The Chain Mail

Welcome to The Chain Mail - a visitor’s guide to the sights and sounds of Historic Scotland

Oh Mother!


In celebration of Mother’s Day, here are some of the good mothers, the bad mothers and the other mothers of Scottish history.

BAD MOTHER – HELGA (c. 900s)

The Orkneyinga Saga tells that Helga was the mother of two Earls of Orkney, Harald and Paul. Power over the islands was split between them, but Helga favoured Harald. With her sister, Frakokk, she made a beautiful, white, poisoned shirt to kill Paul. When Harald saw the glorious garment, he wanted it for himself. His mother chastised him for coveting fine clothes, but he put it on anyway, and swiftly died in agony. Paul, realising the shirt was meant for him, exiled his mother and aunt to Sutherland.


St Margaret is Scotland’s only royal saint, as well as being a very unusual one. Most female saints were known for their chastity, but St Margaret was a devoted wife and a mother. She married Malcolm III in 1069, and had eight children – including three future kings of Scotland, and a future queen of England. She founded a priory at Dunfermline, which developed into a great abbey and royal palace. Later queens chose to give birth there, protected by the power of St Margaret.

Stained-glass at St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh Castle


Joan Beaufort was the queen of James I, and mother of eight children. In February 1437, the royal couple were attacked at Perth. The king was assassinated, but Joan managed to escape, wounded in the shoulder. In the ensuing commotion she managed to reach Edinburgh, and her children. She hastily had her son crowned James II at Holyrood Abbey.

Holyrood Abbey

The years that followed were a fight to keep her son with her, and to protect her own position. The Livingston and Crichton families were relentless in their attempts to gain control of the king, and Joan struggled to outwit them. Once, telling everyone that she was going on a pilgrimage to Whitekirk in East Lothian, she actually headed north to the safety of Stirling Castle.  In 1439 the Livingstons imprisoned Joan, her new husband and his brother. They seized control of the king.


Lady Margaret Campbell was undoubtedly devoted to her son, though her actions have left a dark souvenir for history. She was the mother of the ‘Bonnie Earl of Murray’ – James Stewart, 2nd Lord Doune and 2nd Earl of Moray, who was murdered by George Gordon, 1st Marquis of Huntly at Donibristle Castle in Fife. She had his corpse taken to Leith, where he lay unburied for many months while his supporters pursued justice for his death. She commissioned a painting of his body, showing the events of that dark night, the wounds he received, and the words ‘God Revenge My Caus’. Despite her efforts, Huntly never stood trial. The family home was Doune Castle,  and a popular ballad laments the young earl’s passing:

‘O lang will his lady
Look oer the castle Down
Eer she see the Earl of Murray
Come sounding thro the town!’

Painting of James Stewart, 2nd Lord Doune and 2nd Earl of Moray



About Author

Sally Gall

Sally works in the Interpretation Unit, and loves the writing and research involved in telling tales of the castles, abbeys, cairns and factories in our care – especially when this involves folklore and music.


  1. Teon Blake – Stewart : Being a decendant of king James it saddens me to read of his demise – How they searched for him like scavenging rats , to plunge thirsty knives into unarmed flesh. Elder King James Stewart passed down royal land to us on the gold coast next to Simon cowell, to the Rothchilds estate where we are developing luxury apartments (five acres smaller than ours in st james Barbados ) , I will forever celebrate our lineage – I share his passion , & for the word and art . I find solace in the fact he too was loyal to that divine spirit within. Such power , they killed God in flesh -Good going Joan – Rip elder. X

    • Mr./Sir Teon,
      I would really like to know more about your relation to King James! I read an article where you were surprised to know that the correct information about him was false, and that nothing is taught about him in History books.
      My people are hurting here in America. We have nothing on which to lay our pride. What is taught about us, here in America, doesn’t go back any further than slavery in the 16th century. I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that King James was also murdered around the time of the Transatlantic slave trade.

      • Yes I believe if in fact if he was of colour which some sources suggest as we have discussed over email, having that symbol of empowerment may have been a problem . it was illegal to be free and of colour let alone sit on the throne , and rule with divine right ; O- , simply in our blood.

        Teon Blake – Stewart

    • It really depends on which region you’re interested in, as traditions vary widely across Scotland – especially between the Gaelic, Scots and Norse traditions. However, as a good starting place I’d recommend The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Traditional Literatures – it draws on many sources of tale and ballad, and would provide a good idea of which other books to read. The Penguin Classics Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales from Burns to Buchan is also a good general starting place for traditional tales. I.F. Grant’s Highland Folk Ways is an incredible resource for anything to do with highland culture, beliefs and traditions.

Leave A Reply