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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XIV


AT this period the Douglasses begin so to occupy the canvas that Nithsdale and Galloway are scarcely seen except associated with some of them. Archibald (younger brother of Bruce’s companion-in-arms, the good Sir James Douglas) acquired the lordship of Galloway, as a marriage dowry, with the daughter of John Comyn. When slain at Halidon Hill, as has been already stated, he left two sons – William, who succeeded his uncle Hugh as Earl of Douglas, and Archibald, surnamed the Grim, who became Lord of Galloway. William was succeeded in the earldom by his son James, the hero of Otterburn; and the latter, at his death, was heired by the Galloway chief, who in this manner effected a junction between the two branches of the family. In 1369, David II. granted to Sir Archibald Douglas that part of Galloway which lies between the Nith and the Cree. Two years afterwards the ambitious Earl, by an enforced purchase, acquired from Thomas Fleming, Lord of Wigtown, all the rest of Galloway. Alan de Dunfres, the hereditary ruler of that province, was called by Buchanan “Scotorum longe potentissimus;” and now, after the lapse of a hundred and forty years, the same expression might have been truly applied to Alan’s successor. Archibald Douglas, the Grim, became the most powerful subject in Scotland: having a giant’s strength, he used it like a giant – the huge Castle of Thrieve, rebuilt by him on an island in the Dee, being the chief seat of his power, and the centre of a grinding despotism that stretched over the whole district. Yet he partly made up for his cruelty and rapacity at home by his valour in the field. On the termination of the truce which followed Lord Talbot’s defeat, the Lord of Galloway, with other nobles, laid siege to Lochmaben Castle. It surrendered to them on the 4th of February, 1384; the English thus losing the solitary relic in Dumfriesshire of all their sanguinary conquests. When, some time afterwards, Richard, King of England, penetrated to Edinburgh, with the view of foreclosing a threatened attack upon himself, and was so galled by guerrilla bands that he had to hurry home again, Archibald the Grim, at the head of one of them, entered England by the Esk before Richard had time to return, devastated the country as far as Newcastle, demolishing in his route the formidable Border fortresses of Wark, Ford, and Cornhill.

William, surnamed the Black Douglas, a natural son of this autocrat, became first Lord of Nithsdale. His bodily strength is said to have been prodigious. According to Hume of Godscroft, a single blow from him was sufficient to prostrate any one, however stout and well accoutred. So fearless was he in the field, that the exploits attributed to him by reliable historians wear an aspect of romance. He was distinguished also for his wit, sagacity, and benevolence. This paragon knight was not less fortunate than good and brave. The Black Douglas obtained in marriage Egidia, King Robert’s daughter, the fairest woman of her age; getting with her fair Nithsdale as a dowry, also the sheriffship of Dumfries, the wardenship of the Western Marches, the offices of justice and chamberlain, besides an annual pension of £300 sterling, paid from the customs of certain burghs – Dumfries among the rest.

Another truce having been entered into between England and Scotland after Otterburn, William Douglas of Nithsdale, tired of inactivity, took farewell of the beautiful Egidia, and, joining the Teutonic knights of Prussia, aided them in a crusade against the pagan natives of the country. Fortune still smiled on the adventurous Dumfriesshire baron. Many victories, due chiefly to his valour, were munificently rewarded. He was made Admiral of the Prussian fleet, Duke of Prussia, and Prince of Dantzic. But his heart was in pleasant Nithsdale, with its fair lady, who waited long and wistfully for his return. He never saw her or home again. While Egidia was counting the hours that would intervene before his arrival, he – woefully unfortunate at the last – was lying still and gory, basely murdered on the Bridge of Dantzic by a band of assassins in the pay of Lord Clifford, an Englishman with whom he had had a quarrel. The memory of the hero was long preserved in Prussia, by his family escutcheon being sculptured on a gateway near the spot where his blood was shed. A brother-in-arms of Douglas, Mareschal Boucicant, went repeatedly from France to Prussia for the purpose of avenging the assassination of his friend, but was told, in answer to his challenge, “that vengeance belonged only to the Scots.” [Note by Aikman in Buchanan’s History of Scotland.] The sorrowing widow of the Black Douglas did not long survive him. Their only child, inheriting her personal charms, came to be known as the Fair Maid of Nithsdale. This lady married to Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, a descendant of the Norman knight St. Clair, who followed David I. into Scotland. The fruit of their union, William, acquired the lordship of Nithsdale and the sheriffship of Dumfries.

