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A History of the Stewarts courtesy of Lu Hickey
Ochiltree - The Big House

This material was written as a Stewart Family History memoir from actual documentation, sent to me by one of the family members from Canada. The authors name was not revealed with this history so am unable to acknowledge the source.

The Big House stands in a delightful situation at the junction of the Lugar and the Burnock. A generation or so ago it could be approached through the "Bill Yet" straight from Mill Street, which is in reality a continuation of Main Street. This, however, has been brought to an end by the building up of the old gateway and now access is gained to the House and the Leddy's Green only through the formal "approach" and under the shade of the chestnut trees.

The surroundings of the Big House constitute one of the beauty spots of the parish. The whitewashed gables and walls and the narrow old-fashioned roof catch the eye of the traveller whether on the Auchinleck or Cumnock Road and are visible from many points in the village itself. On the other hand an excellent view of the village can be had from the upper windows of the "Hoose".

Though the building is tall and plain looking, with narrow windows and pointed gables, its architectural defects are fully compensated for by the beauty of its situation at the meeting of the waters.

The present structure is over two hundred years old. It was erected on the site of a still more ancient edifice, whose foundation walls can even yet be traced. Within the recollection of some of the older people of the village, a wing of the former castle protruded at right angles from the south side of the present house, and with its massive, ivy covered walls and attenuated, broad arrow windows formed a characteristic relic of the troubled times when every house of any importance had to be built after the fashion of a fortress.

There is much of historical interest connected with Ochiltree House, but in the writer's boyhood the chief charm of the place was that it lay for a long time untenanted, and the youths of the village had full liberty or assumed that the had, to pass through the grounds to the river side. For here a most delightful pool, formed by the Miller's Dam, furnished us with quite an ideal bathing pond. There were shallow places for beginners and grater depths for those who had made some progress in the art of swimming. There is a little rock projecting like a miniature pier right out into the deepest water seemed especially provided by nature for those who, having attained to fair proficiency, preferred to begin operations by casting themselves headlong into the stream.

The rhyming chronicler of the village adventures wrote this:

But let us seek another scene
That blooms in memory ever green
The auld "dam-back" and aulder "rock"
Well keened to our swimming folk.
A lovelier place nae man could name
When summer is in its prime
Yet noo we learn and learn wi' shame
That bathing there is a crime
New lairds have come since we left hame
And a's forbid that yince we did
At Ochiltree lang syne.
What pawky fun we used to poke
At him wha couldna soom the rock
And hoo we used to praise the youth
Wha pantin hard, reached Burnock Mooth
While he who swam there on his face
And on his back cam doon
Became an honour to the place
A credit to the toon
Then hoo we'd strive to plunge and dive
Or calmly float like anchored boat
At Ochiltree lang-syne.

It has already been pointed out that the present House of Ochiltree, although it has about it many of the marks of age, and is indeed, possible the oldest inhabited house in Ayrshire by no means dates back to the earliest days of the parochial history of Ochiltree. It had at least two predecessors as the seat of baronial authority.

The original dwelling place of the feudal lords of the parish was situated on the summit of one of the lofty rocks that hem in the gleaming waters of the Lugar, and stood about a mile and half distant from the site of the more modern house. The earliest known owners were the Colvilles, who came from Normandy with William the conqueror in the fateful year of 1066.

In 1174, Phillip de Colville was sent to Scotland as one of the hostages for the release of William the Lion. His family seems to have taken up its permanent residence in this country and to have established the two noble lines of Culross and Ochiltree. In 1250 the reign of Alexander the Third, we find the name of Sir John Colville as proprietor of Oxnam and Ochiltree. In 1296 Eustice, heiress of Sir William Colville of Ochiltree with her two brothers, Thomas and Adam, and their chaplain, Symon de Spalding, swore fealty to Edward the First at Berwick. During the reign of Robert the Bruce, the same lady made to the monks of Melrose a grant of the church and church lands of Ochiltree, a grant which was confirmed in 1324 by Robert de Colville of Oxnam and Ochiltree. Till the Reformation the monks of Melrose drew the revenues pertaining to this church, and out of the income so derived, they set apart a certain portion for the maintenance of ordinances in the parish.

Of many of the Colvilles little is known beyond their names, while others there are who figured somewhat prominently in our country's story. As a race they were devoted adherents of the Church and admirable people in many respects; but they had not quite mastered the apostolic injunction to live peaceably with all men.

