A history of the Maxwell family of Kirkconnell House, and their influence on Catholicism in the area.

Kirkconnell House and New Abbey


"Oh, the auld house, the auld house!
What tho' the rooms were wee?
Oh, kind hearts were dwelling there,
And bairnies full of glee!
The wild rose and the jessamine
Still hang upon the wa';
How mony cherished memories
Do they sweet flowers reca'?"

— Lady Nairne, 1766-1845.

Within a radius of twenty miles there are no less than three places of this name, of which probably the most familiar is that within the kirkyard of which lie the mortal remains of “Fair Helen." The Kirkconnell immortalised by this charming song is not, however, that with which we are concerned. Kirkconnell House stands away from any village, the nearest being New Abbey. Although these two places are three miles apart, yet in tracing the history of this most interesting old house it will be necessary to treat the terms New Abbey and Kirkconnell as synonymous, for the Catholics of that district during the times of persecution at one time were ministered to at New Abbey itself, at another time at Kirkconnell House. This will be readily understood if reference be made to the Catholic Directory for Scotland for the year 1855, where there is a long account of Catholicism in this neighbourhood. It is from this account that much of what follows is taken.

We have the authority of Dugdale for asserting that it was one of the lairds of Kirkconnell who founded the Abbey of Holywood, situated about five miles north of Dumfries, from which town Kirkconnell is about five miles to the south. The ruins of this abbey were taken down in 1778, and the materials were used to build the present parish church. Two of the old abbey bells escaped destruction, and they are now used to summon the villagers to Kirk. One of these was consecrated in 1154 by John Wrich, probably the abbot of that date. This bell is said to be still of excellent tone, no small tribute to the workmen of seven hundred and fifty years ago.

The first of the house of Kirkconnell of that ilk was probably of Saxon origin, who settled at Kirkconnell in the time of Malcolm Canmore (1057- 1093), or about one hundred years previous to the foundation by the family of Holywood Abbey. Regarding the coat of arms of the Kirkconnells, "azure, two croziers, or, placed in saltire ardosses, with a mitre of the last placed in chief" — a truly ecclesiastical bearing — it is thought to have been adopted from the name of their territory, which in its turn must have had some connection with the church.

The very greatest interest attaches to Kirkconnell from the fact that there are still extant the charters, granted by its early proprietors to the monks of the Abbey of Holm Cultram, in Cumberland. This Cistercian abbey was situated just across the Solway from Kirkconnell.

The first of these charters, dating from about 1235, is a grant by "William, son of Michael of Kirkonevill," of certain lands between Polleychos and Genesik, and extending unto the river Nud (Nith). The witnesses to this deed are Gilbert, of Candida Casa, Bishop, and Michael, Archdeacon of the same. Thomas, son of Andrew of Kirkconnell, grants another tract of land adjoining the first. Andrew, son of Michael of Kirkonnevill, confirmed the above grants and added another "of all that piece of land in the territory of Kirkonevill, which is called the Mustard Garth," whilst Robert, son of Simon of Kirkonevill, granted the monks one fishing (piscariam) on the waters of Nith, extending from the burn which runs down from Kirkconnell to the Nith to the spot called "Pollesterheved," &c., &c., also grazing for six oxen, six cows, and two horses, together with free entry and exit through the lands of the said Robert. Similar grants were made by other of the owners of Kirkconnell to this abbey, of which they must have been great benefactors.

There was long a close intimacy between the Maxwells of Carlaverock and the Kirkconnells, which resulted in the latter name being merged in the former by the marriage, about the year 1410, of Janet, heiress of Kirkconnell, to Aymer de Maxwell, brother of the first Lord Maxwell, of Carlaverock.

