Strange Tales Of Scotland
Looking back through the brawling pages of Scottish history, it may seem inevitable that this small northern nation should have struggled for very survival when its southernmost neighbour is arguably the most aggressive state in Europe. After all, every one of England's neighbours suffered from her propensity for invasion: why should Scotland be any different? What is even more intriguing is why the Scots should have trusted Edward Plantagenet of England sufficiently to invite him to arbitrate on the foxed question of the Scottish royal succession at the hinder end of the thirteenth century. In hindsight, trusting a Mediaeval English king was like putting a head in a crocodile's mouth and then asking if it was hungry. Yet that is what the Scots did in the 1280s, and the result was centuries of some of the bloodiest, most bitter warfare in Europe, if not in the world. And it was all caused by a man's love for a woman.
He was no ordinary man, of course, but a royal. He was King Alexander III, known as Alexander the Good, whose reign was the last Golden Age Scotland was to enjoy for centuries. He was a strong king who defeated a major Norwegian invasion at the Battle of Largs and wrested the Hebrides back to Scotland. He was a strong king who refused to pay homage for his kingdom to the deviously cunning Henry III of England. Indeed if Alexander had survived, Edward Longshanks might never have tried to impose English rule on Scotland and relations between the two nations would have been far easier, even today.
However, even strong kings have human weaknesses, and Alexander's was as human as they get. His first wife, Margaret, daughter of Henry III of England, bore him three sickly children, but they all died within a few years of the death of their mother, leaving Alexander with neither a wife nor an heir. Both these items were essential for a mediaeval king, and so Alexander cast his eye around for somebody suitable. He needed lusty woman who was capable of bearing him sons, and found her in the fair Yolande de Dreux, Duchess of Brittany, a French noblewoman who fitted the bill perfectly.
It was originally Alexander's plan to marry in Kelso Abbey, but Scotland's most significant seer, True Thomas of Ercildoune, had a dream in which the roof of Kelso collapsed on its assembled congregation. Accordingly the king altered his plans and chose Jedburgh Abbey instead, only a few miles away across the green Border countryside. People tended to listen to True Thomas, for his predictions had a knack of being correct. He had already foreseen the Scottish victory at Largs, despite the lack of experience of the Scottish army, and he spoke of other events that had not yet come to pass. His prediction about Kelso came true too, but not for a few hundred years when the abbey roof collapsed in the eighteenth century.
So Jedburgh it was, and the splendid building beside the Jed Water saw a magnificent royal wedding. It was a significant occasion, and, according to Walter Bower's Scottichronicon, written around 1440, there was a sword dance, surely one of the first recorded, but it was neither that nor the bagpipes that was the main topic of conversation.
There was a masque ball as part of the celebrations, and amongst the happy guests, True Thomas saw the sinister shape of dancing skeletons. Others may also have seen the same thing, or at least a solitary figure that they were unable to decide was a man or a ghost. Some accounts speak of women screaming and knights crossing themselves against the dark arts. Whatever it was that appeared before the elite of Scotland that day, it seemed to glide rather than walk, and certainly was not a good omen.
People might have looked to True Thomas for an explanation, but seers seldom can explain their visions. They just see and speak and let the world take its own course. There were as many tales about Thomas as tales he told, and most were complete fabrications. People said he had visited Fairyland through a door in the Eildon Hills. People said the Fairy queen gave him the gift of prophesy in return for his prowess as a lover. People said he could never tell a lie. People tend to say ridiculous things on a whim.
But for the moment, Alexander forgot about Scotland's most famous seer and concentrated on his new wife. As was common among royalty, affairs of state kept them apart from time to time, and on one dark spring day, Alexander was in Edinburgh while Yolande was in Fife. He wanted to get back to his wife, but all his court advised otherwise. They looked at the weather, looked at the heaving waves of the Firth of Forth and shook their collective head.
If Alexander had listened to True Thomas when he thought it best not to marry in Kelso, he should have listened to him that day, for the seer uttered the prophesy that foretold the next few centuries of Scotland's history.
'On the morrow, afore noon, shall blow the greatest wind that ever was heard before in Scotland'
Ignoring all the good advice, Alexander pulled rank and forced the always-independent Forth ferrymen to pull him across the mile or two of white-frothed water of what was then known as the Scotswater or the Scottish Sea. Now it is called the Firth of Forth but on a blowy day the waves still hammer at the shore and the wind can make walking the shore an adventure and sailing perilous.
Doubtless grumbling under their breath, the ferrymen did as the king commanded, and everyone would be relieved when they reached the north shore and the king could scramble on to Fife. He would have scoffed at the doubters, for all he had to do now was ride the handful of miles along the coast and he would be safe in the arms of his wife, where he belonged.
Accordingly he took horse and headed east, but somewhere along the high road that followed the line of the cliff between Kinghorn and Burntisland, His Grace slipped and fell. His body was found next morning and all of Scotland mourned.