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Ferniehirst Castle
Chapter VI - The Ancram-Lothian Correspondence

An interesting picture of these gentler times (though they also include the English Civil War and Scotland’s part in it) emerges from the AncramLothian correspondence covering the period of over 30 years. The majority of the letters which have survived are from William, later third Earl of Lothian, to his father Sir Robert Kerr, later first Earl of Ancram. They contain fatherly advice on the young man’s priorities at Cambridge and on how Ancram House was to be rebuilt, as well as requests from Lothian to his father for a horse, a sober barber-valet, and of course money — something all sons seem to want from their fathers today, as they did 350 years ago!

One of the first letters from Sir Robert Kerr reminds his son of what he should be doing as a 16-year old undergraduate:

"William, I would not let my friend Mr. Curwen come to you without this remembrance, that he may see I value you as you are to me. He must go away, I see, to leave the school to be a married man —let not that move you, for till your time of learning be out, you must be content to follow your book, and take such company as you find, whether it be here or elsewhere — nor must you set your heart on any man, for men are but sojourners in this world; best friends never certainly stay together till they meet in heaven; therefore every man must betake himself to love where his present affairs lie. Your present business is your book, and the place is Cambridge."

In another letter, ten years later, William writes to his father that John Kerr is on his way with details of "the breadth and length of the stone withe arms is Over Ancram gate and what is carved and written on it" and a few days later he tells his father about various financial problems:

"I wrote to you in my last that Sir Henry Wardlaw had refused to pay your pension: but my Lord Traquair yesternight gave me better answer, when I desired he would be pleased to pay it, or else to satisfy the Town of Edinburgh for what is due to them for this term. I hope tomorrow all creditors shall be for this term satisfied."

Though the younger man wrote many more letters, sometimes three or four within a few days, the longest by far was written by his father in December 1632. Dated of the 20th, it must certainly have taken him a few days to write; what follows only amounts to a few brief extracts.

"And because it begins with your receiving my advice for building in Ancram, and what you would do about the parks, so far as I can think on it for this time I will set it down here, expecting that you will either do it just as I chalk for you (because I would have it done to my fancy) or else you will before you go so far that it cannot be altered, give better reason by your next letter.... But if I pay for it, take my counsel along with you, and God bless and direct you in all you do."

(Sir Robert goes on to give detailed advice about the reconstruction of the Tower: the room under the hall is to be made into an "ordinary eating room", with the partitions removed to give more light, but the walls not to be weakened by "striking out" new windows.)

"Then smooth the stairs with lime and glaze it all, enlarging the windows on the inside and sloping them down to the bottom...

Of the room above it... now the dining room, make a fair chamber, taking away these oblong tables and put a round table only in it, which is to be used square most times, but may be let out round when you please to eat there with some extraordinary friend...

The chamber above let it be as it is, but lay the boards better, and set but one bed in it with the head to the wall in the middle of the chambers.

By any means do not take away the battlement, as some gave me counsel to do, as Dalhousie your neighbour did, for that is the grace of the house and makes it look like a castle, and hence so noblest, as the other would make it look like a peel."

Sir Robert’s advice also covers the general lay-out of the grounds:

"Now to come back to the orchard or garden, you will have much ado to make them very fine, but the next best is to have enough of them, and where fruit trees will grow, plant them, but never plant a fruit tree where it will not grow well. Never plant it where the north wind comes to it: it is lost labour — plant other trees there."

The whole letter would have run to about 40 pages of modern writing paper and covers 15 pages even in print. What is most remarkable about it is Sir Robert Ken’s photographic memory for even the minutest details of his house and property, which he had not seen for some years, and his very clear idea of just how he wanted everything to be and where. One wonders whether anybody educated by modern methods, which lay far less stress on memorisation, could have written down such thorough and coherent instructions.

In an amusing letter of 18th February 1641, Lord Lothian, then a colonel in the Scots Army occupying Newcastle, writes to his father, who was politically on the other side:

"1 cannot out of our army furnish you with a sober fiddler. There is a fellow here plays exceedingly well, but he is intolerably given to drink, nor have we many of these people. Our army has few or none that carry not arms. We are sadder (more serious-minded) and graver than ordinary soldiers, only we are well provided of pipers. I have one for every company in my regiment, and think they are as good as drums."

(Lord Lothian also asks his father for a sober valet, who is also a barber, preferably an English-speaking Frenchman, if necessary one who only has French. A few days later he asks for a horse suitable for a light skirmish or a reconaissance, rather than for baffle.)

