Taken from Malcolm McLachlan Harper's "Rambles in Galloway", published in 1876, this is an excellent introduction to the area around Castle Douglas and Kelton Parish.


Few towns in the south of Scotland have risen more rapidly to importance than Castle-Douglas. Little more than a century ago it was a mere hamlet, composed of a few detached cottages, known as Causewayend, this name being derived from an old causeway or paved road which ran into Carlingwark Loch. The town owes its origin to the famous marl pits of this loch; marl being in early times so extensively used in improving the cultivation of land in Galloway, that a proprietor of Culvennan, Sir Alexander Gordon, Steward of Kirkcudbrightshire, formed a canal to connect the loch with the River Dee, so that farmers on the banks of the river might obtain marl by water carriage. For the accommodation of the labourers and others engaged at the marl pits the village was formed, feus for houses and gardens being granted on very easy terms. It was then called Carlingwark, but in 1792, on passing into the hands of Sir William Douglas of Gelston, it got its present name after himself, and not after the Threave Douglases, as is sometimes recorded in gazetteers.

From that gentleman's connection with trade, and his disposition to promote the improvement of the place, it soon rose to such importance that Heron the historian, a few years afterwards, says: — "This village every day becomes more thriving and more respectable; flax-dressers, weavers, tanners, saddlers, cotton-spinners, masons, and carpenters, are now established here." The village was in 1792 erected into a Burgh of Barony, at the instance of Sir William Douglas, and a court-house was built for the accommodation of the magistrates. A prison was also erected, and a school-house provided.

About sixty years ago the traveller was struck with the peculiar appearance of the houses in Castle-Douglas. They were all very low, and apparently sunk into the earth, and where the Commercial Inn now stands there was a remnant of the original village in the form of a low gloomy arch, surmounted by a small chamber, occupying one half of the spacious street.

As a means of making the town more prosperous, Sir William Douglas, with that public spirit and liberality which characterised all his acts as superior of the burgh, established a cotton manufactory, but from want of sufficient water-power and other causes, it was carried on at such a disadvantage that the works were abandoned. Under all these reverses of trade, however, Castle-Douglas continued to thrive, and it is now a handsome little town, the scene of a very considerable weekly market, at which a large amount of business is transacted; and every year is adding to the extent of its buildings and population. This is to a great extent to be accounted for by the central situation which it occupies in a rich agricultural district; — its cattle-markets, and the influence of other circumstances, such as the introduction of railways and auction-marts into Galloway.

In stage-coaching and posting days Castle-Douglas, like other towns situated on the main road to Portpatrick, was an important halting station, and one of our early recollections is the animation caused by the bugle announcing the arrival of Her Majesty's Royal Mail, with its "scarlet uniformed functionaries," and the airs of importance which they assumed among the ostlers, stable-boys, and hangers-on at the inn.

The arrival of the coach was also, in these times of scarce news, a signal for the collection of groups of gossipers on the look-out for "the latest" from the city, and crowds of admiring gaping boys, in anxious expectation of something turning up at "the start."

The Douglas Arms then, as now, held the reputation of being a comfortable and commodious hotel, and it was selected as the fitting quarters for Her Majesty's mail. The late Mrs. Douglas, in the rising days of Castle-Douglas, was the popular and respected landlady, and the name of Douglas was so much associated with the place, that we have heard of letters being addressed to Sir William Douglas, of Douglas Castle, care of Mrs. Douglas, Douglas Arms, Castle-Douglas.

The town is situated on a gentle declivity near the lake of Carlingwark. It has one principal street, with four diverging and two back streets, all of respectable width. The houses are built on no regular plan, but have evidently been erected to suit the whim or means of the owners. In King Street, however, there are some very handsome, commodious, and well-furnished shops and other public buildings.

