This One Is Full o’ Piss and Vinegar…

I had a hard time using the word, “piss” in my title, since in Canada it is, or was, a vulgarism.  Mind you, the expression, “Piss off” to inform someone that you are no longer enjoying their company–or perhaps that you are having difficulty believing something they’ve said–is fairly commonplace now.

It used to be that when I heard someone in the U.K. asking, in polite company, if someone were ‘taking the piss,’ I’d feel a teensy bit startled for a split second.  It is, as I discovered, another fairly commonplace expression, and simply means ‘are you being facetious?’ or ‘are you pulling my leg?’

I also used to be a bit surprised when my U.K. friends and relatives would ask to use the ‘toilet’…since the ‘t’ word is rigorously avoided in Canadian culture.  We will ask for ‘the ladies’ or men’s room’ or ‘the rest room’ or ‘the washroom’ before we’ll ask for ‘the toilet.’  In fact, we’d probably pee ourselves before asking for that.  I will always ask for ‘the loo’ when I’m in the U.K., because I still can’t bring myself to ask for the toilet.  When I first visited Scotland back in the 1970s and asked one of my husband’s aunties if I could use the washroom, she was a little perplexed that I suddenly wanted to do some laundry a few short hours after my arrival.

Anyhow, it’s all to do with accepted word usages, and it’s just that some words did not become commonplace in Canada (within my experience).  We talk about toilets to our plumbers and that’s it.  In the U.K., the word ‘toilet’ probably means the room where the toilet is located, and not necessarily the fixture itself—although I’m not absolutely sure.  We in Canada would expect it to mean the actual receptacle, and so by asking for it by name, everyone within hearing might then know what we intend doing when we get to ‘the washroom’—and, good heavens, we can’t have people knowing that!

We, as Canadians, believe that the necessity to perform bodily functions, even though in a hygienic manner, should be disguised by every means possible.  I suppose that’s why women (in North America, at least), used to excuse themselves from the table at a restaurant by saying that they needed to ‘powder their nose’ or ‘freshen up.’  Perhaps the fact that women habitually retired to the ladies’ room in pairs was to reinforce the notion that the purpose of the trip was for hairdo and makeup restoration.  Chances of two people needing to use the plumbing fixtures at precisely the same time would be remote, right?  So by venturing forth together, one woman would be a cover for the other.

“How on earth did she get onto THIS topic,” you say?  Good question.  I’ve been mentally cooking up an article on vinegar, and wanted to pair it with something.  So I thought, “What goes with vinegar?”  I expect you can answer that by now.

I suppose we don’t know the first appearance of the expression ‘full of piss and vinegar,’ but John Steinbeck used it in his 1938 novel, The Grapes of Wrath:

Grampa walked up and slapped Tom on the chest, and his eyes grinned  with affection and pride.

“How are ya, Tommy?”

“O.K.,” said Tom. “How ya keepin’ yaself?”

“Full a piss an’ vinegar,” said Grampa.

…which generally means, ‘full of vim and vigour,’ apparently, although I’ve been under the impression that it meant, ‘feisty’ (spirited, plucky, gutsy, etc.).  Similar, but not quite the same thing.

And at this point we shall switch from piss to urine, shall we?  (If you don’t want to go there, I will understand…Bye for now, and have a nice day.)

Urine and vinegar have both been around a very long time, and humans have apparently wanted to put them to beneficial use whenever possible.  This has required a great deal of experimentation, as you might imagine.

We know where urine comes from, so let’s talk about where vinegar comes from.

The word vinegar comes from the French word vinaigre (vin for wine and aigre for sour).  Bacteria spores in the air convert a fermented liquid into a weak form of acetic acid.  So basically it is this second fermentation of sugars or starches while the liquid is exposed to air that produces vinegar.  Vinegar can come from the juice of sweet fruits and grains such as barley (malt beer), apple (cider) and grape (wine), yet it can also be made from roots or wood (often the base of white distilled vinegar).

As for how we use vinegar, we have records dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) recommended a vinegar preparation for cleaning ulcerations and for the treatment of sores.  Also, a popular medicine composed of honey and vinegar was prescribed for persistent coughs and other uses…

On the Articulations, by Hippocrates, written 400 BC, translation by Francis Adams:  “The treatment, if no fever be present, consists in the administration of hellebore, but otherwise it is not to be given, but oxyglyky (decoction of honeycombs and vinegar) is to be given for drink, if required.”  []

Today, vinegar is being investigated for cardiovascular benefits, improved calcium absorption, antitumor effects in cancer, and so forth.  Home remedies suggest vinegar as a treatment for ALL sorts…arthritis, hemorrhoids, insect bites, athlete’s foot, you-name-it.

Modern medicine (non-home-remedy) findings on the benefits of vinegar are interesting…

Blood Pressure Regulation, Cardiovascular Disease, and Vinegar:

In the rat model, acetic acid administration enhanced calcium absorption and retention; moreover, in humans, calcium absorption in the distal colon was enhanced by acetate. Clearly, much work is needed to establish whether vinegar ingestion alters calcium absorption and/or blood pressure regulation in humans.

Whether chronic vinegar ingestion affects other risk factors for cardiovascular disease in humans is not known.  Hu and colleagues reported a significantly lower risk for fatal ischemic heart disease among participants in the Nurses’ Health Study who consumed oil-and-vinegar salad dressings frequently (5-6 times or more per week) compared with those who rarely consumed them…”  []

Good enough reason to use oil-and-vinegar salad dressings!

