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Kirkcudbright

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Kirkcudbright, a town and a parish of S Kirkcudbrightshire. The capital of the county, and a royal and parliamentary burgh, the town stands on the left bank of the river Dee, here broadening into Kirkcudbright Bay, but 6 miles above its influx to the open sea. By road it is 33 miles ESE of Newton-Stewart and 98 SSW of Edinburgh, whilst, as terminus of a branch (1864) of the Glasgow and South-Western railway, it is 10¼ miles SSW of Castle-Douglas and 29¾ SW of Dumfries. The view of the town and the country around it, as seen from the tower of the old Court-house, is thus described in Harper's Galloway:-` Immediately below is the "auld toun," embosomed in its syhan surroundings. Towards the N the scene is truly delightful, the banks of the Dee, from Tongueland to the sea, being rich in natural beauty. In the foreground is the river, sparkling in the sun, and winding like a silver thread among the green meadows; while the grounds around Compstone, sloping gently to the river's margin, are clothed with plantations of great freshness and beauty. Farther on, towards the Vale of Tarf, the eye passes over a succession of knolls, well cultivated fields, and hills, their sides and summits interspersed with clumps of wood and fine belts of planting, backed by the brown heathy peaks of Kirkconnel and Barstobrick. Westward we have the sparsely-wooded grounds and rich alluvial pasturages of Borgue, with the river in the middle distance, still forming an agreeable rest to the eye; and, almost lost in the silvery haze, we discern the broad brow of Cairnsmore-of-Fleet. On facing to the right about, the eye rests on marine and inland views of great extent and loveliness. Before us is the river, broadening out so as to resemble, as it is called, a lake. To the right the quiet burying-ground of Kirkchrist, the high lands and thriving plantations of Kirkeoch and Senwick sloping gradually to the bay; and to the left the precipitous cliff of the Torrs-Point presents a bold headland. The Ross Isle, with its lighthouse, lies in the mouth of the bay, while the densely wooded peninsula of St Mary's Isle invades the estuary with its sylvan foliage. Truly delightful are the environs of Kirkcudbright; and the objects of historic and traditional interest in the neighbourhood are well worthy of a visit.'

The town of old formed almost a square, each side 350 yards long, with a wall and a tidal moat around it, and a gate at each end of its one main street. The ` Meikle Yett ' stood on into last century, and traces remain of the moat; but the general aspect of the place is modern, its six or seven streets, built at right angles with one another, being neat and regular; and a number of pretty villas and cottages have lately sprung up in the neighbourhood of the station. Water was introduced in 1763, and a gas-work started in 1838. The old Court-house and Jail, now partly used as a volunteer drill-hall and armoury, is a quaint 16th century edifice, whose tower and spire were built with stones from the ruins of Dundrennan Abbey. Within it the burgh wassail-bowl, of walnut wood, hooped with brass, and holding 10 gallons, is brought out on great occasions; and in front of it stands the ancient market cross. A new Town-hall of 1878-79 is a Grecian building, containing, besides the ordinary offices, a public hall, the library and reading-room of the Kirkcudbright Institute, and a museum, which last comprises nearly 4000 objects, and was opened in 1881. The new Court-house of 1868 is a handsome castellated pile, erected at a cost of £8583, and containing a court-hall seated for 150 persons, the Kirkcudbright law library, etc.; behind it is the plain oblong county prison, with 25 cells. The Almshouses were built at a cost of £3000 by the late Mr Edward Atkinson. The Academy, erected in 1815 at a cost of £1129, is a large plain building, with a portico in front, and three departments, classical, English, and commercial; among its masters have been the Rev. William Mackenzie (1790-1854), a native of the burgh and author of The History of Galloway (2 vols., Kirkc., 1841), and James Cranstoun, LL. D., translator of Catullns and Propertius, and now of the Edinburgh High School. The Johnstone Free School, built in 1v848 at a cost of £2000, and endowed with £3500 more, consists of a centre, wings, and a handsome tower. A monastery for Franciscans or Grey Friars, founded at Kirkcudbright in the first half of the 13th century, is very obscurely known to history in consequence of its records having been carried off at the Reformation. John Carpenter, one of its monks in the reign of David II., was distinguished for his mechanical genius; and by his dexterity in engineering he so fortified the castle of Dumbarton as to earn from the King a yearly pension of £20 in guerdon of his service. In 1564 the church of the friary was granted by Queen Mary to the magistrates of the town to be used as a parish church; and when in 1730 it became unserviceable, it yielded up its site to a successor for the use of the united parish. The ground occupied by the monastery itself, and the adjacent orchards and gardens, were given to Sir Thomas Maclellan of Bombie. The present parish church, erected in 1836-38 at a cost of £7000, is a large and handsome structure, with nave, transepts, 1500 sittings, a clocktower and spire, and prettily planted grounds. A fine new Free church (1872-74; 712 sittings), Pointed Gothic in style, cost over £5000, and has stained-glass windows and a spire 122 feet high. A new U.P. church was built in 1880; and there are also a Roman Catholic church (1845) and an iron Episcopal church (1879).

