Isabel MacDuff Comyn-  The Lady in the Cage

As I have said before, do not mess with a Scottish woman.  This is the story of a woman who did her duty to her country and her king and paid the price.  A price that seems like it’s out of a fairy tale or a horror movie, but paid it she did.  This is the story of Isabel MacDuff Comyn, a patriot of Scotland.

Isabel crowning Robert the Bruce
Courtesy of: Martin York

Isabel was born to Duncan Macduff, the Earl of Fife, and Johanna de Clare.  The date of her birth isn’t recorded and estimates range from 1270 to 1285.  Her father was murdered by his classman in 1299, and Johanna and Isabel’s younger brother also named Duncan fled south to England.  Joan’s father had recently married Edward I’s sister, so they received a warm welcome there.  It is not clear whether Isabel remained in Scotland or not.  Her later views on the English indicate that she stayed.  The new Earl of Fife was raised in England with a decidedly English bias to events in Scotland.  Isabel was married in the late 1290s to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan.  Isabel would have been quite young, and Comyn was at least 30 or 40 years her senior.  However, this was a not uncommon and was a good match, which made Isabel the Countess of Buchan.  However, family ties did not make this an easy marriage.

The Comyns were in a struggle against another family for the throne of Scotland.  This was someone you may have heard of, dear reader.  Just a guy called Robert the Bruce.  (For more on Robert the Bruce, please see this post:  Matters between the Bruces and the Comyns came to a head when Robert stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn in the Kirk of Greyfriars in Dumfries in February 1306.  John Comyn was Isabel’s husband’s cousin, but Robert was Isabel’s cousin.  John obviously sided with the Comyns, but Isabel did not go with her husband.  She supported her cousin in his bid for the crown.

After the murder, Robert road hell for leather to Scone in Perth to be crowned King of Scotland at Moot hill.  There were some problems though.  Traditionally, all Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, but it had been removed to London by Edward I in 1296.  (For more on the Stone of Destiny, please see this post: )  Because of this, it was important that all the other traditions of coronation be followed to the letter.  However, there a couple other problems.  Because Robert murdered a member of the Comyn family in a church, the Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to anoint him.  There was that pesky thing about sanctuary and the Comyn family was very tight with the Pope.  Another important tradition was the king was crowned by a member of the clan of MacDuff.  Slight problem.  Duncan MacDuff was raised in England as a ward of the English court.  Even if he wanted to, Edward I wasn’t going to let him come north to crown a rival king.  Enter his sister, Isabel.  

Isabel was not going to let her family’s part of the coronation be forgotten.  Her husband definitely wouldn’t approve as his family had sided with England after the murder of John “Red” Comyn.  However, he was conveniently in England.  She liberated several of his horses and rode to Scone to join her cousin, Robert.  He had already been crowned on March 26, 1306, but after Isabel arrived he was crowned again with Isabel placing the crown on his head.  Isabel had declared her colors, and she could no longer go home.

Robert sent her to Kildrummy Castle with his wife, daughter, sisters and the other royal ladies.  Rumors went round that Isabel did what she did because she and Robert were lovers.  However, it would have been extremely awkward if they were since she was roommates with his wife.  Stranger things have happened though.  The women tried to escape north, possibly to Orkney to escape to Norway, but were caught at St. Duthac’s Church in Tain.  They sought sanctuary, but were captured by Earl William de Ross.  He turned them over to the English to await their fate.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a friend and supporter of Edward I, so she was treated with honor and sent to house arrest in England.  Robert’s sister, Christina, was the wife of a member of the powerful Seaton family, and sent to Sixhills nunnery.  Edward threatened to hang Robert’s 9 year old daughter, Marjorie, in a cage outside the Tower of London, but relented because of her age.  She was sent to  Watton Priory.  He saved the cage for Robert’s sister, Mary, and Isabel.  Because Isabel was a rebellious wife and legitimized Robert’s coronation, she was forced to live in a cage hung outside Berwick Castle.  It was a cage made of lattice wood and iron hinges, and she was completely exposed to the elements.  There was a privy for privacy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing herself.  However, she was forced to be out in all weathers and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  Mary was hung in a similar cage outside Roxburgh Castle.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open, but they were definitely kept in a cage for several years.

