 1466, as well as Keeper of Loch Doon Castle and Laird of Dunure. Gilbert frequently attended Parliament, his last appearance there being on 6 March 1478-79. Gilbert had been created 1st Lord Kennedy on 20th March 1457/58, and served as one of six Regents of Scotland to support the young king, alongside his brother James (1408-65) the Bishop of Dunkeld and St Andrews, who founded St Salvator’s College at St Andrews, and who governed beside the King’s mother, helping to retain relative peace for 18 months until he died. But this relative peace only continued until 1st December 1463, when James III was sadly orphaned at the age of only 12, when dowager Queen Marie died.

Scottish coins, including “unicorns” from the reigns of James III (top left) and James IV (bottom right), exhibited in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

It’s not known if Sir Gilbert resided at any point within Dundonald Castle, but as he oversaw repairs and managed the estate in this period, a James III penny was uncovered during its excavations, which could well have been lost there at this time.  Archaeology suggests too that there was something of an additional building added to the Castle around this time. Its building material was of poor quality compared to the original fabric of the castle, and stood some 9 m long and 5 m wide, and probably not very tall. The purpose of this building remains uncertain, but the existence of hearths indicates that it could have been accommodation for servants and/or stable staff. 

James III with his son James IV

Sadly though, the power struggles which affected both James’ father and grandfather continued for Scotland’s new boy king. At the age of only 14, James III was said to have been stolen from his bed at Linlithgow Palace by Sir Alexander Boyd, from the once old and distinguished family who had fought with Sir William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce. James was taken to Edinburgh Castle where Alexander’s brother, Robert 1st Lord Boyd of Kilmarnock (c1425-c1482) was its governor. James was then effectively held prisoner for 3 months before appearing before parliament encouraged to resolutely declare nothing was amiss. The parliament then agreed his request that Lord Robert Boyd should now not only become the King’s guardian and chancellor, but that Lord Robert’s son, Thomas Boyd should be given the title and lands of the Earl of Arran and Steward of Kirkcudbright in the dowry of betrothal to James’ sister, Princess Mary!

King Kristian I and Queen Dorthea of Norway

The new Earl of Arran, Thomas Boyd was tasked with visiting the royal courts of Europe to find James a wife, and eventually negotiated a marriage between 18 year old James III and 13 year old Princess Margaret of Denmark, daughter of King Kristian I and Queen Dorthea of Norway, Denmark and Sweden (1426-81) in 1469. A generous dowry of 60 thousand guilders or florins, was agreed where the first 10,000 was paid in cash, and the remainder mortgaged against Orkney and Shetland, which was still under Scandinavian control. However, by 1472 the money owed for Margaret’s dowry had still not been paid in full.  And so the Scottish Parliament passed an Act ceding both Orkney and Shetland to the Scottish crown, effectively creating Scotland as the size that it is to this day.

Queen Margaret

Queen Margaret gave birth to an heir to the throne when James was born at Stirling Castle on 17th March 1473, and before his second birthday, baby James was betrothed to King Edward IV of England’s (1461-83) 3 years old daughter, Princess Cecilia (1469- 1507).  This marriage never took place due to her father’ death, and her brother Edward V being usurped from the throne in 1483 by their uncle Richard III (1483-85) and alongside their brother Richard, both were taken to the Tower of London, and as yet the fates of The Princes in the Tower remains a mystery. 

Two more sons followed for Margaret and James, with another named James and one named John. 

Dean Castle, seat of the Boyds of Kilmarnock

As for Lord Robert Boyd, he continued to be governor of Scotland until 1469, when Parliament eventually pressed charges against the Boyd family for James’ kidnap. Lord Robert and Thomas appear to have fled after being tipped off by the king’s sister, Mary, but Sir Alexander Boyd was tried and executed, and their family lands were confiscated to the crown. 

By 1479, James III began to suspect that his brother, John, Earl of Mar and Garioch (1456-79) was plotting against him, and after being imprisoned, he too died in mysterious circumstances.  As a monarch, James seems to have become increasingly unpopular, and appeared to prefer time at his castle in Stirling enjoying music, art and even science, where he employed an alchemist in an attempt to make his own gold, rather than the affairs of state. 

