Book extract

An extract from Scotland’s Admiral.

Arms of james IV
 The Arms of King James IV of Scotland.
1488 - the Battle of Sauchieburn. On the River Forth, the Admiral and his fleet stand by.

On the eleventh day of June, the all-too-familiar sounds of distant battle were borne upon a south-westerly wind to those aboard the ships anchored offshore. The two armies had clashed near a boggy glade of willows intersected by a rill known locally as the Sauchie Burn, not a league from where the Battle of Bannockburn was played out. Quickly, the Wood brothers, the fighting Bartons, their invincible captain Davy Falconer and the rest of the true men of Leith took to their small boats and patrolled the riverbank and creeks with their barber-surgeons, looking out for any wounded who had managed to get this far from the inevitable carnage.

Artillery boomed and thundered, hand firearms crackled, and steel crashing against steel was audible from the battleground ten leagues away. Some mariners fancied they could even hear the terrible warcries of the warriors, and rare whiffs of gunsmoke assailed their nostrils.

The admiral received messages that the king's forces were overwhelming the prince's, but all too soon it became clear that the tide had turned the other way, and that the rebels had gained the upper hand and were pressing the king's own position hard. It was not long after Andrew got that dreadful news that the air became ominously, if briefly, silent. Before long, it was the mariners' main quest to rescue fleeing men being pursued through the woods by bands of the enemy posted behind the king's lines for the purpose of cutting off any retreat. Sir Andrew sent in hunting parties of his own to counter that menace.

Many hundreds of soldiers were taken aboard the threescore vessels of all sizes that had lain all day in the narrows of the river in case of such an awful eventuality. Ships under sail and oar shuttled back and forth, depositing their sad cargoes of broken men on the relatively safe north bank before hastening back for more. The numerically greater forces of the king had scattered but, apart from the purposeless slaughter that always follows in the heat of a rout, the annals of those events written shortly after by the victors declare that the chase's object was solely to look for the wounded king, whose leaving the battlefield was said to have precipitated his army's being put to flight.


 "There's still blood over yon, laddie," complained Sir Andrew to the boatswain. He scowled and pointed to the foot of one of the forecastle tourelles, where some miserable soul had probably choked and bled to death before he ever reached land. "Is this not a fankle enough without my having to do your inspecting for you?"

It was the second day after the battle. Weary himself from hours of trudging through woods and over rough ground, he strode angrily, still in most of his armour, to the larboard rail and peered down. Another barge was being pulled alongside by his liveried oarsmen. "No news of him, then?" he called out.

A sandy-haired youth in the prow glanced up at the admiral leaning over the side. He tugged at the ample forelock protruding from beneath his blue bonnet. "Nobody we asked has seen nor heard nothing of his Highness's whereabouts, Sir Andrew." The boy tied his line to a ring in the planking next to a swaying rope ladder. "We seen lots o' the other side combing the countryside for him as well, we think, so we kept clear of them."

Most of the vessels that had been so busy during the previous day-and-a-half had left the area, once the bleeding flood of exhausted humanity diminished. The battle was lost, but what was to follow? Where was the king? Who was the king?

 "Very well, come on board." The admiral swivelled round to the boatswain again. "We too must get back home to do what we must, for I know not who is our master."

Leaving but two of his smaller captured ships behind to pick up any stragglers, who, God being infinitely merciful, might include James III recovering from his injuries, Andrew made his away downstream aboard the Yellow Caravel, his brothers on Flower and Helen keeping up with him, and anchored at their customary stations in the Roads of Leith, where most of the ships that had worked with him off Alloa also were resting after their vigil.

Judging from military activities observed on shore a league away, the evacuated town was already occupied by Rothesay men. No sooner had the Caravel settled at her mooring than the owners and skippers of the other vessels began coming over to confer.

Andrew Barton, the eldest of those three gallant brothers, was rowed over from their ship, the Lion. He entered the admiral's crowded cabin and embraced his long-term friend.

"We should tomorrow be offering thanks for your thirtieth year, Andrew," he cried, "but now this."

 "Those are Angus's men at the Shore, if I mistake not the bearings on their standards," suggested William Wilson, lieutenant commander of the Larkspur, formerly Bristol Maiden. "But no other work is going on. Everywhere looks deserted of folk."

"And there is yet no standard flying above the castle." The speaker stooped low and cocked his head to peer once more through the leaded glass panes at Edinburgh's great fortress farther away. "None at all," he added significantly.

