Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter VI


King Edward had not been long gone across the Channel till the Earl of Surrey, his guardian of Scotland, sent pressing dispatches urging him to return. The King thus learned, to his surprise and regret, that rebel bands (as they were termed) had risen up in numerous directions, who were galling the English with guerilla attacks; and that if they were allowed to concentrate their efforts, and were not summarily put down, they might possibly undo all that it had cost so much blood and treasure to accomplish. One Walays or Wallace figured prominently in these urgent letters to King Edward.

That patriot, afterwards so famous, was at first heard of by his enemies as a bold, daring malcontent, who was always ready against any odds to assert his own personal independence, and proclaim his country’s rights by word and deed. He would, doubtless, be deemed by them a mere foolhardy bravo, till his more private scuffles with the insolent soldiery at Ayr and Dundee gave place to skirmishes on a wider scale; in which, sallying forth with a handful of followers as recklessly defiant as himself, he encountered large bands of English with unvarying success. Wallace, in this way, gradually became a felt power in the land; his name, before Edward returned from France, had become the watchword of freedom, and had been heard sounding as such not merely in the east and west, but in Nithsdale and Annandale – where, notwithstanding the special precaution taken by the Government, a spirit of revolt was beginning to show itself. 

For the purpose of keeping it in check, Lord Clifford proceeded from Carlisle into Dumfriesshire, and devastated the country, putting many of its suspected inhabitants to death. Patriotism, however, was not uprooted from it by this sanguinary process: the plant deluged by blood retained its vitality. Soon after Clifford had finished his cruel mission, John de St. John became keeper of the district [Caledonia, vol. iii., p. 82.] – his rule extending southwards to Carlisle and eastwards to Roxburghshire; but though he appears to have had a numerous force, he never succeeded in securing the thorough submission of the people. St John, while pretty safe in the strong Castle of Dumfries, was liable to be every now and then alarmed by rumours of risings, true or false, against his authority; and he did not know the moment when the rebels of the town and neighbourhood might muster in full force to strike for liberty and revenge. This officer, when lording it over the district, must have lived in great style. We learn from the wardrobe accounts of Edward I., that St. John was allowed forty caparisoned horses, the maintenance of which was £5 3s. 6d. a day; and that for his personal following he had a knight banneret, six knights, and thirty esquires, whose pay was from 4s. a day to 1s. – large sums, though seemingly small, since their value with reference to all commodities was at least ten times as great as the same amounts at the present day.

Lord Clifford was always at hand, however, to assist St. John in case of need; and a second time he made a terrorist raid across the Border, in which he burnt and sacked the town of Annan, with its church, and treated in a similar way no fewer than ten villages in the vicinity, most of which never again rose out of their ashes. [Knightn, p. 2522; Haile’s Annals of Scotland, p. 263; and Redpath’s Border History, p. 212.] These merciless proceedings had a certain amount of present influence; but when a reaction came, it was thereby rendered more decisive and overwhelming: and, meanwhile, preparations for it were rapidly going on, for Wallace himself, leaving Ayrshire, appeared in the neighbourhood of Dumfries, calling the people to arms, and sounding there as elsewhere the knell of Edward’s hated dominion.

Under what particular circumstances the hero was led to leave his native shore, the scene of his chief efforts about this time, and proceed southward, we cannot say. Tradition and history combine to show that in 1297, or the following year, before he fairly appeared as the national champion, he had several affrays with the enemy in the neighbourhood of Lochmaben. [Blind Harry, book v.] On one occasion, it is said, a party of Englishmen maltreated the horses of himself and followers by cutting off their tails – for which he took ample vengeance. Sir Hugh Moreland, hearing of what had occurred, hurried after the Scots, being able to trace them to Knockwood, in the neighbouring parish of Kirkmichael, by the blood which streamed from their wounded horses. Wallace, reinforced by sixteen friends, who had been lurking in the wood, turned upon his pursues and put them to the rout. Several large stones may still be seen in Knockwood, at a place called “The Six Corses,” which are supposed to mark the spot where Sir Hugh Moreland and five of his followers fell; and near by there are slight remains of fortifications visible, one of which is said to have been occupied by Wallace, in order to protect himself from another English force which hastened from Lochmaben Castle on being apprized of the conflict that had occurred.