Not many paces W of the parish church stands the ruinous, ivy-mantled castle of Kirkcudbright, built in 1582 by Sir Thomas Maclellan of Bombie, the ancestor of the Lords Kirkcudbright. It is a strong, massive building, lifting its gables and chimneys so boldly into view as to give, conjointly with the tower of the jail, distinctiveness of feature to the burghal landscape; and, at the time when it was reared, it must have been a splendid, as it is still a spacious, edifice. A little W of the town, very near the river, are some mounds surrounded by a deep fosse, the remains of a very ancient fortified castle. The tide probably flowed round it in former times, and filled the fosse with water. The castle-now vulgarly called Castledykes, but known in ancient writings as Castlemains-belonged originally to the Lords of Galloway, when they ruled the province as a regality separate from Scotland; and seems to have been built to command the entrance of the harbour. Coming into the possession of John Baliol as successor to the Lords of Galloway, it was, for ten days during July 1300, the residence of Edward I. and his queen and court; and passing into the hands of the Douglases, on the forfeiture of Edward Baliol, it remained with them till 1455, when their crimes drew down upon them summary castigation. In that year it was visited by James II., on his march to crush their malign power. Becoming now the property of the Crown, it offered, in 1461, a retreat to Henry VI. after his defeat at Towton, and was his place of residence while his Queen Margaret visited the Scottish Queen at Edinburgh. In 1508 it was the temporary residence of James IV., who, while occupying it, was hospitably entertained by the burgh; and next year, by a charter dated at Edinburgh, it was gifted, along with some lands attached, to the magistrates for the common good of the inhabitants.

Kirkcudbright has a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, branches of the Bank of Scotland and the National and Commercial Banks, 15 insurance agencies, 3 hotels, a billiard club, a bowling club, a lifeboat-station, a weekly Friday market, and fairs identical with those of Castle-Douglas. The main support of the town arises from the county law business, from the residence of a considerable number of annuitants or small capitalists, and from the retail supply of miscellaneous goods to the surrounding country. Manufactures and commerce have always been on a limited scale. The old smuggling trade of the Solway Firth long exerted a baneful influence on the town's prosperity; and towards the close of last century Kirkcudbright by a strange infatuation refused to become a seat of cotton manufacture and sent away its would-be benefactors to found their cotton-mills at Gatehouse-of-Fleet. Soon after, a local attempt was made to establish both cotton and woollen manufactures, but it proved a failure; and manufactures of gloves, of boots and shoes, of leather, of soap and candles, of malt liquors, and of snuff have also at various times been introduced, but, taken as a whole, have had little or no success. Commerce chiefly consists in the export coastwise of agricultural produce, and in the import of coal, lime, and grain, with occasional cargoes of timber and guano from America. A steamer sails once a week to Liverpool. The port ranks merely as a creek of Dumfries; and the harbour, in consequence of the almost complete recession of the Solway tide, is suitable only for small vessels. Neverthe less, in regard to accessibility, spaciousness, and shelter, it is much the best harbour on the S coast of Scotland, comprising all the reach from the sea to the town, and extending over a length of 6 miles. It opens from the sea, in what is called Kirkcudbright Bay, with a width of 17/8 mile; it contains, on the W side of its mouth, the islet of Little Ross, surmounted by a lighthouse, and flanking a roadstead with 16 feet at low and 40 at high water; but it suffers complete recession of the tide from a line 1½ mile above Little Ross islet, and is embarrassed by a bar 1¾ mile higher up at St Mary's Isle. Still it has a depth of 20 feet over that bar at ordinary spring tides; and, at the town, it is provided with a small dock, and has a fine shelving beach, offering to vessels the alternative of lying dry on the sands, or of riding at anchor in the channel, with 8 feet of water in ebb and 28 in the flood. A handsome iron bridge, of the bowstring lattice construction, was erected over the Dee in 1865-68 at a cost of £10, 000. It is 500 feet long by 23 broad, and consists of five fixed spans of 71 feet each, with a compound span of 98 feet, which, turning on a cast-iron cylinder filled with concrete, allows of the passage of vessels beyond the town up to Tongueland.