Cancer and Vinegar:

In a separate trial, mice fed a rice-shochu vinegar-fortified feed (0.3% to 1.5% w/w) or control diet were inoculated with sarcoma 180 (group 1) or colon 38 (group 2) tumor cells (2 x 106 cells subcutaneously).  At 40 days post-inoculation, vinegar-fed mice in both experimental groups had significantly smaller tumor volumes when compared with their control counterparts. A prolonged life span due to tumor regression was also noted in the mice ingesting rice-shochu vinegar as compared with controls, and in vitro, the rice-shochu vinegar stimulated natural killer cell cytotoxic activity.

The antitumor factors in vinegar have not been identified.


Thus, because acetic acid in vinegar deprotonates in the stomach to form acetate ions, it may possess antitumor effects.

Reducing Cancer Risk with Vinegar:

Vinegars are also a dietary source of polyphenols, compounds synthesized by plants to defend against oxidative stress. Ingestion of polyphenols in humans enhances in vivo antioxidant protection and reduces cancer risk.

A case-control study conducted in Linzhou, China, demonstrated that vinegar ingestion was associated with a decreased risk for esophageal cancer.  However, vinegar ingestion was associated with a 4.4-fold greater risk for bladder cancer in a case-control investigation in Serbia. []

Well, the fact that vinegar DOES have antitumor factors is all I need to know.  I don’t have the details of the Serbian study that indicated a greater risk for bladder cancer, but perhaps if vinegar is consumed with other foods there will be less likelihood of any problems in that area.

Some comparisons between home remedies using vinegar, and modern medicine, are instructive:

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Home Remedy:

Apple cider vinegar’s ability to draw out toxins is one reason why it is good for applying to insect bites. As an immediate solution, you can place vinegar directly on the area and rise it off.  Dip a cloth in the vinegar, press it against the bite and the itchiness will cease, sealing some of the broken capillaries at the surface of the skin.

If the bite has drawn blood, the vinegar will disinfect the area and prevent further bacteria from entering the wound. []

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Modern Medicine:

Recent scientific investigations clearly demonstrate the antimicrobial properties of vinegar, but mainly in the context of food preparation.   Experts advise against using vinegar preparations for treating wounds.

“…experts caution against using vinegar as a household disinfectant against human pathogens because chemical disinfectants are more effective. However, undiluted vinegar may be used effectively for cleaning dentures, and, unlike bleach solutions, vinegar residues left on dentures were not associated with mucosal damage. []

Seems that modern medicine does not advocate vinegar for wound treatment, but it might be good for cleaning your kitchen countertops or dentures.

Dentures are made of acrylic, so the acid in vinegar should not damage them.  I notice in one of my ‘uses of vinegar’ sources that they recommend brushing your teeth with undiluted vinegar…not sure that it’s a good idea to brush teeth with anything acidic. In fact, I would guess that it’s not.  There might be damage to tooth enamel.

Swimmer’s Ear, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

If the itchiness is more than you can bear, try a few drops of white vinegar in the ear canal (much like medical ear drops). Ensure the vinegar gets deep into the ear canal by moving your head slightly. Then after 30 seconds allow the fluid to drain out.  Aim for two drops for each ear and continue for five days.   []

Swimmer’s Ear, Modern Medicine, using Vinegar:

Although investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of diluted vinegar (2% acetic acid solution at pH 2) for the treatment of ear infections (otitis externa, otitis media, and granular myringitis), the low pH of these solutions may irritate inflamed skin and damage cochlear outer hair cells.   []

Sounds like there’s an acknowledgement from modern medicine that ear treatment with vinegar is effective–but with caution.

Jellyfish Stings, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar: 

To treat the stings immediately, pour vinegar over the affected area to inactivate the stinging cells.  Any kind of vinegar will do,. If tentacles cling to the skin, avoid touching them with bare skin. Above all do not rub or scratch the skin as this will further inflame it.  []

Jellyfish Stings, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

Immediate vinegar application at the site of jellyfish stings is practiced at various coastal locations around the world because vinegar deactivates the nematocysts. However, hot-water immersion is considered the most efficacious initial treatment for jellyfish envenomation because the venom is deactivated by heat.  []

Well, if one is on a beach after having just been stung by a jellyfish, and a bottle of vinegar is available from an attendant for first-aid treatment, I think that more immediate relief is to be had from that source.  Chances are that it will be more difficult to treat with hot-water immersion quickly.

Nail Fungus, Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

Fungus growth under the toenail can become extremely painful if not treated properly.  If possible cut the dead part of the nail off and soak the toe in diluted white vinegar for ten minutes.  Repeat this twice daily, once before putting your shoes on and again at the end of the day when you take them off.  []

Nail Fungus, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

In the popular media, vinegar is commonly recommended for treating nail fungus, head lice, and warts, yet scientific support for these treatment strategies is lacking.  []

I note that the ‘Modern Medicine’ statement does not actually refute the Home Remedy recommendation.  Chances are that ‘scientific support is lacking’ because there has been no investigation.

Weight Loss, Home Remedy, Using Vinegar:

Allow your system to adjust to the process. Apple cider vinegar can assist with dieting as it works as a diuretic, draining the body of excess fluid while also reducing the appetite.

Take one teaspoon in two cups of warm water before each meal, coupled with regular exercise.