Later items in the correspondence include an interesting letter from "T. Cunningham" to Lord Lothian (9 January 1650) giving details of his efforts to buy Linden frees, apple (abeel) frees and cherry-frees as well as an expensive collection of atlases and maps in Holland, and a memorandum on Scottish foreign policy by Lord Lothian exactly a year later. At this date Scotland was a monarchy under Charles II while England was in effect a military dictatorship under Cromwell, and Lothian’s purpose was to send envoys to a number of European countries (including his kinsman Sir William Kerr to Denmark and Sweden), to obtain financial and military support for the King. The "motives" calculated to induce these countries are worth quoting in detail:

GERMANY. "A Prince murdered by a faction of rebellious secretaries, like the rebellion of the anabaptists at Munster, which their predecessors so vigorously opposed and repressed, it is the interest of all Princes.." (in other words, all rulers should stick together against rebels everywhere).

SWEDEN "The services done by this nation to her grandfather and father (up to 30,000 Scots, led by the Leslie brothers, had fought for Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Christina’s father), and the great inclination this nation has to maintain strict friendship with that crown; the great respect they bear to the glorious memory of the late invincible King; the great virtues of her present Majesty who, as her royal Father, was the assertor of the liberty of Germany and consequently of Europe upon the Continent, her Majesty may perfect it, in delivering from oppression this island, and to acknowledge her Majesty’s mediation which was 50 successful at Breda..

FRANCE "The ancient alliance and the near relation of his Majesty, a nephew of France, and that they see a daughter of France Queen Dowager, banished from England and her jointure and interest there, after the murder of her Lord and Husband, a King; which all Kings ought jealously to look upon"

HOLLAND "Letters to the general and particular Estates of the provinces the ancient friendship betwixt the Earls of Holland, Dukes of Gelder, the Dukes of Burgundy; and to the Estates in the infancy and beginning, the Scots being the first nation that gave them assistance (in the Dutch Wars of Independence from 1570 onwards). The blood the Scots have lost in their service.., upon many occasions they know so well themselves better than we should put them in particular mind of them."

POLAND "The great interest Scotland has these many ages in Poland, that kingdom and Scotland being as it were one people, such great numbers of this nation inhabiting and naturalised in Poland".

A year later, Lord Ancram writes to his son, Lord Lothian, complaining of the lack of letters from him (it may well have been that some letters were stolen en route as the whole correspondence mentions many which have "miscarried") and telling him that the bearer, a refugee from the defeat at Worcester (September 1651) will be able to give him more news "I see nothing of him to make me think him unfit to tell you of my way of living here which he has seen so long, and can tell you it as you ask him. Your children are in good health, God be thanked, and I am chained to this place, where I must stay a prisoner or a pawn for myself, till I quit the score.

The master of our house, however he feels for it as a merchant not very rich, he and his wife use me so civilly that I am the more bound to leave them no losers". From a letter written a few months later by Lady Ancram, who had remained in London when her husband fled to Holland, it appears that he was staying with a Scottish merchant in Amsterdam, Thomas Morton, whose wife was getting increasingly restless about his inability to pay for his keep, and was threatening legal action. ."if a course be not taken to satisfy the charges she has been at all this while, she must be forced to take a course that will be prejudicial to him and all his... I think I shall not need to use many words to press you to consider your Father’s condition, and fry what way may be done with the man, that your father may not suffer starving nor disgrace, which I know would be a great heartbreaking to him and a means to make him go to the grave with shame and discomfort..."

In February 1653, Lord Ancram writes again to his son... "I receive good words and hopes from my friends in London, that the Parliament will call me home to my family there, and give me means out of my own, duly gotten and not greedily, to live and die among them, and be no longer a burden to you... I come now from Leyden, where I have been to see your children, who are very well in their health (God be thanked) and grow in stature and comeliness, and great comfort to me if it please Him to let them live... I think in my opinion they have lived long enough in this place, wherein I think they can learn little more, and I see so many carried to the grave every day, or else fall into this country disease of a cruel ague or fever, or by whatever other term they please to call it.

But I would have you send them to France, the best ayre of Europe, and country fittest for them, when it is so unfit for them to be at home (evidently they had been sent abroad for their own safety as well as for their education).. If you wrote any letters with Mr. Morton which may concern me or them, I wrote to you that he had flung them overboard, as did his fellow passengers, for fear of an English ship which sailed by them and came not near them..."