Kirkcudbright was anciently a burgh of regality, and held of the Douglases, Lords of Galloway, as superiors. Erected into a royal burgh in 1455 by charter from James I., it received another charter from Charles I. in 1633, and is governed by a provost, 2 bailies, a treasurer, and 13 councillors. The incorporated trades are the hammermen, shoe- makers, square men, tailors, weavers, and clothiers. Sheriff courts sit weekly on Thursdays and Fridays; small Seal of Kirkcudbright. debt courts on every second Friday during session; and justice of peace small debt courts on the second Tuesday of every month. The quarter sessions are held on the first Tuesday of March, May, and August, and on the last Tuesday of October. Kirkcudbright unites with Dumfries, Annan, Lochmaben, and Sanquhar in sending a member to parliament. The parliamentary and the municipal constituency numbered 300 and 401 in 1883, when the annual value of real property within the burgh amounted to £8722 (£7155 in 1873), whilst in 1882 the corporation revenue was £1529, and the harbour revenue £130. Pop. (1841) 2606, (1851) 2687, (1861) 2552, (1871) 2470, (1881) 2571, of whom 1428 were females. Houses (1881) 466 inhabited, 21 vacant.

Some have claimed for Kirkcudbright that it was known to the Romans as Benutium, to the Celtic Novantæ as Caer-cuabrit (` fort on the bend of the river '); but the earliest authentic mention of it is the visit of Ailred, Abbot of Rievaux, in 1164, on the feast of St Cuthbert, to whom its ancient kirk was dedicated. The site of this church is marked by St Cuthbert's Churchyard, 3 furlongs NE of the town, where, besides Ewarts and Billy Marshall, the Tinkler (1672-1792), are buried William Hunter, Robert Smith, and John Hallume, executed at Kirkcudbright for adherence to the Covenant-the first two by Claverhouse in 1684, and the last by Captain Douglas in 1685. Soon after 1164 the church of Kirkcuthbert was granted by Uchtred, Lord of Galloway, to Holyrood Abbey, under which it remained a vicarage down to the Reformation. That Wallace sailed hence to France after the battle of Falkirk (1298) is probably a myth; and it would seem that the Regent Albany in 1523 landed, not here, but in Arran from Brest. We have noticed the visits of Edward I., James II., Henry VI., and James IV. to Kirkcudbright, which in 1507 was nearly destroyed by a body of furious Manxmen, under Thomas, Earl of Derby. In 1547, in the warfare over the marriage treaty of Mary and Edward VI., an English party marched from Dumfries against ` Kirkobrie; but,' says the English commander, ` they who saw us coming barred their gates and kept their dikes, for the town is diked on both sides, with a gate to the waterward and a gate on the over end to the fellward. ' A vigorous assault having failed, the English retired, with the loss of one man in the conflict. The tale of Queen Mary's flight from Langside (1568) through Kirkcudbright parish is discarded under Dundrennan and Terregles; but Kirkcudbright Harbour is said to have been agreed on by Philip II. and the seventh Lord Maxwell as a landing-place of the Spanish Armada (1588), and James VI. seems about this time to have visited the burgh, and to have gifted the incorporated trades with the small silver gun, which last was shot for on the Queen's Coronation Day (1838). Figuring prominently in the struggles of the Covenanters, Kirkcudbright raised a serious riot to resist the induction of a curate (1663); had exposed on its principal gate the heads of three gentlemen captured at Rullion Green, and executed at Edinburgh (1666); and witnessed, on one of its streets, a sharp altercation between the persecutor, Sir Robert Grierson of Lag, and Viscount Kenmure, step-father to one of Lag's victims, which, but for Claverhouse's intervention, might have proved fatal to the former (1685). The fleet of William III., in 1689, on its passage to Ireland, lay some time windbound in Kirkcudbright Bay; and at Torrs Point are traces of ` King William's Battery.' In 1698 a woman accused of witchcraft was burned at the stake near the town; in 1706 a petition against the National Union was signed by the magistrates and principal townsfolk, and a riot soon after ensued. In 1715 the harbour was the intended landing-place of the Pretender; and the townspeople showed such enthusiasm in the Hanoverian cause that they sent a company of volunteers to assist in the defence of Dumfries against the Jacobite forces. In 1725 the Cameronians here held a sort of agrarian parliament, where the people were invited to state their grievances. Paul Jones, the American privateer, who was born at Arbigland, Kirkcudbrightshire, in 1778 made a descent on St Mary's Isle, and entered the mansion of the Earl of Selkirk, with the design of seizing him as a hostage. Finding that he was away from home, he carried off all his silver plate, but afterwards returned it uninjured to the Countess. Among eminent natives or residents, other than those already noticed, have been John Welsh of Ayr (15701623), minister in 1590; John Maclellan, author of a Latin description of Galloway (1665), and also for some time minister; Thomas Blacklock, D.D. (1721-91), the blind poet, and minister in 1762-64; Basil William, Lord Daer (1763-94), distinguished as an agricultural improver; his brother, Thomas, fifth Earl of Selkirk (1771-1820), author and politician; James Wedderburn (d. 1822), solicitor-general of Scotland; and John Nicholson (1777-1866), publisher.

