The Story of an Ancient Royal Burgh
By Rev. George Ogilvie Elder, M.A
Page 3 of 3
“0, wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us,
It wad fra mony an evil free us
And foolish notion-
What airs in gait and dress wad lea’e us,
And e’en devotion.”
Kirkcudbright enjoys the advantage of seeing itself as it was seen at different stages of its history by three distinguished observers. The first was the heroic Charlotte de la Tremoulle, Countess of Derby, who spent a week at Kirkcudbright waiting for a fair wind to waft her across to the Isle of Man. Writing under date August, 1650-the year when Charles II. was crowned at Scone, and John M’Lellan died (one of the best ministers Kirkcudbright ever possessed) – the Countess says: – “I have been here for 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 the place, though I never saw anything so dirty. But this is nothing to the religion. The sermons which I have heard in this place are horrible, having nothing of devotion in them, nor explaining any point of religion, but being full of sedition- warning people by their names, and treating of everything with such ignorance, and without the least respect or reverence, that I am so scandalised I do not think I could live with a quiet conscience among these atheists.”
The second distinguished observer is Daniel Defoe. Writing seventy years later than the Countess, in the year 1723, he says :- “Kirkcudbright is an ancient town, with the prettiest navigable river I have seen in Britain. It runs as smooth as the Medway at Chatham, and there is depth of water and room enough to hold all the fleet of England, so that the ‘ Britannia’ may throw her anchor into the churchyard. The situation of the town is a perfect amphitheatre, like the town of Trent on the confines of Italy; not like it surrounded by high mountains, but what in this country they call craigs – stony heights thinly covered with grass, through which the rocks appear like a scab. The common people in Kirkcudbright wear all bonnets instead of hats, and though some of the townsmen possess hats, they wear them only on Sundays and extraordinary occasions. There is nothing of the gaiety of the English, but a sedate gravity in every face, without the stiffness of the Spaniards ; and I take this to be owing to their praying and frequent long graces, which gives their looks a religious cast. Taciturnity and dullness gains the character of a discreet man, and a gentleman of wit is called a sharp man. I arrived here on Saturday night at a good inn, but the room where I lay, I believe, had not been washed in a hundred years. Next day I expected, as in England, a piece of good beef or a pudding to dinner, but my landlord told me that they never dress dinner on a Sunday, so that I must either take up with bread and butter, a fresh egg, or fast till after the evening sermon, when they never fail of a hot supper. Certainly no nation on earth observes the Sabbath with that strictness of devotion and resignation to the will of God; they all pray in their families before they go to church, and between sermons they fast; after sermon everybody retires to his own home and reads some book of devotion till supper-which is generally very good on Sundays – after which they sing Psalms till they go to bed.”
The third distinguished observer, seventy years later still, is no less a person than Robert Burns. Near the end of last century, writing an election ballad, he figures the Dumfries Burghs as five carlines met to decide whether they will have Sir James Johnstone, a Border knight, or Captain Miller, a young soldier, as their Member. In this conclave Kirkcudbright is pictured as an intemperate old woman, red of face and loud of tongue, whose stalwart form is familiar in all the public-houses of the province –
“And Whisky Jean that took her gill
In Galloway sae wide.”
When her turn comes she expresses her mind in the maudlin fashion to be expected from the whisky punch she consumes while she talks –
“Then Whisky Jean spak’ owre her drink-
Ye weel ken, kimmers a’,
The aul’ guidman o’ Lon’on Court
His back’s been at the wa’
And monie a friend that kissed his cup
Is now a fremit wight,
But it’s ne’er be said o’ Whisky Jean-
I’ll send the Border knight.”
Kirkcudbright is the possessor, since 1720, of a famous walnut punch bowl, hooped with brass, and capable of holding ten gallons. Strange to say this mighty vessel was conspicuous by its absence from the great Burns’ Centenary feast, held in Kirkcudbright forty years ago – the only explanation given being that the coopers were all so busy making hoops, in those days of crinoline, for the ladies’ dresses they had no time to repair the hoops of the punch bowl, geasened through long disuse. The last occasion on which it was filled was in 1891, at the golden wedding of Hon. Charles Hope and Lady Isabella Hope of St. Mary’s Isle.
