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29 Oct 2020

Gladstone’s Land and the murder allegation

Written by Cameron Herbert, Volunteer, Gladstone’s Land
Black and white engraving of a man in 17th-century costume. He has a moustache and long dark hair.
A portrait of James Crichton of Frendraught by Jameson, printed in the ‘Musa latina aberdonensis’ (1892)
From 1631–35, the infamous figure of James Crichton, Laird of Frendraught, lodged at Gladstone’s Land on the Royal Mile. He had recently fled from his Aberdeenshire castle to petition the Privy Council to investigate a grisly event that had transpired there in October 1630.

Crichton’s ill-starred story began three years earlier, when he found himself engaged in a vicious dispute with another local landowner, William Gordon of Rothiemay. The two had first quarrelled over salmon fishing rights on the River Deveron, but the feud soon grew poisonous, driven by debts that the hot-headed Gordon owed to Crichton.

The feud eventually became violent and Gordon dispatched a troop to pepper two of Crichton’s servants with shot from a hagbut, an illegal long-barrelled firearm. Incensed by the attack on his men, Crichton secured ‘letters of horning’ from the Privy Council, which declared Gordon an outlaw and permitted his arrest.

On New Year’s Day 1630, spurred on by the Council’s support, Crichton mustered his men and rode deep into Gordon’s territory to hunt for his outlawed rival.

But Gordon had been forewarned – he gathered his son John and a band of loyal retainers to meet Crichton’s forces head-on. A ferocious skirmish took place. Gordon’s horse was killed under him and he was forced to continue the fight on foot; one of Crichton’s men was slain and another, John Meldrum of Reidhill, was wounded. At length, Gordon’s men were routed and his son fled the field, leaving Gordon alone, prostrate in the mud, latticed with wounds that steamed in the crisp January air. He succumbed to his injuries three days later.

All hopes of reconciliation between Crichton and the Gordons were dashed. John Gordon of Rothiemay inherited his father’s belligerence along with his lands and launched a series of retributive attacks on Crichton’s estate, perhaps seeking absolution in blood for his failure on the battlefield and his cowardly abandonment of his father.

The renewed feuding spilled over into the surrounding countryside and the Marquess of Huntly, the warring parties’ feudal superior and chief of the Gordons, was pressed to intervene. He invited Crichton and Gordon to his castle, Strathbogie, and a hasty truce was concocted, with Crichton agreeing to pay Rothiemay’s widowed mother 50,000 marks for causing the death of her husband. Both parties appeared pleased with the arrangement and a round of handshaking in the castle orchard marked a precarious peace.

But all was not well for James Crichton of Frendraught. His groomsman, Meldrum of Reidhill, who’d been injured in the New Year’s Day skirmish, accused his master of withholding payment. He stole two of Crichton’s best horses before fleeing to safety in the lands of his brother-in-law, a son of Leslie of Pitcaple. Crichton soon succeeded in having Meldrum outlawed and in September 1630 he took a party into Leslie lands to arrest the horse thief. However, a fracas ended with Pitcaple’s son being wounded by an arrow and a new conflict between Crichton and the Leslies was born.

Weary of feuding, a beleaguered Crichton again appealed to the Marquess of Huntly to find a diplomatic solution. Huntly called the two lairds to Gordon Castle, then known as the Bog of Gight, to hash out a truce. However, once at the Bog, Leslie refused to co-operate and rode away, spitting curses at Crichton and the Marquess.

Huntly was concerned for Crichton’s wellbeing and kept him at his castle for two days until he was assured that Leslie would not return to exact vengeance. When it was time for Crichton to return to Frendraught, Huntly arranged for an armed escort to protect him from any threats that the Leslies might pose along the way. Huntly’s second son, Viscount Melgum, commanded the escort and, in a twist of fate, a spectre from Crichton’s recent past appeared – John Gordon of Rothiemay, who’d been staying at the Bog, joined the guard to prove that he was still intent on upholding the truce.

By the time the men reached Frendraught, the grass was stiff with frost and the sun had sunk low behind the trees. Crichton extended an offer of hospitality – he would put them up for the night, keep them well fed and, most importantly, protect them as he would his own family. After dinner, Viscount Melgum, Gordon of Rothiemay and their servants all retired to Frendraught Castle’s four-storey wooden-vaulted Old Tower and settled down for the night.

