The Goodman of Ballengeich

Contributed by Marilyn McPhie

James V of Scotland had been crowned when he was only two years old, and like many kings before and since, he often wondered what life would have been like if he had been one of his subjects, rather than royalty.  He sometimes amused himself by dressing as a commoner and walking unrecognized through the streets of Edinburgh.  Dressed in simple clothing, he called himself the Goodman of Ballengeich.

One day James was walking near Cramond Bridge when he was attacked by a band of robbers.  He backed up onto the narrow bridge and drew his sword to defend himself.  He was a skilled swordsman, but the odds were not good.  Five men against one.  Luckily for James, his plight was noticed by a farmer laborer named John Howieson.  He saw the fight from the barn where he was threshing grain and ran to help the stranger.  Together the two of them fought off the robbers.  The king was hot and dusty and had received some small wounds in the battle, and John Howieson brought him back to the barn to recover from the ordeal.  He produced a basin of water and a clean towel for the king to wash his bloody hands.

As they talked James asked the man about himself.  Was this his farm?  John Howieson sighed and told him that he was only a poor laborer on the farm.  The farm itself belonged to the king.  In fact, he admitted that if he had one wish in life it would be to own the land he farmed.  “That would be your wish?” asked James.  “Yes,” said the man, “but I don’t see how that could ever happen.”

As they continued the conversation, James sai that he had a small position at Holyrood Palace and asked the farmer if he’d like to see the castle.  Of course, John Howieson said that he would.  James told him to come the next Sunday to the back entrance of the palace and ask for the Goodman of Ballengeich.  He’d show him around the palace and maybe he could even see the king himself.

John Howieson did come to the palace the next Sunday, and – as instructed – he asked to see the Goodman of Ballengeich.  The king had left word with the guards that if anyone came and asked for the Goodman of Ballengeich, they were to notify him.  So King James appeared, again dressed in the clothes of a commoner, and greeted the man, thanking him again for his help in defeating the robbers.  Together the two of them walked through the palace, and finally James told the man that they were going into the great hall, where he could see the king.

The great hall was filled with many nobles, and the farmer whispered to James, “How will I recognize the king?” to which James replied that he would know the king because all the others in the hall would have removed their hats in the king’s presence, so only the king would be wearing a hat.  The farmer looked around and then whispered, “I still don’t see the king.”  “Remember what I said,” said James.  “The king will be wearing a hat.”

The farmer looked around again and then joked, “Well, it looks like you and I are the only ones wearing hats.  And I know I’m not the king, so . . . . “  At this, James smiled.  The farmer gasped, realizing that he had been with the king himself.  He fell to his knees and began to apologize.  At that, James raised the man up and said that as a reward for his defense of the king, Tom Howieson would now be the owner of Braehead, the farm he had worked on for years.  The only requirement was that Tom and any member of his family should always be ready with a basin of water and a towel so that the king could wash his hands.

It was said that three hundred years later, Walter Scott told King George IV that story when he visited Edinburgh in 1822. The king arranged to meet with the descendants of Tom Howieson who came to his palace with a silver basin of water and a fine, clean towel to wash the king’s hands.  To this day Braehead is still owned by descendants of Tom Howieson.  Cramond Bridge is still there, along with the remains of the farmer’s cottage.