No one is sure what happens to Isabel at this point.  Her name is not on the list of prisoners returned after the victory at Bannockburn in 1314.  It is doubtful Robert would have forgotten her and all she suffered, even if from a public relations perspective.  Many believe she died by this time.  There are rumors that she was removed from her cage in 1310 and sent to and placed in the Carmelite friary in Berwick, then released to her niece by marriage, Alice Comyn.  No one knows.  However, Isabel MacDuff Comyn suffered as much in her way for the cause of Scottish Independence as any man.  


Clava Cairns

Photograph courtesy of
Photograph courtesy of

The main attraction in the area around Inverness is the site of the Battle of Culloden.  However, there is another site nearby that is also an important part of Scotland’s past.  One mile southeast of the battlefield set on a terrace above the River Nairn are the Clava Cairns also called the Balnuaran of Clava.  These are three cairns and a number of free standing stones which date from the late Neolithic period.  Although it is thought by scholars that there may have been at least two additional structures, the three that are left have been designated the Northeast Cairn, Central Cairn and Southwest Cairn.  These site is thought to be a part of a system of cairns in the Inverness-Nairn Valley, which correspond to a pattern corresponding to planetary movement.

Both the Northeast and the Southwest Cairns are passage graves.  This means there is an inner chamber, which is linked to the outside by a passage.  These are both fifty feet in diameter and are currently about three feet high, but at the time of construction were thought to be up to ten feet high.  Like at New Grange (For more on New Grange, please see this post: )  the passages into the tombs align with the midwinter sun.  On the winter solstice, sunlight streams into the passageways illuminating the grave chambers within which would have been in darkness every other day of the year.  Both of these graves are surrounded by kerbstones.  On the Northeastern passage grave, one kerbstone is has several “cup marks”.  These are circular indentations purposely chiseled into the stone, however, it is not known what these were made for.  The Central Cairn is a ring cairn, which means there is no passage linking the inside room to the outside.  All of the cairns are surrounded by a ring of standing stones.  It has been suggested that the fictional Craigh na Dun from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was inspired by this site.  There is a second smaller site nearby called Milton of Clava.  It is a single standing stone.  There is also a ruins of a medieval chapel built much later.  

Photograph courtesy of

Excavations at the site have shown the sites had been used from their creation around 2500 BCE and was in continual use for over 1000 years. Then the site was intermittently used until about 770 CE.  Remains of another ring cairn can be found near the original site and the medieval chapel ruins at Milton of Clava.  Unfortunately, we do not know much about the builders or those who were buried here.  Excavations beginning in 1828 did damage to the site and eradicated evidence.  However, evidence was found in the 1950s that some bodies were cremated here.  Studies of the in the 1990’s by Professor R. Bradley, theorize that the site was originally constructed “during a single phase”.  However, he was still puzzled by the ring and cup carvings on the kerbstones.  It is not known what part these played in the rituals conducted here or if they were made by earlier civilizations.  Despite the finds of cremated bones, no complete sets of remains have ever been found.


Burns Night

230px-pg_1063burns_naysmithcropTonight is a celebration of the birth of the man who is widely known as the national poet of Scotland.  Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns, is one of the most famous poets from Scotland and is considered to be a pioneer of the Romantic movement.  As the Scottish diaspora sent immigrants around the world, the work of Burns became a touchstone and a piece of home they could take with them.  Burns’ work is recognizable to many, including the famous song/poem “Auld Lang Syne” and “Scots Wha Hae”, which served as an unofficial national anthem of Scotland for many years.  Despite being born in humble circumstances, he left a huge catalog of poems and songs beginning with his first poem at the age of 15.  He was vaulted to celebrity after his collection of poems, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786.  Despite his fame, Burns never forgot his humble roots and wrote about the life and issues facing those in the lower classes and preserving traditional Scottish ballads and songs.

Friends of the poet, initially celebrated the anniversary of his death with a private supper a few friends and acquaintances.  Two centuries later, this developed to in a national event on the poet’s birthday.  So how does one properly celebrate Burns Night?  There is a proscribed menu and dress for the whole affair.  Diners must wear kilts, however, there is some argument as to whether Burns would have worn a kilt.  Some argue that despite Burns being a champion of traditional dress, as a Lowlander he would have not worn a kilt.  Before dinner, the diners dressed in their kilts are escorted into dine by the sounds of bagpipes.  Then The Selkirk Grace is said before dinner.  This is a prayer that is said to been written by Burns.  It goes as follows:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

