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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XXIV


WHEN James heard of his mother’s execution early in 1587, he consulted with Lord Maxwell and other Border chiefs as to the propriety of avenging her death by a destructive raid against the Southrons; but the King’s wrath very soon evaporated, and the only foray undertaken by him into England was a pacific one, in 1603, when he went southwards to receive the English crown as Queen Elizabeth’s heir. Prior to that event James laboured diligently to secure the tranquillity of Dumfriesshire: for this purpose he caused its “Capulets and Montagues” to enter into assurances of peace with each other, and to promise to submit their disputes to the consideration of his Council, instead of bringing them to “the dread arbitrament of the sword.” The death of Johnstone, in 1586, greatly promoted the success of these pacific measures, and the civil war in the County was suspended for about a year; but only to be renewed on a larger scale, and with more disastrous consequences.

The origin of the Johnstone family has already been taken notice of. [Vide p. 43.] John de Johnstone, who submitted to Edward E. in 1296, is supposed to have been the father of a chief of the same name who witnessed a charter of the barony of Comlongan and other contiguous lands, bequeathed, in 1332, by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, to his nephew William. Prior to the latter date the family had acquired large possessions in the County, and were beginning to acquire more than a local repute by their prowess in the field. Gilbert, the next chief, was succeeded by his son, Sir John de Johnstone, who made a distinguished figure in the reign of Robert II.: he was one of the guardians of the Western Marches in 1371, and often exerted himself with good effect against the English Borderers, especially in 1378, as is recorded by Wyntoun in the following passage: -

“When at the wattyr of Sulway
Schyr Jhon of Jhonystown, on a day
Of Inglis men wen cust a gret dele:
He bare him at that tyme sa welle,
That he and the Lord of Gordowne,
Had a sowerane guid renown,
Of ony that was of thar degre,
For full thai war of gret bownte.”

The grandson of this valorous knight, Sir Adam Johnstone, contributed by his gallantry to the Scottish triumph at Sark; and the latter was succeeded by Sir John Johnstone, who, by marrying Mary, eldest daughter of John, the fourth Lord Maxwell, effected an alliance between the two houses that were shortly afterwards to be arrayed against each other in deadly hate. We find James, the fruit of this marriage, and next chief of the clan, actively engaged in repelling the invasion of Scotland by the Earl of Douglas and the Duke of Albany in 1484. His heir, Adam Johnstone, died in 1508, and was succeeded by James, whose eldest son and heir, John, signalized himself at the battle of Pinkie. Two or three additional links of the genealogical chain – John, James, John, son, grandson, and great grandson of the Pinkie warrior – bring us to the immediate progenitor of the doughty chief who received the wardenship in 1579, contested the provostship of Dumfries in 1584, and, after long warring with the Maxwells, was quietly “gathered to his fathers” in 1586, leaving his lands, and also the heritage of an implacable feud, to his eldest son, James, born to him by his wife Margaret, daughter of Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch.

In 1580, the young chief of the Johnstones obtained a letter of provision, under the Great Seal, assigning to him the revenues of the suppressed Abbey of Holywood; he was served heir to his deceased father in 1588; and when, two years afterwards, the newly-married consort of the King, Anne of Denmark, was crowned, he received the honour of knighthood – a coveted distinction that had been enjoyed by several of his ancestors – the style assigned to him being Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie, now called Cove, where he had a castle, which he occasionally occupied.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, an immense number of families bearing the Johnstone name were to be found in Annandale, all counting kinship with the Lord of “Lochwood’s lofty towers:” their relation towards him being in every respect more like that borne by Highland clansmen to their chief than the feudal vassalage of Norman origin that generally prevailed throughout the Lowlands. As illustrative at once of the numerical extent of this great Border sept, and of the close relationship in which its members stood to each other, we quote, in an abridged form, an agreement entered into by them on the 14th of November, 15555: - “Bond by Gavin Johnstone; Ninian Johnstone in Fingland; David Johnstone in Stagwood; John Johnstone in Langside; David Johnstone in Banks; John Johnstone in Vilehol; Adam Johnstone, son to Vilehol: David Johnstone in Rayhills; Adam Johnstone his brother; Mathew Johnstone of the Thrid; William Johnstone in Kirkhill; William Johnstone in Brumewell; John Johnstone his brother; John Johnstone in Banks; George Graym; Fergus the Graym; James Grahame in Grahame of Badoch; James Graham of Bordland; Andrew Johnstone in Fuldoun; David Johnstone his brother; Edward Johnstone; Thomas Johnstone; John Johnstone; Mark Johnstone of Fairholm; Herbert Johnstone in Castlehill; and Robert Johnstone, obliging them by the faith and troth of their bodies, if it happened any Johnstone pertaining to them, when they are pledged for man-tenant or servant, to comit stouthreif, fire, slaughter, oppression, or any crime, to seik the person that committed the crime and deliver him up to the Laird of Johnstone to be punished for his demerits; and if they can not apprehend him they obliged them to herry and put them [out] of the country, and to satisfy and redress the complainers with their own goods and gier.” [Annandale Papers.]

