The Story of an Ancient Royal Burgh
By Rev. George Ogilvie Elder, M.A
Page 1 of 3
When Harry Bertram, in front of Ellangowan Castle, played a melody remembered from his childhood days, it awoke the corresponding associations of a damsel engaged in bleaching linen beside a fine spring near by, who took up the old song in the exquisite verse –
“Are these the links of Forth, she said,
Or are they the crooks of Dee,
Or the bonnie woods of Warroch Head,
That I so fain would see ?”
The town of Kirkcudbright is situated in the midst of the “Crooks of Dee,” on meadow ground forming a peninsula, protected on the east by the wooded heights of the Barrhill, and on the remaining sides by the windings of the river.
Kirkcudbright, although its origin is hidden by the mists of antiquity, is believed to have been a fair town under the classic name of Benutium at the beginning of the Christian era. The Celtic tribes who overspread Britain were its earliest inhabitants, and of them various memorials still survive. There is the name of the river, which in their language signifies “the dark water” ; and the name of the town itself, which is originally derived from the strength they built and called “Caer-cuabrit,” or “the fort at the bend of the river,” anticipating by two thousand years the description given by Symson in his History :- “Kirkcudbright is situated in a very pleasant place in a flexure of the River Dee.” Traces of their religion survive to the present time. On the hill of Raeberry, on the farm of Bombie, and at Dromore, are remains of those stone circles, once surrounded by oak groves, which enclosed the ground where the Druids performed the rites of their gloomy worship, sometimes in emergencies casting human beings into the fire to appease the anger of their Deity.
On the lands of Balmae, near Dromore Castle, was found a plate of gold in the form of a crescent, a specimen of the consecrated golden knife with which the chief Druid, amid the acclamations of the people, cut down from the oak tree the mistletoe, or golden bough, so deeply reverenced by our forefathers in their worship, and which is an object of high admiration still in merry gatherings of their youthful descendants at Christmas, the season when the berries of that slow-growing parasite are fully ripe. There are specimens found of their implements of war, as on the farm of Milton, four flint hatchets, forming such a contrast to the Maxim gun, which in the hands of British soldiers lays hordes of barbarians low, at the rate of five or six hundred every minute, like swathes of grass falling before the mower’s scythe – showing the superiority of our civilised to their savage age, although it be only in the means of destruction.
There are the old British forts, with which the parish of Kirkcudbright is thickly studded, the largest being that on the farm of Dromore. Although its rampart has long been broken down, its ditch filled with earth, and its well covered with stones, its position is still as commanding as when Ptolemy, a famous geographer of the second century, called it “Caer-bantorigum” – “the fort on the shining rounded height.” When the illustrious Roman general, Agricola, in the year eighty-two, marched through this parish, he fought his way against the stubborn resistance of a dozen British forts, in many a battle of the warrior with confused noise and garments rolled in blood. At Whinnieligget, Little Sypland, Castle Creavie, Bombie Mains, and Dromore, the Roman encampments are still standing over against the British, as when the two nations, the one civilised and the other savage, were locked in a deadly embrace.
These remains testify from century to century to the sturdy independence and determined valour, which have gained for the descendants of these British tribes a world-wide dominion, while the once powerful Empire of Rome has crumbled into dust, according to the prophecy addressed at that very period in burning words to Boadicea, the British Warrior Queen, by the aged Druid priest –
“Bending as he swept the chords,
Of his sweet but awful lyre.
“She with all a monarch’s pride,
Felt them in her bosom glow,
Rushed to battle, fought and died,
Dying, hurled them at the foe.
Ruffians, pitiless as proud,
Heaven awards the vengeance due;
Empire is on us bestowed,
Shame and ruin wait on you.”
During the long period of three hundred years, when the Romans occupied Dromore and made Kirkcudbright one of their forts, they made no impression on the speech of the natives. The Saxons, who, after the departure of the Romans, obtained the ascendancy in Galloway, have left an enduring memorial in the language of the modern inhabitants, which rests mainly on a basis of Saxon. There are also such names as Raeberry – the roe’s hill; Sypland-wet, sappy land; Boreland – the land belonging to the boers or farm labourers; Mutehill, two miles below Kirkcudbright and the Motebrae in the town itself – mounds that were used for public meetings and courts of justice. The Motebrae has now been formed into a public recreation ground, where old and young of the modern burgh will enjoy themselves upon the height, where, upwards of a thousand years ago, their Saxon forefathers transacted the business of the town under the canopy of heaven, in full view of a beautiful landscape, on the brink of the river winding beneath their feet.