Ancram writes another letter towards the end of 1653, carried by "Andro Rutherford, the Provost of Jedburgh’s son, who having served out his apprenticeship under mine host, Thomas Merton, is now coming home, as wind and weather and other sea crosses (probably pirates and such) will give him leave. He has carried himself very well, and parts fairly from his master and mistress, and the rest of the house, wherein you will not do amiss to give him a good countenance of approbation". He also gives news of Michael Young and Lothian’s sons, then on their way to France, sailing from Zeeland (the S.W. part of the present Netherlands) along the Belgian and French coast to Dieppe, from which they would continue to Saumur on the Loire5, and advises the boys should be allowed to learn dancing, "with the best masters in Paris, where they must spend some time". In the same letter he informs his son that he has had a portrait of himself painted, which is on its way home "I sent home by these goods which come to Scotland a picture of mine for you, done by a good hand. I would have it hung up in Ancram on the wall of the hall, just against the door as you come in. .it may be a monument of my so long being there and note to show which of the bairns is Iikest their grandfather".

The correspondence also includes poems by Lord Ancram, his adaptations of the Psalms to be sung to French Protestant tunes, which he considered as better than those used in Scotland, and a remarkable list of the books bought in France by Lord Lothian while he was there on behalf of the Scottish Government, i.e. the leaders of the Covenant, of whom he was one. How he was able to carry them all home is not clear, but men of substance did not travel light in those days.


1.During much of the period covered by this correspondence. Sir Robert Kerr (later Earl of Ancram) was in or near London, in the service of Charles I. while Sir William Kerr (later Earl of Lothian) was generally in Scotland. occasionally in England or France. At the outset, however, Sir Robert was in Scotland and Sir William at Cambridge. From 1650 onwards, Lord Ancram was in Holland and Lord Lothian generally in Scotland, at Newbattle Abbey (now an Adult Education College).

As will be seen on p.59 these letters took a considerable time to reach their destination, typically nine or ten days between Scotland and London, or vice versa, and three weeks to a month between Scotland and Holland. They were generally carried by family friends, merchants and others who had occasion to travel along those routes and would then be left in a shop or an inn, to be collected when the intended recipient or one of his servants happened to call there.

Since these letters were exchanged between a father and son who might not meet for years on end, and the invention of the telephone was still about 250 years away, they tended to be far longer and to carry more news and views than the letters close relatives might write to each other in our own time. Some of the information tended to be repetitive, because many letters were lost on the way or never collected (the shopkeeper or publican with whom they were left might forget all about them, or the intended recipient might have taken his custom elsewhere).

The "Ancram-Lothian" correspondence also includes many interesting letters exchanged between Lord Lothian and other people, in particular his wife.

2.Scots were particularly numerous in the vicinity of Danzig (Gdansk) where many Poles of Scottish descent remain; thus it is probable that Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, is distantly related to Sir William Wallace. In the 19th century and again following on the Second World War, there was a considerable Polish immigration into Scotland.

3.There were two serious financial problems. In the first place Lord Ancram’s pension, previously paid to him by Charles I, had been cut off, leaving him with considerable debts at home; for this reason, and because he did not care to live under the Cromwell régime, even though he was not being personally molested by the Republican authorities, he had taken refuge in Holland. Secondly, again because his pension had been cut off, and because Lord Lothian himself was heavily in debt as a result of his part in the Covenant and the Civil Wars, Ancram was unable to pay for his board and lodging in Amsterdam, and owed the Mortons for about 18 months as a paying guest.

4.Probably rheumatic fever, possibly malaria (from which Cromwell also died). The boys’ tutor, Michael Young, had been seriously ill with it, and Lord Ancram had gone to Leyden "to see in what plight they were".

5.This may seem a strange route to us, but what is now Belgium was then Spanish territory, and as such unsafe for the sons of Presbyterian noblemen. Saumur, about 150 miles SW. of Paris, was one of a number of towns where, under the Edict of Nantes, Protestants had full freedom of worship and other guarantees, which they retained until 1685 when the Edict was revoked. The boys were sent there mainly for that reason, but there were also traditional links between the Loire Valley and Scotland, going back to the later stages of the Hundred Years’ War, when thousands of Scots fought in the service of the Dauphin, later Charles VII, and many of those who survived settled locally. Thus Orleans was defended by its Scottish Bishop, Carmichael, in 1428-29, and St. Joan of Arc’s force, which relieved it on 8 May, was about half Scottish: it entered the city to the marching tune which later became "Scots Wha’ Hae".

The letters which passed between Ancram and Lothian, and their correspondence with others, were generally carried by friends, acquaintances, etc. who happened to be travelling that way at the time. Very often they were delivered to a pub or a grocer’s shop, frequently used by the intended recipient or by his servants. The postal service as we know it today did not exist, though there were some (very expensive) private postal operators, sometimes described as "trumpeters". They were not always reliable, and complaints of letters not arriving are very frequent. Even if they were not stolen or thrown overboard, letters could take a considerable time to reach their destination, typically ten days between Scotland and London, and three weeks between Scotland and Holland.

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