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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Threave Castle

Threave Castle

THREAVE CASTLE, Kirkcudbrightshire, is a ruin connected with the famous Douglas family, and is a lofty stronghold on an island of the river Dee, less than two miles west of Castle Douglas. There is no landward approach to the Castle, and it can only be reached by wading through a ford on the eastern branch of the Dee, which will land the adventurous visitor at a short distance from the southern point of the island, and at a few yards from the ruin. On each side of the island the river is so deep that it can only be traversed by a boat; and a wide ditch (formerly a march or moat) connected with the Dee, makes the access to Threave Castle still more difficult. The exact situation has been thus graphically described:—"The island, which is quite flat, extends about 500 paces northwards from the Castle, and is about half this distance in width, forming a fine pasture meadow of nearly 20 acres in extent. The river protects the Castle on the west, and on the other sides a strong wall with a sloping face and round towers still surrounds it, forming a courtyard on the south and east sides. The round tower at the south-east angle is entire, and is 9 feet 2 inches in internal diameter, and three storeys high, with three loop-holes in each storey." Though now in a ruinous condition, the plan of the Castle may yet be traced, and evidently it has been a structure of considerable strength, intended for defence.

There are many traditions connected with this interesting ruin, though some of them are not confirmed by credible history. It is supposed to have been built by Archibald Douglas, an illegitimate son of "the good Sir James Douglas," in the latter half of the 14th century. In 1369, this Archibald was appointed Lord of Galloway, holding large possessions in that quarter; and in 1385 he became third Earl of Douglas, and was known by the cognomen of "the Grim," because of his relentless nature. Threave Castle was erected by him on the site of a fortalice that had belonged to Alan, the last native Lord of Galloway; and in the time of the eighth Earl of Douglas (about 1450) it is recorded that there was accommodation within Threave Castle for a thousand men-at-arms. Ultimately, upon the fall of the Douglas family, it was forfeited to the Crown, and came into the possession of the Maxwells, Earls of Nithsdale, who were relations of the Earl of Douglas. Archibald the Grim died at Threave Castle in February 1401, and it was in 1455 that the Castle passed away from the Douglas family. This was largely because of a sad tragedy that took place there three years before, though the authenticity of the details have been seriously questioned.

One of the oldest families in Galloway was said to be the Maclellans of Bombie, who claimed the title of Lords of Galloway. They were certainly a powerful race in 1301, and controlled a large portion of the ground in the district. Pitscottie in his gossipy history tells how one of the family, known as "the Tutor of Bombie," had offended the Earl of Douglas in some undefined manner, and Douglas captured him, imprisoned him in Threave Castle, and afterwards hanged him on the battlements. It is stated that Sir Patrick Gray, brother-in-law of the Tutor, arrived at the gateway of the Castle with an order from the King—James II.—demanding the release of Maclellan, but the Earl disregarded this mandate, and proceeded with the murder. Meanwhile William, the eighth Earl, had been slain by the dagger of the King at Stirling Castle, in February 1451-2, and the Douglases were declared forfeited traitors, and their lands devastated by the Royal Army, and several of their Castles demolished.

The last stronghold retained by the ninth Earl of Douglas was Threave Castle, and James II. determined to lead his forces against it in person. He, therefore, marched into Galloway at the head of a numerous army, and made preparations to besiege the Castle. The story is told that a certain blacksmith, called M’Kim, seeing the weakness of the King’s artillery, offered to make a special cannon that would destroy the place. The proposal was accepted, and M’Kim took his assistants to the Three Thorns at Carlinwark, and there he speedily constucted the large cannon called "Mons Meg," which was first used in warfare against Threave Castle, and is still preserved at Edinburgh Castle. The story has been doubted, though the tradition yet survives in Douglasdale, and the place where the cannon was made is pointed out at Buchan’s Croft. Two of the granite balls from Mons Meg were found in the wall of Threave Castle.

The Maclellans rose to great power in Kirkcudbright. Long after the siege of Threave Castle, one of the family, Robert, was created Lord Kirkcudbright in 1633, by Charles I., for his services to the King in Ireland; and this title was held till the death of the eighth Lord in 1832, when it became dormant.