For many years they had kept up an intimate relationship with their near neighbor, the laird of Auchinleck. The castle of the latter was also build upon a rocky promontory on the banks of the Lugar. Quite near to Ochiltree Castle, but upon the opposite side of the stream Dr. Johnson, speaking of his visit to Auchinleck in 1773, says: "I was less delighted with the elegance of the modern mansion than with the dignity of the old castle. I clambered with Mr. Boswell among the ruins, which afford striking images of ancient life. It is, like other castles, built on the point of a rock, and was, I believe, anciently surrounded with a moat. There is another rock near to it which the draw-bridge, when it was let down, is said to have reached. Here, in the age of tumult and rapine, the laird was surprised and killed by the neighboring chief, who, perhaps, might have extinguished the family had he not in the days been seized and hanged, together with his sons, by Douglas who came with his forces to the relief of Auchinleck."

This incident took place in 1449, in the reign of James the Second of Scotland. The families of Ochiltree and Auchinleck had, for a long time, been on such friendly terms that a rope had been stretched from castle to castle across the width of the Lugar, and on this rope was fitted a travelling ring by means of which messages and even little fights could be swiftly and easily conveyed from the one household to the other. But this state of matters came to an end. What the cause of offence may have been we can only conjecture; how many bitter messages passed along the connecting cable there is not to tell us now, but after a period of world strife, Auchinleck, under pretence of making friendly overtures towards a renewal of the old relationship, sent to Ochiltree, along the line of communication. A neatly wrapped parcel. On being opened, the packet was found to contain nothing more than the well picked bones of a sheep's head. This was accepted as a crowning insult, an unmistakable "casus belli" and all idea of a return to the neighborly friendship of the by gone days was finally abandoned. Between the two families there could now be nothing but war-war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt.

The lair of Auchinleck was at this time preparing to pay a visit of state to his powerful friend and patron, Lord William Douglas, and when this became known. The Ochiltree family devised a scheme of revenge, the execution of which was entrusted to Sir Richard, the eldest son. With a strong force at his back, he lay in wait at a quiet part of the road which his enemy was bound to travel, fell suddenly upon him and his retinue, slew the laird himself and put his followers to utter rout. But his triumph was short lived. Douglas waited not for judge or jury, but flew to avenge the death of his friend. He leveled Ochiltree Castle to the ground and put Colville and his men to the sword.

Douglas in turn suffered for this and his many other cruel and turbulent misdeeds by being stabbed to the heart in Stirling Castle at the hands of the King himself.

There are two variants of this narrative, which are worthy of our notice. By one authority we are told that Sir Richard actually forced his way into Auchinleck Castle and there perpetrated the crime of which history accuses him. It is almost to be hoped that this is the true version, for there is something more chivalrous and more manly in open, even if brutal, assault than in treacherous ambuscade.

The other "various reading" of this incident declares that at the fall of Ochiltree Castle Sir Richard's life was spared. Douglas must have had a sneaking admiration for the summary methods of our fire eating lord of the manor, and he seems to have hoped that in spite of all that had happened, the Knight of Ochiltree might yet be induced to become an effective member of his own unruly retinue. He therefore carried his captive along with him on his return journey by way of New Cumnock and all went well until Pashhill Burn was reached. The cavalcade was about to cross the stream when sir Richard remarked with a laugh that an old witch had once prophesied that he should die at that very spot. Douglas seemed much struck with the statement, and desiring for once to be upon the side of whatever supernatural powers there might possibly be in the general scheme of things, he resolved to assist the fulfillment of prophecy by putting Colville to death. A halt was called, and the deed was instantly done. There seems a case where silence would indeed have been golden. Sir Richard must have been sorry he spoke.

We now find the members and adherents of the Ochiltree family at the lowest ebb of their romantic career. They had "had misfortunes great and sma:" but they had " aye a heart aboon them a'" their castle had been destroyed and they were for the time being homeless, but they did not sit down in impotent wrath and bewail their untoward fate. They resolved to build again and bide their time, and they wisely determined, with the view of avoiding interference with their building operations, to pitch their future abode at a reasonable distance from the castle of their sworn foe, the young Laird of Auchinleck...

In choosing a site for their new habitation, they gave ample proof of the possessions of the artistic eye. Nowhere in broad Scotland could a sweeter, pleasanter spot be found for their purpose than the delightful stretch of green sward that fills up the angle formed by the meeting of those two placid streams, the Burnock and the Lugar.

