The Wolf of Badenoch

West walls and turrets of Lochindorb Castle

James Lloyd has a confession to make: The only reason he is doing this blog is because he liked the title.

The traditional view of the Scottish Highlands, particularly in the Scottish Lowlands, is that they were a lawless, ungovernable, violent place, dominated by feuding clans and selfish chiefs, charging through the heather in gloriously impractical battle-gear, targes in front and claymores whirling overhead, to resolve with bloodshed some ancient dispute with a family on the other side of the glen, even though no one could remember what it was all about in the first place. It is a familiar stereotype, largely because it is true, but one detail that is often forgotten is that the troublesome chiefs and carnage-hungry lords who persistently undermined the Crown’s authority in the north were, in many cases, not the tribal chiefs of quasi-independent Celtic sub-kingdoms but actually royal officials themselves, even members of the royal family, who were entrusted with the Crown’s authority over the territory only to abuse it and became just as lawless as the horrible hairy Highlanders whom they had been sent to bring into line.

One such example was Alexander Stewart, who was born around the year 1345, the fourth son of Robert, High Steward of Scotland. Robert Stewart was the nephew of King David II, son of King Robert de Bruce (commonly but incorrectly known as “the Bruce”). Robert owned land in Badenoch in the Grampian Mountains and by the 1360s his son Alexander was running a protection racket in the territory, making such a nuisance of himself that in 1369 he was briefly imprisoned.

When David died childless in 1371, Robert succeeded him as King of Scotland and made Alexander’s status official, appointing him Lord of Badenoch and granting him the castle and forest of Lochindorb, with palatinate rights. Alexander also leased Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness from his half-brother David, Earl of Strathearn (a title now held by H. R. H. the Prince William) and his father created him Earl of Buchan. To complete his investment portfolio, in 1382 Alexander married the exceedingly reluctant Euphemia, Countess of Ross, widow of Sir Walter Leslie, so acquiring the lands attached to that title.

From his base at Lochindorb Castle, built on an artificial island in the loch, Alexander directed caterans (Gaelic for “hired goons”) to enforce his authority, by any means necessary. His Kray-style methods built up a list of enemies almost as long as his list of properties: The Bishop of Moray, the Bishop of Aberdeen, the Earl of Moray and his wife’s erstwhile in-laws the Leslies. He was, however, the son of the King, who not only protected him from retribution but, in 1386, appointed him Justiciar north of the Forth. To his contemporaries, however, he was not known as Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan or Justiciar. He was “the Wolf of Badenoch” and Lochindorb Castle is still commonly referred to as “the Wolf’s Lair” to this day.

Pride goeth before destruction. In 1388, while trying to cope with a dispute on the English border, the King was crippled by a kick from a horse and his second son, another Robert, Earl of Fife, in effect became regent and started pursuing his own policy. By 1389, the border dispute had been resolved (for the time being), so Fife turned his attention on the Wolf of Badenoch, now regarded as a loose cannon. First, Fife stripped him of his public offices but Alexander’s second humiliation was his own doing.

His marriage to Euphemia had never been a happy one. He had married her for her money and did not care who knew it. She bore him no children but his mistress did and it was her existence that led the Church to demand that Alexander should receive Euphemia back, or they would annul the marriage. This would have meant the loss of the Ross lands, so Alexander complied. He kept his wealth but it was a chastening experience and one he did not forgive.

In 1390, the King died and was succeeded by his eldest son John, who, just to make things even more confusing, took the title Robert III. A power struggle developed between himself and his younger brother the Earl of Fife. Alexander seized his chance and rode into Elgin, seat of the Bishop of Moray, whose cathedral he burnt to the ground, along with several other ecclesiastical buildings. If he thought (as he evidently did) that this would put the fear of God into the Bishop, then he had grossly over-estimated his own power.

Instead of cowing his enemies, Alexander’s actions triggered a public backlash that saw him excommunicated and forced to compensate the Church. His lease on Urquhart Castle was cancelled and Euphemia successfully appealed to Clement VII (one of two rival claimants to the papacy at the time and the one whom Scotland acknowledged) to annul her marriage after all. By her own statement, their union had brought about “wars, plundering, arson, murders and many other damages and scandals”. Trouble in paradise indeed.

Although he kept the lordship of Badenoch and the earldom of Buchan, Alexander Stewart was no longer the force that he had been. In his last few years, he held minor offices in Perthshire, before dying in 1405. He was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral (which he had managed to resist the temptation to burn).

In his absence, things in Badenoch actually became more chaotic. A raiding jolly by his sons in 1392 ended in a battle with the Sheriff of Angus, who was killed, and caterans from the Hebrides freely rampaged through the Grampians, causing the Church just as much grief as Alexander had done. On his death, his eldest bastard, the Earl of Mar, became Lord and proved to be much better than his father at maintaining public order, in the Crown’s interest, rather than his own.

Despite this, the damage that the Wolf and others like him had done could not be suddenly reversed. The Highlands would retain their reputation for wildness and lawlessness for hundreds of years, a place feared and despised by the Lowland Scots and almost considered another country. Sometimes the name of one country must accommodate places that feel very different from another and one flag can mask many differences. The tribal wars of the Highlands might have passed into history but that tension between the south of one country and a north that barely recognizes it, though re-configured, still remains today.


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