The National Bank is a handsome edifice, built of granite, but its style of architecture is better adapted for a country site than a street. The Bank of Scotland is also an elegant building, of red and white freestone; but, from want of frontage, its appearance towards King Street is not so effective as it might have been. The British Linen Company's Bank is a plain substantial-looking building of white freestone, its architectural design being in uniformity with the houses and shops around. The Free Church, a large, commodious, and imposing building, with a spire of rather disproportionate dimensions to its base, is also in this street. The old Town-Hall and steeple, presented to the burgh by the late Sir William Douglas, are in the centre of the town. The Old Hall is now occupied as a billiard-room, and the railed platform, the former entrance thereto, has been economically converted into a draper's shop, with flat roof, around which is a railing of sculptured urns, giving to it a very monumental appearance.

The Town-Hall, erected in 1862, is situated in St. Andrew Street, and is a plain building of red freestone. In addition to a large and commodious hall, it has also a reading-room and library in connection with the Mechanics Institute, a large court-room, and a committee-room, for transacting town business. The office of the Union Bank adjoins the Hall. The Roman Catholic Chapel is near it, and is one of the most substantial and elegant buildings in the place. The United Presbyterian Church is situated a short way farther up Abercromby Place, and, with its tiny belfry, looks well from a distance.

The Episcopalian Chapel in St. Andrew Street, commanding a fine view of Carlingwark Loch, and the wooded grounds of Kelton Hill, is quite a model of gothic architecture. In beauty of design, and perfection of building, it is unequalled by any ecclesiastical edifice in Galloway. The Reformed Presbyterian Church, finely situated in Queen Street, is a plain old building, with a spire recently added to it. The Castle-Douglas quoad sacra Church, connected with the Established Church, is a pretty modem building, in a beautiful situation overlooking the lake.

The Bowling-Green, which is very tastefully laid out, is situated at the lower end of the town, the Quoiting-Green is near by, and the Cricket Club carry on the game in a field near to the Railway Station, at the top of the town.

There are few objects of historical or antiquarian interest to be seen in the town, save a very antiquated-looking arm-chair, which was left to the Council by the late Alexander Gouldie, and is supposed to be made of wood taken from Threave Castle. It is curiously carved, with boar's heads and other devices, and is placed in a room of the Town Hall, where it may at any time be seen by the visitor. In the vicinity of the town, however, there is no lack of such objects.

The chief of these is Threave Castle. This magnificent ruin stands on an islet formed by the river Dee, about three miles from Castle-Douglas. It is a tall, massive, square, roofless tower, surrounded by the remains of a strong barbican, which has been flanked by circular towers at the four angles. It was built early in the fourteenth century, on the site of a fortalice occupied by Alan, the last native prince of Galloway; and it is said that the stones of the old Abbey of Glenlochar, distant about a mile and a half, were used in its erection. No vestige of this Abbey, which was dedicated to St. Michael, now remains, but the site of the Abbey yard is still pointed out.

The Douglases were a haughty, powerful race; and this fortress was the seat and centre of a grinding despotism that stretched over the whole district of Galloway. In 1451, when held as a Royal Castle by William, eighth Earl of Douglas, he kept a retinue of upwards of a thousand armed men at Threave, and his household was conducted with regal magnificence. Arrogating to himself a sovereign right, he is said to have coined money called "Douglas groats." (A popular mistake, however. The so-called “Douglas groat" was issued the reign of James V., when the Earl of Angus, the husband of the Queen Dowager, administered the affairs of the kingdom (from 1525 – 1528. These groats are still numerous, and of extremely neat workmanship – Lindsay’s Coinage of Scotland, P.44).

Asserting his superiority over all the other nobles in the south of Scotland, he haughtily boasted to Lord Herries, at the commencement of their well-known feud in 1452, that the Gallows Knob of Threave had not been without a tassel for the last fifty years, whereas the little fortress of Terregles, in common with the dwelling-places of all the other petty chieftains of Galloway, was but occasionally decked with a dangling villain. The Gallows Knob, or Hanging Stone, as it is still called, is a large granite block projecting from the front wall of the castle, immediately over the main gateway. It is said that, lest this barbarous emblem of feudal power should at any time want its usual decoration, some unoffending vassal was tucked up when no malefactor was in readiness. On the west side of Carlingwark Loch, between it and the public road, near to Lochbank House, there is still pointed out a small piece of rising ground, supposed to have been the pit into which the remains of the victims of Douglas' cruelty or revenge were thrown. It is to this day called the "Gallows Slot," or "Gallows Pit;" and notwithstanding the time which has elapsed since the downfall of the Douglases in Galloway, it is recorded that human bones were turned up there in abundance, when making the present highway, about the beginning of the present century.

