In Search of The High Admiral of Scotland

On board the ferry for an early crossing from Hundested to Rørvig

Waves sometimes splash over the front of this little ro-ro ferry. For that reason I’ve parked my two wheels a wee bit further back. The crossing is only 20 minutes but it cuts quite a bit off the journey. 

Leaving the harbour there’s a panoramic view to my right along the sandy coastline. Beyond that is the open Kattegat and Sweden. 

I’m on a voyage of discovery. Here in the north-west corner of Sjaelland there’s rumoured to be a famous – or if you prefer, infamous – character from Scottish history. So, I’ve decided to give my little motorbike a run-out, and head off into the great blue yonder. 

The character I’m looking for is not fictional, even though his saga does read like something from a novel. No, he existed all right, but his final years are something of a mystery. That said, some light has been thrown on his time in Scandinavia in a book written by Frederik Shiern, a 19th century history professor from the University of Copenhagen. Shiern’s book, was translated into English in 1879. Today, the out-of-print book can be found in digital format on 

We’re sailing from the sleepy town of Hundested to Rørvig. Our vessel is larger than I remember – the reason being it’s newer and was built in Bangla Desh. As the company says, it finally found a yard that could construct a ferry for a price that suited their budget. Sounds like one of my wise biker pals who in Yoda-like tones said, “Peter, the best motorbike you can buy is the one you can afford!” Actually, there are a few other considerations, but the point is valid – also when procuring ferries.  

In times past, you could catch a sea connection from Hundested to Jutland. It was a slow leisurely crossing. I liked it. However, the advent of super-fast catamarans from a port slightly more to the west meant the route was shut down. That left the town without one of its main employers. But it has re-invented itself as a small business centre and home to creative arts. 

There are 53 domestic ferry routes in Denmark. This is partly due to a government commitment to small island communities. There’s a lot of talk about de-centralisation here, so I suppose keeping remote communities connected is part of that. It’ll no doubt be one if the issues in the upcoming election, called this week for 1 November. 

We dock in the small holiday town of Rørvig. There’s not much here apart from the local marina and the mini ferry terminal. Along the only main street are some seasonal shops and ‘restaurants’, if you include those ubiquitous Danish ‘Grill Bars’ and other modest eateries. 

That said, people don’t come here to eat out. It’s about ‘holiday hygge’. This is a ‘sommerhus’ area. Danish sommerhus (literally, ‘summerhouse’) are small second homes. They are hugely popular, also as holiday rentals. They’ve become increasingly luxurious (and expensive) over the years. The Swedish equivalent is the slightly more rustic ‘stuga’, and in Norway it’s a ‘hytte’ or ‘fjellhytte’. I’m not entirely sure why they are commonly referred to as ‘huts’ in English. It gives a rather misleading image of what they are. Still, Lesley Riddoch has a Ph.D in this so perhaps she can explain. Anyway, I digress. 

You’ve probably guessed from the title that I’m looking for the final resting place of the 4th Earl of Bothwell. A quick online search will tell you he was appointed Lord High Admiral of Scotland in 1556, but he’s better known as James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. I’m following up on some information that indicates his remains are at Dragsholm Castle. 

Back on the bike, the roads are quiet in this remote corner of the main island. Danes refer to this part of the country as ‘provinsen’. The word is a bit loaded. You see, if you’re from provinsen, you are likely to be less sophisticated and considerably less chic than than those smart Copenhaganers (‘Københavnere’).  

Dragsholm Castle

Dragsholm is fairly easy to find. And after parking the bike, my first impressions are that it’s one of those country estates that’s morphed into a going concern, through a mix of agriculture, and residential conference-type facilities. 

The wonderfully restored buildings are, unfortunately, deserted. Lovely interiors, though devoid of human life. There is the distant sound of a vacuum cleaner, or is it a disturbed spirit of maids past? So, nae luck on the information front. Clearly, Dragsholm and its creaky floorboards have gone up in the world since Hepburn ended up here as a political pawn of Frederik II. 

Back outside, I ask one of the gardeners if he’d heard of the 450-year-old Scottish noble who’d ended his days here. I’m in luck. Turns out James Hepburn is no longer a mummified curiosity at the spooky castle. He’s been interred at a local church several kilometres away. 

Now, if you’d been watching Stage 2 of the Tour de France this year you’d have seem this church. The peloton passed rather close to it’s white walls and modest tower. Sadly though, no mention was made of its famous links with Scottish, French, and not least Danish history. The commentators missed a trick there. 

The church in Fårevejle in north-west Sjaelland

Something that I had been mulling over en route was that if Scotland had a Lord High Admiral, she also had a navy. Apparently, our naval tradition dates back some 400-500 years pre-1707 Union. Its role is described as having been mainly ‘coastal defence’. 

