STORY OF THE SETONS. As young Roland Grceme, guided by his conductor, Adam
Woodcock, according to Scott's description in The Abbot, was wending his way
down the High Street of Edinburgh, there suddenly occurred one of those deadly
brawls incidental to the'troubled reign of Mary Queen of Scots. Two noblemen of
equal rank, and opposite parties, a Seton and a Leslie, met face to face.
Neither would give way to right or left, and a fight with drawn swords was the
consequence. Roland Graeme, as an impetuous youth, takes part with Seton, who
seemed to have the chance of being worsted. Shouting like the rest, 'A Seton, a
Seton! Set on, Set on !' he thrust himself forward into the throng, and was
happily the means of saving Lord Seton from serious bodily harm until the affray
was calmed by magisterial interference. Going farther down the street, when the
combat is over, Roland catches sight of the damsel, Catherine Seton, whom he had
previously seen, and in following her, reaches the town residence of Lord Seton,
forming one of the gloomy quadrangles diverging from the ancient thoroughfare,
the site of which is now occupied by Whiteford House.
We need not pursue the fiction, which, like all that has been written by Sir Walter, is founded not on the miserable rack of invention, as is now the case with ordinary novels, but on an intimate knowledge of national and family history, as well as of an acquaintance with human nature. He wished to introduce us to George, seventh Lord Seton, who made a distinguished figure in the reign of Queen Mary, and'was noted as staunchly loyal to that unfortunate princess. Officially, Lord Seton was connected with the court. He occupied the position of grand-master of the household, in which capacity he had a picture painted of himself, with two lines in Latin, signifying, ' Patient in Adversity, Benevolent in Prosperity,' with the bold family motto,' Hazard zet Ford ward.' We are told that he declined to be promoted to an earldom, which was offered to him by Queen Mary.
On refusing this dignity, the queen, who was an accomplished scholar, wrote certain lines in Latin and in French, which have thus been rendered in English :
Earl, duke, or king, be thou that list to be;
Seton, thy lordship is enough for me.
The 'Catherine' Seton in the romance of Sir Walter is represented to have been an honorary attendant on Queen Mary, and to have followed her royal mistress to the islet prison in Lochleven. History and legend sanction the supposition. When Queen Mary, as a child, was taken to France, she was accompanied by four girls, who acted as playmates, daughters of Scottish noblemen, all of the same age, and the same Christian name. They were usually styled 'the Four Maries.' Their surnames were Livingston, Fleming, Seton, and Beatoun. On returning to Scotland, and holding court at Holyrood, the queen still had her four ' Maries,' though with some change in person and even in name. For Livingston and Fleming were substituted Carmichael and Hamilton. That such a change had taken place among these young damsels, is sadly evident from the tragical ballad of Marie Hamilton, who, for the crime of infanticide, was about to suffer an ignominious death. The poor girl pathetically sings:
Yestreen, the Queen had four Maries ;
This nii'lit she '11 hae but three ;
There was Marie Seton and Marie Beatoun,
And Marie Carmichael and me.
The family of Seton, so made known to us, can be traced through a distinguished ancestry for more than seven hundred years. In the opinion of the late Mr John Riddell, the eminent peerage lawyer, the family, on account of its innumerable high connections and ramifications, may be held the noblest in North Britain. ' Philip de Setune,' third of the family on record, had a royal grant of lands in East and West Lothian in 1169, from which time the name, under the form of Seatoun, Seyton, Settoun, or Seton, constantly occurs in the history of memorable events, and always in connection with acts of fidelity to the reigning monarch. On the family estate of Winchburgh arose their castle of Niddry, a massive feudal peel, now largely dismantled ; being the house at which Queen Mary was indebted for a night's lodging on her escape from Lochleven. Another extensive property granted to the family in the twelfth century was that of Seton and Winton in East-Lothian, on which were built Seton Palace and Winton House, which became their principal mansions, and by their residence here they are best remembered.
