This note on Thrieve Castle was published in 'Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country' Volume 43 - January to June 1851.


The remains of Thrieve Castle stand on a small island in the river Dee, not far from Castle Douglas, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright The whole of this tract of country fell at an early period into the hands of the Douglasses; and Thrieve is said to have been built about AD. 1360, by that Earl Archibald of whom Godscroft tells us that he had no very particular acts to record, although, certainly, he cannot but have done divers worthy of memory, seeing he hath the name and reputation of a most worthy captain, being so stern and austere in carriage and countenance, that he was termed the Grim Douglas; and by our writers Archibald the Grim.

But if Godscroft has not much to tell us concerning Archibald the Grim, there are sufficient traditions and recollections of the Douglasses yet lingering about the old Castle of Thrieve to make a visit to its ruins one of very great interest. The wanderer, therefore, through that rarely visited yet beautiful district of Scotland, will do well to turn aside from the main road, and find his way - not without some difficulty - to the grey walls of the tower. They are indeed constantly within sight; but there is no direct road; and they are not only, as Froissart describes the Scottish camp at Otterburne, ‘sagely fortified with the maresses round about,' but the river itself has no bridge, and when at all swollen by rains presents rather a formidable obstacle. There are, however, many neighbouring farms, and the gudewife will readily leave her 'household skep' to point out to the stranger the best and safest path, - at least we can answer for our own guide. 'It was an auld torn-down bit,' she said. 'The storms had made wild wark with it of late years. She herself minded when much more was standing. But she hoped the auld wa's wad bide a lang time yet; for she had an unco taste for antiquity, forbye she had nae learning.'

Following her directions, after crossing one or two ditches, and clambering over many more dry stane walls, we at last reached the bank of the river opposite to the castle. It was toward the close of an autumn day; and far away to the south some heavy clouds were hanging about the skirts of Criffel, every now and then giving out a low muttering of thunder, and flinging a deep shadow over the rough sides of the mountain. But in front the sun was setting brightly behind the old walls, - streaming in through the shattered windows, and making the dark rifts and gulfs of ruin appear yet darker from the contrast. Flocks of rock-doves, which haunt the sea-caves all along the coast of Galloway, have also taken possession of the castle; and now came fluttering in to their nests on the ruined stairs and the bartizans of the tower.

The surrounding country has a wild and remarkable character, half pastoral, half highland. The water of the Dee in this part of its course flows through a comparatively level district, separating the group of mountains, of which Criffel is the centre, from the wilder country, known as the Highlands of Galloway. It is a true mountain stream, clear and rocky; and the view from the front of the castle, across the plain to the lofty hills in the extreme distance, is one of great and singular beauty. There are few hedges in this part of Galloway; and the plain sweeps away toward the foot of the hills, showing broad tracts of corn-land, interspersed with patches of brushwood and coppice; and along the banks of the river, long, green, half-reclaimed meadows, where the cattle were quietly feeding in the light of the evening sun. As we sat there under a clump of old ash-trees, preparing to cross the stream, and thinking of the Black Douglas and of the Grim Earl Archibald, a whole family of weasels came out of the brushwood close beside us, and went down to drink at the water's edge.

Thrieve is a word of British origin, signifying a house or homestead; and long before Earl Archibald built his tower, there had been a fortalice of the old lords of Galloway on the same site, - always one of considerable strength. Many of the old Scottish castles have a stern and threatening appearance, even in ruin; and, like Thrieve, are unclothed with the ivy and wild flowers generally so rapid in concealing the breaches of time. But none is more utterly bare and unclothed than this; and none seems to represent its former masters more faithfully - those grim old lords, who, as tradition asserts,

Were never over glad for no winning,
Nor yet over sad for no tining.
Good Fortune and evil Chance
They weighed both in one balance.

The castle covers nearly the whole of the small island on which it stands. It consists of one enormous square tower, whose yet remaining walls are seventy feet in height, and about eight in thickness. It is surrounded by a barbacan, having at each angle a circular tower, none of which are now standing; but so solid and massive was their masonry, that great part of the hollow case of one is yet lying on the ground, sound and uninjured, having been snapped off about half way up, just as one would break a willow wand. As in most of the old Scottish towers, the door of Thrieve is placed about nine feet above the level of the ground, so that the interior of the castle is not reached without a scramble. There are no traces of any steps; and the access appears to have been always a temporary one,—such as could be readily withdrawn on the appearance of danger. Within, the shell of the castle is entirely open to the sky, whilst the walls are pierced with deep windows, all with stone seats in their embrasures, and many of them having evidently lighted apartments of considerable size. We remained long within the tower, endeavouring in vain to make out something of its former plan; whilst the sun sank lower and lower, and the only sounds were the rippling of the stream without, and the cooing of the rock-doves, high up on the broken turret stairs. The light stole in upon the stone seats of the windows, through which the Fair Maid of Galloway might have looked out upon the winding Dee, or Earl Archibald 'Tineman' - Shakspeare's earl - might have gazed upon his assembling vassals, before he set forth to join Hotspur and Glendower,

The eleventh of the month, at Shrewsbury.

