Reprinted from the Dumfries & Galloway Standard, November, 1891.
The ivy-grown ruins of the old Castle of Kirkcudbright, which form such a striking feature of the ancient county town of the Stewartry, cannot boast of any great antiquity, having been erected in the days of Queen Mary of Scotland. The site of the Castle formed part of an old moat, which in all probability existed prior to the invasion of Galloway by the legions of Rome under the Emperor Agricola, and must at that time have been surrounded by the river fens and mosses, hereby constituting it not the least important one of the strongholds of the ancient Britons along the course of the Galloway Dee. After this period the moat unquestionably continued to be a seat of population, and on the introduction of Christianity it would very probably form one of the many stations founded by the early church of the Caldees. Spottiswood in his account of religious houses in Scotland mentions that of the Franciscans or Grey Friars having been established at Kirkcudbright in the 12th century, and that the establishment was situated upon the ground forming the moat and in a plan of Kirkcudbright, dated about 1570, in the British Museum, the Moat is marked with the word “Friers.” On the history of this Order whilst they continued there but little light can be thrown, as many ancient records, and particularly those connected with the Church, were carried off at the Reformation by the Roman clergy and lodged either at the Vatican or in the Scottish College at Paris. On the other hand this, like other religious houses in Scotland at that period, suffered at the hands of the reformers who, pulling down the rookery to disperse the crows, demolished or defaced many of the finest ecclesiastical buildings then in existence in Scotland.
In 1453, after the fall of the Douglases, Kirkcudbright, which had only been a burgh of regality under them, was created a royal burgh, and about a hundred years afterwards the magistrates and heritors obtained permission from Queen Mary to use a portion of the building as a parish church ; and about the year 1570 Sir Thomas M’Clellan of Bombie, or as it was then spelled Bomby, received a charter of the site, with the grounds and gardens belonging thereto. A very curious confusion of date and circumstance occurs in relation to this charter. In the original the date is given as 1560, but it is expressly stated that it was granted during the regency of “James, umqubile Yerl of Moray.” In a certified copy of the charter, written evidently some time later, the date is given as 1570, which is more likely to be correct, seeing that the regency of the Earl of Moray began with the coronation of the infant James VI. in 1567. A short time afterwards Sir Thomas disposed of the church, or part of it, with the churchyard, for 200 merks and 100 bolls of lime – the castle being evidently in view – to the burgh of Kirkcudbright, of which he was then chief magistrate. He demolished the greater part of the church, however, in order to obtain both site and material for his proposed castle, and having procured plans from, it is said, Mr William Schaw , the King’s architect (who had travelled over France and Italy studying the architecture of these countries), he brought in master builders and superintendents from Dunfermline, and proceeded with his scheme. It is asserted that not only did he use the stones of the old building but also those of Bombie and Raeberry Castles, and in due time there arose that large, strong, Gothic mansion house whose walls are still almost entire, and which is known as Kirkcudbright Castle. Over the principal doorway, sculptured on a large block of red sandstone, were placed the royal arms of Scotland, now almost effaced by the action of the atmosphere on material not calculated to endure the vicissitudes of centuries. Underneath this concession to loyalty, Sir Thomas placed the escutcheons of his own house and of his lady, Grissel Herries, with the date 1582 and from this date it may be inferred that the building was completed in that year.
In regard to the history of the castle during the last century and a half there is little to be chronicled. Early in the 18th century, by the marriage of Miss M’Lellan to Sir Robert Maxwell of Orchardton, the castle passed into the hands of that branch of the Maxwells and it remained in complete and habitable condition until 1752, when the roof was taken off, a portion of the slates and timber sold, and the iron stanchions removed from the windows and taken to Orchardton to be manufactured into agricultural implements. Lintel and staircase stones were requisitioned for use in the erection of houses in the town, and subsequently the remains of the castle were sold to the late Earl of Selkirk.
