John MacMorran was a merchant involved in shipping, with shares in nine ships worth over £4,000 at his death, and had exported one cargo of wax and salmon worth £3,928, large amounts at the time, indicating he was one of wealthiest merchants in Edinburgh. MacMorran had been a servant of Regent Morton in the 1570s, and it was said that he helped conceal the former Regent's treasure. The townspeople also complained that he had exported grain to Spain (a Catholic country) in times of dearth. He built a large house in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket, which still survives, now known as Riddle's Court. A carved window frame with shutters from the MacMorran house is displayed at Edinburgh's Huntly House museum.
In March 1590 he wrote to Archibald Douglas, a Scottish diplomat in London to help resolve a shipping dispute. MacMorran was in Dover, and was investigating an old claim against Edward Betts who had robbed one of ships four years earlier. He had not recovered the cost of two cannon and a cargo of lead.
Death at the Edinburgh High School
The scholars at Edinburgh High School were disputing the length of their holidays. They managed to shut themselves up in the building, at that time on the site of the old Blackfriars Monastery, near the present-day Drummond Street. After two days, on 15 September 1595, the town council sent John MacMorran, as a Baillie of Edinburgh, to end the sit-in. MacMorran and his men were about to break in, using a beam as a battering-ram, when he was shot in the head and died instantly. The shot was fired from a window by the 13-year-old son of William Sinclair of Mey, uncle and Chancellor of the Earl of Caithness.
The boys either fled or were captured. Justice was delayed for several months, as both the children' families and MacMorran's family were wealthy and able to ask the King, James VI of Scotland, to intervene. Lord Home made representations for one English culprit, the son of one Richard Foster, who was the first prisoner to be released. The English diplomat George Nicholson heard the town would benefit by raising contributions for building churches from the boys' supporters. Seven were released soon after James Pringle of Whytbank (who lived at Moubray House), made a plea on their behalf to the Privy Council late in November. Eventually young William Sinclair and all the others were released without penalty.
House at Riddle's Court
John's house and contents, and his business, passed to his brother Ninian, to administer for John's children and his widow Katherine Hutcheson. An inventory of the furnishings of the house at John's death survives in the National Archives of Scotland. The house was described by the antiquarian and historian Sir Daniel Wilson.
Alexander Seton, 1st Earl of Dunfermline rented accommodation from MacMorran, probably at Riddle's Court. In July 1597 James VI held a lengthy audience with the English ambassador Robert Bowes in Seton's garden.
In 1598 two banquets were held in the house for Ulrik, Duke of Holstein, the younger brother of Anne of Denmark. Robert Birrell noted the "great solemnity and merryness" at the banquet on 2 May 1598, attended by James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. The banquet involved sugar confections and sweetmeats made by a Flemish confectioner, Jacques de Bousie, who was a favourite of the queen. He was paid £184 Scots for sugar works, one of the most costly items on the bill. Tapestries were borrowed from Holyrood Palace. Ninian MacMorran was compensated for the loss of his best damask napkins.
Used in the 19th century by the educationalist and polymath Patrick Geddes, the house is now cared for by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT), and was previously in part used by the Worker's Educational Association and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland. The building is now home to the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning.
- Margaret Sanderson, 'Edinburgh Merchants', in E. Cowan, ed, Renaissance & Reformation in Scotland, (Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1983), pp. 190-1.
- Robert Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. (Edinburgh, 1858), pp. 144, 263: James Melville, Memoirs of his own life, (Edinburgh 1827), p. 267.
- RCAHMS Canmore, images of Riddle's Court.
- pictured in Robert Chambers. The Ancient Domestic Architecture of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1859), p. 9.
- HMC Salisbury Hatfield, vol. 4 (London, 1892), p. 20.
- 'The Diarey (sic) of Robert Birrell', in John Graham Dalyell, Fragments of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1798), pp. 34-35.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 12 (Edinburgh, 1952), pp. 19, 33.
- D. Masson, ed., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 5 (Edinburgh, 1882), pp. 236-8.
- Robert Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. (1858), pp. 261-264.
- Steven Reid, 'Murder, Mayhem and the Muse in Jacobean Edinburgh: introducing Hercules Rollock (c. 1546-1599)', Bridging the Continental Divide, University of Glasgow
- J. MacPhail, Fraser Papers (SHS, Edinburgh, 1924), p. 227.
- Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1891), pp. 218-219.
- John Duncan Mackie, Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 13 (Edinburgh, 1969), p. 50.
- Marguerite Wood, Extracts form the Burgh Records of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1927), pp. 218, 362-365: Michael Pearce, 'Riddle’s Court, Banquet and Diplomacy in 1598' in History Scotland Magazine, 12:4 (2012), pp. 20-27: Edward Hollis, A Drama in Time: A Guide to 400 Year's of Riddle's Court (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2018), pp. 52-54.
- 'The Diarey (sic) of Robert Birrell', in John Graham Dalyell, Fragments of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1798), p. 46.
- Marguerite Wood, Extracts from the Burgh Records of Edinburgh: 1589-1603, vol. 6 (Edinburgh, 1927), pp. 64, 362.
- Edinburgh and District (Ward Lock Travel Guide, 1930).
- Edward Hollis, A Drama in Time: A Guide to 400 Year's of Riddle's Court (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2018).