Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitcairn, Robert (1520?-1584)

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PITCAIRN, ROBERT (1520?–1584), commendator of Dunfermline and Scottish secretary of state, born about 1520, was descended from the Pitcairns of Pitcairn in Fife. The name of Piers de Pitcairn appears on the Ragman Roll as swearing fealty to Edward I in 1296; and Nisbet had seen charters of the family as far back as 1417 (Remarks on the Ragman Roll, p. 36). The commendator was, however, descended from a younger branch of the family, being the son of David Pitcairn, not of Pitcairn, as usually stated, but of Forthar-Ramsay in the barony of Airdrie, Fifeshire, and his wife Elizabeth Dury or Durie (Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1546–80, entry 667). On 22 Jan. 1551–2 his father sold to him the lands of Forthar (ib.) He was educated for the church, and became commendator of Dunfermline, in succession to George Durie, in 1561. Occasionally his name appears in letters and contemporary documents as abbot, but he was only so by courtesy, the office having ceased to exist with the abolition of the religious houses. He was also archdeacon of St. Andrews.

Pitcairn was one of those summoned on 19 July 1565 to a meeting of the privy council as extraordinary members, to take into consideration a declaration of the Earl of Moray as to a conspiracy against his life, at Perth (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 341). On 19 Oct. of the same year he was appointed keeper of the havens of Limekilns and North Queensferry, with the bounds adjacent thereto (ib. p. 381). He is erroneously stated by Keith (Hist. ii. 540) to have been one of Argyll's assessors at the trial of Bothwell. After the surrender of Queen Mary at Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567, he was chosen a lord of the articles; and on 29 July he was present at the coronation of the young king, James VI, in the kirk of Stirling (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 537). On 2 June 1568 he was appointed an extraordinary lord of session; and in September of the same year was chosen one of the principal commissioners to accompany the regent Moray to the conference with the English commissioners at York in reference to the charges against Queen Mary. He was present in the same capacity at Westminster and Hampton Court. At the Perth convention, in July 1569, he voted against the queen's divorce from Bothwell (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ii. 8); and in September he was sent to London to acquaint Elizabeth with the various negotiations connected with Mary's proposed marriage to Norfolk (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1569–1571, entries 420, 457; Herries, Memoirs, pp. 117, 119). Some time after the assassination of the regent Moray he was, in May 1570, again sent ambassador to Elizabeth to know her pleasure in reference to the future government of the realm, and to ask for aid in ‘repression of the troubles’ (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1569–71, entries 871, 927); but his mission met with indifferent success.

On his return to Scotland Lennox was chosen regent, and, as this election caused Maitland [see Maitland, William, 1528?–1573] finally to sever himself from the king's party, Pitcairn was chosen to succeed him as secretary. In November of the same year he was again sent on an embassy to England (ib. entries 1393, 1404); and he was also chosen to accompany Morton on an embassy, in the following February, to oppose proposals that had been made for Mary's restoration to her throne (ib. entry 1518; Herries, p. 131). Along with Morton, he was also sent, in November 1571, to treat with Lord Hunsdon and other English commissioners at Berwick for an offensive and defensive league with England, the chief purpose being to obtain aid from Elizabeth against the party of Queen Mary in the castle of Edinburgh (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1569–71, entry 2133). The negotiations were successful, and on their return the Scottish emissaries received the special thanks of the privy council (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ii. 99). Pitcairn enjoyed so much of the confidence of Morton that he was entrusted by him with the delicate duty of conducting negotiations with the English ambassador Killigrew in regard to the proposal for delivering Mary to the Scottish government with a view to her execution (cf. especially Proofs and Illustrations, No. xxiv to vol. iii. of Tytler's Hist. of Scotland, ed. 1864). He was frequently employed in negotiations with the defenders of the castle of Edinburgh, and was one of the commissioners for the pacification, with Huntly and the Hamiltons, at Perth in February 1572–3 (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ii. 193).

