Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


Archive Anecdotes

Snippets from the city's archives

Feb 17, 2015

Three hundred years ago, on 17 February 1715, the funeral of James Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig was registered in the records of the Yorkshire parish of Calverley. Although Drumlanrig was the eldest surviving son of the 2nd Duke of Queensberry, he did not suceed his father as 3rd Duke due to his mental disabilities.

Instead his younger brother Charles became the 3rd Duke. As a young boy Drumlanrig had lived in the family's Canongate home, Queensberry House, and there, in 1707, is alleged to have been involved in a notorious violent tragedy.


Queensberry House was built in 1667. It was purchased by William Douglas, 1st Duke of Queensberry in 1689.

It is now a category-A listed building which was renovated and integrated into the new Scottish Parliament complex as part of the design of Enric Miralles. It contains the office of the Presiding Officer and the Donald Dewar Room.

It is the red roofed white building at the centre of this photograph of the Parliament complex. The Scottish Parliament’s ‘Visit and Learn’ website gives a summary of the building’s history and makes reference to the alleged incident of 1707


The veracity of Drumlanrig's tragic tale is a matter of historical debate, but, in 1826, Robert Chambers gave a very full account in ‘Traditions of Edinburgh’.

It appears that James Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig, had severe learning difficulties and by the age of 9 had grown to ‘an enormous height’. Chambers explains that young Drumlanrig was kept out of public view, confined in the western wing of the house in a room darkened by permanently shuttered windows. This solitary confinement is likely to have had a negative effect on the unfortunate boy's mental health.

In 1707 his father, Queensberry, was lead commissioner negotiating the Act of Union with England which abolished the Scottish Parliament. Chambers continues:

'On the day the Union was passed, all Edinburgh crowded to the Parliament Close to await the issue of the debate, and to mob the chief promoters of the detested measure . . . The whole household of the commissioner went en masse. Two were left behind – (Drumlanrig) himself and a little kitchen boy who turned the spit.  (Drumlanrig) broke loose from his confinement . . . it is supposed that the savoury odour of the preparations for dinner led him to the kitchen, where he found the little turnspit quietly seated by the fire. He seized the boy, killed him, took the meat from the fire, and spitted the body of his victim, which he half-roasted, and was found devouring when the duke, with his domestics, returned from his triumph.’

The family moved young Drumlanrig to England, and he did not return to Scotland. Chambers disassociated himself from those who used the incident to defame the Union:

‘This horrid act of his child was, according to the common sort of people, the judgment of God upon him for his wicked concern in the Union – the greatest blessing, as it has happened, that ever was conferred upon Scotland by any statesman.’

The Queensberry family sold the house to the Board of Ordnance in 1801 and thereafter it was variously a barracks, a House of Refuge and in the second half of the twentieth century a geriatric hospital. According to volume XV of the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club two massive arched fireplaces were discovered in carrying out structural alterations in 1926. As a result the oven where the unfortunate boy was allegedly cooked still survives, and can be seen on the ground floor.

It has been suggested that the ghost of the kitchen boy haunts Queensberry House. Staff, who worked in the hospital in the 1970s and 80s, reported that some residents claimed to see a young boy, visible to no one else, as they lay on their death beds.



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