They were a warlike people who dwelt there, and yet it would seem that in the intervals between their frequent quarrels and bickerings with the other noble families of the land, they love to commune with nature at their leisure, and to live for a time the meditative life. The Leddy's Green, with the quiet waters of its two subject streams every lapping around it, seems rather designed as a site for a holy place of religious retirement than as the headquarters of some of the noisiest swash bucklers that ever strutted across lifes stage in the most troublous times of Scotland's chequered story.

This new Mansion House, erected about the year 1450, is rich in incidents of historical and traditional interest. Some of these must be passed over with the utmost brevity, but with others it will be interesting and perhaps instructive to linger for a little while.

In 1498, Hugh Campbell of Loudon was the Sheriff of Ayr, and carried matters with a high hand. A family feud existed between his house and that of Ochiltree. In such circumstances, the Sheriff was bound to stand at a considerable advantage over his opponent, for he had at his back all the powerful machinery of the law. Appeal was therefore made by Sir William Colville to the Royal Authority, with the result that he and all his tenants were granted exemption from the jurisdiction of the sheriff.

The feud between the houses of Ochiltree and Douglas, which originated in 1449, seems to have been kept up for some considerable time, for in 1502 we learn that Robert and Henry Douglas were permitted to compound for "art and part of the oppression done to Sir William Colville of Uchiltree, in occupying, labouring, and manuring his lands of Farnesyde and Hardane, and taking and keeping the house or pele in Hardane without any title of law' and, item for the theft of the iij oxen from the said Sir William Colville, furth of Synlawis." Nor was this all, for in the same year John and William Douglas were convicted of "art and part of oppression and convocation of the lieges, and coming upon Sir William Colville of Uchiltree; Knt, at his lands of Hardane-hede, in the year 1502." In this extract, "coming upon" seems to be a euphemism for murdering, because on November 20, 1510, we are further informed that George Haliburton is denounced at the horn for "art and part of the slaughter of Sir William Colville of Uchiltree, Knt. And Richard Rutherfurde.

Sir Robert Colville, who succeeded Sir William. Was held in respect as a man of high character, and honor in the councils of his sovereign. He acted as steward to Queen Margaret and Master of the Household to James the fourth. In 1513, he raised his standard at the Cross of Ochiltree and gathered his men-at-arms around him. The call had come to support the king, and to ride with him three miles into English ground. The response was prompt and hearty, and amid cheers and shouts and God speeds, and perhaps some gathering tears, the little company marched gallantly away, never to return. They perished with "the floo'ers o' the forest" at Flodden field.

The Burnock and Lugar sweep on as of your,
But the brave lads shall look on their windings no more.

In 1527, James Colville of Ochiltree granted an annual rent of f40 for payment of a chaplain to officiate at St. Mary's altar in the church of Ochiltree which then stood near the center of the old graveyard.

In 1530, Sir James Colville transferred the barony of Ochiltree to Sir James Hamilton of Finnart but four years later the latter passed it on to Andrew Stewart, Lord Evandale, in exchange for the Burgh of Evandale. In 1542 or 1543, the new proprietor was created Lord Stewart of Ochiltree. In 1548, the first Lord Stewart died, and was succeeded by his son, Andrew, who came in course of time to be known as the "Good Lord Ochiltree." Whether this title was conferred seriously or in irony does not appear, but he seems to have been a goodly specimen of the canny Scot who "never puts his hand so far out that he cannot draw it back again." It was said of him by John Knox that "he was a man rather born to make peace than to brag upon the causey." He certainly figures in history as a peacemaker, for we read of him appearing before King James VI., to plead for the exercise of the royal clemency towards Moray and Bothwell.

He was a zealous reformer; but so deeply impressed was he with the dangerous alluremnets of filthy lucre and the possibility of its exercising a debasing influence on the Protestant clergy, that he approrpiated to himself the bulk of the church lands of Ochiltree, leaving but a pittance for the discharge of ordinances there. It was doubtless this willingness to risk his own eternal welfare, if only the spiritual integrity of the clergy might bot be jeopardised, that earned for him the title: "Good"

