In the footsteps of King James

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A Pilgrimage to Tain in 1504

Hartfield Road, Entering Tain

The reason we begin our journey here (TRACC car park) is that it's next to the old pilgrimage route into Tain from the south, and, if we were here on the 22nd of October 1504 we could have witnessed King James the IV and his party making their way along the King's Road towards Tain. The scene before him would have been very familiar. He had been to Tain at least ten times before, making his first visit in the early 1490s when James was just a teenager, beginning what would become an annual journey until his death at the Battle of Flodden in September of 1513.

The Road to Tain

The King's Road as it was known is a common term for a Highway in Scotland and it is not a single route or road unique to here. Much of the old King's Road to Dingwall, which included the King's Causeway constructed by the people of Tain, is now built over but a small section that branched off from the Highmills to Glastullich is quite well preserved and can be seen today not far out of town. This surviving road is about five meters wide, with dykes on either side, which seem to have been enclosed with beech hedging. Ideal for driving livestock along or perhaps even a wee highway robbery! 

This road was not just one-way traffic, in June of 1504 the king was in Galloway where he met and gave alms to some poor folk from Tain on a pilgrimage to Whithorn. There are also references to the king giving money to poor people who were making pilgrimages to Tain. This was not just a place of Royal Pilgrimage. 

The king's Treasurer's accounts, where we learn almost all of the details of his visits, are just notes on his spending and they are frustratingly patchy. In 1495 they tell us very little of his journey apart from the 24 shillings he spent on clothes. In 1496 we learn that he visited twice, first in March when he spent the night in Tain, and then again in July when he returned with a gift of a gold reliquary. He called again in July of 1497 with a gift of a cross in a silver case. In 1498, the King again spent the night in Tain, as well as making a generous gift of a Unicorn to the shrine of St Duthac.

This year the treasurer's accounts only show two payments for ferries, both at Ardersier, first on October 20th and then on the 27th seven days later. We know the King visited Rosemarkie and Fortrose on the 20th but did not arrive in Tain until the 22nd, so it is likely the King and his large entourage travelled by road the rest of the way. 

The King did not begin his pilgrimage around Tain until the 23rd so we know he was here for at least two days. Where the King and his party stayed is not known.  There are no payments for lodging in Tain, as there are for other years. So we can only speculate perhaps he set up a Royal camp by Tain or at Courthill beside the home of Sir David Ross of Balnagown as we do see payments of 14 shillings to his harper on the 22nd.

King’s Company

The treasurer's accounts for 1504 also reveal some of the people travelling in the King’s Company. Although the King had married the year before, the party did not include his fifteen-year-old wife, Queen Margaret Tudor. She would not visit Tain until 1511 although James had taken his girlfriend, Janet Kennedy, with him to Tain in 1501 when he escorted her to her new residence at Darnaway. 

But the King did have a large entourage of people travelling with him, including; four Italian minstrels, an African drummer, Andrew Stewart the Duke of Albany's son; Robert Herwort an expert gunnery in the King's service; Alexander Law, Downe, and Wille Strang his falconers; so no doubt the group included hawks and dogs for sport too. 

Makvicar the King's Herald to Macleod of Lewis; as well as Robert Merton, John Farquhar, James Tailgour; and the King's squires Thomas Boswell, Pate Sinclair and Alexander Makculloch. The last two men died at the King's side in 1513. The King did not take his fool with him to Tain but among the party was Stobo (John Reid) an elderly Poet who had also served King James II and III).

Stories in the papers tell of a popular poet of the burgh of Tain who once went to meet King James IV when he was coming down Kings Causeway Road and began to recite a long poem welcoming the King to the Royal Burgh. So irritated did the monarch become at the poet’s pathetic attempts, that he had him to be thrown over a bridge.

The poet was killed by the fall, and it is said that lights are seen, and strange dismal noises are heard at the bridge. This is thought to be the poet’s ghost reciting the terrible poem that had caused his death, and the lights that are seen are those that enable the ghost poet to read the poems.