The family, from an early date, was noted for the tallness of its members ; the
men being frequently above six feet in height, and the women also of lofty
stature. A grand-looking race they must have been, in the old chivalric times,
in their war panoply, but not more remarkable for tallness than their proud and
dignified bearing. 'Tall and proud, like the Setons,' was at one time a
proverbial saying in Scotland. Till this day the Setons are noted for their
stature. The family of Colonel Seton, a son of the fifth Baron of Cariston, who
commanded the 88th Regiment at Badajos and Salamanca, and who was himself a tall
man, are all considerably above the average height—his eldest son being six feet
two inches, while at least one of his grandsons is six feet four inches. With
the war-cry of Set on, Set on! and a sense of protection from St Bennet, the
patron saint of the family, the Setons in old time's rushed headlong like a
troop of giants on the enemy, carrying all before them.
In Barbour's History of Bruce, and Blind Harry's metrical History of Wallace, we hear of one of these gigantic soldiers, Sir Christell or Christopher Seton, who was the companion-in-arms of Wallace and Bruce in the war of Scottish Independence. Sir Christell gallantly rescued King Robert Bruce at Methven, and afterwards married the king's sister, Christian Bruce. Sir Christell, as we learn, wielded a two-handed sword, measuring four feet nine inches in entire length, and weighing seven and a half pounds. It still exists in the possession of George Seton, Esq., representative of the Setons of Cariston, whom we presume to be about the tallest of that very tall family.* With a sweep of this formidable weapon, Sir Christell is said to have done immense execution. His prowess was on one occasion unavailing as regards his personal security. He was taken prisoner by the English at Dumfries, and put to death, for adherence to the cause of Bruce, his brother-in-law, who erected a chapel to his memory.
The patriotism of Sir Christell was emulated by his grandson, Sir Alexander Seton, who, in 1333, heroically held out the town of Berwick-onTweed against the forces of Edward III. It ifl related that he stood on the ramparts and witnessed the death of his two sons, rather than yield that 'key' of his country to the English. When things settled down in Scotland under a native dynasty, the family was raised to the peerage in the person of William Seton, who was created Lord Seton towards the end of the fourteenth century. From this time, the family branches out wonderfully. From the first Lord Seton, there sprang the Earls of Huntly, Aboyne, Sutherland, Eglinton, and the Dukes of Gordon ; the ancestor of each of these Houses being a Seton, but changing his surname by marriage.* Numerous baronetcies are traceable to the Setons, including those of the families of Pitmedden, Abercorn, and Garleton, of which the first has made its mark in our legal as well as onr military annals. The heroic conduct of Colonel Seton of the 74th Highlanders—a cadet of the Pitmedden branch—at the loss of the Birkenhead in 1852, will not soon be forgotten.
* The first of the Setons of Cariston was John, only brother of George, seventh
Lord Seton, Queen Mary's faithful adherent; their half-sister being Mary Seton,
the maid of honour, who was daughter of George, sixth Lord Seton, by his second
wife. Mary Seton died unmarried at Rheims, and her heir-of-line is the present
representative of the family of Cariston, as lineal descendant of her
half-brother John. Since the beginning of the fifteenth century, George, has
been the prevailing Christian name in the Seton family, and was probably adopted
in consequence of the union between John, second Lord Seton, and the daughter of
George, tenth Earl of Dunbar and March, one of the most powerful nobles in
Scotland. The son of the present representative of the Cariston branch in the
fifteenth George in nearly direct lineal descent.
We have not space to record the incidents worthy of note in which this remarkable family historically figured. One circumstance, however, cannot be passed over. The disastrous field of Flodden (1513) proved fatal to the Lord Seton of the day. He left a widow, Janet, Lady Seton, a daughter of the Earl of Bothwell. She survived him for a period of nearly half a century, and was celebrated for her exalted and matronly conduct, which drew around her, at her residence at the Convent of Sciennes, in the vicinity of Edinburgh, many of the female members of her own and other noble families. This aged lady, whose husband perished at Flodden, must have lived to about the time when Mary arrived from France to hold court at Holyrood.