Archibald the Grim, dying in 1400, was succeeded by his son Archibald, surnamed Tyneman, because he “tined,” or lost, more battles (Homildon among the rest) than he gained. Peace prevailed till 1415, in which year Douglas and the Earl of March made a foray into Cumberland – Penrith suffering severely, as was usual on such occasions. On their return, a large English force retaliated by a raid across the Esk into Dumfriesshire.

The capital of the County had for more than a generation been exempt from the penalties of war; but this year it was doomed to suffer from both fire and sword. It appears that no effort was made to stay the march of the invaders as they approached menacingly from the south; and soon the clear waters of the Nith reflected the gleams of a fire which raged in various parts of Dumfries, and attested the triumph of the enemy. [Hume’s House of Douglas, p. 134.] Doubtless, the town would be plundered before the torch was resorted to; and, at all events, the unwelcome visitors returned unharmed to their own land, laden with booty. What Tyneman, Lord Maxwell, and other local chiefs were about all the time, is not explained by the historians of the period. The Earl of March, who had acquired the lordship of Annandale, having fallen into disfavour with King David, it was taken from him, and conferred upon Archibald Tyneman, who thus experienced a share of good luck to make up for his failures in the field. The King also gave Douglas his daughter Margaret in marriage; and, in reward for some brilliant exploits performed by him with the Scottish Legion in France, he was created Duke of Touraine by Charles VII. – an honour he did not long enjoy, as he was slain a few years afterwards at the battle of Verneuil, in 1424.

The superiority of Galloway then devolved upon his widow. In the following year she received from her brother, James I., a confirmation of the lordship; and, taking up her residence at Thrieve, dispensed her rule with such benignity and wisdom as made her highly popular throughout the province. On the death of this amiable lady – who was at once a princess, a countess, and a duchess – about 1440, her remains were brought from Thrieve to the College of Lincluden, and there interred in a magnificent tomb that had been built into the north wall of the choir, near the altar, when that part of the edifice was erected by Archibald the Grim. The recess formed to receive the body was canopied by a spacious, richly ornamented arch, having at its apex a heart – which became the leading symbol of the house of Douglas after Sir James Douglas was slain when carrying the heart of Bruce to the Holy Sepulchre – with three chalices, and a mullet or star accompanying each. On the back wall of the recess the words “A l’aide de Dieu!” were cut, and further down was engraved the epitaph, “Hic jacet Dna. Margareta, Regis Scotiæ filia, quodam Comtissa de Douglas, Dna. Gallovidæ et Vallis Annandiæ” – “Here lies Lady Margaret, daughter of the King of Scotland, Countess of Douglas, and Lady of Galloway and Annandale.” Sculptured on the front of the tomb were nine shields, two of them blank, one bearing a St. Andrew’s cross, one with three stars – the original coat of the house – one having a heart added to these symbols, the others being emblazoned with the arms of the family as Lords of Galloway, Annandale, and Eskdale. Finally, over the stone cover of the recess was placed a full-length sculptured figure of Lady Margaret, recumbent, the head resting on two cushions. A truly magnificent tomb it was, worthy of its royal occupant; and, though now sadly defaced, it still forms the finest feature in the beautiful remains of the College. [Pennant, who visited the ruins in 1772, states that the figure at that time was still to be seen, though mutilated; and he adds, the bones of the deceased “were scattered about in an indecent manner, by some wretches who broke open the repository in search of treasure.”]

When James II., a boy of less than seven years of age, ascended the throne, after the murder of his father in the Blackfriars’ Monastery at Perth, the administration of affairs devolved on Sir Alexander Livingstone, as Regent, and Sir William Crichton, as Chancellor – the latter a direct descendant of William de Crichton, who acquired half of the barony of Sanquhar, in the thirteenth century. These two ministers, instead of faithfully discharging the onerous duties assigned to them, began a protracted duel, each seeking to circumvent the other, till their respective factions brought the country to the verge of a civil war.