Previous to that, in 1248, we find mention of Herbert Maxwell, Castellan of Kirkconnell, third son of Edward, Baron of Carlaverock; he accompanied St. Louis of France to the crusade of that year. The term "Castellan" recalls the fact that the oldest portion of the house of Kirkconnell is of the usual form and construction of the castles or fortalices of the period of Edward I. It is a square tower, with walls of prodigious thickness, and may in former times have served as a sister fortress to the original Castle of Carlaverock, the two being situated four miles apart, the one on the left or Dumfriesshire bank of the Nith, the other on the right or Kirkcudbrightshire bank.

Chrysostom Henriquez, the historian of the Cistercian Order, records that the Maxwells of Kirkconnell were great benefactors to the abbey and church of New Abbey, which, as has been said, was but three miles distant. The thought occurs to one, when reading of the benefactions of these pre-Reformation families — was it in return for this generosity that their descendants were granted the grace of perseverance in the Catholic faith, when so many around them fell away. Certain it is that Mass has never ceased to be celebrated in the chapel of Kirkconnell House, whilst despite the large amount of Church land in the neighbourhood, which has fallen to lay owners, not a single foot of it has been acquired by this family.

Although Knox in 1562 was appointed by the Kirk Commissioner for Galloway, and was enabled in 1563 to draw up a "monster inditement" against the clergy who continued faithful to their flocks and ordination vows, still the priests up and down the district were not to be daunted by the perils of legal vexation. Of these the most courageous was Gilbert Brown, at one time Abbot of New Abbey, who in 1578 was complained of as zealous in instructing the family of Herries, and in the following year was accused before the Assembly, as enticing the people towards "papistrie." Indeed, so great was the power of the families of Carlaverock, Terregles, and Kirkconnell, and so continual the protection which they afforded to the ancient faith, that it happened in this district of Scotland, as it happened in the Lancashire districts of England, that the laws against Catholics were not enforced, because where so large a proportion of the inhabitants were Catholics, few persons were found ready to enforce them.

In 1589 Commissioners were ordered by the Privy Council to see executed the Acts against Jesuits, Seminary Priests, and excommunicated Papists; while the ministers were deputed to cause all in the Stewartry to sign the Confession of Faith. These efforts to stem the tide of Catholic activity proving unavailing, the General Assembly in 1594 petitioned for Gilbert Brown's apprehension by the Guard, because "from home and foreign information the places most dangerous in Scotland are the south-west; the bounds of Galloway had become destitute of pastors; there were no ministers either at New Abbey or Dumfries from 1588 to 1592."

During the Christmas holidays 1601-1602 the inhabitants of Dumfries had openly attended the celebration of Mass, for which the most important were cited to appear in Edinburgh, but, as Calderwood says, "they were for the most part suffered to return home without punishment." The Government, however, ordered the Guard to hunt down Abbot Brown, who was at length captured near New Abbey in 1605. The country people rose in arms to rescue him, but were overpowered by Lord Cranston and his guardsmen. The former Abbot was imprisoned first at Blackness Castle, and later in Edinburgh Castle. In November he petitioned the Privy Council for leave to withdraw out of the Kingdom. Only one of the Council was favourable to his request, and that was Sir John Arnot, the deputy treasurer, who, having an eye to the expenses, exclaimed: "The devil sticke him! he is very deere." Some said, "Give him three pund a day"; some, "fourtie shillings"; some, "twenty" some, “twa pecks of meale in the weeke"; some, "bread and water." The Chancellor ruled that the Abbot should have "alse muche as yea would give Macgregore, a merk in the day."

The Privy Council Records narrate how Archbishop Spottiswoode four years later "went with a party to the town of New Abbey, and there broke into the house of Mr. Gilbert Brown, former Abbot of New Abbey, and having found a great number of popish books, copes, chalices, pictures, images, and such other popish trash, he most worthily and dutifully, as became both a prelate and a councillor, on a mercat day, at a great confluence of people in the hie street of the burgh of Dumfries, did burn all those copes, vestments,and chalices, delivering up the books to Maxwell, of Kirkconnell, to be afterwards dealt with. The Privy Council allowed this to be good service on the part of the archbishop, and granted him a gift of the books left unburned." Abbot Brown died in Paris, 14th May 1610, aged 100. The description given of him by his opponents is as follows: "This famous excommunicat, foir faultit and perverting papist, quho evir since the reformatioun of religioune, had conteinit in ignorance and idolatrie allmost the haill southwest partis of Scotland." Such words from the mouth of an opponent of that time are praise enough for the good man.