Weight Loss, Modern Medicine, Using Vinegar:

Subjects were also asked to rate feelings of hunger/satiety on a scale ranging from extreme hunger (-10) to extreme satiety (+10) before meal consumption and at 15-minute intervals after the meal. Bread consumption alone scored the lowest rating of satiety (calculated as area under the curve from time 0-120 minutes). Feelings of satiety increased when vinegar was ingested with the bread, and a linear relationship was observed between satiety and the acetic acid content of the test meals.

In a separate trial, healthy adult women consumed fewer total calories on days that vinegar was ingested at the morning meal…. Thus, vinegar may affect satiety by reducing the meal-time glycemic load. Of 20 studies published between 1977 and 1999, 16 demonstrated that low-glycemic index foods promoted postmeal satiety and/or reduced subsequent hunger. []

Seems to be something promising there, of which I am taking note!  If bread is desired at a meal, perhaps providing a dip of oil-and-vinegar dressing to have with it would be helpful.

And now let’s explore the uses of urine, shall we?  How about running your car, for starters…

Sarah DeWeerdt for Conservation Magazine, Wednesday 9 March 2011 11.57 GMT

“…Gerardine Botte, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University who has developed a technology to generate hydrogen fuel from urine.

Botte recognized that urine contains two compounds that could be a source of hydrogen: ammonia and urea. Place an electrode in wastewater, apply a gentle current, and voila: hydrogen gas that can be used to power a fuel cell.

Her system operates similarly to the electrolysis of water, a process that can be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells – except that ammonia and urea hold their hydrogen atoms less tightly than water does, so less energy is required to split them off. Botte isn’t the only scientist with her mind in the sewer. A group of scientists in the UK, for example, is working on a fuel cell powered directly by urine.

Okay, now there’s a sustainable resource put to good use!  And as for medicinal purposes…

Urine has, in fact, had an impressive range of practical uses for much of history. A key area was medicine. In Rome, Pliny the Elder recommended fresh urine for the treatment of “sores, burns, affections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings”, while stale urine mixed with ash could be rubbed on your baby for nappy rash [a.k.a. ‘diaper rash’]. In early-modern Europe numerous medical luminaries went further. Pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré noted that itching eye-lids could be washed in the patient’s urine – provided that it had been kept “all night in a barber’s basin” first. The father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, advised certain patients to drink every morning “a moderate draught of their own urine”, preferably while “tis yet warm”. Anyone indignantly demanding a second opinion would find that Thomas Willis – the richest doctor in England at the time – was instructing a young gentlewoman to drink her own warm urine against “extreme sourness” in her throat.

Other cases could be far more urgent. In about 1550 the Italian doctor Leonardo Fioravanti  saw a man’s nose sliced off in an argument, and promptly urinated on the fallen organ before stitching it back on. Henry VIII’s surgeon, Thomas Vicary, recommended that all battle wounds should be washed in urine; and others advised the same for potentially gangrenous ulcers, or poisonous bites and stings. Being sterile when it leaves the body, urine was then a far safer cleaning agent than the kind of water typically available.

Ingesting urine as medicine seems to have been thought efficacious in France during the 17th century.   On 13 June 1685, for example, we find Madame de Sévigné telling her daughter of how, “for my vapours I take eight drops of essence of urine.”

I have the book, Lettres Choisies de Madame de Sévigné (published 1866), and her letter to her daughter of June 13, 1685, does say, “ Pour des vapeurs, ma chère enfant, je voulus, ce me semble, en avoir l’autre jour : je pris huit gouttes d’essence d’urine, et, contre l’ordinaire, elle m’empêcha de dormir toute la nuit : mais j’ai été bien aise de reprendre de l’estime pour cette essence, je n’en ai pas eu besoin depuis.”   Evidently she thought the treatment served its intended purpose, other than causing insomnia through that night (unusual, as she says, for her), since she did not require a repeat dose.

And if you’re wondering whether you can drink your own urine in a survival situation where you’re dehydrated and unable to find water, you basically can, IF you distill it.  Apparently the sodium and other minerals in urine actually make you more dehydrated, in much the same way as drinking sea water.  And best only use your own urine, since pathogens from your own body are not likely to cause problems for you.

Apart from its potential uses as a medicine taken by mouth (which has limited appeal for some of us, I have to say), urine had other uses in the ancient Roman world…the fullers who washed and dyed Roman clothing used it in their processes, and tanners used it in theirs.

Ancient Roman Fullers

It might not be surprising for the advocates of urinotherapy, but our pee has been used for centuries as a cleanser. The Romans not only brushed their teeth with it, but regarded it as an effective laundry soap. In order to wash the tunics, pee was collected on the street by means of vessels that were carried away as soon as they had been filled up by the urine of passers-by. Specific workers called fullones (fullers, washers) had the task to stomp (always with bare feet, of course) on clothes placed in tubs full of water and old urine.

Do you wonder how this worked? Well, urine contains urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. If stored, over time it decays into ammonia. This has a high pH and is a caustic, yet weak base when added to water. Therefore, it serves to break down organic material, neutralise dirt and grease, produce cleaning foam and help disinfect fabrics. Tellingly enough, most of the household cleansers we use nowadays do actually contain it. Ammonia was also helpful in keeping the clothes white and soft and make the colours brighter. Oh yes, stale urine can work both as an extracting agent and as a mordant too, that is it serves to bind dyes to a cloth. In the first case (pee as extracting agent), soaking certain natural substances in stale urine provides fine pigmentation, which is useable to dye wool and cotton. Let’s say you want to get purple: then let lichen orchil ferment in old pee and you’ll have the desired colouration.


