The tenant farmer's rent
The Tenant Farmer’s Rent, Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, 1660–1668 Rijksmuseum

Martinmas, ‘Marti[n]mes’ in old Scots was November 11th, the feast of St Martin. It was often known as ‘Martinmas in winter’ to distinguish it from the feast of the translation of St Martin on the fourth of July.  In Scotland it was the half yearly quarter day when, with Whitsunday, landlords’ rents were paid, and new hands were hired. It was killing time, when cattle would be slaughtered and prepared for winter stores, and the winter’s supply of candles would be made. A ‘Martinmas coddoch’ is a cow which has been fattened up for slaughter at this time;[1] a ‘ladinar-mairt’ is salted to last until spring.

Martinmas was the name given to the first term of the university year at St Andrews, and is now the name of the first semester, starting in September. In the 16th century, and for a long while after it, the term began on October 1st.

A variant is ‘Martlemas’, shortened to ‘Martel’, obsolete in English since the seventeenth century. It is snatched in a song, ‘Oh, Martel’s wind, when wilt thou blow And shake the sear leaves off the tree?’[2], a melancholy reference to the time of year.

November slaughtertime
The Month of November, Slaughter time, ca.1600, Anonymous, after Aegidius Novellanus Maerten de Vos, 1600–1649 Rijksmuseum

News from Spain

Around ‘Lammastide’[3] of 1588, when the Spanish fleet was driven back from England and found its way into the Firth of Forth, there was much excitement among Scottish Catholics, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the proponents of the ‘trew’ religion. There was also great concern on the part of the elder English statesmen that the Scottish king should be kept on side, and not swayed by those papists he still harboured at his court, like the earl of Huntly[4], or by French or Spanish bribes. His adherence to the faith was not in much doubt, but he bore a grievance for the treatment of his mother, Mary queen of Scots, put to death by the English in 1587, and might be sympathetic if the prize for his defection was the promise of a seat on the English throne.

James turned events to his own advantage. His tolerance of the Catholic lords was a pragmatic one; it helped him to control dissensions in his land, and to resist the Kirk. He did not choose to persecute Jesuits, despite the frantic urgings of the ministers, but instead engaged them in a rational argument, in a manner which impressed the English ambassador in July and August 1588.[5]

On August 1st, intelligence came to the English from Berwick that ‘Albeit the King apparently travaileth earnestly to suppress papists and papistry in his realm yet the great papists still lie there safely and have great hope to get shortly their hearts’ desire through the Spaniards’. ‘Brutes’[6] were raised in Scotland that the Spaniards ‘were come upon the coast of England and had done hurt to her majestes navie’, leaving ‘many good men in great fear’.[7]

On the same day, James VI sent a letter of assurance to the English queen Elizabeth that he would behave to her ‘not as a stranger and a foreign prince, but as your natural son and compatriot of your country in all respects’. Her adversaries, he said, ‘will have ado not with England but the whole Ile of Britayne’.[8]

The king, having learned that the Spanish fleet had been seen off the west coast of England on the 31st of July, had broken off his summer stay at the Falkland hunting lodge to return to Edinburgh, where he summoned her ambassador, post haste.[9] There he showed the colours of a true ‘natural son’, by demanding the provision of a dukedom, a yearly pension of 5000 pounds, a personal guard of fifty men, and another 100 to patrol the border, to be maintained, through her lifetime, at her majesty’s expense. ‘There is no doubt’ the ambassador writes, ‘but that the King will hazard his life and crown against her majesty’s enemies both for the advancement of religion and the safety of her person’, but the counter offers were substantial: the Spanish had offered him provision for 20,000 footmen and 5000 horse, and ‘whatever strangers’ he was willing to admit, at their expense.[10]

The king requested also that his innocence of implication in the crimes which had led to his mother’s death, which had already been established in the Star Chamber, should be legally and publicly acknowledged, removing any bar to his succession to the throne, though he did not go so far as to request Elizabeth to name him as her heir. ‘Many things are demanded to get somewhat’, the queen’s ambassador supposed. ‘I judge some honourable pension would quench all the rest’.[11]

Asheby recommended buying the king off, since there was a risk that the ‘approach of the Spaniards into the narrow seas’ would stir up Scottish Catholics, and make it harder for the king and the ‘best sort’ in his country to ‘keep all Papists and discontented persons from taking arms in favour of the enemy’.

