By Fiona Grahame Photographs and Art Work By Martin Laird
‘Sic fuit est,et, erit’
Kirkwall, Orkney has,‘The most mature and accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland’ . Started in 1600, what is now known as The Earl’s Palace was to be part of a much more ambitious complex of buildings, The New Wark of the Yards, a courtyard befitting a Prince.
Patrick Stewart, whose father Robert was the son of King James V and Euphemia Elphinstone, had inherited the title Earl of Orkney. His period in the Northern Isles marked him as a despot and cruel ruler. Whilst much of the bad press he has received is true, he was a much more complex character than the black hearted villain, Black Patie, portrayed in history books. Indeed the rich landowners and clergy who presided over the people of Orkney in the late 16th and early 17th century were all particularly unpleasant.
Earl Patrick was the very essence of an ambitious Renaissance courtier. His Palace in Kirkwall, one of many building projects he undertook in Orkney and Shetland, has an elaborate entrance over which is displayed his coat of arms and the Royal Arms of Scotland. There are corbelled turrets, French styled oriel windows, a spacious main stairway and a banqueting hall on the first floor where the Earl would have dined with his many guests.
The furnishings and wall hangings would have been lavish. Those moveable objects travelled with him to his other residences. In 1590 his ship was a victim of the infamous pirate David Gwynn, and the Earl’s losses were huge, estimated at £36,000 of money, jewels and moveables.
Patrick, grandson of James V (albeit down an illegitimate route) was a hunting companion of the new monarch James VI and for a time he enjoyed his favour.
There was plenty of money to be had in Orkney from rents, fees for fishing, salvaging stranded whales and from wrecks but it was not anywhere near enough to pay for a princely lifestyle. The debts mounted up and his borrowings became ever more complex. Patrick may have owed a quarter of a million merks. He was bailed out by Sir John Arnot, Lord Provost of Edinburgh and Treasurer Depute of Scotland to whom he granted many of his lands in Orkney.
Trapped by debts and feuds – many from the days of his father Robert – Patrick took 60 armed men over to the island of Westray to recover a debt of £8,000 from Michael Balfour. He was taken to court, many times for his own debts, but ignored the summonses.
Patrick’s luck began to run out when James Law was appointed Bishop of Orkney in 1606. James VI was keen to impose Bishops throughout Scotland and James Law commanded the King’s favour. The old family feuds also came to a head with an alliance between the Earl of Caithness and William Sinclair of Eday. In response Earl Stewart allied with the Earl of Sutherland.
Accused of treason, Patrick was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle in 1609 and was never again to be fully free.
In October 1612 King James VI purchased Sir John Arnott’s interests in Orkney for £300,000 and from then on those lands were annexed to the crown. The rent collector for the King, John Finlayson, was extremely brutal and deeply unpopular. Orkney was ripe for rebellion.
Patrick was summoned before the Privy Council where he had to resign all his rights to Orkney.
His son Robert, with his men, took control of Kirkwall Castle which was one of the strongest in Scotland. Besieged using great guns shipped from Edinburgh , including the one known as the ‘Thrown Mou’, it took 5 weeks of battering and a betrayal before the castle fell to the Earl of Caithness.
Robert was transported to Edinburgh and on 1st of January 1615 he was hanged. Patrick was beheaded at the Mercat Cross one month later.
Kirkwall Castle was demolished so that it could never be used again by rebellious Orcadians and eventually the magnificent Palace too fell into ruin. Its fate was sealed a hundred years later when Kirkwall town council sold off the roofing. A century later the councillors even considered turning the Palace vaults into a prison and although they rejected that idea they did tear down the last remnants of the once formidable Castle.
The execution of Patrick Stewart brought to an end 700 years of the Earldom in Orkney, the end of Norse Law and secured the dominance of the Scots legal system over the islands.
This article was first published in iScot magazine