Kirkcudbright gave the title of Baron, in the Scottish peerage, to the family of Maclellan of Bombie. This family, once very powerful, the proprietors of several castles, and wielding not a little influence in Galloway, has already been incidentally noticed. Sir Patrick Maclellan, proprietor of the barony of Bombie, in the parish of Kirkcudbright, incurred forfeiture in consequence of marauding depredations on the lands of the Douglases, Lords of Galloway, and by the eighth Earl of Douglas was beheaded at Threave Castle in 1452. Sir William, his son-incited by a proclamation of James II. offering the forfeited barony to any person who should disperse a band of Saracens or Gipsies from Ireland who infested the county, and should bring in their captain, dead or alive, in evidence of success - rushed boldly in search of the proscribed marauders, and earned back his patrimony, by carrying to the King the head of their captain on the point of his sword. To commemorate the manner in which he regained the barony, he adopted as his crest a right arm raised, the hand grasping a dagger, on the point of which was a Moor's head, cooped, proper; with the motto, ` Think on, '-intimating the steadiness of purpose with which he contemplated his enterprise.* Sir Robert, fourth in descent from Sir William, acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to James VI. and Charles I.; and in 1633 was created by the latter a baron, with the title of Lord Kirkcudbright. John, the third Lord, commenced public life by a course of fierce opposition to Cromwell and the Independents; and being at the time the proprietor of the greater part of the parish, he compelled his vassals to take arms in the cause of the King, brought desolation upon the villages of Dun rod and Galway by draining off nearly all their male inhabitants, and incurred such enormous expenses as nearly ruined his estates. But at the Restoration, just when any royalist but himself thought everything gained, and ran to the King in hope of compensation and honors, he shied suddenly round, opposed the royal government, sanctioned the riot for preventing the induction of an Episcopalian minister,-and was captured along with other influential persons, sent a prisoner to Edinburgh, and driven to utter ruin. His successors never afterwards regained so much as an acre of their patrimony; and, for a considerable period, were conceded their baronial title only by courtesy. One of them was the ` Lord Kilocurie, ' whom Goldsmith, in his sneers at the poverty of the Scottish nobility, mentions as keeping a glove-shop in Edinburgh. In the reign of George III. they were at last formally and legally re-instated in their honours; but, in 1832, at the death of the ninth Lord, the title alternately a coronet and a football, now glittering on the head, and now tossed in the mire by the foot of every wayfarer-sank quietly into extinction.

