Right in the heart of Perth, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society occupies two adjacent properties, known as the Fair Maid’s House and Lord John Murray House. They are tucked away down North Port, a cobbled street which leads from Blackfriars Wynd towards Horsecross and the newly-built Concert Hall.
The houses each have their own fascinating story to tell, and the Fair Maid’s House in particular is just so pretty. But there’s more to this place than just a charming exterior. There’s a relic from a medieval monastery, and the memory of a royal murder…
LORD JOHN MURRAY HOUSE
“The arcaded frontage, which is in-filled by modern windows, may be a rare survival from a medieval merchant’s house.” RCAHMS
Although it’s known as Lord John Murray’s ‘house’, this 18th century property was once the stables for Murray’s townhouse which stood nearby. Born in 1711, Lord John Murray was a half-brother of the Jacobite leaders William Murray and Lord George Murray – but he seems to have held different sentiments entirely, because he became a colonel in the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment known as the Black Watch. This was the force that was set up by the British government to keep control of the clans after the 1715 Jacobite uprising. Murray served as a Member of Parliament for Perthshire between 1734 and 1761.
THE FAIR MAID’S HOUSE
Dating back to about 1475, this delightful little house is the oldest secular building in Perth. Its name is more recent, being derived from ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, a novel published in 1828 by Sir Walter Scott. In his story, this is the home of Simon Glover and his daughter Catharine, the ‘Fair Maid’. Scott must have known something about the history of the house, because from 1629 this was the headquarters of the Glovers’ Incorporation.
“He wrapped himself in his cloak, and hastened through the still silent streets, determined to appear at the window appointed a little before dawn. With this purpose he passed up the High Street, and turned down the opening where St. John’s Church now stands, in order to proceed to Curfew Street; when it occurred to him, from the appearance of the sky, that he was at least an hour too early for his purpose, and that it would be better not to appear at the place of rendezvous till nearer the time assigned. Other gallants were not unlikely to be on the watch as well as himself about the house of the Fair Maid of Perth; and he knew his own foible so well as to be sensible of the great chance of a scuffle arising betwixt them.”
Sir Walter Scott, ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’
Downstairs is the Earth Room, and there are further exhibitions and education rooms next door.
THE BLACKFRIARS MONASTERY
In between Lord John Murray’s House and the low building that now joins it to Fair Maid’s House is a wall that was once part of a medieval monastery. In 1231 a Dominican Friary was founded in Perth by Alexander II of Scotland, and by 1450 the Friary had expanded to occupy quite a considerable area of land. Several buildings were ‘feued’ or leased to tenants, and this led to the creation of Perth’s first medieval suburb. Within the monastery were lodgings used by the royal family and their court.
James I and a murky death
James had been King of Scotland in name since 1406, but his coronation only took place in 1424. This was because he had spent much of his youth on an extended ‘holiday’ in England, as a hostage of Henry IV and V respectively.
When the Scottish nobles eventually raised a ransom to bring him back, James set about governing his country with an iron hand, and it didn’t go down very well at all. Among his staunchest opponents were Sir Robert Graham and Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl. They started to hatch a dastardly plot.
In February 1437 James was staying at his lodgings in the Blackfriars’ monastery with his wife, Joan Beaufort. Towards midnight on 21st February, as James chatted to the Queen and her ladies in waiting, a commotion was heard in the passage outside. There was no other exit, so one of the Queen’s ladies tried to bar the door while James levered up some floorboards with a poker from the fire. Below the floor lay a cellar that contained a sewer. James leapt down there and the ladies hastily replaced the boards; but he was soon discovered, and stabbed to death. Queen Joan fled to Stirling Castle with her son, who was now James II.
Visiting the Fair Maid’s House
It’s usually open from early April to the end of October (check the RSGS website for updates). Groups can request a special visit, and rooms can be rented for small functions.
The centre is manned entirely by volunteers, so if you are planning a special journey you may wish to contact the RSGS in advance to check that it will be open. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01738 455050.
- ‘Perth’ by John Hulbert
- Scottish Places
- Alternative Perth
- Perthshire Diary
- A History of Parliament online
- Dundee Courier
- A full account of James’ murder can be found at the National Library of Scotland
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf and RSGS