Hidden History of Edinburgh
Welcome to the third edition of the Hidden History of Edinburgh blog. Today, we’ll delve into a disastrous high school rebellion that shaped a rule that is still in place to this day.
In 16th-century Edinburgh, John MacMorran, a wealthy Baillie had a three storey mansion at Riddles Court which was built in 1587.
On the 1st September 1595 teachers of Edinburgh’s first grammar school flocked around his house like pigeons with a sense of panic in the air. At the head of the group was the headmaster, Hector Rollock. It wasn’t the first time that he was here to ask for help. The children at the high school were known for causing chaos and it turns out this time they were unhappy with their education, long school days and short holidays. It was the Baillie’s job as the head of education, law and order to go and fix the problem. Once again, like many times before MacMorran and his guards marched towards the school to sympathise with the students.
As they reached the Cowgate, the noise was deafening with the pupils howling abuse out of the windows to all those that passed by. When they got outside of the High School it was clear that the students were in charge. They had seized the building, kicked out the teachers and barricaded the doors. But when the Baillie arrived it went awfully quiet. One by one the windows were shut as the boys shied away until there was only one window left. A familiar face. It was the red headed Willy Sinclair, the son of the wildly erratic and aggressive Sir William Sinclair, Chancellor of Caithness.
Looking down at MacMorran he ordered everyone to stay away from the school unless they agreed to longer holidays. Ignoring this MacMorran replied “nae mair talking or listening till ye open that door!”. What happened next was nothing short of carnage. Willy brandished a pistol and shouted “Ca off yer men or ah’ll pit a ba through yer heid”. Not even fazed by this and now very impatient MacMorran ignored this and ordered his guards to force open the door. As the battering ram swung back and bashed the door for the first time there was a BANG. Everyone fell silent as MacMorran fell to the floor with a bullet drilled into his forehead. Willy had picked him off like a navy seal sniper. Panic erupted, the town guards opened fire to assert authority. Eventually seizing back the school.
In the aftermath of this tragic event the people of the Old Town demanded justice, MacMorran’s family sought blood for blood. But the incredibly powerful Lord Sinclair, Willy’s father had other ideas. He interceded with the King and forced the MacMorran to accept just compensation. As for the rebellious students, they got a tongue lashing and the parents got financial penalties. The blame was shifted to the teachers, especially the headmaster, Hector Rollock, for not maintaining order and discipline. To prevent further violence, a school rule was established banning gunpowder, fireworks, and firearms within the school grounds, a rule that still stands in the Royal High School’s regulations to this day.
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