The Earl of Huntly slays the Earl of Murray (in his own bed?) as a result of the violent feud between them. The largest part of some versions is devoted to describing how noble Murray was
Bonny Earl of Murray, The [Child 181] Complete text(s) *** A *** From James Johnson, "The Scots Musical Museum," Volume II, #177, p. 185. As found in the 1853 edition (punctuation is somewhat uncertain, given the state of the facsimile). Variants in the text from Percy's Reliques (Percy/Wheatley, II.iii.17, pp. 227-228) are given at the end. It will be observed that these variants are entirely without significance. Ye Highland and ye Lowlands, Oh! where have you been? They have slain the Earl of Murray, And they laid him on the green! They have slain the Earl of Murray, And they laid him on the green! Now wae be to thee, Huntley! And wherefore did you sae? I bade you bring him wi' you, But forbade you him to slay. He was a bra' gallant, And he rid at the ring, And the bonny Earl of Murray, Oh! he might have been a king. He was a bra' gallant, And he play'd at the ba', And the bonny Earl of Murray Was the flower amang them a'. He was a bra' gallant, And he play'd at the glove, And the bonny Earl of Murray, Oh! he was the Queen's love. Oh! lang will his lady Look o'er the castle Down Ere she see the Earl of Murray Come sounding through the town. Variants from Percy (differences in capitalization and punctuation are not noted): 1.1: Lowlands ] lawlands 1.2: where have you ] quhair hae ye 1.3: have slain ] hae slaine 1.4: have ] hae 1.5-6: Percy does not repeat these lines 2.2: wherefore ] quhairfore 3.1: bra' ] braw 3.4: have ] hae 4.1: bra' ] braw 4.2: play'd ] plays; glove ] gluve 4.4: Queen's love ] Queenes luve 5.2: o'er ] owre; Down ] downe 5.4: Come ] Cum; through ] throw
James Stewart (c. 1567-1592) became Earl of Moray as a result of marrying a daughter of Lord James Stewart (1531-1570), the bastard of James V who had been Regent of Scotland for much of the early reign of James VI prior to being murdered (see Rosalind Mitchison, _A History of Scotland_, second edition, Methuen, 1982, p. 160). The younger James succeeded to the earldom in 1590.
His murder by Huntley seems to have been the result of a feud between the two, though James VI (by then ruling in fact as well as name) didn't seem too bothered by it; Huntly (c. 1563-1636), despite several quarrels with James VI (some of which look suspiciously like rebellion) was made a marquis in 1599. It probably helped that Huntly had married a daughter of the Earl of Lennox, a favorite of James's (Mitchison, p. 151).
The murdered Moray doesn't seem to have been a particularly noteworthy figure, except for his looks and the fact that he was murdered. In a place as messed-up as sixteenth century Scotland, getting killed by a rival was probably a positive.
In a combination of police work and propaganda, Moray's mother had a painting made of his corpse, of which a copy can be seen in Magnus Magnusson's_Scotland: The Story of a Nation_ (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000). The corpse has a caption (it almost looks like a speech balloon), "God revenge my cavs [cause]."
The artist looks to have been completely incompetent -- but, if the drawing is accurate, it's hard to tell what actually killed Moray. There is a large wound on his leg, but that could not have been fatal unless he bled to death. The only wounds in the chest area are a couple of small scratches on his right side, the largest near the shoulder and not in a particularly gival area; in any case, it does not appear deep. There are the scratches on the face, but both look like flesh wounds (though one came close to Moray's right eye).
According to Magnusson, pp. 396-397, the whole thing arose because James VI was having trouble with his barons (in other words, nothing unusual in Scotland). The Earl of Bothwell had been fighting against the King -- at one time almost capturing him -- and Moray was allied with Bothwell.
James was even more afraid of Bothwell than he would have been of an ordinary rebel, because he was deeply superstitious, and Bothwell was reputedly involved with witches (Mitchison, p. 150). The king commissioned Huntley to put down Bothwell's faction, meanwhile negotiating with Moray. But Huntley had a grudge against Moray (whose father had enriched himself at the expense of an earlier Huntley -- plus Huntley had a chance to perhaps inherit the huntley earldom).
Moray was at Donibristle, awaiting the chance to confer with the King, when Huntley showed up on February 7 and set fir to the castle. Moray reportedly escaped out a side gate, but was found and killed -- folklore claims that Huntley struck the first blow.
James may have been prepared to negotiate with Moray, but he certainly didn't grieve for him; Huntley was merely placed under house arrest for a week. This is what caused Moray's mother to raise such a stink; she wanted justice for her son.
James VI never did catch up with Bothwell, though the earl eventually fled into exile. But he did not die until 1624, only a year before James himself. - RBW