Robert Durie - Fife Adventurer

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Robert Durie - Minister of Anstruther and Fife Adventurer

Son of the Reformer, John Durie, and therefore a first cousin once removed to Abbot George Durie and Bishop Andrew Durie, Robert had an interesting life.

Born probably in 1555, first or second son of John Durie, he studied at St Mary’s College, St Andrews. He accompanied his brother-in-law, James Melville to the Parliament at Linlithgow 1 December 1585, and also to Berwick in September 1586. He became assistant to the schoolmaster of Dunfermline, was admitted in 1588 to the parish of Abercrombie [St Monans in Fife], presented to the vicarage by King James VI, and transferred on 1 February 1592 to the office of portership of the outer port of the Abbey of Dunfermline for life. This may well have been an honorific title, which he held alongside his pastoral duties in Anstruther.

The Fife Adventurers

In October 1598 Robert Durie, then minister of Anstruther, accompanied the Fife Adventurers to Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides.

Prior to Union of 1603, James VI was chronically short of money and, as ruler of a small, peripheral European state next door to powerful England, had little real power. The turn of the 17th century was a time of great turmoil - the authority of the crown was more or less respected although the King or Queen could be hated, slandered, assaulted, kidnapped and controlled during their minority. The doctrine of Divine Right to rule was being questioned, along with the primacy of Catholic teaching as against the Protestants’ view that the Bible was the word of God and all the teachings anyone needed without the intercession of priests and bishops.

The Reformation had taken away not only power from the Catholic church but also land and revenues, and had given it to the nobles and (to a lesser degree) to the Protestant Church. The King's rule meant even less in the feudal and largely Catholic Highlands and Islands, where the local Lords of Estate and clan chiefs had absolute power of life and death over their chiels and tacksmen and commanded fierce loyalty. The King's Law meant very little in real terms.

This period has been called the time when Scotland moved from Lordship to Patronage from a position where the King could command to one where power was devolved by the grant of warrants in the hope that some profit might come from it. The King sought to acquire feudal incomes by selling indulgencies titles, tribute in kind or as military service, letters patent and Royal Charters to trade and colonise. But all for a cut of the take going to the Crown.

The reasoning was straightforward enough to subjugate and extract taxes from, say, the Outer Hebrides, the king would have to send an expensive army of occupation and also subdue the local Lord or Chief. Where was the profit in that? Better to let others do it and take a percentage. And so it was that, equipped with no more than a Charter from the King and a handful of soldiers, a group calling themselves the Association of Fife Adventurers had three attempts at colonising Lewis and other islands. And all because of greed over the potential profits from fish and barley. Displaying precisely the same hang-it-all attitude that caused their descendants to trample all over America, India, Africa and elsewhere, this ill-matched cluster of profit-seekers headed north on the first of three ruinously expensive forays. Of course, the native Lewismen took a different view.

The succession of events went something like this:

  

bulletDecember 1597 James VI decreed that all who owned land and fisheries in the Highlands & Islands must present their titles to these to the Lords of Exchequer in Edinburgh and to provide security for their future good behaviour. Otherwise, they would face possible confiscation.

bulletMay 1598 Deadline for the above. Among those who did were Torquil Conanach of the Lewis MacLeods, who had wrested the deeds from the late Macleod chief, Torquil Dubh (already declared a rebel) and given them, for safe keeping, to Mackenzie of Kintail. They were not available. The crown immediately moved to possess.

bullet28June 1598 James signed a contract with the "Fife Adventurers" to "plant policy and civilisation in the hitherto most barbarous Isle of Lewis" and to develop the same, with six parish churches plus burghs of barony. Oh yes - and to do so at their own cost but also to provide James with rent in the form of bere barley. Notice that this was seen partly as colonisation, partly as commerce and partly as re-christianisation of the uncontrollable Isles.

bulletNovember 1598 The Adventurers set sail, with tradesmen, 500 or so mercenaries and Robert Durie as their minister, all under the command of the Duke of Lennox, named Lieutenant of Lewis.

bulletDecember 1598 On their arrival, the Adventurers found that the recent clan warfare over succession between Murdoch and Neil MacLeod (bastard son of Ruari) and others, had all but devastated the island. There was some resistance, but Stornoway Castle fell. Murdoch left, but Neil stayed on to harry and fight the settlers.

bulletWinter 1598-99 The cold and damp even rusted the swords. Dysentery was rife. There was no time to build shelters. Food was low. The Lewis islanders did not cooperate. The result was demoralisation. Learmonth of Balcomie sailed home for more supplies, but was attacked and captured by Murdoch and held for ransom. He was freed on the Summer Isles, but died soon after.

bulletKnowing this, Colonel Stewart and Spens of Wormiston tried to complete the provisioning mission, and in their absence Neil attacked the settlers with much killing and burning, to the King's fury.

bulletJuly 1599 Lennox and the Marquis of Huntly (one of the powerful Gordons) were appointed as Lieutenants and Justices in the Highlands and Islands. King James VI authorised stringent measures to bring the islanders to heel. By this time, Neil and Murdoch had fallen out. Neil allied himself with the settlers and was offered a pardon and policies if he delivered up Murdoch. As a token of his good intentions, Neil sent the heads of twelve men to Edinburgh for display on the city gates. Murdoch was imprisoned at Balcomie, tried at St Andrews and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, with his head spiked at the Netherbow. Neil got his free pardon and headed home to his uneasy peace with the settlers.

