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Memoirs and Adventures of Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange
Chapter XVIII. The Unicorn


Immediately after the queen's imprisonment, the confederates used every means to strengthen their party, and renewed their hand of association, arrogating to themselves the royal authority, under the title of Lords of the Secret Council. Sir William Kirkaldy was one, and his signature appears appended to several acts of that singular assembly.

How ill-fated was Mary! Living in such an iron-hearted time as that of the Scottish Reformation—so young, so beautiful, so gentle, so polished and high-minded—it was impossible she could prosper among those fierce nobles, whose hearts were hardened by the blood they shed hourly on every trivial occasion, and who, unsurpassed as they were in valour, violence, fanaticism, and ferocity, made her the victim of their vile duplicity and insatiable ambition. The adulation offered to her on landing among them had now been replaced by hatred and cruelty ; equally forgotten was the homage due to her beauty, which in happier times had drawn such poetic raptures from the ungrateful Buchanan, in his Latin paraphrase of the Psalms, and Epithalamium.

A prey to remorse and shame, the unhappy Bothwell, after leaving her at Carberry, proceeded to his castle of Dunbar. For a time he is said to have surveyed with a glance of sadness its clusters of magnificent towers, with the brass cannon shining through their embrasures, and its vast donjon arising above the sea-beaten rocks. He entered amid silence and dejection, knowing well that it could not shelter him long, but soon must own another and a happier lord. He departed northward, to seek a refuge among those distant isles from whence his ducal title was derived.

As hereditary lord high admiral of the kingdom, he easily fitted out a fleet of the royal vessels, well armed and equipped. On these he hoisted his banner, and set sail for the stormy seas of Orkney, where, stung by revenge and baffled ambition, after a vain attempt to storm the king’s castle of Kirkwall, he spread terror among the isles by his piracies and devastations.

Every man’s hand and heart were against him, and so were his against all men.

On the 11th August a commission was granted by the lords of the secret council to Sir William Kirkaldy, and his friend Sir William Murray of Tullybardine, to pursue the Earl of Bothwell by sea and land, with fire and sword.2 (Note D.) These knights, from their daring character, were well fitted for this bold enterprise.

Eager to free the queen and country from Bothwell, and anxious to revenge the personal insults offered to him at Carberry, where the earl, after refusing to do battle with him, attempted his assassination, Grange joyfully accepted the commission in conjunction with his friend. He was further animated by a humane and loyal wish to free Mary from the conditional captivity to which he had consented, until the great disturber of the realm expiated by his life the humiliation and distress he had brought upon her. Bothwell’s excesses had reduced the Scottish exchequer so low, that the lords were compelled to borrow money from the wealthy hut miserly Morton, to equip a fleet for the northern enterprise.

On the 19th of August the armament was completed, and Kirkaldy, with four hundred soldiers, embarked on board four well-armed ships, the high-pooped, low-waisted, and heavily-rigged, but gaily decorated caravels of those days. He set sail from the Firth of Forth, and, favoured by a western breeze, soon saw the hills of Fife and Lothian vanish in the distance. Kirkaldy was on board of a vessel named the Unicorn of Leith; Adam Bothwell bishop of Orkney, senator of the college of justice, and Lord Holyroodhouse, was with him, clad in complete harness like a man-at-arms. That martial prelate, though he had performed the marriage ceremony for Mary and Bothwell, had now become the mortal foe of the latter, and most anxious for his apprehension.

The other three vessels of the fleet belonged to Dundee, and were named the James, the Primrose, and the Robert.

While Kirkaldy was on this voyage to the isles, his uncle, Captain Melville of New Miln, with Captain Halyburton, and several companies of harquebussiers, cannoneers, and pikemen, were sent to reduce the castle of Dunbar, where the Laird of Whitlaw and a garrison yet kept Bothwell’s banner displayed. Melville soon
captured the fortress, and, by order of the secret couneil, dismantled its fortifications.

The fleet soon reached Orkney, and were directed further north to Shetland for the object of their pursuit. Off the eastern coast of those stormy isles, so famous for their boiling whirlpools, powerful currents, inhospitable rocks, and adverse tides, about daybreak one morning they descried two vessels evidently cruising. These belonged to Bothwell’s desperate armament, and were on the look-out for armed foes or unwary merchantmen. Kirkaldy in the Unicorn, a light and swift-sailing vessel, shot ahead of the rest of his fleet, and approached the Sound of Bressa, through which the two piratical ships were steering.

They had been at anchor when Kirkaldy appeared, but immediately the cables were slipped, and they put to sea, though the greater part of their crews were on shore.

The narrow strait they entered lies between the fertile isle of Bressa and tbe mainland of Shetland, which on the other side rears up its barren and leafless hills, presenting a shore, bluff with steep crags, frowning above a restless ocean—a shore where nature has assumed her most bleak and stern aspect—where the walrus lies basking on the rocks, and the vast whale flounders among the shifting and dangerous shoals; hut the Sound of Bressa or Bredeyiar, as the Norsemen name it, is one of the finest harbours in the world, and is the great fishing rendezvous of the Scottish and Dutch vessels.

Remembering his boast made to the Earl of Bedford, that he "would either bring hack the regicide, or lose his life in the attempt,” on pressed Kirkaldy in the Unicorn, impatient to come up with the chace, which was so close that, as he sailed in at the south end of the sound, the fugitive ships escaped by the northern passage.