The menu is also traditionally Scottish with haggis and whisky being featured prominently.  Haggis is a savory pudding made from the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep.  This is mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt then cooked in the sheep’s stomach.  Despite this less than appetizing description, it is supposed to be delicious.  This is served with tatties and neeps, or potatoes and turnips.  Drams of whisky are paired with the haggis, and served neat or with a small amount of water.  Before the haggis, the dinners begin with a cock-a-leekie soup.  Then the haggis is carried in on a silver platter, as the diners stand and clap and accompanied by more bagpipes.  Then there is an Address to the Haggis, also written by Burns, where the haggis is lauded as the “great chieftain o the puddin’-race”.   During the last line, “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht”, the haggis is cut open.  Then it’s time to eat.

After dinner, the toasts begin.  A guest reads the Immortal Memory toast, which is in honor of Burns.  Then they read the Toast to the Lassies, to thank the women who cooked the meal.   This is a personalized toast where a male guest makes reference to the ladies in the group and quotes lines from Burns’ poetry.  The women then get a risposte to the Toast to the Lassies.  The night ends with all the guests joining hands and singing Auld Lang Syne.

Merry Burns Night to all!


The Paisley Witch Trials

Paisley Witches Memorial - It is the place where the remains of '7 Executed Witches' were disposed of in June 1697  Photo credit- Atlas Obscura
Paisley Witches Memorial – It is the place where the remains of ‘7 Executed Witches’ were disposed of in June 1697 Photo credit- Atlas Obscura

Christian Shaw was the ten-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran near Erksine.  She was described as a “sensitive child”.  In August 1696, she caught her servant Katherine Campbell stealing a drink of milk.  Christian duly reported the incident to her mother, and Katherine was reprimanded.  Katherine apparently had a temper and responded by blessing the child out and was reported as saying she wished the Devil would “”haul [Shaw’s] soul through Hell.”  Soon after Christian fell ill with violent seizure, convulsions and unresponsive trances.  She was supposed to have vomited up straw bins, eggshells, orange pills, hair, excrement and bones.  Pinch marks were found all over her body and she contorted herself impossible positions.  She was also reported to be able to fly.  According to a famous doctor in Glasgow she was taken to, Christian vomited up burning coal as large as a chestnut and too hot to touch.  It was clear to the doctor.  The child was bewitched.  Many today speculate Christian suffered from Munchhausen syndrome or conversion disorder, however, those things were not known of by doctors at the time.

When questioned, Christian placed the blame for her affliction on a coven of witches in town, who was led by her former servant, Katherine Campbell.    By the time she was done, 35 people were accused of witchcraft.  Despite the wide net of accusations that Christian cast, only seven people were tried for practicing witchcraft.  These included Katherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Lang, Margaret Fulton, John Reid, John Lindsay, and James Lindsay.  The Lindsay brothers were only eleven and fourteen years old.  Despite the fact they all vigorously protested their innocence, they were all found guilty and were condemned to die.  John Reid killed himself by hanging himself in his cell.  Legend says that the two young brothers were garroted together as they held onto each other’s hands.  The rest were hung then their bodies burned.  They did not go quietly.  Katherine Campbell was carried struggling and screaming and called down the wrath of God and the Devil on her accusers.  Agnes Naysmith laid “a dying woman’s curse” on all at the scene and their descendants.  One account says a few of the condemned were not dead when their bodies were put into the fire and an executioner borrowed a walking stick to push the victims back into the fire as they tried to crawl out.  All in all a harrowing tale.

 On a small patch of land, just off Queen Street in the West End, lies this well which  is all that remains of the Gallowgreen where the Paisley Witches were killed.  Photo Credit-

On a small patch of land, just off Queen Street in the West End, lies this well which is all that remains of the Gallowgreen where the Paisley Witches were killed. Photo Credit-

Christian Shaw recovered and went on a European tour with her mother.  On this tour, they smuggled pieces of a “Spinning Jenny” back to Paisley under their skirts.  This theft led to the beginning of Bargarran Threads, which was the beginning of industry in the area.  However, several local disasters, including the Paisley Canal disaster in 1810 which took 85 lives, were attributed to Naysmith’s “witch’s’ curse”.  Something had to be done.  The remains of the seven condemned were buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street are today.  The grave was marked with a horseshoe to keep the curse in check.  Things seemed to settle down and Paisley was quiet.