Among the branches of the family, a distinguished position was occupied by the Johnstones of Dryfesdale or Locherbie, whose head resided in a fortalice at the town of that name, now used as a police station, which was well defended by deep lochs on three sides. “Their lands (which, up till the beginning of last century, extended to Annan Water, taking in Roberthill, Shillahill, and Tarmuir) had been always chiefly occupied by people of their own name and kindred: the ‘Johnstones of Driesdale’ being enrolled about 1550 to bring to the field forty-six fighting men.” [Mr. Charles Stewart of Hillside, who, in a little work entitled “Rides, Drives, and Walks about Moffat,” and in various communications to the local newspapers, has supplied much valuable information regarding the Johnstones, and Annandale in ancient times. “Locherbie,” says Mr. Stewart, “seems to have been one of the Saxon towns (clustering round the dwelling of the laird) which are still numerous in England, though there are scarcely any in this country now to be seen excepting Torthorwald. It would seem to have been, in 1617, in nearly the same form of street as it is now. The houses were chiefly occupied by little farmers, who possessed amongst them in Runrigg 300 or 400 acres of surrounding arable land – their cattle grazing on the extensive common of 1500 acres of moor to the westwards. Most of them had also avocations as the handicraftsmen and little traders of the district. The town was, as now, the central resort of the adjacent valleys and dales; and, being on the highroad to the English border, the fairs had been long established by Royal charter.”]

In April, 1587, Dumfries was visited by King James at the head of a considerable force, his inducements for doing so being complaints by the General Assembly regarding the attempts made in 1584, by Lord Herries, to revive Romanism, and renewed disturbances on the Border, which were laid at the door of Lord Maxwell. [Spottiswoode, vol. ii., p. 381.] Herries, on hearing of these proceedings, repaired to Edinburgh and offered himself for trial. The charges against him could not be substantiated; but he was found to have proved remiss in his office of Warden, to which he had been appointed on the death of the Laird of Johnstone. On promising amendment in this latter respect, and engaging to obey any summons that might be sent to him by the Assembly, he was allowed to return to Terregles. [Spottiswoode, vol. ii., p. 381.]

Lord Maxwell’s followers were so reduced in number by the recent feuds, that he durst not face the royal troops as his combative nature prompted. He was unable even to stand out for terms; and, withdrawing from the neighbourhood, left these to be made for him by Lord Herries, Sir John Gordon, and other friends, who gave bonds on his behalf, that he would leave the realm beyond seas in a month; that, when abroad, he should do nothing to injure the Protestantism or the peace of Scotland; and, lastly, that he should not return without his Majesty’s license to that effect.

Behold, then, the unruly Border baron bidding adieu to his native Nithsdale, and seeking refuge in a distant land. It would have been better for him and Dumfriesshire if he had continued an exile, and closed life’s discordant day by a twilight of peace, even though his dust had been left sleeping in a foreign soil. To Spain he directed his course, but found no rest there. Perhaps he did not seek repose; “for quiet to quick bosoms is a hell.” The Spaniards were busy fitting out their “Invincible Armada,” by which they had already, in imagination, conquered Britain, the chief bulwark of Protestantism, and annihilated the Reformation; and the expatriated Scottish lord, influenced by aspirations which so accorded with his own devotedness to Popery, resolved to assist the meditated expedition, by returning to his native country, and making a diversion in its favour.

