The Story of an Ancient Royal Burgh (2)

The Story of an Ancient Royal Burgh

By Rev. George Ogilvie Elder, M.A

Page 2 of 3

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There were three buildings which were important centres of life in Kirkcudbright during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One was the Court-house and Jail, in which were placed their “knock ” (clock) and bells, considered in those days “ane special ornament belanging to every burgh,” and of which the inhabitants were very proud. It was made of malleable iron, and had a quaint dial, with one hand showing the hours but not the minutes, which were not of so much importance in those easy-going days. For its better accommodation its present spire was built in 1642, with stones taken from the ruins of Dundrennan Abbey. The old clock, with the exception of six months, when it lay in Ringford Smithy waiting repairs, continued to revolve for three hundred and twenty-one years, till, in 1896, it was removed to the Museum, where it now rests, its strong iron pinions completely worn through with its long period of service.

In the old Jail many a prisoner was buried as in a living grave. One, accused of murder, was lodged in a pit so dark that he craved the Magistrates to grant him sufficient of the light of day to instruct him to eternal life; and they allowed a hole to be cut out of the middle of the door, three inches square, with an iron grate to be put upon it. under the superintendence of three leading members of the Town Council. As told in Guy Mannering, it was into a wretched apartment of this prison that Harry Bertram was thrown, where the sounds of jarring bolts and creaking hinges, mingled occasionally with the dull monotony of the retiring ocean or the hoarse dash of the full tide below the base of the building.

In front of the Tolbooth stood the old “Mercat Cross,” to which, at the weekly markets of the Royal Burgh, country people brought, in carts of wicker-work, on the backs of horses, or the shoulders of pedlars, their goods, exposing them for sale in stands or in tents.

At first these weekly markets, or occasional fairs, were held on Sundays, but were changed to week days through the unwearied efforts of the Reformed preachers. There also the public officers collected the toll due by those who sold at fairs, from which the prison was called the Tolbooth. At the cross also hung the jougs – the padlocked iron collar which grasped the necks of culprits, both men and women, while, wearing labels with the name of their crime, they were exhibited at the markets in broad day light, more terrible sometimes to a delinquent than the darkness inside the prison. Within the Court-house sat at stated times the Town Council, with their eyes fixed on the good of the Burgh, not without an occasional side glance at their own profit, They were an all-powerful body of magistrates, having many officials under them-a clerk, treasurer, dean, kirk-master, town piper, town drummer, water bailie, and town herd.

In our day the Earl of Derby was recently Lord Mayor of Liverpool. The Duke of Devonshire is Mayor of Easthourne, and at that period the most opulent and powerful gentlemen of the district were proud to preside Over the Councillors of Kirkcudbright. They had power to Ordain laws, fix punishments, and carry them into execution. They rushed in where the British Imperial Parliament in our time would fear to tread. They assumed the control of religion and morals. They enforced, by heavy fines, attendance twice at church on the Sabbath day, and at two diets of examine on the week days. All who were guilty of swearing, railing, profane speeches, or flyting on the streets, were sentenced to a penalty of forty pence.

The Magistrates took charge also of the education of the Burgh. In the absence of those endowed schools and colleges proposed by the Reformers, they appointed James Dodds, the first Protestant minister, schoolmaster, at a salary of twenty merks, secured to him by the rent of the Ferry Boat. As the work grew in importance they engaged, at an increased salary, a man who was required to give his whole time to teaching, and keep a qualified assistant under him, called a doctour. They could not face the free education proposed by the Reformers, and in appointing James Dickson to be teacher, they enacted that “the toun bairns should pay their fees in advance, quarterly, at Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas, and Ail-hallowmas, and gif they pay nocht within ten days after the terme, the said James to expel them furth of the schule.”

The necessity for education was great. Sir Andrew Agnew relates in the Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway that Elizabeth Agnew, the heiress of Wigg, could not sign her own marriage contract, but hopes she made up for this deficiency by her excellence in embroidery and the manufacture of jams. In the latter part of the sixteenth century there was a burgess at Kirkcudbright, called Herbert Gladstone, who could not sign his own name, but he made up for this defect by being a Bailie, a Member of Parliament, a Commissioner to the Convention of Royal Burghs, and a builder of such repute, that to him was let the contract in 1590 for re-building the Meikle Yett or Heigh Port of the Burgh, which was required to be of such height that ” himself and his grey horse riding therein could but reik in hand to the pien stane thereof.” About this time another Herbert Gladstone was appointed schoolmaster, more suitable than his eminent but uneducated namesake, to be, as they are both understood to have been, among the ancestors of the celebrated statesman of our own time, one of whose sons rejoices in the name of Herbert Gladstone.

