By the middle of the sixteenth century the Border Reivers had a strangle hold on the lands on each side of the English Scottish Border. None more so than the Elliots and Armstrongs of Liddesdale.
Murder, theft, arson, blackmail and feud were the canker of the Border Marches. Whatever resources, initiatives or amendments to the Border Laws were put in place to counter the disreputable practices of the Reivers, the strife and confrontation rolled on apace, even quickened.
One of the more formidable of the Elliot clan at this time was Jock of the Park. Hailing from Copshawholme (modern day Newcastleton), he was renowned for his relentless strikes against the English and, indeed, any of the Scottish clans with whom the Elliots were at feud.
By 1566 Liddesdale, which because of its notoriety had its own Warden, known as Keeper, had such a burgeoning reputation for lawlessness that a Lord Warden of the Marches was appointed. He had just one objective – subdue the unholy Reivers of Liddesdale!
Accordingly, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, Lord High Admiral of Scotland and Duke of Orkney moved south from Edinburgh. He was a man reputed for his fierceness, was fearless in any confrontation, a skilled military man. He was also a particular confidante of the young Mary, Queen of Scots. Rumours of a liaison between the pair were rife.
Bothwell was certain that he would rid the Borders of its worst offenders.
He was, however, to soon find out that position and reputation counted for nothing against the hard, obdurate and wily Border Reivers. At first his success rate was good. He managed to capture the Lairds of Mangerton and Whithaugh and other Armstrongs. Soon these men were festering in the dank hole of the Hermitage castle awaiting summary justice from the illustrious Lord Bothwell.
When Bothwell heard that Jock of the Park had been seen in the vicinity of Hermitage he pursued him with alacrity. Jock was a prize not to be missed.
Somewhere near the Billhope burn Bothwell encountered Jock, and without any ceremony, shot him from the saddle of his horse. Jock lay motionless on the ground and Bothwell approached, sure he had severely wounded or killed the prostrate Reiver. As he leaned over to take a closer look, Jock sprang to his feet and knifed the astonished Lord. He even managed to cut to the bone the forehead of his foolish adversary before hobbling to his horse and making away.
Bothwell’s guard who had witnessed these events from a distance, conveyed the stricken Lord back to Hermitage intent on providing the shelter and succour that he needed for recovery. On the short journey back to the castle Bothwell appeared to be failing fast from loss of blood.
To the surprise of all, once there, they were refused entry. In the short time that they had been away, the Armstrongs had broken free of the hell-hole of a dungeon, and in true Reiver fashion, overpowered the garrison. Even though Bothwell appeared at death’s door they would not let him enter without assurance that their crimes would be forgiven and that a general amnesty should ensue.
Bothwell had no alternative but to agree; the Armstrongs and others walked free and he was to receive the aid he most certainly needed.
Thus Jock of the Park lived to fight another day and the Armstrongs returned to their loved ones.
Twenty-five miles north of the Hermitage, Mary, Queen of Scots was holding a justice court at Jedburgh. When she was told of the plight of Bothwell, she set off on a grey October day to travel the vast expanses of moor, bog and bent to comfort, console and help mend her favourite.
After but a few hours at Hermitage she made the return journey to Jedburgh. Thus she completed a round trip of fifty miles within a day in most inclement weather. Above the Hermitage her horse stumbled at a place still called the Queensmire to this day and she lost a watch which was found over two hundred years later by a farm worker draining the bog.
By the time she arrived back in Jedburgh Mary was so ill with fatigue and cold that it was thought, her being in a high fever and delirious state for day after day, that she would die. She was given the last rites of the Catholic Church.
She survived though as did Bothwell and the next year they were married not long after the murder of her second husband, Henry Lord Darnley, in which Bothwell was implicated.
The pair was to incur the wrath of the protestant Lords, including Mary’s half-brother, Moray, and two battles ensued for control of the country of Scotland.
After the Battle of Carberry Hill, at which not a sword was raised in anger, Bothwell fled north to Orkney purportedly to raise troops for Mary’s cause whilst she was warded in Lochleven castle. They were never to see each other again.
Bothwell was pursued and took ship for Norway to evade his would-be captors.
The ship floundered in a storm and when it eventually reached safe harbour it was soon recognised that one of its crew was special. It took little searching of the cabins to prove that it was Bothwell who sought sanctuary in a foreign land. The king of Norway and Denmark offered him to the Scots in exchange for the Orkney Isles which had been given to Scotland as part of a marriage dowry some one hundred years before. When the Scots refused the bargain Bothwell was incarcerated in Dragsholm castle in Denmark, tied to a post in the dungeons for ten years, it is said. He died of insanity in one version of his pathetic end.
His embalmed body could be seen for centuries in an open top coffin in the village church of Farjeville a few miles from the castle of Dragsholm. In the late 1970′s the lid to the coffin was secured on the order of the Danish monarchy.
Mary escaped from Lochleven and confronted the Protestant Lords yet again at the Battle of Langside where her forces were convincingly beaten.
She fled to England, determined to seek the aid of her cousin, Elizabeth l, in an effort to regain her throne. It was not to be and, after spending nineteen years in ward in various English castles and secure country houses, she was beheaded after conspiring to break free and overthrow the English monarchy.
She was to often remark during her time in captivity that she wished she had died at Jedburgh.
Given the obscene ordeal that was to end Bothwell’s life it is probably true that he reflected on his confrontation with Jock of the Park and wished that he had died listening to the burble of the Billhope burn.
Little Jock Elliot of the Park had a lot to answer for.