The Edinburgh Royal High School riot took place on the 15th of September, 1595.
It seems that tales of shootings in our schools are not confined to the lost and lonely, socially isolated, outcast, lone teenagers of the 20th Century. Amoklaufers shooting their classmates in Germany before being killed by the Polizei or frenzied killing sprees taking place in North American schools before the perpetrator commits suicide are sadly all to familiar. However, here is a tale from 16th Century Scotland that involves a school riot and a shooting, but not with today’s conventional ending. Here’s the story:
At Edinburgh Royal High School in the early autumn of 1595, there had been a period during which the headmaster, Hercules Rollock, had been at his wits end trying to maintain discipline in the school. The students had missed a great deal of study time as a result of their unruly escapades. Nevertheless, a group of them pitched up to request a week’s holidays, conforming to their yearly custom to seek ‘the priviledge’ as it was known. You might think they had a bit of a cheek, considering their lack of discipline over the preceding weeks, and so it appears did the magistrates as they peremptorily turned down the boys’ request. That gave the lads a bit of a jolt and the outraged ‘gentilmenis bairnis’ as they were referred to in contemporary records, decided upon revolt as their response. Overnight, they “tuik the scooll, and provydit thauaeselfis with meit, drink, and hagbutis, pistolit and sword.” When Rollock arrived for lessons the next day, he was confronted by a rebellion and unable to gain access to the school for it was barricaded and guarded from within by the recalcitrant pupils.
After successive attempts at negotiation in search of a peaceful reconciliation had failed, the headmaster called in the municipal authorities. John Macmorran, one of the Baillies or magistrates, then arrived at the head of a party of men to force an entrance. The presence and purpose of these men only served to rile the youths who dared them to approach at their peril. The boys were perceived as very excitable and seen to try to outdo each other in making outrageous threats. Chief amongst the conspirators inside the school was William Sinclair, “sone to Williame Sinklar chansler of Catnes (Caithness).” He was the most vociferous in defence of what the boys no doubt saw as a right, established through usage since time immemorial. Undoubtedly, it was Sinclair who uttered the threat of instant death to any who should attempt to displace them. A history of the school records it thus: “he wowit to God, he sould schute ane pair of bullettis throw his heid.” However, Baillie Macmoran didn’t take such threats seriously, nor did he perceive that he was calling Sinclair’s bluff. Undeterred, he led his men in an attempt to force the door, using a wooden beam as an improvised battering ram. Moments later, he lay dead on the ground – as “Thair came ane scoller callit William Sinklar, and with ane pistollet schot out at ane window, and schott the said Baillie throw the heid, sua that he diet presentlie.”
The next day, the magistrates convened an extraordinary meeting, the result of which was that a deputation, including the Provost, two of the Bailies, the Convener of the Trades, and seven Councillors, were dispatched to Falkland in Fife to advise the King. Meanwhile, eight students were imprisoned amongst the riff-raff in Edinburgh’s Tolbooth. They stayed there in discomfort for two months, before their case was heard by the Privy Council. They then claimed that there could be no local jurisdiction as they were either the sons of barons or landed proprietors from elsewhere. They also claimed that as the magistrates were parties to the affair, they could not be impartial. They entreated the King to name an assize with a majority comprising peers of the realm, which request James VI granted. Unfortunately, what took place at that assize isn’t known as the record of the Justiciary Court for that period was lost. What is known is that soon afterwards, Sinclair and his cronies were set free.
Apart from Sinclair, the others sent to the Tollbooth were George Murray, son to Murray of Spainziedaill, Robert Hoppringle, son to the gudeman of Quhytebank, Andro Douglas, son to George Douglas, associated to the Laird of Cesfurde, Raguel Bennett, son to the ‘umquhile’ (former) Mungo Bennett in Chasteris, Adair, son to Adair of Kinhilt, Kirktoun, son to Kirktoun of the Tour, and Malcolme Cokburne. A mere five years after the riot, William Sinclair obtained a remission under the Great Seal for the killing of Baillie John Macmoran. He was later knighted Sir William Sinclair of Mey by James VI. Interestingly, some of the scholars were the sons of Highland Chieftains, which proves that such men could not have been as illiterate as it is generally supposed.
Apart from Baillie Macmorran, the other unfortunate victim of the affair was the headmaster, Rollock, who suffered the loss of his reputation and the patronage of the town council. In his view, in the eleven years of his stewardship, he had turned around the fortunes of the school, but whatever standing it had risen to whilst under his control, it wasn’t sufficient to render it immune to the fallout from the ‘riot’. The King expelled the rioters and many parents withdrew their sons, perhaps fearing a recurrence or similar outrage. The result was a decline in class numbers, leading to a fall in income. The final ignominy came when the council accused Rollock of mismanagement and an inability to maintain proper discipline, the outcome of which was his dismissal. He was unsuccessful in suing the council for damages and believed ‘the excellence of his instructions’ to have been singularly unappreciated. In Rollock’s own words, the school soon descended “into the barbarism from which he recovered it” in the years after his tenure. After he died in January, 1599, the council, perhaps with a guilty conscience, awarded his widow an income from the interest on the sum of five hundred merks.
There is a false record in Norwegian sources that links a George Sinclair with the shooting of Baillie Macmorran. However, George – not William – Sinclair was killed in Norway in August, 1612, whilst part of a Scottish mercenary force under the command of Colonel Andrew Ramsay. The Scots were ambushed at Kringom during an enterprise referred to as the ‘Skottetoget’ (the Scottish expedition). Apart from fourteen prisoners and four surviving officers who were sent to Oslo, the remaining mercenaries were held overnight in the ‘Skottelaaven’ (the Scots barn) before being shot.