The Town Council regulated trade, from the most important business transaction to the letting of a room or the purchase of a hen. They levied customs within the burgh, and on all cattle and merchandise entering the Stewartry from Wigtownshire over the river Cree. They fixed the price of provisions, candles, loaves, beef, and ale, at that time the universal drink. They anticipated by three hundred years the ten o’clock movement, and sharply fined two men for “drinking in Bettie Gillis’ house after ten hour at evin’.” They adopted vigorous measures to preserve the health and peace of the Burgh. They stopped the custom of burying within the Friars’ Church, in spite of the fierce opposition of the people. They prevented all intercourse between the town and infected districts during the plague of 1599. They appointed companies of watchmen against attacks from without, and in case of any tumult within the gates, every person was required at the clink of the common bell to come to the street boundit with weapons, no doubt often-times making confusion worse confounded.

The next important building to be noticed was the Castle of the M’Lellans, the walls of which are still standing. In 1569 Sir Thomas M’Lellan of Bomby obtained leave to build a mansion in what was the gardens of the Friars’ Church. For centuries the M’Lellans had been distinguished in the history of the province. One of their ancestors was among the fifty chosen companions who, after the battle of Falkirk, sailed with the patriot Wallace from Kirkcudbright to France. It was on the occasion of the treacherous murder, for his resistance to oppression, of Sir Patrick M’Lellan at Threave Castle, that his uncle, Sir Patrick Gray, who was at dinner in the hall with an order from the king for his nephew’s release, defied the Earl of Douglas in his own stronghold, and effected his escape from a bloody death in the manner celebrated by Sir Walter Scott -.

“Sir Patrick turned – well was his need –
And dashed the rowels in his steed,
Like arrow through the archway sprung
The ponderous grate behind him rung;
To pass there was such scanty room
The bars descending grazed his plume.
The steed along the drawbridgr flies
Just as it trembled on the rise-
Nor lighter does the swallow skim
Along the smooth lake’s level brim;
And when Sir Patrick reached the lend
He halts and turns with clenched hand,
And shout of loud defiance pours,
And shook his gauntlet at the towers.
Horse ! horse !” the Douglas cried, ‘and chase.'”

And he was chased sixty miles till near Edinburgh, and had it not been that his led horse was so tried and good he had been taken. Sir Patrick’s son, William, having found the captain of a band of Moorish pirates asleep through the influence of whisky cunningly introduced into his well, drove a dagger through the ruffian’s head and presented it to James II., with the request that the king would “think on” the promised reward; and so the forfeited lands of Bombie were restored to William M’Lellan, with permission to take for his crest a head with a dagger in it, and for his motto the two words “Think on.”

In 1513 another William M’Lellan, who was knighted by James IV., fell, along with the flower of the baronage of Calloway, in the same sorrowful battle by which “the flowers o the forest were a’ wede away.”

Thirteen years after, his son, Thomas, perished more miserably at the door of Sir Giles’ Church in Edinburgh, in a savage encounter with his deadly enemy, Gordon of Lochinvar, when both gentlemen insisted on keeping the crown of the causeway. A dozen years later the son and heir of the murdered M’Lellan fell in love with Helen, the daughter of the Laird of Lochinvar, his father’s murderer. Her family were favourable – the lady herself, like another Juliet, consented. The relatives on both sides, and most of the principals engaged in the fatal fray, were present at the wedding feast, and thus

“Was staunched the death feud’s enmity,
When pride was quelled and love was free.”

And Burd Helen was brought home a bonny bride to Raeberry, to be the light of the castle her own father with murderous hands had made desolate.

