Sir James the Rose

If you visit Crail, take a walk along South Marketgate, past The Golf Hotel along to the Parish Kirk where you’ll find a devilish tale…

By David White

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Crimond, where we lay our scene. As you may have gathered from my corruptions of its word, this story revolves around two star crossed lovers and shares some of those characteristics we best associate with Romeo and Juliet. There are many versions of the tale of Sir James the Rose, most stemming from ballads first written in the 18th century but that are believed to stem from the earlier ballad of “The Young heir of Baleichan”. For those whose minds are captured by this tale I would highly recommend doing some reading and listening about the various folk music interpretations- but without further ado lets begin our tale. 

Some time ago, when the world was full of gallant knights and fair maidens, dragons and magic, jealousy and vengeance, there lived a valiant renowned knight named Sir James the Rose hailing from the Parish of Crimond. Sir James was beloved by his followers and cut quite the striking figure in battle at the head of his men. This was a man of quality. He was renowned for his tactical skill in directing his men and his personal swordsmanship. Sir James, despite his brains and brawn, made one fatal error that too often our knights of yore fall foul of: he fell in love.

 Sir James fell madly in love with Matilda, the daughter of the Thane of Buchan and despite Sir James’s best efforts, the Thane did not approve. The Thane had long ago decided that his daughter would be married to Sir John the Graham and he was not going to let something as trivial as his daughters happiness dissuade him from this ambition. 

Sir James for as while tried in vain to dissuade himself from loving Matilda for he knew he was not going to be able to see Matilda in public for fear of repercussion from her father: for whilst the Thane was not a major noble and had no significant forces, he had plentiful allies that could easily overwhelm Sir James. Sir James’s dissuasions did not last long though, for as we all know in such tales as this, no rhyme or reason will dictate the actions of two young lovers. Matilda wrote to her love and persuaded him to meet her by a sauchen tree on the shores of Loch Strathbeg. Sir James came to the call of Matilda’s letter and soon this spot became their usual trysting place. It was a quiet and sedate place, somehow detached from the outside world, and never was another soul in sight when the two came to meet. 

How much I would like to say that their love blooms and the strength of their bond melted the icy Thane’s heart and they were married with his blessing and lived happily ever after, unfortunately this is Scottish folklore and happy endings are not our specialty. No, eventually the word got out amongst the servants that the daughter of the Thane of Buchan and the infamous Sir James of Rose had been meeting each other in secret by a sauchen tree on the shores of Loch Strathbeg. As with most gossip, this news quickly spread and soon reached the ears of Donald the Graham, brother of Sir John the Graham whom the Thane had promised his daughter to. 

Donald, having heard this news, decided to investigate for himself whether this rumour was true, after all, he wouldn’t want to trouble his brother with trivial gossip. Furthermore, Donald knew if he caught the two in the act he would be well rewarded by both his brother and the Thane. Despite the appearance of family loyalty, Donald was in fact a selfish and conniving man. 

Having made it to the banks of the Loch, Donald sat and waited on Matilda and Sir James’s and before long they arrived. Donald was not skilled in the art of camouflage and so was quickly detected by the very alert and observant Sir James. Having spotted Donald and quickly realising his intentions, Sir James challenged him to a duel. Matilda looked on in distress as she knew nothing good could come of this but also knew that the challenge, having been now issued, could not be retracted. Donald being the fool hardy and arrogant man he was had no problem accepting Sir James’s challenge and so the duel began in earnest. It soon become apparent though that Sir James’s talent far outstripped Donald’s and Donald was mortally wounded. 

With that fell swoop Sir James sealed his fate. He had killed the brother of Sir John the Graham, trusted ally and beloved friend of the Thane, a man who would have become kin to the Thane should his intentions for his daughter have come to fruition. 

Matilda turned quickly to Sir James and told him to flee for once this deed was discovered her father and Sir John would surely ride out in search of him. So, he fled to the Mill of Haddo where Matilda came to meet him the following evening.

Sir James, having had some time to collect his thoughts, planned to make for the Isle of Skye to enlist the help of his brother in helping him subdue the forces of the Thane and Sir John that were already raking the countryside in pursuit of him and his followers. Matilda observantly pointed out to Sir James that his chances of making it to the Isle of Skye were slim given, as he pointed out, the combined forces of her father and Sir John were already scouring the region for him. She suggested he instead remain hidden at the Mill and she would write to his brother on the Isle of Skye to call for aid. Sir James concurred and so their plan was set in motion. 

Writing to someone back then was not such a secure and sure-fire thing as it is today though, and as is to be expected in a tragedy the messenger was intercepted by the forces of Sir John and so not only did Sir James’s call for aid go unheeded but worse than this, his location became exposed. Soon enough, the Mill of Haddo was surrounded. 

Sir James, having heard the not very subtle movements of troops outside, knew his location must have been leaked and so readied himself for the sudden attack which inevitably came. In short fashion, four soldiers charged him. Sir James, being the skilled swordman he was, faced down his opponents with nerves of steel and took on each one with lighting reflexes and before long all for troops fell. Alas, for Sir James the soldiers had merely been a distraction and in his moment of respite Sir John came up behind him and slipped a blade between his ribs. Sir James whirled around to face his attacker and before dropping to the ground just had time to lash out with his sword, dealing Sir John a fatal blow. With that, both knights fell to the ground dead.

Matilda arrived at this scene of death just too late. The messenger, having won free of his captors, had alerted Matilda as to Sir John’s plan and so she rushed to intervene, but alas her efforts were all in vain. Realising she had been too late, Matilda sunk to the ground before her lost love, her eyes catching the blood on Sir James’s blade. She grasped out to the blade, took it up in her hands and paused for a brief second then proceeded to fall on the sword, taking her own life so that in death they might be united. 

And here ends our tale our two regal lovers who in secret would meet, their love forbidden by Matilda’s father’s stubbornness and whose fate became doomed by the murder of he whom her father would call kin. These lovers who, but for a messenger gone awry, may have salvaged their future together, instead now lay cold in a grave. 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Peter Mehta

    A wonderful tale and one that I have found reflected in a number of Scottish clock dials. One of these in a clock by William Frame of Larkhall was published in Clocks magazine in July 2023 and another interpretation of the same tale can be found in the August 2023 edition.

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