King James IV, who seems to have been infinitely more enlightened than James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, upgraded our navy during his reign. To be honest, James the VI, who was so keen on the idea of ‘Britain’, is what historians might call a ‘piece of work’. A religious fanatic and witch burner. What his long-suffering Danish wife had done to deserve him is beyond me. 

The Scottish Navy will, of course, be restored after we reclaim our independence. Though what kind of force it will be, remains to be seen. On this topic, it was hugely encouraging to read these recent words from Chris McEleny: 

“The Alba Party will propose a new defence policy to its members, shunning NATO and putting maritime security at the forefront of Scottish defence.” In previous years, this would have been a statement from the SNP. Alas. Now we have the likes of Alyn Smith, Stuart Hosie and Stewart McDonald. Three neocon wannabes at Westminster who haven’t seen a NATO ‘intervention’ they didn’t like.  

My personal opinion is that we, as a maritime nation, should return to coastal defence only. I hope the Alba Party membership opts for non-aligned neutrality as the basis of Scotland’s future foreign policy. After all, NATO is a Cold War anachronism looking for a purpose. It should have disappeared along with the Warsaw Pact.  

Irish MEP, Mick Wallace, summed it up in front of the the European Parliament, when he said: “NATO is not a defense alliance, it’s a war machine. Ask the people of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.” 

It’s also increasingly clear that smaller nations, such as the Nordics and Baltics, are not NATO ‘members’ as such, they are doomed to be obedient vassals. It’s only a matter of time before the power of veto is removed from smaller nations in both the EU and in the former Cold War military alliance. The big boys don’t want their carefully laid schemes frustrated by a bunch of ‘diddy nations’, to borrow fitba parlance. 

Honestly, after hundreds of years as England’s subjugated source of military cannon fodder, do we really want to become a US proxy or nuke base for NATO’s high heidyins? The current inexperienced leadership of the Finns and Swedes are falling over themselves to cast aside their precious neutrality. Why should we follow them down the path to the status of an Armageddon front-line state? 

As independent Scots we could, and should, use our restored freedom to focus on the three D’s of – diplomacy, detente, and de-escalation. Lately, these words appear to have been expunged from the Western media’s list of permitted terms. And yet, if there’s one thing desperately needed for the survival of the human race, it’s peacemakers. 

Who can forget the rendition of ‘Freedom, Come All Ye’ back in 2014 at Celtic Park? 

“Broken faim’lies in lands we’ve harried, will curse Scotland the brave nae mair, nae mair.” 

Post-colonial Scotland can be a beacon of hope in a troubled world. 

There are steep stairs up to the church in Fårevejle. Inside it’s quiet. The scent is definitely ‘old historic structure’. There’s stained glass and vaulted arches, but no High Admiral. He’s here somewhere, because the church notice board out by the street says so – but where? 

I check the graves outside. There’s nothing amongst these to suggest the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots is here. But, once again, I have underestimated the Danes – and their respect for history. There are some steps to a small crypt underneath the church. Inside it’s clean and tidy. In the middle of this small room is a casket containing the remains of James Hepburn. On the wall there’s a stylish information board, well, it’s really more of a tribute to the once exiled Scottish captive. 

I’m guessing if Hepburn had been Danish, a film would have been made about his life by now. The Scandinavian years of the Earl of Bothwell are a screenplay waiting to be written. The main character is husband of heir to the Scottish and English thrones – now a political prisoner, touched by international intrigue. There’s assassination, English spies, and French intercession. And of course, a particularly cruel regicide.  

My main source on Hepburn indicates he was not a constant captive. He enjoyed periods of liberty and royal patronage. His fate changed, though, as international events unfolded. Schiern writes: 

“It was in the year 1573 that there occurred for the first time a radical change in the treatment [of Hepburn] previously experienced in Denmark…  

“Perhaps we may see in it one of the consequences of the French St. Bartholomew’s night, in the year 1572; that massacre in which five hundred Protestant nobles and ten thousand persons of lower rank were sacrificed, which destroyed in all Protestant countries the respect for the king who, from the windows of his own palace, made himself a spectator to the murder of his subjects, which called forth curses upon the name of the Guises, and everywhere lessened sympathy with the fortunes of Mary Stuart.” 

One day, in an independent Scotland, some of the revenues from our exports and natural resources will actually benefit all of our people – not least through the arts. I look forward to a production of ‘Bothwell’, filmed on location in Orkney, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and France. Who knows, the final scene may even be filmed in the small crypt in Fårevejle. Here, In this remote village, he has finally received some kind of respect – after centuries of indignity 

Ann an Dia no dhìon dìon mi” – In my defens God me defend (motto of the Royal Scottish Navy) 

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