The ‘best sort’ in the country thought the same. In Edinburgh on the 9th of August the burgh council made provision for the raising of three thousand plus merks to pay the wages of three hundred men of war to defend the town ‘in respect of the constant bruitt and credibill apperance of the arryvell within this realme of the Spayngyie navie as alreddy cum within the Scots seyis’.[12]

Asheby advised again on August 6th that the king was firm in his friendship and religion, but that his demands should be met. On August 10th, he wrote to Burghley that the Spanish fleet having been driven ‘from the narrow seas’ hoped to join in Scotland with the northern lords, and that there was a move afoot to match James in marriage with the daughter of Spain, for a dowry of 20,000 footmen and 10,000 horse, in order to avenge his mother’s death and set the crown of England on his head, but that James remained true to Elizabeth. He could not, however, contend with the papists and the malcontents already in his land, or the threat from strangers, without financial aid. ‘Every pound her majesty sends now will save twenty later, and many a life’. The king was asking now for an annual pension of 20,000 French crowns, and the return of lands ‘descended to him by his grandmother, the lady Margaret’. A rumour had reached Edinburgh that a ‘great number of ships’ had been spotted in the north of Scotland, but ‘whether they were English or Spanish none could tell’.[13]

On August 11th it was reported that the Spanish fleet had already landed in the Moray Firth, 100 miles from Edinburgh, in the country of the earl of Murray, suspected for a papist. Edinburgh had taken up, at its own cost, 500 footmen to defend the town.[14]

By August 22nd, as the storms took grip, it was clear that the Spanish bluster had blown out. Asheby noted that the Spanish fleet had been seen around Orkney and Shetland on August 10th, where they took aboard water and fish. The king felt it might help him to pacify the ‘malcontents’ if Elizabeth bestowed on him the order of the garter, ‘an earldom, or suchlike’. Though the crisis was averted  – ‘it is thought here that the Spaignishe fleet have gone whomewards’[15] – the king remained hopeful. Sir Robert Sidney, taking over as ambassador, received his request for 3000 pounds.

William Asheby, writing to Elizabeth on September 7th, asked pardon for the ‘error’ of his promises to James which passed the ‘bounds of [his] instructions’ but which he had thought necessary due to ‘the danger of revolt in this country through the Spaniards approaching into the narrow seas’.[16]

The danger to Scotland had quite plainly passed, for the next time we encounter reference to the Spanish in the records of the burgh which had raised the funds to fight them several weeks before, they are in a state of pitiful defeat, and, in the spirit of the country[17] in which they find themselves, fresh funds are sought for their relief:

Contributioun Spayngyearts.

Forswamekill as thair is cum to this burgh to the number of threttie nyne Spayngyerts of the Spayngye navie and ma to follow, quha hes maid schip wrak in Ireland, and is cum in at the west verray naiket, pure and desolatt, fynds it expedient that the bowellis of mercie, compassioun, and christiane cherity be schawin vpoun thame, and thairfore that ane collectioun to be maid throw the haill toun and imployet in clething to thame, and the superplus to be gevin thame in money that thai may be despeschet away; and appoyntis euery baillie in his quarter, takand the persouns following with him, to craif the sam … and quhill thair claythes be gottin that thai be sustenit vpoun the said contributioun [18]

God had laid to wrack the vengeance of the fleet, and Scotland could afford to be magnanimous.