It is worthy of note that in 1608 Mr. Robert Biggart, minister of Kirkconnell, complains: "On 25th August last, David Creichtoun of Kirkconnell, Edward Creichtoun there, Patrick Perk there, and others, all armed with swords, staves and daggers, came without any cause to complainer's manse and glebe, where he and his servants were mowing the meadow, and there invaded them and wounded the complainer in the head and left arm. Since then they daily threaten him so that he dare not repair to his own house or parish kirk for fear of his life." Although this is one of the Kirkconnells with which we are not immediately concerned, yet the above extract is interesting as showing how slow the people were to take to their new spiritual guides, and with what good reason the Privy Council complained that "papistrie" was still rife in that neighbourhood.

Twenty years later a similar incident is described, the scene this time being within the district with which we are dealing. "11th Mar. 1628. — The Privy Council took energetic measures against certain persons of the south-west province, including Herbert Maxwell of Kirkconnell, Charles Brown in New Abbey, (grand-nephew of the Abbot), Lady Mabie (sister of Kirkconnell), John Little, master of the household to the Earl of Nithsdale, and many others, all persons in respectable circumstances. It was found that these individuals proudly and contemptuously disregarded both the excommunication and the horning which they had brought upon themselves by persisting in their 'obdured and popish opinions and errors, haunted and frequented all public parts of the country, as if they were free and lawful subjects and were reset, supplied, and furnished with all things necessar and comfortable unto them, a great encouragement to them to continue in their erroneous opinions, whereas if this reset, supply and comfort were refused to them, they might be reclaimed from their opinions, to the acknowledgment of their bypast misdemeanours.’ As if to mark more effectually the infamy of these recusants, a pair who had been excommunicated for adultery were classed with them."

Once again in 1647 the families of Kirkconnell and Nithsdale were associated in persecution on account of their perseverance in the faith of their forefathers. On 22nd April 1647, intimation was made by the Synod of Dumfries, from all the pulpits within the bounds, that sentence of excommunication had been passed upon the Countess of Nithsdale, John, Lord Herries and his wife, Dame Elizabeth Maxwell, elder of Kirkconnell, and about thirty others, and all persons were forbidden to reset them or resort to them, without the licence of the Presbytery, or Kirk judicatories, under pain of ecclesiastical censures. And, again, in the Dumfries Session Records, appears the entry: "3rd Feb. 1659, Capt. Edward Maxwell delate for dishaunting the ordinances, and that he is suspect of Popery — instance his inviting Lady Nithsdale and Lady Semple, both excommunicat for Popery, to a publick feast. Confesses that he invited the Lady Semple, but knew not that she was excommunicat: and that Lady Nithsdale came to visit his wife in her seikness. He was ordained to consider the Confession of Faith, and be ready to declare what profession he was of."

If we assume, as seems most probable, that this Captain Edward Maxwell was of Kirkconnell, we are led to the conclusion that it was in return for some such "publick feast" that Lord Nithsdale (commonly known as the Philosopher), sent in 1662 a "present of fishes" to the Lady of Kirkconnell.  The following is her reply: —

"KlRKCONNELL, this 7th of Oct. 1662.

"My Lord, — I thanke your Lordship kyndlie for remembring me with this present of fishes, which is the onlie meat, I love best; for we have all feasted upon them this night. Receive your stotte, together with ane Salter, for I heard yow say that yow stoode in neid of one; tho' it be little worth, it will serve your Lordship for the present, and when ye have occasion ye may buy ane better; if your Lordship fancie the laime one better than this, yow shall have it also; and what I have that your Lordship laikes, I pray yow acquent me, in the which doeing yow shall oblidge hir who is and ever shall remaine, Your Lordship's most faithfull and obedient servant, Jean Maxwell.