There was one potentate who cared for neither Regent nor Chancellor – William, who had succeeded his father, Archibald Tyneman, as sixth Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway; and who, had he possessed as much patriotism as influence, might have saved his country from a host of evils. Scotland at this crisis needed a man like the Good Sir James Douglas: unhappily, his present successor had none of his disinterested virtue, but, like the Grim Baron, his grandfather, was boundless in his arrogance and ambition.

When Earl William rode out, his customary following was a thousand horse. His household was conducted with regal magnificence. He affected royalty in other respects – conferring knighthood, and doing many things which right or usage restricts to the sovereign. It was no rare incident for this puissant and audacious nobleman to appear with a little army of mounted adherents before the gates of Edinburgh, as if for the purpose of letting the young King see that there was a power in the land that laughed at the sovereign’s will, and looked with contempt on the representatives of royalty. And this was no empty display on the part of Douglas; it was full of significance: as he not only wished to look like a king, but strove to act as unlike a subject as possible. He did not convert his strong fortress on the Dee into a palace, nor style himself William, King of the Southern Scots; but he kept up princely state in Thrieve, and publicly proclaimed that no man with Douglasdale, Galloway, Annandale, and his other Dumfriesshire estates, should pay any heed to the authority of the Government, but take law from himself alone. Though he held no office in Dumfries, the influence of his family was paramount in the town, and its burghers must have felt themselves placed in a bewildering predicament when this ukase appeared. Their loyalty looked to Edinburgh; their fears were operated upon by Thrieve.

Crichton and Livingstone, finding at length that their feuds made them weak in presence of the mighty Douglas, became friends; and a plan to get rid of him was the first fruit of their reconciliation. “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men” would have been insufficient to effect their object. Fraud must be resorted to, since force would be of no avail. Accordingly, the Regent and Chancellor suddenly discovered that the Earl of Douglas was King James’s best friend, and the chief prop of the monarchy. Why was such a mirror of patriotism and chivalry a stranger to the Court which he was so well fitted to adorn? Let our good cousin, by all means, pay a visit to Edinburhg, that the King may have an opportunity of thanking him personally for his public services, and of cultivating his friendship.

Such glozing language told on the heart of Douglas. It flattered his vanity, fostered his self-esteem, set his fancy a-castle-building. Impetuous in all his thoughts and movements, he in an unhappy hour resolved to accept the invitation sent to him in the name of the sovereign, and set out for Edinburgh, accompanied by his brother David and a few personal friends. He was courteously received by the Regent, and introduced to the King, who soon formed a genuine attachment to his gallant and distinguished guest. A few days elapsed, and the infamous plans of Livingstone and Crichton were fully matured. Whilst the brothers were seated with them at a banquet, several ill-favoured men, in no festal guise, presented themselves. The arms which they bore were in perfect keeping with the murderous glances directed by them against the Douglasses. “Spare them! spare them!” cried the King, as the ruffians seized the Earl and his brother. The young monarch pleaded for their lives in vain; he even, Lindsay of Pitscottie tells us, “grat verie sore,” without effect, when he saw his guests bound with cords and hurried out of the hall.

Never had merry feast a more mournful interruption and sequel. The next minute the sullen sounds of the headsman’s axe told all within hearing that the great, proud chief of the house of Douglas was lying a mangled corpse, alongside that of his brother. The youths, whatever might have been their faults, were lovely and affectionate towards each other; and “in death they were not divided.” The rapaciousness and inordinate ambition of the unfortunate Earl were forgotten by the public, in contemplation of his fate; and the popular indignation was forcibly expressed by a contemporary minstrel in the dread imprecation:

                                                “Edinburgh Castle, town, and tower,
                                                            God grant thou sink for sin!
                                                 And that even for the black dinner
                                                            Earl Douglas got therein.”

James, uncle of the murdered youths, succeeded to the earldom; many of the estates, however, in Nithsdale and Annandale, passing to Beatrice, sister of the previous Earl, on account of their being unentailed. The new chief was a Douglas in name only. Of a heavy, corpulent body, he was surnamed the Gross: of an indolent turn of mind, he manifested no resentment towards the men who had treacherously put his nephews to death. His successor, William, a thorough Douglas, threatened them openly, and used all his power and artifice to effect their overthrow.   