The parish of Kirkcudbright since 1683 has comprised the ancient parishes of Kirkcudbright, Galtway, and Dunrod, the first in the N, the second in the centre, and the third in the S. It is bounded N by Kelton, E by Rerwick, S by the Irish Sea, and W by Kirkcudbright Bay and the river Dee, which divide it from Borgue, Twynholm, and Tongueland. Its utmost length, from N by E to S by W, is 8 miles; its utmost breadth is 41/8 miles; and its area is 13, 668 acres, of which 1146¼ are foreshore, 92¼. links, and 149½ water. The beautiful Dee winds 3 miles south-south-westward along the Tongueland and Twynholm border to the town, and forms in this course a series of picturesque falls; lower down, as already noticed, it broadens into first an estuary and then Kirkcudbright Bay. Dunrod Burn runs 4 miles along the eastern boundary to the sea, and several other rivulets drain the interior to either the Dee or the sea. The coast, exclusive of the estuary, Measures only 1½ mile in extent, and is diversified at the extremities by Robs Craigs and Gipsy Point, in the intermediate space by the baylets of Clinking Cove and Howell Bay. The western district along the Dee is mainly low and level; elsewhere the surface has a general north-north-eastward ascent, attaining 233 feet near Torrs Point, 414 at Drummore, 400 at Bombie Hill, and 500 at Black Eldrick, and comprising a diversity of undulations, gentle slopes, hillocks, hillgirt hollows, and small moorish plateaux. The prevailing rock is greywacke, with occasional masses and dikes of porphyry. The soil in some places is dry and gravelly, in others is fertile clay or loam, in others is light and friable, on a sharp gravelly subsoil, and very productive, and in others again is either mossy or moorish. About one-third of the entire area is in tillage; plantations cover some 450 acres; and the rest of the land is either pastoral or waste. The grazing of sheep and of black cattle is a leading occupation, and the fisheries of the Dee are highly productive. The hill-fort of Drummore has been identified with Caerbantorigum, a town of the Selgovæ, which Skene, however, places at the Moat of Urr; other antiquities are the site of a Caledonian stone circle, vestiges of eight Caledonian and of three Roman camps, traces of two landward castles of the ancient Lords of Galloway, and of two of the Maclellans of Bombie, a natural but artificially strengthened cave about 60 feet long, spots that have yielded flint hatchets, a stone sarcophagus, a cup of Roman metal, a plate of pure gold, and quantities of coins of Edward I. of England, two moats for courts of feudal justice, and sites, vestiges, or cemeteries of five old rural places of worship. Bombie and Raeberry Castles are noticed separately. Mansions are St Mary's Isle, Balmae, Fludha, Janefield, and Oakley; and the Earl of Selkirk and one other proprietor hold each an annual value of more than £500, 7 of between £100 and £500, 13 of from £50 to £100, and 63 of from £20 to £50. Kirkcudbright is the seat of a presbytery in the synod of Galloway; the living is worth £509. Town-end public, Townhead public, Whinnie Liggate public, Old Church, and a Roman Catholic school, with respective accommodation for 168, 63, 77, 152, and 76 children, had (1881) an average attendance of 119, 45, 37, 114, and 48, and grants of £96, 17s., £40, 5s. 6d., £43, 5s. 6d., £91, 16s., and £41, 18s. Valuation (1860) £15,038, (1883) £21, 771, 8s. 9d. Pop. (1801) 2381, (1841) 3525, (1861) 3407, (1871) 3346, (1881) 3479.Ord. Sur., sh. 5, 1857.

The presbytery of Kirkcudbright comprises the quoad civilia parishes of Anwoth, Balmaclellan, Balmaghie, Borgue, Buittle, Carsphairn, Crossmichael, Dalry, Girthon, Kells, Kelton, Kirkcudbright, Parton, Rerwick, Tongueland, and Twynholm, and the quoad sacra parishes of Auchencairn, Castle-Douglas, and Corsock. Pop. (1871) 21,783, (1881) 21, 073, of whom 5290 were communicants of the Church of Scotland in 1878.-The Free Church also has a presbytery of Kirkcudbright, with churches at Auchencairn, Balmaghie, Borgue, Castle-Douglas, Macmillan, Girthon, Glenkens, Kirkcudbright, and Tongueland, which 9 churches together had 1670 members in 1883.

See chaps. vi., vii., of Malcolm Harper's Rambles in Galloway (Edinb. 1876), and pp. 47-60 of Maxwell's Stewartry of Kirkcudbright (3d ed., Castle-Douglas, 1878).

* If one may credit the above tradition, this is the earliest certain notice of the presence of Gipsies in the British Isles. Unfortunately it rests on no older authority than a MS. Baronage of Sir George Mackenzie (1639-91), cited in Crawfurd's Peerage(1776) 'Murray' (? Moor) is said to have been the Gipsy chieftain's name —a name preserved in Black Morrow Plantation and Blackmorrow Well. This well young Maclellan is said to have 'filled with spirits of which the outlaw drank so freely that he soon fell asleep, which Maclellan perceiving sprang from his hiding-place, and at one blow severed the head of Black Murray from his body.'

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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