This body, consisting of three hundred horsemen, commanded by an officer named Graystock, surrounded the fortlet; but its occupants managed to effect their escape, and it was not till a day or two afterwards that the latter were overtaken. Then ensued a stoutly contested engagement. The Scots, whilst on their retreat, had been joined by Sir John Graham and Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, each bringing with them a few retainers; and, but for this circumstance, even the Herculean prowess of Wallace might have been of little avail against the enemy’s superior force. During the thick of the fight, the English leader fell mortally wounded; and his surviving followers forthwith fled, seeking refuge in the Forest of Knockwood, from which the Scots had previously withdrawn. Wallace did not follow far in pursuit; but, collecting his men together, turned in the direction of Lochmaben Castle, fired with the ambition of seizing that important fortress, once a bulwark of Scottish independence, but now, owing to the pusillanimity of Bruce, converted into an English stronghold for keeping his native Annandale in check.

Fortunately for the designs of the Scottish chief, it was not in a condition to offer a formidable resistance: most of its usual defenders were lying still in death, or weary fugitives in the neighbouring woodlands; and those who remained were easily overpowered. Scarcely had the castle received its new garrison, when bands of broken men, footsore and wounded, from Knockwood, asked for admission at the gates, which they received – only, however, to share the fate of their comrades who had been taken in the field on the previous day. The stern exigencies of the situation combined with other circumstances to steel the heart of the usually generous Wallace; and the unsuspecting refugees were indiscriminately put to the sword. Leaving as many men as he could spare in the fortress, he returned to Clydesdale – from whence, however, he was soon recalled to Dumfriesshire.

The early exploits of Wallace, as recorded in the old chronicles, [Wyntoun, Fordun, Knighton, Hemingford, and Henry the Minstrel (the latter not always to be implicitly trusted), are the chief authorities relied upon by modern writers for these and other early incidents in the career of the Scottish hero.] seem very discursive and unsystematic. They had probably more of method in them than is generally supposed; and at all events they made his name well known, and originated a pretty general belief among his countrymen, that the hero of these seemingly random efforts was ripening for greater achievements, should occasion offer. They also brought to his standard some of the bravest spirits in the land, who were ready to follow wherever he led, and who closely emulated his own strong love of country, as well as his indomitable courage.

Among the chief of these was Sir William Douglas [Supposed to be grandson of William of Dufglas: see p. 32.], who was governor of Berwick when it was surrendered to Edward I. in 1296. Whilst Wallace was putting the English garrisons of Ayrshire to trouble, Douglas soon made those stationed near his own barony to feel that they had no easy sinecure. Watching a favourable opportunity, he attacked the small Castle of Durisdeer, in Nithsdale; and had the gratification of soon seeing the flag of Scottish independence unfurled on its walls – this success only stimulating him to undertake a more difficult enterprise. The neighbouring Castle of Sanquhar was a place of considerable strength, and defended by a powerful garrison, under the command of an officer named Beaufort. If the patriots could only get possession of this fortress, it would enable them to dispute the supremacy of the English in the Upper Ward of Nithsdale; but to besiege it in due form was beyond their resources, and there was no chance of surprising it, as the loss of Durisdeer had doubled the vigilance of the enemy. The idea of using force having been abandoned, an ingenious stratagem was resorted to.

Douglas knew that the inmates were regularly supplied with wood for fuel by a rustic named Anderson; and he thought it would be no impossible thing for one of his own trusty followers to personate the wood-cutter, and thus gain entrance into the castle for himself and others. Anderson was easily induced to lend his assistance; and, when he pocketed the golden pieces by which his honesty was corrupted, he probably soothed his conscience by the reflection that the men he sought to betray were the enemies of his country, and a curse to the neighbourhood. Thus far the preliminary arrangements proceeded favourably; and to Thomas Dickson, a shrewd, fearless soldier, of humble rank, the chief duty was assigned of developing the succeeding incidents of the plot. Having attired himself in Anderson’s clothes, he hied to the castle gate, leading his timber-laden wagon, and was readily admitted. The unsuspecting porter who gave him entrance was stabbed by him, and stript of his keys; and the intrepid Dickson sounding his horn as a signal, Douglas and his men, who lay ambushed at a short distance, rushed in, and, as they passed to the inner court, a desperate attempt was made by the startled garrison to stop the impetuous intruders. “Down with the drawbridge! lower the portcullis!” cried many a voice; but even if the dying porter’s ear had not been adder-deaf, and his hand had not been powerless, the requests could not have been obeyed. The wagon had been intentionally driven forward in such a way that the iron door could not be lowered; and the assailants had already crossed the drawbridge. They appeared in such numbers, and the garrison was taken at such a disadvantage, that only a feeble resistance was offered. All the defenders, together with their captain, were put to death – a doom which they had provoked by their cruel treatment of the inhabitants of the district.