At last the sun completely set, and the place threatened to become somewhat too eerie; so, not caring to receive a visit from the Black Douglas in person, we scrambled down from the door, and re-crossed the river.

Looking back, however, upon the darkening walls, a yet remaining witness of the feudal power of the Douglasses stood out prominently against the sky. This was the Gallows Knob, or Hanging Stone of Thrieve; a large granite block, formed like a machicoule, and projecting from the front wall of the castle immediately over the main gateway. Tradition asserts that the Hanging Stone was never without its victim; and that, if a criminal was not ready in the dungeon, some unoffending vassal was hastily swung up over the door, lest the castle should want its principal ornament. It was here that Herries of Terregles was hung, in 1452, by William Douglas; who, it is said, kept a retinue of one thousand armed men in Thrieve. 'Your little block-house of Terregles,' he said to Herries, 'is but rarely decked with a dangling villain. But the Gallows Knob of Thrieve hath not been without a tassel these fifty years; and that it may not want one now, I have caused your henchman, who hath hung long enough, to be removed to make room for his master.' There is still a place near the castle known as the Gallows Slot, or the Gallows Pit; and human bones in abundance were turned up there when a road was cut through it about fifty years since.

It was from Thrieve Castle that Sir Patrick Gray was pursued by Douglas, after the murder of MacLellan, tutor of Bombie, - on whose account Sir Patrick had been sent from Edinburgh by James II. 'It is ill talking,' said the earl, 'between a full man and a fasting: we will first to dinner; it will be time enough then to read the king's letter.' But Douglas caused Maclellan to be at once beheaded in the castle yard; and when Sir Patrick declared his commission, 'Thy sister's son lieth yonder,' said the earl; 'he wants the head indeed, but you are welcome to his body.' Sir Patrick fearing, as he well might, ' to beard the Douglas in his hall,' rode quietly across the drawbridge; but when there, he reined up, and shaking his mailed glove, swore that he would requite the injury with the heart's blood of the Douglasses. The earl give orders for an instant pursuit, and the chase was continued almost to Edinburgh, Sir Patrick only escaping by the uncommon fleetness of his horse.

The Castle of Thrieve was the last stronghold that was retained by the Douglasses during their long contest with James II. And it has been asserted - indeed the common tradition of the country bears - that the famous 'Mons Meg’ was cast by the king during the siege of Thrieve, at a place called the Three Thorns of the Carlingwark, not far from Castle Douglas. The whole of the authority for this not very probable story may be found in Mr. Grant's recent Memorials of the Castle of Edinburgh, p. 274.

After the forfeiture of the Douglas possessions, in 1455, Thrieve passed into the hands of the crown, and long afterwards was granted to the Maxwell family. Thus it is alluded to in Lord Maxwell’s Good Night:-

Adieu, Dumfries, my proper place,
But and Carlaverock fair,-
Adieu, my Castle o' the Thrieve,
Wi' a' my buildings there,
Adieu, Lochmaben's gate sae fair,
And Langholm holm, where birks there be,-
Adieu, my ladye and only joy,
For, trust me, I may na stay wi' thee.

But it is the memory of the Black Douglasses that yet lives in the traditions of the people, and more than one relic of this haughty race is still preserved. A massive gold ring, shown by the inscription to have once belonged to Margaret of Douglas, the Fair Maid of Galloway, was found some years since by some workmen who were clearing the castle. It is said that during the siege of Thrieve, whilst Margaret of Galloway was in the act of raising a cup of wine to her lips, a shot from Mons Meg carried away the cup, and the lady's hand with it. And when the ring was discovered in the ruins, it was at once believed that it had been on her finger at the time.

Another curious relic of Thrieve is in the possession of Mr. Train, of Castle Douglas - the friend of Sir Walter Scott - by whose kindness it was shown to us. It is a 'buistie,' as it is called, of black oak; a low bed, closed in front with sliding panels, said to have belonged to the Douglas who was killed in the Castle of Stirling by James II. - the same Earl William who beheaded MacLellan of Bombie. The history of this singular relic has been traced for nearly four hundred years, and it is much to be wished that accurate drawings should be made from the very remarkable carvings with which its panels are decorated. These are rudely-executed figures, representing horse and foot soldiers in various attitudes - billmen and bowmen with sheaves of arrows in their belts, - sword and morris dancers, drummers and fifers, and, in the midst, a bagpiper vigorously sounding a gathering.

Mr. Train possesses many other interesting remains connected with this part of Scotland; and the museum at Abbotsford was greatly enriched by him. The 'jougs' of Thrieve - an iron collar fastened to a chain, by which criminals were formerly confined at the door of the lord's castle - are now attached to the great gates of Abbotsford. The wooden mallet used by Old Mortality whilst repairing the tombs of the Covenanters among the hills of Galloway, is still in Mr. Train's possession; as is the pistol of Yawkins, the original of Dirk Hatteraik. Many Galloway traditions, and some interesting notices of Thrieve, to which we have been much indebted, were contributed by Mr. Train to a History of Galloway published at Kirkcudbright in 1841.