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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Grahams of Esk, Netherby, and Norton-Conyers


THE GRAHAMS OF ESK, NETHERBY, and NORTON-CONYERS, the most important of the minor branches of the family of Graham, are descended from Sir John Graham of Kilbride, near Dunblane, second son of Malise, first Earl of Strathern. On account of his distinguished courage and daring exploits, he was commonly surnamed ‘John with the Bright Sword.’ Having fallen into disfavour at Court, probably on account of some of the sanguinary feuds of his day, Sir John retired, with a considerable number of his kinsmen and clan, to the Borders, in the reign of Henry IV., and settled in ‘the Debateable Land‘—a strip of territory on the banks of the river Esk, near the Solway Firth—so called because it was claimed both by Scotland and England. ‘They were all stark moss-troopers,’ says Mr. Sandford, ‘and arrant thieves; both to England and Scotland outlawed; yet sometimes connived at, because they gave intelligence forth of Scotland, and would raise four hundred horse at any time upon a raid of the English into Scotland.’ A saying is recorded of a mother to her son (which is now become proverbial), ‘Ride, Rowley, hough’s i‘ the pot;’ that is, the last piece of beef was in the pot, and therefore it was high time for him to go and fetch more. Sir Walter Scott says that this fierce and hardy race—

‘Whoever lost, were sure to win;
They sought the beeves that made their broth,
In Scotland and in England both.’

They plundered both countries with impunity, for as the wardens of both accounted them the proper subjects of their own sovereign, neither would demand redress of their ravages from the officer of the other kingdom, which would have been an acknowledgment of his jurisdiction over them, and they could not agree to unite in punishing their outrages.

On the transference of the Court to London, at the union of the Crowns, the freebooters renewed their plundering raids more extensively than ever, and King James was constrained to issue a Commission for the settlement of the Borders. One of the first steps taken by the Commissioners was to deal with the unruly and irreclaimable Grahams. Finding themselves at last in the grasp of the law, they sent a petition to the King, setting forth ‘that they, and others inhabiting within the bounds of Eske and Leven, being the borders of the realme of England against Scotland, are men brought up in ignorance, and not having had meanes to learne their due obedience to God, and your most excellent Majestie, of late, and immediately after the death of the Queen’s most excellent Majestie, your Majestie’s late dear sister, did disorderly and tumultuously assemble ourselves with all the warlike force and power that they could make, and being so disorderlie assembled, did invade the inlande part of the easte parte of the county of Cumberland, and spoiled many of your subjects of England with fire, sword, robbery, and reaving of their goods, and murthering and taking prisoners the persons of the same, which are misdemeanour; albeit we cannot excuse our ignorance, for that by the lawes of God we do knowe that all rebelling, reaving, and murthers are altogether forbidden, yet so it is, that some among us of evil and corrupt judgment did persuade us, that until your Majestie was a crowned kinge within the realme of Englande, that the lawe of the same kingdome did cease and was of no force, and that all actes and offences whatsoever done and committed in the meane tyme, were not by the common justice of this realme punishable by force, of the which malitious error put into our heads, as deceived men, and believing over reddy that grosse untruth, we did most injudiciously run upon your Majestie’s inland subjectis, and did them many wronges, both by fyer, sword, and taking there goodes, in such sort as before we have acknowledged.’

The admission that they imagined that during the interval between the death of Elizabeth and the coronation of James the country was in a lawless state, and every, man was entitled to do ‘what was right in his own eyes,’ is exceedingly naďve and significant.

After professing their sorrow for their misdeeds, they beseech his Majesty that he will be pleased ‘now at our humble suit to grant unto us the saving of our lives, which now is in your highnesse by the justice of your lawes, to take from us at your highnesse good pleasure, and that your Majestie will be pleased to relegate and banish us (as a tumultuous collony) into some other parte of your kingdome, there to spend the residue of our miserable and sorrowful dayes in lamenting and sorrowing for our offences.’

The Commissioners evidently felt that it was hopeless to attempt the reformation of these hereditary reivers so long as they continued in their native haunts. They therefore resolved to try the effect of sending a large detachment of them out of the country and exposing them to new and more healthy influences and motives abroad.

On the 17th of May, 1605, the Privy Council wrote ‘that his Majesty having spared their lives, which otherwise were forfeited through their crimes, his clemency further appeared in that he is pleased to dispose of them as may be greatly for their good, and in such sorte as they shall be in no worse condition than his Majesty’s good subjects that were no offenders, being as they are appointed to be sent to serve in the garrisons and cautionary towns of Flushing and Brill, places where many honest men desire to be maintained in service.’

A copy is given of ’the names of Grames which are to be sent away.’ Some of the names are accompanied by the sobriquets by which they were familiarly known, such as ‘Richard Grame,’ alias ‘Jocks Ritchie;’ ‘John Grame,’ alias ‘All our Kaines;‘ ‘Richard Grame,’ alias ‘Lang Ritchie;’ ‘Andrew Grame of Sarkeyde,’ alias ‘Little Andrew;’ ‘Richard Grame,’ alias ‘Richie of Galloway.’ The custom of using by-names was, indeed, universal among the Border freebooters at this period, and most of them were better known by their sobriquets than by their own proper names.