In this ingenious and daring way the strong Castle of Sanquhar was won. [Hume of Godscroft’s History of the House of Douglas, pp. 22, 23.] The news of its capture spread like wild-fire far and wide. St. John and Lord Clifford, the latter of whom was residing in Lochmaben Castle at the time, saw at once that the English occupation would soon be gone in the district, unless an effectual check were put upon Douglas; and they resolved, if possible, to make the fortress where he had triumphed his dungeon, if not his grave.  In a trice, armed companies were seen trooping from the Castles of Morton and Tibbers, in Upper Nithsdale, and from those of Dalswinton and Dumfries further down, all proceeding in the direction of Sanquhar; and before the intrepid Scot had fairly settled down in his new abode he found himself closely blockaded, and was saluted with the summons, “Surrender or die!” He was scant of provisions, and had really to consider the alternative of being starved outright in his castellated prison, or of placing himself, his gallant followers, and it, at the disposal of the enemy.

The English did not attempt to storm the stronghold, as they knew the desperate risk of so doing; and they therefore quietly surrounded it, in the full expectation that time would fight more effectually for them than the sword. Whilst the beleaguering force were thus occupied, Wallace, then in the Lothians, was apprised of their proceedings, and of the deadly straits to which his faithful friend was reduced. The trusty Dickson had managed to run the blockade (if we may use a modern phase). Escaping by a private postern gate, he hied away northward, and carried the tidings to Wallace, who, with a large body of followers, set out by way of Peebles and Crawford, for the purpose of raising the siege.

Just as he had reached the latter place, the English, hearing of his designs, struck their tents and hurried away from Sanquhar, not daring to wait his approach. He thereupon altered his line of march, and, with a chosen band of light-horsemen, dashed through the Pass of Durisdeer, got a glimpse of the fugitives when in the vicinity of Morton, and reached their rear near the Castle of Closeburn. Not a few were cut down. The woods of Dalswinton received the main body of the retreating English, but yielded them little protection. Partially sheltered by the trees, which must also have impeded their movements considerably, they faced round, in the attitude of stags at bay, boldly confronting their pursuers. Resistance was vain: the fall of five hundred proved how bravely, yet ineffectually, the English strove to beat back their impetuous foemen. Nothing for it but retreat. For many miles the flight had been well conducted; now it became disorderly in the extreme. As the remnant of the great besieging force entered Dumfries, it must have presented a woeful aspect. Thoroughly disorganized and panic-stricken, the fugitives, still closely pursued, passed the town: the Castle did not open its gates to succour them; no party of their countrymen interfered for their defence; and the last baleful drop was thrown into their cup when a body of Dumfriesians, made up of Kirkpatricks, Corries, Johnstones, Hallidays, and Maxwells, joined in the hot chase against them. The pursuit was kept up as far as Cockpool, upon the Solway. [Near Comlongan, the ancient seat of the Murrays.] Even as the bowers of Dalswinton gave them but deceitful shelter at an earlier stage, so the waters of the Frith received many into its fatal embrace. Some were slaughtered on the shore, some were drowned in the deep, and only a few escaped to the opposite side with life. [Godscroft’s House of Douglas, p. 24.]

Wallace rested from his fatigues of this memorable day in the Castle of Carlaverock, which was still possessed by Herbert de Maxwell, though he had, by his devotedness to Baliol, incurred the displeasure of the English monarch. Next day the hero was at Dumfries, where he would doubtless receive from the patriotic inhabitants an ovation due to him for doing so much for the deliverance of their common country. Thence he proceeded to Sanquhar, and had a cordial meeting with the grateful Douglas, now relieved from all anxiety, and undisputed lord of Upper Nithsdale – the few English left there remaining close in garrison, and exercising no rule over the district. After this we find no traces of the hero in Dumfriesshire. His various missions to it had been of essential service in fostering the people’s spirit of independence, and in humbling their oppressors; and these good results obtained, he proceeded to other parts of Scotland to carry on his patriotic propaganda – first, however, rewarding the bravery of Douglas by making him governor of the territory which stretches from Drumlanrig to Ayr.