 "Which means that the constable has no tidings of the king, either," Sir Andrew decided.

 "But there's no mistaking," said Andrew Barton, "that this foul business has blighted the trading in this our haven. I have grain and other goods perishing by the summer's heat in our holds and warehouses. They need to be sold and quickly dispatched to where they are needed, else we will suffer great loss and the people who need it most may starve in these straitened times."

Every shipowner in that room murmured his agreement.

"The commerce of our town and Scotland must resume without further interruption," said Andrew, "so I discharge you from further duties, with the king's gratitude for your loyalty and service." He hung his head, "But we must continue to pray earnestly for his Highness's well-being."

So the fleet dispersed in the interests of Scotland and her merchants. Within a few hours, John was back to inform his brother still aboard the Caravel that, after the battle, the victorious dissident army had advanced towards Edinburgh and set up camp at Linlithgow. Where the king was remained unknown. John's reports strengthened rumours earlier reaching the fleet that Lord Erskine had perished in the battle, as had Lord Ruthven and the recently created Earl of Glencairn.

"And those Douglas men are in advance," Andrew assumed.

 "Yes. They have not threatened us in any way, but they are questioning some of us very hard about what we know of the king's whereabouts. They found that most Leith people abandoned their homes as soon as they learnt about the disaster at Stirling, where they say Rothesay was proclaimed King James IV. The sergeant will have sent dispatchers back to his main camp by now to report the Caravel's appearance at Leith."

John Wood stayed on board just long enough to pass on these stories of woe, before going back to his house on the Quay, where his wife Margaret Spens, attended by one lady's maid, had obstinately stayed put to protect her husband's property from looters, having sent her children away in the care of their nurse to her ancestral home at Lathallan, not far from Largo. John's elder brother was reluctant to budge from his post until more definite intelligence was to hand, for he was not a man to surrender the king's flagship to his master's enemies.

Daylight the following morning revealed a town closed in by a vast array of tents. The army had relocated overnight.

A barge flying Angus's standard shoved off and sped across the intervening choppy waters to the admiral's vessel. Andrew permitted six men of the earl's personal army to board once they had divested themselves of their helms, swords and poniards, and met them on the open deck, guarded by his own swordsmen.

The red-faced captain and his men were obviously terrified to be standing before this legendary monarch of the Northern Sea. He bowed stiffly from the waist, giving himself a few extra moments to pluck up sufficient courage to utter the audacious message he'd been charged to deliver.

The young man's eyes were incapable of meeting those of his personal hero as he began: "I bear a command from the Council of his Grace King James IV ... "

Sir Andrew's nostrils flared. "Who?" he roared, "What king is this? I know no king of that style!"

Four hundred men enthusiastically yelled their agreement and glared their hostility at the visitors, who visibly quailed under the abuse and catcalls being rained on them.

Andrew raised a hand that called for silence. "Go on if you must," he said to the captain.

The hapless spokesman cleared his throat. "The Council ... hm … requires that you peacefully hand the king's father over to my custody so that he may answer for his wrong doings at the proper place."

"And that place being ... ?"

The captain shrugged. "That is what I was told to say, Sir Andrew."

"And you have said it, so good-day to you, sir."

 "I was also told to search your vessels if you refused to abide by the Council's injunction."

The admiral gave a mocking laugh. "Search all you want; you won't find the king here, more's the pity."

It took the six soldiers half the day to go through the Caravel and Flower, to no avail. They soon learnt that there were countless dark, dingy nooks and crevices where a body could easily conceal himself on ships commissioned for war and packed to the very gunwales with spare rigging, heavy and light weaponry, powder and shot, armour, troopers, crewmen, provisions and possessions. They returned to town with dejection drawn all over their faces to confess their failure.

Presently, another small craft under sail was cutting its way. The liveried messenger informed the master that the Council required him to present himself for interview.

 "Inform their lordships," said Sir Andrew, "that I am a servant of his Grace King James III, and I accept orders only from him and those who speak for him. I do not, therefore, recognise your employers' authority."

More messengers came and went until, finally, the canny admiral agreed to be interviewed provided that two men of rank were handed over as hostages. It again fell to Lord Seton and Lord Fleming to be chosen for the unenviable role.

"Remember, my lords," Sir Andrew warned the infuriated peers, "if anything untoward is done to me, my men will surely do for you." He nodded towards the overhanging poop deck, from which two nooses hung in still readiness side by side, while the ship rolled fitfully about them.

