Murder, Mayhem and the Muse in Jacobean Edinburgh: introducing Hercules Rollock (c. 1546-1599)

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

Hercules Rollock (c. 1546-1599) is a figure little-known to historians of Jacobean Scotland. His greatest claim to fame, or rather notoriety, is a gory one. On 15 September 1595, a tragic event took place at the High School of Edinburgh, where Rollock had been principal since 1584. A common practice in Scottish and English grammar schools in the sixteenth century as the summer recess approached was the practice of 'barring-out', where students would band together under a nominated leader and hold the school buildings hostage until the masters agreed to provide earlier or extended vacations. Normally this high-spirited prank would pass, as it did at Edinburgh in 1580 and 1587, without incident. Yet in 1595, a 'barring-out' led by William Sinclair, son of the chancellor of Caithness, rapidly escalated out of control. Barricading themselves in with pistols and swords, the students (the oldest of whom would have been no more than 14) seized control of every entrance into the school-house, leaving the town council with no choice but to attempt a forcible entry. John MacMoran, one of the baillies of the town, assaulted the main door with a group of men and a battering-ram. In the heat of the moment, Sinclair fired his pistol at the doorway as it was breached, shooting MacMoran through the head and killing him instantly.

The political fallout from this event was considerable. An outraged Edinburgh populace held the students in horrific conditions in the city Tolbooth for over three months, attempting to coerce them into submitting to a civic trial in Edinburgh so that they could dictate their punishment rather than hand them over to the crown. Only with the intervention of James VI were they removed from the city's custody and brought before the Privy Council for a hearing. Incredibly, all the students involved were allowed to go free, presumably because most of them were 'gentilmenis bairnis', sons of lairds and lesser nobility. 1

Held responsible for the unruly behavior of his young charges, the riot signalled the end of Rollock's career - a career that had been chequered at best and a disaster at worst. Graduating MA from St Andrews in 1568, Rollock had served briefly as one of the first Protestant regents at King's College Aberdeen before a period studying law at Poitiers in the latter half of the 1570s. After a brief spell in England, he returned to Scotland and in September 1580 was appointed by James VI to head up a newly-created commissary court in Dundee. Unfortunately, his post was summarily voided by the Privy Council in the following January after the St Andrews court successfully protested that Rollock was interfering in their jurisdiction. The riot of 1595 put an end to his eleven-year tenure as principal of Edinburgh High, and he was forced to eke out a living as an advocate in Edinburgh before he died suddenly in 1599, at the age of 54. 2

It might be appropriate to leave Rollock there, as a minor figure in a curious anecdote in Edinburgh's history, were it not for the fact that he was also a neo-Latin poet held in some regard by his contemporaries. Rollock's 'Wedding-poem on the most venerable marriage of James VI and Anna, daughter of the king of Denmark' 3 was the first and only piece published to celebrate the king's marriage to Anna of Denmark in 1589, and he contributed a poetic oration to Anna's royal entry to Edinburgh in the following year. His corpus includes a further 12 longer poems and 28 shorter pieces and epigrams, which range in topic from 'journalistic' accounts of events he had witnessed in Scotland and abroad as a student through to encomia for friends and savage attacks against his enemies. Virtually all of these were published posthumously in the Delitiae. 4 Rollock is the fifth-largest contributor to the collection with 64 pages, a fact which suggests that Scot and Johnston, as editors, felt his work was of sufficient quality to deserve an extensive amount of space. Rollock was also singled out for praise by the Danish professor Ole Borch (1629-90) in the series of critical lectures on Latin poetry he delivered between 1676 and 1681, both for his complimentary treatment of the Danes in the epithalamium and the general style of his other poems, which were 'written ... no less sweetly than learnedly' ('cecinit...non minus suaviter quam erudite'). 5

Rollock's poetry provides a range of insights into his intellectual outlook, his political and religious sensibilities, and his personal life, which augment considerably the bare biographical outline of him we currently possess and tells us much that we did not know about him. It also allows us to reconstruct the intellectual world of a man whose career marks him out clearly as an example of the 'middling sort', the new class of educated professionals - doctors, lawyers, educational specialists and, of course, ministers - which emerged over the course of the sixteenth century, but of someone who had far less social and political importance than the likes of Andrew Melville or George Buchanan. Now that we have introduced Rollock, in a series of upcoming features we will explore his poetry as a case study into the life and times of a more prosaic practitioner of the Latin muse in Jacobean Scotland, beginning with his earliest work.


1: For full details of the incident, see William Steven, The History of the High School of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1849), pp. 22-27, and appendix five, pp. 47-50; 'The Diarey of Robert Birrel, burges of Edinburghe', in John Graham Dalyell, Fragments of Scotish History (Edinburgh, 1798, 'Diarey' separately paginated), pp. 34-35; Calderwood, vol. 5, p. 382; RPC, vol. 5, pp. 236-238; Robert Pitcairn, Criminal Trials, vol. 1, p. 349. Even Sinclair escaped justice, and spent his life in isolated intellectual contemplation in Caithness, as several manuscripts owned by him attest: see Theo van Heijnsbergen, 'Renaissance Uses of a Medieval Seneca: Murder, Stoicism, and Gender in the Marginalia of Glasgow Hunter 297', in Studies in Scottish Literature, 39:1 (2013), pp. 55-81.

2: For Rollock's biography (though containing some errors), see Steven, High School, pp. 15-29; Stuart Handley, 'Rollock, Hercules (c.1546-1599)', ODNB. Clarifications and expansions to this brief biographical sketch will be found in upcoming features.

3: De Augustissimo Iacobi VI ... & Annae ... Danorum Regis filiae conjugio ... Epithalamium (Edinburgh, 1589).

4: DPS, vol. 2, pp. 323-387.

5: Olai Borrichii dissertationes academicae de poetis, publicis disputationibus in regio Hafniensi Lyceo assertae, ab anno 1676 ad annum 1681, nunc iterum evulgatae (Copenhagen, 1683). Borch reviews the entire contents of the Delitiae at pp. 142-60; discussion of Rollock is pp. 156-7.