Alchemist’s laboratory

On 13th December 1482, the Barony and Constabulary of the castle of Dundonald, still part of the royal patrimony, anno 1482, was then fittingly granted to Lord Alan de Cathcart (c 1424-1499), whose father, also named Alan, had entered himself as a hostage to the Tower of London in place of the King’s imprisoned grandfather King James I in June 1424. Their surname comes from Kerkert, or caer-cart, ‘the castle on the Cart,’ a river in Renfrewshire, that was part of the lands belonging to the High Stewards, and whose ancestor, Rainaldus de Kethcart was witness to a charter by Alan 2nd High Steward of Scotland (1178-1204) in 1178, as patronage for the church of Kathcart, to the monastery of Paisley. Lord Alan de Cathcart was first knighted and titled by King James II, and continued great favour with King James III, who appointed him to be his Warden of the West marches in 1481, with his own great seal,*Alano domino Cathcart, officii marefeodi due to his many faithful services. As well as Dundonald, Lord Alan de Cathcart was granted the lands of Trabath in King’s Kyle

Sundrum Castle, traditional seat of the Cathcarts after it was built in the 14th century by Sir Duncan Wallace, Sheriff of Ayr, later inherited by Sir Alan de Cathcart, who was the son of Duncan’s sister. The Cathcarts sold Sundrum in the 18th century.

Tragically, during his 28th year as monarch, King James III was to essentially die by the actions of his own son and heir:  Prince James, apparently angered by his father’s favouritism for his younger brother, also named Prince James, and seemingly afraid that this threatened his own right of succession, at the age of only 15, he led nobles in battle against his father on 11th June 1488 at Sauchieburn, near Stirling. There, King James III was injured and legend has it that the when he called for a priest, was duly murdered by that priest, using the king’s own dagger (although history recalls that James III was killed in this battle by persons unknown).  

Queen Margaret had died at Stirling Castle on 14 July 1486, and she and the body of her husband James III aged only 36, were entombed together at Cambuskenneth Abbey. And so it was, their teenaged, rebel army leader son, James, became crowned King James IV,  and ownership of Dundonald Castle and its estates now passed to him. 

James III and Queen Margaret’s tomb at Cambuskenneth Abbey, commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1865 to replace the coffins which once lay under stone slabs at the high altar, now positioned in the open air as this part of the abbey has all but gone!

In Chapter 8, Part two, find out what happened to James IV, and the continuing family of Scotland’s monarchs who went on to own Dundonald Castle…

#Yearofstories   #Talesofscotland   #YS22


1Dundonald Castle Excavations 1986—93
Author(s): Gordon Ewart, Denys Pringle, David Caldwell, Ewan Campbell, Stephen Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Dennis Gallagher, Tim Holden, Fraser Hunter, David Sanderson and Jennifer Thoms
Source: Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, DUNDONALD CASTLE EXCAVATIONS 1986—93 (2004), pp. i-x, 1-166
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
Stable URL:

Prebble J, The Lion in the North: one thousand years of Scotland’s History. Book Club Associates. 1974.

Robertson, W. Ayrshire, Its History and Historic Families. Volume II. Dunlop and Drennan Standard Office, Kilmarnock. Stephen and Pollock Ayr. 1908.

Johnson G Harvey, The Heraldry of the Stewarts. 1906.

Caldwell D, Scotland’s Wars and Warriors-winning against the odds. Historic Scotland. The Stationer Office Edinburgh..1998

Hume-Brown P. A Shorter History of Scotland. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh. 1908.

Sir James Balfour Paul. THE SCOTS PEERAGE, Vol VIII, Edinburgh, 1906, pp. 270-3.ædia_Britannica/Boyd,_Robert_Boyd,_Lord;view=fulltext


Cover Image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Timeline by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

James II oil on panel painting by unknown artist c 17th century from Scottish National Portrait Gallery. By Unknown author –, Public Domain,

Model of the original Glasgow University buildings from the Huntarian Museum by The original uploader was Finlay McWalter at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kafuffle using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mons Meg By Lee Sie – originally posted to Flickr as Edinburgh, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Edinburgh Castle by Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Roxburgh Castle by Haslehust, Geddie: “The Scott Country (Geddie and Haslehust)” (1920) –×607.html, PD-US,

Coins from thet time of James III and James IV by Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

King Christian I of Denmark by Unknown artist – Own photographic reproduction of an expired work of art., Public Domain,

Image of Queen Margaret by Hugo van der Goes – cropped from this blog, Public Domain,

Image of Sundrum Castle by G Montgomery, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Alchemist Public Domain,

Image of James III tomb at Cambuskenneth Abbey by Gwen Sinclair

Dean Castle by Gwen Sinclair

Interior of Stirling Castle by Gwen Sinclair

Image of King James III by Hugo van der Goes –, Public Domain,