by Chris Ross
At the arched doorway of the outer courtyard wall, a tartan-clad piper wrestled with his bagpipes, puffed out his frog cheeks, and the first few croaks of the wedding march piped across Nethan spur. A white, stretched limousine purred to a stand still at the crown of the hill. The driver had just negotiated the winding Blackwood road leading to Craignethan Castle on July 12th 2004. The Castle was purposely constructed on a precipitous spur in 1530’s to allay sieges. Now it almost allayed a limo and two coaches full of wedding guests.
It was no bloody invasion this day. The two local tribes who had gathered in the Tower House were there for a happy union. The bride, clutching her father traversed the outer courtyard, crossed the moat bridge and hesitated at the arched doorway into the Castle’s Tower House. Half the barrel-vaulted roof was missing, and the guests shivered patiently in the raw air as clouds gathered above.
The minister at his makeshift podium under the open roof was relieved to start the ceremony over half hour late. It was better than trying to explain a “bolted bride.” He apologised for the coach driver who had taken the wrong route, and for the bride’s limo which had knocked down a fence at the main gate. Uncle Doug had proffered whisky from his hip flask to calm nerves. Hence some guests were very noisy and merry when the minister began his welcoming speech.
Despite this hilarious hic-cup, the bridal party soon settled round a small table covered in a gold cloth which held a double candle stick, a vase of arum lilies and the unsigned marriage certificate. There was a strong smell of freesias emanating from the 3 bride’s maids dressed in deep fuchsia.
As things progressed towards the finale, there was a gentle “pitter-patter” on the table which was ignored at first.
But the minister’s jacket was soon covered in dark spots. The candle hissed and went out, and the splashed guests, en mass, surged backwards several paces, away from the open roof.
“Pick up thy table and walk.” The best man shouted to the minister.
Furniture was quickly rearranged and the ceremony restarted with a rousing cheer and spontaneous applause. However, at the crucial signing moment, the bride’s special quill pen refused to write on the soggy certificate. This meant the happy couple, though they’d gone through the motions, weren’t technically Mr and Mrs. Smith. The procuring of a signature depended on the usher’s prowess at dry-cleaning the now paper mache certificate.
The three minstrels arrived in the upper gallery of the banqueting hall for the evenings’ entertainment. From their vantage point, they had a good view of his Sir James Hamilton of Finnart’s top table with his wife Lady Mary on his left. The lesser dignitaries sat each side of the hall on the left and right at two rectangular tables.
Then at the back of the hall and stretching beneath the music gallery, were the rows of commoners, soldiers, and hangers-on. The smell of manure on worker’s boots, and sweat from unwashed labourers permeated the throng. This was a fine welcome home for Sir James who had just returned from France.
Harassed servants carried in a silver ashet containing a roasted swan which had been specially slaughtered from the king’s flock for this occasion. The cooked bird sat bolt upright with its wings, neck, head with beak intact, looking as though it might take flight at any moment.
Then there were pans of potted chicken in thick greasy gravy, wedges of best Blackwood beef tinged blood red in the centre, and a blackbird pie. The serving of the latter had been carefully choreographed for the delight of the nobles.
When there was a lull in the feasting, a servant took a knife to slice the thick pastry. Guests waited with bated breath as Sir James dug out his own piece. A live black bird suddenly flew up from the hole in the pastry and flapped round the room. The hall was filled with raucous laughter.
Sir James and his guests finished their meat courses then ate fresh Lanark rasps and farmhouse cream. There was moist seed cake and butter, and plum pudding. Candied figs and pineapple were served with mead. The servants were relieved that at least the feast was going well but they disliked the silly, drunken behaviour of the commoners who had quaffed copious amounts of weak grog.
Sir James and his group sat below the large window in the Hall in a more dignified manner. They were flanked by their own armed guards holding sharp pike-staff. Sir James had upgraded his castle’s security since he came back from France.