But the most memorable of all the place-names bestowed by the Saxons is the name of Kirkcudbright itself. From St. Columba’s lonely Isle of Iona, in the sixth century, broke forth the light which illuminated the Celtic races of the Western coast. From St. Cuthbert’s Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, on the East coast, there was shed an answering light through the glens of Scotland, from the Forth far down into Galloway, where tribes whom Rome could not subdue were led captive by the Gospel. The great West Kirk of Edinburgh, standing at the head of a beautiful valley of gardens, between the fine esplanade of Princes Street and the green mantled steeps of the Castle rock, has witnessed for twelve centuries to the zeal and devotion of St. Cuthbert, from whom it derives its name.
On one occasion St. Cuthbert, quitting the monastery of Melrose, went down to the land of the Galloway Picts, accompanied by two of his brethren. They disembarked the day after Christmas, when a tempest arose which detained them several days exposed to hunger and cold, but they were supplied with food under a cliff, in answer to the prayers of the saint during the night watches. The outcome of this visit was a Christian Church, one of the earliest in Scotland and the first at Kirkcudbright, of which the churchyard has been used from time immemorial, under the name of St. Cuthbert’s, as the burying ground for the town; so that the city of the dead is quite as ancient as the city of the living, and far more populous, containing, as it does, the past generations for upwards of a thousand years. From an eminence near by called the Bellhill, we seem to hear the call to devotion across the gulf of the buried centuries; and another height, called the Angel Hill, suggests the supernatural visions of those ages of faith, like that vouchsafed to St. Cuthbert when, a shepherd boy on the banks of Gala Water, he beheld the soul of St. Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, ascending to heaven amid a numerous retinue of attending angels.
The original name of the town, Caer Cuabrit – the fort at the bend-was changed into one of similar sound but different meaning, Kirkcudbright – the Kirk of Cuthbert-in honour of Cuthbert, the illustrious Saxon saint, to whom the first Christian church there owed its foundation.
The Norsemen, known as Sea-kings, began in the eighth century to be the terror of the Celtic tribes inhabiting Scotland – forming settlements and occupying fertile districts on the seaboard of Galloway. Several names in Kirkcudbright seem to be referable to them, as the Gata, meaning a thoroughfare. – “The King’s hie-gait,” Stockerton, the isolated dwelling Balgreddan, the green and verdant farm; Howwell, the well at the foot of the hill; Bomby, the settlement of the husbandman; The Mark, march or boundary. Although the Irish, or Erse tongue, and the British are both derived from the Celtic, yet a difference existed between the two. The great body of the names of places in Kirkcudbright resemble the names in Ireland and belong to the Erse dialect of the Celtic tongue. Such are the names of hills-Barr, which is any height in general; Knock, a lonely precipitous height, “Knockshinnie,” the hill of the foxes; “Knockskellie,” the hill of the rocks. Drum signifies a sow-backed height, as in Dromore, the great ridge, and Drumbeg, the little ridge, “Torr,” the rounded height. Mulloch, bare hill, Doach is a weir or cruive, as the Meikle and Priory Doach near Tongland Abbey. Culdoach signifies the back of the weir or cruive. Puldroil, a place below Tongland Bridge, signifies the pool of the Bridge. Auchenflower means the field of the sick man, from Achadh (Aha) Erse for a croft of land gained out of wild ground not before manured, and lour (lobbair) a leper. Balmae means the house or land of the plain. Balig, the homestead of the hollow. Whinneyligget, Erse word for furze, and ligget, a gate so hung that it may be shut of itself – the furzy swing gate. Dunrod, the fort of the road, Castle Creavie, the castle of the tree. Brockloch, a place for badgers, a badgery. All these forms of Celtic names would seem to have been due to the large influx of Irish immigrants who took possession of the district, and became notorious under the designation of the “Wild Scots of Galloway.”
When we come down to the twelfth century, the darkness that rested on Kirkcudbright begins to melt away in the clear light of history. In a large level field, once a lake, on the farm of Loch Fergus, there is a green and wooded knoll where the young lambs love to play, known as Palace Isle. On this knoll, in his water-girdled fortress, lived, in power and splendour, for twenty-three years, Fergus, the first of five Hereditary Lords who ruled Galloway for a whole century. He was the source of many noble families, the ancestor of Baliol and Bruce, the father of kings that were to be of Scotland, England, and France. On that knoll his son Uchtred foully murdered his brother Gilbert, and there he lived for years in all that outward prosperity sometimes given to wicked men, but was long remembered with detestation by the horrified inhabitants, whose conscience revolted against his crimes. On that knoll lived and died Alan, the last of the male line of Lords, the father of the illustrious Devorgilla, one of the Barons who forced King John to sign the great Charter of England; so that Kirkcudbright, which in the first century stoutly resisted the foreign foe in the Roman invasion, is, through the Palace Isle, connected with the great bulwark of Magna Charta, raised in the thirteenth century by patriotic hands against oppression of their subjects on the part of our native monarchs.
