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Chapter XVII: Abbot Robert,
1498-1525

The monarch joy'd in banquet bower ;
But 'mid his mirth, 'twas often strange
How suddenly his cheer would change,
His look o'ercast and lower,
If in a sudden turn he felt
The pressure of his iron belt
That bound his breast in penance pain
In memory of his father slain.

                                               —Scott.


IN the same year in which Abbot George transferred the mitre to his nephew, there died within the Abbey precincts one who had been famous enough in his time, and who in the world had led a troubled and stormy life, under the name of John, Earl of Ross, Lord of the Isles. When the King visited the Monastery he saw the old warrior in the black Benedictine dress, and must have looked upon him with interest, for he had given the reigning family much trouble in his day. The island lord was born a conspirator. In the time of the King's grandfather, when but a boy, he had entered into an alliance with certain seditious nobles, [1] and had broken into open rebellion, seizing the Royal castle of Urquhart, Inverness-shire, and burning the stronghold of Ruthven in Badenoch,—the ruins of which the traveller sees as he speeds along the Northern railway, near the village of Kingussie. Later on, the chief sent from his island territories a fleet of a hundred galleys, manned by five thousand of his vassals, which made a raid along the western coast of Scotland, reaching the Firth of Clyde, levying black mail in Bute, and wasting the islands of Cumbrae and Arran with fire and sword. [2] After a period of strife he laid-down his arms and sought the Royal mercy, which was extended to him, and to prove his gratitude he attended at the siege of Roxburgh with a contingent of wild highlanders to support the King. [3] Two years later he again girded on his armour against his Sovereign. He proclaimed himself King of the Hebrides; and as an independent potentate, entered into alliance with the English King Edward, sending his Ambassadors to Westminster, and making an agreement with the English monarch for a joint invasion of Scotland, after the conquest of which he was to be rewarded with a gift of the northern part of the kingdom, “to the Scots water or Frith of Forth.” [4] This attempt ended in failure, and the insurgent chieftain appeared a second time before his Sovereign at Edinburgh in 1476, and a second time received the Royal pardon, though he was deprived of the Earldom of Ross and the territories of Knapdale and Cantire. Six years afterwards he again renewed secret negotiations with England, [5] and forfeiture was denounced against him in the vigorous reign of James the Fourth. His lordship of the Isles was taken from him, and his wild territories reduced to order. A third time he petitioned for and obtained the Royal pardon, [6] but this time he was forbidden to return again to the regions which he had troubled. The tourist who, in the bright summer time is carried pleasantly through the Sound of Mull, sees the ruined walls of his castle of Ardtornish upon a rock overhanging the sea. It had long been the abode of this proud island lord and of his forefathers, where he had ruled like a prince, and maintained a barbaric sovereignty. Thither he was never to come back. One of his old friends, with whom he had entered into more than one conspiracy, the Earl of Douglas, had been condemned to pass the evening of his life in the convent of Lindores, [7] and the Lord of the Isles was sent in like manner to Paisley. [8] “He that can do no better,” said the aged Earl in the bitterness of his soul, as he heard his sentence, “must needs be a monk.” His old ally, John of the Isles, would feel the same as he laid aside for ever his coat of mail, and assumed the monkish cowl. In the Paisley cloister he perhaps found the peace and rest to which he had been long a stranger. He did not survive his confinement many years. In 1498 he died [9] and was buried, not like his forefathers in St. Oran's aisle in Iona, but in the choir of Paisley, and, at his own request, beside the tomb of King Robert the Third, one who, like himself, had tasted the bitterness of disappointment, and had closed life amid deepening shadows.


[1] The Earls of Douglas and Crawford, 1449.
[2] Tytler, Vol. II., p. 166.
[3] Tytler, A.D. 1460, Vol. II., p. 185.
[4] Burton's Hist. cii, Scot., Vol. III., p. 3.
[5] Scott's Hist. of Scot.
[6] 1494, Tytler.
[7] Lindores Abbey, by Mr. Laing, p. 113.
[8] Donald Gregory's History of the Western Highlands and Islands, Edinburgh, 1863, p. 58.
[9] Reg. de Pas., Introduction.