George, seventh Lord Seton, whose history we began with, attended Queen Mary to the battle of Langside (1568); there he did his best, and when all was lost, he retired to Flanders, where he lived for two years in exile, during which he was reduced to the necessity of driving a wagon for subsistence. Then came better tunes. He returned to Scotland, resuming his paternal property, had himself painted in his wagoner's dress, and in the act of driving a wagon with four horses, on the north end of a stately gallery in his mansion at Seton. A portrait of his lordship in the midst of his family is mentioned by Sir Walter Scott as being to be seen in the fishing villa of Lord Somerville, near Melrose.
By James VI. his eldest son was created Earl of Winton, while his fourth son,
Alexander, the munificent builder of Fyvie and Pinkie, became Earl of
Dunfermline, and Chancellor of Scotland. James, fourth and last Earl of
Dunfermline, grandson of the chancellor, forfeited his title in 1690 for his
participation in the battle of Killiecrankie. A younger son of the third Earl of
Winton was created Viscount Kingston by Charles II., in 1650 ; and his son
James, third Viscount, was attainted like his chief, in 1715, on account of his
adherence to the Stuarts. The present heir-of-line of the Kingston branch is
Colonel Hay of Dunse Castle, with an added note to the Seton's of Abercorn who
married the eldest child and daughter of the Hay's of Dunse. During the Commonwealth, the Seton family suffered
fines and depressions; but again there was a revival, and matters were going on
prosperously, when all at once everything was ruined—titles and estates blown to
the winds—by the ill-judged political escapade of the fifth Earl of Wintoun.
* Catherine Seton, sister of George, second Lord Seton. married Sir Alan Stewart of Darnley, ancestor of the Earls of Lennox; while his son George, third Lord Seton. was the husband of Lady Margaret Stewart, daughter and heiress of John, Earl of Buchan, and Constable of France, son of the Regent Albany, and grandson of Robert II.
In this remarkable personage, the story of the Setons invokes a special interest. George, fifth Earl of Wintoun, possessed excellent abilities, but from his early years he displayed strange eccentricities of character. Some family misunderstandings caused him to leave home while a mere youth, and to spend several years in France, where he hired himself as bellows-blower in the workshop of a blacksmith. It was a queer whim ; but such oddities occur in the aristocracy. A late Earl of Aberdeen, it will be recollected, sank his high rank and princely fortune, and became an obscure and toiling sailor in a merchant-vessel, in which position he was unhappily drowned. Young Seton was of this sort. His foible was a love of bellows-blowing, in which he excelled. It is a poor art, but requires tact, to blow slowly, firmly, and with regularity.
this overpowering fancy, the young nobleman did not disdain to take a hand at
the hammer and file, and occasionally wielding these implements, under the
instructions of the blacksmith, he worked with might and main, as if his means
of existence depended on his physical exertions. We suspect that eccentricities
of this kind may sometimes arise from the pleasure of baffling the researches of
perplexed, and almost heart-broken relations. The family at home, in their
palace at Seton, mourned over the loss of George, and hearing nothing of him,
gave him up as lost, vanished from the face of the earth. On the death of his
father, the next heir, taking for granted that the young earl was dead, was
proceeding to take possession of the inheritance, when he suddenly appeared,
claimed, and made good his rights. It was afterwards ascertained that a
confidential servant in the family kept him acquainted with what was taking
place, and had sent him intelligence of his father's death.
The Seton family had always been noted for their loyalty, and their attachment to the old church, and though George, the fifth earl had renounced the Romish faith, he inclined firmly to the political leanings of his ancestors. He was living peacefully at Seton Palace when the rebellion of 1715 broke out. Probably, he would in any circumstances have taken part in the insurrection, but his doing so was hastened, if not absolutely caused, by a body of the Lothian militia, who forcibly entered and rifled his house, as alleged through private pique and revenge. The most sacred places, as he said, did not escape their fury and resentment They broke into his chapel, defaced the monuments of his ancestors, desecrated their sepulchres, tore out the remains of the bodies, and treated them in a barbarous manner. This unprovoked brutality, which met with no check from the authorities, determined the earl to throw himself into the cause of the insurgents. It was from the first a hopeless adventure, and badly carried out. As has been*mentioned in our story of the Countess of Nithsdale, the Earl of Wintoun and other rebel lords rendered themselves prisoners at Preston, and were carried to London for trial on a charge of high treason.
