Lady Fowlis Historical Query

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A guest Blog from Selina Graham who is researching Katherine Ross Lady Fowlis.

I stumbled upon the work of the Tain & District Museum by chance, as part of wider research I have been doing on the area. Little did I know when I first emailed the museum asking for their expertise and insight that together we would uncover some gems of historical knowledge waiting to be discovered within their archives.

With the help of Jason Ubych over the course of numerous emails we dove into the depths of 16th Century Ross-shire. I am a writer and historian and my recent work led me to the story of Katherine Ross of Balnagown, later and more famously known as Lady Fowlis, wife of Robert Mor Munro and accused witch.

Many may know her story through her alleged actions leading to trial, a story of epic magical conspiracy involving clay effigies, elven arrowheads and the “woman’s weapon,” poison. Two servants would die in the aftermath from poisoning, an act that had targeted Katherine’s stepson Robert who was set to inherit and her sister-in-law Marjory. Marjory would later die, the rest of her short life disabled by the poisoning.

The details of Katherine’s life can only be found in the documents left behind, which often reflect the drama and difficulties that coloured her life. Little is known about Katherine’s early life. She was likely born sometime around 1535, the eldest daughter of Alexander Ross, 9th of Balnagown.

She likely grew up in Balnagown at the centre of the Ross homelands. Both the Urquhart’s and the Munro’s were close neighbours of Clan Ross and would have featured in domestic discussions as neighbours and their actions often do.

It appears by the early 1560s Katherine was married to Robert Mor Munro, 15th Baron of Fowlis. We do not know for certain if Robert Mor was Katherine’s first husband, but we can be quite certain that Katherine was Robert Mor’s second wife, his first being Margaret Ogilvie. Katherine would become the stepmother to up to six of Margaret’s children. She would give birth to her and Robert’s first son, George Munro around 1565 and together they would have around 7 children.

Most of what we know about Katherine focuses around 1577, the time of the poisoning. Katherine herself managed to escape trial and execution at this point, although others were not so lucky. At least three people were strangled and burned as witches, with more accused and questioned. Katherine seems to have escaped north to avoid the witch-hunters wrath.

This is where the story of Katherine often stops. Most describe her as “living a long life”, “peacefully” and “surviving her husband.” Some go into greater detail, describing Katherine’s return just over a decade later after Robert Mor’s death in 1588. Yet Katherine’s story was not over. She will not die for another 15 years, and there is still the question of what she has been doing in the previous decade, north in Caithness.

My research hinged around one question, where was she at the end of her life? Most books say little more than she died in 1615, but one mentioned more:

“On  the  3rd  of  August,  1598,  a  bond  is  subscribed  at  Tain, and  registered  in  Edinburgh  on  the  14th  of  the  same month,  by  Hector  Munro,  apparent  of  Assint;  Hugh  Ross, apparent  of  Muldearg ;  and  three  others,  for  George  Sinclair of  Mey,  that  he  will  not  molest  Katherine  Ross,  Lady of  Fowlis,  William  Gordon  of  Brodland,  her  spouse ;  or William  Ross  in  Balnacnycht”[1]

This document reveals a number of unexpected things. Firstly, Hector Munro, the 17th Baron Fowlis was causing enough trouble to Katherine that she resorted to legal means to attempt to curtail him. The wording “he will not molest” can be understood as similar to a modern day restraining order.

To understand this we have to look back a decade previous, when Katherine returned to Tain. At this point Katherine’s stepson Robert Munro, the 16th Baron who she had tried to poison, sets up a trial for Katherine, eager for her to finally face the court.

However in another twist, Robert dies mysteriously before the trial can begin. The case is taken up by his younger brother, Hector, himself terrified of Katherine’s apparent witchcraft and power.  Hector turns to local witches himself for a protection ritual and as a result is himself prosecuted for using witchcraft. In 1590 both Hector and Katherine were tried and both were acquitted.

Yet a decade later, bygones were not bygones. Hector is still apparently harassing Katherine and her family and she has had to see legal protection. This small document gives us a sense of very deep wounds still not healed.

Katherine appears to have remarried at this point, a William Gordon of Brodland. We do not know anything more about William. While there was a William Gordon of Brodland, the 3rd Baronet of Lesmoir, he was likely 6 or 7 years old in 1598. As such this William Gordon is likely another, a not uncommon issue of old documents when many people shared very similar names.

