Greetings from iainthepict. This blog of mine is meant to be like a 'Book of Days' or a kind of 'Scottish Year Book' if you will. The idea was to present an event for each day of the year. Somewhere in here, you can find out what happened, affecting Scotland and the Scots, on any given day of the year. Your comments and observations are very welcome.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Elgin Cathedral and the 'Wolf of Badenoch'

Elgin Cathedral was burned by the 'Wolf of Badenoch', on the 17th of June, 1390.

Elgin Cathedral, which is now a ruin, was set alight three times. All of that must be considered truly unfortunate and only goes to show that building edifices to the glory of God is also, probably, a folly. For ye catholic believers the demise of Elgin Cathedral must be  regrettable, but for ye followers of Calvin and Knox and the religious revolution, maybe its being reduced to an historic ruin and tourist attraction is something of the order of just desserts. Elgin Cathedral was known as the 'Lantern of the North', ostensibly because it was the ecclesiastical centre of the Bishopric of Moray. Alternatively, you must consider
it gained that appellation due to a predisposition for attracting arsonists. Aye, there's nae such thing as 'third time lucky' in Elgin.

The first fire to damage significantly Elgin's ancient cathedral occurred in 1270, forty-six years after the establishment of the monastic structure at Spynie in 1224. That incident, involving a monk with a box of matches, led to a major rebuilding programme, which substantially increased the size of the cathedral. The impressive new establishment went on to survive the Wars of Independence without further damage. Much later, on the 3rd of July, 1402, the cathedral precinct suffered an incendiary attack by Alexander of Lochaber, brother of Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles. The cathedral’s final demise came after the Reformation in 1560, when it was deserted by its congregation, which had moved to St Giles Kirk. The cathedral fell into a state of disrepair and it was robbed of its valuable materials, including the church bells and, in 1567, the lead from the roof.

Sandwiched between the first and third fires, in 1270 and 1402, the most famous conflagration to warm the hands of a medieval catholic god occurred in June, 1390. The man responsible for that outrage was the son of a King. The monarch was Robert II and the perpetrator was Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan. The reason commonly given for the fury directed at Elgin and its cathedral by the Earl of Buchan is that he fell out with the Bishop of Moray.  It seems, however, that the attack came after a prolonged period of setbacks for the Earl, who had a short fuse – and a handy supply of tinder.

Alexander Stewart was married to Eupheme (Euphemia) de Ross, the Countess of Ross, with whom he had no issue. On the other hand, he had plenty of  illegitimate children, around forty by some accounts and at least seven 'officially'. Notwithstanding his copious acts of infidelity, Alexander had a favourite mistress, Mairead inghean Eachann, with whom he lived at Lochindorb Castle and who appears to have been the mother of an identifiable seven of his 'bastards'. Having deserted Euphemia, the rogue Earl sought divorce and annulment via the Bishop of Moray, Alexander Bur. Not to be outdone, Countess Euphemia complained to Moray and Pope Clement V at Avignon about Buchan's cohabiting with Mairead. Later, in 1392, the Pope annulled the marriage, but in February, 1390, Bishop Bur had come out in support of Euphemia and excommunicated Buchan. That action only served to add fuel to the fire of Buchan's feud with the Bishop.

With Stewart's official elevation to the title of Lord of Badenoch in 1371 and being made King's Lieutenant north of the Forth in 1372, he assumed greater authority over Moray's ecclesiastical lands. Life became increasingly miserable for the Bishop and his tenants as Stewart was notorious for ruling his territories with an 'iron fist'. Buchan's judicial authority was questioned by the Bishop, who complained to the King; after all, he couldn't very well complain to the legitimate authority i.e., Buchan. Robert II sided with his illegitimate offspring and the Bishop's card was marked. However, another son, John, the Earl of Carrick and the future Robert III, sought to take control of the north.

Lots of argy bargy occurred, but Stewart, made Earl of Buchan in 1382, soon after his marriage, held his own and was even, in 1387, appointed Justiciar North of the Forth. Carrick's intervention was a bit like his eventual rule, a damp squib, and it was only when the King's second son, Robert Stewart, the competent and capable Earl of Fife, became effective ruler of Scotland, in 1388, that Buchan came under real pressure. Displaying the kind of sibling rivalry all too common in those times, Fife removed Buchan from the Justiciarship and the Royal Lieutenancy and installed his own son, Murdoch, as Justiciar.

By May of 1390, Buchan's simmering resentment at being sidelined and losing any chance of high office was coming to the boil. With the February excommunication coming after years of ups and downs, Buchan wasn't in the mood for pussy-footing around. Taking advantage of the absence of Bur's new protector, the Earl of Moray, in London for a tourney, Buchan decided on venting his frustration by going on the rampage and striking out at the Bishop against whom his rage had already been ignited.

Buchan swept down from his fastness of Badenoch and descended on Moray at the head of a large number of “wild, wykked Hieland-men.” Buchan ransacked the town of Forres, before destroying the Abbey and Priory of Pluscarden en route to Elgin. Buchan arrived in Elgin on the 17th of June, 1390, where he torched much of the town, setting alight the Cannon’s house, the College, the monastery of the Greyfriars, the Hospital of Maison Dieu and destroying Elgin Cathedral.

Bishop Bur afterwards wrote to Robert III seeking reparation for his brother's actions, stating, “ church was the particular ornament of the fatherland, the glory of the kingdom, the joy of strangers and incoming guests, the object of praise and exaltation in other kingdoms because of its decoration, by which it is believed that God was properly worshipped.” God must've been on vacation at the time.

Alexander Grant later wrote a ditty called 'The Castle o' Drumin' from which here's a couple of stanzas referencing Alexander Stewart, the 'Wolf of Badenoch'...

“As ye brood o’er A’an’s clear waters
In the munelicht's silver glow
Does the Wild Wolf, Badenoch’s Maister,
Pass in pursuit o’ his foe?

Son o’ Scotland’s king, a wild ane,
In his day his name spak fear
Tae mony a ane outside his lairdship,
Bishop, commons, prince an’ peer.”


  1. Oddly enough, LNER named a steam passenger locomotive The Wolf of Badenoch in the 1930's.. designated Class P-2 and of an odd 3-cylinder design, it ran on the line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Someone must have admired the guy.