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Johnstones rise to prominence

Posted by on April 29, 2010

The Johnstones rose to prominence and power by assisting the King in crushing the Douglas rebellion in 1455. The Black Douglases virtually controlled southern Scotland and were perceived as a serious threat to the Stewart dynasty

The Johnstones fought the Black Douglases at Arkinholm in Dumfriesshire and participated in the King’s siege of Threave Castle in Kirkcudbright. The Douglases were attainted, their estates forfeited, and King James II “of the fiery face” rewarded his supporters, including the Johnstones, with grants of former Douglas lands. Johnstone clansmen soon spread throughout upper Annandale and into Lanarkshire. In 1542 Queen Mary of Guise erected the lands of the Laird of Johnstone into a free barony.

The Johnstones were listed as troublemakers on the West March in the “Roll of the clannis that hes capitanes chieffis and chiftanes quhome on thai depend oftymes againis the willis of thair landislordis alsweill on the bordors as hielands and some speale personis of braches of the saidis clannis” which was appended to a 1597 Act of the Parliament of Scotland “For the quieting and keping in obedience of the disorderit subiectis inhabitantis of the bordors hielands and Ilis.” In 1578 the “nayme of Johnnstounis” appointed a council of twelve arbiters to settle internal disputes, all under the leadership of their “chief and maister” the Laird of Johnstone. The council consisted of Johnstones of Carnsalloch, Craigieburn, Elsieshields, Fairholm, Fingland, Howgill, Lockerbie, Marjoribanks, Millbank, Newton, Poldean and Wamphray. During the sixteenth century, the clan was also organized in numerous “gangs,” which changed form over time.

During the sixteenth century the Johnstones and the Maxwells competed for primacy in the Scottish West March. Johnstone and Maxwell chiefs each served at various times as Wardens of the Scottish West March. Their respective clans continued a deadly blood feud for almost a century. In late 1593 John, seventh Lord Maxwell, Earl of Morton, sometime collaborator with the Spanish armada and Warden of the Scottish West March, assembled 2,000 armed horsemen and, displaying the King’s banner, invaded the mountainous district of Annandale, land of the Johnstones. Whatever the official reason, Lord Maxwell’s personal intention was once and for all to destroy his family’s ancient enemies and rivals for power in southwestern Scotland.

Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie, Chief of the Johnstones, received advance warning of the approaching army and realized that his clan would soon have a desperate fight for continued existence. He summoned help from Grahams, Scotts, Carrutherses, Irvings, Elliots and others, and quickly raised a force of perhaps 800. Among those who came to the aid of the clan was the Chief’s eleven-year-old kinsman, Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch. Lord Maxwell had offered his followers a reward for the head or hand of the Laird of Johnstone, and Sir James in turn offered his followers a reward for the head or hand of Lord Maxwell.

On December 6, 1593 the Maxwell army approached the Johnstone town of Lockerbie near a place called Dryfe Sands. Sir James kept most of his men hidden, but sent a handful of horsemen to provoke the Maxwell vanguard, then retreat. When the vanguard broke ranks in pursuit with loud cries of victory, the main body of Johnstones made a sudden, desperate charge, catching the Maxwells off guard and driving the disorganized vanguard into the main force. The Johnstones then savagely pursued their enemies into the streets of Lockerbie and into the Water of Dryfe, slaughtering some 700 of the Maxwells and slashing others with downward sword strokes which caused gruesome facial wounds known as “Lockerbie licks.”

In the midst of the carnage Lord Maxwell begged for mercy and offered to surrender, but the Johnstones cut off his outstretched arm and slew him. It is said that the Laird of Johnstone affixed the head and right hand of Lord Maxwell to the battlements of Lochwood Tower as bloody trophies of the Johnstones’ overwhelming victory at the Battle of Dryfe Sands.

In 1608 a meeting was arranged for a reconciliation of Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie and Lord Maxwell, son of the chief who was killed at the Battle of Dryfe Sands. Precautions were taken for each party to bring only one attendant. During the interview, Lord Maxwell suddenly drew a pistol from under his cloak and shot the Johnstone chief in the back with two poisoned bullets, mortally wounding him. After escaping to France, Lord Maxwell was finally apprehended and publicly beheaded in Edinburgh for his “murder under trust” of Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie.

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