RAMBLES IN GALLOWAY, by M. McL., Harper. 1876.
Chapter 7 – Kirkcudbright and Environs (Part 1).
Page 2 of 3
THE Royal Burgh of Kirkcudbright is no parvenu. Baxter, in his learned work, pronounces it to have been a fair town under the classic name Benutium, at the birth of Christ or thereabouts. Its Celtic name is supposed to have been Caer-cuabrit, or the fortified place on the bend of the river; and the Church, on getting possession of the land changed the ancient name to one of a similar sound, but of a saintly connection, hence the Kirk of Cuthbert the Saint. It has since been variously called Kirkcuthbert, Kirkcubright, Kilcubright, Kirkcubrie, Kilcubrig, and Kirkcudbright. The last is the name now generally given to it in writings and in formal discourse, but Kirkcubrie is its colloquial appellation.
In an ancient document its position is briefly and quaintly stated thus: “Kirkcoubrie, ane rich toun and full of merchandise.”
At the present day it is a beautifully picturesque old town. Although many of its hoary lineaments have, under the mouldering hand of time, passed away, and others are removed to give place to the supposed adornment of modern times, it still contains the relics of antiquity in its very bosom, many deeply interesting and suggestive to the antiquary while around are scenes full of attraction to the lover of nature.
Everywhere around us, nowadays, we see thriving villages and towns; but few can boast the hoary antiquity of Kirkcudbright. Ages before a solitary hamlet marked the sites of its flourishing rivals, Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie, it was a town of considerable note, entertaining and sheltering royalty. From this creek of the river’s brink the patriot Wallace may have, amid the shouts and farewells of its populace, set sail for France after his defeat at Falkirk. [“Off Kyrcubre he purpost hys passage. Seine he feyt and gaiff yem gudlye wage.” Blind Harry, Bk. ix.]
In this very street may have circulated from the mouth of the breathless rustic the news that a company of gaily caparisoned horsemen, following in the rear of a lady attired in queenly apparel, mounted on a palfry, had been seen passing by way of Tongland to Dundrennan; and gossiping dames may have crossed arms and sighed over the fate of Scotia’s fair Queen, “Mary, the beautiful, of many sorrows,” in her perilous and ominous voyage “owre the Solway sea.” Here the stately burgess, in sword, bonnet, buckles, and hose, cheek-by-jowl with the clown and gaping hostel boy, may have gazed with wonder and admiration on the gaudy trappings and prancing steeds of a king of the Stuart line, as he and his retinue passed beyond the gate of an evening, for an airing among the sylvan slopes and verdant links of the swiftly-flowing Dee. At this corner of the street noble Kenmure may have encountered Grierson of Lag on that day when, fired with revenge for the brutal murder of his kinsman, Bell of Whiteside, he would have drawn his sword and laid the persecutor a corpse at his feet, but for the interference of one whose name is still feared and detested by the peasantry of Galloway – Graham of Clavers – who stayed the wrath of the noble viscount. And were the stones of the old ruined Castle gifted with a tongue, full many a tale they could unfold of royal meetings, midnight schemings, and carousals.
[If we are uncertain whether Wallace carried out his purpose there is no doubt that the courageous Charlotte de la Tremoille, Countess of Derby, spent a few days here waiting for a fair wind to waft her across to the Isle of Man. She gives us a glimpse of the old town in the 17th century, in the following letter:
“Dear Sister – I had the honour of writing to you two days before my departure from the Isle of Man, which was on the 26th of last month, when I told you my resolution to go through this country to Holland, to remedy, if possible, this sad business ; but, finding that the English army had come here in great force, I could not travel without a passport. I have sent to ask for one, and I shall wait for it in the Isle of Man, to which place I return to-day, please God; with a fair wind it is but a ten hours’ voyage. 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 the place, though I never saw anything so dirty. But this is nothing to the religion. I fear greatly the result of this war, and I assure you that those who are in power are not so much in favour of monarchy as against the Duke of Hamilton and his faction. 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 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. “Kirkcudbright, August 1650.”
Lady of Latham : Lond. 1869, p. 154. By Mme. Guizot de Wit.
There is some difficulty in ascertaining who the ministers were in Kirkcudbright at this time. John M’Lelland died in the beginning of 1650, and a John Crage, of whom we know little, was appointed in 1651. – Scot’s Fasti.]