In March, 1298, the King of England returned from France, and once more entered Scotland at the head of a large army. He found that the reports he had received regarding the achievements of Wallace had been understated rather than exaggerated. The opposers of his authority were no mere baditti, but an armed host, commanded by a great military leader, who had a few months before crowned a numberless series of smaller triumphs by a decisive victory over the English forces at Stirling, and had even, with marvelous audacity, afterwards ravaged Northumberland, and returned laden with spoil. Edward hastened to undo the mischief by encountering the Scottish army at Falkirk, which he succeeded in defeating, greatly owing, it is said, to a feud among the leaders – Sir John Stewart and Sir John Comyn disputing the right of Wallace to take the chief command. A heavy blow was thus inflicted on the patriotic cause; and if the victors had followed up their advantage Scotland would have been once more reduced to a state of vassalage. Wallace effected a masterly retreat, carrying off the remains of his army in safety; and, whilst the English were resting on their way to Stirling, they were startled, at dead of night, by a party of the fugitives, who broke into their camp, slaughtered many of its occupants, and rejoined their companions without the loss of a single soldier. The English, on reaching Stirling, found it had been laid in ashes, and could afford them no shelter or food. They then passed down into Ayrshire; Edward intending to chastise Bruce, Earl of Carrick, who had been playing fast and loose with him of late. The Castle of Ayr in flames was all the welcome given by the Scottish baron to his liege lord; and as the former, after firing the fortress, retreated into the fastnesses of Galloway, the latter did not care about following him thither, particularly as he was short of provisions. Indeed, had the conquerors at Falkirk continued much longer in Scotland, they would have suffered from famine; the country being laid waste on their entire line of march. Nominally victorious, but in reality foiled in their purpose, they retired into England by Dumfries; some of the strongholds of the district surrendering as they passed along, and the Castle of Lochmaben, which had been won by Wallace, being taken by them after a brief siege. [Hemingford, vol. i., p. 166.] The fruits of the expedition, whether in Nithsdale or the country at large, were small, compared with the blood and treasure spent in securing them; and, as we shall soon see, the English monarch was under the necessity, before two years elapsed, of making another hostile march across the Border – so obstinately did the Scots refuse to believe in their defeats, or in his supremacy over them.

In studying this portion of our national history, we cannot fail to be struck with the ignoble course pursued by the principal barons. It was the aim of Edward to separate them from their country’s cause, and to attach them to himself by appeals to their self-interest. He played one of them off against another – Baliol against Bruce, Bruce against Comyn, all against Wallace – in order that he might weaken them, and secure his own ends at last. The position in which some of the nobles stood to him before his interference with Scottish affairs enabled him all the more easily to carry on this politic game, as they held lands under him, and were English barons as well as Scottish subjects. All the three powerful patricians named above, and many others, paid feudal homage to him for their estates south of the Border; and it is easy to see that the King had thus an opportunity of gaining a moral influence over them, which, with the lure of material rewards, contributed to their subserviency.

Baliol, the competitor for the Crown, gained and lost “the golden round of sovereignty” because he was first obedient and then rebellious; the heads of the Brucian family were rendered for a while submissive by arguments addressed to their hopes and fears; and when, by the banishment of the Baliols, the Lord of Badenoch fancied his claims were advanced, he found that they were more likely to be so by plotting against the Earl of Carrick, and otherwise pleasing King Edward. How Bruce, grandson of the Competitor, tried at first, like his father, to remain neutral, taking part neither with the invaders nor the patriots – how the wardens of the Western Marches, dreading that he would one day throw his vast influence into the scale against England, summoned him to Carlisle, and, on the consecrated host and the sword of Thomas-á-Becket, made him renew his oath of fealty to Edward – how, in proof of his loyalty, he wasted the lands of Sir William Douglas – how he shortly afterwards repented of his oath, and joined the Scottish army, yet never, till a later period, took boldly and persistently the proud position to which he was called alike by enlightened self-love and his country’s cry of anguish – are facts so familiar to all readers of Scottish history that we only require to mention them as links in the general narrative. Both father and son ingloriously vacillated between sordid interest and sacred duty; but at length, as we shall see, the logic of events made the son see that he must either be king of independent Scotland, or sink into dishonourable insignificance: fortunate it was for his country and himself that he did not submit to the latter alternative.

Return to Book Index


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus