On 18 May 1650, the Marquess of Argyle was hosting a wedding party on the occasion of his son's marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Moray - the venue was Moray House, a grand townhouse on the Canongate, which had been built in 1625 and was at one time described as the most handsome house in the whole of Edinburgh.
Just as today you might hire a country house hotel for your family wedding, Moray House was a sumptuous setting for the nuptials, with spectacular gardens to the rear with views that overlooked Arthur's Seat, and on the front of the building a stone balcony which allowed those inside the building to look out onto the bustling Canongate.
Later that same year the house would be requisitioned by Oliver Cromwell as he brought the English army to Edinburgh, en route to take Edinburgh Castle, but in the late spring May sunshine an almost equally dramatic event was about to unfold on the balcony which can still be seen from the Royal Mile today.
The date of the Argyll family wedding coincided with the date of the execution of the Marquess of Montrose, a long-time enemy of the Argylls. The two families had fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, with Montrose supporting the English forces whilst Argyll defended the integrity and culture of Scotland. Montrose had been captured some weeks prior to the Argyll wedding, had been put on trial for treason, and having been found guilty as a traitor to Scotland was sentenced to be executed at St Giles' Cathedral, in the heart of the city.
There are differing versions of what may have transpired that day, but the more dramatic telling of the story which I favour has it that Argyll saw the opportunity to make a bold statement of vengeance against his enemy, and had arranged with the prison authorities for the prisoner Montrose to be brought down to Moray House before the execution, and to have him dropped in the roadway beneath the balcony, where tour buses and visitors pass by today.
All the guests at the wedding were then invited out onto the balcony, to spit onto Montrose, to show their contempt for him, and their commitment to the Argyll family. And then, having been roundly spat on, Montrose was dragged back up the Royal Mile to St Giles' Cathedral where his execution took place.
So, not a good day for Montrose, but everyone at the Argyll wedding said it was the best one they'd ever been to!
Montrose's head was removed and his limbs distributed to Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Aberdeen as a warning to other would-be traitors. His head was placed on the highest spike above the Tolbooth prison of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately for Argyll, the political tables in Scotland were ever turning, and almost ten years to the day later, in 1661, Montrose's corpse was being dug up from its grave - and his limbs returned from the four cities - to be given a commemorative funeral procession through the city, followed by burial inside St Giles' (where his tomb can still be seen today).
It was now Argyll's turn to face execution for treason! On 27 May 1661, Argyll was executed on the Maiden, the guillotine that can still be seen in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, with his head being placed on the same spike that had held the head of his enemy Montrose for the previous decade. A memorial to Argyll can also be found within St Giles' Cathedral today.
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