Graham Roberts, whose expertise is local castles, was our first speaker of the season. He started by giving an outline as to how mottes arrived in the south west using the Motte of Urr as an example. This is the largest of its kind in the area. The further development of these was due to the involvement of Fergus who did a balancing act between Scotland and England which resulted in his descendents having initiated the largest range of mottes in Scotland. The next development was the replacing of these with stone castles and the finest in this area is Caerlaverock which is an outstanding example of a castle enclosure. This involved a lot of manpower, expense and time which is why there are not many examples of these. The further development of this type was the keep, of which Threave is one of the earliest and best remaining structures. Tower houses then came into being, with a variety of internal structures and individual rooms. They almost all had other buildings round them, some of which survive still as can be seen at Hill House. Usually these towers were square, but as usual the Stewartry had to be different, with a round one at Orchardon. Religion also played a part in the history of local castles and one of Gordon’s examples was the feud between the Protestant and Catholic families of Barholm and Carsluith Castles. The Union of the Crowns changed styles and what was fashionable and Graham gave us an overview of a variety of local tower houses comparing them to those that had been restored with questions as to authenticity.
The November talk was a real trip down memory lane as Martin Wilson recalled his childhood in “Growing up in Kirkcudbright in the 1940s and 50s.” Martin’s early days, growing up in Harts close, were characterised by features such as the communal ‘steamie’ and drying green at the bottom of the close and learning to read, courtesy of The Beano. Growing up in a relatively small community had the advantage that everyone knew each other and afforded children the opportunity to mix freely with older people such as visiting the studio of artist Miles Johnstone to view his latest creation. Whole days would be spent just playing in the woods or ‘guddling’ for trout with other children from Mill Flats One relative who made a particularly strong impact was his uncle Jack Hewitson who died in 1944 while serving as a tail gunner with the RAF, an event which still gives Remembrance Days a special poignancy. Throughout his talk Martin sparked little memories in the audience as he related the names of shops, events and particularly people who made up the fabric of the wonderful town of Kirkcudbright.
The regular History Society audience was joined in December by many Borgue residents keen to hear Jack Hunter tell the story of part of their parish. The area in question has been occupied by humans for at least 2000 years, perhaps giving some indication of the attraction of the place. Round about 700BC, Iron Age people built an impressive fort, known as Castle Haven Dun. Knockbrex started out as a single farm but through time various owners added neighbouring properties, thus creating Knockbrex estate.
The Gordons were a prominent covenanting family may also have been involved in smuggling. There was stabling for 70 horses – far more than would seem to be needed for legitimate purposes. Knockbrex is close to Ardwell Island, a known smugglers’ lair. Perhaps the horses were part of a distribution network for smuggled goods. Knockbrex estate was owned for 70 years during the 19th century by the Hope Dunbar family,then bought by James Brown in 1894. He was a Manchester businessman who, having made his fortune, was able to indulge himself in his retirement by commissioning the building of a whole range of unique structures on the estate including coo palace. The coo palace, part of a model dairy, was so named because of the quality of the build. There is a whole variety of fanciful buildings in a range of sizes in the Arts and Crafts style along and near the Carrick road which deserve far greater recognition nationally. “Brownland’ could perhaps be marketed in conjunction with the annual art exhibitions in Kirkcudbright. However, whilst Kirkandrews hall put at the service of the community by James Brown is well cared for by a trust, the condition of some other ‘Brown’ buildings gives cause for serious concern. Some atmosphere of the area can be gained through two works of fiction. “The Mystery of Muncraig” by R.J. Maxwell was published in 1900 and the 1930’s whodunnit “Sir John Magill’s Last Journey” by Freeman Willis Crofts. As usual Jack kept his audience enthralled for the evening.