With this evil end in view, Maxwell landed at Kirkcudbright in April, 1588, where he was joined by several of the nobility, and a large body of his own retainers. Lord Herries, disapproving of this rash and unpatriotic movement on the part of his kinsman, took counsel with the King regarding the course to be pursued in such an untoward crisis. “Summon the traitor to appear before us,” said his sapient Majesty. A royal precept to that effect was issued forthwith, which Maxwell treated with contempt; and in a trice afterwards Dumfriesshire was in the throes of a rebellion. The Castle of Dumfries, Carlaverock, Lochmaben, and others in the Maxwell interest were garrisoned – the flags from their turrets fluttering a defiance to the King, which their booming guns proclaimed in a fiercer tone. Their resistance was merely nominal, however, except that which was given by Lochmaben. So serious did matters seem, that King James once more proceeded to Dumfries, in order to encourage, by his presence, the royal troops commissioned to cope with the insurrection. When about to enter the Burgh, they were resisted at the gates by a large party of burgesses; and Maxwell, who was in the Castle at the time, and had concluded that it would be unable to sustain a siege, withdrew from it, whilst his friendly townsmen kept the assailants in check. [Spottiswoode accounts for the resistance given to the royal forces, by saying that the burgesses were not aware that the King was personally present. (Vol. ii., p. 283.)]

Hurrying on horseback to Kirkcudbright, he there embarked on board a vessel in the Dee. Soon another ship hove in sight, freighted from the port of Ayr by Sir William Stewart, and which the fugitive lord learned, when too late, had come to capture him. After a rapid chase from Kirkcudbright, along the Carrick shore to Crossraguel, Maxwell’s vessel was run down, and himself put under arrest.

Meanwhile, though the Castles of Dumfries and Carlaverock no longer frowned rebelliously upon the royal troops, the fortress of Lochmaben, which was commanded by David Maxwell, brother of the Laird of Cowhill, held out against them bravely. They laid regular siege to it, but the walls were so stout and well defended that it made no progress. The King had only small pieces of ordnance, which made little impression on the stubborn stronghold. Heavier cannon, however, having been borrowed by him from the English Warden, a hot bombardment was proceeded with, which, after continuing two days, caused the garrison to capitulate. Its valiant commander, David Maxwell, and five of his leading men, were hanged before the castle gate – an act of severity which contrasts strangely with the forbearance shown towards the chief rebel and originator of all the mischief, who, after being brought by his captor, Stewart, to Dumfries, was sent to Edinburgh Castle, where he suffered but a brief and lenient imprisonment.

According to Calderwood, the plot thus crushed was first made known to the King by Queen Elizabeth, some of whose officers had intercepted letters sent by the Earl of Huntly, Lord Maxwell, and Lord Claude Hamilton to King Ferdinand of Spain, in which their plans were divulged. Even after Lord Maxwell was put in ward, a written intercourse was kept up by his party with Ferdinand and the Duke of Parma, by means of a priest named Bruce, belonging to the household of that nobleman. Bruce, in a letter to the Duke, makes the following reference to the imprisoned conspirator: - “The Earle of Mortoun, alias Lord Maxwell, to whom I have given consolation by writ in prison, hath instantly prayed me also in writ, to remember his most affectioned service to your Highness, finding himself greatly honoured with the care it pleased you to have of him. By the grace of God he is no more in danger of his life by way of justice, it not being possible for his enemies to prove against him anything which they had supposed in his accusation; as also the King’s affection not so far alienated from him as it hath been heretofore; and in case they would annoy him, or that it were presently requisite for the weel of our cause to deliver him, we have ever moyen to get him out of prison, and abide nought in the meane time, but the King’s will toward his libertie; only to avoid all persute, that they would make, if we delivered him extraordinarlie. When they offered him, in the King’s name, his libertie, if he would subscrite the Confession of the Hereticks’ Faith, he answered – He would not do it for the King’s crown, nor for an hundredth thousand lives, if he had them to lose; and hath offered to confound the Ministers by publick disputation. I shall solicit the lords his friends to procure of the King his libertie very soon: for he importeth the well of our cause more than any of the rest, by reason of his forces which are neer England, and the principal town of Scotland, and the ordinar residence of our King; as also he is the lord most resolute, constant, and of greatest execution of any of the Catholicks.” [Calderwood, pp. 236-37.]