He’d studied European architecture in his post as Master of Works for King James V and was keen to apply ideas in Craignethan and Strathaven Castle, the latter being another of his military strongholds.
This very week Sir James had installed 24 hour armed guards in his caponiers, and he’d employed men from Tillitudlem to enlarge and deepen the ditches and moats at Craignethan, and a gang of labourers from Drumclog to work in Strathaven. This was, however, very expensive to subsidise.
Some courtiers had begun to question the work and said it was over-zealous and secretly accused Sir James of embezzlement.
He was feathering his own lavish nest. In Craignethan and Strathaven he had, after-all, stashed the best brand new weapons at great cost for personal protection.
In this year of 1538 Sir James listened to his musicians in the gallery at Craignethan and contemplated the urgent news his spies had brought.
He heard that the Duke of Chatelerhault, the 2nd Earl of Arran was about to clear his own route to become Regent. The top table of dignitaries sat gloomily discussing their futures. A grey cloud of smoke puffed from the large fire-grate as a servant squeezed his bellows in the flames, and cedar and spruce smells permeated the hall from crackling and spitting logs.
The outdoor champagne toast and photo shoot had to be abandoned at Craignethan. The young couple and 3 bridesmaids fled from the arched doorway as the soaked piper played their watery farewell. A drenched usher shouted to the minister:-
“Lord, help us! The River Nethan is in full spate, and if it continues, we’ll need a bloody ark to get us out of here.”
The minister smiled and put on his plastic mac and left. In his head he’d written his Sunday sermon already about Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth. The ushers packed away the table, benches and podium. Every trace of pomp and ceremony was removed, and the castle was left empty with its ancient ghosts lurking in its’ caponiers.
Despite the opulence of this gathering, Sir James’s court was feeling rather anxious. His servant’s livelihoods were at risk too.
Morale was dampened even more when later that evening a messenger reported that a written proclamation was issued against Sir James Hamilton of Finnart for plotting against James V twelve years before. Sir James was supposedly involved with the murder of two regents.
The Monarch’s signature on the proclamation, therefore, made any ally of Sir James a target for extremist too. It was well known that armed levies had already been raised to take the Clydesdale strongholds of Lord John and Lord Claud who had fled into exile. The Lanarkshire gentry had good reason to worry.
The happy couple were driven away through the Clyde valley in their stretched limo which was decked out in luxurious soft leather, with cocktail cabinet and jukebox. The driver had strict instructions to go through Blackwood or else face certain danger of subsidence and floods on other routes. So they purred along the quiet Lanarkshire road with the bubbling River Clyde in full spate to their right and bubbling glasses of champagne in their hands. They passed lush trees which glistened with rain droplets.
The recent storm had created an earthy smell, and the mossy dankness of the River Clyde permeated the limo through its air filter system. The limo swished through rivulets on the road and edged carefully round tight bends. Then it arrived at Blackwood and on to the Larkhall roundabout. The happy couple watched their local haunts come and go through tinted windows.
Soon they were in Stonehouse grey and quiet in its wet shroud. The old Hospital had been demolished and a new private “EXCLUSIVE” housing estate was being built. They rued they could never afford any thing there.
They sipped their champagne and stared at the landscape they thought they knew well. But it was slowly changing, for the better for speculators, and for the worse for first time buyers like them.
The groom thought about his work at the Quarry near Gilmourton. The recent housing boom had encouraged the aggregates business to blossom because building firms required materials for green belt development. Even the old coal bings at Quarter had been redeveloped. Yes, for this happy couple, things were looking up!
The limo entered Strathaven near the castle and the King and Queen of Lanarkshire waved out the car windows to their doting subjects. Their arrival brought the Common Green shopping area to a standstill but the driver eventually manoeuvred round the tight junction and headed along the Glasgow Road to E. Kilbride. The couple glowed as they thought of their happy and long life together in South Lanarkshire.
