Loch Leven Castle

Lochleven CastleStanding on an island in a picturesque loch, Lochleven Castle consists of a small ruinous 15th century keep, rectangular in plan, standing at one corner of a 14th century courtyard. The castle used to occupy most of the island, but the level of the loch has been lowered. Lochleven was a royal castle from 1257, and was stormed by William Wallace after being captured by the English. The English besieged the castle in 1301, but it was relieved by Sir John Comyn before it could be captured. It was visited by Robert the Bruce. The castle was held against Edward Balliol and the English in 1335. By the end of the 14th century, it had passed to the Douglases of Lochleven. Lochleven passed to the Bruces, then the Grahams, and the Montgomerys, and was taken into State care in 1939.

Mary was taken here in mid-June 1567 after her defeat at Carberry Hill by Lords Lindsay and Ruthven, under her half-brother's instructions, Lord Moray. The castle was the property of Sir William Douglas, Moray's half-brother, where he lived with his wife, children, mother, another of his brother and another youngster. The mother was Margaret Erskine, known as Lady Douglas, who had married his father, Robert Douglas. Robert Douglas had died at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 but Margaret had borne him seven children. Before her marriage, Margaret had been the mistress of Mary's father, James V, and six children were born out of the relationship. Margaret always resented Mary's presence on the throne, when her own son, Moray could have been there instead. The other son on the island was George Douglas, young and handsome, who fell in love with Mary from the start and would later help her escape from Lochleven. The other youth, a boy between fourteen and sixteen years of age, was Willie or "Wee Douglas", reputed to be an orphaned cousin but possibly an illegitimate son of William Douglas. Willie Douglas was also bewitched by the Queen and played an important part in her escape.

It is on this island that Mary gave birth for the second time. It is disputed at what stage of pregnancy she was. Mary herself allegedly said that she was seven months pregnant in July, which would mean that she was already with Bothwell months before Darnley's murder. The second dispute is over what happened to the child. The most widely accepted theory as narrated by Claude Nau, her secretary who wrote under her authority, is that there were stillborn twins who were buried on the island. Nevertheless, another version, found in Castelnau's memoirs, is that Mary gave birth later to a daughter who was smuggled out of Lochleven and sent to France. Mary's French relatives would have sent her to a convent in Soissons where she became a nun. Although improbable, the story is not impossible. Whatever the truth, Mary did fall very ill on the island, and it was in this weakened and vulnerable state that Moray sent Lords Ruthven, Melville and Lindsay to present her with abdication papers. She was forced to sign them under threat from Lindsay on 24 July 1567. Forever wanting to see the good in people, Mary continued her plea to Moray who deceitful as always, maintained that he kept her in Lochleven for her own safety. On 22 August, he was made Regent.

Reconstruction from a painting by
Andrew Spratt, spratt@supanet.com.

On a happier note Mary, who was already attended by her women, Jane Kennedy and Marie Courcelles, was joined by the faithful Mary Seton. Lord Melville, taking pity on her, had ordered cloth and wigs to be sent to her. Gradually Mary's health improved and she began to think about escape. George and Willie smuggled her letters ashore to her supporters of which Lord Seton was the most loyal. The news they brought her were a comfort to her. The Hamiltons, Huntly and Argyll were on her side too. George Douglas enthusiastically devised escape plans which were all too risky to be carried out. Furthermore, the winter was approaching and bad weather would make a successful escape even more unlikely. Mary would have to languish through those depressing months. It was at this time that Moray, realising what George was up to, decided to banish him from the island. Before he left, Mary gave him one of her pearl earrings which he was to send back to her as a signal that all was ready for her escape. Young Willie continued to take messages back and forth unnoticed. In March George came up with a better idea. Mary was to borrow the clothes of one of the laundresses who came to the island and escape on the boat which took them back. All went well until one of the boatmen, intrigued by the long white fingers which held the muffler tight, decided to remove the muffler and take a closer look. Discovering who the fingers belonged to, he quickly turned the boat back for fear of reprisals.

Lochleven castle

William Douglas was horrified to hear how very near he came to losing his prisoner and Moray's wrath. He immediately tightened security and sent young Willie ashore with George. Distraught, Mary sent pleading letters to Elizabeth I and her former mother-in-law, Catherine of Medicis, who of course both turned a deaf ear. George cunningly wrote to his mother Lady Margaret Douglas explaining how he had decided to make a fresh start in France, and could not look after young Willie anymore. William who was fond of the teenager, allowed him to return to the island: George could once more resume his plotting. In May, a boatman arrived to Lochleven with Mary's pearl earring. His story was that before George had left for France he had asked him to deliver the earring to one of Mary's maids. Another boatman, he said, had found it on the island and tried to sell it to George. Mary of course knew that this was the long-awaited signal. On the second of May Young Willie had asked William Douglas permission to organise May celebrations during which he would be the Abbot of Unreason, a title which gave him the right to make of anybody his slave for the day. Willie made sure that everybody joined in the frenzied dances and consumed plenty of alcoholic beverages. His plans almost went pear-shaped when, William looking out of the window, saw Willie pegging all the boats to the shore except one. Mary, who must already have been sick with anticipation feigned sickness and diverted William's attention. Mary was therefore excused from dinner and waited by the window of her room for the signal. One last hurdle needed to be overcome: Willie had to get hold of the keys to the main gate which were always in William's possession. Luckily, William was a little fuddled by the day's excitement and Willie managed to pick up the keys from the dining table by dropping a napkin over them. The rest happened very quickly. On seeing Willie in the courtyard, Mary dressed as a servant girl and Jane Kennedy made their way downstairs, across the courtyard and through the gates. Willie locked the gate behind him and threw the keys in the mouth of a cannon. Together they jumped into the boat which had been left unpegged and rowed ashore where George Douglas was the first to welcome them.

William Douglas. 6th Earl of Morton, was the owner of the island Loch Leven Castle. Since 1546, he and his mother had built the "Newhouse of Lochleven" on the shore of Loch Leven where Kinross House now stands. The "Newhouse" eventually replaced the island castle as the centre of the estate.

See also:
•  Douglas of Lochleven
•  The Castles of the Black Douglases, by Callum Watson


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