IT was the curse of the Stewart/Stuart dynasty that so many monarchs of that line died before their time, leaving children on the throne of Scotland. Since no child could rule, regents were appointed and these men and one woman truly were the powers behind the throne.

Because he ascended the throne as an infant, the longest-reigning King of Scots was James VI, who was crowned at the age of just 13 months when his mother Mary abdicated. He reigned as James VI of Scotland for 57 years and 246 days until he died in England at the age of 58 on March 27, 1625. Having succeeded Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603, he had also been King of England for 22 years by the time of his death.

I will be looking at the Union of the Crowns and James’s later life in a future column, but will stress now that the Crowns were united only in a personal and dynastic sense under James, and Scotland and England remained separate kingdoms – apart from Oliver Cromwell’s intervention in the 1650s – until May 1, 1707, when the Act of Union took effect creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

READ MORE: The debauchery, scheming and murder mystery in the last years of Mary, Queen of Scots

There is a hugely important lesson for Scots from the history of the period 1603 to 1707, and I intend to show how we can learn from that history that there is nothing to stop Scotland reverting to being a separate kingdom, if the sovereign people of Scotland so desire.

It followed that James VI being so young when the Crown was placed over his head, there had to be numerous men who were the powers behind his throne.

As we saw last week, the first two Regents of James’s reign, the Earls of Moray and Lennox, both met violent ends, earning the unwanted distinction of being the first two heads of government anywhere to be assassinated by firearms.

John Erskine, the 1st Earl of Mar, succeeded Lennox as Regent, and he quickly appointed James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, as his military commander. It is important to note that the civil war between Mary’s supporters and what became known as the King’s Party was still ongoing, with Edinburgh and its port of Leith the main scene of the conflict, veteran soldier Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange and Sir William of Maitland of Lethington leading the Marian Party. Once again in the Stewart/Stuart dynasty, actual possession of the monarch was key to the events of his minority, and now we meet the first power behind the throne of James VI – and unusually for that time it was a woman.

The Earl of Mar was hereditary keeper of Stirling Castle and as an infant, and at the request of his mother, James VI stayed there with Mar and his wife, the remarkable Annabelle Murray, who has come down to us through history as the Countess of Mar.

The Earl and Countess had been close to Mary, and that brought her the enmity of John Knox, the Reformer calling her a “verray Jesabell” because she had influenced her husband to oppose Knox.

At Stirling she became head of the king’s household, staying in the role even after her husband died in 1572, succeeded as Regent by the Earl of Morton. Letters and records which have survived from that period describe her taking good care of James, and Morton was at first happy for her to supervise the boy king as the Countess and her brother-in-law Alexander Erskine, the Master of Mar, were clearly doing a good job of caring for James. They were not in charge of his schooling, however, which brings me to two of the main powers behind the young king’s throne.

The Reformers led by Knox were anxious that James VI should be raised as an exemplary Protestant, and so the young king had thrust upon him by Regent Moray two of the greatest scholars of the period, George Buchanan and Peter Young.

The National:

Buchanan (above) was a leader of the Reformation and already in advanced years when he was sent to tutor James. Famed across Europe for his scholarship, particularly his brilliant use of Latin in poetry and philosophy, he had once been Queen Mary’s classical tutor but turned against her and became, after John Knox, the most outspoken critic of the Queen of Scots.

Arriving at James’s court at Stirling when the king was just four, he seems to have spent a great deal of time turning her son’s mind against her, proclaiming her a “murderous whore”. He was overly fond of physical chastisement but there is no argument that he made the boy king a budding genius.

In 1574, for instance, we find the English Ambassador Sir Henry Killigrew writing to Elizabeth of England’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsinghham about James saying: “He speak of the French tongue marvellous well and that which seems strange to me he was able extempore, which he did before me, to read a chapter of the Bible out of Latin into French and out of French into English so well as few could have added anything to his translation.”

Buchanan had once studied in France and it was in Paris that he took his degree. He was very influenced by the humanist thought of the Renaissance and at one time he was jailed in Portugal for questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church.

He was no believer in the divine right of kings – on the contrary, he promulgated the theory that a monarch only gained credence to rule by the will of the people, and the people had the right to overthrow any tyrants, kings or otherwise.

In later life that philosophy would bring him great trouble as James VI outrightly rejected any such thought. His writings on the subject were banned and Oxford University had them burned.

