The launch of the Trail

The most prominent structure in the village is the Buchanan Monument, built in honour of George Buchanan. He was born in 1506 just outside Killearn at the Moss, a farm near the Blane Water. He was initially brought up in Killearn and received his early education here. His father died when he was young and the family lived in poverty for a while. A wealthy uncle then sent him, aged 14, to Paris to continue his studies. He excelled in the study of Latin, which was then the common language used across Europe by writers and scholars.

He became one of Europe’s pre-eminent poets and playwrights (writing in Latin, just when the language was finally going out of fashion) and became a leading political theorist and historian. Most of his time up to 1560 he spent in Europe, teaching at universities in Paris, Bordeaux and Coimbra (in Portugal), where he was arrested by the Inquisition for heresy. Much of his poetry was written at this time. It could be said that he wrote in Latin to hide the radical and sometimes downright vulgar verses he penned.

He returned to Scotland in 1560. He became an adviser to Mary, Queen of Scots, and then tutor to the young James VI. By all accounts, the king was terrified of his teacher who was severe, demanding and thought nothing of beating the king if he did not attend to his lessons.

His views on the power of kings and queens grew more radical as he grew older. In 1579 he published De Jure Regni Apud Scotos Or, A Dialogue, Concerning the Due Privilege of Government in the Kingdom of Scotland, written in Latin. In it, he argued that a monarch’s authority rested upon the will of the people and not by divine right, the natural view of most monarchs. Its radical message influenced those who supported the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the overthrow of James VII and II in 1688. Indeed, the book was publicly burnt at the University of Oxford in 1683, 101 years after Buchanan had died, so dangerous were his ideas thought to be.

He was an intellectual giant, an uncompromising teacher and a radical thinker. If he had written in Scots or English, we might know much more about him today. He was once regarded as the greatest Scot of his age.

When plans for a monument to Buchanan at the bottom of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street did not happen, the minister of Killearn Kirk, the Revd James Graham, organized the building of one here, funded by public subscription. The funding appeal was strongly promoted by Robert Dunmore, of Ballikinrain and Professor Richardson of Croy Leckie (see Killearn House).

The monument was built in 1788 of local stone from a quarry on Lettre Hill, and is 31.4 metres (103 feet) high. It was designed by James Craig, the architect of the layout for Edinburgh’s New Town. It was built by the mason William Gray of Camlochie.

In the 1795 First Statistical Account, an almost contemporary account was given of its construction:

‘It is a well-proportioned Obelisk, 19 feet square at the basis, and reaching to the height of 103 feet above the ground, In the middle is a cavity of 6 feet square at the bottom, gradually diminishing until it reaches the height of 54 feet, where it becomes so narrow as to receive the end of a Norway pole, which is continued to the top of the obelisk. To this pole, the machinery for raising up the materials for building, was fixed. Owing to this peculiar mode of construction, the monument is believed to be much stronger than if it were solid.’

In 1836, under the auspices of the Buchanan Society, subscriptions were invited to meet the cost of restoring the Monument, which had fallen into a bad state of repair. This work was completed in 1850. A marble tablet, bearing an inscription in Latin by Professor Ramsay of Glasgow University, was added to the Monument. In translation it reads:

A man, brave amongst the brave,
Learned amongst the learned,
Most wise amongst the wise,
Who, firm of purpose,
Ridiculing the threats of an ungodly priesthood,
Despising the menaces of cruel tyrants,
Fearlessly defended the pure worship of God from the worst of superstition,
And the rights of the human race from the basest serfdom.

The Monument needed further restoration in 1881. At this point, the grounds of the Monument were enclosed with the stone walling and iron railings that remain today. The Buchanan Society was also granted a title to the land upon which the Monument stands by the Killearn estate.

The company that repaired the monument in 1881 had its name ‘STUART. BUILDER. GLASGOW’ carved on the very top stone of the Monument.

The Monument is maintained by the Buchanan Society. The most recent restoration was completed in 2008.

Two articles from the Killearn Courier provide more information on George Buchanan’s life (opens pdf, 3MB) and on the celebrations in 2006 for 500th anniversary of his birth (opens pdf, 38MB).