Exploring History in the Scottish Borders

Exploring History book cover

The Scottish border area is steeped in history. This is the divide between the north and south of Britain, and the often fraught relationship between England and Scotland has left its mark.  Centuries of war and bloodshed didn’t produce Robin Hood characters, it produced a tough and often violent people, the border reivers.  In the 16th century the Scottish borderland made the American Wild West of the 19th century look like a kindergarten.

Illustrated by many full color photographs, “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” provides an overview of the history of this turbulent area. The Borders’ past has left a legacy of splendid castles, beautiful ruined abbeys, and a depth of history few other areas can match. This book tells the story of the of the English/Scottish borderland from the time of the Romans, through the Scottish wars of independence, the turbulent 16th century and Henry VIII’s “rough wooing”, up until the reopening of part of the Waverley Line by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.

After centuries of conflict what was once the most violent part of the UK is now one of the most peaceful. It is a great place to visit – for many visitors it has more to offer than the nearby Lake District. Like the Lake District the Borders has beautiful countryside and strong literary connections, but the Borders also has a depth of history that the Lakes just cannot rival. It is also much less crowded and commercialized.

If your family comes from the Borders, or you are interested in Scottish history, this book should be of interest.  Armstrong, Bell, Douglas, Elliot, Gordon, Graham, Hepburn, Home, Irving, Jardine, Johnstone, Kerr, Little, Maxwell, Nixon, Pringle, Rutherford and Scott are all key Border families.  These families have shaped the modern world; their descendants include two U.S. Presidents, one British Prime Minister, the first man on the moon, and numerous major scientists.

Available from all Amazon sites in paperback and kindle format.  29,000 words and 33 original color photographs.

Hold down the control key and click on the following link for your Amazon site to get directly to the book.

USA:    www.amazon.com/dp/B0183U12R8

U.K.:  www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0183U12R8

Canada: www.amazon.ca/dp/B0183U12R8

And please just search for it on other Amazon sites.

Ian Douglas


Greenknowe Tower and the Snowdrops

Greenknowe Tower with Snowdrops

I was robbed!  Two weeks ago in England I paid £5 to see some snowdrops.  Today (1 March) in Scotland I saw a beautiful field of snowdrops in front of Greenknowe Tower for nothing.

Greenknowe Tower is an L-plan tower and is near the village of Gordon in the Borders.  It is as old tower of the Seton family, although since it doesn’t have a roof or windows I don’t think they live there anymore. It is looked after by Historic Scotland.

Greenknowe was built in about 1581.  It was built for defence by gun, and has many gun ports to provide the defenders with an excellent field of fire all round the tower.  It also like many Scottish tower-houses has an iron yett.  The yett is an iron grill like a portcullis, but while a portcullis is raised and lowered vertically, a yett opens like a door.

Greenknowe Tower yett

Greenknowe’s yett, with the Seton crest and build date on the lintel above it.


Sweetheart Abbey’s Lost Prayer Book

As someone who is fascinated by the history of the Scottish Borders, it was great to read yesterday that a small 700 year old treasure, a prayer book, of one of the great Scottish Abbeys, Sweetheart Abbey, had been returned to Scotland and was now being held in the National Library of Scotland. This had been lost for 300 years. Rather than just blog a summary, I have published the National Library of Scotland’s full press release below.   

Sweetheart Abbey's Prayer Book

                                                    National Library of Scotland Press Release

Sweetheart Abbey Breviary arrives at the Library

Historic monastic manuscript is major acquisition for National Library of Scotland

A monastic treasure written in Scotland 700 years ago has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

The early 14th century Breviary, from Sweetheart Abbey near Dumfries, is the Library’s most important medieval manuscript acquisition for 30 years. It is an extremely rare example of a medieval religious manuscript which was both written and used in Scotland.

Unlike many remaining Scottish liturgical manuscripts, which exist as fragments only, the Sweetheart Breviary is an entire volume in a remarkably good condition. It consists of 200 vellum leaves, and contains the text for many of the monastic prayers used each year in medieval Scotland.

Sweetheart Abbey was the last Cistercian monastery to be established in Scotland. It was founded in 1273 by Dervorgilla de Balliol, mother of the Scottish king John Balliol, in memory of her husband John de Balliol. On her death in 1290, she was laid to rest next to her husband’s embalmed heart and the abbey was named in her memory. The Breviary was written between 1300 and 1350.