In William were concentrated much of the talent and all of the characteristic pride and ambition of his family. He began well – restoring it to its territorial opulence by marrying his cousin Beatrice. He did not, however, like the sixth Earl, aim at an independent sovereignty, but sought to obtain the chief direction of affairs, whilst remaining nominally subject to the King. Into the twelve years during which he flourished as the chief magnate of the kingdom, many important incidents, associated with Dumfriesshire and the country at large, were crowded. His secret intrigues against, and public opposition to, the Regent and the Chancellor – his dexterous attempts to ingratiate himself with, and become the chief minister of, King James – and the league he formed with the Earl of Crawford and the Lord of the Isles, for the purpose of gaining supreme authority by force, when other means failed – are themes which occupy a prominent place in the histories of the period. The lawlessness which prevailed on the Scottish Border, in consequence of its chief ruler being absorbed by these ambitious projects – the misery thus entailed on the habitants – the wasting English incursions it provoked – and his energetic endeavours to remove these evils, and prevent their recurrence – are matters which must have made a deep impression at the time, and have exercised no inconsiderable influence on the condition of Dumfriesshire.

We learn from Hume of Godscroft [Hume of Godscroft, p. 237.], that immediately on the accession of William to the earldom, he convened the whole of his friends and retainers at Dumfries, choosing from among them “a number of councillors, besides officers for collecting his rents and casualties, and made such other arrangements as he deemed necessary for the administration of his affairs.” It has been supposed, with good reason, that, besides these ostensible objects, the crafty chief secured from the meeting a concurrence in the aspiring political schemes which he had thus early already formed: at all events, the influence of himself and followers was, throughout his career, employed in the prosecution of these unpatriotic measures, more than in furthering the well-being of the district in which, for good or evil, the Douglasses exercised an unrestricted sway for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

Whilst Earl William was away in the north, playing out his perilous game of chess in real life for the possession of the King, the English (to continue the figure) captured some of the pawns which he should have done his best to defend. A truce entered into between the kingdoms had still some years to run, when, in 1448, the Earl of Northumberland entered Scotland by the Western Marches, and the Earl of Salisbury by the Eastern Marches, each leading a large army. The insults and injuries received from the Scottish Borderers were alleged by the invaders as an excuse for their hostile movements; but the probability is that they were prompted in a great degree by a knowledge that the country was ill-defended, owing to the absence of Douglas. Northumberland advanced to Dunbar, pillaged and then set fire to it, and returned unmolested, burdened with spoil.

Dumfries was once more destined to pass through the fiery ordeal to which it was subjected only thirty-three years before, and from which it had several times previously suffered. Crossing the little stream, that may be looked upon in some respects as the Border Rubicon, Salisbury swept along the Solway shore, pounced down on Dumfries, and, entering it without resistance, took possession of the Castle, and began to act the part of conqueror in the old English style. Seated in the fortress, he issued orders to his men to sack the town. Forth they went, nothing loath, visiting all the principal houses, and carrying off what property they could fine. This done, they set fire to the Burgh, and then, greatly enriched by their foray, recrossed the Esk into Cumberland. [Hume of Godscroft, p. 254; and Pitscottie’s Chronicle.]

House building in Dumfries must, once in every generation or so, have received a powerful stimulus from these periodical visits. It was fortunate that huge oaks abounded in the forests of Nithsdale, so that materials were always at hand with which to restore the streets destroyed by the English incendiaries. Very likely some of the fire-raisers of 1415 reapplied the torch at the bidding of Salisbury in 1448: if so, they must have been surprised to see the town that they had half reduced to ashes larger than ever, as if the new streets had literally grown like the timber of which they were formed. The Earl of Salisbury and his men probably thought that this time, at any rate, they had ruined Dumfries: but it possessed a wonderful vitality; and before many years more elapsed, the charred embers left by the devouring element had disappeared, and the Burgh was “itself again.”

