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  • The Gudeman of Ballengeich

    This is a little known tale of the Scottish King James V - Scottish History is littered with heroes and villains, famine and disaster, feast and glory. For many our national past has held a fascination which takes such a hold that at times the myth becomes difficult to separate from the fact, the truth often taking second place to what the modern observer wishes to believe rather that what actually may have taken place.

    As one who has always enjoyed the challenge of uncovering some lesser known stories from Scotland's past, I was intrigued by a reference to 'The Gudeman of Ballengiech'. This came about initially during investigations into the truth behind the exploits of Rob Roy, one of our national heroes portrayed by Hollywood as a 'Scottish Robin Hood'. It was nothing more than a passing reference, but one that remained in the mind and had to be clarified. Much digging through dusty books later, I discovered a tale of Scotland that while not perhaps of sufficient punch to draw the movie cameras once more to our shores is nevertheless a gentle tale revealing the human side of a Scottish King.

    Linlithgow Palace

    James V was a child when his father was killed at the ill-fated Battle of Flodden Field, the child becoming King in September 1513. His mother Queen Margaret was entrusted with the Regency of Scotland on behalf of the young King, unfortunately the Queen had retained habits very similar to those of her brother, the English King Henry. While Henry disposed of his wives in the South by removing their heads so Margaret tired and disposed of her husbands, albeit by the more conventional means of divorce. Having married the Earl of Angus. Archibald Douglas, in 1514, Margaret quickly tired of his company in favour of the younger Henry Stewart, a man of little power and vastly inferior rank. As a consequence, the Queen lost all control over her son, leaving the way clear for Douglas to become Regent of Scotland.

    Although never having been officially conferred as Regent, Douglas remained in that position throughout the childhood of the young King. By the time James was of age to take control of his own and the affairs of Scotland, Douglas had built a powerful platform for himself and his family - and had no intention of allowing the King to spoil his position of power. He attempted to imprison James, only to discover that the young King was not one to meekly accept such a fate. Following some political manoeuvring that would become the hallmark of James V, Douglas and all those bearing his name became outcasts in Scotland, and the reign of James V began in earnest.

    Having been lied to for years by Douglas it was said that the King was not disposed to trust those around him in Edinburgh. He took it upon himself to travel widely throughout Scotland, but completely alone, in the hope that he might hear at first hand the complaints of his subjects that would otherwise be unheard. When he travelled the King used an assumed identity known only to a few of his closest attendants, "The Gudeman of Ballengiech" (Gudeman means Landlord or Farmer, while Ballengiech was the nickname given to the road alongside Stirling Castle, meaning 'windy pass' in Gaelic).
    The humour which is often said to be lacking of our Monarchs in these far of days was clearly alive in the person of James V. On one occasion when James was travelling as his alter-ego he fell into a fierce disagreement with a group of five gypsies. The King was forced to defend himself from an attack on the Bridge of Cramond, near Edinburgh. A local labourer was passing and could see that the young man appeared to be losing his battle against uneven odds and decided to lend a hand, the pair eventually seeing off the attackers.

    The labourer was one John Howieson, a worker on the farm of Braehead in Cramond, land owned by the King. After helping James Howieson walked part of the way to Edinburgh with him, in case the gypsies should return. The King gave the young labourer no indication of who he was, telling him only that he was employed at the Palace in a minor role. He asked Howieson, in a hypothetical manner, what he would wish in all the world. Howieson replied that ownership of the land on which he worked was all that he would ever desire from life. When the men parted, James invited Howieson to join him at the Palace, so that he might repay him his kindness by sneaking him into the Palace and showing him the Royal apartments.

    James V

    Even when John Howieson met James some days later at the Royal Palace the King did not immediately reveal his true identity. He had sworn all in the household to secrecy, and took great pleasure in escorting his friend around the Palace grounds and into the private apartments. He asked Howieson if he would perhaps like to meet the King, John indicating that nothing would please him more provided it did not offend the Royal personage! James took Howieson into the Great Hall, where all the noblemen present removed their hats when the King entered.

    Howieson removed his hat also, and was startled when his companion did not follow his lead, much to the amusement of the King. John Howiesons shock on realising that he had come to the aid of his King was matched only by that when he learned of the gift bestowed on him by James, making him owner of the Braehead Farm.

    This small story from the annuls of Scottish History has passed down quietly in legend but is not one that has caught much attention by either 20th century historians or indeed Hollywood movie makers. It is however a tale that should perhaps be told, demonstrating that not all matters in those troubled times related to great battles. Indeed the 30-year reign of King James V was a period of relative stability and prosperity for Scotland.
    His death in 1542 left Scotland in the hands of his infant daughter, Mary, and the beginning of a downward spiral that was to lead just 61 years later to the Union of the Crowns and the end of the Scottish Monarchy.