The Scottish Deerhounds Who Saved His Head

Few who read Dan Brown’s book,  The Da Vinci Code, could put it down. The religious mystery was fiction, of course, but was so well written that it inspired a few readers to ask, “What if?”

What wasn’t fictional is the 15th-century chapel in Midlothian that figured at the centre of The Da Vinci Code’s conspiracy theory. Rosslyn Chapel does exist, and has done so since William Sinclair, the first Earl of Caithness of the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family founded it in the 15th century.

Scottish Deerhound,King Robert the Bruce,Sir William St. Clair, Help and Hold, legend

Rosslyn Chapel

Sir Sinclair is our segue to the Scottish Deerhound, and another tale that begs the question: Fact or fable?

Deerhounds were prized by Highland Chieftans and were in full use in the days of King Robert Bruce. While the dogs were bred to chase down red deer for food, occasionally, it was for sport. One or two Deerhounds would be released, and they would attempt to bring down the deer. If the deer got out of sight, the hunt was over.

Scottish Deerhound,King Robert the Bruce,Sir William St. Clair, Help and Hold, legend

Sir William St. Clair

As the story goes, one particular deer escaped Bruce’s hounds on several occasions in the forest of Pentland Moor. The king asked his nobles if any of them had dogs they thought could do better, and not surprisingly, no one was bold enough to say their dogs were better than those belonging to the sovereign. That is until Sir William St. Clair spoke up. He made a wager that his two favorite Deerhounds named “Help” and “Hold” would capture and dispatch the deer before it could cross the March burn (a channel of water). The king was willing to take that bet, and wagered the Forest of Pentland Moor in “free grant” versus Sir William’s head in case of failure.

Once the deer was in sight, St. Clair uncoupled the dogs and followed on horseback. His heart fell when the deer reached the
middle of the brook, and in a panic, he leapt from his horse. It was at this critical moment that “Hold” stopped the deer in the brook, and with “Help” coming up to help, the deer was turned and ultimately killed within the stipulated boundary.

The king, not far behind, came upon the scene, and right then and there, made good on his wager and bestowed upon St. Clair the lands of Kirton, Logan House, Earncraig, and the promised forest.

Sir William was one of the knights chosen to accompany Sir James Douglas to the Holy Land with the heart of Bruce (long story), but he was killed, along with Douglas, on the plains of Andalusia by the Saracens in 1330. He was laid to rest in Rosslyn Chapel,  and though the centuries have worn down the effigy, his tomb presents him in armor, a Deerhound at his feet.

Image: Scottish Deerhounds postcard listed in 1926/1927 Postcard Catalogue by N. Drummond

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