And this from the Ancient History Encyclopedia []

Arguably the most important job in the Roman clothing industry was that of the cleaners, or the fullers (Latin fullones). The fullers’ shops serviced an entire town, where they dyed, washed, and dried garments of all types.

The typical fullonica needed tanks for washing, dyeing, and rinsing the garments, as well as space to dry and finish them. Garments were usually washed in human urine, which would have been collected from the public restrooms around the town, and also possibly imported from outlying areas.

Okay, that’ll do for corroboration for urine’s use in cleaning and dyeing clothing.

Then we have cosmetics…

The Elizabethan surgeon William Bullein advised those “whose faces be unclean” to wash their skin with “strong vinegar, milk and the urine of a boy”. In 1675 The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physic, Beautifying, and Cookery told of how one’s own urine was “very good to wash the face withal, to make it fair”. Compare the northern Scottish author Mary Beith, who (writing in 1995) emphasises that, “today, urea remains an important ingredient in medicinal skin creams,” also recalling “babies having their faces wiped with their own wet nappies” by way of skin care…”

And urine must have been a handy commodity during WWI…

“…soldiers of the first world war…used cloth patches soaked in their own urine as rudimentary gas masks (the ammonia in the urine counteracting the chlorine in the gas).

Wikipedia offers this bit of information…

Starting in 1918, British naturopath John W. Armstrong prescribed urine-therapy regimens that he devised to many thousands of patients, and in 1944 he published The Water of Life: A treatise on urine therapy, which became a founding document of the field.

But…”There is no scientific evidence of a therapeutic use for untreated urine.”

As J. R. Armstrong says in the introduction to his book:

It has been argued that it cannot be right to take back into the body something which the body is apparently discarding. Yet this objection ignores the principle of composting as practised by organic gardeners. Rotting dead leaves, when dug back into the soil, provide valuable mineral salts to nourish new plant life.

Not sure I can wholeheartedly agree with that.  But, on the celebrity front, British actress Sarah Miles has drunk her own urine for over thirty years…

Published 16/09/2007

“…Miles has a dottily eccentric English charm that makes it impossible not to warm to her — even when our chat turns to what she is most well-known for after acting. “On my tombstone will be engraved: One of the untouchables — she drank her own pee,” she told the New Statesman in 1998. “That’s what all Indians do!” she harrumphs. “That’s what Ghandi did. That’s what Nero did! That’s what everybody that I think looks fantastic in old age does! I thought: ‘Well, if they all look that bloody good, I think I’ll have a go!’ It tastes like good beer. You take it mid-flow every evening and morning. You just swig it down. It tastes fine.”

And for how many years have you been drinking your own urine, Sarah? “Thirty.”

She can tell by the look on my face that I’m horrified. “Urine! It immunises you against your own allergies. Clinics use it for cancer. It is used for all kinds of illnesses.

“Why does humanity have a problem with me drinking my own urine? I can’t wait to get off this planet!”

Some would say Sarah Miles was never truly on it.


Well, I think that after looking at all this, I will probably try to use more apple cider vinegar in my diet, and continue to use vinaigrette dressings for salads.  I already soak my fish and chips in malt vinegar, just because I like it.

As for the benefits of drinking urine, well…umm…yuck to that.  Have to wonder if they’re ‘taking the piss.’



A Grand Home is a Castle: Dirleton and the Ruthvens

The crumbling ruins of a formerly great edifice can put one in mind of the bones of dinosaurs.  One cannot see the entity at its peak of strength and function, but its remains hint at the grandiosity that was.  Even when all that’s left of a castle are a few stones marking the outer perimeter of a former bulwark against the elements, one can feel awed by the ghostly presence of the massive structure that once stood on that spot.  In the absence of the long-departed people who sustained and maintained it from centuries ago, a castle’s ruins can be evocative of an ancient, neglected graveyard in which even the monuments commemorating the remains of former lives are themselves gradually disintegrating with every passing year.

In bygone times, a castle was the physical manifestation of wealth and position, and its impressiveness was an adjunct to its defence along with the actual fortifications themselves.

Dirleton Castle gate, built by the Halyburtons, photo, Jonathan Oldenbuck

Dirleton Castle gate, built by the Halyburtons, Photo by Jonathan Oldenbuck,

The nobility were the castle-owners, and they were significant political forces in Scotland’s history, owing to their role in supporting the sovereign militarily, monetarily, and judicially.  Their alliances were vitally important, not only for prosperity, but also for survival.  This was not just posturing; it was a way to keep one’s foothold on the political landscape–of being influential, consulted and considered.  Any wealthy, noble family without power and alliances would be vulnerable, and potentially under threat.

A great structure housing a noble family could speak in mute eloquence of power and influence.  If its beholder is an enemy, he is meant to feel daunted, and be dissuaded from engaging in a dispute with the laird.  If a potential friend, he is meant to feel the desirability of an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship.  A castle therefore fulfilled its purpose not only when it sheltered and protected, but when it played a part in courting potential allies, and cowing potential enemies.

But perhaps not all castles fulfilled their promise in this respect, as we shall see…

My featured image is a painting by Andrew Spratt (used by permission).   Andrew has researched and reconstructed Dirleton Castle, which is located twenty miles east of Edinburgh on a rocky outcrop that was, during its early history, surrounded by marshland.  A deep moat once encircled the castle’s rock base, and two drawbridges provided entrance:  one for foot traffic, which faced eastwards toward the village; and one for horse, cattle and wagons, which faced south.

A wooden palisade enclosed the moat and extended east to protect the village.


Dirleton Castle, painting by Andrew Spratt. Used by kind permission.

