by Tom Moss
The Border Reivers dominated the country on each side of the Scottish English Border, from the Solway Firth in the west to Berwick and the North Sea in the east, from the thirteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Born out of adversity, suffering from the inroads of both Scottish and English armies in a bitter war in which Scotland sought independence from England and lasting on and off for two hundred and fifty years, they resorted to the theft of cattle and sheep as a last resort to starvation as their lands were devastated. It became a way of life that neither monarchy nor authority could subdue and resulted in murder, blackmail and deadly feud.
|The English Scottish Border Line Showing the Border Marches|
In the Scottish south-west of the 16th century two families vied for predominance. These were the Johnstones and the Maxwells. They were the warlords, the predominant families of Dumfriesshire, refined families with illustrious ancestry. The feud between them had festered for almost a century when the events of 1593 were to bring it to a head. It would conclude with one of the biggest and bloodiest family battles in British history.
|Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfriesshire- A Maxwell Stronghold|
Early in 1593 Willie Johnstone, known as the Galliard, stole a black horse, amongst other beasts from the stables of Lord Crichton. Crichton’s men pursued the thief and rode him down. On the orders of the Lord, being caught at the 'red hand' or 'in the deede doinge', he was hanged not far from were he was apprehended. 'Redhanded' is a word we have inherited from the Border Reivers.
In revenge the Johnstones of Wamphrey came out, led by Willie Johnstone of Kirkhill, attacked the Lord Crichton’s people. Border Reivers of some renown, they burned and stole as they made their way through the steadings and villages. In the process they killed fifteen of Crichton’s men.
Crichton, incensed to the point of irrationality, sought out James Johnstone and demanded that he hand over the Wamphrey raiding party. Johnstone was loth to do this saying that he would deal with his own men, in his own way, in his own time. He had the power to do this as he had his own court of justice under licence from the King. And anyway nobody knew where Willie Johnstone and the band of Wamphrey men were. They had gone into hiding since the devastating raid on Crichton land.
Lord Crichton was appalled by such an approach. He made for Edinburgh to petition the King, James VI, for a firmer kind of justice. Following a brief meeting with the King who promised an answer after discussing the affair with his Privy Council, Crichton paraded fifteen women up the Canongate. They walked whilst displaying a set of bloodied sarks (shirts). They were the fifteen wives and mothers of the men who had lost their lives in the devastating raid carried out by the Johnstones of Wamphrey; the sarks taken from the bodies of their loved ones. Hundreds of the Edinburgh citizens followed the women and by the time they had returned to Holyrood Palace to await the King’s response to Crichton’s plea, there was such a clamour from the horde gathered outside the gates, that the palace guard came out to investigate.
James VI, famous for indecision and vacillation, responded with unaccustomed alacrity on this occasion and gave his permission that John, Lord Maxwell should pursue James Johnstone of Dunskellie, apprehend him and convey him to Edinburgh to await the King’s pleasure.
Lord Crichton was more than satisfied with the outcome.
James Johnstone refused to hand himself over to Maxwell.
There were other Lords in the Scottish south-west who would welcome the demise of James Johnstone of Dunskellie and the whole of his clan. The Lords of Closeburn, Lag and Drumlanrig, after much discussion, signed a band of Manrent with John, Lord Maxwell. They meant to add their military support to Maxwell. A band of manrent was a bond wherein a person of lesser standing sought the security provided by a more powerful lord in return for his aid in times of conflict or strife.
By now it was obvious that some form of military contest would ensue and both clans mustered their fighting men. The Johnstones could only gather three hundred men. With some support from the Scotts, Elliots, Irvines and Grahams, they could count on no more than four hundred.
The Maxwells, on the other hand had numbers, including some Armstrongs and Douglas fighters, in all about two thousand men at their call. They mustered in the grounds of Lincluden Collegiate church; the Johnstones at Lockerbie.
The two armies met at Dryffe Sands, near Lockerbie, on a grey day in December 1593. (The cemetery that houses a memorial to the unfortunate victims of the Lockerbie air outrage is nearby). Maxwell, confidence rising at the meagre number of Johnstones encountered on the other side of the Annan water, deliberated his next move. Sure he and his army had to cross the river, but that was but a slight impediment.
He was not prepared for what happened next.
The small party of Johnstones on the opposite side of the river hurled insults at the great Border chief. His wife and mother were not spared in many a lewd insinuation. At the same time the Johnstones goaded the Maxwells to cross the water and pursue the outcome.