Threave was the last fortress that held out for the house of Douglas after the grand rebellion in 1453 ; and King James II. resolved to conduct the siege in person. At the head of a numerous army he marched into Galloway, and took up a position at the Three Thorns of Carlingwark, near to where the town of Castle-Douglas now stands. While preparations for the siege were being made by the king, the inhabitants of Kirkcudbright contributed each a bar of iron towards the making of a monster gun, for the purpose of dealing destruction to the Douglas's despotic and oppressive rule.

To a blacksmith, named Brawny Kim, who with his seven sons carried on his trade at the Three Thorns of Carlingwark, the construction of the celebrated piece of ordnance, now known as "Mons Meg," was consigned. Its destructive power pleased the king so highly, that, before leaving Galloway, he created the town of Kirkcudbright into a royal burgh, and conferred other benefits on individuals of the neighbour-hood, not forgetting Brawny Kim and his sons, who were handsomely rewarded by a gift of the estate of Mollance. "Mons Meg," says Chambers, in his Domestic Annals, "with a breach in her side, still adorns the ancient battlements of Edinburgh Castle, ‘to the great admiration of people,’ being upwards of thirteen feet long, and of twenty inches bore, formed of longitudinal bars of iron, hooped with rings fused into one mass. It is an example of a colossal kind of artillery which the sovereigns of Europe had a craze for making in the middle and latter half of the fifteenth century."

Threave Castle being the royal property, the keeping of it, as was customary in feudal times, was granted by charter to different powerful families, together with lands for their good services in maintaining and defending the place. This office of heritable keeper was gifted to the Maxwell family, in whose hands it continued till the attainder of the Earl of Nithsdale in 1716. The surrounding estate had been sold in 1704, but the Castle and its island were excepted, on account of a curious privilege attached to the locality. The garrison seems to have been victualled on feudal principles, and Lord Nithsdale had a right to what was called a lardner mart cow — i.e., a cow fit for being killed and salted at Martinmas for winter provisions, from each of the twenty-seven parishes composing the Stewartry. He retained that spot after losing all other connection with the district, so that he might continue to get on such easy terms his winter stock of provisions; and he only ceased to exercise this privilege when he lost his title and other property in consequence of the civil war of 1715.

In removing the rubbish from the lower part of the castle several highly interesting objects have been found. In 1841 a draw-well, lined with strong planks of black oak, was found. An immense round ball was got, which, on examination, was believed to be one of the granite balls fired from the "meikle mou’" of "Mons Meg;" and, from the position in which it was found, was supposed to be the identical missile which shattered the stronghold. Early in the present century, when the Castle was partly repaired for the purpose of making it a barrack for French prisoners, a massive gold ring, inscribed " Margaret de Douglas," supposed to have been worn on the Fair Maid of Galloway's hand, when, as tradition says, it was blown off at the siege, was also found, and handed to the then sheriff of the county. We have also seen a stirrup, with a spring of modern pattern, which was picked up in the dungeon.

Carlingwark Lake and Kelton Hill.

In the summer and autumn the fairest and most picturesque scene in the vicinity of Castle-Douglas is unquestionably Carlingwark Loch and Kelton Hill; and one of the favourite walks, conveniently accessible, is through the shadowy wood skirting the margin of the lake on the farm of Whitepark; which, from its calm and quiet seclusion, and the sauntering groups and gossiping lads and lasses who frequent it of an evening, has been long appropriately termed the “Lovers’ Walk."

The lake is a lovely sheet of water, studded with islands, and almost entirely surrounded with trees. It abounds with pike and perch, and occasionally trout have been caught; and aquatic plants are numerous, among which are the yellow water lily, with its broad heart-shaped leaves, and the equiseta, or puddock pipes, as they are commonly designated, are seen in every nook. The wild fowls that are seen skimming along its glassy surface, or rocking on its curling waves, are also a source of delight to the spectator.