The castle was situated to guard the coastal approach to Edinburgh from England via the port of North Berwick.

Today the ruins comprise a 13th-century keep and a 16th-century house adjacent to it, which the Ruthvens built during the time the castle was in their hands.  During the 14th and 15th century occupancy of the Halyburtons (prior to the Ruthvens), a large hall and tower house were added, of which only the basement levels survive today.

When originally built by the de Vaux family in the 13th century (after 1240), it was quite a complex structure, with five round towers, three of which were D-shaped in plan, and two additional square plan towers, all joined by a battlement wall.  The de Vaux based its design on the Château de Coucy in France, north of Paris.

[Description, Andrew Spratt:]

The de Vaux were originally from Rouen, and migrated to England after the Norman conquest of 1066.  Two de Vaux brothers or cousins were among the Anglo-Norman knights granted land in Scotland by King David I in the 12th century.  John de Vaux was the first builder of Dirleton Castle.

Dirleton Castle was besieged in 1298 by Bishop Bek on behalf of King Edward I of England (the “Hammer of the Scots”) during the Wars of Independence with England.  The de Vaux continued to resist even after Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk, but they were eventually overcome and allowed to surrender the castle and flee.  By 1311, Dirleton was re-captured by the Scots, and, following King Robert the Bruce’s policy of dismantling fortifications to prevent their re-use by the English, the castle was ‘slighted.’  Three towers were destroyed and significant damage caused to the others.  When the Halyburtons married into the de Vaux family in the 1350s they rebuilt much of the castle, although they did not restore it to its original state.

Moving ahead to 1363, the Halyburtons’ former allies, the Douglases and Dunbars, seized Dirleton castle as part of their rebellion against King David II of Scotland.  The rebellious families were defeated by King David II at the battle of Lanark, and Dirleton was returned to the Halyburtons.

In the early 1500s, Direlton passed to the Ruthven (Scottish pronunciation, “Rivven”) family through marriage, when William Ruthven, 2nd Lord Ruthven, married Janet Halyburton, Lady Dirletoun.

Some of Sir William Ruthven’s history includes being fined in 1532, along with other barons, for not appearing to sit as jurymen at the trial of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, for poisoning her husband.  He was a member of the privy council in 1542, and appointed keeper of the privy seal in 1546.  At the parliament held at Edinburgh in March 1543, after the death of King James V,  Ruthven spoke on behalf of the laity being granted liberty to read the Scriptures in the English tongue; and at the same parliament he was chosen to be one of eight noblemen who were to have the charge of the young queen, two at a time, every three months.

The earliest recorded ancestor of the Ruthven family was Thor, “who may have been the Thor, son of Swein (or Swan), who appears as a witness to royal charters between 1127 and 1150.  He was the owner of the lands of Travernent or Tranent, the church of which he granted to the monks of Holyrood.  He was also not improbably the overlord of the extensive territory of Crawford.”  (The Scots Peerage, Vol. IV, p 254)

William, second Lord Ruthven, was Provost of Perth in 1528, and made custodier of the royal manors and hospitals within the burgh.  He was appointed an extraordinary Lord of Session in 1539, and Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1546.

He died between December 3 and 16 of 1552.

“He married, and by so doing greatly added to his estates, Jonet, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Patrick, Lord Haliburton of Dirleton…” ( The Scots Peerage, Vol. IV, p. 259)

And so it is apparent that at this stage in the history of the Ruthven family, William, second Lord Ruthven, was a respected nobleman, and in a position of trust in the ruling classes of Scotland.

Below is a portrait of Sir William Ruthven, second Lord Ruthven (again, he was my 13x great grandfather), which was taken from the frontispiece of The Ruthven Family Papers, by Samuel Cowan, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd., London, 1912.

William Ruthven

Sir William, 2nd Lord Ruthven, 1528-1552, Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Provost of Perth, 1529

His son, Patrick, who succeeded his father as the third Lord Ruthven, was born about 1520, and educated at St. Andrews.  “He was an adherent of Darnley, and was the principal actor in the murder of Riccio, March 9, 1566, having risen from a sick-bed for the purpose.  After the murder, abandoned by Darnley, he fled to England, where he died at Newcastle, June 13, 1566.” (The Scots Peerage, Vol IV, p. 261)

Patrick’s sister, Lilias Ruthven, who married David Drummond, 2nd Lord Drummond, was my 12x great grandmother…

Lilias Ruthven

Lady Lilias Ruthven, daughter of the second lord, and wife of David Drummond, 2nd Lord Drummond

William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie and son of Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven, was also implicated in the murder of Rizzio (a.k.a. “Riccio”) in 1566.

Here’s an account of Rizzio’s murder in the apartments of Mary Queen of Scots at Holyrood Palace, taken from The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London, 1969, pp 51-52…

It was supposed also that the Earl of Lennox knew of the said design.  For he had his chamber within the palace, and so had the Earls of Atholl, Bothwell and Huntly, who escaped by leaping down out of a window towards the little garden where the lions were lodged.  This vile act was done upon a Saturday [9 March 1566] about six hours, when the queen was at supper in her cabinet.  A number of armed men entered within the close, before the closing of the gates, and took the keys from the porter.  One part of them went up through the king’s chamber, conducted by the Lord Ruthven and George Douglas; the rest remained in the close with drawn swords in their hands, crying, ‘A Douglas, A Douglas’ for their slogan, for it was in the gloaming of the evening.  The king was before gone up to the queen and was leaning upon her chair, when the Lord Ruthven entered with his helmet upon his head, and George Douglas entered in with him, and divers others, so rudely and irreverently that the table, candles, meat and dishes were overthrown.  Riccio took the queen about the waist, crying for mercy; but George Douglas plucked forth the king’s dagger that was behind his back and struck Riccio first with it, leaving it sticking in him.  He, making great shrieks and cries, was rudely snatched from the queen, who could not get him safe neither for threats nor fairness.  He was forcibly drawn forth of the cabinet and slain in the outer hall, and Her Majesty kept as a captive.