Buchanan was given more positions by Regent Moray and at one time was Moderator of the General Assembly, a great honour for a layman. After his tutorship of James VI, he contented himself by writing his great work Rerum Scoticarum Historia, the History of Scotland which was published in 1582, the year of his death. It is still a vital work for historians, even if his bias against the Catholic Church and Mary, Queen of Scots, was all too obvious.

There’s no doubt that, as senior tutor to James VI, he instilled a great love of learning in the king’s mind so that by the age of eight he was able to translate and converse in Greek, Latin and French and had a working knowledge of other languages.

The future “wisest fool in Christendom” was an excellent pupil for both Buchanan and his co-tutor Peter Young.

From my researches I have learned that Young is one of the most fascinating characters in 16th century Scotland. He is also a much neglected figure though Magnus Magnusson in his book Scotland: the Story of a Nation rightly gives him credit for his achievements.

One of Young’s feats that survives to this day was his assemblage of some 600 books for James VI to read and study. They would form the basis of the Royal Library and many are in the current Queen’s collection.

As we shall see next week, Young was a very influential person in James VI’s life, and was never far from the King as an advisor and ambassador for decades.

That he was trusted by people as diverse as James and Regent Morton shows the respect which his intellect had earned.

Morton had become Regent on November 24, 1572, the very day that John Knox died. Morton is said to have paid his own kind of tribute at Knox’s funeral: “Here lieth a man that neither feared nor flattered any flesh.”

The new Regent then turned his formidable focus on the remaining supporters of Mary, with English men and arms supplied by Queen Elizabeth. Any one point in the civil war between the King’s Party and the Marian Party, Leith and Edinburgh became the two headquarters of the rival factions, but Morton’s forces gradually wore down his opponents.

The only outpost of the Marian Party which survived by the beginning of 1573 was Edinburgh Castle and in May of that year, Morton’s English cannon unleashed a horrendous bombardment of the Castle, which lasted a week before Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange surrendered to the English commander Sir William Drury, who had made them a promise of safe conduct. Elizabeth personally overruled her commander in the field and Drury had to hand over his captives to Regent Morton.

Sir William and his brother James were subjected to a show trial, i.e. no trial at all, and were hanged at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on August 4, 1573. Maitland of Lethington, who had joined them in Castle, was already dead, possibly by his own hand.

His body lay unattended in Leith Tolbooth and provided a feast for the local rodent population …

There was a curious postscript to the life and death of Kirkcaldy of Grange, for having learned the truth about him, in 1581 and now on the throne in his own right, James VI restored the Kirkcaldy lands to the family and gave a speech which, translated, reads as follows: “Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, when wars stood between this realm and England, did such valiant and acceptable service at many battles in those wars, and also did so valiantly and manfully in a single combat according to the Laws of Arms that it merits perpetual commendation, and likewise he was one of the most notable instruments used by Almighty God amongst the nobility and gentlemen of this realm in suppressing idolatrous religion ... and one of the most keen to reveal the odious murder of the king’s father and offered his body to any of honest degree that would take the defence of the Earl of Bothwell (at Carberry), and to have revenge followed him by sea to Shetland, where Sir William in great danger shipwrecked.”

Which brings me to the tale of Regent Morton, the last of the four regents who ruled during James VI’s minority. After the capture of the castle, Morton set about consolidating his rule over Scotland and he did so roughly and successfully. Scotland was at peace for the remaining years of his regency which lasted until 1578 when aged just 12, he became fully king and ruled Scotland in his own right.

The usual age for a boy to be deemed in his majority was 14, but the eloquence and learning of James VI seems to have convinced his privy council that he was ready for the role.

The following year James was at Stirling when a visitor came calling that would change James’s life. He was a dazzlingly handsome relative of James named Esme Stuart, the Seigneur (Lord) d’Aubigny, a nephew of Matthew, the Earl of Lennox. I will be writing more about this fascinating character next week, but in the meantime it is sufficient to know that having come to Scotland on Lennox business, he and the King were introduced to each other on September 15, 1579.

Esme was determined to rid James of what he considered the baleful influence of Morton, who was still first lord of the Privy Council. Stuart conspired with a Captain James Stewart of Bothwellmuir – no shrinking violet not least because he had been the brother-in-law of John Knox – who was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and in charge of the Royal Guard.

The captain flounced into a meeting of the Privy Council and accused Morton of being involved in the murder of Henry Darnley, the King’s father. Morton denied being ‘“art and part’” in the killing but admitted to having knowledge of the plot. He was duly beheaded in Edinburgh on June 2, 1681, on the guillotine device known as the Maiden that, according to legend, he may have introduced to Scotland.