The trial of the Earl of Wintoun took place at the bar of the House of Lords, and, with tedious formalities, lasted from the 15th to the 19th March 1716. His lordship pleaded not guilty, and in his defence urged certain extenuating circumstances, which were deemed unavailing. The principal witness against him was the Rev. Robert Patten, who, as a chaplain, had taken part in the insurrection, and lived to write its history. At the trial of the Earl of Wintoun, he cut a poor figure as king's evidence. It was clear from what he stated, that although the earl only took what might be called a mild part in the rebellion, the fact of being present with a drawn sword on several occasions when the Pretender was proclaimed, was sufficient to prove his complicity in the affair.
Being found guilty, he was condemned to return to the Tower, and thence taken to the place of execution, to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered. He was accordingly removed to an apartment in the Tower, with the prospect of having only a short time to live. The period of his confinement, however limited, was not spent in idleness. • How, through the ingenuity of his wife, the Earl of Nithsdale was smuggled out of the Tower on the night previous to the morning assigned for his execution, has been recently related in these pages. The Earl of Wintoun was equally fortunate in escaping his doom ; it was not, however, through female intervention, but by the mechanical skill which he had acquired while working as a. blacksmith in France. Being secretly furnished with files, and other instruments by a trusty servant, he sawed through the iron bars of his window, and dropping to the ground, managed to make his escape to the continent His titles, so far as concerned himself, and any issue he might have, were attainted, his estates were forfeited to the crown, and there was practically an end of the ancient House of Seton.
The earl died at Rome, December 19,1749. According to usual accounts, the earl had never been married, and the family in the direct line was extinct. An attempt was made to set aside the accepted belief on this point within our recollection. A young man named George Seton, who followed the profession of a saddler, at Bellingham, in the county of Northumberland, arrived in Edinburgh in 1825, and forthwith proceeded to have himself served heir-of-line to the noble family of Seton. At that time, the serving of heirs before bailies was rather a loose process, and led to some strange assumptions of dignity. George Seton, the saddler from Bellingham, succeeded in a process of this nature before the bailies of Canongate. The evidence he appears to have relied on was a traditional belief that George, fifth Earl of Wintoun, had been married, about the year 1710, to Margaret M'Klear, daughter of a physician in Edinburgh. Charles Seton, a son of this pair, was said to have been born in Northumberland ; as evidence of which fact there was produced 'a certificate by Mr Thomas Gordon, minister at Bellingham, of the birth of Charles Seton, dated 11th June 1711.'
The birth of Charles Seton was undeniable, but no proper proof was
advanced that he was the son of the attainted Earl of Wintoun. Growing up, he
resided as a labourer at Dunterly, in the parish of Bellingham, and George, the
claimant in question, was his lawful grandson. From the evidence of witnesses,
there were probable grounds for believing that George Seton was the
great-grandson of the unfortunate earl; but the want of a certificate of the
marriage with Margaret M'Klear settled the invalidity of the claim ; and it was
reduced by the Court of Session. Had it been otherwise, we should have had to
record a narrative as interesting as anything that has been related in the
Romance of the Peerage. For some time after the forfeiture, the representation
of the family continued in the knightly branch of Garleton, which ultimately
became extinct in the male line. The lineal representatives of the
baronets of Garleton became the Seton-Broadbents, who's ancestor was formerly a milliner in
London, and who was acknowledged by Mr Liddell to be heir-of-line of the great House
of Seton: such are the mutations in family history. However, in 1840, the late Earl of Eglinton, who deduced his descent from Robert, first Earl of Wintoun, was served
heir-male general, and heir-male of provision to George, the fourth Earl of
Wintoun, father of the attainted peer ; and in 1859 he was created Earl of Wintoun in the peerage of the United Kingdom.