Early in the eighteenth century a branch of the Hamiltons settled in the Stewartry, and succeeded to the position, with respect to Kirkcudbright, so long occupied by the M’Lellans, of whose old castle they are now the possessors. In 1646 Lord William Douglas was raised to the peerage of Scotland by the title of Baron Daer and Shortcleuch and Earl of Selkirk, but afterwards was created Duke of Hamilton. His fifth son, Lord Basil Hamilton, married Mary Dunbar, granddaughter and heiress of Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon the elder, her own father, Sir David Dunbar the younger, the husband of the “Bride of Lammermoor,” having been killed, as related in the novel, by a fall from his horse between Leith and Holyrood. Lady Mary Hamilton succeeded to all her grandfather’s property, both in the shire and in the Stewartry; and, when the grandson of Lidderdale, the persecutor, died on the Spanish voyage, she purchased St. Mary’s Isle.
Her son, Basil Hamilton, went out with Kenmure in the “fifteen,” fought bravely at Preston, was taken prisoner, his estates forfeited, and himself condemned to be executed. By powerful interest his life was spared, the attainder reversed, and the property long afterwards restored. He was for several times Provost of Kirkcudbright.
Basil’s son, Dunbar Hamilton, grandson of Lady Mary, succeeded to all the estates and the titles, taking up his residence at St. Mary’s Isle in 1744 as Dunbar Hamilton Douglas, fourth Earl of Selkirk, a position he enjoyed for fifty-five years, till his death in 1799. Thus the arms of Hamilton and Dunbar were united with those of Douglas on the Selkirk shield; and the family which rose by the Daer, a tributary of the Clyde, and sojourned beside the Blednoch, settled near Kirkcudbright towers, upon the bonny banks o Dee, which not altogether, as in former days, but almost encircles the wooded Isle of St. Mary.
About the year 1786, the Earl of Selkirk entrusted the management of his estates to his eldest son and heir, the celebrated Basil William, Lord Daer, a youth of twenty-two, just returned from Paris, where he had cultivated the society and imbibed the sentiments of the future leaders of the great French Revolution. The Earl’s confidence was fully justified by the consummate business ability and practical wisdom which the youth displayed; and, at the time of the father’s death, more than thirty farms in the parish of Kirkcudbright shared in the improvements introduced by Lord Daer. These were Torrs, Baigreddan, Meikie and Little Sypland, Half Mark, Black and Little Stockerton, Brockloch, Red Brae, Whinny Ligget, Culdoach, Carse, Canee, Meikie and Little Kirkland, Auchenflower, Grange and Mill, Mutehill, Meikie and Little Galtway, Knockour, Galtway, Miltown of Dunrod and Mill thereof, Kirkland, Stackcroft, Glenancroft, St. Mary’s Isle, Jordieland, Bombie and Mill, Glenlay, Dromore, Loch Fergus, Cotton, and part of Kirkhouse (to which were afterwards added Howwell and Balmae, Banks, High Banks, and part of Overlaw).
Lord Daer surveyed the estate and marked out a portion of ground to be enclosed and planted annually, with plants raised on the spot from a nursery of twenty acres, beginning at St. Mary’s Isle and gradually extending to the remoter parts of the property. This policy was carried out by his younger brother, Thomas, father of the late Earl, until the naked crags around Kirkcudbright were transformed into a richly-wooded country, and the bleak estuary of Dee into the scene of enchantment we now behold. In a literal sense it is true of Lord Daer, that the wilderness and the solitary place were glad for him-the desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose.
When his father sold Baldoon to the Earl of Galloway for a sum calculated on a rental of £5000, Lord Daer leased the estate for ten years at £7000 – not only paying the rent, but improving the estate so much, chiefly by the best wheat-growing land reclaimed from the sea, that an additional sum, according to arrangement, of £125,000 was paid by Lord Galloway to Thomas, the fifth Earl, father of the late Lord Selkirk, who gave £25,000 to each of his four sisters, retaining only one share for himself. Lord Daer died before the final adjustment at the age of thirty, in some place abroad whither he was compelled to retire on account of his opposition to the authorities. He was long remembered in the town of Kirkcudbright with feelings of the most enthusiastic admiration, and even now the memory of the noble but defiant Daer enhances more than wealth or an Earl’s coronet the grandeur of his race; while the inhabitants of the district reap the harvest sown by this genuine benefactor of his kind. Born to high rank and great estates, he belonged to the aristocracy of nature, and held the patent of his nobility direct from Almighty God. He has been fitly immortalised by his friend Robert Burns in the “Lines on meeting with Basil Lord Daer,” at the table of Dugald Stewart, in which he is extolled as one of the most modest, sensible, social, and brotherly of men –
“I sidling sheltered in a nook,
And at his Lordship stealt a look
Like some pretentous omen;
Except good sense and social glee
An’, what surprised me, modesty,
I marked nought uncommon.
