Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

St. Margaret of Scotland

If ever you pay a visit to Edinburgh you ought to go and see the castle. If you are in the town you cannot help seeing  it, for it stands on a perpendicular rock, five hundred feet high, at the west end of the principal street, Princes Street; and if the rock is not quite  five hundred feet high—well, the English said that it was, when they drew a picture of the siege of the castle in Queen Mary Stuart's time. The English then destroyed the old fortress. What you see now is not so old, but it has one ancient chapel. On the very centre of the smooth black top of the rock is the little oratory of St. Margaret of Scotland, a dark round cell with round arches and columns ornamented in the style of the Norman builders. In this oratory, just before her sad death in 1093, St. Margaret used to say her prayers, and make her offerings of gold and jewels.

In her day the castle and the view from the castle were very unlike what you see now. Where the railway line runs,—at the foot of the tall rock and through the gardens of Princes Street,—in Queen Margaret's time and long afterwards, there lay a loch fringed with reeds, and full of trout and wild ducks and coots and water-hens. There was no huge town below the rock, only a few thatched cottages, but you could see from the top the Firth of Forth and its islands, and far away to the blue Highland hills. If you now go through the narrow gate into the castle, or if you look up at it from the gardens below, you remember the many strange things that happened there and the many brave deeds that were done in years long ago. You remember them, at least, if you have read the 'Tales of a Grandfather,' by Sir Walter Scott; and if you have not, the sooner you do the better. Just cross the bridge over the railway and walk to the foot of the rock. How far could you climb up it, even if there were no enemies on the top rolling down huge stones at you, and firing at you with bows or with muskets from behind the castle wall? I have tried that climb many a day when I was a boy at school, and I never could get up very far. Then think of making the climb in the dark at midnight! It seems impossible, but Randolph Earl of Murray, and his men reached the top in the night, and surprised the English and took the castle during the wars of Robert Bruce against Edward II. Then again, the great Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, climbed the rocks with his scented love-locks tossing in the wind, and spoke to the Duke of Gordon, who held the fort for King James II. After that Dundee climbed down again and rode away to the north to victory and death. In the castle the boy Earl of Douglas and his brother were treacherously murdered, and later Queen Mary's son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, was born there. In fact, an endless number of true stories are to be told about the castle, but the earliest is the story of the beautiful St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland.

Margaret was of the old Anglo-Saxon Royal blood of England, of the family which traced its descent from Woden, the heathen god. Margaret's father, Edward the Exile, was son of the brave, fighting English king, Edmund Ironside. When Edward was a baby, it is said that the Danish King Canute (the king whom the waves did not obey) wanted to kill him and his twin brother, lest one or other should live to make war against the conquering Danes and take the Crown. Now if Canute had wanted to murder Edward, I think he would have done it. However, the story (which we need not believe) says that Canute sent the children to his half-brother, the King of Sweden, and asked him  to put them to death. But the Royal Swede was a good Christian man, and he sent the two little boys to a saint and king, namely St. Stephen of Hungary, who acted to them like another father. In Hungary they were far enough from all the troubles and dangers of England, and with the example of a king (who was also a saint) before their eyes, they must have been naughty indeed if they did not learn to behave well.

When Edward the Exile grew up he married a princess, a niece of the Queen, the wife of St. Stephen, and their child was Margaret. Her brother was Edgar, called Edgar the Atheling, and Edgar, after Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, was chosen by the English for their king. But Edgar was not a great fighting man; he saw that he had no chance of defeating William the Conqueror and all his Normans. He never was crowned, but lived quietly enough on what the Normans chose to give him.