King James, having re-established his authority, returned in triumph to Dumfries, the inhabitants of which gave him but a cold welcome – relishing his visit all the less because he summarily dismissed from the provostship Maxwell of Newlaw, brother of Lord Herries, who had incurred his displeasure by opposing the entrance of the royal troops. The subsequent fate of the ex-Provost was tragical in the extreme: he having been waylaid and slain by a party of Johnstones and Grahams, because his father, the late Lord Herries, had treated them with rigour when Warden of the Marches. Whilst his Majesty was at Dumfries, he also presided over a justiciary court held for the trial of Lord Maxwell’s followers, and other defenders. After making an imposing royal progress through part of the Border district, and, in token of his ire against treason, and other forms of lawlessness, burning the Towers of Langholm [The Tower of Langholm, which still survives as a ruin, was a small square keep that belonged to Johnnie Armstrong, and was, after his execution, acquired by the Maxwells.], Castlemilk [Castlemilk, in the parish of St. Mungo, was built by one of the Bruces, and came into the family of Stewart by the marriage of Walter, the High Steward, with one of King Robert’s daughters. The Maxwells eventually acquired it by marriage. A house of the same name, built in 1796, occupies its site; and a stately new mansion has just been erected near it, by the proprietor of the estate. It belongs, with the estate, to Robert Jardine, Esq., M.P. for Ashburton.], and Morton, the King proceeded to Edinburgh, leaving John, Lord Hamilton, to act as his lieutenant over the whole Borders, with the assistance of Lord Herries, and other Dumfriesshire barons.

It was now Johnstone’s turn to exhibit disloyalty. When Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell [He was the eldest son of John Stewart, Prior of Coldingham, natural son of James V.; his mother being Lady Jane Hepburn, sister of the infamous Earl of Bothwell who stands charged with the murder of Darnley, and who afterwards married his widow, the Queen of Scots. Francis Stewart received the title from James IV. in 1576.], with the view of obtaining pre-eminent power in the State, made a bold attempt to seize the King’s person, he had for one of his accomplices the Annandale chief – for which disloyal act the latter, like Lord Maxwell, was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. Maxwell was liberated, by an act of grace, on the day of the royal marriage, 12th September, 1589; and Johnstone managed to break out of his prison, returned to Lochwood. Again the King visited Dumfriesshire, for the purpose of overawing such of the Border clans as had given assistance to Bothwell, or had in other respects poured contempt on his authority. His Majesty did not find the gates of the Shire town barred against him on this occasion. The burgesses opened them readily to his Majesty, giving him a hearty welcome; for the Superior of the town was now a favourite at Court, and had renounced his rebellious designs, and, nominally at least, his Romanist opinions. James issued a proclamation from Dumfries, offering pardon to all who would repudiate Bothwell, and engage to keep the peace. These merciful conditions were accepted by many, though not by Sir James Johnstone; and when his Majesty left the County it was still far from being thoroughly tranquillized. Whether from motives of policy or conviction, Lord Maxwell subscribed the Confession of Faith on the 26th of January, 1593, before the Presbytery of Edinburgh, the signature used by him being that of “Morton,” the earldom of which he still claimed. There is good reason to suppose that he continued a Romanist at heart; and, at all events, his profession of Protestantism, and his practice in after life, were often broadly at variance.