“For the rycht honorable the Earle of Nithisdaill, at Isle of Carlaverock."

For the benefit of such as might miss the purport of this letter, I may mention that “stotte" or "stot" is a common Scotch term for a young ox; "Salter," ordinarily a man who makes salt, is here transferred to mean a vessel for salting the quarters of the beast; "laime" is no misspell for "lame," and does not refer to the quadruped mentioned in the letter — it is derived from "loam," and here means earthenware.

How precarious was the position of Catholic landlords at this time may be judged from the following incident. Sir George Maxwell of Orchardton, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, having gone over to the Church of Rome, and the next heir, who was a Protestant, being empowered by the statute of 1700 to claim his estate, his uncle Thomas Maxwell of Gelstoun, a man of seventy years of age, came forward on this adventure, further demanding that the young baronet should be discerned to pay him six thousand merks as a year's rent of his estate for employing George Maxwell of Munches, a known Papist, to be his factor, and five hundred more from Munches himself for accepting the trust.

A petition presented by the worthy Protestant uncle to the Privy Council makes us aware that George Maxwell of Munches, finding that he would be reached for accepting the said factory, out of malice raised a lawburrows, in which Orchardton concurred, though out of the Kingdom, against Geltoun and his son, as a mere pretext for stopping proceedings; but he (the uncle) "trusted the Lords would see through the trick, and defeat it by accepting the cautioners he offered for its suspension." The Council, adds Chambers, doubtless indignant that a Papist should so try to save his property, complied with Geltoun's petition. The action of this religious zealot will appear still more unkindly when it is remembered that his eldest son and heir had married a daughter of Munches; thus it happened that whilst the man whose estate he coveted was his nephew, the man whose money he sought to acquire by an iniquitous fine was also very closely connected to him.

At this period Kirkconnell was in the possession of James Maxwell, who, with his brother William, was educated at Douay College, in France. The son of the latter, also James, spent the seven years, from 1721 to 1728, at the same college, returning to Scotland in the latter year, after concluding his course of philosophy. In 1745 he was in arms on behalf of the Stuarts and was present at Culloden, after which he escaped to France. He wrote a “Narrative of Charles Prince of Wales' Expedition to Scotland in the Year 1745," which was printed by the Maitland Club in 1846. In 1750 he returned to Kirkconnell, to which he had succeeded in 1746, and at once set about enlarging the house and improving the property. For the buildings bricks, made under his own direction on the estate, were used.

His Narrative of the rebellion is well worth reading even at the present day; indeed, it is one of the chief authorities on the subject. Although the writer says of himself that he does not profess to literary attainments, his work nevertheless has considerable merit. The style is bright and vigorous, and the fact that he was an eye-witness of the remarkable events of the eight months, from August 1745 to April 1746, gives great weight to his evidence. Maxwell places the whole blame of the failure on Murray of Broughton, against whom he makes most severe charges and insinuates still worse. In his opinion Murray for selfish ends persuaded Prince Charles to start the expedition; to secure his own advancement he kept his chief at variance with those who should have been the Prince's councillors, and in many cases his greed of money brought great hardships on men and officers alike. The two following extracts will be of interest. Speaking of the decision of Prince Charles to convene the Council of War as seldom as possible, in order to avoid the dissensions which this assembly caused, Maxwell writes: "Thus some places of the greatest trust and importance were given to little insignificant fellows; whilst there were abundance of gentlemen of merit and figure that had no employment at all, and who might have been of great use had they been properly employed. Those whom Murray had thus placed seconded his dirty little views." Maxwell's sensitiveness on this point has misled him into being commonplace, which is a fault of rare occurrence in the Narrative.

