This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

August 2001


18 August 1746:    William Boyd of Kilmarnock, Scottish Jacobite leader, executed by the English.

Believed to be a distant relation of the author of this piece, William Boyd, the 4th Earl of Kilmarnock, occupied a special place as, if perhaps not the most distinguished of the Jacobite leaders of the 1745 revolt, then surely the most merrily cynical. While most of the other rebel leaders escaped abroad, William Boyd came to a notably gory end, and afterwards enjoyed a unique afterlife in Scottish folklore.

The Boyds of Kilmarnock had been consistent supporters of Scottish independence, and had played a prominent and valiant role in Scotland’s battles from Bannockburn on. They were a sept of the royal Stuart clan, whose dynasty had claimed the thrones of both England and Scotland (and Ireland) in 1603. But in 1688 James VII was dethroned by the English parliament. In the century that followed there would be repeated attempts by the Stuarts to reclaim “the throne of the three kingdoms.”

But by 1745 the Stuart cause had grown old to many people, and when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to launch a revolt against the English King George II, William Boyd’s son could see no good reason or obligation for him to support the Stuarts, and instead volunteered his services to King George. But William, still the laird of Clan Boyd, thought differently. Once one of the greatest of Scotland”s noble families, by 1745 the Boyds had fallen on hard times, and, sitting in his antiquated 14th century tower house in Kilmarnock, William Boyd was facing bankruptcy. As Bonnie Prince Charlie gathered his forces and began to head south, William, by his own free admission, thought less of the rights and wrongs of the matter than of the supply of French gold coins, “Louis d’Or,” that Charlie was known to be spreading around. His enemies would later say that William joined the ’45 revolt purely out of mercenary motives, and at his trial he didn’t deny it, telling the judges bluntly that “for the two kings and their rights, I cared not a farthing which prevailed; but I was starving....”

Whatever his motives, William Boyd saw few Louis d’Or but nevertheless faithfully served Prince Charlie as commander of the Jacobite cavalry. When the end came at the disastrous battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 he held the rear line of the Jacobite army. Unfortunately being mounted on a horse didn’t enable William to escape when the Jacobite army collapsed, and instead he and his men did what the cavalry was there to do: cover the escape of the Prince and his surviving clansmen. In the process William was captured by the advancing English and achieved the dubious distinction of being the highest-ranked Jacobite prisoner.

At his trial in London his admission of mercenary motives cut him no slack from the vengeful English judges. He was convicted of treason and beheaded before huge crowds in front of the Tower of London just four months and two days after the Culloden disaster.

Accounts of what happened next vary, but on or about the day of his death an apparition of the bloodied severed head of William Boyd was seen floating into the main room of his tower house in Kilmarnock, and was said to be seen on at least a couple of occasions afterwards. Lady Boyd, evicted from the house due to the family’s bankruptcy, eked out her life in a small cottage nearby, and her spirit is said to haunt the river pathway along which she often walked. Her grief became the subject of the hauntingly beautiful song, “Lady Kilmarnock’s Lament.” And various lochs and caves in Scotland are rumored to be the hiding place of a great Jacobite treasure, whose lost Louis d’Or might have bailed William Boyd out of bankruptcy.

Today there is little in the way of a monument to commemorate William Boyd, but on the battlefield of Culloden a unit position marker informs the visitor that “to the rear stood Kilmarnock.”

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

For more stories, click the links below:

Previous Month            •            All Months            •            Next Month