But apart from its natural beauties, which render it an object of admiration to the dweller on its banks and the passing traveller, it has at different times yielded up many relics of antiquity, and proved an interesting field of research for the antiquary. The late Mr. Joseph Train, the friend and correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, author of The Buchanites, from First to Last, a History of the Isle of Man, etc., who died at Lochvale, St. Andrew Street, Castle-Douglas, in December 1852, pursued his antiquarian investigations here for many years, and his labours were rewarded with some valuable discoveries. The loch contains six islands, one of which — known as the Ash Island — is evidently artificial. It has been formed, as a writer in the Statistical Account says, "by driving strong piles of wood into the moss or marl, on which were placed large frames of black oak." These were discovered in 1765, when the loch was drained for the purpose of procuring marl. Tradition says that in early days it contained two large islands — one at the north end, which is now a peninsula, but still retaining the name of "The Isle," while the other, near to the south end, is called "The
Fir Island," and appears to have been rendered famous in history as the spot where Edward I., on penetrating into Galloway in the year 1300, encamped, using the island as a place for shoeing his cavalry. To strengthen this supposition, we may state that near to the place many horse-shoes, of a form different from those now in use, have been found sunk deep in the mud; and till very recently, something very like the remains of an iron forge were to be seen on the island, consisting of two large upright stones, with a recess between, and laid on to a flat one, resembling a common kitchen hearth-stone. These have now been broken up by a party of Oldbuckian devotees, who, armed with spade and hammer, and possessed with the idea that the flat stone was no smithy-hearth but the lid of some ancient chest, containing hidden treasure, in their enthusiasm to discover the secret completely demolished the stones, and after all their labours found it turn out a "Bill Stubbs" affair.

The loch was formerly much larger than it is at present; and tradition narrates that there was a town which sunk, or was drowned, in its waters, and that there were two churches or chapels, one upon each of the large islands. The submersion of the town is in all likelihood a myth, although the truth of the story is believed by many of the old inhabitants; and we have heard that occasionally, during very dry seasons — that of 1826 being specially referred to — the roofs of houses have been discerned submerged in the loch. This, however, is uncertain; although it is probable enough that at some remote period houses might have been submerged by the overflow of the many dams connected with the lake.

Canoes, large stag-heads, and a capacious brass pan have been found in the bed of the loch; and near its north-west corner a Roman dagger, plaited with gold, was taken up in a bag of marl. In 1868 a most interesting antiquarian discovery was made by Mr. Samuel Gordon, bookseller, and Mr. John T. Blackley, while perch fishing in a boat on the lake, near the Fir Island. This was the "fishing up" of a large cauldron or pan of bronze, which, on examination, was found to contain axes, hammers, horse-bits, pieces of chain and plate-armour, and numerous fragments of swords, daggers, and horse trappings. To speculate now as to how they were put there would be needless, but we may safely venture the supposition that they might have been thrown away as the refuse of the smithy or armoury which we before stated was on the island during King Edward's encampment or they may have been carried in the train of some of the Galloway barons when at feud with the Douglases, and thus belong to a much later date. The articles were all carefully preserved by Mr. Gordon, and forwarded by him to the Antiquarian Museum, Edinburgh, where they are now safely deposited.

In close proximity to the loch is the site of the ancient "Three Thorns of Carlingwark." For many years after the others had disappeared one of these time-worn relics remained to mark the spot, but, seven years ago, it too had to succumb to the voracious tooth of Time. As no tradition or record is extant by which we could arrive at the time these thorns were planted, it were useless to speculate as to their probable age; but, according to the traditions before narrated, they were planted ere the Douglases had established themselves in their feudal stronghold, and were fresh and blossoming when King James, under their shadow, took up his position against Threave. From time immemorial they were used as a trysting-place by the lairds and yeomen throughout Galloway; and in history we find repeated mention of them made in connection with stirring events.