All of a sudden Maxwell, incensed beyond any rational thought, ordered a charge. The first phase of his army splashed in and headed across the water. The small contingent of Johnstones, now feigning terror, turned and made a mad rush for some low hills to their rear. The Maxwells, confident that they could ride down with ease the seemingly feckless rabble that preceded them, followed them at pace and ran into an ambush as the main body of Johnstones left their place of concealment behind the hills and encountered the Maxwell rush. They were hemmed between the Johnstones and the second phase of their own men and suffered appallingly for the consequences.
The main body of the Maxwells was still detached, still trying to cross the river. Many turned back panicked by the death throes of their friends before them.
Maxwell was struck from his horse, and though he tried to surrender, he was despatched on the spot. The hand of the arm he stretched out in a call for mercy was struck off and nailed to the door of Lochwood Tower, a major Johnstone stronghold, the vestiges of which still remain today. What was left of him was buried at Lincluden.
|Remains of Lochwood Tower- A Johnstone Stronghold|
It is significant to note and typical of the approach that resulted in constant animosity and confrontation throughout the Border Country that two years after Dryffe Sands, Johnstone, a Border lord who had defied his king, was invested in the post of Scottish West March Warden. A monarch, albeit intelligent, James VI did little to bring peace and harmony with such an appointment.
It is often said that the origins of the deadly feud that beset these two powerful Scottish Border families has been lost in time.
The Battle of Dryffe Sands in 1593 is seen as the near culmination of a century of strife, resentment and confrontation between these two great Dumfriesshire clans.
What is known is that the animosity which reigned between the Maxwells and Johnstones can be traced back at least half a century before 1593.
In or about 1546 the Laird of Johnstone violated the terms of the bond of ‘manrent’ in which he had bound himself to assist Lord Maxwell at times that he might need aid against his enemies.
Lord Wharton, an English West March Warden, renowned for his victory over the Scots at the Battle of Solway Moss (Longtown, Cumbria) in 1543, had endeavoured to create discord between the two great warlords, had even offered Johnstone money to entice Maxwell into his power. Such was the hold of the Maxwells of the fortified strongholds that littered the Scottish West March that Henry VIII of England, seeking to hold sway over and control Scotland, was prepared to go to any length to weaken Maxwell resistance to his aims and desire to create a united kingdom under the rule of the English Tudors.
|Reivers Return from a Raid|
Although Johnstone ostensibly entered into the plot with gusto, he, according to Wharton, was not to be trusted; Johnstone and his allies ‘were all so false, that he knew not what to say’. Again the loyalty to the clan took precedence.
Inconsistency, treachery and double-dealing were the result of the English intrigues. Resentment, hatred and bitter feud and conflict were the inevitable outcome between the houses of Maxwell and Johnstone.
Even should the feud have lasted only the half a century between the 1540’s and the 1590’s , and not the century that is so often quoted, it is still evidence that feud in the Scottish English Borders was truly the ‘canker’ that so troubled the mind and actions of James VI of Scotland. Moreover it is proof positive that monarchs, in this case Henry VIII of England, actively encouraged conflict between the clans of southern Scotland and the families of northern England in times of unrest, when the threat of war between the two countries was on the horizon.These same monarchs and authority came down with a heavy hand on these same people when diplomatic relations between the two countries followed a less troubled course.
It is little wonder then that the clans and surnames(families) of the Border country, both English and Scottish, turned inwards and looked to their own for aid and support in the times of the Border Reivers.
Early in 1592 efforts were made to end the deadly feud that existed between the Maxwells and the Johnstones.
An agreement was reached between the two chiefs by which they ‘freely remitted and forgave all rancour of mind, grudge, malice and feuds that had passed, or fallen forth, betwixt them or any of their forebears in any time bygone’ and promised that ‘they themselves, their kin, friends, should in all time coming live together in sure peace and amity’.
Events of the following year, 1593 and beyond, even down to 1608, would prove different.
In order to understand the feud that bedevilled the houses of Maxwell and Johnstone in the 16th century, it is necessary to have a broad look at the history of the two clans both before and after the irrational violence that took hold in 1593 at the Battle of Dryffe Sands.
In 1578 John Johnstone was not only knighted but also made Warden of the Scottish West March, a position of great significance in the Scottish Borders. Now he was responsible for the actions of all the clans who inhabited his March including the Maxwells, a clan equally, if not more powerful, than the Johnstones. James VI of Scotland did little to encourage cordial relations with this decision. Yet he had a mindset that saw no farther than the Johnstones and Maxwells for such a pivotal position.