It is with saddened feelings we now turn to contemplate the fortunes of the noble family of which Sir Thomas Maclellan, who erected the castle, was a member. The Maclellan family was one of the oldest in the South of Scotland and was at one period the foremost, in point of territorial possession, in Eastern Galloway. By some it is considered that the family originally came from Ireland or the Western Isles while others allege that it is descended from Thomas Macduallan, the natural son of Alan, Lord of Galloway. This Thomas Macduallan, at the death of his father, 1222 AD., disputed the inheritance of the estates with his father’s legitimate daughter, founding his claim on the Salic law then generally recognised among the Celtic tribes. He was supported in his claims by most of his father’s retainers, by Olave, King of Man, the Thane of Argyle, and some of the Irish Kings. The lady’s cause, however, found an able champion in Alexander II., who sent an army into Galloway and destroyed 5,000 of the 10,000 men led by Thomas.
Buchanan avers that Thomas was then also killed, but other authorities state that he fled into Ireland, whence he afterwards returned, and succeeding in making his peace with the king, received a portion of his father’s lands. But whichever, if either, of these theories of descent is correct, it is certain that the family of the Maclellans is found in the Stewartry at a very early date. Blind Harry speaks of a Clellan or MacLellan having sailed with Wallace from Galloway to France; and a Gilbert McLellan was elected Bishop of Man in 1320. The Maclellans repeatedly held the office of Sheriff or Steward, and Buchanan writes of them as being in the time of James II. “among the first in Galloway both for descent and power.” In that reign one of the principals of the family, the tutor of Bombie, was put to death by Douglas of Threave in defiance of the royal authority. Various versions of the story are given. Burchanan says that Maclellan had put to death one of the Douglases by whom he had often been affronted, while others say the cause of quarrel was Maclellan’s refusal to join the league existing between the Earls of Douglas, Crawford, Ross, and Ormond. In any event, Douglas carried Maclellan to Threave Castle, and when Sir Patrick Gray, a mutual relation, appeared with a letter from the King, Douglas, suspecting its contents, would not open it until Gray had dined, observing by way of excuse, “it’s ill talking between a fou man and a fasting ane.” In the meantime he gave private orders that Mcclellan should be beheaded ; and when the letter was presented after dinner he shewed the body to Sir Patrick, with the remark ”My lord, there lies your kinsman, but he wants the head.” Gray replied that since Douglas had taken the head he might keep the body also, and departed ; but once over the drawbridge he turned with clenched hand and shouted, “My lord, if I live, you shall be rewarded for this.” A short time later, Sir Patrick had the pleasure of giving the Douglas his coup de grace in the palace at Stirling, into which the Lord of Threave had been inveigled by the king The murder of the tutor of Bombie was warmly resented by the Maclellans, who harried the lands of the Douglas, for which the king “forefaulted” their own possessions, including Bombie.
In the same reign a formidable band of gipsies infested the Stewartry, and their depredations becoming notorious the king offered to give the forfeited lands of Bombie as a reward to whoever should disperse the band and bring him their captain dead or alive. This was accomplished by young Mcclellan, who routed the gang and presented himself before the king with the head of the leader of the gipsies (in the point of his sword.) James was somewhat astonished at the display, and was glad that the robbers had been disposed of, but forgot the promised reward whereupon Maclellan asked his Majesty to “Think on!” These words, with a Moor’s head transfixed on a sword, have since formed the motto and arms of the Maclellans. After the fall of the Douglases the family of Bombie acquired some of their possessions, and again became one of most influential families in Galloway. In 1471 a charter of Loch Fergus and other lands was granted to William Maclellan of Bombie, and between 1490 and 1500 his son and successor, Thomas, received grants of various lands in the Stewartry. Thomas, who died in 1504, was married to Agnes, daughter of Sir James Dunbar of Mochrum, by whom he had three sons. The eldest of these Sir William Maclellan of Bombie, accounted one of the most accomplished gentlemen in Scotland at that time, with many of his kinsmen, fell at Flodden. His son, Thomas, was killed at Edinburgh by the Barons of Drumlanrig and Lochinvar, with whom he had a feud; and it was a son of this Thomas, also named Thomas, who erected the Castle, as narrated above.