An anonymous English traveller, who visited the town in 1722, thus described it:
“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. It is also landlocked from all winds; and there is an island which shuts its mouth with good fresh water springs in it, which, if fortified, would secure the fleets from all attempts of an enemy.
“The town consists of a tolerable street, the houses all built of stone, but not at all after the manner of England-even the dress, manners, and customs differ very much from the English.
“The common people all wear bonnets instead of 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 give their looks a religious cast. Taciturnity and dullness gain 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 and 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 and 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.” [A Journey through Scotland, in familiar letters from a gentleman here to his friend abroad, being the third volume, which completes Great Britain by the author of A Journey through England. London: J. Pemberton, Fleet Street. 1723.].
The burgh records give quite a different account of things from this good natured and well meaning traveller. From them it appears that there was “a great number of ruinous houses within the burgh, and that the samyn hes byen so moir then three yeirs, yea then threttie yeirs, and that upon the high street, verrie much to the observatioune of strangers in reproch of the place.” [Burgh Records, 17th December 1720.] That the inhabitants did “lay yr dung and make yr middins on the king’s heigh street, and at and about the mercat cross and uther public places.” [Ibid, 20th January 1725.] The draw wells were so unprotected that fatal accidents frequently occurred. [Ibid 16th February 1706.] The gardens were unfenced, and contained only “bowkeall, unzions, and parsenips.” There was no proper schoolhouse, and the church was in lamentable disrepair. The tolbooth was a mere apology for a prison; debtor and criminal, unless guarded by a watch of the burgesses, walked out of it “in a maisterfull manner,” in defiance of the jailor.
Judging from the same records we find the manners of the inhabitants in equally bad condition. From 1690 to 1720 crimes varying in guilt from “bluid, batterie, and ryot”, duelling and murder, to drawing water on a Sunday, or giving pawkie language to a bailie, were of daily occurrence. These offences were not confined to the poor and uneducated. Amongst the offenders are to be found landowners and farmers, magistrates and burgh officials, schoolmasters and excisemen. One day the treasurer fights with a violer and breaks his fiddle; on another at the head of a mob, he assaults the tolbooth and rescues two prisoners. The town-clerk and half-a-dozen country gentlemen from St. Mary’s Isle, Orroland, etc., after cruelly wounding and mangling a messenger-at-arms on a market day, parade the streets with drawn swords, and upon Bailie Meek requiring them to surrender themselves prisoners “they all came in ane furious maner and did assasinat and fall upon the said bailyie by cutting and wounding his heid with drawn swords (some whereof was bruk upon his heid), as also cutt the jaylour’s heid, and persewed the assistants with drawen swords.” [Ibid 5th September 1694.]
In 1793 matters had so much improved, that Heron in his Journey through Scotland, then writes, “the inhabitants of Kirkcudbright are undeniably a virtuous people. The gentry and the well-educated part of the community bear a greater proportion in numbers to the poor, the labouring, and the illiterate, than in most other places. Consequently their spirit and manners are predominant. A degree of liberal intelligence may be observed among the lowest classes, such as the same classes do not display in other places.”
[The following notes on the Manuscripts of the Burgh by Dr. John Stuart, are very interesting;
” The earliest authentic notice of Kirkcudbright relates to its ecclesiastical history. During the occupation of Galloway by the Saxons, they founded a bishopric at Whithorn, the see of the earliest establishment of St. Ninian, and in the few parochial dedications to Saxon saints throughout the district, we seem to recognise the spots where the population and influence of the new race were concentrated. It was thus that a church dedicated to St. Cuthbert was here raised near the fertile estuary of the Dee, while one in the adjoining parish of Kelton had St. Oswald for its patron saint. In the pages of Reginald of Durham we obtain a curious glimpse of the church at Kirkcudbright, a few years after the middle of the 12th century.
” It happened that in the year 1164, Ailred, the Abbot of Rievaux, was on a journey in Galloway, and was at Kirkcudbright on the festival of the saint from whom the place is called. On this occasion a bull of a fierce temper was brought to the church as an oblation, and was baited in the churchyard by the young clerics, notwithstanding the remonstrances of their aged brethren, who warned the others of the danger of violating the ‘peace’ of the saint within the limits of his sanctuary. The younger soon persisted in their frolic, and one of them ridiculed the idea of St. Cuthbert’s presence, and the consequent sanctity of the place, even though his church was one of stone. The bull, after being baited for a time, broke loose from its tormentors, and, rushing through the crowd, he attacked the young cleric who had just spoken, and gored him, without attempting to hurt any other person.