On yet went the Knight of Grange, crowding fresh sail upon his swift hut straining vessel. Familiar with the reefs, holms, skerries, and shoals of those narrow and dangerous seas, Bothwell’s pilots (aware of the water their vessels drew) skilfully dashed them through a boiling line of foam which curls like a hank of snow over a sunken rock, knowing right well that, if the pursuers dared to follow, certain destruction was their fate.

Steering full upon the resounding breakers, the hold retainers of the outlawed earl shot their light vessels past the dangerous bourne—then’ keels grazed the rock, hut another moment saw them floating on the placid surface of the inner sea; and Bothwell’s declaration, which contains a minute account of these affairs, states that his vessel was very slightly injured.

Kirkaldy’s ship followed close in their wake, gallantly breasting the turbulent waters outside the reef 5 hut, more at home in his stirrups at the head of a squadron of lances, lie now committed a fatal error of seamanship. In his impetuosity, and in defiance of the remonstrances of his more experienced mariners, in. the excitement of the chace he ordered every inch of canvass to he crowded on the yards, and impelled his vessel in the same deadly and perilous path. She rushed amid the boiling eddies of the reef — a shout of triumph hurst from Bothwell’s vassals,—another moment, and the gallant hark lay a bilged and shattered wreck on that ridge of rock which is yet discernible at low water, and is to this day named by the islanders the Unicorn.

Confusion and dismay reigned on board, while the more wary outlaws bore triumphantly away. A boat was lowered ; the soldiers and mariners thronged into it, and Kirkaldy was about to give the order for pushing off, when a man, clad in a complete suit of heavy armour, was seen clinging, in an agony of desperation, to the parting wreck, over which the salt foam of the reef flew incessantly. Destruction dogged him close;—it seemed almost an impossibility to save him, yet Kirkaldy’s humanity revolted from leaving him behind. By the mariners his cries were disregarded in the wrath, the danger, and hurry of the moment, when, animated by despair, he made a tremendous leap, all heavily-accoutred as he was, into the already overloaded boat, which he nearly overturned.

"Who could have surmised that this athletie man-at-arms was a bishop,” observes a popular writer—the bishop who so lately joined the hand of him he pursued with that of Mary,—the very bishop who, a month before, had poured the holy oil on the infant head of James VI., and stood proxy for the extorted abdication of that monarch’s mother!” . He was Adam lord Holyrood-house, the Protestant bishop of Orkney.

Immediately on being picked up by the other vessels of his fleet, Kirkaldy continued the pursuit of Bothwell, who bore away towards the shores of Scandinavia. In the wastes of the northern ocean, the foes often came within gun-shot of each other: once Kirkaldy compelled Bothwell to shorten sail, and, after a close engagement of three hours, succeeded in cutting away his mainmast by a cannon-ball. Immediately afterwards there arose a violent tempest, with a south-west wind, and Bothwell’s unmanageable ship, which would no longer obey her helm, was driven toward the Norwegian coast, after parting company with the other vessel, which contained his plate, furniture, valuables, and armour, brought from the castle of Edinburgh—all of which, probably, went to the bottom in the storm, which, in its fury, freed him for a time from Kirkaldy.

Off the Norwegian shore he fell in with a richly-laden vessel, and resolved to capture it, thinking that, on obtaining her, he would be better able to cope with the pursuers. He engaged the stranger, but failed to make her a prize, as the Norwegians came off in armed boats to her assistance. Again his shattered bark encountered the fleet of the indefatigable Kirkaldy, and, despairing of victory, the hapless earl resolved to seek safety in flight, leaving his vassals and ship, stranded and bulged on a sandbank, a prey to the pursuers. In a small boat, alone and unattended, he reached Carmesund, on the bleak and barren shore of Norway. From hence he fled to Denmark and, after many dreary years of insanity and captivity, expired, chained like a wild beast, in the dark vaults of the castle of Draxholm.

Thus perished the chief of the Hepburns, the fifth of his race who had worn a coronet—he who had won the hand of a queen, the most beautiful in the world—he whose grasp had almost secured a crown, but whose sounding titles of “the most potent and noble Prince James duke of Orkney,” Marquis of Fife, Earl of Bothwell, Lord of Hailes, of Crichton, Liddesdale, and Zetland; high admiral of Scotland; warden of the three marches; high sheriff of Edinburgh, Haddington, and Berwick; bailie of Lauderdale'; governor of Edinburgh castle and captain of Dunbar—only served to make the scene of the fettered felon, expiring in the dungeons of Draxholm, a more striking example of retributive fate, and of that guilty ambition, misdirected talent, and insatiable pride, the effect of which had filled all Europe with horror and amazement. Yet it is gratifying to remember that, when far away in that obscure and distant prison, ten long years after its horrors had closed over him, when reanimated by one of those gleams of returning reason which are so often the forerunners of dissolution, the expiring earl fully exculpated Mary from the participation in his crimes, with which Murray and the confederates charged her. But to resume:

His ship, which lay stranded on the sandbank, became the prize of Kirkaldy, who captured in it several of his confidential adherents, among whom were John Hepburn of Bolton, George Dalgleish, and Hay, laird of Tallo. He returned to Leith with his prize and prisoners, who were soon afterwards given up to the mercies of the executioner, as participators in the murder at Kirk-of-Field.


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