The story slightly embarrasses the town and it has almost, understandably, been forgotten but from the poetry I have seen in the museum collection, it is very likely true.


Upper King Street, The Town Before Us

Much of the land stretching south to the Highmills was uncultivated moorland until the 18th century whilst the outskirts of the town, where we are now, would have been made up of small plots or rigs of arable land mainly growing bear barley or oats.

Tain was not walled, but it would have likely had an entrance of sorts situated just before us on the main road entering the town, which, at times may have been guarded. In 1506, the King gave 2 shillings to the poor folk at the "Gait" as they waited on the road for the arrival of the King.

There was no tollbooth tower to dominate the skyline, although, it has been thought there may have been an old bell tower as the collegiate Church has no belfry.

(Before we continue, I must confess to being a little disappointed in the Tain Ladies. On his journies North, the king made numerous payments to dancing girls at Forres, Elgin and Darnaway, but there is no mention during all his visits of the dancing girls from Tain. Either they didn't bother or weren't that good.)


King Street 

As we get near the end of King Street and closer to the Collegiate Church we start to enter the town itself. Not just a home to the Clergy from the Church. The safety, and trading rights, the Girth or Sanctuary of Tain offered attracted merchants, and tradesmen to set up in the town whilst the land-owning gentry, like MacCulloch of the Plaids; Munro’s of Fowlis; and Ross of Balnagown all at times owned town-houses in and around Tain. Indeed, Walter Ross the 8th of Balnagown, a likely witness to the king’s pilgrimage of 1504, was murdered at his home on the outskirts of Tain in 1526. 

As well as housing for the traders and merchants there would have been humbler homes for their servants and labourers along with workshops, breweries, barns, smiddie’s and such all likely a wee bit squint and twisted looking. Whilst not conforming to any standard they would all have had roofs thatched with heather. Some of the houses would likely have been wooden framed, and some with walls of rubble and stone. Only richer houses would have had windows of glass, most of the buildings would have just had wooden shutters. 

It all sounds wonderfully picturesque but with household waste and effluent thrown out of the windows and raked up with animal droppings into dung heaps it would have no doubt stunk like this years Tain Highland Games! (No doubt whoever spread the dung on the day of this year's games was just trying to give the town an authentic medieval feel)

Unfreemen of Tain

A complaint in 1501 by Inverness against Tain's Sanctuary or Free Port, gives us a glimpse of the main goods being exported from Tain.  Skins, hides, salmon, iron and -other merchandise are all mentioned. It also names some of the people trading out of Tain who may have witnessed the King’s pilgrimage. Many of these names are still common in Tain today.

Alexander Don, James Tulloch, Donald McCulloch, George Munro, Magnus Faid, Stevin Futhes, Donald Bremner, Andrew Forbes, Christie Chapman, Alexander Smyth, John Davidson, Hugh Alexanderson, Donald Patrikson, Lawrenson, (no doubt Rosses) and “ane callit Gillaspy." 

Cramond Brae, Tain Castle and the MacCullochs

We don't know much about Tain Castle but perhaps it belonged to the Baillie of Tain, who during all King James the IV's visits was William MacCulloch of the Plaids whose family had been hereditary Baillies of the town since the end of the 14th century. The MacCulloch Clan were at the height of their power at this time, owning extensive lands around Easter Ross including the lands of Cadboll with its Castle. 

Whilst William MacCulloch is Baillie of Tain, a relation Thomas MacCulloch had become the Abbot of Fearn in 1488 although he had been "wrongously put out of the Abbay" shortly afterwards by Andrew Stuart, Bishop of Caithness who sent forged documents to Rome to take control of the Abbey's revenues.

