A Protestant Lord in James VI’s Scotland

Reputed to be the richest earl in Scotland, George Keith, fifth Earl Marischal, is an outstanding example of long-term successful Protestant Lordship in a Scotland reeling from the consequences of the Protestant Reformation and still coming to terms with its new king. Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson tells us more about George Keith, the subject of his new book, A Protestant Lord in James VI’s Scotland.

In the traditional telling of Scottish history, the nobles were always a slimy bunch. They were the selfish men who betrayed Wallace in the medieval period, who horribly bullied Mary Queen of Scots, who were bought and sold for English gold in 1707, and who evicted the people from the land in the Clearances in more modern times. Scattered between these moments, if history is just read through second-rate guidebooks, they spent the rest of their time either murdering each other or imprisoning hapless women in towers (who would later haunt their castles). Of course, there’s a core of truth to all of this, but things are never that simple. Getting behind these banalities and looking at noble power, rather than just the personalities of the nobles themselves, we can start to properly appreciate how Scotland was managed through most of its history. You can start to appreciate the motivations behind some of the notorious deeds, and determine whether they were typical at all.

Dunnottar Castle photographed by Carlos Menendez San Juan, 2007.
Image credit: Wikimedia commons

I was first drawn to the Keiths and the Earls Marischal through their castles. Dunnottar is probably the most iconic Scottish castle, number two on my google image search, after Eilean Donan – but as that one in its present form is only twenty-three years older than the Walt Disney Castle in California, we can perhaps put it to one side. It was said the Keiths could travel from Berwick upon Tweed to Caithness and eat and sleep every night on their own estates. Exploring this claim showed this, surprisingly, wasn’t far from the truth. Aside from a gap in Fife, they owned a long chain of scattered estates right along the east coast. This was clearly one of the wealthiest families in Scotland, they were even noted as such at the time, but why aren’t they more well-known? Most folk have heard of the Stewarts, the Campbells, the Gordons, the MacDonalds, yet Keith is primarily thought of as a given name, not the surname of one of the more important Scottish dynasties. Part of the reason for this is they don’t fit the pattern of the more notorious families, a largely loyal, uncontroversial bunch who tried to stay out of trouble, at least until the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, but that’s another story.

George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, c 1553 – 1623, unknown, 1798. Image credit: Scottish Narional Portrait Gallery.

George Keith, the fifth earl (who I’ve described wrongly as the fourth earl previously) was a very remarkable person, again barely known today. If identified at all it is as the founder in 1593 of Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College, now represented by the fantastic pointy granite building in the heart of the city. Marischal and his kindred were witness to a Scotland reeling from the consequences of the Protestant Reformation of 1560 and the turmoil of the Marian Civil War. They also had to quickly come to terms with their ambitious and deeply intelligent new king, James VI, who would then be whisked away to England in 1603. Exploring the political, the religious and the regional perspectives, this book aims to be a study of the management of the earldom that man represented through this choppy period. What’s more surprising is the apparent cohesion of the earldom and the Keith kindred, despite the earl’s family life being the stuff of a soap opera –rebellious brothers, illegitimate children, feuding sons and terrible marital relations.

There were a few surprises from my research. A deep dive exploration of Kirk Patronage, the right of nobles to recommend parish ministers, seemed to indicate that this family of early converts to Protestantism held the right to appoint clergy to the pre-Reformation church. After the Reformation, although Marischal and the Keiths were recognised as sound Protestants, it did not stop them exploiting the resources of the new Kirk, or ignoring it entirely when it seemed to turn too radical. A more impressive finding was the Earl Marischal’s ambitions along the east coast. Not content to have inherited the network of east coast estates, he spent a great deal of effort joining up this little empire: he founded two towns, built three harbours and developed two further fishing stations, as well as improving roads and building bridges. While other noble houses were content to express their power through violence, here we had a family seemingly devoted to the law and economic innovation. Altogether the picture that emerges is one far removed from the usual story of murderous and over powerful nobles.

This guest post was written by Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson an affiliate in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow.

A Protestant Lord in James VI’s Scotland
George Keith, Fifth Earl Marischal (1554-1623)
by Miles Kerr-Peterson
Hardback / 9781783273768 / £45.00 or $74.25

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