The English did not feel quite the same. They were mistrusting of the welcome given to the refugees –  numbering 660 by the end of the year – and  arranged for their repatriation in 1589. Meanwhile, ‘The Spanish faction begins to grow in great credit’, Roger Aston wrote to Walsingham in December.[19] In January 1589, Thomas Fowler reported having dined with Bothwell, ‘where I found four Spanish captains whom he entertains’.[20] One of those captains was Juan Gomez de Medina, commander of the Spanish flagship, El Gran Grifon, who had fetched up in a borrowed barque on the shores of Anstruther on November 26th.[21]

Armada 1588
The Spanish Armada off the English Coast in 1588, Cornelis Claesz. van Wieringen, c. 1620–1625 Rijksmuseum

The Anster Gran Grifon

The minister James Melville was woken in his bed early in the morning (of what we must suppose was a dark and stormy night) by the news that a ship had arrived in Anstruther harbour full of Spaniards, ‘nocht to give mercie bott to ask’[22] for it. Melville was presented with ‘a verie reverend man of big stature, and grave and stout countenance, grey-heared, and verie humble like, wha, after mickle and vey law courtessie, bowing down with his face near the ground, and twitching my scho [shoe] with his hand, begang his harang in the Spanise toung’.

The sailor explained, through a young interpreter, that he was the commander of twenty hulks and that he and several of his captains had been driven by the storm onto the rocks at the Fair Isle of Scotland, and were shipwrecked there, where the survivors had remained for six or seven weeks in great hunger and cold, until taking a barque out of Orkney they had come to supplicate to the king of Scotland, and seek relief for themselves and their crew of 260 men, ‘whose condition was for the present maist miserable and pitifull’.

After a short homily on the kind beneficence of the Scottish Kirk, the commander and his captains were invited to come ashore for refreshment, while the men were kept on board the ship until Lord Anstruther arrived, to entertain the officers humanely in his own house, and to permit the crew to disembark. The soldiers, ‘for the maist part young beardless men, sillie, trauchled[23], and houngered’, were given kale, pottage and fish. Their general was Juan Gomez de Medina, who had the charge of the flagship El Gran Grifon, and the command of twenty urcas, or supply ships to the Spanish fleet.

The sailors did not know the extent of the damage that the fleet had sustained until Melville bought a pamphlet in St Andrews with the names of the ships and the lives which were lost, which when it was shown to Gomez de Medina, ‘O then he cryed out for grieff, bursted and grat’.

Juan Gomez, who had made such a great impression in Anstruther, set out with his compatriots for Edinburgh and was eventually repatriated in a convoy of four Scottish ships, paid for and allowed free passage by Elizabeth. The ships were waylaid by the Dutch, and many soldiers drowned. The general, though, survived, and lived to return the favour, when he came upon an Anstruther ship captured at Cadiz. He went to plead on her behalf at court, made much of Scotland to his king, and ‘tuk the honest men to his hous’, where he ‘inquryt for the Lard of Anstruther, for the Minister, and his host, and sen[t] hame manie commendations’.

His ship El Gran Grifon had been wrecked at Stroms Heeler, between Orkney and the Fair Isles (on Fair Isle is a spot called the ‘Spainnarts’ Graves’). The wreck was excavated in 1970.[24]

In 1984 a party from the reconstructed Spanish Orden Tercio Viejo del Mare Oceano, wearing the costume of the old conquistadors, retraced the steps of the shipwrecked sailors from the Gran Grifon, to Fair Isle where they planted a cross to commemorate the men who died there, and to the harbour at Anstruther where they were no doubt as warmly received as their ancestors had been almost four hundred years before them. [25] The Anstruther manse, built for James Melville in 1590, is said to have been paid for by Spanish gold. I have heard no report that it has a ghost.

autumn storm
Herfst/Autumn, Robert de Baudous, for Cornelis Claesz. van Wieringen, 1591–1618

Things that go bump in the night

The reformed Kirk of Scotland removed from its order books the rites for the dead that had long brought comfort in the Catholic Church. Dead bodies were interred soberly and quietly, without ‘comfort of psalm’. For while prayers were essential for a living body, who might still repent or be saved from harm according to God’s plan, they were of no purpose for the dead, for whom no intervention was required, or possible. Prayer could not assist or intercede for those whose fate was predetermined long ago, and who were now in heaven or in hell.

