NORMALLY the sea fog seeps in slowly from afar. Not today. Today it presses on the Port of Leith like mud pouring from the sky, filling crevices and corners, hiding everyone and everything.

Tendrils of fog swirl above me, creeping into my collar and dampening both my skin and my spirit. I sense the sea rather than see it. Salty tang, damp wood, rotten fish, creaking ropes, metal scraping against metal on tall mast hinges. All the ships in port sway like ghostly galleons. The harbour is all but deserted this morning, with the fishing boats securely moored due to the weather.

But then, something catches my eye: a fainter shade of grey, a vessel less defined, but sailing into port. No, there are two: two galleys, and fine ones at that, though their bright paintwork is fog-muted to browns and greys. I can just about make out the people on deck, looking and leaning towards land, both ladies and men.

Two loud cannon shots tear through the morning air, sending me stumbling. Recovering my balance, I watch as, slowly, the two ships edge towards the harbourside. My throat goes dry. It cannot be! Wait, today’s date is the 19th of August in the year of our Lord 1561. She isn’t supposed to arrive for another week at least, so people say. But I am right: emerging from the mist, I recognise the fluttering fabric of the Royal Standard. The Queen has come much earlier than anyone expected.

(from Chapter 1, The Boy, The Witch & The Queen of Scots)

MUCH has been made of the foggy arrival of the returning Mary, Queen of Scots. Sent to France at age six for her own protection, raised at the French Court, married to the Crown Prince, made Queen of France on his ascension to the throne, widowed and finally unceremoniously dismissed from the French court, Mary has had an eventful life already – and she is still only 18.

Almost exactly 430 years later, another teenage girl made her way from the continent to Scotland to begin a new life.


When I arrived in a very foggy Edinburgh in the summer of 1991 to commence my studies, I too was more comfortable in another language. In those heady days of EU membership, I was free to study in Scotland despite my German passport – and while I initially only planned to stay for the four years of my degree, I married a Scot and have remained here for 33 years and counting.

I imagine that, on her arrival, Mary was daunted by what lay ahead, just as I was. However, like the young queen, I soon grew familiar with Mary’s Edinburgh, and particularly the Old Town, all cobbles and wynds. It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with it. And the parallels do not end there – I even share Mary’s birthday.

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I am pleased to report, however, that my life here – although not without its challenges – has not mirrored the terrible trajectory of Mary’s short and troubled reign over these lands.

Nowadays, Mary, Queen of Scots is universally recognised as a tragic figure, embroiled in controversy, implicated in murder, imprisoned and ultimately executed for treason by beheading.

There is a distinctive Mary, Queen of Scots look, isn’t there? Black velvet, bonnet, ruff and – crucially – the ever-present crucifix. The iconic images which spring to mind evoke a tragic figure, her mourning clothes foreshadowing her own tragic end. But was Mary no more than a tragic figure, destined to fail? Is it fair for history to judge her in this way? With the benefit of hindsight, I can see why people might – but she wasn’t always perceived this way.

When Mary stepped ashore at the Port of Leith in August 1561, Scotland had only been an officially Protestant country for a single year, following a bitter struggle for control. Despite Catholicism now being illegal, the north of the country remained largely Catholic, while in the Central Belt, key reformers like the preacher John Knox and Scottish Protestant nobles called the Lords of the Congregation dominated religious discourse. One of the most influential Lords was Lord James Stewart, Mary’s half-brother and trusted adviser, although he would turn on her some years later.

A devout Catholic, the newly arrived queen was under huge pressure from both sides. Up to now, the heir to the throne’s divine right to rule was widely accepted – however, Knox and others challenged Mary’s position publicly, both on the grounds of her faith and because of her sex.

The National: George Gordon, the Fourth Earl of Huntly, was stripped of one of his titles by Mary, Queen of Scots George Gordon, the Fourth Earl of Huntly, was stripped of one of his titles by Mary, Queen of Scots (Image: Getty)

Others sought to manipulate the young and perhaps impressionable queen for their own purposes, seeking her support for a counter-reformation. What a minefield! And all this while Mary was mourning the loss of both her first husband and her mother.

Mary could have crumbled under the pressure, but despite her young age, she did not.

