The group of mounted men made their way up the rocky path in the dark. Among them were two boys, one sixteen and the other ten. Wrapped in winter wool to hide from the cold November wind, their riding skills reflected the fact that they had been in the saddle as long as they could walk. Torches were held aloft to light the way as they slowly climbed to the top of the volcanic crag. Against the fading twilight they could just make out the squared off top of their destination, Edinburgh Castle.
Sixteen year old William was the 6th Earl of Douglas and cousin to the ten year old King James II who now reigned. Despite his young age, he was a man by the standards of the time, well knowing of his role and determined to honor it. William and his ten year old brother David were legitimate heirs to the Scottish throne in their own right as, like James, they descended from King Robert III. They had been invited here by the young king and his advisors in the hopes of establishing a type of peace that would stabilize the Scottish throne after years of infighting.
“Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower, God grant ye sink for sin;
And that even for the black-dinner, Earl Douglas gat therin.”
It is known that what followed was a lavish feast, a celebration of unity. The young king and his cousins got along very well and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. One after the other, various courses were brought forward and presented as the dinner continued. No doubt, huge fires were raging in the vast stone fireplaces to keep out the winter chill. Perhaps a harpist played in the corner, while a bard provided a soft monologue. Or maybe it was rowdier, with the sounds of dinner being devoured by burly clansmen – we may never know for sure what the atmosphere was like. What is known is that, at some point, a final dish was brought forth and presented to the young Earl Douglas. As it was revealed, silence must have fallen across the room. It was the decapitated head of a black bull – known since time immortal as the symbol of death.
Chaos must have ensued as the king’s men came forward and seized the young earl and his brother. The king himself began yelling for a reprieve for his young cousins and new friends, but this was the orchestrated plan of men, not boys – men who had no intention of peace. There was to be no reprieve. Both boys were given a quick trial and condemned before being brought forward and summarily beheaded that same night. What became known as the Black Dinner was seared into the history books from that day forward.
Today when you visit Edinburgh Castle, very little remains of the castle as it would have been during the fifteenth century. It has been overtaken by time and subsequent building. However, you can get a feel for what it might have been like by entering the ruins of David’s Tower. This gutted rock tower is possibly where the Black Dinner took place all those centuries ago. If atmosphere is evidence, this is the place – it is haunting – a cold, dark, damp hole into history that makes you believe men would kill children all in the name of power.
– All photos by author. Author of quote, unknown.