Johannes de Tayn alias Makculloch 

Abbot Thomas MacCulloch's death was noted down in the Calander of Fearn by another MacCulloch, John or Magnus. In Edinburgh University Library, there is a remarkable manuscript of notes and doodles, made by Magnus or John Makculloch during lectures on logic at Leuven University in Belgium. It seems that John or Magnus was from Tain with records showing a ‘Johannes Martollo de Tayn’ from Ross enrolling in the school in August of 1477. 

This is not the only or the most important surviving work by John Makculloch, who sometime in the early 1480s also scribed two of the oldest surviving copies of Walter Bower’s book ‘Scotichronicon’ which is one of the most important sources of Scottish Medieval history. Let me reiterate that Johannes de Tayn alias Makculloch is responsible for penning two of the oldest copies of one of the most important Scottish medieval history books.

John must have returned to Tain or the Abbey by 1516 where made the entry in the Calander recording the death of Abbot Thomas MacCulloch. 


Railway Bridge, Cnoc nan aingeal, or Angels’ Hill.

We now stand on Angels' Hill a place where the people of the town believed Angels came to visit to view the birth of St Duthac. It has always been sacred to the town. This was not the place where Angus Williamson with his accomplices, came, "and, pretending outward shows of love and kindness" to Hugh Ross of Balmuchy's servant, robbed him, assaulted him with batons and left him lying for dead in 1619. And this sacred site would never have been used as the town's common place of execution. And we didn't really run a railway track through it either. 


The Links, St Duthac’s Church

The king made his first offering here and the King's Treasurer's Accounts note that on the 23rd "day of October, to the Kingis offered in Sanct Duthos chapell quhair he was borne, 8 shillings". This statement has led some people to believe that this was the birthplace of the King himself but it is more commonly thought to be the birthplace of St Duthac. 

This old church maybe the original Parish Church is thought to have been built in the 13th century. One of the earliest records regarding Tain references a Bridin Vicor of Tain in 1227 and the church is perhaps from a similar date.

Perched upon a knoll in the bend of the Tain River it seems an unlikely site for anybody's birthplace. It does however seem like a great site for an early Celtic church. Nearby the place-name Pithogarty, the Priest's bit or farm, hints of a religious site or church of Pictish origin. It is more likely that this was the church where St. Duthac was christened and first attended, close to his home at Tain.

In 1501 the King gave 5 shillings to a hermit who was in the chapel but there is no mention of him during this visit to the chapel although there is a payment of 3 shillings "to the man that bears Sanct Duthois bell." 

Like the ruined chapel in the Kirkyard by the Collegiate Church we will need the help of archaeologists to understand the age of this site.


Castle Brae, Nunneries- An old photo in our collection describes the old terrace of thatched cottages at the foot of Castle Brae as the Nunneries. It is not clear how this name came about as there is no evidence of Nuns at Tain but perhaps it was housing used for the accommodation for women in the past.


Quarry Lane, Stephen’s Biggings

The building before us is often said to be the oldest home in Tain and thanks to a land sale in 1601 we are pretty sure it was called St Stephens Manse, or St Stephen’s Biggings. If the building dates from the 15th century it is of remarkable quality for the time and a rare survival. I am not so sure, but it does give us a good example of a high-status building for the priest with a humbler terrace of buildings nearby for the servants.  

St Stephen’s Biggings was very likely home to one of the Priests from the collegiate church at this time. The most well-known of these Priests is Donald Reid who was the king’s chaplain at Tain between 1494 and 1517. He not only regularly sang for the King, he was also a Notary who would write and witness charters and documents for the King. 

St Duthac’s Chapel

The second offering; The King's Treasurer's Accounts notes, “Item, to the Kingis offerand in Sanct Duthos chapell in the kirkyard of Tayn, 8S.”

It has been suggested that this building could date from as early as the late 12th century although I suspect it was built at the beginning of the 13th century. This was a time when many new Roman-style churches and Abbeys like Fearn were being constructed in the Highlands. Like Fearn, this church was likely funded by the newly ennobled Fearchar McTaggart the Earl of Ross as a dedicated shrine for the relics of St Duthus. 