For that reason, all superstitions attendant on death, the watching of corpses and prayers for their souls, were discouraged by the Kirk. The souls of the dead could not walk the earth. Purgatory did not exist.

But spirits did. As there were witches, and fairies, so there were ghosts. And if the ghosts were no longer the spirits of the dead, then they must be the devil, taking on their forms. How and why they appeared, and what they might mean, was addressed in the book by Ludwig [or Lewes] Lavater, first translated into English from the original Latin in 1572, which gives shape to the ghosts in the Martinmas stories.

Lavater title page
Title page from British Library night-by-ludwig-lavater-1572

Lavater was a Swiss reformed theologian in the Calvinist tradition whose De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus, translated into several languages, was an influential work which has been linked to Shakespeare’s ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth. As Lavater explains, a ghost may be the product of a melancholy mind. For ‘it cannot be denied, but that some men which either by dispositions of nature, or for that they haue sustained great misery are now become heavy and full of melancholy imagine many times with them selues being alone, miraculous and strange things’ [10].

Mad men, too, imagine things which are not really there, as do timid, fearful men, and women, ‘which for the most part are naturally given to fear more than men’:

If when men sit at the table, mention be made of Spirits and elves, many times women and children are so afraid that they dare scarce go out of doors alone, lest they should meet with some evil thing: and if they chance to hear any kind of noise, by and by they think there are some spirits behind them, such vain persuasions haue they. [14]

People who have trouble with their hearing or their sight often too imagine things which are not really there.

Then there are those who play practical jokes, or malicious ones, leading their victims into fear and dread. ‘It is a common custom in many places, that at a certaine time of the year, one with a net or visard on his face maketh Children afraid, to the end that ever after they should labour and be obedient to their Parent, afterward they tell them that those which they saw, were Bugs, Witches and Hags which thing they verily believe, and are commonly, miserably afraid’, says Lavater. ‘Howbeit, it is not expedient always so to terrify Children. For sometimes through great fear they fall into dangerous diseases, and in the night cry out, when they are fast asleep’. In the margin is a further note of disapproval: though Solomon says that children ought to be chastised, ‘he doth not say we must bear them in hand they shall be devoured of Bugs, Hags of the night, and such like monsters’[21]. The sense in his argument is striking still.

There have been, too, in days past, priests and monks who have dressed up and pretended to be spirits, feigning miracles.

Lastly, there are many natural things mistaken for ghosts: the crying of cats, the stamping of a horse in the stable at midnight, the gnawing of a worm in a wainscot, the sound of a bittern through the air.

Lavater comes to the thesis of his book in chapter twelve: despite the reasoned arguments that have gone before, to explain the ghost in almost every case, he does not mean to say that ghosts do not exist.

Albeit many melancholic, mad, fearful and weak sensed men do oftentimes imagine many things which in very deed are not, and are likewise deceived, sometime by men, or by brute beasts: and moreover mistake things whiche proceed of natural causes to be bugs and spirits, as I haue hitherto declared by many examples, yet it is most certain & sure, that all those things which appeare unto men are not always naturall things nor always vain terrors to affray men: but that spirits do often appeare, & many strange and marvellous things do sundry times chance  [53]

When all the possibilities of reason are ruled out, then the one that remains, probable or not, is that there is a ghost, and where there is a ghost, it is the devil’s work. There is the possibility that it may be God’s, but the chance is small. Lavater takes the same line on this as Calvin did on miracles, which was demonstrated by Andrew Melville’s character at the beginning of Friend & Foe, when the hawthorn at St Mary’s blossomed bright with blood. Miracles have ceased, but the devil can appear in many different forms.

Spirits do appear, and there are omens too, strange cracks and noises heard before battles, and strange premonitions of death. But the spirts, Lavater says, are not souls of the dead, but ‘either good or evil Angels, or else some secret and hid operations’ [98]. Nor should we doubt at all that the devil can appear in the shape of a ‘faithful man deceased’. It does not mean the man has gone to hell. Satan is by nature both a spirt and an angel, and can transform himself into any thing.