When Threave Castle was forfeited by the Earl of Douglas, it was conferred on the Maxwells, another prominent Border family, who were afterwards ennobled with the title of Earls of Nithsdale, and were made Keepers of Threave and Stewards of Kirkcudbright. In the time of the Civil War the then Earl of Nithsdale, at his own expense, held Threave Castle for Charles I., and armed, paid, and victualled 80 men-at-arms. He made a spirited defence as long as he could; but at last the King, finding he could not assist him with reinforcements, sent him word to apply for the best terms he could obtain for himself and his garrison, and to resign the stronghold to the enemy. The Earl had to submit, and thus the Castle passed temporarily out of his control. But the office of Keepers of Threave Castle was retained by the Earl and his successors, and they continued to receive the dues that had been contributed by every parish in Kirkcudbright for centuries, consisting of cattle for the sustenance of the Earl and his soldiers. Even in 1704, when the Earl of that time sold the estate of Threave, he continued to receive this perquisite, and remained Keeper of Threave Castle as his ancestors had been. At length the fifth Earl of Nithsdale took part in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, his chief opponent being the first Marquess of Annandale.

That nobleman was the head of the Johnstone Clan, one of the most powerful in the Border district, and an ardent supporter of George I., who had succeeded to the throne. As Lord-Lieutenant he had received intimation that Dumfries was to be attacked and captured by the Jacobites, so he set forth to defend the burgh. While Annandale was on his way thither he was surprised by a party of the rebels, numbering 200 horse, commanded by the Earls of Nithsdale, Winton, and Carnwath, Viscount Kenmure, and other noblemen and gentlemen, who, as he stated were "providentially prevented" from capturing him, and he reached Dumfries in safety, where measures were adopted for the defence of the place, which were successful.

Twice did the Jacobites attack Dumfries, but failed in their efforts and retired. The Rising was practically terminated by the Battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston; the leading Border noblemen were captured, and the fifth Earl of Nithsdale was attainted for treason, deprived of his title, and also of the office of Keeper of Threave Castle. In 1747, after the next Jacobite Rising, the Hereditary Jurisdictions were abolished, and thus the connection of the Maxwells with Threave Castle was definitely terminated. There is a romantic story told of the last Earl, which is thus narrated in the "Scots Peerage":— "William, fifth Earl of Nithsdale and fourteenth Lord Maxwell, born in 1676, was served heir to his father, ‘Robert, Earl of Nithsdale, Lord Maxwell, Herries, Eskdale, and Carlyell,’ 26th May 1696, and heir-male and tailzie to Robert, second Earl of Nithsdale, 19th May 1698. He joined the rising in favour of the Chevalier de St. George, and being taken prisoner at Preston in November 1715, was sent to the Tower of London. He pleaded guilty of high treason, 19th January, and was sentenced to death in Westminster Hall, 9th February 1716, and his honours were forfeited. His wife left Terregles in December to join him. Her coach was stopped at Grantham by snow, but she, though of delicate constitution, pushed onto London on horseback with her maid, Cecilia Evans, and her groom, their horses at times almost buried in drifts. On 13th February she gained access to the King and begged for her husband’s life, in vain as she believed, though according to Lady Cowper, ‘a reprieve for him was signed the very night of his escape on 23rd February (the day before that fixed for the execution).’ Taking advantage of the free access to his room allowed to Nithsdale’s friends, Lady Nithsdale, with her London landlady, Mrs. Mills and a Mrs. Morgan, was constantly in and out of it that day, and when at dusk she led him out in female dress, the guards, confused at all this coming and going of the women, let him pass, taking him for one of them. Having delivered him into the care of the maid, Evans, who took him to a friendly house known to Mrs. Mills, Lady Nithsdale returned to his room in the Tower, and after remaining a short time to disarm suspicion, she passed out with loud farewells at the door. Nithsdale was eventually hidden in the Venetian Embassy (without the Ambassador’s knowledge) by one, Michel, a servant of the house, who, after a day or two, conveyed him, dressed in the Ambassador’s livery, to Dover. Hence he crossed to France, and his wife, after a journey to Scotland to secure important papers, joined him at Lille before 25th September 1716. Henceforth the two lived, often in great poverty, at the Chevalier’s Court at Rome, where Nithsdale, who was made a Knight of the Thistle by his prince, 31st December 1725, died on 20th March 1744.

"His wife was Winifred Herbert, daughter of William, third Lord and first Marquess of Powis, who had followed James II. into exile. The marriage, according to the contract, dated Paris, 2nd March 1699, was to be celebrated between that date and the following Easter. Lady Nithsdale died at Rome in May 1749, ‘very old and in great esteem.’ Her last years were made more easy by money sent by her son when he got possession of the family lands."

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