This paper was published in the Transactions of the Dumfries & Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1896/7

The Antiquities of Girthon.
By Rev. W. W. COATS, B.D.

It is with some hesitation that I venture to offer any remarks on a subject to which I have not given special study. But, as I have been invited to contribute a paper on the Antiquities of Girthon, it has occurred to me that there are, unfortunately, not many people able to say much more on the subject than myself. And it is possible that even the few imperfect and unlearned hints I am able to offer may lead to a deeper investigation by some more competent person.

Girthon is not a parish that figures largely in history. Celtic scholars say that the name is an abbreviation of " Girth-avon " - "the enclosure or sanctuary on the river." It has passed through various forms - Gerthouin, Girthton, Girton, are all found. It is certainly difficult to say what enclosure or sanctuary can have suggested the name, for the ancient church, which is now in ruins, is not near the river Fleet. A curious instance of the tendency of the uncultured mind to invent a myth to account for a name is to be found in a tradition repeated by old people till within a few years ago. That old church, they said, was the third that has stood on the same spot. This may be true enough. But they added that the first had been built on the place because a gentleman had been killed there when hunting, through the slipping of his saddlegirth. There may be some foundation for the story, although I have never been able to find a trace of it. But it looks as if it had been invented to give a derivation for the name, which is, of course, absurd.

The church, now in ruins, is undoubtedly ancient. That it is a pre-Reformation building is quite evident from the piscina in the south wall at the east end. I cannot hazard a conjecture as to its date, and I have been quite unable to find out to what saint it was dedicated. It was used as a place of worship down to 1817, when the present parish church was built in Gatehouse, which is quite a modern town. The ancient bell - cast in Bristol – and given to the Kirk by Murray of Broughton in 1733 (as a Latin inscription sets forth), was removed to the new building, and has been disused only within the last 18 months. At the east end of the old church is buried Robert Lennox, a Covenanter, shot in 1685. He was a relative of the Lennoxes, who were then the lairds of Cally, and it may be claimed that his tombstone is undoubtedly the work of Old Mortality, on the authority of Sir Walter Scott himself, who tells a very curious story of the old man working in the Kirkyard of Girthon, at the end of the Introduction to his famous novel.

The farmhouse of "Girthon Kirk," adjoining the churchyard, was formerly the manse, and the residence of the Rev. John M'Naught, whose case was (according to Lockhart) far the most important business in which Sir Walter was employed just after he became an advocate.

About three-quarters of a mile from Old Girthon Kirk, in front of Enrick House, and not far from the Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse road, is Palace Yard. I do not know what to make of it. McTaggart, in his Gallovidian Encyclopedia, describes it thus: - "A deep ditch surrounds a level space, containing about two acres. On this stands the ruined edifice. Over this ditch, which is about 30 feet, and filled with water, a drawbridge yet remains in perfection. This palace is thought to have belonged to our olden Scotch kings." There is, indeed, a comparatively level space, about 100 yards long by 60 broad, surrounded by a ditch. But there is no "ruined edifice," and no water in the ditch, and no drawbridge; and I have not been able to find any person who remembers them.

The author of the "Statistical Account" of 1845 says: - "At Enrig there was a house dependent on the Abbacy of Tongland, and which, it is supposed, formed the occasional residence of its abbots, and after the Reformation, of the Bishops of Galloway. Its site is still known yet as the 'Palace Yard.' Some old plane trees are growing, having a foliage different from those now propagated. The Palace had apparently been surrounded by a ditch and a wall, one of the arched gates having been standing within the memory of a person intimately known to the present writer."

So, between McTaggart (1824) and the Statistical Account (1845), the "ruined edifice," the drawbridge, and the water have disappeared. There remains the memory of an arched gate, which in 1845 was apparently growing rather faint. That there were some plane trees I know, for I remember them. They were cut down within the last ten years. The tenant of Enrick tells me that there are still some wild fruit trees in the neighbourhood which look like the remains of an orchard. The statements about the ownership of the "Palace" evidently rest on conjecture, and are inconsistent. In McTaggart "it is thought to have belonged to our olden Scotch kings." In the Account "it is supposed" to have been the residence of the Abbots of Tongland and Bishops of Galloway. There may be some foundation for these conjectures, at least for the latter, but I do not know what it is, and in the absence of any authoritative statement I am disposed to accept the suggestion made by Sir Herbert Maxwell in his recently published " History of Dumfries and Galloway." "From Kirkcudbright," he says, “the King" (i.e., Edward I. in the year 1300) "advanced as far as Cally, where his sojourn is perhaps commemorated in the name of a field on Enrick, called Palace Yard."

The present state of the ground is, I think, what we might expect on the site of a royal camp, for Edward resided in the parish for some days, fined the miller, and made an offering at the altar of the church. But in that case it is, of course, difficult to account for the "ruined edifice," the "arched gate," &c. (if they ever existed), for these all point to a structure of a more permanent character.

There are several remains of what have been apparently ancient fortifications, but of what periods I am not able to say. On Enrick, for instance, and within sight of Palace Yard, there are traces of what is reported to have been a clearly defined Roman camp. It has been very nearly obliterated by agricultural operations.

Within Cally grounds there is a square fortification of no great extent, surrounded by a ditch, which I take to have been British.

Opposite Barlae Mill there is a place on some rising ground, which appears to have been "improved" at some distant date for purposes of defence, and the miller reports that small balls of some hard substance have once or twice been discovered on the slope, a little under the surface.