At one of these meetings, in the fifteenth century, Maxwell of Newark, in Urr parish, and McNaight, the laird of Kilquhanity, who were at feud, encountered each other; and McNaight was slain by Maxwell and his retainers in the house of one John Hutton. And during the persecuting period in Scotland there is a mournful reminiscence connected with this spot, which ought to render it interesting to all who revere the memory of our brave and truth-serving forefathers. Near to the thorns, in 1685, William Auchenleck, and a boy who was in his company, were shot by a party of Douglases foot, and were probably interred near the place. It is to be regretted that some means had not been employed to preserve from decay the last of these time-honoured relics; but now, that scarce a trace of them is left, we would recommend to our local antiquaries and others the erection of some memorial to mark the spot where they once flourished.

Nowhere in the immediate neighbourhood of Castle-Douglas is there a better situation from which to witness the sublime effects of sunset on "the highest hill that rises o'er the source of Dee," than from the summit of Kelton Hill. The prospect is extensive and diversified, exhibiting in its range some fine glimpses of lake, river, and mountain scenery. Looking towards the south, and moving slowly round to the north, the eye strays over a fine undulating country, composed of well-cultivated fields, pastoral hills belled with woods, and adorned with mansions, farm-houses, and picturesque hamlets and cottages, embosomed in trees, chiefly lying in the parishes of Tongland, Kirkcudbright, Kelton, and Buittle. The green swelling hill of Dungyle, on the summit of which are the remains of a Roman fort, and the towering ridge of Bengairn and Screel, abruptly close in the view towards the south-east. Gelston Castle, — a handsome edifice, situated in a landscape of Highland aspect, — is a prominent object in the foreground, and at the base of the hill the beautiful lake of Carlingwark reposes in the evening glow, so calm and tranquil, that on

“Its smooth breast the shadows seem
Like objects in a morning dream.”

Its glassy surface reflects, as in a mirror, the image of the sky, the hills around, and the feathery foliage of its islands. In its glassy wave the swan gracefully moves, and wild fowls innumerable are disporting on its rushy shores.

At the head of the lake Castle-Douglas shines in the sunset; and, on turning gradually round to the west, we have the valley of the Dee, with all its fair garniture of woods and hills, spread as on a map before us. Its sylvan windings, bright and red in the setting sun, appearing like a long chain of gleaming lochans, partially screened by swelling slopes and wooded knolls, can be traced from Boat of Rhone to past Bridge of Dee.

The view in this direction is most extensive. The whole of the mountain solitudes and stony wilds of Galloway are embraced in it, the Kells range and the three Cairnsmuirs bounding the horizon. The sweeping holms and verdant meadows near Crossmichael, and beautifully wooded grounds around the mansions of Parton, Danevale, and Balmaghie, give richness to the scene. In the middle distance the hill of Camp Douglas, where history says Douglas, on abandoning Threave Castle, took up his position, prepared to give battle to the forces of King James, is a prominent feature; and in the immediate foreground, circled in an arm of the river, Threave Castle rears its massy bulk.

Looking on these scenes of our youthful days, what a flow of pleasurable recollections comes swelling up in the mind! What tales could Threave's old walls narrate of school day's excursions in search of the jackdaw and the owl; of "paidlins" in the clear gushing streams in shadow of its walls; of gambolings on the sunny braes, and rush gatherings in the emerald meadows; of nutting and bird-nesting excursions to the wooded hills and bosky dells of Kelton.

On Kelton Hill a mansion-house has been built by Mr. Gordon of Threave, which commands the extensive and varied prospect before described. It is an imposing building, in the Baronial style, with a lofty tower and platform, and is quite a feature in the landscape.

It may not be generally known that the once-famous Kelton Hill Fair was in early times held on this hill. The account of the origin and importance of this fair here given is taken from The Castle-Douglas Miscellany, published fifty years ago, and now a very rare volume. The writer says that he had his information from oral tradition, and that, at that time, 1825, the commencement of the fair was far beyond the reach of any living recollection. It was the greatest assemblage of the sort in the south of Scotland, but for many years there was no field appointed for the purpose. It was sometimes held on the Grainyford Island, especially when a dispute arose concerning the spot which had the original claim. About the year 1758 it was held on the eastern side of the hill called Kelton Hill, and very near the present manse of Kelton. For many years it was held on the south side of the road, and directly opposite to its present situation. It was also held on the farm of Hightae, and on the Furbar Hill.

