The destination for history

A haverin’ history of Mary, Queen of Scots


Mary, Queen of Scots. What can be said about Mary, Queen of Scots that hasn’t been said before? She was a wise and regal monarch whose stable government ensured a steady period of governance without scandal or revolt. Like the axe that cleaved her head from her shoulders, she divides opinion. Was she a tartar or a martyr? A naïve or a nyaff? A queen or a has-been? A wit or a - should probably stop there?

As a child of not many years, Mary had been packed off to marry the French King, who was called The Dauphin, hilariously confused with Dolphin for almost 500 years. He did not live long and when he went belly-up, Mary was left an unmerry widow. She returned to Scotland after thirteen years away, which was unlucky for some – i.e. her.

A Catholic woman monarch arriving in the middle of the Protestant Reformation was a recipe for trouble. John Knox, who used to hilariously joke about going to the school of Hard Knox, was apoplectic, aggrieved, appalled, antagonised and aghast. And that’s just the As – wait until you heard him on the Fs.

He wrote a pamphlet in the days when pamphlets were the social media channel of choice. Pamphlet – a word that, the more you say it, the more it sounds funny. Pamphlet. Pamphlet. Try it. Pamphlet. Told you. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a pamphlet by its title. Knox’s was entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Cosmopolitan, Red and Marie Claire all strangely failed to serialise it, although the Daily Mail thought it good, but only if they could illustrate with a picture of Mary, Queen of Scots getting out of a carriage wearing a short skirt.

His tome railed against half the population who, to a woman, thought he would get his comeuppance when he got home. He was married – to a woman – and risked his parables getting chapped between two heavyweight prayer books. As far as we know, this wasn’t done, as he had five children. Around this time, Mary travelled around Scotland a lot in a vain attempt to avoid being shouted at by Foxy Knoxy.

It was clear that he hated the Scots Queen. Or did he? Was there something about Mary? Did he secretly fancy her and concoct a fantasy scenario whereby his bearded, gruff, Presbyterian self would be as like a Greek god to Aphrodite and she’d beckon him into her boudoir for the Greek equivalent of beaucoup d’amour dans une grand numbre des positiones? We’ll never know. It’s unlikely, but people said Wales would never get to a major football championship again and look at them. (In 2016 they did, to the European Championships in France. The only British Isles team not to attend was Scotland. We were busy washing our hair.)

Mary had bad luck with the men in her love life. When she returned to Scotland, she had got married to the dashing Lord Darnley, so described as he was often seen dashing into the bedrooms of young women who weren’t his wife. He was vain, egocentric, foolish, violent, nasty and a drunkard. But apart from that: a catch. He was fertile, perhaps too fertile, but in those days, that was seen as a good thing. Royal dynasties relied on a constant supply of love action and Darnley was up for that, if not in the right place. He was eventually blown up and stabbed to death. Not the way he planned to go, but who did? That was two husbands down for her. She completed the hat-trick by marrying the Earl of Bothwell, who was thought responsible for offing Darnley. These guys did a lot of editing on their love-match profiles.

Now, when Mary was queen there was actually some peace from the usual Scotland vs England fighting. As her mum was French, she had brought over some of her countrymen. Having French people in Scotland added much culture. Scots would find themselves shrugging more and they developed a fondness for long and thin bits of bread. Some dabbled in existentialism, but found it a bit too depressing – certainly for those living in Saltcoats, who didn’t need any French philosophers informing them of the bleakness of human existence.

But these French were Catholics. And Mary was one too. And John Knox didn’t like Catholics. And the Protestant English queen, Queen Elizabeth One, didn’t like them either. The Protestant Scots were torn. Their natural enemy, England, now looked to be on their side. Their eyes went crossed trying to work out who to dislike. There was much intrigue and these Scots eventually thought they’d better do something about Mary* and so she was usurped from the throne and chased off.

She went to England, where she was sure she’d get a warm welcome from her cousin Queen Liz. You know what they say about it being better to travel in hope than arrive in disappointment? It’s bad enough having your head chopped off, but if it’s done on the orders of your cousin who has had you cooped up for nineteen years it’s really not great. And when the chopping is done badly, and there’s a lot more hacking and hewing than necessary, it can be downright unpleasant. So it was with our Mary. The executioner’s hood either slipped down over his eyes at the crucial moment, he was nervous with everyone watching (not all men can do it while being watched), or he got distracted by pondering what to have for tea. Whatever happened, when he brought down the heavy axe, he did well to at least hit the prostate figure before him. He didn’t cut his own legs off, so that’s also something in his favour. He didn’t kill the Scottish Queen in one fell swoop – oh no. He had to quickly regain his poise and have another go. In golfer’s parlance, it was three off the tee by that point.

Eventually, proud Mary was in more bits than when she came into the world. Her head was held up as proof she was dead and, just at that minute, her lips moved and those close by swore she whispered, ‘Oh ya’ – proving that despite all the trappings of France, she was definitely Scottish.

* Keen-eyed readers will notice this second reference to the gross-out movie comedy starring Cameron Diaz. That’s a £5 bet secured that such an amount of mentions could be made in a Scottish history book.

Extracted from A Haverin’ History of Scotland by Norman Ferguson

You might also be interested in:


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books