All these Galloway Lords were munificent benefactors of the Church. On the site occupied by the old Castle of Kirkcudbright was a Franciscan Monastery, founded in the reign of Alexander II., of which all the written records have perished. John Carpenter, one of the Friars distinguished for his mechanical genius, so fortified the Castle of Dumbarton as to earn from the King a yearly pension of twenty pounds. In the place now occupied by the Catholic Chapel was the Church of St. Andrew, with a churchyard, a vicarage, and lands. Outside of the town was the old Church of Cuthbert, conspicuous, among the wooden Churches of the period, as being built of stone. At one of the festivals in honour of the founder held in 1164, bull-baiting was engaged in by the younger monks, when the tortured animal, breaking loose from his tormentors, as if guided in his insensate fury by some invisible hand, gored alone amongst the crowd a young cleric who, with flippant scepticism had ridiculed the presence in the sacred enclosure of St. Cuthbert, “even although,” added the audacious scoffer, “his Church was made of stone.”
There was a Church at the village of Dunrod, forming, along with Dunrod in Borgue, on the other side of the Dee, one parish. At Galtway, two miles from Kirkcudbright, there was a Church and Priory, of which no trace remains, the buildings having long been used as a quarry for the neighbourhood.
On the Isle of Trahyl was a magnificent monastery dedicated to the Virgin, and called St. Mary’s, after her name. The Lords of Galloway bestowed all these Churches, with their lands, upon the Abbey of Holyrood, so that the monasteries of the South-west, like those of the East of Scotland, came under the domination of the Pope of Rome – a policy which, in the course of four hundred years, rendered inevitable the great upheaval of the Reformation, as the only possible deliverance from a corrupt and intolerable oppression.
One of the earlier Galloway Lords built a castle overlooking the entrance to the river, of which all that remains are the grassy mounds and deep fosse of Castle Dykes. On this peaceful spot figured many illustrious characters, and many stirring events were enacted connected with critical periods in the history both of England and Scotland. William of Kirkcudbright, whose name appears on the Ragman’s Roll as a vassal of King Edward, ruled from this castle, with all the rigour of an oppressive Norman baron, during that distracted period which followed the death of the Maid of Norway, when the Scottish crown was left without a direct heir. Here, after the defeat of Falkirk in 1298, the patriotic Wallace, more sorely smitten by the jealousy of his country’s friends than the opposition of her enemies, found a shelter until, with fifty chosen companions, amid the tears of the populace, he sailed away from the port of Kirkcudbright to France, where his victories over the rovers of the sea became famous in the songs of that nation, as his victories over his oppressors on land were celebrated throughout successive generations in the minstrelsy of Scotland.
Here, in the summer of 1300, King Edward I. for a period of ten days took up his abode with his queen and court – banqueting his knights with loaves made from wheat grown in Galloway and ground in English mills, washed down with wine from the eighty hogsheads sent to him by the Mayor of Drogheda, in which they drank success to Edward’s campaign in Scotland. Here the Earl of Galloway vainly endeavoured to negotiate a peace, and the “Hammer of Scotland ” broke out into a storm of tyrannic rage at the Earl of Buchan and John Comyn of Badenoch remonstrating against his unjust aggression. Hither also the Archbishop of Canterbury, after encountering difficulties in the dangerous sands of the Solway unheard of for a prelate, arrived with all his dignitaries, clerks, and servants, bearing the bull of Pope Boniface VIII., requiring Edward to relinquish his claim on Scotland, which the King received later on at Caerlaverock with a profane outburst of astonishment and ungovernable fury.
In the delightful situation of Castle Dykes, the heroic Edward Bruce, after a swift succession of brilliant exploits, enjoyed the Lordship of that province, at the first sight of which, from the top of Cairn Edward, he exclaimed, in an ecstasy of admiration, “That beautiful country must be mine.”
After the year 1369, the gateway of this fortress for nearly a century resounded to the soldier step and armed clang of the Douglases, whose scarred features glared through the narrow windows during the period this oppressive house ruled over Kirkcudbright as a Burgh of Regality, and the grim Earls, surrounded by their armed retainers, administered justice to the inhabitants according to their pleasure. Here, in 1455,
James II. was provided with iron for the manufacture of Mons Meg, the great gun with which Threave Castle was overthrown; and on the 26th October, that same year, Kirkcudbright was created a Royal Burgh and for ever freed from the Douglas’s detested sway.