About this period the family of Bombie appear to have acquired many of the church lands, and to have arrived at the zenith of their prosperity. On 11th January, 1591, James VI. granted Sir Thomas a fue charter of Orchardton, Etoun, Kirkchrist, and other lands held by the Maclellans from the Priory commendators. At the death of Sir Thomas in 1597, he was succeeded by his son Robert, who, becoming a favourite at the Court of King James, was appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber, in which office he was continued by Charles I. This monarch raised him to the rank of baronet, and subsequently, in 1633, elevated him to the peerage under the title of Lord Kirkcudbright. Not long afterwards the newly created peer erected within the eastern aisle of the church, directly above the family vault, a handsome monument to the memory of his father and mother. This monument with its Latin inscription and moralising mottoes is still in a good state of preservation, with plain indications that the material formed part of the old priory. The church is now used as a private infant school, the children of which seem to thrive wonderfully in an atmosphere laden with the dust of the Maclellans.
Robert, first Lord Kirkcudbright, died in 1640, and the title devolved upon his nephew, Thomas. This nobleman was a zealous Presbyterian, and took a prominent part in the affairs of the Covenanters, with whose principles, from the commencement of their difference with Charles I., he identified himself, and in 1639 he was with a considerable following at the camp at Dunse Law. In 1640 he was appointed Colonel of the South Regiment, and accompanied the Scottish army into England.
In 1644 the Scottish Parliament appointed him Steward of Kirkcudbrightshire, and subsequently he was present at the battle of Philliphaugh with his regiment, where by their gallantry they greatly contributed towards the victory of the Scotch forces. For this good service he was voted the thanks of Parliament, and a pecuniary reward of 15,000 marks (£750), which handsome sum was raised from the forfeited estate of Lord Herries, but it is alleged was never received by Lord Kirkcudbright.
From the circumstances of his always marching at the head of his regiment accompanied by a barrel of brandy, which in long and fatiguing marches and upon other needful occasions he freely dealt out to his followers, he became very popular among the troops, and in a doggerel verse composed upon the battle of Philliphaugh, he is made to address his troops as follows;
‘We fight the battles of the Lord,
Let’s sing a holy psalm;
Let ilk man tak’, to brace his sword
With strength, a guid big dram.”
Thomas died in 1647, and was succeeded by John, third Lord Kirkcudbright, who, like his predecessor, was an ardent Covenanter, and raised levies with which he joined the Whigamore Raid of 1648. He, with General Holborn, was appointed as a deputation from the Committee of Estates to meet Cromwell at Seaton and accompany him to Edinburgh.
After the violent death of Charles I., the Estates, feeling indignant that their remonstrances on his behalf had been disregarded, passed an Act on 6th February, 1649, proclaiming the decapitated monarch’s son as King. Civil war ensued, and Lord Kirkcudbright’s regiment, which had been sent to Ireland, was on 6th December of that year attacked by the English Parliamentary forces and nearly cut to pieces. Nothing daunted, the vigorous Earl returned to his native town where he at once set about raising another regiment, chiefly from among his own vassals and retainers but in achieving his purpose he depopulated the villages of Galtway and Dunrod, the latter of which comprised upwards of 100 “reeking,” that is dwelling, houses, and with the regiment so raised he returned to Ireland. Few, if any, of these ever returned.
The lands to which this Lord Kirkcudbright succeeded were very extensive, but his generosity in raising and furnishing forces during the civil war, for which he received no remuneration and but scant thanks, impoverished both himself and his estate, for the district was thoroughly drained both of men and money.