Now we know nothing about what Edgar's sister, Margaret, did in Hungary; nothing at all is told about her childhood. She seems to have been born about 1045, so she would be twenty-one years old at the date of the Norman Conquest, and twenty-two or twenty-three when, in 1067 or 1068, her brother Edgar fled away from England into Scotland. At this time the King of Scotland was Malcolm, called in Gaelic, Malcolm Cean-mor or 'Big Head.' Everybody who has seen or read Shakespeare's famous play 'Macbeth,' knows about Malcolm, son of 'the gracious Duncan,' that good old king whom Macbeth murdered in his own castle. But the story that Shakespeare tells is a kind of fairy tale about the witches that meet Macbeth on the blasted heath to Birnam wood, which marched to Dunsinane. Duncan was not an old man, but a middle-aged man; and he, according to Scottish law, was not the rightful king, but a usurper, and Macbeth was really on the side of the rightful king, who was named Lulach. However, Malcolm, the son of Duncan, defeated and killed both Macbeth and young Lulach; and when the Atheling, with his mother Agatha and his sisters Margaret and Christina came to Scotland, Malcolm was settled on the throne. He himself naturally spoke Gaelic, like all of his people north of the river Forth, but his subjects south of the Forth spoke English. As Malcolm himself had an English or English-speaking Danish mother he spoke English as well as Gaelic, so that the king and the exiles, cast by a tempest into his kingdom on their way to Hungary, had no difficulty in talking to each other. At this period Malcolm's position was not easy, for, in his own opinion, his lands stretched far south of Scotland into England, while the kings of England believed that they were the superiors of the kings of Scotland. Thus each side did all the harm possible to each other, whenever they had the chance.

According to one story, Malcolm first met Margaret and fell in love with her, in 1068. According to another story, he had invaded England and was burning the houses and the crops, and killing men, women and children, near Wearmouth, when the ships of Edgar Atheling and Margaret entered the harbour. Malcolm came down to meet the wanderers, gave them a feast, and invited them to stay with him in Scotland as long as they pleased. Margaret was very beautiful, very good and kind, and having lived peacefully in the house of a Royal saint, her manners were gentle and courteous. It was therefore natural for Malcolm to fall in love with her. Besides, Margaret was the sister of the rightful King of England, and so was a fit wife for any king. Margaret was rather unwilling to marry him at first, but when she did consent she became the best wife in the world. Being English, of course she found Scotland and the Scots very rough and began to introduce English manners and ways, which the part of the people who only spoke Gaelic did not like. But Malcolm saw that the English ways were going to prevail, and he helped Margaret as much as he could. Her good deeds began at home; Malcolm was a rough, hot-tempered, fighting man, but Margaret, says a priest who lived at her Court, 'made the king most attentive to works of justice, mercy, and alms-giving,' and it is said that he would pray all through the night and shed tears when he thought of his sins. His first wish was to please his beautiful wife and to do whatever she desired. 'Although he could not read, he would turn over and examine her books, and kiss those which she liked best.' Such books he caused to be bound in plates of gold curiously ornamented, and set with precious stones, topazes and sapphires and rubies. One of these books was a copy of the Four Gospels in Latin, with the capital letters in gold.

St. Margaret and Malcolm Canmore

"Although he could not read, he would turn over and examine her books, and kiss those which he liked best."

Now St. Margaret, unlike most saints, is not famous as a worker of miracles. Still the priest who live at her Court tells about something very strange which happened there. One day when they were on a journey the servant who carried the book for the Queen let it fall out of its bag into a river, which he was crossing by a ford. He did not notice that it had been dropped, and when the Queen asked for her book he looked into his bag, but found, to his dismay, that it was missing. Then there was a hunt all along the road by which the man had come. As the book had a cover of gold and precious stones, it was, they thought, certain to glitter in the sun, yet they were uneasy, for if any person picked it up it was very doubtful if he would be honest enough to restore it.

Well, 'at long and at last,' the book was found in the bed of the river, open, and rolling about among the pebbles. The waves had swept away the little squares of silk which covered the illuminated pictures on the margins, and as the priest that tells the story says: 'Who could have guessed that the book would have been worth anything after such a drenching? Who could have believed that so much as a single letter would have been visible? Yet the book looked as if it had never been touched by the water, except that on the margin of the leaves the least possible stain of wet might be detected;' and the Queen became fonder than ever of her book when it was brought back to her.

Now this is a true story, for, if you go to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, you may see the very Gospels of St. Margaret, with the tale about the miracle written at the end. To be sure the beautiful golden covers have been stolen long ago, perhaps at the Reformation, when all the gold and silver and precious things in the cathedrals and churches were scattered and plundered. The binding of the book has thus disappeared, but the book itself, somehow, came into a parish library in the country, and when the owners of the library sold their old books they did not know anything about the value of St. Margaret's Gospels, so the Bodleian Library bought the book very cheap.