 The King's Wark, that dark citadel built by James I on the Shore at the harbour mouth, was where the confederate leadership had set up its headquarters. Accompanied by some of his armed attendant kinsmen, Sir Andrew landed from his great barge at the pavement that fronted its portal arch and, well familiar with the building's layout, marched straight into the hall where he guessed the conspirators would be ensconced, without waiting to be announced.

 "Ha!" he bawled at the huddles of breastplated noblemen gathered in that echoing space, "and what business do your lordships want with this admiral of King James the Third of the Name?"

The startled inhabitants numbering fifteen or so stared at the imposing, fully armoured figure that had just crashed in among them encircled by a company of spearmen wearing the king's colours.

Barely a moment's pause elapsed before a furious Archibald Douglas, hand on the sword pommel at his left hip, broke from the group he had been dominating.

 "And who is the upstart who dares to intrude upon the Court of his sovereign?" shouted this haughty Earl of Angus.

"The king is here?"

"Surely, Wood. He is over yonder."

He raised his left arm to indicate the ashen faced young man sitting apart in a high backed chair near the long interior wall, his elders standing attentively about him.

Sir Andrew raised the visor of his helm and gave a respectful bow to the seated James, who was attired in a long plum-coloured velvet robe edged with silver and gold bands. A high-crowned, knitted acorn cap of similar red to the robe and fulled to a fine nap was upon the boy's brown hair that fell, thick and straight, about his neck. "Sir, I recognise you as your Grace the Duke of Rothesay. I am well pleased that you appear to be unscathed following the blood-letting."

James, not long fifteen years of age, smiled weakly. "I thank you for your felicitations, Sir Andrew. Does my father also fare well?" His hands gripped the oak arms of his chair, the knuckles showing white against the age-stained wood.

"I wish I knew that he is well, sir, but I do not."

 "What?" growled Lord Home, adjusting his dress as he emerged from behind the screen concealing the closetstool, "you deny that you have him aboard one of your ships?"

"Sir, I do," Andrew retorted, "And if the king were safe with me, I should defend him to the last against those traitors who would seek to murder him." He glared round at the company, making it very clear by resting his gaze on certain individuals to whom he was referring.

Seething now with indignation, Angus -- the object of one of those accusing stares -- once more gestured towards the slender youth seated with such trepidation among his adherents. "Behold, here is your sovereign lord, James IV, for so he was proclaimed these three days since at Stirling." He put on a sarcastic sneer. "Your men don't keep you very well informed, it seems!"

His fawning henchmen sniggered, but James, whose principal resemblance to his father was in the wide set of his eyes, remained tight lipped.

"My participation in your venture, my lords, was on the express understanding that no harm was to come to my father. So where is he now?" James's grip on his chair arms tightened further. "Still no one has seen him."

 "Wood is lying, I'm certain of it," cried Lord Hailes, who had moved to stand close to the boy and his grand-uncle, the Earl of Athole.

 "If the king were on one of my vessels," replied Andrew indignantly, "I would by now have taken him far from here to where he could regroup his forces. Do you not see, your Grace, that whatever the outcome of these greet and harrowing events, there are men about you today who mean your father only evil?" The hall began resounding with noisy protests as he spoke. Andrew, his steel-encased legs defiantly rooted to the floor, raised his voice to be heard above the gathering tumult. "Aye, and he kent as well as any of you here, that if he had acquiesced in your terms proposed at Blackness and gone to retire to some quiet dwelling of your choosing, he would not have lived there long ere some foul assassin's blade had done its work on him." Shouting now, he declaimed, "For as long as he, the anointed one, lives, no other man may rule fair Scotland with the blessing of Almighty God!" 

Scandalised at those daring utterances, the Court hushed. James leapt to his feet then, thinking better of it, sat down again.

"Och, the man's possessed and off his head," claimed Home.

."Aye?" Andrew smiled at him crookedly. "Then perhaps you had best return in haste to yon cludgie and hide, lest my evil eye fall upon you and take your soul. But I say it will be an avenging eye if my lord has suffered harm at your behest."

Lord Gray called out, "And if it be upon the order of another?"

Sir Andrew turned to face the speaker and remembered him as the man who had excluded himself from the council at Falkland Palace. An uncomfortable iciness beset him at the instant their eyes met.

"Stop this quarrel immediately," said James quietly, but with an authority in his tone that surprised the company. The ambient murmur fell to a silence. "I would know where my father is. He was not found among the fallen on the field of battle."