The first leaf of the manuscript bears a large inscription in a medieval hand: ‘Liber sanctae Mariae de dulci corde [a book of St. Mary of Sweetheart]’. Only four other manuscripts survive from the library of this abbey, bearing similar inscriptions, but none of these volumes was apparently written in Scotland.

The Breviary is remarkably compact and, although comparatively modest in decoration, is a very attractive volume. It includes a calendar, featuring a number of Scottish saints, which further confirms its strong Scottish connections. The Cistercian elements in the liturgy are also in keeping with its origins and use at Sweetheart Abbey.

Its whereabouts were unknown for some 300 years until it recently came on the open market in an auction in Vienna. Prior to that, the last known trace was in 1715, when it was described in the printed library catalogue of the English antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

‘We are delighted to have made this significant addition to the national collection. It is a rare survival that will shed new light on our collective past,’ said National Librarian Dr John Scally.

The National Library of Scotland acknowledges the generous assistance of, and contributions from, The Friends of the National Libraries, The Soutar Trust, The National Library of Scotland Foundation, and the B H Breslauer Foundation in the purchase of this manuscript, and for their prompt decision-making in making these contributions.


Scottish Brochs

Dun Carloway Broch

The remains of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs have always fascinated me. Brochs are tall (up to 15 meters/50 feet) round towers, with an outer double-skinned, dry-stone wall.  The double skinned walls are bonded together by rows of slabs, which often form stairs between the inner and outer walls, and provide access to upper floors.  The following photograph shows the inner stairs in the Dun Carloway broch.  These would have been dark and dingy.

Dun Carloway broch - between the walls

Between the dry-stone walls of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs are unique to Scotland – 571 sites for these strange and quite sophisticated buildings have been identified in Scotland, although some people believe that the number of brochs is less than that, and some sites attributed to brochs are the remains of simpler buildings.   Archaeological research has shown that the main building period was from 100 BC to 100 AD.

In some of the surviving ruined brochs traces of timber has been found, supporting the idea that they had timber floors.  It is likely that the ground floor was used for key livestock, and the upper floors for residential accommodation.  Some brochs stand alone on the landscape, others are surrounded by the remains of settlements. Some are within defensive earthworks.

Brochs were common in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and in Caithness in the far north of the mainland.  There were a number in the south of Scotland, including a cluster in Galloway, and several in Lothian and the Borders, although only scant remains exist of these southern brochs today.

The reason for building brochs is much disputed by researchers.  It seems clear that defence was the driver to build many.  Another reason for building brochs would have been as high status homes for local magnates.

Tall buildings with a very small door and no windows would have been very difficult to attack. In fact in 1153, long after brochs had fallen into disuse by the local population, the Viking Orkney Sagas record that the Mousa broch was used for protection by a Viking party that had abducted the mother of Earl Harald of Orkney.  They managed to hold out for a winter against the Earl and his troops.

The fact that such complex building were being built contradicts the view that Scotland 2000 years ago was an unsophisticated place. It also shows that the economy was sophisticated enough to support teams of broch “architects” and “master builders” who travelled between sites and communities.  These structures are too complicated to be designed and built by local people without the involvement of specialists, although local communities would no doubt have provided the labor.

In the summer of 2014 I was lucky enough travel by boat to several of Scotland’s islands and the Faroes, a group of islands half way between Scotland and Iceland.  This should have allowed me to see two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, and therefore the world, as brochs are unique to Scotland.

Dun Carloway broch is on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and Mousa, the best preserved broch, is on a small island off the main Shetland island.  Unfortunately the weather was too bad for the ship to land in Shetland (Scottish summers!), but I did manage to spend some time at Dun Carloway.  Although much ruined now, with some of the stone robbed and used by local farmers, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this 2000 year old building facing the Atlantic on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.  It must have been built by a sophisticated, organised people, not the uncivilised barbarians Roman writers lead us to believe lived north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Text and photographs copyright Ian Douglas 2016.

The Douglas Tombs on Paris’s Left Bank

Earl of Angus St Germain Des Pres

St Germain Des Prés is a beautiful old church on the left bank of the Seine in the centre of Paris, which I had the pleasure of visiting at Christmas.  It is what remains from a major abbey of the same name.  The church predates Notre Dame, and was the place where the Parisian upper classes worshiped. The French philosopher René Descartes chose to be buried. It also has several 17th century Douglas tombs.   But who were they, and how did they end up so far from Scotland?  The date of death is the clue.

