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11 - How Different It Was in Scotland: Three Earls, a Football and a Ghost Story

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2021

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Summary

Here is the ghost story.

On Saturday 20 October 1576 George Gordon, fifth earl of Huntly, a man probably in his early forties, ‘died suddenly’, as his most recent biographer somewhat primly tells us, ‘of over-exertion in a game of football’. This rather anticlimactic ending to a lively and informative article does not quite do justice to that end, but may be excusable, as modern scholars do not actually know the cause of death; another guess has been apoplexy. Fortunately we can do rather better, thanks to a contemporary account which is wholly uninterested in historical caution. Sadly we do not know who wrote the account. But we do know that he regarded his source as impeccable:

I am credibly informed by ane gentle woman who had it of ane gentle man that was present at the death, sawe and hard the whole maner, and tuichit the bodie of the said erle in service macking … and loved him as the tenderest of his awin hart, and was with him langare nor twentie-foure howris before his death.

How typical this is: he had it of someone who had it of someone, who was – of course – a wholly reliable source. Actually, it is a remarkable source which provides unusual insights into the world of the Scottish aristocratic culture and power, insights which will be discussed in this chapter. But I begin with its own vivid evidence.

The death itself was dramatic in the extreme, coming for Huntly when he was (predictably, one feels) ‘never mirriare in his lyfe fra he was a man, nor better in health’. The anonymous author no doubt seized on the event because it was an example – a very rare one – of a sixteenth-century Scottish ghost story. The information he got about the last twenty-four hours of Huntly's life was therefore an ideal build-up to the terrifying supernatural phenomena, simply because it was so low-key, so purely domestic; the earl entertaining his relatives and dependants, hunting and playing football.

And then it all went wrong. Before he had got his foot to the ball for a second time he collapsed. His brother Patrick expressed concern. Given the earl's condition, his reply was remarkably wordy: ‘I believe I sall not play mair at this time, I am sumthing seik; bring me my cloike.’

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Political Society in Later Medieval England
A Festschrift for Christine Carpenter
, pp. 229 - 244
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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