Roy Calley: In the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots.
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I think I’ve been fascinated with Mary (or Marie if you live in France like me) for as long as I can remember. I know when it started but I’m not sure how it started. The when is easy. I was taken to the cinema when I was around 11 by my teenage cousin to see the 1971 film of Mary’s life starring Vanessa Redgrave (as Mary) and Glenda Jackson (as Elizabeth I). I only went because the boy she had just met stood her up, but I remember it so clearly and it was that moment that started this crazy obsession. The why though is not so clear. I’m English and I’ve never lived in Scotland or had any connection to the country, and today I now live in the South of France and not the north where Marie spent most of her childhood, so again there’s little to connect us. I can’t say I was particularly engrossed in the story on that night sat next to my older and more knowledgeable cousin, and Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal was excellent, but by the very nature of time, there seems little in the way of physical similarity with the contemporary paintings of Mary (although very few appear to show her legendary beauty – at least to our 21st century standards), so I wasn’t entranced by that either.

What I do know is that since then I have avidly collected as many books on her as I could afford and then keep, including some first editions, even though the story has never changed. I then visited as many castles, palaces and chateaux as I could in Scotland, England and France, usually boring family members and friends. This included the regular attempts to visit a Marie-related chateau in Paris and surrounding areas, constantly forgetting that they always close on Tuesdays. Even now I continue to make the same mistake, and I live in France. Over the past year I have revisited these places as research for my book and have enjoyed every second of it, regarding it as an act of love as opposed to any frustrating chore. I’ve regularly felt Mary’s presence when I’ve walked around the ruins of buildings that were so imposing in the 16th century, yet today are now regarded as just tourist traps. That ‘presence’ has taken many forms and normally not in the places that were expected.

Holyrood Palace is an obvious place to explore and research her life, especially as the rooms that saw the shocking murder of her secretary Riccio and where Mary entertained her second husband Darnley have been so lovingly and expertly restored, yet for me it’s the other places where I feel she still exists in whatever form you believe in. At Lochleven Castle I stood in the courtyard and looked out to the lake and imagined the water lapping against the walls as it did 500 years ago. Today the levels have receded and so there is a pleasant picnic area where once there was water. It was there that she heard about her son James being crowned as regent and she wept floods of tears as the hopelessness of her situation overwhelmed her. At Hermitage Castle I stood in the bleak but spectacular surroundings and wondered how on earth anyone could manage to live in such an isolated spot, and marvelled at the journey she had made to visit her future husband Bothwell from Jedburgh. I’d driven the 26 miles that morning, yet Mary rode there and back in a day, something that gave ammunition to those who thought the two were involved in a love affair, when in my opinion they were anything but.

At Fotheringhay I looked at nothing, because nothing exists. The place where Mary drew her last breath, spoke her last words and looked at her last image, is now a completely empty space. There is no castle, there are no signs or plaques and there seems to be no knowledge of the tumultuous events that took place there on 8 February 1587. My imagination worked overtime as I tried to replace the scene of rolling countryside and a gently flowing river with the fortress that surrounded the end of Mary Stuart’s life. A sadder place I haven’t visited or seen in recent years.

It’s at Bolton Castle in the north of England where I had my most intimate encounter with the woman who has stayed with me longer than any modern-day relationship. I remain convinced to this day that I had a conversation with her as I sat on a stone bench in the gardens looking at the hills that separate England and a distant Scotland. It was mundane at best, relating the time it would take me to make the journey to Edinburgh compared to her tortuous travels. It wasn’t in my mind I’m sure as it was ‘somewhere else’ and I’m absolutely certain it took place. (As an aside, I’m pretty sure I had another conversation with her when I was taking photographs for the book in 2017, but I might just be asking for your indulgence a little bit too much if I relate that too). The point is, that all of the castles, palaces, gardens and chateaux that had Mary’s (Marie’s) footsteps have left behind a trace of her, yet in the brief reign in Scotland, not a single building was commissioned by her or built for her except a small bath-house in the gardens of Holyrood Palace.

As I travelled around Scotland (something which is always a pleasure due to the friendliness of the people and the spectacular scenery) I did reflect on how different Mary’s Scotland was to the one we see today. In her day, the country was effectively a treeless landscape with many of the huge woods and forests appearing in later centuries. Carberry Hill where she was abandoned by Bothwell as her depleted army faced the Lords in a stand-off that resulted in her inevitable capture, was completely bare of trees, yet is now surrounded by a wonderful forest. There were lochs that criss-crossed the country, making travel a hazardous experience no matter what the conditions. Most of these lochs have now disappeared with the onset of modern development, and it was a much colder place then too. For an Englishman like me, living on the French Riviera, that’s hard to believe, but the 16th century was in the midst of a mini ice-age and so even the summers were a trial. For someone who shivered his way through a Scottish December, I have the utmost admiration.

My book isn’t a biography. I couldn’t possibly add to what has been written by far more talented writers than me. It’s not even a tourist book as it explains the history of the buildings and attractions as opposed to why you should visit. It’s really a combination of the two. The idea is that you can pick any location, read about it and hopefully learn a little and then visit, whether you’re a Mary (Marie) watcher like me, or just someone who likes history. Maybe you’ll then have that experience of a whisper of the past, but I don’t expect you to have a full-blown conversation about travelling with my heroine. I hope you like it.

On the Trail of Mary, Queen of Scots by Roy Calley is published by Amberley Publishing, £20, out now