The Maxwells resented Johnstone’s appointment and were up in arms when he put himself forward as a candidate for the position of Provost of Dumfries, a post more often than not held by the Maxwells or their associates. Johnstone’s temerity in applying for Provost was to rub salt in the wounds of the Maxwells who were already smarting at his selection as Scottish West March Warden.
|Lochmaben Castle. A Maxwell Stronghold|
Maxwell quarrelled with the favourite of James VI, Lord Arran, and was put ‘to the horn’ i.e. declared an outlaw. Johnstone was ordered to arrest Maxwell and two bands of soldiers were sent to assist him achieve this goal.
They were confronted and defeated at Crawfordmuir by Maxwell’s half-brother Robert. Lochwood Tower, seat of the Johnstone’s, was burned.
It is said, that Robert Maxwell, on burning Lochwood, observed that the flames would at least aid Lady Johnstone in setting her hood.
Johnstone retaliated by attacking his rival Maxwell but his audacity failed and he was taken prisoner. Released within a year when James VI sought to reconcile the two factions, their stand-off and feud, he died soon afterwards.
It is often said that he died of a broken heart, in despair at the shame that followed his defeat and imprisonment. The year was 1586.
As we have already seen Maxwell fell at the Battle of Dryffe Sands. His hand was severed and nailed to the door of Lochwood Tower. Some versions state that not only his hand was to adorn the massive oak door of the Johnstone stronghold. It is said his head followed suit.
John, Lord Maxwell, son of the Maxwell who fell in the savage encounter that was Dryffe , nursed a hatred that all but consumed him, and vowed revenge, not only for the death of his father, but the callous, insensitive manner in which he was despatched. He waited for the day when he would exact his revenge.
He made no secret of his intense hatred of Johnstone and held no regard for the threats of the king, James VI, who endeavoured to bring peace to the two families. Even entreaty and cajolement from a monarch who was not renowned for patience and subtlety fell on deaf ears. So much for the control of the Scottish monarch, so much for the contempt in which he was held by the Maxwells at this time.
When Johnstone was granted the ministry of the Scottish Middle Marches, Maxwell, following some disturbances in which he was instrumental, was imprisoned in Edinburgh castle. He escaped and sought a meeting with Johnstone as a prelude to resolving their differences, forgetting and forgiving times past, looking forward to a new beginning.
They met in April 1608.
Each had one attendant at his side. Very soon a quarrel arose between them. When a pistol was fired, Sir James Johnstone endeavoured to intervene and separate the two combatants. As he turned his back on his great rival, Maxwell shot him twice. Johnstone died on the spot.
Maxwell escaped to France and remained there for a few years, but eventually, the inevitable pull of his homeland was to lead to his undoing. Venturing back to Scotland in 1612, he was apprehended in Caithness, caught at the home of his relative, Earl George Sinclair, and brought to trial in Edinburgh. Sinclair, in order to ingratiate himself with the government, basely betrayed him.
Maxwell was indicted for the murder of Sir James Johnstone, but a second charge, that of fire-raising, a treasonable offence, was also levelled against him. The latter crime, under ancient Scottish law, meant that his lands were forfeit.
Thus James VI, true to his penchant for enriching favourites and toadies, bestowed Maxwell’s lands on others, including Sir Gideon Murray.
Lord Maxwell, refusing any religious instruction as he claimed to be not of the religion of the ministers gathered to offer him some consolation, but a Catholic, was beheaded at the Cross of Edinburgh on 21st May 1613.
Thus ended one of the longest and deadliest of feuds in British history.
A Johnstone lord died of grief, another was murdered. A Maxwell fell in battle but was not accorded even the common rites associated with death: respect and honour. Another was executed for the murder of a Johnstone.
Deadly Feud was endemic in the English Scottish Border country in the times of the Border Reivers.
Tom's Website: www.reivershistory.co.uk
and blog: wwwborderreiverstories-
I was born and bred in Northumberland, England in what was the English East March in the days of the Border Reivers.
I attended college for seven years for - wait for it - textile technology, a subject far removed from my first love which is British history.
I have worked all over northern England as well as seven years in southern Scotland and eventually ended up in Carlisle.
Situated as I am, so near to the English Scottish Border, and with an instant attraction to an area steeped in the history of many of the main events that forged the two nations of England and Scotland as well as its natural beauty, I very soon was hooked on the history of the Border Reivers. My interest is undiminished after almost twenty years. I spent many days at the weekends walking the ground, viewing the sites, although many are now ruined, of the legacy that still prevails. The numerous people I have met, the camaraderie that still endures, has only added a deep and rich vein to my research and wanderings.
I live with my partner of many years and her youngest son in the beautiful village of Walton in north Cumbria