Margaret gave many vessels of pure gold to her new church in Dunfermline, and a crucifix adorned with gold and precious stones. This was not the cross called the 'Black Rood' and said to contain a piece of the wood of the true Cross, which many years afterwards Edward I carried away to England. To the church at St. Andrews, Margaret also gave a beautiful crucifix; but all these things, and many others, were probably melted down during the wars at the time of the Reformation. The Queen's own bower was always full of ladies working at embroideries for the vestments of the priests. She was very careful in educating her children, and the tutors had orders to punish the young princes whenever they were naughty, as frolicsome children will often be. One of her sons, named David, was the best of the old kings of Scotland, and built many beautiful abbeys, such as Dryburgh, Melrose, and Jedburgh, which are splendid even in their ruins, for the English burned them in the old wars, especially under Henry VIII. Margaret liked to see people well dressed, and she encouraged her subjects to buy bright coloured cloths and ornaments from foreign merchants. Some historians have thought that she brought in the tartans, but this is a mistake, as the Highlanders wore tartans many hundreds of years before her time.

Queen Margaret had a good deal of trouble with the priests who spoke Gaelic in Scotland. They had ways of doing things which were different from the customs of the church on the Continent and in England. Of these the strangest was that they did no work on Saturday, the Sabbath of the Jews, but worked as usual on Sunday. They fasted on only thirty-six not forty days in Lent, and they seem not to have thought themselves worthy to take the Holy Communion. Margaret argued with these priests, and, as she did not know Gaelic and they did not know English, King Malcolm explained to each side what the other side was saying. Margaret had the better in the arguments, but the Gaelic-speaking people did not like to be taught English ways, and they did not want any of Margaret's sons, who all had English names, to be king when Malcolm should die. But the poor must have been fond of her, for when she went riding about the country she gave away all the money and pretty things she wore to beggars, and would even go to the king's treasures and take money for the poor, 'and this pious plundering the king always took pleasantly and in good part,' though he sometimes said that he would have her tried and punished.

St. Margaret of Scotland


Scotland was full of poor prisoners, carried out of England during the wars, and Margaret used to find them out, pay their ransoms and send them home. The priest who wrote her life says that he admired her works of mercy more than miracles, for miracles may be worked by bad people (probably he means witches) as well as by righteous people, but mercy and kindness are good in themselves.

At length, after she had been Queen for nearly five-and-twenty years, Margaret began to feel very weak and tired, and those who loved her grew very anxious about her pale face and slow movements. One day she sent a messenger to fetch the priest to her oratory, and when he arrived she told him in a few words that it had been revealed to her she was soon to die. The priest, as he looked at her, felt she was right, and she rapidly grew worse. Unfortunately Malcolm, who, like most people, had been very ill-treated by William Rufus, was making war on him far away. Margaret could have no news from him, therefore the priest was much startled when one morning she said to him: 'Perhaps this very day a great misfortune may fall on Scotland, such a sorrow as has not been felt for very many years.' And it befell that on that very day Malcolm and his eldest son were slain in battle. But Margaret did not know that her words had come true and went for the last time into that little chapel on the crest of the castle rock in Edinburgh, and received the Holy Communion. Then she was laid in her bed, and, being in great pain, asked for the Black Rood. She remained quite still with the Rood clasped to her breast, when her son Edgar, who had escaped from the battle, knocked at her door and was allowed to come in. At first he could not speak, then in broken words he told his tale and how he had seen his father and his brother fall, sword in hand. And apart from his grief, his heart was sore, for well he knew that the Gaelic-speaking people would rebel against any king who was of English blood, and, as if all this was not enough, he beheld his mother dying before him. The sight of her son roused the Queen from her stupor. In a quiet voice she asked some questions about her dead husband and her son, and Edgar tried to comfort her. 'She had known before,' she said, 'what had befallen them and implored him to hide nothing from her.' When he had finished she made her last prayer, saying 'Deliver me,' and so she left this world and all sorrow and pain.

She had desired to be buried at Dunfermline, but the rebels were besieging the castle, and but for a timely mist, through which her friends stole away, bearing her body, her wish would have been unfulfilled. Much later, in 1250, Margaret was acknowledged as a saint, and her body was placed in a silver shrine under the High Altar, at Dunfermline. There is a pretty story that her coffin would not be moved till that of Malcolm was also brought, and so these two were laid together to rest, as in their deaths they had not been divided. Even now Margaret is a favourite name for girls in Scotland, in memory of the Queen.