While good angels may appear, they are rare, while evil ones are ‘hurtful and enemies unto men, they follow them everywhere, to the end they may withdraw them from true worshipping of God’.

‘It is no hard thing for the devil to appear in diverse shapes and to bring to pass strange things’ [167]. His purpose is to make us stray from God. To make matters worse, the devil deceives. Sometimes he will bid men to do good, and to avoid evil, and sometimes he will tell the truth, to establish credibility and to lure us in. For the nervous Calvinist, with no way of knowing whether he is likely to be one of the elect, the world is full of traps. It is this kind of reasoning that drives Colin Snell in our story to distraction. ‘God by the appearing of Spirits doth exercise the faithful and punish the unbelievers’ [175]. But only God can know which one he is.

dead father appearing to son
Dead father appears to his sleeping son, Caspar Luyken Rijksmuseum

Lore of the Land

November take flayle,

Let ship no more sayle.

Forgotten month past,

Do now at the last. [26]

November is the last chance to do what must be done before the winter comes. It is time to put the earth to bed, and to plan for the following year, ‘contrive or forecast where and what you are to sow and plant,’ prepare composts and soils, plant fruit trees and cabbages, and to gather in the seeds of holly and the yew[27].

In season still are onions, leeks, purslane and fresh parsnips. The apples and pears are weathering nicely, to a point where Doctor Locke, with his horror of fresh fruit, may consider they are almost safe to eat. In the physic garden, Meg is growing liquorice root, good to open up the lungs and to cleanse the phlegm prevailing at this time of year, which is cold and wet.

Phlegmatic men, her husband says ‘must abstain from meats the which is cold. And also they must refrain from eating viscous meat specially from all meats the which doth engender fleumatic humours, as fish, fruit, and white meat ….And to beware not to dwell nigh to waterish and moorish ground. These things be good for fleumatic persons moderately taken, onions, garlic, pepper, ginger. And all meats the which be hot and dry. And sauces the which be sour’.[28]

Meg buys ginger and pepper from the apothecary, who has replenished his stocks at the last of the fairs in November. After the end of the month, there will be no more ships until the spring. Thankfully the harbour has come through the storms, though it wants repair.

The Martinmas beef has been salted and stored, but should not be eaten in excess, or the briny flesh may lead to bladder stones. There is, at least a remedy: ‘If it do come accidentally by eating of meats ye wi ingender the stone, take of the bloud of an Hare, & put it in an earthen potte, and put therto three ounces of Saxifrage rootes, and bake this together in an oven, & than make pouder of it, and drinke of it morning and evening’.[29]

According to Gray’s almanac, this month will be filled with fogs, clouds, sleet, rain and winds. The 17th is bent to storms. The 18th and 19th will produce ‘a pretty gale’ and weather ‘fit for the season.’ The following three days will be ‘freezing.’

The full moon on the 23rd, near one of the clock in the morning, in Gemini, will bring in some ‘good winter weather’, followed by increasing winds, three days dark and changeable, until the month comes to a close with ‘great winds’ and ‘dark air’, liable to freeze.[30]

The almanacs predict the weather many months ahead, with a breezy confidence rarely to be found in forecasts made today, though doubtless with as little, or as much, success.

November breeds rheum that will trouble the head

Beware of new wine though it be of the best

And baths of warm water are to be fled

And so is venery as well as the rest[31],

Richard Grafton warns in his. The bright cheer of Yule still feels far away.




[1] Definitions from DosT. A ‘mairt’ or ‘mart’ is a fattened beef-cow. A ‘ladinar’ is a larder.

[2] Quoted in Dsl:

[3] See James Melville, note to Lammas, above.

[4] Huntly ‘converted’ to Protestantism in 1588, but remained true to his former religion. ‘Huntly is now become of the religion, as he himself says, but no great proof of it yet.’ Calendar of State Papers relating to Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots, 1547–1603, vol. 9, 1586–1589, Glasgow, 1915. Roger Aston to Walsingham, December 13th, p.646.