Mary Queen of Scots would have been around seven months pregnant at this time, since James VI was born on June 19 of that year (1566).

In addition, William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, supposedly “devised” the 1582 plot to seize King James VI, known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven.’ As a result of that action he was attainted, with all his honors forfeited.  He was executed in May, 1584.  (But there’s more to that story below.)

The following photo shows Huntingtower Castle, which was known as the Place of Ruthven when it was owned and occupied by the Ruthvens.  The ‘Ruthven Raid’ took place here, to which the 16-year-old son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, was taken while out hunting.  He was subsequently held against his will for a year, being moved to various locations during that time.

Huntingtower_Castle,_near_Perth, Ruthven

Huntingtower Castle, near Perth, formerly ‘Place of Ruthven’ Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0 By Brian D Osborne, CC BY-SA 2.0

Notably, Mary Queen of Scots honeymooned here with Lord Darnley in 1565.

Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, and his allied nobles purposed, by having James VI within their control, to present him with (and gain his agreement to) a ‘supplication’ intended to reform the government of Scotland and limit the influence of French and pro-Catholic policy.  During this time, the earl of Gowrie remained at the head of the government, assisted by other like-minded nobles.  The Regime was endorsed by influential ministers of the Kirk of Scotland, from the pulpit. These churchmen were called “Melvillians” after their spokesman, Andrew Melville.  [Andrew Melville was the uncle of Sir James Melville, diplomat and writer.]

Portrait_of_James_I_of_England_and_James_VI_of_Scotland, public domain, wiki

James VI of Scotland

In addition to the concerns over French influence and pro-Catholic policy, the coup was also prompted by the urge to curb excessive spending at court. Because of its (the court’s) extravagance, the Earl of Gowrie as Lord High Treasurer of Scotland was owed £48,000 Scots. This debt was never repaid.  [Julian Goodare, ‘Debts of James VI’, in Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (November 2009), pp.926-952 at p.934-936, and see also, Boyd, William K. ed., Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 6 (1910), 240.]

Sir James Melville records these words of Andrew Melville’s, spoken to James VI:

“Sir, we will humblie reverence your Majestie always, namlie in public, but sen we have this occasioun to be with your Majestie in privat, and the treuthe is, yie ar brought in extream danger bathe of your lyff and croun, and with yow, the country and Kirk of Christ is lyk to wrak, for nocht telling yow the treuthe, and giffen of yow fathfull counsall, we mon (must) discharge our dewtie thairin, or els be trators bathe to Christ and yow! And thairfor Sir, as divers tymes befor, sa now again, I mon tell yow, thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes in Scotland. Thair is Chryst Jesus the King, and his Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whose kingdome nocht a king, nor a lord, nor a heid, bot a member!”

Andrew Melville evidently never hesitated to inform James VI, boldly and bluntly, of the error of his ways, despite his kingship.  It occurs to me that the king, having acquired his sovereignty during his minority, might have developed a sensitivity to being dictated to by Scottish nobles and churchmen, no matter how well intentioned.  So this degree of frankness carried its risks.

Here’s a bit of information about Andrew Melville from

Andrew Melville,  (born Aug. 1, 1545, Baldovie, Angus, Scot.—died 1622, Sedan,  Fr.), scholar and Reformer who succeeded John Knox as a leader of the Scottish Reformed Church, giving that church its Presbyterian character by replacing bishops with local presbyteries, and gaining international respect for Scottish universities.

He eventually ran seriously afoul of James VI after James succeeded Elizabeth I and became James I of England as well as James VI of Scotland, uniting the two countries:

…his [Melville’s] satiric Latin poem composed to combat constant Anglican pressures on him turned his own career in another direction. Imprisoned in the Tower of London  for four years for his intransigence, Melville was released only to accept a chair in France, that of biblical theology at the University of Sedan, where he remained until his death.  []

Here’s a ‘fanciful Victorian illustration’ of Andrew Melville at the court, in the presence of James VI:

Andrew_Melville_upbraids_a_bishop_at_the_court_of_James_VI, public domain, wiki

Andrew Melville Upbraids a Bishop at the Court of James VI

That aside, I think we can determine from the Raid of Ruthven, and Andrew Melville’s lecture to James VI, that there were indications James might have been brewing two undesirable characteristics in a monarch that perhaps manifested even more strongly in James VI’s descendants.  James’s son, Charles I, believed firmly in the ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ and his arrogant refusal to consider the participation of parliament resulted in his execution by beheading in 1649.  Evidently he was not inclined to accept wise counsel.  As for money management, James’s grandson, Charles II’s profligacy and spendthrift ways were often in evidence.  Both James’s son and grandson married Catholic princesses, Henrietta Maria of France (Charles I), and Catherine of Braganza (Charles II), so apparently the concerns of the Scottish nobility with regard to religion and foreign influences was not something James VI espoused nor instilled in his son, and, by extension, his grandson.