It was her husband, Sir Thomas, who made a new home in Kirkcudbright, and finished the castle in 1582. Its size testified to the greatness of the M’Lellans, who possessed large estates near Kirkcudbright, and had fourteen knights of their clan proprietors in different parts of Galloway. Its plan, being that of a comfortable dwelling rather than a place of defense, showed the advanced state of the district in public tranquility at the period of which James VI. boasted that “he would make the rash bush keep the cow.” The stones of which it was built, being those of the old castle controlled by the Douglases, testified to the emancipation of the people from feudal bondage, and their enjoyment of those free institutions under which they have attained so much prosperity. The site on which the castle was erected showed the completeness of the social change effected by the Reformation, since a Scotch laird now dwelt amid the orchards, where, during bygone centuries, the monks had luxuriated. And finally, the situation of this baronial mansion inside the town was a witness to the influence which the M’Lellans had possessed in the past, and which they were destined to wield for years to come within the burgh of which they were many times the Provosts.

King James VI., when in Kirkcudbright in pursuit of Lord Maxwell, presented to the incorporated trades a silver gun, still in possession of the town, with the year 1587 engraved upon it, and the capital letters “T. M. C.,” the initials of Thomas M’Lellan, at that time Provost of the Burgh.

His son, Sir Robert M’Lellan, the next owner of the castle, was raised to the peerage by Charles I. in 1633, under the title of Lord Kirkcudbright, while a new Charter was given to the town creating the present corporation-a provost, two bailies, a treasurer, and thirteen councillors.

The third building to be mentioned is the old church. It was originally the chapel of Greyfriars’ Monastery, and was used for a hundred and seventy years after the Reformation as the place of Protestant worship till 1730, when it was replaced by the building still standing on the Mote Brae, and in which the old aisle is all that remains of the monastery. Round that old church a great battle raged during the seventeenth century, The ministers, the magistrates, the community, the landed gentry, all stood on the side of Presbyterianism and religious freedom, in opposition to the Bishops and the subjection of the Church to the Stuart Kings of England.

The celebrated John Welsh, for eight years, at the close of the sixteenth century, and the beginning of the seventeenth, preached to crowded congregations, under the thatched roof of the old church, sermons of such deep spirituality and overpowering tenderness that strong men could scarce forbear weeping. To the house beside an old hawthorn, still to be seen, between High Street and the Academy, facing the river, the minister brought home his bride, Elizabeth Knox, daughter of the Reformer. This heroic woman poured her own spirit into her husband’s ears, both stimulating and sustaining him in his sufferings for Christ.

When, after prolonged exile, his health gave way, Mrs Welsh pleaded before James VI., in London, for her husband’s return to Scotland, as the one remedy prescribed by the physicians, the King exclaimed, ” Knox and Welsh-the devil never made such a match as that.” “It’s right like, sir, for we never spiered his advice.” She again urged her request that he would give her husband his native air. ” Give him his native air l give him the devil l” replied the King. ” Give that to your hungry courtiers,” said she, offended at his profaneness. He told her at last her husband might return if she could persuade him to submit to the Bishops. Mrs Welsh, lifting up her apron and holding it towards the King, replied, ” Please, your Majesty, I’d rather kep his head there.”

A young man named Robert Glendinning, just returned from his travels, walking on the streets of Kirkcudbright decorated with gold and silver lace, was told by Mrs Welsh to betake himself to study, for he was to be the next minister of Kirkcudbright, which he became when Welsh was translated to Ayr. After a long ministry, Mr Glendinning, because he would neither himself submit to the Bishops nor receive one of the Bishop’s creatures as his assistant and successor, was condemned to imprisonment when he was almost fourscore years old.

After him, from 1638 to 1650, came John M’Lellan, well-known as the author of a valuable description of Galloway. He was one of several able and influential ministers settled in Scotland, to which they were driven back by a storm after setting sail, on account of the persecution, for New England across the Atlantic’s roar. He never knew what it was to be afraid in the cause of God, and expired in a swan-like song of triumph over mortality swallowed up of life.

Last, there was Thomas Wylie, at one time minister of Borgue, but afterwards of Kirkcudbright. On the Monday after a Communion – so crowded that it extended over two Sundays – he fled from a party of soldiers sent from the Privy Council to seize him, and was banished north of the Tay, whither he had to remove with his family in the frost and snow of December, subsequently enduring many hardships – being destitute, afflicted, tormented.

