The Scottish Mail on Sunday
How 600-year-old slaughter inspired Game of Thrones’ bloodiest scene
Author tells how he drew on ‘dark’ Scots history
IT was a bloody double murder that marked the beginning of the end for one of Scotland’s most powerful families.
Now Game of Thrones author George RR Martin has revealed how one of the most graphic and grisly scenes in his hit fantasy drama was inspired by the notorious ‘Black Dinner’ of 1440.
The 6th Earl of Douglas was only 16 when he and his younger brother David were invited to a feast with King James II at Edinburgh Castle.
During the meal, a servant entered with a black bull’s head on a platter – a symbol of death.
The King’s chancellor, Sir William Crichton, accused the siblings of plotting against James and they were dragged away, tried on a trumped-up charge and beheaded.
Martin, 71, has now described how that incident and the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 helped him flesh out his bloody Red Wedding scene.
The American novelist tells all on a new audio guide for visitors to Edinburgh Castle.
In the HBO TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, the Red Wedding scene sees Robb Stark – played by Scots star Richard Madden, from Elderslie, Renfrewshire – his wife (Oona Chaplin) and mother (Michelle Fairley) mercilessly killed. In the guide to David’s Tower in the castle, Martin says: ‘Scottish history is amazingly bloody and dark and twisted and full of betrayals and battles, so it’s been a great source of inspiration.
‘The Red Wedding, which is perhaps the most infamous scene in my book, was inspired in large part by two events in Scottish history – the Black Dinner here in Edinburgh, when the Earl of Douglas and his brother were murdered at a dinner given by the King, and the Glencoe Massacre, when the Campbells slaughtered the MacDonalds.
‘I combined the two of those and threw in a wedding and you get the Red Wedding.’
Martin is among a host of stars who feature on the new audio guide.
Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, 25, who played Mary, Queen of Scots in the 2018 movie of the same name, speaks to visitors in a section devoted to the monarch.
She describes what Mary might have endured as she gave birth to the future James VI in the tiny King’s Birth Room in 1566.
She says: ‘I can only imagine what it was like to be in this room for hours and hours on end. It’s just so small, it’s incredibly small, and as an actor having played her and knowing what sort of stress she would have been under, I feel claustrophobic.
‘A birth like this wasn’t just a new child being brought into the world, but this was the future, and so there was a lot of added anticipation.’ She adds: ‘I think her state of mind was, “I still have ultimate power because I am the Queen of this country and I am doing my duty in delivering an heir into this world”. That was something Queen Elizabeth [of England] was not willing to do, so just by her having a baby, producing an heir, that alone was a mark of how dedicated she was to her duty as ruler.
‘So I think even though she was faced with an awful lot, I’d imagine she was quite empowered. This was her moment as a woman and as a Queen to really sort of push everyone else out and let them know that she was here to stay.’
Crime writer Ian Rankin shares how he draws inspiration from the castle’s dark heritage for his hit series of Rebus novels.
He says: ‘The castle’s heritage teems with the unpleasant and the gruesome, not just the many sieges and battles fought over it but the notorious killings, cruelty and indifference to suffering that coexisted alongside royal privilege, status and luxury.
‘There’s an echo of the castle’s more unpalatable past all around us today that Inspector Rebus would recognise. Indeed, it’s surely part of its attraction.
‘Even on the sunniest day, it seems quite a dark and brooding presence which would seem to indicate there are dark stories within and, for a writer, that unknowableness of Edinburgh Castle, it enriches us and it keeps our imaginations fertile.’
Others taking visitors on a journey through history include Fleabag actor Bill Paterson, Makar Jackie Kay and war correspondent Orla Guerin. The audio guide, launched by Historic Environment
Scotland (HES), is narrated by broadcasters Sally Magnusson and Eddie Mair. The celebrity cast read accounts of important events in the castle’s history, bringing to life figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott.
Others shed light on particular stories and buildings and explore its living legacy.
The Proclaimers discuss performing on the Castle Esplanade, saying: ‘There is a feeling of it being surreal, having grown up here and spent so much time here when we were young.
‘There really isn’t anywhere better anywhere in the world.’
HES chief executive Alex Paterson said: ‘Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s top paid-for visitor attraction, and we are committed to investing in the site and finding new and inventive ways of engaging a wide range of people with its history.’
‘Amazingly twisted and full of betrayals’ ‘Notorious killings and cruelty alongside luxury’