[5]Calendar of State Papers relating to Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots [CSPS, hereafter] vol. 9, August 6th, William Asheby to Burghley, p.591. The ‘Jesuit’ was Mr James Gordon, uncle to the earl of Huntly [Letter of July 25th, Asheby to Walsingham, p.584].

[6] i.e. ‘noises’ or rumours.

[7] CSPS, Intelligence from Berwick, August 1st, p.588.

[8] CSPS, James VI to Elizabeth, August 1st, p.588.

[9] CSPS, William Asheby to Walsingham, August 3rd, p.589.

[10] Asheby to the same, on the same date [CSPS, no.485] p.589.

[11]CSPS, Asheby to Walsingham, August 6th, p.590.

[12] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1573–1589. August 9th 1588. ‘Spayngyie navie, iije men of weir.

In respect of the constant bruitt and credibill apperance of the arryvell within this realme of the Spayngyie navie as alreddy cum within the Scots seyis, furnist with men of weir and mvnitioun, quhairby nocht onely is the estaitt of the Kingis Maiestie and of the realme bot als the trew relligioun and haill professouris thairof in greitt daynger, thairfore it is thocht expedient that bayth all the inhabitants of this burgh be in reddynes to resist and concur with the rest of the cuntrey quha sall inairme thame selffis for that purpose, and that thre hunder men of weir be rayset vpoun the townis charges for defence of the toun and resisting of the said enemy; and for this purpose ordanis the sowme of thre thowsand and fyve merk to be tayne vpoun the commoun guid to pay thair wedges’.

[13]CSPS, August 10th p.595.

[14]CSPS, Letter from Sir Henry Woddryngton, August 11th, p.595.

[15]CSPS, Letter from Asheby to Walsingham, August 22nd, p.600.

[16] CSPS, Asheby to Elizabeth, September 7th, p.610–11.

[17] Anne Gordon’s book about the role of the Kirk Sessions, Candie for the Foundling, gives a compelling account of the balance between chastisement and charity, social coercion and social inclusion, ‘half horrible, half noble’, prevailing in Scotland at this time.

[18] Edinburgh Burgh Council Records, October 11th 1588. There were further petitions as more shipwrecked sailors arrived, including on Nov 1st: ‘New collectioun for the Spayngyerts. Fynding that thair is new cum to this burgh ane greitt number of schipbrokkin Spayngyerts in maist meserabill estaitt, bayth naiket and famishet, thinks expedient that ane new collectioun be maid for thair support throw the haill toun’.

[19] CSPS, December 13th, p.646.

[20] CSPS, Thomas Fowler to Walsingham, January 15th 1589, p.670.

[21] All dates are Old Style.

[22] The Diary of Mr James Melvill, 1556–1601, Edinburgh, 1829 p.174–76. Quotations which follow are from the same source.

[23] Trauchled: exhausted

[24] A full description of the site and excavation can be found at Canmore:

[25] See Peter Anderson, ‘The Armada and the Northern Isles’, in Northern Studies, 1988, vol. 25 pp.42–57. At the time of writing there is a picture of the cross [and the Spanish costume] at the Fair Isle Marine and Tourist Initiative: and an account of the visits in the Scotsman Magazine for June 1984, in the National Library of Scotland.

[26] Thomas Tusser, Five hundreth points of good husbandry, 1573.

[27] John Reid, The gard’ners calendar, 1683.

[28] Andrew Boorde, A compendyous regyment or a dyetary of healthe, 1547: ‘a dyete for Fleumatyke men’.

[29] Andrew Boorde, The breuiarie of health, 1587.

[30] Walter Gray, An almanacke and prognostication, made for the yeere of our Lord M.D.LXXXVIII, 1588.

[31] Richard Grafton, A brief treatise conteinyng many proper tables and easie rules verie necessary and needefull, 1573.