All that remains of the original building is the window in the south wall whilst much of the rest of the building dates from the 15th century; and we can be pretty sure that it was the building burned during a feud in 1427 where Thomas McNeil Mackay notoriously burnt the Chapel in Tain where the laird of Freswick, Alexander Mowat, had taken refuge around the year 1427

The horrific incident not only took the lives of Mowat and his kinsmen but also destroyed the ancient Charters of Tain together with the ‘foundation charter, the papal bull of confirmation, and the relics of St Ninian’ from Fearn Abbey, which were being held there for safekeeping. 

King James I, on hearing of this cruel act, denounced Thomas MacKay as a ‘Rebel and outlaw’. He was eventually betrayed by his brothers who helped capture him and deliver him as a prisoner to Inverness, where he was executed at Castle Hill.  (If there are any Mackay's here today can you please put your hand up?) As a warning to others, his limbs were dispersed to various locations with 'his right hand set up at Tain’. 

The Churchyard

Although not an Abbey the buildings around the church were likely laid out similarly with the buildings forming a rectangle which would create a courtyard, like an old Roman Villa, in fact, that is the very model the first Abbeys used. Similarly, here ranges of buildings enclosed the site on the south and east with a burn to the west. The buildings would have included a bell tower but also accommodation, common halls, bake-houses, kitchens and canteens to provide for the thirteen men and boys who tended the shrine here. They consisted of a Provost, five Cannons; two deacons; a sacristan; a minor sacrist and three choristers or singing clerks. Perhaps the Provost's accommodation was nearby as a newspaper report, on the opening of the new courthouse in 1850, states that the present court was built less than 100 yards from the old Kings Hall where the residents of the town are thought to have entertained the King on his visits north.

The Collegiate Church of St. Duthac

The third offering "Item, to the Kingis offerand in Sanct Duthois kirk, 14Š."

The history of the Collegiate Church is not as much of a mystery as the other churches. It was built, of course, to house the relics of Saint Duthus.   

The exact date of its completion is not known. It was likely started before the death of the last of the Ross Earls, William IV, in 1372 but is not thought to have been completed until many years after, his daughter, Countess Euphemia's death in 1398.  Over one hundred years later, in 1504, the Collegiate Church was certainly complete and had become the focal point for pilgrimage in Tain.

As we enter the church, it is, unfortunately, a pale shadow of the church the king visited. The alters, paintings, statues, church silver, relics and all the rich trapping of the church that the king would have seen, or in some cases gifted have all been removed, destroyed or stolen whilst the lands and pilgrims that paid for their upkeep were lost in the 16th century. 

However, it must be said, that it is remarkable it survives at all considering what happened after the reformation of the church in 1560 and the tumultuous years that followed.

James IV wherever he went paid for music and dance. This year we see payments of £4 on the 20th of October to Johne Goldsmyth, in the Canonry of Ros, "for tursing of the organis to Tayne and hame agane." This is a remarkable sum of money and I can only assume this was no small portable musical Organ. So the church would not just have been full of colour but also music and song. 

The Relics of St. Duthac

What of the relics of St Duthac? In a large old ledger book in our store, we have a very old receipt, dated 1560, for three reliquaries that held relics of St Duthac. These were given to Alexander Ross of Balnagown for ‘safekeeping’ by his cousin Nicholas Ross at the time of the Reformation. The receipt describes three reliquaries; St Duthac’s head in a silver reliquary, his breastbone in one of gold, and a portable shrine in silver-gilt and gold, all gifts from King James IV or V.

There were of course other relics, most notably his shirt, but from the treasurer’s accounts, we also learn of a cross, Bell, crozier and a cup which seemed to travel the country.

Let us be honest, if the King saw the church today, as beautiful as it is, he would be heartbroken at what has been lost.

The last offering

The King made his final offering, 14 shillings, at the 'stok' or cross at Sanct Duthois town he then likely returned to Donald Reid's house for food, drink, and music perhaps provided by Balnagown's harper.