The Setons were remarkable for their exceptionally fine taste in architecture and gardening, of which they left various memorials. Seton Palace, in East Lothian, was the ordinary residence of the family. It occupied a pleasant position on the coast of the Firth of Forth, and within a mile eastward of the field whereon was fought the battle of Prestonpans. The Palace of Seton—and it deserved to be called so—was considered the most magnificent and elegantly furnished house in Scotland— French-Chateau in styling, its adornment of towers, pinnacles, and buttresses—its splendid apartments and its beautiful surroundings, all raising an emotion of regret that so much to make life pass agreeably had been sacrificed needlessly and thanklessly in the worthless cause of (latterly) the most worthless of dynasties. Their old baronial castle of Wintoun, also in East Lothian was built chiefly for defence in troublous times, was replaced in the early part of the seventeenth century by a mansion in the Elizabethan style, erected from designs by lnigo Jones: originally as a home for the second Earl of Winton who passed the title to his brother and retired to private station in life; and secondly as a jointure-house for Lady Wintoun. This handsome structure, situated near Pencaitland in East Lothian, still exists, but disfigured by modern and tasteless additions by Lady Ruthven, who's family acquired it following the Seton-forfeiture.
There is no end of traditions regarding the style that had been kept up at Seton Palace. It had been visited in royal progresses by James V, Queen Mary, by her son James VI., and by his son Charles I. An account of the masques and ceremonies on these occasions would fill a volume. But, besides the splendour of the Palace, there was the solemn grandeur of Seton Chapel, situated on the immediate grounds. All are things of the past! That wonderfully fine ecclesiastical structure is now a cheerless ruin; and by an act of Vandalism, the Palace with its magnificent galleries, was swept away towards the end of 18th century, by a person who, for a short time, was possessor of the property. In its place was erected a mansion of that plain meaningless character that would answer for a boarding-house or penitentiary. Seton House, or Castle—the term ' Palace' being judiciously dropped—was long the property of the Earl of Wemyss. Damaged by the odious taste that predominated in the Georgian era, there is even now something to command respect in the environs. The gardens are still celebrated for the finest and earliest fruits of the season, and the stately elms in the park remind us that the works of Nature outlive the greatest efforts of genius.
Among the legends that float round this interesting domain, there is one relative to George, fifth Earl of Wintoun, that prior to departing on his ill-fated expedition he is said to have buried a large quantity of plate and other valuables, with the assistance of a blacksmith that he was acquainted with in the neighbourhood and in whose fidelity he had placed reliance. The recollection of this buried treasure haunted him in his weary exile on the continent, and after many years he contrived to return to Scotland in the hope of recovering what he had so carefully deposited. Unable to locate the blacksmith, the search was fruitless and he fled in despair. It was afterwards observed that the family of the blacksmith became opulent farmers in East Lothian. The story has many elements to give it credibility, in that the 5th Earl having been a blacksmith's apprentice and bellows-blower during his time in Flanders, was later known to have been familiar with the local tenants and tradesmen on his estate. He was already given to maintaining secrets, and with the actions of Seton of Garleton and the Viscount of Kingston's attempts to seize his title and estates, the 5th Earl was very distrustful of his extended-family.
This, combined with the growing Jacobite activites of the early 1700's leading up to the events of 1715, and the raid upon the Earl's Palace of Seton and destruction of the Collegiate Church; this combined is more than sufficient evidence and circumstance to warrant the hidden cache of valuables should there be a need. Several sources also note that the 5th Earl had visited Scotland in disguise, giving further credence to the Bellingham-Hancock claim that he had a son and visited him in Northumberland, and seeked to recover a hidden fortune, and which combined gives enough evidence to warrant sufficent investigation into the reality that the 5th Earl was in fact married, and oddly enough from the Masonic records of Rome, that he was actually married twice. While the male-line of the 5th Earl from Margaret Mk'Clear (McLain) in fact died out, the female-line passed to that of the Seton-Hancock family. However, he may well have had male-issue from his second marriage.