Family Secrets

I first published this article on line about four years ago. Whilst my relationship to the real life characters mentioned is tenuous after so many generations, the story may appeal to any new readers with an interest in history and classical literature.

The Story of the Lee Penny

Truth, Myth and Fiction

‘ “Stay, let me finish one cure ere I commence another,” said the Arab; “I will pass with you when I have given my patient the second cup of this most holy elixir.”
‘So saying he pulled out a silver cup, and filling it with water from a gourd which stood by the bedside, he next drew forth a small silken bag made of network, twisted with silver …. and, immersing it in the cup, continued to watch it in silence …‘ “Drink,” said the physician to the sick man – “sleep, and awaken free from malady.” ‘ [Sir Walter Scott – The Talisman]



Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance The Talisman is set in the Levant during the Third Crusade.  It tells of a supposed meeting between King Richard I of England and the Kurdish General Salah ad-Din Yusuf (Saladin). Richard, sick in his tent, is visited by the Muslim in the guise of a physician. Saladin cures the king of his malady with the help of a mysterious amulet, which he dips in plain water to make a healing potion. The novel mixes European high politics and religion with a touching love affair between a Scottish knight Sir Kenneth (actually Prince David, heir to the Scottish throne) and King Richard’s fictional cousin, Edith Plantagenet. It all ends happily with the villains punished, the heroes (including Saladin) vindicated and the lovers reunited.

As all lovers of his books know, Walter Scott was not one to let history get in the way of a good story. By his own admission, The Talisman was full of historical inaccuracies yet the story of the amulet at least was based on fact.

The tale began in June 1329. King Robert I of Scotland – the Bruce – was on his deathbed. With him was his friend Sir James Douglas, who had fought with him throughout the struggle for Scottish independence. Like many of his contemporaries, Bruce was inspired by the Crusades, and his last request to Douglas was that his heart should repose in the Holy Land, at the Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Whether Bruce meant the request literally, or indeed whether he made it at all, may be doubted, but why should that matter? James Douglas apparently took it literally. Early in 1330, he set out for Spain with a small group of knightly followers. Douglas himself carried Bruce’s heart in a silver casket. Beside him rode another knight, Sir Symon Locard of Lee, to whom he had entrusted the key.

To carry out Bruce’s dying wish was never going to be feasible. By 1330, for good or ill, the Crusader cause was already lost. Jerusalem had long returned to Muslim control and the last Christian outpost in the Levant, the fortress of Acre, had fallen in 1292. It is probable that Douglas intended to fulfil his commission symbolically by carrying his dead king’s heart into battle against the Muslims of Andalusia.

That is what he did. The Scots joined forces with the army of King Alfonso of Castile in his campaign against Sultan Mohammed of Granada. In the ensuing battle, Douglas and most of his small army were killed. Sir Symon survived. According to the legend, he returned to Scotland with the Bruce’s heart, which was buried in Melrose Abbey.

What about the amulet, you ask. Well, I’m coming to that! Sir Walter Scott’s interest in the Douglas story was a personal one. In 1820, his elder daughter Sophia married John Gibson Lockhart (*), an up-and-coming lawyer, writer and classicist. And it was from Lockhart that Scott learned something of his new son-in-law’s family traditions, including the curious case of the Lee Penny.

‘As far as is known, the true account is as follows: at the battle of Teba Sir Symon Locard took prisoner an Emir of wealth and distinction for whom he demanded a ransom. When the Prince’s mother came to pay … a jewel dropped from her purse and by the haste with which she recovered it, Sir Symon guessed it to be valuable. He demanded that it be added to the ransom and the mother surrendered it rather than lose her son. She told Sir Symon that the stone was …. sovereign remedy against bleeding and the fever, the bite of a mad dog, and the sickness in horses and cattle. Such is the tradition of the Lee Penny.’ [Simon Macdonald Lockhart – Seven Centuries]

This account of the Lee Penny is touched with myth but it does at least have some hard evidence to back it up. The Lee Penny has indeed been in the possession of the Lockharts of Lee for several centuries. In its present form it comprises a ruby red triangular jewel, mounted on a 15th C. coin and preserved in a gold snuff-box, itself an item of some historical value. The box was a gift from the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia to James Lockhart, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, for services rendered to the House of Habsburg in the late 1700s.


The amulet is credited with many ‘miraculous’ cures some of which are recounted in Simon Macdonald Lockhart’s book Seven Centuries.  Most of these seem to relate to the curing of cattle sickness but its use nevertheless caught the attention of the Church of Scotland and the witchfinders. Post-Reformation, one of the Lockhart heritors, Sir James of Lee, was brought before the Church Synod and charged with sorcery. The charges were dismissed but one of James’s grand-daughters was later found guilty of meddling with charmers – she got off lightly by confessing her sin. Not so fortunate was Isobel Young, a woman burned at the stake in 1629 for daring to make use of water in which Sir James had dipped the amulet to cure a cattle plague!

‘Quhilk day amongest the referries of the Brethren of the Ministry of Lanark, it was proposed to the Synod that Gavin Hamilton of Reploch had pursueit an Complaint before them against Sir James Lockhart of Lee, anent the superstitious using of an Stone, set in silver, for the curing of deseased Cattle ….. The Assemblie ….. considering that in nature thair are many things seem to work strange effects, whereof no human wit can give a reason ….. advises the Brethren to surcease thair process ….. and admonishes the said Laird of Lee ….. to take heid that [the stone] be usit hereafter with the least scandle ….’ [The Assemblie Books at Glasgow – quoted by Walter Scott in an appendix to The Talisman]

Unlike the Phantom of the Opera, the Lee Penny exists but, in an age when miraculous cures are no longer fashionable, it has probably outlived its usefulness. Yet, as with so many legends, we are left with the thought that maybe behind the mystery lies some tiny grain of truth. Or maybe not.

John Gibson Lockhart’s association with the Scott family ended tragically. Sophia Scott Lockhart died in 1837 having herself lost two sons. Their daughter Charlotte also died young, aged 30, though she left a daughter who later married into the military.

Footnote: (*) The transposition of the name Locard to Lockhart, possibly via Lockheart, is another story, part of the legend which may indeed be apocryphal. I have written about the name and the transformation in my book, Tapestry. AGL




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