The tradition as to the origin of this fair is as follows: — A plodding pedestrian chapman from Glasgow, with a long pack chuck-full of finery, finding that his goods required an airing, spread them, one fine day, upon a thicket of whins upon the side of the hill, about half-way between Castle-Douglas and the place where the fair is now held. In the course of the day a great number of people collected, and purchased to a considerable amount. Encouraged by this lucky incident, the packman promised (health permitting) to appear in the same place on that day twelve months. This promise he punctually kept, and brought with him some other brethren of the trade, with a great variety of articles for sale. From that small beginning the fair gradually became so considerable, that in 1793 the following graphic picture was given of it by Heron, in his Journey through Scotland: — "Here are assembled from Ireland, from England, and from the most distant parts of North Britain, horse-dealers, cattle-dealers, sellers of sweat-meats and of spirituous liquors, gypsies, pickpockets, and smuglers. Every house in the village of Rhonehouse, which owes its origin to the fair, is crowded, and all become on this occasion houses of entertainment.

"The roads are for a day or two before crowded with comers to this fair. On the hill where it is held tents are erected, and through the whole fair day one busy tumultuous scene is here exhibited of bustling backwards and forwards, bargaining, wooing, carousing, quarrelling, amidst horses, cattle, carriages, mountebanks, the stalls of chapmen, and the tents of the sellers of liquors and of cold victuals. The village also held high festival during the week, and, besides the peasantry, the neighbouring gentry are spectators for a short time of the confusion, the tumult, and the rude festivity which it displays."

The fair was, about fifteen years ago, very properly transferred to Castle-Douglas, as affording better accommodation, and being more easy of access to those attending it from a distance.

Kelton Manse, Church, and Churchyard, are situated about a mile and a half from Castle-Douglas on the old road to Auchencairn. The parish of Kelton is composed of the three old parishes of Kelton, Gelston, and Kirk-Cormack. The author of the Caledonia says, "that in early times the church of Kelton belonged to the monks of Icolmkill. When their establishment became ruined, by the successive devastations of the Northmen, the church of Kelton, as well as every other church in Galloway which belonged to those monks, was granted by William the Lion to the Monastery of Holyrood. The church of Kelton belonged to this House, when it too was dissolved by the Reformation. When Charles I. erected the Bishoprick of Edinburgh in 1633, he granted to the bishops of that see the church of Kelton, with many others, which had belonged to the Monastery of Holyrood. On the abolition of Episcopacy, 1689, the patronage of the church reverted to the Crown."

The parish church of Gelston, traces of which are still observable in the churchyard at Kirkland of Gelston, belonged of old to the prior and canons of Whithorn.

After the Reformation it was, by the General Annexation Act of 1587, vested in the king, who granted the church of Gelston, with the whole property of Whithorn Priory, to the Bishop of Galloway, in 1606. When Episcopacy was finally abolished in 1689, the patronage of this church also reverted to the Crown.

In the southwest of the parish, about five miles from Castle-Douglas, on the old road to Kirkcudbright, in a delightful situation on the banks of the Dee, opposite to Argrennan House, is the old churchyard of Kirk-Cormack, anciently Kil-Cormack, — a name derived from the Irish saint to whom the church was dedicated.

"St. Cormack," says Chalmers, "is supposed to have succeeded the far-famed St. Patrick. This church was no doubt dedicated to Cormack during the ninth century, after the Irish emigrants began to find repose in Galloway. It belonged of old to the kindred monks of Icolmkill, and, as with the others, when they ceased to be useful, it was granted by William the Lion to the monks of Holyrood.

"At the Reformation it went to the king, and was afterwards disposed of in the same way as Kelton."

The site of the church may be traced, and the burying-ground is still used by some families. In this churchyard is the tomb of Patrick Maclellan, probably one of the Maclellans of Auchlane. The inscription on the stone is now nearly illegible. It is given by Mactaggart in his Gallovidian Encyclopedia published about fifty years ago, as follows:

Honorabilis Sir Patricius Maclellan qui
obit anno MDXXXIV., anno XVIII. Aetatis.

(The Honourable Patrick Maclellan, who died in the year 1534, in the 18th year of his age.)