Here is his description of the Highlanders: "Their dress is peculiar to themselves. Light, clever, easy and adapted to the country and manners of living, they are not encumbered with breeches, instead of which they wear a kind of petticoat or shirt, which reaches from their middle to their knees. Their plaid is the most useful part of their dress: it is a piece of woollen stuff; from one to one and a half yards in breadth and six in length: this they wear in sundry shapes, as a kind of cloak, and wrap themselves up in when they lye down to rest. Their offensive arms are a fusil and side pistol, a broad sword and dagger, or dirk as they call it; and for their defence they have a target or buckler made of wood covered with leather, which, though by no means musket proof, is of singular use in a close engagement. A Highlander with a broad sword and target, has a great advantage over a soldier with screwed bayonet, when his fire is spent, so that the advantage regular troops have over Highlanders consists in their fire and discipline, and if these don't prevail, a body of Highlanders, completely armed and in good spirits, will get the better of an equal number of regular troops. The Highlanders are divided into sundry clans or tribes; the individuals of each clan have the same sirname, and are generally supposed to be descended from the chief family of the clan. The Representative of this family, whom they commonly call their Chieftain or Chief, has a sovereign power over his clan. Laws were made long ago to moderate the authority that naturally flows from hereditary jurisdictions, which are frequent in Scotland: but the effect of these laws has hardly reached the western coast and Isles. These parts are remote from any tribunal, and very difficult of access. This has contributed to enable the Chiefs to keep up their authority, but the principal source of it is a real attachment of the people to the persons of their Chiefs. Each Clan looks upon itself as one family and the chief as the common father. As they have no manufactures among them, and their country is not fit for tillage, the common people have little to do, a few being sufficient for the care of their cattle, which are the chief produce of their lands. It is perhaps owing to this idleness that the lower sort are more curious and inquisitive about news and politics, and better versed in their own history and genealogies than the common people of other countries. . . . The Highlanders have been always fond of arms, and handle them with great dexterity." James Maxwell died in 1762, when only fifty-four years of age.

Besides the manuscript of the Narrative there is preserved at Kirkconnell the author's silver compass; whilst of the long list of most interesting Stuart relics which the house contains, special mention must be made of a beautiful miniature painted on ivory, representing Princess Mary of Orange, daughter of James II. There is also a tiny miniature of Charles I. set in gold, on the reverse of which are the emblems of death, the skull and cross bones, and the initials C.R. These were given after the King's death to his adherents, and are now very rare. Scarcely of less interest are the next two items, namely, a manuscript volume of letters, meditations and prayers, composed by James II. when in exile. This was sent to the Kirkconnell family in 1702, after the death of James, and is a copy of the original. It is entitled, "A Collection of several of His late Majesty's papers of Devotion, copied exactly from the original," and the authenticity is certified by a holograph note from James's Queen, Mary of Modena. Lastly, the Old Pretender is here represented by the gift sent by him to the Kirkconnell family of a snuff-mill of dark wood, shaped like a small opera-glass case. It has a silver hoop whereon are engraved the words: "Jac: et Clem: Dei Grat: Maj: Brit: Fra: et Hib: Rex et Reg: Fidei Defensor 1726," and on the lid is a heart-shaped shield charged with a sphere, and over it the legend, "Spes Ultra." This snuff-box was sent by the Chevalier and his wife Clementina, through Sir David Nairn, their secretary, whose name is imprinted on the bottom.

In 1827 Dorothy, grand-daughter of the aforesaid James Maxwell, succeeded as Lady of Kirkconnell, and, dying in 1904, she enjoyed the unusually long tenure of seventy-seven years. It was strange to hear her speak of her grandfather being "out in '45" — the incidents of a century and a half ago were brought very close by such words.

