So, you enjoyed your trip to Edinburgh, Candia? Brassica asked me,
when we had settled down to our regular routines back home and had
sneaked off for a sly cappuccino .
Yes, its history still breathes and I was inspired to write a short story
in a rather macabre style, adopting the persona of Lady Warriston’s
servant, who witnesses her execution.
Rather grim! commented Brassie. But what is it about?
Read it and see! I said, passing her the copy.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
It was the summer of 1600 when I was permitted to abandon my loom
and I climbed onto the roof of my mistress’ tenement in the Canongate,
from which an excellent view of the Girth Cross of Holyrood could
easily be discerned. All around, the citizens of Auld Reekie had
adopted the same strategy and were well-established, in spite of the
early hour. A unison intake of breath unbalanced me on my precarious
eyrie, so that I had to grab Nelly’s sleeve for support.
The sinister outline of the Maiden, transported from Halifax, dominated
the scene, looming over the slender figure approaching it. Well might the
Memorial later describe her as a woman and a bairn. Apparently, like
myself, she was twenty one, but, she had a child of her own, whereas I
only minded my employers’ weans.
The buzz of conversations receded and I first heard snatches of that
melody which would quickly enter the consciousness of all
Lowland ballad lovers:
O Warriston, ye acted ill
To lift your hand to your ain lady…
Then a ripple of wheeshts surged through the crowds below and Jean
Livingstone, Lady Warriston, removed her gold brocade, stepped
forward on her twa weel-made feet and knelt in her sark.
The parlourmaid, Nelly, poked me in the ribs, observing, She is
as cheerful as if she were going to her own wedding.
The cook shifted her bulk and craned forward dangerously, before adding
sententiously: She appears ravished by a spirit higher than that of man
We giggled; she always speaks like her aptly named minister, The Rev.
However, we soon sobered up as the blade began to fall.
Later our chimney sweep, Peter, told us that the blade had fallen just as
she began to pray: Into Thy hand, O… She had got no further.
He also reported that he had tried to make his way up to Castlehill, to
witness the strangulation and burning of her nurse, Janet Murdo, but the
authorities had arranged the ghastly ceremony simultaneously, in order,
unsuccessfully, to create a counter-attraction, drawing attention away
from the young noblewoman’s plight.
Both punishments had been well- publicised, although the crime had
only been perpetrated a matter of days beforehand. However, the
timing had been set to maximise and to demonstrate the very satisfying
show of repentance by the Lady, who had been well-rehearsed by the
Revs. Balfour and Bruce, God rest her soul!
Peter said that many in the mob were surprised that her father, the Laird
of Dunnipace, had not exerted himself on her behalf. He was a well-
known sook, or favourite of King James, who had apparently expressed
His regal regret that such a beautiful young woman should be sacrificed
I never saw a woman’s face
I was sae sorry to see dee.
However, the Laird had seven other daughters to give in marriage and
seemed to want to wash his hands of his errant flesh and blood, in spite of
His Majesty’s hints of potential clemency.
Dunnipace was reputed to have stated:
Gar nail her in a tar barrel
And hurl her in the sea.
Though macabre, these words were to remain in folk memory for many a
month, assisted by their musical setting.
Later, when the ballads were printed on broadsheets, we had the
opportunity to piece the narrative puzzle together, trying to reason why
such a bonny lassie was to lose her head over such a diabolical affair.
Apparently, Jean Livingstone, as she had been christened, had felt ill-
prepared for wedlock and had told her hired woman that she hadna wit
to guide a man. She had learned her rede with admirable haste, many
would say, at the scaffold.
At fifteen she had been sent to John Kincaid, the Laird of Warriston and
her woman claimed to have witnessed violent altercations between them.
A dinner plate had been hurled at her mistress’ face by her furious
husband, cutting her lip badly.
Once when he returned to harbour, having been absent for nigh on a year,
Lady Warriston went to meet him on the shore, with the nurse cradling
their newborn son. Kincaid flew into a rage, struck his wife and cursed
the child, saying it was none of his. Afterwards, the nurse told the hired
woman that her mistress had an impression of her husband’s teeth deeply
incised into her forearm.
Faithful though the nurse was to her mistress, she ill-advisedly interfered
and persuaded Lady Warriston to contact a groom who had worked for
her father, by the name of Robert Weir. She pressurised her
by claiming that if they were not able to persuade the groom to do away
with the Laird, then she would do it herself.
Maybe it was the same young ostler who had led her mistress’ pony,
while the master was at sea. Anyhow, it is too late for Jean Murdo, the
nurse, to express regrets, at the time of this conversation, as by now she is
a heap of ashes.
As for Robert, he was conspicuous by his absence, though
officers were scouring the Borders for him.
Weir, when summoned, came willingly enough and was secreted in
the cellar until the Laird and his brother had been plied with sufficient
alcohol and staggered to their repose.
Jean retired with her husband, but later rose and gave a signal at
midnight. Her brother-in-law must have been more affected by his cups
than the Laird, who was awakened by the commotion the conspirators
created on entering the marital chamber.
Weir threw himself at Warriston and struck him in the jugular vein,
knocking him off the bed and kicking him on the floor. Eventually he
Jean ran into the Hall and later admitted that though she had heard his
deathly screams, she had failed to produce even a counterfeit tear.
The groom escaped, gallantly telling Jean that if the crime were to be
discovered, he would take the blame. None dare pursue you, he
Perhaps the Laird’s brother had been roused, or the servants disturbed, for
the next morning, officers of justice arrived and took Lady Warriston,
Janet Murdo and two women to the Tolbooth, in The Heart of Midlothian.
Jean attested that the two female servants were innocent, but only one
was released. It was this woman who had met Peter in a tavern, after the
event on Canongate and who had supplied the missing information over a
pint of porter.
She added that the Laird’s son bore an uncanny resemblance to young
Robert Weir. Having narrowly escaped the stricture of the Boot, one
would have expected her to keep her trap shut. She became a member of
the Rev. Balfour’s congregation thereafter and thanked God that she had
Balfour told his flock that Lady Warriston’s dramatic repentance was a
miracle of grace. At first she had repudiated spiritual counsel and
blasphemed, throwing his Bible to the floor of her cell. Yet, once her
relatives cast her off, she naturally showed a greater interest in flitting to
Even her brother-in-law forgave her, kissed her and wished that he could
take her to himself, she was so jimp about the middle/ As ony willy-
wand. Fifteen Presbyterians kept her company on the night before her
execution, so I expect that she slept little and took their spiritual medicine
Her father, Lord Kincaid, arranged for the child to be cared for by the
hired woman who was telling us the tale and this same servant afterwards
led a disguised Weir back to catch a glimpse of the sleeping boy in
his cot, four years later. Unfortunately Weir was apprehended as he bent
over the child and practically throttled before being taken to the scaffold
to be broken on the wheel.
For months thereafter his corpse was
exhibited on the road between Warriston and the town of Leith. Fortune
had turned full circle, but sometimes a passing stranger will detect what
appears to be a female voice singing, when the breezes blow over from
Winderstrawlee and Blaw Wearie:
Now a’ ye gentle maids,
Tak warning now by me
And never marry ane
But wha pleases your ee.
Candia, you’ve scared the living daylights out of me,
Brassie said in a dry-throated voice. Can we just
return to twenty first century Suttonford, where things are a little less
brutal? I think I need a slice of cake to give me a calorie boost.
And so it was that we fell on a plate of Pimms cake as if it was our last
meal on Earth.