Sir James Hamilton of Finnart left his minions to tidy up Craignethan Castle and he and his wife were ushered away by horse and coach to a secret destination. They were driven through the Clyde Valley and Blackwood. He felt morose because he would never see these places again. Their income from rents and produce sales and his shares in the mining at Wanlockhead and Leadhills would vanish. So would his recent financial interests in the mining of lead in the upper Crawford Moors, and open cast mining at Quarter and Chatelherault.
In the cover of night Sir James and her Ladyship were installed in Strathaven Castle.
They would stay there a couple of nights en route to the Ayrshire coast and hopefully get a boat to France. They heard from spies that Craignethan was now under siegeand was about to bedemilitarised.
Sir James now regretted he’d helped in bloody family feuds and persecution of Church reformers since his return from France. His hostility towards the Protestants he thought probably contributed to his downfall.
But it was too late, and he reluctantly settled his wife into her Strathaven quarters with just one lowly hand maid. He told them he’d have to leave and she would be smuggled out to join him later at a secret rendezvous.
At the E. Kilbride Hotel the newly married couple had their lavish banquet. It consisted of:- Scotch broth, River Tweed Salmon in Brandy and (West Coast) lobster sauce; Aberdeen Angus roast beef (with a red flash in the middle) and Lanark rasps in a brandy snap basket with cream.
In the ballroom a DJ was preparing the disco. Two tables were stacked with gifts from all over the world, and there was a four-tiered, rich fruit wedding cake on a silver ashet. It was covered in white icing with two white sugar swans on top. It had been specially baked by a lady in Lanark.
Her Ladyship sat in her dank bed chamber with her lace bonnet pulled over her ears, and her lace gloves up to her elbows. The hand-maid squeezed bellows in the log fire trying to warm the cavernous room but it did little good. It still took great effort to visit their freezing latrine closet. In the quiet of the night, the two women heard a skirmish in the Avon Valley.
They could smell fires burning and an awful stench of charred flesh. Her ladyship prepared her few belongings to join her husband as they’d planned but neither woman slept that night.
In the early hours of the morning soldiers stormed into her Ladyship’s room. The King’s Troops had massed at Townhead, Ballgreen and Carnduff in Strathaven town, and the new four feet thick wall surrounding Strathaven Castle and thirteen turrets with armed guards did not allay the siege that followed.
The bride and groom and their entourage had a joyous reception. There were hundreds of photos taken, and every one agreed it was the best wedding of 2004. The couples’ first night together was spent in the hotel’s honeymoon suite, and then they’d fly off to the Bahamas.
As they packed their bags to return home the next morning, they realised their usher hadn’t returned their signed marriage certificate. A phone call revealed he had forgotten about it, and the crumpled paper was still in his sporran.
A second phone call to the manse revealed the minister had gone away for the day. The groom, therefore, sent an urgent SOS to the bride’s father to track the minister down, get the signature, and return the certificate ASAP. It was vital to submit it at the airport check-in desks with their passports during their trip, or else their boarding passes would be made null and void.
The couple were handed their signed document an hour before their flight. Their niece was to house-sit for them because the ushers had stored all their unopened wedding gifts in their garage. People couldn‘t be too careful these days. It wasn’t uncommon for looters to break in deserted honeymoon houses.
In July, 2004, Mr and Mrs Smith were set for a journey of a lifetime, and that one illegible Minister’s signature shaped their entire future together.
In the days after the fall of Craignethan, and then Strathaven Castle Sir James’ country mansion in Biggar was seized by 80 horsemen and 50 musketeers and their possessions pillaged.
Some said Sir James had been arrested in the Darvel area en route to the Ayrshire coast, but in any case, Lord and Lady Hamilton never saw each other again. Servants said her body and that of her hand maid were thrown into the Powmillon Burn.
In 1540, during the most violent times in Lanarkshire when Craignethan Fortress was demilitarised, the King’s written proclamation was fulfilled, and the execution of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart took place.