01 January 2021
Shona Sinclair explores the links between Mary Queen of Scots and the medieval building in Jedburgh which bears her name and welcomes thousands of visitors every year.
Set in the heart of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, Mary Queen of Scots’ House is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the town. It has been run as a museum since the 1930s and for the last 30 years has focused on telling the life story of Scotland’s romantic but tragic queen, Mary Stuart.
The house itself has an interesting history. Built sometime during the 15th century it was one of several fortified towers built to replace Jedburgh Castle which was demolished in 1409. Jedburgh’s position just 12 miles north of the Border made it vulnerable to attack from the English and these houses together with four ports (gates) enabled the town to be defended from all directions.
Mary's arrival in Jedburgh
When Mary Queen of Scots arrived in Jedburgh in October 1566 to preside over a Circuit Court in Jedburgh, she was accompanied by a large retinue and the party would have needed a number of buildings to accommodate them all.
It is reported that fire broke out in Mary’s first lodging, forcing her to move. We know that Mary paid Lady Ferniehirst, £40 Scots for the rent of the fortified Lord Compositor’s house in Jedburgh. Gradually, over the years, all the other fortified houses disappeared, leaving Mary Queen of Scots’ House inextricably linked to the Queen and her visit.
Mary Queen of Scots and Jedburgh
The Royal Burgh of Jedburgh played a central role in the drama of Mary’s life. Her visit here in 1566 was a turning-point. After that, her life unravelled under the political and religious forces of the time. Before her death, she is famously said to have remarked:
‘Would that I had died in Jedburgh’
Mary very nearly did die here. For several days, she lay critically ill with fever caught on a journey to visit her favourite lieutenant (and future third husband), the Earl of Bothwell who had been wounded whilst bringing to justice some of the notorious Border Reivers. Her nearly 50-mile round trip on horseback through the wild Border hills to Hermitage Castle fed the scandal and intrigue that damaged her reputation and eventually brought about her downfall.
Why did Mary come to Jedburgh? And why did her visit turn out to be such a watershed in her short turbulent life? The museum tells her story, from her carefree early years in France to her captivity and eventual execution at the age of 44. In particular, it looks at the month she spent in Jedburgh, when she was 23 years old and at the height of her popularity.
Mary's treasured possessions
Artefacts on display have been collected over the years to reflect the long lasting ‘cult of Mary’. From a lock of her hair discovered in a bureau in Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh to a thimble and watch said to have been lost by Mary during her ride to and from Hermitage Castle. A centrepiece of the displays is a poignant death mask which gives a moving insight into the story of this spirited woman. Climb the quirky left handed staircase and enjoy the beautiful garden setting whilst you discover the life and times of Scotland’s queen.
The Centre is open to the public from March to end November each year and receives approximately 28,000 visitors per season. There is no admission charge made and tour groups are welcome. For more information visit the website or call 01835 863331.