Ask the historians: Who was the cruellest figure in Scottish history?

Assassin Count Walter Leslie, advocate and politician Sir Henry Dundas, explorer and mass murderer Angus McMillan and King Edward I have all been nominated by historians as the cruellest figures in Scottish history. PICS: Creative Commons.
Assassin Count Walter Leslie, advocate and politician Sir Henry Dundas, explorer and mass murderer Angus McMillan and King Edward I have all been nominated by historians as the cruellest figures in Scottish history. PICS: Creative Commons.
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In our new occasional series, we ask Scotland's historians key questions about our country's past and its people.

Today, we try and find out who was the cruellest figure from our history with the answers including an English king, an assassin, an explorer turned mass murderer and an 18th Century Lord Advocate and supporter of slavery.

Historian: Professor Murray Pittock, British cultural historian at Glasgow University

Answer: Edward I, Hammer of the Scots

Scotland’s history can often depict a hard and cruel place, but there has never been a Stalin, Ivan

the Terrible or Robespierre in charge.

The Reformation itself was carried out with little bloodshed compared to the situation elsewhere. We now think that 4000 witches may have been executed in Scotland, almost 10% of the European total, but this was the cruelty of a society, not an individual, as was Scotland’s engagement in the slave trade

READ MORE: Robert the Bruce: myths busted
Cumberland after Culloden would be an easy target: but in terms of numbers of non-combatants killed or displaced, he pales into insignificance beside Scottorum Malleus, the hammer of the Scots, Edward I (1239-1307).

Even for the era, his brutality to Bruce’s family was unusual in its cruelty, while the annihilation of the

entire civilian population of Berwick - estimated between 5000 and 15000 - despite the garrison’s

surrender was-if not unknown elsewhere-unusual in Scottish history.

At Stirling in 1304, ignoring the castle’s surrender, Edward ordered his giant siege engine WarWolf, a trebuchet which could throw rocks of up to 140kg, to smash the gate and wall with the garrison still inside.

Underpinning these and other acts of cruelty was his determination to treat the Scots as rebels to

English authority rather than combatants from another kingdom.

Historian : Professor Marjory Harper, chair in history at the University of Aberdeen

Answer: Angus McMillan, explorer and mass murderer

The name of Angus McMillan (1810-65) would probably not appear in a catalogue of Scottish murderers, since his crimes were not committed in his native land.

His story is a chilling reminder that emigrant Scots were sometimes a disgrace rather than an asset to their adopted countries and communities.

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McMillan, a Skye-born Highlander who in 1838 left Barra for Australia, was the ringleader of a notorious massacre at Warrigal Creek in Gippsland, Victoria. On a single day in July 1843, McMillan and his so-called ‘Highland Brigade’ avenged the murder of a local settler by shooting dead up to 150 Indigenous men, women and children.

It was not an isolated atrocity, since, like many of his contemporaries, McMillan believed Aboriginal people were almost sub-human, and he was associated with a number of other massacres in Victoria during the 1840s.

It is perhaps particularly ironic that an individual who had witnessed the dislocating impact of the Highland

clearances should himself perpetrate a much more brutal clearance as he sought, by outright

butchery, verging on genocide, to expand his sheep farming empire on the other side of the world.

Historian: Dr David Worthington, head of the Centre for History at the University of Highlands and Islands

Answer: Count Walter Leslie, Scots-born Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Aberdeenshire assassin

While ‘cruel’ is too simple a term for him, Count Walter Leslie (1606-67) has often been viewed as such. He has even been described as a ‘vulture’ in one account.

Leslie was a younger son of the tenth Baron of Balquhain, Aberdeenshire, and shot to fame (or notoriety) in 1634 for helping to engineer the assassination of the leading central European general of the Thirty Years’ War, Albrecht von Wallenstein.

Many were horrified by Leslie and his cronies’ actions. But the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna was impressed.

The emperor awarded him estates confiscated from Wallenstein and his allies, and made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire within three years. Leslie didn’t lose sight of Scotland, but is remembered more for his poor estate management, and for his astonishing rise within the ranks of what was a new, ‘trans-territorial’ nobility in that part of Europe.

He positioned himself as a loyal servant of the emperor, and is an exemplar of how the more skilled and fortunate newcomers to that nobility used the art and architecture of the Baroque, and their language abilities (Leslie picked up German and Italian with apparent ease) to cement their place within it.

Historian: Sir Geoff Palmer, expert in Scotland's role in the slave trade

Answer: Sir Henry Dundas, advocate, Tory politician and

Edinburgh-born Henry Dundas, the Ist Viscount Melville (1742-1811), used his vast political power to suppress the rights of human beings and has been labelled a tyrant as a result.

In 1776 as Lord Advocate, Dundas reaffirmed his racism during the Joseph Knight servant court when he said that 'every black man' in a British slave colony was legally a slave.

As Home Secretary in 1792, he successfully persuaded Parliament that the slave trade should be “gradually” rather than “immediately” abolished, causing about 630,000 African people to be transported into British chattel slavery.

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Dundas also professed that his unlimited delay of the slave trade gave slave owners time to breed their slaves.

Abolitionist William Wilberforce described Dundas as “most false and double” while Robert Burns said he was “slee”.

As Secretary of State for War, Dundas progressed a war in San Domingo (now Haiti) to protect British financial interests in slavery in Jamaica. During this war, that was waged between 1793 and 1798, about 40, 000 British troops lost their lives .

However, in his own interests, he ‘mismanaged’ millions of pounds of Naval funds and was impeached but acquitted by his House of Lords peers in 1806. This impeachment ended his political career.

False national pride, in some quarters, has defended Dundas’ ‘despotism and malversation’ as necessary deeds of the past but the past has consequences such as the slavery-derived racism of both the N-word and social exclusion.

To help change these consequences, the narrative on a new plaque for the 140 ft ill-considered monument to Dundas in Edinburgh, is being written by an Edinburgh Council Plaque Group of which I am a member.

Sadly, this revision has been delayed without validity. However, this new plaque must include Dundas’ role in prolonging the evils of British slavery. The sufferings of millions of black chattel slaves deserve honest and open recognition.

Historian: Dr Iain MacInnes, Senior Lecturer in Scottish History, University of Highlands and Islands

Answer: Edward I

We can surely look no further than Edward I. His army sacked the town of Berwick-upon Tweed in 1296 and massacred its inhabitants.

He took a personal hatred towards specific individuals, such as William Wallace and Simon Fraser, both of whom following their capture suffered the full horror of English treason executions. And following Robert Bruce’s rebellion in 1306 the old king once again took a personal approach to matters, ordering that all who joined Bruce’s rebellion should face severe punishment.

READ MORE: Call to save letter written by Robert the Bruce
Bruce’s brother, Neil, as well as his brother-in-law, Christopher Seton, were hanged, drawn and quartered. His religious supporters, Bishop Wishart of Glasgow and Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews, were imprisoned in chains.

Bruce’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjory were sent to the confines of English convents and castles. And Isabella, countess of Fife, and the king’s sister, Mary, were placed in cages and exposed to public view in the English-held castles of Berwick and Roxburgh.

He was not cruel all the time. Other Scots were allowed to surrender. But these examples demonstrate a distinctive vindictive streak towards those who opposed his will and, as such, mark him out as one of the cruellest figures in Scottish History.