The Story of Robert Balfour and Burleigh Castle

Burleigh Castle sits just outside the village of Milnathort. It is open to the public and you can visit free of charge, the key can be obtained from a nearby cottage if the castle is not already open.  If you do pay a visit to this fantastic castle, spare a thought to the anguish felt by Lord Balfour, fretting over his part in the downfall of his son, the story goes.

Robert Balfour lived with his father Lord Balfour in Burleigh Castle in the early years of the 18th century.  Robert was seeing and had fallen hopelessly in love with the daughter of the local minister, he wanted to make this young girl his wife.  But Robert’s father Lord Balfour was horrified at this suggestion, for he thought this girl far too low born for his son. The Lord wanted his son and heir to marry a young lady from a titled family, a girl whose family’s connections and status would have enhanced the marriage.  Not the lowly daughter of a minister.

Try as he could, the laird could not put an end to his sons’ relationship with this unsuitable girl.  No amount of gentle persuasion or threats seemed to get through to Robert who was smitten and planning his future with his young lover.  At a loss as how to win his son around, and at his wit’s end, Lord Balfour decided to force his son to take the “grand tour,” a journey lots of sons of the aristocracy would take, these young men would travel, soaking up the history and culture of distant lands.  Robert was not very happy at being forced to go on this trip, before he left he angrily stated that he would kill any man who got involved with his woman.

Robert Balfour was abroad travelling for a year or two, his young lover was never far from his thoughts.  When he finally returned to Burleigh Castle he was informed that his girlfriend had married another, she was now the wife of Henry Stenhouse, the schoolmaster in Inverkeithing.  A violent rage seemed to take over the whole of Roberts body, it was an anger that the young man could not shake off, he felt he had been made to look a fool and his head buzzed with thoughts of revenge.

April the 9th 1707 was market day in Inverkeithing and Robert Balfour travelled to the Fife town accompanied by a servant.  Robert may have spent a large part of the day drinking in one of the towns many taverns, sitting alone, he would have looked as if he was surrounded by a dark air of melancholy, his blood boiled with a passion-filled fury.  Robert Balfour finished his drink and walked out into the street. He made his way to the house of the schoolmaster. Banging loudly on the door with his fist Robert stood waiting to confront the man who had stolen his love.  Henry Stenhouse opened the door, unable to hide his displeasure at being interrupted in this way. After an angry exchange, Robert drew out a pair of pistols and shot Henry in the left shoulder twice. As Henry staggered and fell backward into the house, Robert drew his sword and using the weapon to threaten the gathering crowd he made his way to his horse and escaped.

Henry Stenhouse died from his wounds twelve days after the shooting and Robert Balfour was arrested for the murder.  For some unknown reason, there was a long delay in bringing the killer to trial. Eventually, Robert was tried and found guilty, he was sentenced to be beheaded at the Market Cross of Edinburgh on the 6th of January 1710.  The prisoner was held in Edinburgh’s Tolbooth until the sentence of death could be carried out. One day Robert received a visit from his sister, the two of them talked privately in the condemned cell fomenting a plan. Brother and sister quickly changed clothes, Robert dressed as his sister managed to fool the jailers and make his escape, he hid in a tree near Edinburgh Castle, when things had quietened down, he managed to slip out of the city.

Robert Balfour managed to flee overseas but returned to Scotland to take part in the Jacobite uprising in 1715, he fought for the Stuart cause at the Battle of Sheriffmuir.  Again forced to flee after the Jacobite failure Robert Balfour died a poor exile in 1757.

Can’t Get Enough of Gary’s Stories?

If you enjoyed this article, why not take a look at Garys book ‘No Fair City’?

Battles, regicides, executions, conspiracies, murders, floods, fires, crimes, punishments, and mayhem No Fair City by Gary Knight has them all. Delve into the darker side of historical Perth, where witches, smugglers, grave robbers, murderers, and thieves conduct their ghastly business. Learn how the guilty (and innocent) were tried, punished, and executed. Read how, in a world before health and safety, plague, fire, the merciless River Tay, and the Perth s lade, railways and roads, took their daily toll of townsfolk and visitors. Find the book here.

Or if you want to read similar stories from across Scotland, take a look in his new Scottish History Fanzine ‘For the Lion’ available at




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