When, in 1601, the General Assembly saw reason to bewail a great defection from the zeal and purity of the true religion, they attributed it in some measure to the want of a sufficient number of pastors “in places that are of chiefest importance, as the town of Dumfries,’ [Calderwood, p. 453.] near to which Lord Herries resided. Arrangements were made by the Assembly to settle additional ministers in the most destitute localities; also to bring their influence to bear upon the Popish lords by means of personal visitation – Mr. David Lindsey and Mr. John Hall being the clergymen appointed to operate on Lord Herries. [Ibid.] In the Assembly of the following year, those two visiting commissioners reported that they had been unable to hold a conference with his lordship on account of the shortness of his stay in Edinburgh. The whole question was then entered upon anew; and it was resolved by the Assembly that certain noblemen’s houses and families should be temporarily supplied with pastors or chaplains, able not only to instruct and confirm them in the Protestant faith, “but also to procure that their families be not corrupted with the companie and resorting of professed Papists, Jesuits, and other seminarie priest.” [Calderwood, p. 459.] For these purposes Mr. Robert Wallace was appointed to wait upon Lord Herries, and Mr. Henry Blyth on Lord Maxwell. [Ibid.] It is curious to note the instructions given to these clerical visitors.

The Assembly, bent on subduing the nobles who stood in the way of their good work, enjoined their representatives to use an amount of moral pressure which is inconsistent with modern ideas on the subject, and the nature of which may be inferred from the subjoined quotation: - “Ye shall addresse your selves with all convenient diligence, and necessarie furniture, to enter in their companie and families, there to remain with them for the space of three moneths continuallie; during which time your principal care shall be, by public doctrine, by reading and interpretation of the Scriptures ordinarily at their tables, and by conference at all meet occasions, to instruct them in the whole grounds of true religion and godliness; specially in the heeds controverted; and confirme them therein. Take pains to catechize their families ordinarily every day once or twice at the least, or so often as may bring them to some reasonable measure of knowledge, and feeling of religion, before the expiring of the time prescribed for your remaining there; and let this action begin and end with prayer.” [Ibid., p. 460.]

At the same Assembly, visitors were set apart for enquiring into the “life, doctrine, qualification, and conversation” of all the ministers; and in this capacity John Knox [Ibid., p. 461.] proceeded to Nithsdale and Annandale, taking with him Mr. Patrick Shaw and Mr. John Smith as colleagues. No report from the visitors has fallen under our notice; and we are left to conjecture as to the way in which Mr. Wallace fared when he went on his proselytizing mission to Lord Herries; and whether or not Mr. Blyth succeeded in re-establishing the Protestantism of Lord Maxwell. We suspect that in both instances failure was the result. The King had begun to look coldly on Presbyterianism; he was preparing to graft upon it a strange prelatic shoot, and to hamper in many respects the action of the Assembly – thus retarding the Reformed cause, and encouraging both its avowed and secret enemies. It was scarcely to be expected that the nobles who had opposed it all along, or had only nominally embraced it, would under such circumstances change their creed or their policy.

On the 2nd of February, 1593, Lord Maxwell and Angus, the new Earl of Morton, came to an unseemly issue on the question of precedency, in St. Giles’s Church, Edinburgh; and just as they were about to draw swords within the sacred edifice, the Lord Provost interfered and caused the combative barons to be sent guarded to their lodgings in the city.

Soon after this bloodless incident, Maxwell returned to Dumfriesshire, never more to leave it in life. Sir James Johnstone having by his recent rebellious acts forfeited the wardenry of the Western Marches, that office was again given to the Lord of Nithsdale; and thus armed he proceeded to the Border for the purpose of allaying its turbulence. Probably the King meant him to adopt stringent measures towards the Johnstones; but when it seemed as if the strife between the families was about to be renewed, a peace was patched up between them through the mediation of mutual friends. The rival chiefs were thereby induced not only to give up their antagonism, but to enter into an alliance offensive with relation to the wily chief of Drumlanrig, who was, for sufficient reasons, distrusted by both. This agreement, duly signed by the contracting parties, is still preserved among the Annandale papers. In accordance with it, John, Earl of Morton, Lord Maxwell, and Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie agreeing for themselves, and taking burden upon them for their next kin, friends, tenants, and servants, “oblige them by the faith and troth of their bodies that they nor their foresaids intromit or agree with Sir James Douglas of Drumlanrig, nor his kin, friends, tenants, and servants, without the special advice and consent of the other had thereto; and that both their assurance, and assurance with the said Sir James Douglas, should be done in one day; and in case any of them had an action of law against him, to concur, fortifie, and assist [each] other to the intensist of their power; and should take a true, upright, and aefold part with others while the feid were agreed or reconciled.”