” Besides the existence of St. Cuthbert’s church, with a set of clerics attached to it, we may infer from this notice the novelty of stone churches at the period, and that the materials of such buildings in ordinary cases continued to be of wood, after what Bede styles the mos Scottorum, or custom of the Scots, but which was a custom with a more diffused sanction than might be inferred from this expression.
“The church of Kirkcuthbert soon afterwards was granted by Uchred, Lord of Galloway, to the monastery of canons regular at Holyrood, a house in which his father, Fergus, had recently ended his days as a monk.
“At Kirkcudbright was a house of Grey Friars, founded in the 13th century, but unfortunately none of its records have been preserved. When Edward I. was here in July 1300, he made an offering of 7s. at the altar of the church of the monastery. On one of his pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Ninian at Whithorn, King James IV. made an offering at the Church of the Greyfriars of £5, 12s, to buy a eucharist.
“Although the town of Kirkcudbright must have been one of considerable importance from an early period, it did not become a royal burgh until the middle of the 15th century, when it received a charter of incorporation from King James II., dated 26th October 1455.
“It was selected, however, by Edward I., as a temporary place of residence for himself and his court in the year 1300, when occupied in the subjection of Galloway. He arrived there on the 19th of July, and remained for ten days. During his stay he received from the town of Drogheda a present of eighty hogsheads of wine. It also gave shelter to King Henry VI.and his queen, after the battle of Towton, in 1461.
“A charter of King James II. was granted to the town soon after the Galloway possessions of the house of Douglas had become vested in the crown by the forfeiture of this powerful house. The privileges which the town thus acquired excited the jealousy of the burgh of Dumfries, and a plea between the towns came before the Lords Auditors, by whom, in October 1467, it was remitted for the decision of the Lords of Council.
“The oldest paper in the collection of the burgh is a transcript of this charter, which was made within this chapel of the Greyfriars of Kirkcudbright, at the instance of William M’Lellan, of Bomby, provost of the burgh, on the 13th of February 1466, in presence of Hugh Witherspune, Vicar of Kirkcudbright, commissary for a Reverend Father Ninian, Bishop of Whithorn then sitting in judgment. The deed narrates that for greater evidence the seal of John Wardlaw, prior of St. Mary’s Isle, was affixed, in presence of Robert Falstone, rector of Kirkcrist; John Wotherspone, vicar of Dunrod; Robert Wardlaw and John Inglis, chaplains ; Thomas Maclellan, Esquire, and Gilbert M’Tadull, with many others.
“On the 26th of February 1509-10, the burgh received a grant from King James IV. of the castle of the Douglases at Kirkcudbright, with its annexed hands of Castlemains. I did not see the original charter, but it is engrossed along with the earlier one of James II., in a charter granted to the burgh by King Charles I., on 13th August 1633.
“There is one old volume of the Records of the Burgh Court, in which are a good many notices of interest. It contains the record of suits before the baillies, as well as copies of documents recorded for preservation.
“One of the latter is Letters of Legitimation by Queen Mary, with consent of her tutor, the Duke of Chatelherault, in favour of Michael Dion and Cuthbert Dion, bastards, brothers, sons natural of the late Herbert Dion, vicar of the parish of Kirkcormo. The document was recorded on 11th October 1577, but it is imperfect.
“The first entry of the ordinary proceedings of the Court, on 17th December 1576, is as follows:-‘ The quhilk day Barnard M’Cawel acclamis Elizabeth Hendersoun in certane cravings, contenit in ane acelame, quhilk he referris to hir aith at the next Court.’ Then follows entries of proceedings at the instance of James Lidderdaill of (Isle St. Mary’s Isle) against various persons on whom he made claims. Occasionally inquests are summoned, and cases are decided by them. There are elections of office-bearers, statutes and ordinances about trading, and regulations regarding prices of provisions. In January 1577, precautionary regulations occur on the subject of the plague, then raging on the Borders. Mixed with these are charters conveying tenements in the burgh, and proceedings in the service of heirs.
“The following entries illustrate the educational arrangements of the place, just before the establishment of the parish schools of Scotland.