In 1564 there occurred in the history of his family, an event which Ochiltree people contemplate with much complacency. John Knox, the great reformer, had been a widower for fully three years, and was now close upon sixty years of age. Never the less, he had completely lost his heart to the fair Margaret Stewart, daughter of Lord Ochiltree, and had demanded and obtained her hand in marriage. This incident was of course, the subject of much severe comment and some coarse jocularity on the part of the popish writers of the time. One of them speaks thus: "Rhydand there with ane gret court, on an trim gelding, nocht lyke and prophet or ane auld decrepit priest, as he was, but lyke as he had been ane of the bluid royal, with his bendes of taffetie feschnit with golden ringis and precious stones, and as is plainly reportit in the country, be sorcerie and withchaft did sua allure that puir gentlwoman the scho could not leve with out him: whilk appears of gret probabilitie being ane damsel of bonel bluid, and he ane auld decrepit cretur of maist base degree of onio that could be found in the countrie." Sua that sik ane nobel hous could not have degenerat sua far except Johann Knox had interposit the power of his maister the devil quha as he trnafigures himself somethimes into one angel of licht, sua he causit Johann Knox appear ane of the maist nobel and lustie of onie that could be found in the countrie"

It was further affirmed that Knox's chief object in marrying Margaret Stewart was to get into the line of succession to the throne in the hope that he or his might some day sit thereon.

This marriage has funished the natives of Ochiltree with a short and easy method of proving that so far as the eminence of her sons and daughters is concerned, she stands peerless among the parishes of Scotland. They put the case thus: "Which of all Scotland's sons or daughters has conferred the greatest and most lasting benefit upon this land of ours:" The answer will probably be: "John Knox, who was certinly not a native of Ochiltree." But this is where you give yourself away, my friend, for a speed and effective answer is at hand: "No doubt John Knox was a great man, a good and a great man; but you will observe that he easily found his match and, indeed his better half in Ochiltree"

History tells us that, by way of dowry, Lord Ochiltree assigned to Knox the farm of Pennymore, or as some say, a bond upon the farm to the value of 800 merks. This sum Knox left by will to his wife and failing her to her three daughters whom failing it was to return to Lord Ochiltree. Knox died in 1572, leaving behind him a widow and three children. The widow married the Knight of Fawdonside, and the youngest daughter became the wife of John Welsh, the celebrated minister of Ayr.

Lord Ochiltree took a prominent part in all the political movements of his times. Although not actually present when the crime was perpetrated, he was well aware of the plot to murder Rizzio; he was one of those 'who consented unto his death'. He was a supporter of Darnley as against Queen Mary. And after Darnley's death he continued his opposition to the Queen. He fought on the side of the victors at Langside where he received a severe sword-cut in the neck, and in 1571, when Mary had been there three years in England, the leaders of the Queen's party in Scotland constituted themselves into a parliament which passed sentence of treason against him and his friends.

In 1578, he was one of King James's councilors, but for some years thereafter, he slips back into obscurity, his place in politics being entirely usurped by his bold and reckless son, Captain James Stewart, the rash and unscrupulous and masterful Earl of Arran. In 1592, Lord Ochiltree came back again into prominence on the political stage, we find him discharging the duties of Warden and Lieutenant of the Borders. In 1593, he was appointed to the patronage of the Parish of Dalry in Galloway, and from that date until his death, he is mentioned no more in history.

Captain James Stewart, Lord Ochiltree's second son was undoubtedly the most notorious of all the famous men who claim Ochiltree as their place of birth. He rose to greater heights and he sank to lower depths than any of them at all. He was brother-in-law to the great and greatly revered reformer, John Knox, and he was of a spirit as bold and daring as was that renowned ecclesiastic himself, but his aims and objects were vastly different. One who knew him well thus depicts his character: "He was fertile in the formation of ambitious schemes-often aimed at objects seemingly unattainable-and displayed in their pursuit singular dexterity, fearless audacity and shameless impudence."

He was first introduced to the young king, James VI in 1579, and immediately sprang into a position of high favor. Morton had been regent for seven years, and both king and people were tired of his rule. His enemies were on the outlook for some weapon with which to strike him down, but so strongly entrenched was he in his place of power that there was danger in a direct attack. Nevertheless, Captain Stewart volunteered to lead a forlorn hope. He boldy accused Morton of having been privy, art and part to the scheme for the murder of Darnley, and he supported his allegations with so much vigour that Morton was put on trial, found guilty and executed.

And now Stewart and Lennox were supreme in their influence over the king. Stewart was at once presented with the vacant Earldom of Arran and when Parliament assembled, all the hounours conferred on him and all the immunities granted to him were ratified. There is something suggestive as to the relations subsisting between him and his father in the fact that when Parliament was summoned, Lord Ochiltree and several of his associates received intimation that on this occasion their services would be dispensed with.