Just after midnight a crackling was heard in the Old Tower. Smoke began to rise between the wooden floors and an orange glow swelled to light the walls. All of a sudden the blaze took hold and ripped through the building. Three men fled the tower to safety, but six remained inside. Viscount Melgum raced up the stairs and woke Gordon of Rothiemay but the fire soon engulfed the passageway, trapping them from escape. Stones cracked in the heat, and the October frost that cloaked the castle walls was burned away and misted into the night sky. The tower was a furnace, roasting the men, melting their marrow in the bone.

The rest of the household gathered beneath the tower and stared in horror. Crichton stood with his wife and servants, looking on as the faces of the burning men pressed against the window, ghoulishly contorting with fear and pain as they begged for help, first from Crichton and then from God. Despite their pleading Crichton was not moved to give aid.

By the following morning, the fire had subsided. Crichton’s wife, Elizabeth, cousin to both the Marquess of Huntly and the Gordons of Rothiemay, dressed herself in white and rode out to the Bog on a small nag, where, weeping and mourning, she sought an audience with Huntly. The Marquess was filled with rage after hearing about the fire and turned Elizabeth away to meditate on his own grief. He then commissioned friends to visit Frendraught to sift the ashes for the bones of his son and kinsman. Six chests were filled and carried to the church of Garntullie for burial.

Crichton’s name was scorched with scandal and popular opinion held that he had set the fire to kill his rival and weaken the Marquess of Huntly’s control over the region. A commission was formed to determine whether the fire was started by malice or mishap; it found that the fire could only have been set from within the castle. Crichton was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the public still cried out for a villain. In 1632, three of Crichton’s servants, including Meldrum of Reidhill, were suspected of involvement in the fire and were brought to Edinburgh to undergo the leg-crushing tortures of the ‘boot’.

Engraving of a torture device, worn on the lower leg.
The ‘boot’, a popular torture device. From ‘The Scots Worthies’, by James Howie, 1870

Out of the three, the dastardly Meldrum of Reidhill was selected to go on trial. It was put forward that he’d threatened to burn Crichton and had been seen riding towards Frendraught the evening before the fire. It was concluded that Meldrum had set the fire by throwing kindling through slits in the 10ft thick wall. Despite this statement contradicting the commission’s findings that the fire could only have been started from within the castle walls, Meldrum was found guilty. He was hanged at the mercat cross in Edinburgh; his head was cleaved from his shoulders and his body was butchered into four portions and placed around the city.

Crichton stayed in Edinburgh during this period of murky justice. A haggard and broken man, his estates were plundered by the relatives of the ghosts that now haunted his blackened castle. He returned north in 1635, ‘thinking to live more peaceably than before’.

In time, the ‘Burning of Frendraught’ claimed another victim. Popular ballads have secured long-lasting infamy for Elizabeth Crichton, raising her to a villain of Lady Macbethian proportions.

Engraving of a lady in 17th-century costume. The dress has an elaborate white collar.
A portrait of Elizabeth Crichton of Frendraught by Jameson printed in the ‘Musa latina aberdonensis‘, 1892

The following extract is from the Child ballad, The Fire of Frendraught:

‘O mercy, mercy, Lady Frendraught!
As ye walk on the green:’
‘The keys are in the deep draw-well,
The doors were lockt the streen.’
‘O woe be to you, Lady Frendraught!
An ill death may you die!
For think na ye this a sad torment
Your own flesh for to burn?’

In this interpretation, Gordon of Rothiemay calls out to his cousin, Elizabeth Crichton, from the burning tower. The wicked lady has locked the doors and thrown the keys into the castle’s draw-well and is parading below him. He curses her with his dying breath and laments that in killing him she is burning her own flesh; she is both causing the death of her relative and destroying her own humanity. She has taken her husband’s feud into her own hands and proven how thin blood can be.

The Lady Frendraught of the ballad is a caricature – she’s a scapegoat, a scheming agent of evil to be blamed when tragedy seems an act of chance or caprice. Meldrum of Reidhill was not wicked enough; the burning of the tower was not horrific enough – the balladeers won’t let a tragedy lie but will instead make a lie of tragedy.

This is the popular legacy of the burning of Frendraught. After all the death and torture, a grieving woman, dressed in white, riding a small nag to seek comfort from her cousin, has been cast as a pantomime villain for nearly 400 years.

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