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The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney
The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney

Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney lived from 1569 to 6 February 1615. The son of Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, Patrick adopted his father's tyrannical approach to governing the islands: though unlike his father he took his political manoeuvreing a step too far, losing his head in the process, and bringing to an end the short and brutal Stewart dynasty on Orkney and Shetland. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

As a child, Patrick Stewart had been close to his half-cousin, James VI of Scotland. But on succeeding to the Earldom on his father's death in 1593, Patrick quickly started to become a concern to the authorities in Edinburgh. Even before his father's death it had been noted that Patrick referred to himself as Lord of Shetland and Earl of Orkney. And as early as 1594 he had to go to Edinburgh to face charges that he had seized a merchant ship belonging to the Hanseatic port of Danzig: in effect, piracy.

Patrick had no qualms about following the family tradition of using islanders as slave labour, and generally behaving as if he had sovereign powers. In 1598 he besieged and then captured Noltland Castle on Westray, removing its rightful owners, the Balfour family. From 1600 he moved his focus of activity from the family home in the Earl's Palace at Birsay to Kirkwall. He started by remodelling the old Bishop's Palace, and when this proved inadequate to meet his ambitions, he acquired neighbouring land (in a process involving the trial and execution of the previous owner on trumped up charges of theft) and in 1607 used slave labour to build the Earl's Palace in Kirkwall.

Meanwhile, in Shetland, Patrick worked to gain control of the islands from his father's half brother, Laurence Bruce, who his father had appointed as Sheriff of Shetland. Patrick's obvious dislike of Bruce had grown to the point where, in order to ensure his safety, Bruce had built Muness Castle on Unst in 1598. In 1600 Patrick Stewart responded by building Scalloway Castle in a strategic location guarding Shetland's main settlement. In 1608 Earl Patrick moved against Lawrence Bruce. He first evicted a relative of Bruce's from Stewart family property at what is now called Jarlshof. Then he went to Unst with 36 men and artillery, intent on capturing or destroying Muness Castle. And he might well have succeeded had he not suddenly withdrawn for reasons that have never been explained.

In 1609 events began to catch up with Patrick, and he was summoned to stand trial in Edinburgh on charges laid against him by the recently installed Bishop of Orkney, James Law. Patrick was released on taking an oath he would not try to escape, but in 1610 he was rearrested and imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle when his supporters in Orkney refused to answer summonses against them.

Patrick remained in captivity until 1614, still trying to negotiate his freedom in return for relinquishing his interests in Orkney and Shetland. But in May 1614, Patrick's son Robert Stewart, acting on Patrick's orders, landed on Orkney with a small group of followers, and took possession of the Earl's Palace at Birsay. Perhaps surprisingly, Robert Stewart gained considerable local support for what amounted to an uprising against the King, and when the stand-in Sheriff of Orkney turned up in Birsay with 200 men he was beaten back by musket fire.

The rebels under Robert Stewart then advanced on Kirkwall, taking possession of the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces, the Cathedral and nearby Kirkwall Castle. On 23 August royal forces under the Earl of Caithness landed on Orkney to restore order, which they did on 30 September when Kirkwall Castle surrendered, after an artillery barrage that left it largely destroyed. The Bishop's Palace was badly damaged during the same engagement, and it was only the personal intervention of the Bishop that prevented St Magnus Cathedral meeting the same fate.

The young Robert Stewart was hanged for treason in Edinburgh on 1 January 1615. Patrick Stewart was beheaded, also in Edinburgh, on 6 February 1615: only after his efforts to evade execution by blaming his son for the uprising had failed. At the time the most damning indictment of his character was that his execution had to be deferred in order to give him time to learn the Lord's Prayer, which he didn't know. The Earldom of Orkney was extinguished with Patrick's death.

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