Neither the Earl of Douglas nor any of the other barons in the district, lifted a finger to save Dumfries on this occasion. James Douglas, however, brother of the Earl, soon afterwards put Alnwick into similar plight, as if the stripes inflicted on that town could mollify the wounds received by Dumfries. But of this unreasoning retaliatory course of procedure the wars of the time were in a great degree made up; and it is, need we say, a leading characteristic of all wars, ancient and modern.

The turbulent conduct of his own retainers, and the wasteful incursions of the English, drew Douglas home for a season, and constrained him to pay attention to his duties as Warden of the Western Marches. His predecessor, Archibald the Grim, whose power extended over all the Marches, had drawn up a code of rules for his regulation; and the present Earl, who liked to do things on a large and imposing scale, resolved, with the assistance of all parties concerned, to revive and improve these laws so far as they related to his own territory. He accordingly called a meeting of the whole lords, freeholders, and heads of Border families within his wardency.

In ordinary circumstances, perhaps, this gathering would have taken place in the Castle of Dumfries; but, on account, we suppose, of that building being left in a dilapidated condition by its last English occupant, the Earl of Salisbury, the little parliament was held in the religious house of Lincluden, which had become the property of the Douglasses.

Since its erection by Lord Uchtred, it had experienced important changes. It was no longer a nunnery – Archibald the Grim having, about fifty years before, expelled its inmates, enlarged the building, and then converted it into an ecclesiastical college for the benefit of his own family. The chroniclers of the change seem rather at a loss to give a good reason for it. The Grim Earl, in spite of his gross misdeeds, kept on good terms with the Church; and, with all his hardihood and cupidity, he would scarcely have ventured to suppress the convent if its character had been irreproachable. One author affirms vaguely that the “insolence” of the female devotees provoked their dismissal [Extracta e Chronicis, p. 207.]; while Major boldly assumes that they must have been conspicuous for their incontinence, or “the good Earl” would never have expelled them; and, improving on this hint, Hume declares that Douglas had solely in view “an eye for religion, and a special care for the pure and sincere worship of God” – though the suspicious admission is made by the same historian, that the Earl did thereby “greatly increase his revenues, and enlarge his dominions. [History of House of Douglas, p. 114.]

From whatever cause, the Sister of St. Benedict were forced to vacate the Abbey, to make way for a brotherhood of twelve bedesmen and provost – for whose maintenance its opulent revenues were assigned. A magnificent church was added to the original fabric, also a domicile for the provost: so that the building in 1448 differed essentially from the original edifice, with

                                                “Its massive arches, broad and round,
                                                 That rose alternate row on row,
                                                 On ponderous columns, short and low,
                                                            Built ere the art was known;
                                                 By pointed aisle, and shafted stalk,
                                                 The arcades of an alley’d walk
                                                            To emulate in stone.”
                                                                        [Scott’s Marmion.]

All the additions made to the Abbey of the twelfth century by Earl Douglas were in the Florid Gothic of the fourteenth century; and as, later still, some other portions were added in the Scotch Baronial style, the picturesque ruin, which still overlooks the “Meeting of the Waters” a mile above Dumfries, combines three orders of architecture, though the distinctive features of the primitive Saxon are overlaid or lost.

Lincluden College was made up of buildings that enclosed a spacious court, the east side of which was occupied by the Provost’s residence, looking down upon the river of Cluden, and by a tall octagon tower [The octagon tower, which formed a very prominent and interesting portion of the edifice – the more so, as the royal arms of Scotland were sculptured on its front – suddenly fell, with a tremendous crash, on Sabbath the 16th of February, 1851; and thus one fine feature of the ruins was utterly destroyed. – Visitor’s Guide to Dunmfries, p. 69.]; the south side comprised a choir, with transepts, nave, and side aisles; the north, a refectory and dormitory; the western boundary being formed by a high wall, with a general entrance-gate to the interior. At the date of Earl William’s visit, the choir especially must have presented a beautiful aspect. Though of small dimensions, the large size of its details, as in the case of Michael Angelo’s statues, gave it a colossal effect – a peculiarity shown in the massive corbels and capitals of the vaulting shafts from which the groined arches sprang, in the moulding round the priests’ door, in the still bolder crocketing of the public entrance, and in the flamboyant tracery of the windows, all fashioned on strictly geometrical principles. [Billings’s Antiquities of Scotland, vol. iv.,; in which valuable work views are given of the windows restored.] Much of the inner ornamentation ministered to the pride of the family, speaking as it did, in heraldic language, of their rank and achievements; and a gorgeous tomb, with a sculptured effigy in its recess, formed a meet monument for a countess of Galloway, the wife of a Douglas, and the daughter of a king, who, as already noticed, had been laid there not long before, to neighbour in “the narrow house” the dust of Uchtred, the lord of that ancient province.