If surroundings have the influence on character which is attributed to them, it is little wonder that the late Lady of Kirkconnell should have exercised so great an attraction over all with whom she came in contact. Brought up in the charming atmosphere which surrounds the old house, she was, as one who knew her well has said, "quite typical of the old stock — a dame of the olden time, seldom going from home (I believe she never set foot on the Continent), stately and dignified at all times, yet most kind and gentle and affable to every one who approached her." Indeed, at Kirkconnell many of the old Catholic and Scotch customs survived long after they had been discontinued in other families. The late Laird always drove with postilions when going out in the evening, to the great admiration of the children at the houses where he dined, and the friendly chaff of his host. At Kirkconnell also the practice survived that the servants, male and female, were considered an integral part of the household. They were mostly from the neighbourhood, and knew that, though their wages might be small, they were sure of a kind and peaceful home in their old age. It thus happened that when the late Lady of Kirkconnell died, there were in the house maid-servants who had been forty-two, forty-four and forty-nine years in her service, and that, too, in a comparatively small household!

A complete and most interesting list is given in the Directory for 1855 of the priests who succeeded each other in the Mission of Kirkconnell and New Abbey during the past three centuries, several of whom were of the Kirkconnell family. Thus Father Stanislaus Maxwell, SJ. (born 1688, died 1734), came to his native mission in 1726; and Father George Maxwell, SJ., resided with his family at Kirkconnell from 1764 to 1772. Of Father Francis Maxwell, of the Carruchan family, also a Jesuit, it is known that he went about the streets of Dumfries playing the fiddle, in order to have the opportunity of informing Catholics where Mass would be celebrated. This was about the year 1707.

A still more strange device was employed at Kirkconnell House itself. It was well known that when Mass was to be said here, a man, wrapt in a white sheet, appeared at night in the avenue between the large holly-trees, and those who were in the secret knew what this signal meant, whilst the rest of the passers-by were terrified and thought it was a ghost. This explains why a white lady is said to appear in the avenue. The holly-trees themselves were popularly known as the “Mass Bushes." This was at the time when the old chapel was still at the top of the Tower. It was a plain square room with groined roof of stone, and it used to be so full of people that they had to kneel down the corkscrew stairs, as was well remembered by an old man but lately dead, who attended Mass in the old chapel when he was a young lad. The altar, tabernacle, cruets, and much of the other altar furniture of the old chapel are still in use in the present one.

The Catholic atmosphere, however, which was so strong at Kirkconnell itself, did not extend very far afield, as the following incident will show. About 1745 a faithful servant of the family, named Lottomer, died, and was buried in Sweetheart Abbey. But so great was the bigotry and the bitterness against Catholics that next morning his dead body was found to have been brought back to Kirkconnell and cast on the dunghill. The Colonel, who commanded the troop of Dragoons at that time stationed in the house, was most indignant, and wished to have the poor man re-buried in the Abbey by his soldiers and guarded. The Laird of Kirkconnell, however, did not wish this: "We will bury him here," said he, "in consecrated ground, where he will rest in peace." This was accordingly done. The spot was in front of the house on a little knoll, which was always said to be consecrated ground, as it was believed that a little chapel, dedicated to St. Connel, had stood there in bygone days. There Lottomer was laid, two flat stones marking the place, but, except to those who are familiar with the scene, "Lottomer's grave" is unknown.

The Catholics of the district had almost uninterruptedly numbered 200 souls, and had for many years been ministered to in the spacious domestic chapel adjoining Kirkconnell House, but in 1824 a new chapel and presbytery were built at New Abbey, within a stone's-throw of the beautiful old ruin, the scene at one time of the cloistral labours, as later of the apostolic zeal, of "that famous excommunicat, foir faultit and perverting papist, namit Mr. Gilbert Broone, Abbot of New Abbey!"

But if the position of the new chapel, so close to the once flourishing, now desecrated Abbey, is a striking sign of the vitality of the ancient faith, still more wonderful is the fact that the very walls of old Kirkconnell House in the nineteenth century saw the plans of the new church discussed, as well as the share its owners would have in forwarding the good work, just as those same walls had seen the same subjects discussed, possibly in the twelfth century, when it was a question of the foundation by earlier lairds of Kirkconnell of the Abbey of Holywood — certainly in the fifteenth, when it was a question of some of the benefactions of which Henriquez tells us.

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