Mary was now a prisoner of the rebel Lords. She was taken to the castle of Loch Leven, situated on an island in the middle of the loch. Meanwhile the Lords spread the story that Mary and Bothwell had been lovers before Darnley’s death, and that they had conspired to murder him in order to marry. Though the evidence was extremely thin, public opinion was turning against Mary. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son and to authorise her brother, the Earl of Moray, to reign in his place.
Mary was weakened after a miscarriage, but she was not defeated. On 2 May 1568 she escaped from the island in a boat rowed by a castle page boy. He had been hired by her loyal supporters, who met Mary on the shore and escorted her to safety.
In 1805, this painting won a student prize for Shirreff while he was at the Trustees’ Academy. He chose an episode from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots which had been related by Gilbert Stuart in his influential ‘History of Scotland’ (1783). In a letter to his father the young artist wrote: "I have taken the point of time when Lord Seaton is receiving Mary from the boat, and young George Douglas handing her on and one of the attendants holding the horse that the Queen is to ride on. I am very pleased with it myself." By the early nineteenth century, Mary was a popular romantic heroine. William Lizars, one of Shirreff’s friends, engraved this painting after the young artist’s premature death.
Shirreff was born in Haddington, the son of an East Lothian farmer. He entered the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh in 1802, at the time when John Graham was master. Graham introduced oil painting into the curriculum, and also initiated a scheme of premiums for the best historical paintings. In 1805, Shirreff won the top prize for his first major attempt at history painting using oil paint. The picture is now in the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection (NG 2255). Sadly, and aged only eighteen, Sherriff died of consumption before the prize was awarded. It was bestowed posthumously.