During what is called the “Auld Alliance” (Old Alliance), Scotland had a close relationship with France.  England was often both countries’ enemy, and on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it was in Scotland and France’s interest to have a close relationship.  But that changed in about 1560, when Scotland became officially Protestant.  Rather as we see between Sunni and Shia Muslins today, at the time there was real ill-feeling and often conflict between Protestants and Catholics, so Scotland’s religious reformation created a major religious divide between Scotland and Catholic France.  However those Scots who were Catholic still saw France as their ally and a place of safety.

William Douglas (c.1554–1611), who was to become the 10th Earl of Angus, visited France in 1577, and converted to Roman Catholicism.  Shortly afterwards Douglas was ordered to leave Scotland because of his faith, but didn’t do so.

In 1591 he inherited the earldom of Angus on the death of his father.  This allowed him to become a major player in the politics of the time.  In 1592 he was accused of involvement in a conspiracy to land Spanish troops in Scotland, to impose Catholicism on the Scots and to invade England.  This was only four years after the Spanish Armada, so Spain was seen as a deadly enemy of England.  England and Scotland were then becoming much more friendly, particularly as King James of Scotland hoped to inherit the English crown when his relation, Elizabeth I of England, died.

Because of Angus’s likely involvement in the plot, King James imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle, but Angus escaped after six weeks.  There are two versions of his escape.  One is that his wife smuggled a rope into his cell, the other that one of the warders helped him.

Angus made his way to the North of Scotland where he joined with two other Catholic earls, Huntly and Erroll.  After several years, sometimes trying to raise an insurrection and at other times in hiding, he was reconciled with the king, and given a royal appointment to police the unruly Scottish Borders.  But his barely disguised Catholicism increasing became a problem with the staunchly Protestant church, and in 1609 the church took proceedings against him and he was forced to retire to France, where he died in 1611.  His tomb, with a statue of the earl in armour, is in a prominent side chapel in St Germain Des Pres, an indication of his high status.

MacDonalds and France

Happy New Year!

I am a Douglas, but my wife is a Macdonald, so I am interested in Macdonald as well as Douglas history.

I was in Paris recently, to visit the Douglas tombs in the Église St Germain Des Prés.  I also took the opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles.  Totally by chance in Versailles I came across a picture of E J J A MacDonald, Duke of Taranto which I thought I should share (sorry, the photograph was taken at an angle.  The area was roped off, so I could not take it straight on).

The following was news to me, although I am sure it won’t be news to some readers, who know much more about Clan Donald history than I do.  A google search about EJJA MacDonald led to Wikipedia, where he has his own page. Even more information is available on the BBC website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/highlands_and_islands/6766507.stm

In the briefest summary Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexander MacDonald was born in Sedan, France in 1765.  His father, Neil MacEachen, later MacDonald, was from a Jacobite family from Howbeg in South Uist, and a cousin of Flora MacDonald.   MacEachan\MacDonald was a tutor to the children of the chief of Clanranald.  He was involved in the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and escaped to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie.  There the BBC suggests that he changed his name from MacEachan to MacDonald because the French found MacEachan too difficult to pronounce.

In 1785 his son Jacques MacDonald joined the Irish legion, and eventually, because he was in love with the daughter of an enthusiastic revolutionary, joined the French revolutionary army.  He was involved in a great deal of fighting, and in 1799 was invited to lead a coup d’état to topple the French government.  He refused, and as a result Napoleon led the coup d’état.  Had MacDonald accepted, he might have become Emperor MacDonald of France!  However, he was promoted to Marshal of France by Napoleon in 1809.

Well, I am not aware a Douglas has ever been made a Marshal of France!

Best wishes

Ian Douglas   MacDonald Marshal of France

Orchardton Tower

Orcharton Tower Orchardton is the only round tower house in Scotland of its era, although there are at least 23 in Ireland.  It is situated in Galloway, post code DG7 1QH.  The nearest town is Dalbeattie.

The tower is thought to have been built for John Cairns.  The land was originally owned by the Douglases, but is likely to have been confiscated from them when they were toppled from power by James II in 1455.

The builder may well have come from Ireland – then as now much there would have been a great deal of contact between Dumfries and Galloway and Ireland. Orcharton Tower inner.jpg

The tower house is in fact quite narrow, and much of the accommodation would have been in an attached building that now only exists in a few layers of stone above ground.  The tower is now a shell, but there is a spiral stairway which allows the visitor to walk to the top.  Like many tower houses for defense the entrance door was on the first floor.