"He was seen by many leaving the field at full pelt," Lord Drummond reminded him.

"A coward to the last," muttered Angus to Lord Hailes.

James overheard the unguarded remark, but chose to store that insult to the sire of his Stewart blood among the many scores to which men would be held to account once his own position was more secure.

The admiral, however, gave no thought to such niceties when he answered Lord Drummond bluntly. "I mind that his Highness's policy, maybe above all others, is to do everything in his power not to thrust his beloved realm into yet another period of strife by dying before his successor is of full age."

"Policy? Policy?" cried Angus scornfully. "What can you, a man of no title of birth, ken about state policy? Tcha!" Folding his arms, he deliberately turned his back on his adversary.

Sir Andrew maintained his dignity by not responding to this slight in any way. Instead, he addressed James. "Your Grace, I should withdraw soon lest my crew view my extended absence with alarm and hang my hostages. But first I can assure your Grace that your esteemed father is no craven. If he took his leave of the field, it was for Scotland and not to save himself."

Both Stewarts inclined their heads.


 It was not the master and crew of Yellow Caravel who placed those waiting nooses around the necks of the quaking Lords Fleming and Seton, but Andrew's brothers. As soon as the admiral's barge -- ostentatiously got up for the occasion -- had disembarked Sir Andrew, its anxious first oarsman had run down the Quay to John Wood's house to apprise him of the personal danger his brother was getting himself into. Robert had not yet left with Thomas Lundie for Largo, so the three of them hurriedly took themselves to the King's Wark, where they demanded admission.

The captain of the guard knew who they were. "I have been charged to admit no one, masters, so it is no use for you to stay."

Said John hotly, "Then tell those you work for that we will personally carry out the executions of the admiral's hostages if the smallest hurt is occasioned to our brother while he is in their company."

With that, they got into one of their own small craft and were rowed to the Caravel.

Hours went by upon a held breath, and the late midsummer evening, undeterred by the history of men, began to draw on its dusky veil of palest sea lavender and honey gold, and still there was no sign of movement at the Shore. The skipper, Malcolm Barclay, and the young men grew more tense with each minute idly spent observing the gloaming's lovely hues shade into night.

"Very well," John finally shouted, drumming his hands on the poop deck rail, "bring the wretches up." Tears were wetting his cheeks.

Barclay ordered four men to go below.

"First, we'll give them a good skelping to send them on their way," Robert proposed. "That'll lairn their lordships that the Woods are not their slaves."

Tom clambered up the companionway that the others had just descended. "Those are dour faces on you," he declared. "Is Andrew still not returned?"

"No," said John, "so Fleming and Seton are going to pay for it with their lives."

Thomas frowned. "Have a care, my dears. These are two of the wealthiest men in the kingdom. A blood feud with their kin must fall ill upon the Woods and their allies."

"If they are so mighty, why have their friends forsaken them and detained our brother, or worse?" argued Robert.

"I heard you saying you wanted them whipping." Thomas shook his head at Robert. "Hang them if you must, but don't shame them and their ancient lines with common beatings. That would pour trouble on our heads for generations."

John angrily struck out at the other's shoulder. "If Andrew were still alive, they would return him to us to save their pals' maukit skins. So our brother is surely dead," John stormed. "He’s dead! Don't you ken the truth? Our brave brother and the truest friend of Scotland is slain. What do the lives of these treacherous louts matter compared to that?"

Their hands bound behind, two dishevelled peers -- Seton in his early thirties, Fleming nearly fifty -- were bundled roughly on to the deck and stood upon tripod stools placed in front of the noosed ropes by crew members whom the pair had earlier attempted to bribe into helping them to escape. John, Robert and Thomas went down to meet them.

"We perceive that the men you call your friends have deserted you, my lords," uttered John Wood quietly, his voice trembling. "Therefore, your lives are of no worth and stand forfeit."

"It is not seemly that men of your rank should deal with us in such a way," complained Lord Fleming. He turned his face from the wind as a forelock of dark hair stung his eyes.

"Nothing is less seemly than the manner of your insurrection against your king!" John retorted. "You are traitors, and will die as traitors; condemned alike by those who used you and those who fought against you."

So saying, he placed a noose about the man's flabby neck, lifting the long hair clear, and pulled the knot close. As Robert did likewise to Seton, an involuntarily gasp of fear was heard, which coincided with a cry of "Ho!" from the main masthead. Virtually the entire crew on decks rushed to the rails to stare out.