I watched the symptoms o’ the great-
The gentle pride, the lordly state,
The arrogant assuming;
The fient a pride, nae pride had he,
Nor sauce nor state that I could see
Mair than an honest ploughman.
Then from his lordship I shall learn
Henceforth to meet with unconcern
One rank as weel’s anither
Nae honest, worthy man need care
To meet with noble, youthful Daer,
For he hut meets a brither.”
The ancient burgh is almost unrivalled for the number of delightful walks in its neighbourhood – one of the most splendid being the path that runs through the scenery on the Kirkcudbright side of the Dee. At the Doachs of Tongland the stream, scattered over the extensive bed of rocks or plunging madly down steep calaracts into roaring whirlpools, fills the air unceasingly with the far-heard sound of falling waters. There are the airy steeps over which you go amid the copsewood clothing the precipitous banks, between which the river eddies into dark pools, or leaps a savage torrent over the rocks below, until, in the ample space contained between the graceful arch of Telford’s Bridge and the wooded slopes of Compstone, there takes place that “meeting of the waters,” when the Dee and the Tarff celebrate their union in majestic windings of their streams. Lower down there is a favourite walk by a poplar fringed embankment; beyond the town is the walk by the Castle Dykes, where, when the setting summer sun suffuses all things with a golden light, the blackbirds pour their melodies from the sprays of hawthorn sweetly scenting with their blossoms the evening gale; and last of all there is a lovely path, by flowery meadows and shady groves, beside the Manxman’s Lake, through which the river rapidly makes its way to the sea. On the shore there are the rocky cliffs of the Torrs Point, clothed with wild flowers, and the cave which disputes with Ravenshall the honour of being that of Dirk Hatteraick, while from the heights of Mullock and Raeberry Castle are commanding views of the Solway Firth and the sea.
Further inland, on the slopes above the town, is the path through Paradise, under an archway of high embowering trees, conducting to enchanting views of the island of Little Ross and Kirkcudbright Bay. There are The Nine Stiles, from which are obtained successive glimpses of scenery, each different from all the rest, as you go through the wooded summit of the Barrhill, of which the nature-loving native of the burgh might exclaim like the Shepherd in “Comus” –
“I know each lane and every alley green,
Dingle or bushy dell of this wild wood,
And every bosky bourn from side to side-
My daily walks and ancient neighbourhood.”
There is the golf course, on which invigorating exercise, pure air, and beautiful scenes, endlessly diversified, are all united in one sparkling stream of pleasure. From the top of the Kirkland Brae there is a glorious prospect round and round- to the Cumberland hills on the east, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn on the far north, Cairnsmore of Fleet in the distant west, as far south as the Isle of Man and the Irish Sea.
On Lochfergus is Glenlay, so named from its subdued atmosphere-the Grey Glen, or glen of the shimmering light, where artists discover their choicest bits of scenery, and all may hold communion with nature, in one of her most secret sanctuaries. There is the Canee dam, surrounded by trees and overhung by willows, that “show their hoar leaves in the glassy pool,” like that on whose pendant boughs Ophelia clambering to hang her garland of flowers and singing the while snatches of old tunes, “fell in the weeping brook” –
“Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
Close by, among rich pastures and buried deep in woods, is the quaint homestead of Canee, where we may enjoy farm scenery, like that which delighted the two poet friends on a summer evening amid the luxurious garden land of the South of England –
“When brushing ankle deep in flowers,
They heard behind the woodbine veil
The milk that bubbled in the pail,
And buzzings of the honeyed hours.”
Last, we return to the town itself, the streets of which, like those of the new town of Edinburgh, are laid out in parallelograms, interspersed with trees and gardens, so that, like Edinburgh, Kirkcudbright does not –
“Leave the summer waiting at her gates,
But takes it to her heart.”