Here, then, at Lincluden, in the closing month of 1448, Earl William held his court, and took counsel of his brother nobles – all “lesser light,” compared with him as the central luminary – and of the freeholders and others who had responded to his summons. How the proud lord demeaned himself when presiding at the meeting, is not recorded; but we can easily conceive that his habitual haughtiness gave place to a courtesy not unknown to the members of his house when mingling with those who readily bowed to their supremacy. The Hareian Collection bears unmistakable witness to the ability and wisdom which signalized the deliberations under his guidance, embodying as it does “the ordinances of war sett doune at Lincludan College, by all the lords, freeholders, and eldest borderers of Scotland, on the 18th of December, 1448, by the commandment of Earl William of Douglasse.”

We learn from the document in question, that old statutes were revised, and a number of new rules drawn up, and that the code thus completed prohibited intercommoning with the enemy; enjoined that all men were to keep by their own respective companions; that they were to answer to their names when the host was arrayed; that all were to fight on foot, except such as got special leave from their chief to be on horse-back; that it regulated the conditions of ransom, and prescribed the penalties incurred by desertion and other offences. The eleventh clause runs thus: “Whatever he be that brings a traytor to the warden or his deputy, he shall have his reward, a hundred shillings; and he that puts him away fraudfully shall underlie the pain of death, like as the traitor should have done.” The thirteenth clause is in the following terms: “Whoever he be – an host of Englishmen arriving in the country, the bales being burned – that follows not the host on horse or on foot, ever till the Englishmen be passed off Scotland, and that they have sufficient witnesses thereof, all their goods shall be escheat, and their bodies at the warden’s will, unless they have lawful excuse for them.” Before departing, the presiding Earl, we are told, made all present swear upon the Gospels that they would, within their respective jurisdictions, observe, and cause to be obeyed, all these ordinances, and assist him in carrying them into effect.

At this important conference, also, the system of signalling the approach of an enemy by balefires was brought to a perfection unknown before. It was enacted that nine beacons should be erected in Nithsdale on the following eminences, and fired in time of need: Wardlaw, Rachochtoun, Barloch, Pittara, Malow, Corsincon, Corswel, Dowlback, and Watchfell; and that other eleven should be kept ready in Annandale – on Gallowhill, Kinnelknock, Blois, Browanhill, Barrow Skenton, Dryfesdale, Quitsoun, Cowdens, Balehill, Penchathill, and Trailtrow. It was also arranged that on the Sheriff of Nithsdale, and the Stewards of Annandale and Kirkcudbright, should devolve the responsibility of employing proper persons to erect, maintain, and fire the beacons. [Introduction to Nicholson and Burns’s History of Westmoreland and Cumberland, p. 59 / The names are incorrectly given in the book from which we have quoted. We should probably read Tynron-Doon for Rachochtoun; Brownmuirhill and Barr (in Hoddam) for Browanhill and Barrow; Quhytwind or Whitewoollen, (at Lockerbie) for Quitsoun; and Pendiclehill (in Tinwald) for Penchathill.] When the whole of them, in a winter’s night, threw their ruddy glare on high, the effect must have been grand as well as startling; and hundreds of households must have been protected from pillage, and thousands of lives been saved, by the timely alarm thus communicated. No doubt, Dumfries sometimes owed its safety to the arousing flame seen streaming up from Wardlawhill on the Solway, and responded to by the friendly light on Corsincon.

It is whilst thus employed, as a local legislator, that we like best to look upon the eighth Earl of Douglas. Pity it is that we can rarely view him so beneficially employed. Had he attended more to such matters, and less to the promptings of lawless ambition, he would not have provoked the violent and premature death that awaited him, and his memory would have been held in more honour by his countrymen.

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