The Magistrates were not far behind the ministers in the battle. Provost Fullerton, with the whole Council, were thrown into Wigtown Jail because they would not incarcerate Robert Glendinning, their revered pastor; and the minister’s own son, being one of the Bailies, was cast into Kirkcudbright Jail for refusing to imprison his venerable father. Provost Fullerton’s wife, Marion M’Naught, whose acquaintance Livingstone made at a Communion in Borgue, is mentioned by him among the soldier saints of Christ’s chivalry in the Galloway of those glorious days-a lady exalted alike in earthly lineage and Christian character, immortalised by Rutherford as the correspondent to whom so many of his letters were addressed, and eulogised in a Latin epitaph on her tombstone in the churchyard of Kirkcudbright, as far excelling her sex in courage, her race in piety, and her rank in virtue.

As for the part taken in the great struggle by the community of Kirkcudbright, it will be sufficient to state that under the infamous commission court appointed 16th July, 1664, of which all the Bishops were members, eighteen families were fined £5280 for not attending the ministrations of the curates. At one of the Courts, such as were often held at Kirkcudbright by Thomas Lidderdale of St. Mary’s Isle, James Martin was fined £1000 for the absence of his wife from the curate’s services, and, being unable to pay, was thrown into prison, where, from close confinement and bad usage, he died. About thirty women of Kirkcudbright who riotously opposed the forced settlement of a curate by placing themselves in front of the church with a plentiful supply of stones, were sentenced, some of them to be carried prisoners to Edinburgh, others to be imprisoned at Kirkcudbright, and five of the most active to make a degrading exhibition of themselves, two several market days, at the town cross, on pain of being whipped through the town and banished forth of the same and the liberties thereof.

As for the county gentlemen, John, Lord Kirkcudbright (originally John M’Lellan of Borgue), John Carson of Senwick (late Provost of Kirkcudbright), and John Ewart, who had been chosen Provost of the Burgh, were all carried prisoners to Edinburgh. This Lord Kirkcudbright possessed at one time large estates in Galloway – Bombie with its castle, Loch Fergus, Black and Little Stockerton, Meikle and Little Sypland, Gribdae, and many other lands – but having at his own expense raised a regiment which by its bravery won the battle of Philiphaugh on 13th September, 1645 (a victory which caused great joy throughout Galloway), his finances were much reduced, and his ruin was completed by the fines imposed on him for not interfering between the women and the soldiers engaged in the settlement of the curate in the Church of Kirkcudbright. The fifth Lord was in circumstances so reduced that it is said he kept a small inn opposite the present court-house for a livelihood – hob-nobbing with the country folk who came to market, while Lord John, his son, greased the boots, and Lady Betty, his daughter, made the beds.

William M’Lellan of Borness, being heir to the title through his ancestor Gilbert of Barmaguachan, second son of Sir Thomas M’Lellan of Bombie, kept a glove shop in Edinburgh, and stood many years in the lobby of the Assembly Rooms selling gloves to the guests, who required, according to the fashion of the time, a new pair for every dance – the only time he was absent from his post being when in full dress he danced at a ball given after an election in which, himself a Peer, he voted for a Scottish representative in the House of Lords. The Rev. John M’Lellan of Kelton, when about to follow up his claims to the title, died in 1840; and the pretensions of others in line, which are being continually advanced, fail for want of evidence.

The once opulent and powerful M’Lellans of Bombie lie under the aisle of the old church on the Mote Brae, in a vault which, when opened sixty years ago, was found to contain several oak coffins, with their cloth coverings and silken trimmings almost entire, poor relics of departed splendour, which at the slightest touch crumbled into dust. The castle of the M’Lellans close by, once the abode of mirth and hospitality, now the habitation of owls and bats, testifies in its stately ruins to the transitoriness of earthly greatness, and the unchangeable degree by which the social economy of one period is displaced by a system altogether different in the next.

“The old order changeth, giving place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

These ivy-mantled walls, over-topping the modern buildings, along with the tower of the court-house and jail, crown with the majesty of antique grandeur the landscape in the midst of which, beautiful for situation, Kirkcudbright sits enthroned as a queen in the ancient province of Galloway.