Kirkcudbright abounds with localities of deep historical interest. The place of the principal gate, situated in High Street, to which the heads of the Gordon brothers of Knockbrex were affixed, who were pleasant and lovely in their lives, and in their death were not divided-dying at Edinburgh in each other’s arms.
There is the site, at the foot of High Street, of Provost Fullerton’s house, where Marion M’Naught and Samuel Rutherford were joined on a fast day by Robert Blair who was guided by his horse with the bridle on its neck to the two friends he most desired to see, when passing through Galloway to Ireland. There is the scene of the encounter in which Viscount Kenmure was on the point of running his sword through Lagg for his insolent brutality, but was prevented by Claverhouse from doing a deed which would have rendered needless the relays of pails of water from the Nith, kept, according to Dumfries tradition, at the boiling point by the burning feet of the Baronet dying many years after in Turnpike House; and a deed which would have saved the lives of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick’s two beautiful Spanish barbs, which dropped dead through dragging the old persecutor’s body to Dunscore churchyard.
There are the graves of the martyrs carried prisoners to Kirkcudbright, in St. Cuthbert’s churchyard, connecting the capital for all time with the sufferings endured in the wilds Of Galloway –
“Where wives and little children
Were faithful unto death,
And graves of martyred heroes
Lie on the desert heath.”
There is the farm of Culdoach, where Queen Mary, who still rules by her beauty and misfortunes over the hearts of men, rested on her last fateful ride from Langside to Dundrennan.
There is Silver Craig’s Park, where, in the seventeenth century, Elspeth M’Ewan was burned for witchcraft, and the tree near by which bore the ghastly fruit of criminals hanged by the neck till they were dead. There is King William’s battery, where, on his way to the Boyne, his fleet was wind-bound in Kirkcudbright Bay.
There is the mansion on St. Mary’s Isle, where Paul Jones paid his famous visit to the Countess of Selkirk, intending to give the Earl a free passage across the Atlantic, but got only some silver plate, which he returned seven years after with many apologies to the lady. In this mansion Burns first uttered his famous Selkirk grace –
“Some ha’e meat that canna’ eat,
And some would eat that want it,
But we ha’e meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”
In the grounds is a sycamore under which often sat in meditation Dugald Stewart, the learned son of a learned sire, both of whom Burns beheld in vision –
“With deep-struck, reverential awe
The learned sire and son I saw-
To nature’s God and nature’s law
They gave their lore,
This all its source and end to draw
That to adore.”
It was near Kirkcudbright that Mr Johnstone, a well-known citizen, journeying on horseback, early one fine spring morning, to Dundrennan Village, discovered “Wull Nicholson, the Galloway poet, in a quarry hole, seated on his pack, which had served for his pillow during the night, with the morning sun glinting full in his face, playing and singing like an angel, while half-a-dozen ragged fillies were careering round the field, cutting all sorts of capers and snorting forth their applause, the minstrel himself declaring that ‘he had mair pleasure in piping to thae daft cowtes than if the best leddies in the lan’ had been figuring awa’ tae his puir music.'”
Connected with modern days are the bridge, built through the exertions of Provost Cavan; the library, containing many valuable books; and the museum, containing many objects illustrative of the historical associations with which Kirkcudbright abounds. But for these old associations, the Dee would have been as the Amazon –
“Which, for all the years it has rolled,
Can tell hut how fair is the morning red,
How sweet the evening gold.”
This river Dee is a figure of the history of the ancient burgh so beautifully situated on its banks. The origin of the Dee, among the mist-covered mountains of Galloway, represents the early history of the burgh, hidden in the mists of antiquity. The various scenes through which the river flows represent the many changes which have occurred in the history of the town. The tributaries by which the volume of the river is enlarged symbolise the historical events which have enriched so largely the history of the town. The eminence of the Dee among southern streams is the emblem of the supreme influence of Kirkcudbright in the Stewartry. The progress of the Dee, from the highest steep which rises over its source to the windings which fill twice a day with the salt sea water, and hold Kirkcudbright for ever in their embrace, typifies the advancement of the ancient burgh since it was a British fort to its present position as one of the most picturesque towns in the kingdom. The river runs at last into the sea, from which it is derived, even as all past generations in the burgh have been swallowed up in the boundless deep of being from which they were drawn, and whither we ourselves also in due time will “turn again home ” –
“For here, though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither-
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.