The list included the name of Richard Graham, son of Walter Grame, of Netherby; and it would appear that the Scottish Commissioners had proposed its omission at their first meeting; for, on 17th April, 1605, the English Commissioners wrote to them from Carlisle stating that the omission of the name ‘Richard Grayme, is so ill taken that we shall be taxed of partiallyty;’ and asking the consent of their Scottish brethren that ‘his name may be added to the rest as before yt was.’ The Scottish Commissioners next day expressed their concurrence in this step; but a subsequent effort on behalf of Richard was made by the Earl of Montrose, who wrote from Holyrood House on the 25th of June, 1605, entreating the Commissioners to permit young Graham to remain with him, and offering to be ‘answerable for him, both to his Majestie, unto the Councell, and to your worships.’ lt is evident that Richard Graham must have been notorious for his turbulence and reiving habits, for, notwithstanding his position in society, and the powerful influence exerted on his behalf, the Commissioners adhered to their decision that he must accompany the other Grahams to Flushing on the 6th of July. But they complied with his request to give him a letter of commendation to the governor of that place, setting forth that the bearer was son to Walter of Netherby, the chief of all the Graemes dwelling betwixt Leven and Sark, and that he, ‘mynding to show his forwardness in his Majestie’s service, hath desyred us to give testimony of his birth and place, and that upon his due desert he may receive such favour as to his dimerrit shall appertyne, which we thinkeing reasonable have thereunto condescended, as also that for his better encouragement to go forward to do his highnesse service, we have entreated the conductor of the rest to place him as auncient of that company.’

The Commissioners appear to have had some difficulty in making up the required number of compulsory emigrants, but it was at last completed. The first batch, of fifty, was sent to Brill, and the second, of seventy-two, to Flushing.

Before three weeks had elapsed, however, several of the expatriated Grahams began to appear in their former haunts on the Border, to the great disgust of the Commissioners. Some of them had procured licenses from their officers to come home for two months; others had returned without any license at all, among whom was Richard of Netherby. On the 23rd of October, 1605, Sir Wilfrid Lawson wrote to the Earl of Cumberland, informing him that, in addition to the Grahams already reported to him as having returned ‘with license or without,’ ‘there are still more coming daily, which is greatly to the dislyke of the better and truer sorte of his Majestie’s subjects heare; and it is lyke, unless there be some order schortly taken as well to stay those not yet come, as to send away, or otherwise to take some severe course, with those already come without lycence, that they will all be schortly at home again.’

The Privy Council, in the meantime, had informed the Commissioners, on the 19th of October, that they ‘have taken order with the Viscount Lisle, Gouvernour of Flushing, that none, from henceforth, shall have any passes, nor be allowed to come over without speciall lycense from his Majestie, or of us of his Privy Counsell.’ As for those who had already come over without license, it was his Majesty’s pleasure that they were presently to be proceeded with according to justice, and be kept safe in prison, until his Majesty be made further acquainted with the matter. These restrictions, however, failed to compel the Grahams to remain in Flushing. They, no doubt, preferred roaming at will over the moors and among the glens and mountains of their native land, to being cooped up in a Dutch garrison town. The Privy Council were made aware, by the 14th of November, 1605, that of the seventy-two Grahams sent to Flushing, only fourteen remained there, the rest having returned home. It had therefore become necessary to adopt some more stringent measures to root them out of their hereditary haunts, and accordingly a large number of the clan, along with a body of Armstrongs and Elliots, were transported to the north of Ireland, and their return prohibited under pain of death. By dint of energy and perseverance, these stalwart freebooters prospered greatly in that country, and their descendants at the present day form the backbone of the industry of Ulster.

While the clan were thus disposed of, their chiefs prospered as regards both rank and possessions. Richard Graham, who purchased the estate of Netherby and the barony of Liddell from the Earl of Cumberland, was created a baronet, in 1629, by the style of Sir Richard Graham of Esk. He fought under the royal banner at the battle of Edgehill, and was so severely wounded that he was left all night among the slain. He was succeeded by his elder son, George. His younger son, Richard, was created a baronet in 1662, and was the ancestor of the Grahams of Norton-Conyers. Sir Richard’s grandson, the third baronet, was elevated, in 1680, to the peerage of Scotland, by the title of Viscount Preston. He was for a good many years ambassador to the Court of France, and subsequently Secretary of State to James VII. After the Revolution he engaged in a treasonable plot against King William, and on December 31st, 1690, along with two of his associates, Ashton and Elliot, he was captured on his way to France, with compromising letters in his possession. Ashton and the Viscount were brought to trial at the Old Bailey, on a charge of treason, and were found guilty. Ashton was executed, but Preston saved his life and was pardoned on revealing the names of his accomplices. His attainder did not affect the Scottish peerage, but on the death of his grandson, the third Viscount, the title became extinct. His extensive estates passed to his surviving aunt, the Hon. Catherine Graham, wife of Lord Widdrington. She died in 1757 without issue, and bequeathed the property to her cousin, the Rev. Robert Graham, D.D., grandson of Sir George Graham, second baronet of Esk. James Graham of Netherby, his son, was created a baronet in 1782, and was the father of the late eminent statesman, Sir James Graham, who filled a succession of important offices in the administrations of Earl Grey, Sir Robert Peel, and the Earl of Aberdeen.

Sir John Graham of Kilbride was the ancestor also of the Grahams of Gartmore.


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