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Ferniehirst Castle
Chapter VIII - Border Families, Houses & Names
Turnbull


Fate has been unkind to the Turnbulls. None of them managed to collect a peerage on his way, and as a result their early history is less well documented than that of other great Border families, though interesting accounts are to be found in R.E. Scott’s I saved the King, Jeffrey’s History and Antiquities of and Tancred’s Rulewater and its People. Their earlier name was "de Rule" or "Roule", from the Rulewater area where they were already present in the 13th Century. and they were probably of French or Anglo-Norman origin like many other families throughout Central and Southern Scotland.

William de Rule, a friend and hunting companion of Robert the Bruce and Sir James Douglas, is said to have acquired his new name, and quite a lot of land to go with it, through a remarkable incident a year after Bannockburn. While hunting near Callander, King Robert was suddenly charged by a wild white bull (probably of the same breed that survive at Chillingham in Northumberland): de Rule, a massive and fearless man, seized the bull by the horns and twisted its neck round, thus killing it and saving the King. For this he was rewarded with a grant of land and the name of Turnebull (turn ye bull); the name of de Rule disappears from the records about that time, which seems to show the story is genuine. This Goliath met his David, a diminutive English knight called Sir Robert Benhale, the day before the battle of Halidon Hill (1332). By this time he was no longer a young man (if he is the same William de Rule who witnessed a grant to the monks of Kelso in 1300); but he paraded before the English lines with a dog nearly as big as himself, offering to fight any that dared come forward. Benhale took him up, and started by killing the mastiff; this evidently disconcerted Turnbull, after which the Englishman sliced off his arm and then his head).

Several of the Turnbulls distinguished themselves on the French side in the Hundred Years’ War, notably John "Out with the Sword" Turnbull who was killed at Cravant in 1424. The French and French-Canadian family of Tremblay is probably descended from them.

Another and more peaceful William Turnbull was Secretary and Keeper of The Privy Seal, Archdeacon of St. Andrews and thereafter Bishop of Glasgow. This office he only held for seven years, dying in 1454 while on a pilgrimage to Rome, but during that time he founded Glasgow University. A detailed description of the University’s charter and early organisation is given under "Turnbull" in Chambers’ Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, published by Blackie in 1875.

At the height of their influence, the Turnbulls controlled Hallrule, Bonchester, Denholm and Minto; together with the Kerrs, Douglases and Scotts they played an important part in holding Scotland together after Flodden and in preventing the English from exploiting their success to the full — this in spite of the fact that James IV, a few years before Flodden, had publicly humiliated them by compelling 200 of them to come before him in their shirts, holding naked swords pointed towards them and with halters round their necks, then hanging a few (some say as many as twenty).

Later, however, they were largely alienated from the Scottish monarchy (too many of them had been deprived of their lands, and the fate of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie still rankled in Border hearts), and for a while they supported England; yet on the day of Ancrum Moor they remembered they were Scots, changed sides and helped to decide the issue for Scotland. This battle, where the Kerrs earned their motto, "Late but in earnest", is also remembered for the desperate courage of the "Maiden Lilliard" of Maxton. In those days it was not unusual for the wives and girl friends of fighting men to watch the action, like rugby club supporters today; when her lover was killed she waded in to avenge him in this world and join him in the next:

"and when her legs were cuttit off
she fought upon her stumps".

A small monument commemorates her on the ridge which still bears her name, and where the battle was fought.

The Turnbulls suffered heavily in the pacification of the Borders under James VI and I. They were left with little of the land that had once been theirs, but many remained in the Borders, as tenant farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen; others sought their fortune further afield, as countless Scots of every family have done, by necessity or by choice: one of them, Sir Richard Turnbull, now back in Jedburgh, was the last Governor General of Tanganyika and was previously a latter-day "Warden of the Marches" in charge of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, a wild, beautiful land of raid and reprisal as large as Scotland itself.


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