This contract is dated the 13th of March, 1592, only twenty-one months previous to the battle of Dryfe-Sands; and there is another more general one of a still later date – April 1st of that year – in which Maxwell and Johnstone come under a solemn obligation for themselves and friends to “freely remit and forgive all rancours of mind, grudge, malice, and feids that had passed, or fallen furth between them in any time bygone.” [Annandale Papers.] A noble resolution, truly! which, if faithfully carried out, would have had a happy effect on the rival houses, and given a slight foretaste of the millennium to the County. Unfortunately their bond of union was feeble as a thread of flax, their friendship transitory as a wintry sunbeam on snow-clad hills, their interchange of kindly words delusive –

“The torrent’s smoothness ere it dash below.”

The Johnstones had become hand and glove with the Lord Warden! They would therefore be able, so far as he was concerned, to enter upon predatory pursuits with impunity, if they only left unharmed the dependants of the house of Maxwell. So thinking, a party of the Annandale men, headed by William Johnstone of Wamphray, surnamed the Galliard, sweeping into Upper Nithsdale, ravaged the lands of Lord Sanquhar; but all the rich “hereship” acquired by them was no equivalent for the loss they sustained, as their trusty leader, captured by the Crichtons, was, without remorse, converted by his captors into a “tassel” for the gallows tree, though the poor fellow, in view of such an ignominious doom, prayed hard for mercy, and tried to win by bride what he could not gain from pity. “O! Simmy, Simmy:” – so he pleaded to his chief capture, Simon of the Side –

“O! Simmy, Simmy, now let me gang,
And I’ss ne’er mair a Crichton wrang;
O! Simmy, Simmy, now let me be,
And a peck o’ gowd I’ss gie to thee.”

William Johnstone of Kirkhill, on whom the leadership of the “lads of Wamphray” now devolved, mustered them in great force in order to levy more spoil, and exact what was even sweeter to a Borderer than any amount of stouthrief – revenge.

“Back tae Nithsdale they hae gane,
And awa the Crichtons’ nowt hae taen;
And when they cam to the Wellpath-head,
The Crichtons bade them “ ‘Light and lead.’”

That is to say, dismount and give battle, the very thing that Kirkhill Willie wanted, and which he promised to supply the Crichtons with to their hearts’ content.

“Then out spoke Willie of the Kirkhill,
‘Of fighting, lads, ye’se hae your fill;’
And from his horse Willie he lap,
And a burnished brand in his hand he gat.

“Out through the Crichtons Willie he ran,
And dang them down, baith horse and man.
O, but the Johnstones were wondrous rude,
When the Biddes burn ran three days blude.”

[Biddes Burn, a brook which waters a mountainous tract lying between Nithsdale and Annandale, near the head of the Evan.]

In returning homewards, the exulting victors left other unpleasant memories of their foray on the lands of Drumlanrig, Closeburn, and Lag; and if the ballad from which we have quoted is to be relied upon, they – quite in character – wound up their saturnalia by a jovial carouse in a tavern at the head of Evan Water: -

“As they cam in at Evan-head,
At Ricklaw Holm they spread abread.
‘Drive on, my lads, it will be late;
We’ll hae a pint at Wamphray gate.’”

And there Willie of Kirkhill, proud, exultant, elated with success, and (shall we say?) “glorious” with the “barley bree,” thus complimented his gallant followers: -

“Where’er I gang, or where’er I ride,
The lads of Wamphray are on my side;
And of a’ the lads that I do ken,
The Wamphray lad’s the king of men.”

[Sir Walter Scott seems to have attached no small amount of historical value to the ballad from which these verses are taken – “The Lads of Wamphray;” and we have quoted from it as it is true to the spirit, if not to the letter, and the incidents tend to illustrate the character of the Border raids.]

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