bullet1600 Parliament ratified the rights of the Adventurers to settle Lewis and other islands and James empowered them to build harbours and collect customs on fish etc in his name. Mackenzie of Kintail, however, was biding his time.

bulletOctober 1600 The Adventurers met at St Andrews and pledged to build a town - which would become Stornoway - and to divvy up the rest of the island. James suggested building inns for travellers, the hospitality on Lewis not being well-regarded, (typical Fifers... first job, open a pub) more churches and a school. Robert Durie was a second time appointed by the presbytery of St Andrews on 2 April 1601 to Lewis “to plant ane kirk” there.

bulletDecember 1601 Neil just could not get along with anybody and in the absence of his half-brother, fell out with Spens, who set out to bring Neil to heel. But Spens himself was captured and 60 men killed. Mackenzie of Kintail then played his knight, in the shape of Tormod MacLeod, brother of the late Torquil Dubh (and Neil's uncle) and, as he calculated, Neil and the islanders rallied round this new chief. They burned the newly-built Stornoway and many settlers surrendered or were killed. They were told they could receive mercy if they turned over their titles, possession and chattels to Tormod and organised him a Royal Pardon. Spens and his son-in-law, Thomas Moneypenny, were held as hostages.

bulletHere endeth the first chapter - the Fife Adventurers were routed, Tormod was Chief of Lewis with Neil as his captain. Robert Durie escaped the slaughter, and leaves the story at this point.
One-Nil to the Lewis men.

bulletJune 1602 James still had a bee in his bonnet and asked Parliament for money to send an army.

bulletMarch 1603 The Fife Adventurers, who really ought to have known better and certainly couldn't afford it, agreed to each provide 30 soldiers, arms and supplies, and to sail again for Lewis by July 1604 and stay a year, under the penalty of £1000. They were also to build a defensible stone dwelling each and pay rent in fish and silver to James. The King, for his part, agreed to possess Lewis by his own forces by the next summer. In the meantime, the Union of the Crowns necessitated James's departure for London.

bulletAugust 1605 The Adventurers set sail again, albeit a year late, but along with the King's army raised in the North and West, to deal with "an infamous bike of lawless limmers". Tormod was offered surrender with a pardon and an audience with the King in London and took it. Neil was more sceptical, but Tormod was daft enough to travel to Edinburgh where he was imprisoned for his pains. Ten years later he was released on the condition that he enter military service with Orange and never return to Scotland. He never did.

bulletSpring 1606 Fresh supplies and seed crops arrived at Lewis, but lack of money led to unpaid tradesmen and soldiers deserting. Neil and 300 men attacked and fired Stornoway. Ruari MacLeod of Harris took the castle (giving it up when he is threatened with declaration as a rebel). However, the settlers left again, cash-strapped and demoralised. Two-Nil to Lewis.

bullet1607 Mackenzie of Kintail played his bishop and had James grant him Lewis. Spens and George Hay (Master of Balmerino in Fife) complained and got the decision revoked, by virtue of Hay's helping the King over the mysterious Gowrie conspiracy.

bulletSummer 1609 Whatever possessed the Fife Adventurers to try again? And this time without the King's support? Neil had ruled Lewis ever since. Balmerino (now a Lord and Secretary of State for Scotland) had been charged with treason, leaving Spens and Hay to go it alone. They had shares in the Company of Adventurers, of course, and may have sought to recover their losses. They and an army landed at Stornoway, as usual, and, equally typically, came under-provisioned. Mackenzie of Kintail offered a cargo of food and weapons, which they accepted. But Mackenzie had also told Neil, who attacked and carries off the ship, doubtless returning it to Mackenzie. In order to save supplies, Hay and Spens dismiss the soldiers defending the settlers and sail for Fife to restock. Neil, predictably, attacked and devastated the settlement. He did allow the settlers to go home, though.
Three-Nil

bullet1610 Spens and Hay, sick to death of it all, decided to cut their losses and sold their rights for 10,000 merks to - three guesses? - Mackenzie of Kintail. The man had barely moved but had taken control of Lewis twice! Neil and his gang were dispatched to Bearasay when they captured the well-known pirate ship Priam with a vast precious cargo. But there was not much to spend gold on in Bearasay (even now!) so Neil offered the prize to the Privy Council, possibly in a hoped-for exchange for Tormod, still in jail. The PC offered Neil safe conduct to Edinburgh to discuss a pardon, but he did not go. That's how Tormod got caught, after all.

bullet1611 Neil landed on Lewis and tried to get the natives to rise against Kintail. They refused. Neil surrendered to Rory Macleod of Harris and ended up in an Edinburgh jail anyway.

bullet1613 Neil was found guilty of fire-raising, murder and theft and his head was spiked where Murdoch's had been 13 years previously. Later Mackenzie got his10,000 merks back by selling Spens and Hay the rights to woods in Letterewe for iron smelting. Hay ran it and Spens stayed in James VI's service, becoming General of the British mercenaries for the Swedish King Gustav Adolphus. Later, he was ennobled by a grateful James as Earl of Kinnoul (1633) having been High Chancellor of Scotland (1622).

Summary The whole episode can be seen as a tussle between the honourable, distinguished and well-meaning Spens; the hooligan with dynastic aspirations, Neil MacLeod; and the only person who really profited was the wily Mackenzie.

Game, set and match to Kintail!

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