Notwithstanding his close association with Morton, Pitcairn was a party to the conspiracy against him in 1578; and he was one of the new council of twelve chosen after Morton's fall to govern in the name of the king (Moysie, Memoirs, p. 6; Calderwood, Hist. iii. 397). On 27 June he was, ‘in respect of his ability and experience,’ chosen as ambassador to Elizabeth to thank her for the favour shown to the king ‘in his younger age,’ and to confirm and renew the league between the realms (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ii. 707–8). On his return he was declared to have ‘truly, honestly, and diligently performed and discharged his charge,’ and this declaration was ordered to be embodied in an act ‘ad perpetuam rei memoriam’ (ib. iii. 23). On 20 May 1579 he was appointed one of a committee for the sighting of the Lennox papers (ib. p. 163); on 8 Aug. one of a commission for enforcing the act of parliament for the reformation of the universities, with special reference to the university of St. Andrews (ib. pp. 199–200); and on 23 April one of the arbiters in reference to the feud between the clans of Gordon and Forbes (ib. p. 279). Along with other chief persons of the realm, he signed the second confession of faith, commonly called the king's confession, at Edinburgh, 28 Jan. 1580–1 (Calderwood, iii. 501). He was one of a commission appointed on 15 July following to hear the suit of Sir James Balfour (d. 1583) [q. v.] and report to the king (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iii. 403). Although latterly an opponent of Morton, the sympathies of the commendator were with the protestant party, and he had a principal share in the contrivance of the raid of Ruthven on 23 Aug. 1582, by which the ascendency of Lennox and Arran in the king's counsels was for the time overthrown. On 11 Jan. following the keepers of the great seal were ordered, under pain of rebellion, to append the great seal to the gift of the abbacy of Dunfermline to Henry Pitcairn, son of the commendator's brother, reserving the life-rent to the commendator. This was to insure that the nephew would succeed, the gift having been made in recognition of ‘the long and true service of the commendator to the king since his coronation’ (ib. iii. 543). On 26 April the commendator was appointed assessor to the treasurer, the Earl of Gowrie.

The commendator used the utmost endeavours to prevent the counter-revolution at St. Andrews on 24 June 1583; and, while seeming to favour the king's proposal for a convention of the nobility there, he ‘gave the king counsel to let none of the lords come within the castle accompanied with more than twelve persons.’ ‘This crafty counsel,’ says Sir James Melville, ‘being followed, the next morning the castle was full of men for them of the contrary party well armed,’ who would again have made themselves masters of the king but for the immediate arrival of various gentlemen from Fife (Memoirs, pp. 288–9). For some time after the counter-revolution the commendator remained at court. Finding his position insecure, he endeavoured to retain the king's favour by bribing Colonel Stewart, captain of the guard, to whom he presented a velvet purse containing thirty-four pound-pieces of gold. The colonel, however, informed the king of the gift, representing that the purse had been sent to bribe him to betray the king. He further distributed the gold pieces among thirty of the guard, ‘who bored them and set them like targets upon their knapsacks, and the purse was born upon a spear-point like an ensign’ on the march from Perth to Falkland (ib. p. 292; Calderwood, iii. 721–2). Arran having shortly afterwards arrived at Falkland, where the king then was, the commendator was sent into ward in the castle of Lochleven; but on 23 Sept. he was set at liberty upon caution to remain in Dunfermline, or within six miles of it, under pain of 10,000l. (Calderwood, iii. 730). During the winter of 1583–4 he set sail to Flanders (ib. viii. 270). He returned to Scotland in a precarious state of health on 12 Sept. 1584, and obtained license to remain in Limekilns, near Dunfermline (ib. p. 725). He died on 18 Oct. following, in his sixty-fourth year. In the entry in the records of the privy council, representing him as having died before 25 April 1584 (Reg. P. C. iii. 755), the date 1584 seems to be a mistake for 1585. Nor did he die in exile, as stated in the preface to the volume (p. lxvii).

After his death the grants made by him out of the abbacy were revoked, on the ground that he was ‘suspect culpable’ of treason and had greatly dilapidated his benefices (ib. pp. 711–12); but after the extrusion of the master of Gray from the abbacy in 1587, Pitcairn's nephew Henry entered into possession of it. The commendator was buried in the north aisle of the church of Dunfermline, where he is commemorated in a laudatory Latin epitaph as the ‘hope and pillar of his country.’ Pitcairn is supposed to have been the author of the inscription on the abbot's house, on the south side of Maygate Street, Dunfermline:

Sen vord is thrall and thocht is free,
Keep veill thye tonge, I counsel the.

[Histories by Buchanan, Calderwood, and Spotiswood; Cal. State Papers, For. Ser., reign of Elizabeth; Herries's Memoirs (Abbotsford Club); Hist. of James the Sext, Melville's Memoirs, and Moysie's Memoirs (all in the Bannatyne Club); Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1546–80; Reg. P. C. Scotl. vols. i.–iii.; Chalmers's Hist. of Dunfermline.]

T. F. H.