“12th October 1591. The quhilk day, Mr Dauid Blyth, minister, is couentit and feit schuill master quhihl Beltane nixt to cum, – his entrie being at Hallowmes nixt, Quha obhissis him to sufficientlie instruct the youth, and await on the schuill, and sall fie ane sufficient learnit doctor under him betuix and Mertimes nixt for the peyment to him of xx merkis money at Candilmes and Beltane, be equal perciounes.’ “ ‘9th February 1592. – The quhilk day, Mr. Herbert Gledstanis is conducit and felt schuilmaster quhill Lambes nixt, for tuentie merkis money, and to be peiat at Beltane, and Lambes equallie, and he to enter thereto in Marche nixt, Quha sall instruct the youth sufficientlie at the sicht of the provost, baillies, and counsell of the said brugh.’
“On 25th April 1593 a statute appears prohibiting indwellers of the burgh from bringing causes before other judges than those of the burgh.
“On 20th April 1596, it is ordained that all frequent the church twice on Sunday, and that they conveine to the examinations ilk day being advertiesit, for ilk fault 40d. Also none are to ‘ban, sweir, curse, raill, or speik ony idle or profane speiches contemptuisly, nor flyte on the gait.’ The fine to be 40s. totles quoties.
“On 4th April 1601, a gravedigger was elected. One of his duties was to ring the burial bell ‘through the toune nyboris deceiss.’ ” On 2d December 1601, Fergus Neilson was chosen ‘toune pyper’ for a year. The volume ends in June 1603. ”
– Historical MSS. Commissioners, vol. i. 538.]
Leaving our readers to contrast this cursory sketch of the social condition of the burgh with its present state, we will proceed to our ramble through the town and environs.
Kirkcudbright, at the present day, derives its chief importance from being the county town and seat of the Sheriff and Commissary Courts. It was at one time proposed to remove these to Castle-Douglas, as occupying a more central and convenient situation in the Stewartry; and it was only when the line of railway was continued to Kirkcudbright that this scheme was dropped. Had this removal been effected, it would not have been difficult to foresee the venerable old town lapsing into a state of utter quietude and neglect, with its streets mossgrown, and houses and gardens fitting abodes for the recluse. The inhabitants, however, alive to the benefits accruing from the adoption of any means calculated to abridge their distance from the great world, bestirred themselves, and by the energy and ceaseless labours of their magistracy, councillors, inhabitants, and assistance of “ain born bairns” resident abroad, this object was accomplished; and the two steeds of the roadway and the deep now cast fiery glances on each other, while with their impatient snortings and puffings they awake into life and action the natural drowsiness of the old burgh.
The traveller, on entering the town by the railway station, cannot fail to be struck with the improvements which have recently been effected in this quarter. There seems to be a general flitting to this locality, and the many handsome villas and cottages of recent erection, with flower-plots in front, in a state of great neatness and luxuriance, help much to adorn the natural beauties of the river’s bank.
The railway station is handsome and commodious, with a covered platform, and accommodation in every way suited to the traffic. Opposite to the station is the Free Church, a very handsome new building, with tall tapering well-proportioned spire, and fine stained glass windows. Adjoining it is the Johnston Free School, an elegant stone building, with a centre tower and wings. On leaving the station, and proceeding into the town, the most imposing object that attracts the eye of the visitor is the old castle, clad in its mantle of green ivy, overlooking the river. This venerable ruin adds much to the picturesque beauty of the town, and, conjointly with the tower of the castellated Court-House, forms a prominent landmark at a distance. It was built on the site of the Franciscan House by Sir Thomas MacLellan of Bombie, in 1582, and bears that date on the escutcheon above the doorway. It is a massive building, still in fair preservation, and, with a little care, may yet stand many years. It is now the property of the Earl of Selkirk.
History says that the church belonging to the Grey Friars stood near the castle. It was founded in the reign of Alexander II. ; but, in consequence of the ancient records having been carried off at the Reformation, it is very obscurely known to history. John Carpenter, one of its inmates in the reign of David II., was distinguished for his mechanical genius; and, by his dexterity in engineering he so fortified the castle of Dumbarton, as to earn from the king a yearly pension of £20 in guerdon of his services.
In 1564, the Friars’ Kirk was, on a petition by the General Assembly which sat in Edinburgh, granted by Queen Mary to the magistrates of the town to be used as a parish church It continued to be used till 1730; and, when it became unserviceable, it yielded up its site to a successor for the use of the whole modern united parish; but it also became too small, and a more commodious building was erected on another site. Part of the walls of the old church still remain, and are now occupied as a Female School.
