Myth and History: The Case of the Black Douglases

Every child in a Scottish school was brought up to recognise the ‘Black Douglas’ as one of the true, almost mythical heroes of Scottish history. That attitude was underpinned by the part the Douglas family played during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Good Sir James Douglas – ‘the Black Douglas’ – fought alongside Robert the Bruce and was the one lord to be selected to take his heart to the Crusades. To the Scots, he was a hero. To the English, he was a bogeyman. In fact, an English lullaby sung to children included the words: ‘Hush yea, Hush yea, Dinae fret yea, the Black Douglas will nae get yea’. Try falling asleep after hearing that.

Another reason the Douglases entered Scottish folklore was William Douglas’s capture from the English of the heavily defended Edinburgh Castle in 1341. Douglas and his lieutenants dressed as merchants, with his men hidden in covered wagons, and gained entry into the castle. With the help of the townspeople, they slaughtered the English defenders, throwing many off the castle rock. The Douglases place in history as good guys and patriots was established.

However, when the English threat disappeared, the Douglas family began to harbour ambitions to seize the throne of Scotland from the Stewarts. When James II acceded to the throne, the Black Douglases controlled three earldoms and were claiming a fourth. Their rule stretched over Galloway, Douglasdale, Annandale, Clydesdale, Lothian, Stirlingshire, and Moray. The desire to curb the power of the Black Douglases became an obsession with the king, and as such, relations between James and William, Eighth Earl of Douglas, deteriorated to a fatal degree.

At the age of 23, James led a murderous attack on William by stabbing him in the neck in Stirling Castle in 1542. William had no fewer than 26 stab wounds. Horrific as it was, the Eighth Earl’s murder did not mark the end of the Douglas family; instead, it created a civil war of sorts between them and the crown during the years 1452 to 1455. From heroes of the struggle against English rule, the Douglases had become pariahs, but pariahs with power.

To effectively kill off the threat from the Douglases, James bribed their allies with gifts of land. These defections proved decisive in the Battle of Arkinholm, Dumfrieshire, in 1552, in which the brothers of James, the Ninth Earl of Douglas, all lost their lives. In the following months, the Scottish parliament declared the Douglas lands and possessions forfeit and permanently annexed them to the crown.

The destruction of the Black Douglases marked the consolidation of royal power in Scotland. Future Stewart kings of Scotland never again had to face such a powerful challenge from a rival family to their authority.

But while we hear of the beginnings of the story of the Black Douglases – the swashbuckling, the daring do, and the love of country – their unpatriotic demise as enemies of the monarch is a story Scottish children are not often told. Better the myth than the reality.

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