I was eager to find exactly where Balnacnycht was, and in this search we uncovered an even greater mystery.

In George Bain’s A History of Nairnshire we see reference to a contemporary lady, going by the name Elizabeth Rose, who apparently married six times in total.[2] While this could be an unusual coincidence, the book names her first four husbands as “Urquhart of Cromarty, Munro of Foulis, Cumming of Earnside and McCulloch of Plaids.”

The names of these men match what we know of Katherine’s life very well. The Urquhart’s were the other large family of her local area. Assuming she was born around 1535 it would be unusual for her not to have married until her late 20s to Robert. Thus it is possible she had a previous husband and no issue. Thomas Urquhart is believed to have had 25 sons in total around this time, with a large number of them being killed during the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547.[3] Katherine would have been around 12 or 13 at this point, a common age of marriage especially for the eldest daughter of a significant Clan. The second husband, of course, would refer to Robert Mor Munro.

Thus the first two husbands of Elizabeth Rose match potentially match to Katherine’s lived experience. What of the next two? Cumming reflects a break with the area around Cromarty and Ross-shire, with the name commonly found in Aberdeenshire. However McCulloch isclosely associated Clan Ross and Tain itself, as the McCulloch’s were hereditary Baillies of Tain for a long time. This woman was clearly closely linked with the area of Ross-shire and her choice of husbands reflects this. At this point it is still speculation, but the sheer number of husbands suggests significant movement and upheaval in her life.

Elizabeth – or Katherine’s – fifth marriage is the focus of Bain’s interest, specifically to the Provost of Nairn, John Rose. It is unusual that his name is also Rose, although intra-clan marriages were not unheard of. At the same time, such a coincidence could be a hint that “Elizabeth Rose” is a pseudonym for sake of anonymity.

The mystery deepens with Bain mentioning that the marriage between John and Elizabeth was illegal and the marriage was dissolved. No further detail is given, Bain says no more except to mention that Elizabeth goes on to marry her sixth husband: a William Gordon of Broadland.[4]

This is the evidence we need to say with a strong degree of certainty that Elizabeth Rose and Katherine Ross were likely the same person. It would be highly unlikely for there to have been another, unknown lady, previously married to a Munro of Fowlis who later married a William Gordon of Brodland without some mention being given in at least one of the sources.

As such, through the men surrounding her, some of Katherine’s previously unknown life becomes clear. It is a typical casualty of history, that a woman at the centre of it can only be seen in the shadow’s she creates in male lives, but a deep shadow she did cast.

It is important to remember at the time a single woman had little to no political, economic or social power. All would come through her husband, and without one she would have been greatly disadvantaged, especially when we consider Katherine’s own story and the severe upheaval in her life that followed the events of 1577. This succession of husbands’ were a necessary protection in a world that viewed single women as the enemy, especially one already named as a witch.

By 1598 she was with William Gordon, living just south of Tain. She would die in 1615, her place of death unknown. The shadows she cast are unclear and difficult to follow even at the best of times. We cannot know if she ever saw her children again or if she enjoyed the company of her husbands, we have no notes from her or ideas of her thoughts.

We know, at least, that her life came in a full circle. Balnacnycht was next to the ancestral home of Clan Ross, Ardmore House: the scene of the poisoning that led her life in a very different direction. Thus at the very end, Katherine seems to have been near to home, with the good and the bad that would bring.

Katherine Ross’s story has been told many times. It will continue to be told, alongside all the other tales of witches we hear, from MacBeth to Wicked. But behind each of these inspirations lies a real person, a woman facing very real dangers in very real circumstances.  Katherine Ross was luckier than most, a new marriage and a new name were enough to hide her forever in the folds of history. If only all others were as fortunate as her.


[1] [1] MacKinnon, Donald. (1957). p.71and MacKenzie Alexander 1898 p.71-2

[1] History of Nairnshire p.240 

[1] [1] MacKinnon, Donald. (1957). p.71and MacKenzie Alexander 1898 p.71-2
[2] History of Nairnshire p.240
[3] Way, George and Squire, Romily. Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. (Foreword by The Rt Hon. The Earl of Elgin KT, Convenor, The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs). Published in 1994. Pages 336 - 337.
[4] Bain Nairnshire p.241