At the January meeting of the Kirkcudbright History Society the audience were treated to a fascinating trawl through Burgh Court Records and other records dating from 1720 to 1890 which had lain undiscovered in a strong-room in the Town Hall until 1991. With the help of two volunteer researchers, Elaine Patterson and Alison Green, Dr David Devereux brought to light some of the more interesting cases detailed in these old records. As the lowest level court in the land, the Burgh court dealt with such issues as compensation claims, credit applications and minor offences. However, as one case study revealed even minor offences could attract substantial penalties such as George Hope’s sentence of seven year’s transportation for stealing three shillings in 1839. Not unlike today, some cases, particularly those relating to complex compensation or fraud cases just petered out often because in civil claims it was the victim who paid to make a claim. These examples provided a flavour of the sort of invaluable record of social history contained in these bundles of records most of which have still to be researched and there is little doubt that many more interesting cases have yet to be uncovered.
At the February meeting, we were privileged to have Innes McLeod explain to us the background of the play “The Levellers; in Galloway 113 years ago”, possibly written by John Nicholson. This was first performed by a group of English actors called “Mr. Breyer’s Company” who gave the first performance in 1835 in a variety of local towns. The text of the play, as performed in 1835, is in Broughton House, where details of the cast and costumes can be found in a handwritten copy. The cast included a variety of characters, the best known being Willie Marshall, the gypsy chief who was portrayed as a hero. Other than the gypsies we had two main groups, the Levellers and the Villains. The locations included the Market Cross, Kirkcudbright, and interiors of caves, cottages and the Tolbooth. The play demonstrated some stirring historical enactments with an element of comedy. It was a popular success in 1835/1870 and Innes made it come to life during the evening.
At the last meeting of the season, the Secretary, Helen Bowick delivered a most interesting portrait of “Kirkcudbright Now and Whenever.” Helen very cleverly used the life of ‘Postie’ Houston as the basis of her talk and David Devereux summed up the talk perfectly in his vote of thanks when he remarked that, “the audience had felt the spirit of Postie Houston and Helen had been the medium.” John Houston was a colourful character, a one-armed weather prophet, postman, sportsman and Heath- Robinsonesque inventor. Helen contrasted various locations of Kirkcudbright between Houston’s late 19th century period and more recent periods in the town’s history. She helped illustrate changes to the harbour area from little boats and lobster pots to berths for large fishing boats and a leisure marina. The arrival of the railway led to the building of the station in Houston’s time but this was later converted to a restaurant in the early sixties. One feature which Houston would have witnessed regularly was the re-cycling of materials such as the re-building of a stone arch from Fisher Street which now forms the arch beside Greyfriars Church, the re-siting, by artist Jessie M King, of a window from the old police houses to its new home in the Greengate Close and the re-use of stone from the Meikle Gate for gates at the town’s cemetery. Of equal interest was how little some streets and buildings had changed and would still be instantly recognised by ‘Postie’ Houston.
I hope you will agree that we have had another six memorable talks this season on six quite separate and very different aspects of local history. Our membership has remained stable and despite the severe winter the society’s meetings have been well-attended. Jack Hunter’s excellent talk on Knockbrex Estate brought the largest audience we have ever had and it was good to see many new faces as well as the more familiar ones that evening.
We have now I think overcome the problems with noises from our fans ( the ceiling mounted variety), and we hope to overcome difficulties with the sound system thanks to the continuing efforts of Harry Green.
I again wish to thank the many dedicated society members who arrive early and leave late every month, helping with chairs, teas, coffees and tidying up generally. They help too in other ways – Mr Carter having volunteered to collect and return the hall keys, open and lock up the hall each week, and generally act as a stage manager.
The funds we reserved for supporting member Ian Devlin in publishing a booklet he has written commemorating the life and work of local character John Budget were not required, as publication was funded by other means, but it remains our policy to modestly support local history publications whenever possible.
All office bearers and committee members are happy to continue in office for a further year if that should be your wish, and it is gratifying to have so many people who work very hard for us and are prepared to keep doing so without needing to be begged or persuaded. I am grateful to all of them for making my task so much easier.
As ever, your feedback is important to the committee so we will again be circulating a suggestions page for future programmes.
Thank you all for your encouragement and your enthusiasm about our meetings. I hope that like me, you are already looking forward to next year’s programme.