As for the outcome of the Raid of Ruthven, there were meetings and negotiations, and eventually a reconciliation between James VI and his nobles.  Sir James Melville gives an account of the king’s actions after obtaining his liberty:

“Of a truth His Majesty was of a merciful mind, and gently inclined toward all the nobility, intending to win all their hearts by his own discreet behaviour, and to that effect he went first to the house of Ruthven, to let the country see that he was entirely reconciled to the Earl of Gowrie; who, after he had made His Majesty a great banquet, fell down upon his knees, lamenting that His Majesty should have been retained in that unhappy house as his last being there, which, he said, fell out rather by accident than deliberation, only for the safety of the Earl of Arran’s life; alleging that he knew no other thing than that at His Majesty’s being at Dunfermline they were all minded to present him an humble supplication, asking pardon for that accidental fault:  which His Majesty graciously promised never to impute to him, knowing how blindly he was brought upon it, by the practices of others.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London,  1969, p. 114]

But my guess is that James VI harboured a grudge, although he was canny enough not to give evidence of it at this point.  Sir James Melville believed that the eventual execution of Sir William Ruthven was the result of the Earl of Arran’s influence on the king, who was, after all, only 17 years and 11 months old at that time in 1584…

Melville thoroughly disapproved of Arran’s influence over the king, and believed that Arran frustrated James’s own intention of settling his government on the principle of conciliation all round.  After a bitter quarrel with Arran, during which Melville said, ‘I would get more honest men to take my part than he would get throat-cutters to assist him’, Melville resolved to retire from the court.  ‘At my leave-taking His Majesty said he doubted not but I would return when called for.  By which I understood that I should not come back till sent for.’  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London, 1969, p. 124]

It seems that the Earl of Arran was a thoroughgoing ne’er-do-well, according to Sir James, and mis-used his influence and power…

“Now the Earl of Arran triumphed, being chancellor, and captain of the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling.  He made the whole subjects to tremble under him, and every man depended upon him, daily inventing and seeking out new faults against divers, to get the gift of their escheats, lands, benefices, and to procure bribes.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 124]

The Earl of Arran hated Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie…

“…for Gowrie had been his first master, and despited his insolent pride, oppression and misbehaviour plainly in council, which few others durst do; therefore he hated his person, and loved his lands, which at length he obtained.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 124]

And so the Earl of Arran obtained William Ruthven’s lands by engineering his execution, after Ruthven was implicated in the seizure of Stirling Castle.  This action against Stirling was a move by other nobles (the Earls of Angus and Mar and the Master of Glamis among them) against Arran.  William Ruthven would have wanted to support them in this, but he was by no means the only one…

“…His Majesty had compassion upon him, and had no intention of taking his life.  But the Earl of Arran was resolved to have his lands, which he divided afterwards with others, to get their votes and consents that he might be ruined.  At his death upon the scaffold, he showed himself a devout Christian and a resolute Roman, much regretted by many that were present and heard his grave harangue, and did see his constant end.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 125]

I have to say that I was inclined to believe the Ruthvens were ‘a bad lot’ from the bare facts…but there’s a great deal more to this than the bare facts can supply.  Another thing that Melville says is that when James VI was first taken ‘prisoner’ he was brought to the Place of Ruthven (Huntingtower Castle), for undetermined reasons—although it was speculated that the other lords involved might have wanted this, “to embark the Earl of Gowrie [whose house it was], more deeply in their bond.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 109]

Another alleged attempt by the Ruthvens to capture King James VI occurred in 1600 in the “Gowrie Conspiracy.”

The suspicious circumstances of the event in 1600, combined with the fact that by obliterating the Ruthvens in ‘officialdom,’ King James VI would realize enormous benefit—wiping out the debt of money owed by him to the Ruthvens, and seizing their property to bolster the royal coffers—raised questions at the time.   No doubt previous actions by the Ruthvens—the murder of Rizzio, and the Raid of Ruthven—were expected to give credence to King James VI’s account of what happened in 1600.  Since the father of the two Ruthvens (John and Alexander) killed during that altercation was William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, who was executed in 1584 for treason (as stated previously), doubtless James VI thought that his version of the encounter with William Ruthven’s sons would likely be believed.  Remember, too, that William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie’s father was Patrick, 3rd Earl of Ruthven who was the purported ringleader of the Rizzio murder.

Guilt in the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ would have made three generations of Ruthven in contravention of the law.  The first with Rizzio’s murder (Patrick, and also son William), the second in the ‘Raid of Ruthven’ (William), and the third would have been the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ (William’s sons, John and Alexander)–IF the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ were real.

“In that notable and momentous event, the so-called Gowrie Conspiracy, of which we have now unquestionable proof, there has always been mystery surrounding it, evidently founded on the refusal of the Scottish Clergy and Magistrates of Perth, and the majority of the Scottish people of that period, to recognise it as a conspiracy of the Ruthvens, and the Clergy’s refusal to pray for the King’s deliverance; believing, as many of them did, that the King was himself the author of the plot.”  (The Ruthven Family Papers by Samuel Cowan, 1912, p. 5)

Samuel Cowan’s book is based on:

“…a paper of historical value, in respect that it confirms the views of the Scottish Clergy and Magistrates of Perth of 1600, that the King, and not Gowrie, was the conspirator, and stamps the King and his six nobles, amongst whom were divided the illegally confiscated Gowrie estates, as the sole conspirators, enterprisers, and negotiators of the plot, and alone responsible for the consequences of that catastrophe with all its brutalities, cruelties and persecutions.”  (The Ruthven Family Papers by Samuel Cowan, 1912, p. 6)