Below that portion of it known as the old aisle, is the tomb in which the mortal remains of the MacLellans were deposited. We were told, by one who had assisted to remove the slab from the month of the vault, that at the time of opening several of the coffins remained nearly entire, and the cloths with which they were covered, along with pieces of silken trimmings, were as perfect to look upon as when entombed, but with the slightest touch or breath of air they mouldered to dust. The coffins were made of plain oak. There is a monument here erected to the memory of Sir Thos. MacLellan, bearing an inscription in Latin, with the arms of the Kirkcudbright family; and in a niche in the wall is a recumbent figure carved in stone, supposed to be an effigy of one of the Lords Kirkcudbright. In ancient times a burial-ground was situated around this old church, and in levelling the grounds near it, some years ago, many bones and other sepulchral remains were turned up. The present church was built in 1836, and is a large and handsome structure, with spire and clock. The grounds around it have recently been much improved, and are now protected by a well-built wall and railing. A handsome monument inside the church was erected by the whole inhabitants of the parish, in 1837, to the memory of their pastor, the Rev. G. Hamilton, who was instrumental in obtaining the new church, but died before its completion.
Pursuing the walk from here, which passes through the town parks, we come to the site of the ancient castle of the Lords of Galloway. A few grassy mounds are the only vestiges which remain to mark the spot where once stood the spacious domains of royalty. This castle was situated near the river, and has evidently been surrounded by a fosse, into which the tide probably flowed to render it secure. The following account is given in the Imperial Gazetteer:-
“The Castle – now vulgarly called Castledykes, but known in ancient writings as Castlemains – belonged originally to the Lords of Galloway, when they ruled the province as a regality, separate from Scotland; and seems to have been built to command the entrance of the harbour. Coming into the possession of John Baliol, as successor to the Lords of Galloway, it was for some time, during the war of 1300, the residence of Edward I. ; and, passing into the hands of the Douglases on the forfeiture of Edward Balliol, it remained with them till 1455, when their crimes drew down upon them summary castigtion, and in that year was visited by James II. when on his march to crush their malign power. Becoming now the property of the Crown it offered, in 1461, a retreat to Henry VI. after his defeat at Towton, and was his place of residence while his Queen Margaret visited the Scottish Queen at Edinburgh. In 1508 it was the temporary residence of James IV., who, while occupying it, was hospitably entertained by the burgh and next year, by a charter dated at Edinburgh, it was gifted, along with some attached lands, to the magistrates, for the common good of the inhabitants.”
[It was about this time (1300) that the Pope sent his letter to Edward desiring him to prove his rights over Scotland at the Holy Court. The bull was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury to be delivered by him into Edward’s hand. Mr. Burton describes the prelate’s difficulties, moral and physical: –
“Never was prelate more hardly beset. There was all the unpleasantness of conveying an unpleasant message to a man not blessed with a placid and forgiving temper, and there were the difficulties of the journey – for King Edward was away at the northern extremity of his kingdom, menacing Scotland. The Archbishop recounted all his difficulties and dangers to his master, and we thus get a glimpse of some of the physical and social conditions caused by the war. After having consumed several days in preparation for his formidable journey, he set off; apparently, in the summer of 1300, and reached Carlisle in twenty days. There, to his dismay, he found that the King had gone with his army into Galloway. He met with some discreet laymen, and with clerical persons worthy of all confidence, from whom he found that the country swarmed with armed Scots ; and even supposing him to get through with safety, there was no food in it for his retinue. No one, not even among the clergy, was zealous enough to carry a message intimating his arrival, or even endeavour to procure a safe. conduct for him. He fell at last on a shrewd device. Remaining at Carlisle he sent two of his retinue by sea, who reached the army of Edward with much risk of capture, and with like risk brought answer to his question, how he could with safety endeavour to get so audience. The answer sent him was, that the King could suggest no better way than this : the Queen and he were on some future day to have a meeting, and the Bishop might join escorts with her.
“The prospect of this arrangement, however, was indefinite and the inducements to wait on were extremely meagre, for he mentions that, during nearly six weeks while his messengers were absent, having to be so near the border of Scotland, he was glad to obtain sufficiency without aspiring at abundance of food. He heard at last that the king had come back to the castle of Caerlaverock, which had some time ago been taken. He then managed to get himself and his equipage conveyed across the Solway at low tide, encountering more peril than he seems to have known of. And so, the triumphant conclusion of his adventures was, that he unexpectedly came upon the king at dinner, on the Friday after the Feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, or towards the end of August.,, – History of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 315. ]