However, in the 1960’s the horseshoe was removed and lost during roadwork.  The economic decline of Paisley beginning in the 1970’s has been blamed by some on the curse.  In 2008, a new monument with a horseshoe was replaced with a plaque which reads “Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done.”  The burnings at Paisley were the last of the major witch hunts in Europe.  May the victims rest in peace.


Sources available on request

Gregor MacGregor-  Prince of Frauds

An engraving from Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, purporting to depict the “port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais

If you are like me, your world geography is a bit fuzzy.  This is not a new thing, and was probably worse in the past when new lands were being discovered by Europeans, renamed and divvied up.  They also didn’t have handy Professor Google to teach them where things were.  Maps were a sketchy business.  So when an ambitious Scotsman came forward claiming to the the Prince, or Cazique, of Poyais, most people did not realize Poyais did not exist.

During the Napoleonic Wars, former Spanish and Portuguese colonies were benefiting from the upheaval in the mother countries.  Most of the countries of South America gained their independence between 1809 and 1825.  However, with independence they went a little crazy to generate cash flow.  South America was rife with gold and silver mines, so they should be fine, right?  Well, no.  The new countries issued bonds backed by their shiny new governments and the mining companies issued stocks.  Both promised huge returns for investors.  As we have seen in recent financial shenanigans, over promising generally leads to bubbles and bubbles burst.  Three of these bubbles hit the London Stock Exchange in the early 19th century-  the Canal Bubble of the 1810s, the South American Bubble of the 1820s, and the Railroad Bubble of the 1840s.  However, before the bubbles burst investor confidence was high, cost of living was falling and wages were going up.  Interest rates drifted down, with the government borrowing more and more cheaply.  Money was everywhere just waiting for someone to take it.

Into this environment came Gregor MacGregor.  He had been born in Glengyle near Loch Katrine in 1786.  He joined the Royal Navy in 1803 and was a Colonel in the Venezuelan War of Independence.  In 1817, he led a questionably-sanctioned group of War of 1812 vets in an attempt to drive the Spanish from Florida.  This effort failed, but he was generally well regarded and appeared successful.  South American investments were in vogue, and so when he returned to London in 1820, MacGregor declared that he had a sweet deal for anyone interested.  Through his adventures, he claimed he had been named the Cacique or Prince of the Principality of Poyais by the native chief King Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation.  According to MacGregor, Poyais was a paradise located on where the Black River emptied into the Bay of Honduras and overflowing with natural resources.  He claimed the water was pure and gold nuggets just lay on the riverbanks waiting for some industrious person to collect them.  The country was so fertile, he bragged, that there were three maize harvest a year.  Tree branches grew heavy with ripe fruit and abundant game froliced in their shade.  It sounded like heaven compared to dank rainy Scotland.  To publicize this paragon of lands, MacGregor published “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the the Territory of Poyais”.  This was supposed to have been written by a Captain Thomas Strangeways.  He described the natives as lining up to serve the English settlers in the capital of St. Joseph.  The problem with all of this was it was completely fiction.

MacGregor did get land from King Frederic Augustus I in April 1820, but the only thing there were four run down buildings surrounded by jungle.  That hardly mattered as the book by “Captain Strangeways” gained readers and investors lined up to get a piece of Poyais.  There was a price to suit the means of every kind of investor.  The rich could buy 2000 bonds at 100 pounds a piece.  These would return 3% interest.  For the more modest investor, he offered land for sale at the rate of 3 shillings, 3 pence per acre (later 4 shillings), which was about a day’s wages in 1822.  The bonds alone netted 200,000 pounds in sales.  Then MacGregor set about selling positions in the military and in the government.  He even issued his own currency.  In just one year, MacGregor would have been a multi-millionaire in today’s money.

Unbelievably, seven ships set out for the fictional Poyais in 1823.  MacGregor must have been sweating, but he brazened it out.  250 settlers in all arrived in “Poyais” mid 1823.  When they arrived they found no town, no helpful natives and nothing as it was promised.  People went hungry and plagues of malaria and yellow fever took their toll.  Passing ships took some of the settlers to Belize, but even then two thirds of them died.  The British Navy had to send out ships to turn back more settlers that were on their way.

As for MacGregor?  He escaped to France with his ill gotten gains.  Then in France started the whole pitch again.  This time, he was not lucky and ended up in prison for his efforts.  He died in 1845 in Caracas.  The land that was the paradise of Poyais?  Still unsettled to this day.


Sources available on request