King David and the White Stag
This story goes right back almost 900 years to 1127 during the reign of King David I. Back then, what we know as the spacious, grassy Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat was actually a royal hunting forest.
Words by Graeme Johncock
Illustration by Linley Barba
David liked to spend most of his time here while staying at Edinburgh Castle up on the cold, drafty rock. It sounds like a pretty normal thing for a King to be out hunting in those days but this wasn’t just any old day. This day was the feast of the Holy Cross and David should really have been in church.
He had ignored the words of warning from pesky priests and headed out with his bow and his spear. At some point, while stalking a majestic, white stag the King was separated from his hunting companions. It was only when he stopped in a clearing and listened to the quiet woodland around him that he realised he was all alone.
Suddenly out of nowhere, the white stag burst out of the undergrowth and startled David’s horse which bolted off between the trees. The King was lying on the ground, in amongst the roots and the leaves with a very angry stag staring back at him. His spear lay just out of reach and his bow had disappeared with the horse. The hunter had very much become the hunted.
You might think that deer are lovely and cute but a wild stag is a powerful beast. Definitely not something to mess around with. David was praying for all he was worth as the white stag charged for him with the sharp tines of its antlers bared.
Then instead of seeing his life flash before his eyes, the King saw the Holy Cross appear between the antlers. As he reached out to grab it the stag stopped in its tracks, panicked and fled.
David marked the spot where the miracle had taken place and promised to dedicate an abbey in thanks to the Holy Cross or Holy Rood as it was known. Holyrood Abbey grew into the Palace of Holyrood House that we have today and the forest was cleared to make the surrounding Holyrood Park.
David was already known as a fairly pious man but after the founding of Holyrood, it’s like he went into overdrive. Founding or improving Abbeys at Jedburgh, Cambuskenneth, Newbattle, Melrose and the list goes on. Maybe it’s just a story and David’s passion for monastic orders after that day was a coincidence. But then again, maybe something happened in that forest. Something that changed the King of Scots for the rest of his life.
We’ll never know for sure, but up and down the Canongate section of the Royal Mile you can still find images of that white stag with the cross between its antlers. Proudly honouring one of Edinburgh’s oldest and greatest stories.
Discover more about the stories of Scotland at Graeme’s website, scotlands-stories.com