Calls for the return of 16th century Duke of Orkney’s remains

James Hepburn - the first and last Duke of Orkney.

James Hepburn - the first and last Duke of Orkney.

Two MSPs have backed calls to have the remains of the first, and only, Duke of Orkney returned to Scotland.

But before the people of Orkney rush to join the cause, the Duke’s actual dealings with the county were brief, and strained, to say the least.

The remains of James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, currently lie in a Danish crypt. Bothwell, who received the hastily-created Dukedom of Orkney upon his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots, was charged with treason in 1567.

Hotly pursued, Bothwell fled north to Orkney – his only visit to the county – where he hoped to find support. But it was refused. According to historian William Thomson, Bothwell soon found out his new dukedom was a “mere paper dominion”.

In fact, one man the earl had counted on for support in Orkney, Gilbert Balfour, refused his entry to Kirkwall and to Noltland Castle. In fact, William Thomson suggests Balfour, who was also up to his ears in the political intrique of the time, probably aided Bothwell’s pursuers.

Bothwell then went to Norway and then to Denmark, where he was imprisoned until he died, insane.

Now MSPs Ted Brocklebank and Jamie McGrigor are saying its time for the earl’s body to be returned to Scotland.

Mr Brocklebank said: “For many years, Bothwell’s mummified body was kept in a glass coffin as a ghastly tourist attraction by the Danish church authorities. Only in 1975, was it moved to a crypt in the church.”

“I have been in correspondence with the Scottish Culture Minister Patricia Fergusson about the possibility of the Danish authorities returning Bothwell’s remains to Scotland, where there is no doubt he wished to be buried. A number of Bothwell’s descendants, including Sir Alistair Buchan Hepburn, a constituent of mine, have been in touch with the minister and elders at Farevejle Church seeking to have the remains repatriated.”

He added that he hoped the earl’s reputation had not “contributed to the inertia of officials in trying to retrieve his remains”, arguing that “revisionist historians” had carried out extensive research which portrays Bothwell in a far more sympathetic light than in the past.

Jamie MacGrigor added: “It’s now time for James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell and Duke of Orkney, to be allowed to come home to Scotland”.

But if, and when, it does return to Scotland, it is perhaps not surprising that the body of the “Duke of Orkney” will not come anywhere near his former dukedom.

Instead, it has been suggested that the Collegiate Church of Crichton, in Midlothian, close by Crichton Castle, would be an appropriate resting place.

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