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The Rise of the Clans

Neil Oliver‘s

latest history series has been shown through December on Monday evenings (BBC1 Scotland) and twenty-four hours later on BBC4.

The first part, of three, showed how the power vacuum caused by the sudden deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter was resolved through the clan system and John Balliol’s abdication so that alliances were formed behind the remaining claimants Robert Bruce and John “Red” Comyn, culminating in a brawl in the Dumfries Greyfriars, during which Comyn was fatally stabbed. Robert I’s reign, including his strategic triumph as he unexpectedly arranged a pitched battle at Bannockburn is also explored.

The second part explores how, after the reign of David II, Robert I’s son, Clan Stewart evolved from a branch of the (Norman) Fitzalans, who are now Dukes of Norfolk through their Howard marriage, to supply every Scottish monarch from 1371 and every English monarch from 1603, now through the Bohemian marriage of James VI and I’s daughter. The reigns of the first three Stewarts were narrated, the weaknesses of Robert II and Robert III, the absence and the authoritarian – Lancastrian? – royal style of James I together with the conflict between Robert III‘s sons were used to show how James’ assassination and the ensuing executions, organised by his widow Joan “Beaufort”, resolved this before the end of 1437. Gradually, from James I’s time, the Stewarts succeeded in gaining power from the MacDonalds, who held the Lordship of the Isles.

Finally, we focus on Mary, simultaneously the last Stewart and the first Stuart, through her marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley (of the Lennox Stuarts), and his mysterious death at Kirk o’Fields, up to her dethronement and exile. The clan chieftains played a significant part in her initial downfall, as they plotted to reverse Knox’s organic Reformation that had taken place during her absence. At this time, her half-brother the Earl of Moray allied himself to the Earl of Morton, the leading Douglas. Then, after marrying the (Hepburn) Earl of Bothwell, Mary fled south – and her life ended at Fotheringhay where Richard III’s had begun.

As usual, this evocative series features realistic dramatisations in which Oliver appears almost as a witness in some scenes. The detail exceeds that of his A History of Scotland and, as usual, nobody featured in the episodes is beyond reproach.

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