Arran and Lennox now wielded the full powers the sovereignty, and they exercised them with such disregard to the laws of the land and the rights of the people that a conspiracy was soon set on foot against them. The first aim of the plotters was to lure the king away from his profligate advisers. This was accomplished with less difficulty than had been anticipated. The king, with only a slender retinue had been hunting at Atholl and intended to spend the night at Dunfermline oh his way to Edinburgh. Gowrie, and some of his fellow conspirators approached His Majesty and invited him to stay instead in Ruthven Castle which was within easy reach. James suspecting nothing, readily agreed. He arrive at the castle in safety and was received with all due ceremony but he soon realised that he was a prisoner in a stronghold defended by more than a thousand men. He was subjected to no ill treatment, but was prohibited from holding intercourse with his favourites, Lennox and Arran.

When the latter heard of the king's captivity, he and his brother, Colonel Stewart, with a body of horse, hastened toward Ruthven Castle. They were attacked on the way by Mar and Lochleven, outnumbered, over-powered and defeated. Arran fell into the hands of his enemies and was shut up in Stirling Castle while Lennox retired to France.

After nearly a year of confinement, the king recovered his freedom through the ingenuity of Colonel Stewart and Arran returned to power again. He appointed himself governor of Stirling Castle and took the young king to reside with him there. An attack upon the castle ended in failure and the abortive attempt but strengthened Arran's influence with the king. For some time he ruled the country in the most arrogant and oppressive manner. His treatment of Countess of Gowrie when she appeared before James to present a petition on behalf of herself and her family, his rudeness to the Danish embassy, his system of espionage, his false accusation and his forfeitures of estates, all proved him a man utterly regardless of the rights of others and unflinchingly resolved to secure his own position at whatever cost to his country or its people…

It is amazing to what giddy heights this ambitious son of Ochiltree was bold enough to climb. He was omnivorous in his appetite for power and wealth. As office after office of state fell vacant, he took into his own hands the duties and rights and privileges and more particularly the emoluments of each and all. He was at one and the same time governor of the castles of Stirling, Blackness, Dumbarton and Edinburgh; and, as the result of some skilful plotting, he was appointed Provost of the last named city. On the death of Argyle, became Chancellor of Scotland and shortly afterwards was raised to the rank of Lieutenant General of the whole kingdom.

It is to be noted, too, that while he thus kept adding honours to honours and emoluments to emoluments, he relinquished nothing that he already held and so wealth accumulated upon him. He gathered gear by many a wile that certainly could not be justified by honour. Fines and forfeitures paid heavy toll to him before reaching in attenuated form their legitimate destination. The king, too, was like wax in his hands. None could approach the royal presence except through favour of Arran, who had now assumed all the dignity of a prince of the royal blood. On the 15th of August, 1584, when he met Hunsdon, the representative of Queen Elizabeth, at Foulden, near Berwick, he was attended by five thousand horsemen and five privy councillors; and on his return to Edinburgh, he successfully demanded to be saluted with a discharge of cannon from the batteries of the castle.

In those far-off days of riot and unrest, the history of the Scottish nation was simply a record of plot and counter-plot. A defeated party never acknowledged defeat. It withdrew for a time into seclusion, but only to gather strength for a fresh attempt. It never abandoned the idea of forming a new intrigue to restore its fallen fortunes and to upset the ruling power. Such a conspiracy was speedily formed against Arran, and the rival lords raised an army to lay siege to Stirling. The capture of such a town as Stirling was no small task in those early days, when weapons of warfare were of comparatively primitive kind. But in the case before us, treachery accomplished what open assault would have failed to do.

The attacking force was admitted, man by man, into Stirling through a lane so narrow that it had been left undefended; and Arran, unprepared to repel an attack which struck at him from within the gates was obliged to flee for his life. He was subsequently declared a traitor, but no definite steps seem to have been taken against him and he resided for some years in retirement in his mansion of Kinneil, apparently unmolested…

In 1587 and again in 1592, he made bold attempts to get back into power and had the king been master in his own court, the services of his former favorite would have been accepted with delight. But the reforming nobles and the clergy had at the time the upper hand and although the king gave unmistakable proofs of the pleasure he felt at meeting again with his old friend and councillor, he did not dare to raise him to office. Shortly afterwards, when making his way towards Ochiltree, Arran was met by Douglas of Parkhead and barbarously done to death. He was rash, headstrong and unprincipled but he was a man of fine appearance; and when at the head of his five thousand horsemen he met Hunsdon, England's representative at a miniature "Cloth of Gold" on the borders, he made a splendid impression on all beholders.



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