This is what happened following the events of the “Gowrie Conspiracy”:

The dead bodies of the Earl and his brother were carried to Edinburgh, and an indictment of high treason was preferred against them. Witnesses being examined, the Parliament, 15 November 1600, pronounced sentence, declaring them to have committed manifest treason on all points contained in the summons ; and therefore decerned their names, memory, and dignity to be extinguished ; their arms to be cancelled ; their whole estate, real and personal, to be forfeited and annexed to the Crown, their bodies to be taken to the Cross of Edinburgh, and drawn, hanged, and quartered; the name of Ruthven to be abolished, and their posterity and their surviving brethren to be incapable of succeeding to, or holding, any offices, honours, or possessions.’ Their lands were parcelled out among those who had supported the King during the slaughter.” (The Scots Peerage, Vol IV, p. 268)

If, as modern-day scholarship is inclined to believe, the Ruthvens were innocent of the charges, it was certainly a severe and unjust punishment for innocent men and their families.  Mind you, they avoided the stress of the trial and pain of the execution by being already dead at the time they were tried, pronounced guilty, hung, drawn and quartered.

It can easily be seen from this episode in history how precarious the lives and fortunes of the nobility were in those brutal times–and not just in Scotland, of course.  One would expect that the lives of drudgery, dirt and disease suffered by the common folk in that era to be infinitely worse, but it would be quite a jolt to fall from grace in the way that the Ruthvens did in 1600.

The Ruthvens returned to the Scottish peerage 50-ish years later with the title “Lord Ruthven of Freeland,” which was granted to Thomas Ruthven in 1651–by Charles II while he was still in exile.

The following is the 1600 act of parliament abolishing the surname of Ruthven.

Long citation The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2016), 1600/11/11. Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

Act abolishing the surname of Ruthven

Forasmuch as the surname of Ruthven has been so naturally bent these many years bygone to attempt most high and horrible treasons against his majesty and his most noble progenitors that his majesty is thereby brought in vehement suspicion of their whole race and of his natural clemency, being careful that the infamy justly inflicted to the guilty shall not disgrace such of his subjects as are innocent of the said treasons, for extinguishing of the memory of the treasonable committers of the crimes foresaid and removing of the blot that with the surname might follow such of his highness’s lieges as have not been participant of the said crimes, his majesty, with advice and consent of the estates of this present parliament, statutes and ordains that the surname of Ruthven shall now and in all time coming be extinguished and abolished for ever, and that such of his highness’s subjects bearing the said surname in time past as are free and innocent of the said crimes of treason attempted against his majesty and his predecessors in manner foresaid shall be held and astricted to renounce the said surname of Ruthven, and never to use the same in any time coming, and to take to themselves, their bairns and posterity any other honest and undisgraced surname between now and Whitsunday [31 May] next, whereby they, their bairns and posterity shall be called in all time coming, and to use the same in all contracts, bonds, pacts, infeftments, writs, securities, proclamations of banns, subscribing of letters, speeches, conferences and other occasions whatsoever under the pain of banishment during the king’s pleasure to be executed against them and every one of them with all [rigour] and extremity as often and so often as they or any of them does in the contrary; and ordain the name of the barony and place of Ruthven to be changed and called in all time coming the place and barony of Huntingtower. And to the effect that the foresaid odious fact may abide and remain manifest to the posterity, the said estates ordain the round of the said lodging in Perth within the which his majesty’s murder was treasonably attempted to be demolished and razed to the ground and a monument to be erected in the place thereof containing inscription of the danger wherein his majesty was and form of the same conspiracy and manner of his highness’s delivery.

I suppose I have to admit some partiality to the Ruthven side of things, although I don’t know what to make of the murder of Rizzio. Patrick Ruthven was apparently very ill at the time of the murder, and was drawn from his sick-bed to participate.  That doesn’t excuse him, but I’m inclined to think that there might be extenuating circumstances surrounding his participation–possibly he was compelled to do it, at King Consort Darnley’s instigation.  In all likelihood his son William (later the 1st Earl of Gowrie), who was among those implicated in the murder, wasn’t even there.  William would have been around 23 years old at the time of the murder in 1566.  His father Patrick is variously reported as ‘abandoning’ King Consort Darnley and fleeing to England after the murder, and being himself abandoned by Darnley, and thus forced to flee to England.  In any event, he died in England two months after the murder.  So…bad guy or ‘fall guy’?  I don’t know.




Dirleton Castle This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 License

Dirleton Castle ended up in the hands of the Earl of Arran after the execution of Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, in 1584, and he entertained James VI there in 1585.  The following year it was restored to Lady Dorothea, widow of the 1st Earl of Gowrie, passing to her son John, the 3rd Earl of Gowrie, in 1600, but he didn’t hold the castle for long.  He was killed in the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ and the castle was forfeited by the Ruthven family yet again…this time to Thomas Erskine, later 1st Earl of Kellie.

Dirleton Castle then passed to the Nisbet family, who abandoned it as a residence.  It is now in the hands of Historic Scotland.

When the Ruthven were forced to forfeit the ’Place of Ruthven’ (named Huntingtower Castle in James VI’s act abolishing the surname of Ruthven), the Murrays, earls of Tullibardine and later dukes of Atholl, acquired it.  It is also in the care of Historic Scotland now.

Finally, we can conclude that while a castle was an important acquisition for the nobility in the early centuries of Scotland’s history, it seems that even multiple castles were no protection if a king is one’s debtor–and he casts covetous eyes on one’s land and fortune.