Land became of little value the trade of the town dwined, and the inhabitants were in a state of indigence generally. Writing from Kirkcudbright to Madame d’Auverne, in August, 1650, Lady Derby said that she left the Isle of Man on 26th July, and that it was a ten hours’ voyage to Kirkcudbright, and she added, “I have been here fifteen days, suffering every imaginable inconvenience, being reduced to eat oaten bread, and some of us to lodge in the house of the chief person of this place, though I never saw anything so dirty. But this is nothing to the religion. The King behaves with wonderful prudence. He is obliged to listen continually to sermons against his father, blaming him for all the blood that was shed, and those which I have heard in this place were horrible, having nothing of devotion in them, nor explaining any point of religion, but being full of sedition, naming people by their names, and treating of everything with such ignorance and without the least respect or reverence that I am so scandalised that I do not think I could live with a quiet conscience among those Atheists.”
From this letter it would seem that the second Charles visited Kirkcudbright in 1650, and probably in disguise.
The fallen fortunes of his house must have disturbed Lord Kirkcudbright not a little, but to the last he continued an enthusiastic Covenanter, and in 1663 we find him objecting to the introduction of a emirate to the church of Kirkcudbright, for which he was mulcted in fines which altogether ruined his estate. He died in the following year, leaving by his wife, Ann, daughter of Sir Robert Maxwell of Orchardton, a son, William, fourth Lord Kirkcudbright, who died under age in 1669. During the brief lifetime of this young lord the whole of the estate was seized by his father’s creditors, so that at his death, when the title descended to his cousin-german, John, eldest son of William Maclellan of Auchlane, there was nothing left to support the dignity of the title. For this or some other reason John never assumed it, but at his decease in 1721 his brother James, fifth Lord Kirkcudbright, took the title. In 1723 the fortunes of the family were at so low an ebb that Lord Kirkcudbright made a living by keeping a small ale house under the shadow of the baronial castle of his ancestors.
Quin mentions that in journeying from Dublin to London he passed through Kirkcudbright, where the inn was kept by a lord, and that Lady Betty made his bed and Lord John greased his boots. The farmers on market day treated his lordship with becoming courtesy, hobnobbing with him over the ale cup, with “here’s tae ye, ma lord” at every opportunity. He died in 1730, leaving no male descendant, and the title then devolved on William Maclellan of Borness, sixth Lord Kirkcudbright, heir male of Gilbert Maclellan, brother of Sir William of Bombie, who fell at Flodden. This Lord Kirkcudbright exercised the business of glover in Edinburgh, and at the election of representative peers, which he invariably attended, he turned an honest penny by supplying his brother peers with gloves. He died in 1762, and was succeeded by his son John, seventh Lord Kirkcudbright an officer in the 30th regiment. Lord John exchanged into the 3rd regiment of Footguards, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, after which he retired from the army. He died in 1801, and was succeeded by his son Sholto Henry, eighth Lord; and he dying in 1827, the title devolved on his brother, Camden Grey, ninth and last Lord Kirkcudbright.
This nobleman was an officer in the Coldstream Guards, and died in 1832, leaving a widow who survived him many years and died at an advanced age, and a daughter who attained to some reputation as a novelist, and was married to Mr Lambert of Castle-Lambert, Ireland. With the demise of Camden Grey the title became dormant Since publication of the foregoing, a correspondent has called our attention to a note made by Major Hutton in 1811 regarding an old fount discovered at the backyard of a house in Kirkcudbright, and removed to St Mary’s Isle. This fount bears the escutcheon of the Maclellans, among other ornamentations, and bears the date MCCCCLIII.
The figures, our correspondent adds are chiefly (1) a cradle and infant; (2) Maclellans’ shield; (3) lamb, cross, and dove; (4) Maclellans’ shield. At that date William Maclellan of Bombie was “Provost of Kirkcudbrith.” Taking into consideration the extent of their possessions and their territorial influence, extending into Wigtownshire, it seems hard to realise that no gentleman of the name is now in possession of a single acre of the land which at one time belonged to them, and that a family so fertile as at one time to include fourteen knights – Barscobe, Gelston, Borgue, Troquhain, Barholm, Kirkconnel, Kirkcormick, Colvend, Kirkgunzeon, Glenshinnoch, Ravenston, Kilcruikie, Bardrockwood, Sorbie – should become extinct, or that at least no heir to the title of Lord Kirkcudbright should exist. Sic transit gloria mundi.