Six years later, after the great Lancastrian defeat at Towton, the chambers of the grey old fortress were illuminated by the presence of Margaret, the still youthful queen of Henry VI., whom stern necessity had transformed from the most charming woman of her age into a tigress fighting for her young, and she has been pilloried for all time in the plays of Shakespeare as “the she wolf of France.” Her mind, deeply imbued with the poetical sentiments of her Provencal training, Margaret of Anjou, from the battlements of Kirkcudbright Castle, might have beheld with rapture the prospect spread out all round-as Margaret of Branksome in the Lay of the Last Minstrel blessed the evening hour –
“In the high turret sitting lone,
And waked at times the lute’s soft tone.”
But leaving her royal husband and son in the safe retreat of Castlemains, Margaret hurried away to fight the world for them till the Red Rose of Lancaster should bloom triumphant over the White Rose of York. In 1464, after the defeat of Hexham, and a romantic encounter with a robber chief, whom she inspired with such devotion, that he vowed he would rather die a thousand deaths than injure or betray her, Margaret found a hiding-place in Kirkcudbright, but was dragged out of her bed at night to a boat from which at dawn in the Solway, De Breze, her old admirer and faithful squire, rescued her, only that long years after, deprived of husband, son, and crown, she might die a miserable death, in which one of the most beautiful objects in the world was changed into a terror to all beholders.
In 1508, James IV. for the second time visited Castlemains, and granted its buildings and adjoining lands to the town for services rendered to himself and his grandfather, James II. During this visit the Castle resounded with revelry by night, and by day the High Street of Kirkcudbright was glorified with the procession of gay courtiers and prancing steeds in the Royal train of a monarch conspicuous, even among Stewart kings, for his gallantry –
“While all along the crowded way,
Was jubilee and loud huzza.
And ever James was bending low
To his white jennet’s saddle bow,
Doffing his cap to burgher dame,
Who smiled and blushed for pride and shame,
And well the simperer might be vain-
He chose the fairest of the train.”
After this Kirkcudbright entered on a time of prosperity. It was possessed of a capacious harbour, landlocked from all the winds by the surrounding hills and the Isle of Ross. Its merchants exported wool, hides, fish, and Dee pearls; while they imported wine, cloth, and armour, In 1526 it was described by Hector Boethius as “ane rich toune and full of merchandise.” The stately burgesses, in sword, bonnet, buckles and hose, walked along its streets in the proud consciousness of their exclusive right of trading within the liberties, and all the privileges of an ancient Royal Burgh.
In those quaint houses standing with their gables to the street, and closes radiating from each side of it, people lived under the sway of the same passions which govern the modern dwellers, although their love, and their hatred, and their envy is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun. To some of the houses still remaining the county gentry repaired in the season, and gave entertainments, bright with the beauty and chivalry of the Stewartry. They shared in the recreations of the town, they enlivened by the presence of their families its streets, and they elevated the tone of its citizens above that of many opulent trading towns, by the circle of elegant society, which, through the superior refinement of their person and manners, they provided.
Kirkcudbright, being a fortified town, sustained two memorable sieges, one for which Thomas of Derby was extolled in the songs of the Manxman as the Earl with the golden crupper, who rode through the town, a thriving burgh before him, a desolate ruin behind him. This exploit was amply avenged by one of the Ardwell family, who made descents on the Isle of Man so formidable and so frequent, that the Manxmen ate the “sodden” before they supped the broth, and prayed daily to be delivered from the Devil and Cutlar M’Culloch. Another siege was in 1548, when the furious onslaught of the English army, under Sir Thomas Carleton, was so effectively repelled that the enemy ventured no second attack.
It was at Kirkcudbright that the patriotic Duke of Albany landed, with a numerous fleet and a large army, in a last effort to save his country. Kirkcudbright was the destined landing place of a second invasion by the King of Spain, after the destruction of the memorable ” Armada.” At Kirkcudbright Lord Maxwell arrived from Spain, and collected a body of followers so numerous that James VI. marched with an army to Dumfries and Kirkcudbright to quell an insurrection intended to depose the King, and bring back the country under the dominion of the Pope.
During the previous years a mighty change in the religious feelings of Scotland had resulted in the overthrow of Popery, and the establishment of the Reformation as the religion of the nation. This vast revolution was deeply felt in the capital of the Stewartry, on whose inhabitants it conferred many blessings, inspiring those citizens who had so often bravely stood for civil freedom with that love of religious liberty, to which more than to the favour of kings, or the support of nobles, Kirkcudbright owes the honourable position she occupies in history among the ancient Royal Burghs of Scotland.