The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

A Historical Poem

’TWAS in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.

Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.

Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.

After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,

When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.

He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.

From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.

Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.

As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.

Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.

He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.

On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.

Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.

And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.

Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.

Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.


James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose (1612-1650) was one of the most skillful leaders to espouse the King’s cause during the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. In 1638 he signed the Covenant protesting at King Charles’ intervention in Scottish religious affairs and fought in the “Bishops Wars” against the King. However he became increasingly disillusioned with the policies of the covenanter leadership who, when the English civil war broke out south of the border in 1642 generally sided with Parliament against Charles I.

When a Covenanter army marched south in 1644 to support Parliament in force, Montrose decided to act. Going into the highlands, he raised an army of 3,500 men and proceeded to run rings around every army that the Covenanters sent at him. Victories were won at Tippermuir, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth often against superior numbers of enemy troops. By August 1645 all Scotland was at his mercy. However, in England the King’s fortunes were in terminal decline after the disasterous defeat at Naseby on 14th June 1645. Support for Montrose dwindled and he was defeated and forced to flee into exile by David Leslie’s returning Covenanter army.

When the shocking news of the Charles I’s execution in 1649 reached the exiled royalist court, Montrose persuaded Charles II to dub him Lieutenant-Governor of Scotland and send him with 1200 hired mercenaries to raise the Highlands for their King. On arrival he found the clans reluctant to follow him against such odds and was easily defeated at Carbisdale on 27th April 1650. Although he escaped the field he was betrayed to his enemies by Neil McLeod of Assynt and taken to Edinburgh. Disowned by Charles II, who by this time was negotiating with the Covenanters for them to take up his cause, he was condemned to death for treason on 20th May and executed the following day.

The execution was carried out pretty much as McGonagall describes it. The Edinburgh mob, who might have been expected to side with Montrose’s enemies were reportedly much moved by his noble bearing under such trying circumstances. Clarendon the (royalist) historian describes the scene thus in his History of the Great Rebellion:

The next day they executed every part and circumstance of that barbarous sentence with all the inhumanity imaginable; and he bore it with all the courage and magnanimity, and the greatest piety, that a good Christian could manifest. He magnified the virtue, courage, and religion of the last King, exceedingly commended the justice and goodness and understanding of the present King, and prayed that they might not betray him as they had his father. When he had ended all he meant to say, and was expecting to expire, they had yet one scene to act of their tyranny. The hangman brought the book that had been published of his truly heroic actions whilst he had commanded in that kingdom, which book was tied in a small cord that was put about his neck. The marquis smiled at this new instance of thir malice, and thanked them for it; and said he was pleased that it should be there, and was prouder wearing it than ever he had been of the Garter; and so renewing some devout ejaculations, he patiently endured the last act of the executioner.

Further Reading

Wikipedia Article

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Comments (2) »

  1. Angie T
    In the year 2013, on the 23rd day of November at 5:05 pm

    Another one which, although written in the usual McGonagall style, somehow manages to skilfully capture the human pathos of an event. I especially like
    “While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
    And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please”, which so cleverly shows the victim’s wry sense of humour.
    Also, whatever people might say about McGonagall’s poetry, how many other writers have so easily found a rhyme for “toilet”!

  2. Angie T
    In the year 2013, on the 23rd day of November at 5:15 pm

    This is a good biography of the Marquis from his society’s website:

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