Scotland was a new start for her, and she stood her ground, declaring that the country to remain Protestant while reserving the right to practise Catholicism privately herself. It has a ring of modernity to it – live and let live. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

Her decision may have been unwelcome news to the country’s Catholics, but it was a diplomatic and thoughtful response. Mary was no rash and opinionated teenager – she listened to advice and navigated a no-win situation with pragmatism.

In addition, it would seem that Mary was blessed with considerable charm and had a knack for keeping people on her side. This even extended to her servants whom she rewarded generously for faithful service and whom she often remembered thoughtfully with gifts.

Her vivacious and cheerful personality had previously won over the French court when King Henri II called her “the most beautiful child he had ever seen”.

Sociable, curious and cultured, she spoke fluent French which was considered the language of nobility, but could also converse in Scots, Latin and English. She was astute, agreeable, attractive and attentive. In short, people liked her and warmed to her.

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Furthermore, Mary had a wide range of interests which helped her to form and maintain good relationships at court – she was definitely not only Mary, the Monarch! Many of her favourite past-times involved physical exertion – nowadays we would call her sporty, fond as she was of riding, hunting, falconry and dancing among other activities. She loved music and played the lute but was equally keen on embroidery and other needlework.

The sociable young queen felt so strongly about celebrating extravagant feasts that she engaged in a showdown with Protestant leaders over the celebration of Christmas, a tradition Knox and others deeply resented.

During her defiant Twelfth Night festivities during Mary’s first winter back on Scottish soil, she even engaged in a game called Queen of the Bean. A bean was baked into a cake and Mary’s friends and ladies-in-waiting were served a piece each. Whoever found the bean in her portion was crowned Queen for the day.

The winner was Mary Fleming, one of the famous “Four Maries”, Mary’s closest friends who all shared her first name. Fleming was allowed to wear the Queen’s dress for the day and take her seat on the throne, all in the name of revelry and fun.

All this sounds like a frivolous young queen who cares little for the affairs of state. That, too, is not an entirely fair assessment. Mary was keen to travel far and wide in her kingdom and embraced each royal progress like an adventure. And when one particular northern earl overstepped the mark, her judgement proved decisive and strategic.

The National: Huntly Castle has also been known as the Peel of Strathbogle Huntly Castle has also been known as the Peel of Strathbogle (Image: Getty)

George Gordon, the Fourth Earl of Huntly was known as “the Cock o’ the North” on account of his ostentatious lifestyle and sweeping powers across northern Scotland. He pressured the newly arrived Queen to reinstate Catholicism, but when she refused, the Gordon family became ever more wayward – so much so that Mary stripped Huntly of one of his titles and bestowed the lucrative Earldom of Moray on her half-brother Lord James instead.

Soon, there were rumours that Huntly planned to kidnap Mary and forcefully marry her to his own son.

Despite this, he invited Mary to stay at his magnificent Palace of Strathbogie (now Huntly Castle) on her progress north in the summer of 1562. Probably wisely, Mary declined, bypassing Huntly on her way to Inverness.

When the snubbed earl proceeded to raise an army against her, Mary’s forces met her foes in the pivotal Battle of Corrichie near Banchory. Huntly’s forces were comprehensively defeated while the earl himself was captured and died suddenly of “apoplexy”, probably a stroke.

Mary was not one to run from a conflict in those early days of her reign and could act resolutely when she needed to. The Earl of Huntly’s body was taken south to stand trial for treason while his son was executed in Aberdeen shortly after the battle. Mary took no pleasure in executions but clearly believed that her role demanded such judgements and did not shy away from making them – although she rarely chose to witness the deaths in person. Therein lies another similarity between Mary and me: I too avoid watching any kind of violence.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that Mary, Queen of Scots got everything right. Her choice of men in particular leaves a lot to be desired. Her first husband, the Dauphin of France, was chosen for her at a young age, but Mary was truly hopeless at choosing husbands for herself thereafter, and simply put, she got it very, very wrong! Thankfully, I fared much better in my own life in that regard.

But tragic? That cannot be her only legacy! Someone needs to redress the balance, so here is my bawbee’s (Scottish half-penny in Mary’s time) worth.

To me, Mary was much more than a tragic figure, especially in the easily forgotten early part of her reign. Do I see Mary’s mistakes? Of course I do. But let’s not forget that she was also an impressive and resilient teenager, an inadvertent trailblazer for female power navigating a near-impossible path between warring factions – and a human being trying her best with the hand she had been dealt, like the rest of us, with all her flaws and foibles. We shouldn’t judge her so harshly.