Castramont, two miles further up the same road, is a tempting subject, but I really do not feel competent to say much about it. The name, of course, points at once to a Roman camp, but the etymology is just too easy. I am inclined to think that in its present form it is a fancy name of comparatively modern origin. It may be, of course, a revival of the true ancient name, but in the Session Records, under date December 3rd, 1701 (the earliest I can find), it is written "Carstramin." I cannot find "Castramont " until the present century, and I am inclined to think that form has been invented or resuscitated (1) for the sake of euphony, and (2) from an idea that it gives better sense than the old "Carstramin." Sir Herbert Maxwell does not accept the theory of a Latin origin of the name, or connect it with a "Camp Hill" at all. Rightly or wrongly, he believes it is Celtic, and means "the Foot of the Elder Tree."

That there has been some ancient fortification at Castramont is, I suppose, certain. But it is very difficult to say at the present day how much of the appearance of the ground is due to it, and how much to the levelling when the present mansion-house was built. The author of "Lands and their Owners in Galloway" regards it as a piece of Roman work, and even suggests that a mound in the garden marks the site of the Praetorium. Such a suggestion is hazardous when one remembers Edie Ochiltree, and indeed there is at present living in the neighbourhood a person whose grandfather is said to have "minded the bigging o't" from some rubbish which could not be otherwise disposed of. For these reasons I venture to think that no one is entitled to speak with certainty on the subject of Castramont without a more careful and exhaustive survey than has yet been made.

Far up the parish, in the moors near Loch Skerrow, there is a stone, which I take to be an " Old Mortality," erected over the grave of Robert Fergusson, shot on the spot by Claverhouse in 1684.

These are the only ancient remains which I remember, for I do not consider a mere fragment of the ancient mansion-house of Cally (which is the only one named in the last "Statistical Account ") of any interest at all. It is very probable that others might be found by someone who had the genuine antiquary's eye, and more leisure than I have enjoyed, in the remote and now uninhabited parts of the parish. There can be no doubt that at one time the population was much more equally distributed over its great extent than it is at present. The town of Gatehouse is modern, the first house having been built about 1760. There is a "town of Fleet" referred to in the History of Edward I.'s invasion, but where it was situated tradition does not say. Symson in 1684 refers to “a place called Gatehouse-of-Fleet." As usual, there are ever so many suggested derivations of the name - e.g. the House at the Gate of Cally (which is absurd), the House where the Gaits (goats) were gathered (which is far-fetched), the House on the Gate, meaning the Road, which is more likely than either.

But judging from the situation of the church and the old parish records, the chief centres of population were on the one hand nearer the sea, and on the other further up the parish inland than the present village. There are many signs of former cultivation in the most remote and barren parts of the hills, and districts were solemnly assigned to elders two hundred years ago where now not a single soul is to be met for miles.

The only ancient Kirk-Session Records in existence are from 1694 to 1701, and again some fragments (apparently jottings) from 1730 to 1742. They are very curious as a picture of the life and church discipline in Galloway between the Revolution and the '45, but they are probably not greatly different from similar Records in other parishes. I cannot find any passages that touch on matters of wider than parochial interest, except, perhaps, an entry in 1700 receiving John McMillan, chaplain to Murray of Broughton, as an elder. This was the famous Cameronian who became minister of Balmaghie shortly after.

There is written into the Session book - apparently in the year 1700 - a form of "Oath of Purgation," which may not be unique, but is so much more terrific than that given in the " Form of Process " approved by the General Assembly of 1707, that I venture to transcribe it verbatim: -

"Whereas I …………. In …………… of Girthon have been and am accused by the Presbytery of Kirkcudbright and Session of Girthon of the horrid sin and scandall of Adultery alledged to be committed by me with I hereby declare myself Innocent of the said guilt, and in Testimony of my Innocence I swear by the Eternall God the Searcher of all hearts, Invocating him as Witness, Judge, and Avenger, wishing in case I be guilty that he himself may appear against me, as witness, and fix the guilt upon me; he himself may proceed as judge against me, who hath witnessed that whoremongers and adulterers he will judge (Heb. 13, 4), he himself may avenge his own cause who hath declared he will not hold them guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exod. 20, 7), and that the Roll of God's curse which enters the house of false swearers (Zech. 5, 4) may enter my house if I be guilty and remaine in the midst thereof untill it consume the timber and stones yof (thereof) and root out the remembrance thereof from the earth, and that the righteous Lord may make me ane Example and Terror to all false swearers before I go off this world - and finally that all the curses written in the book of God from the beginning of the Genesis to the end of the Revelation may fall upon me, particularly that I may never see the face of God in mercy, but be excommunicat from his presence and have my portion with divels and reprobats in hell to all eternitie if I be guilty; which forsaid oath I take in its true, genuin and ordinary sense, without equivocation or mentall reservation, and that this paper may stand as a witness against me if I be guilty," &c.

Perhaps it may be worth adding that there is in the Girthon Session records a passage which throws some light on the relations between the Presbyterian clergy and their Episcopalian predecessors. In 1701 there was living in Girthon a Borgue man named James Dallzell, who seems to have been regarded as a suspicious character. The Session "appoints the minister to ask at Mr Monteith" (minister of Borgue) "at meeting what's the reason why this man gets not a testimonial." A fortnight after "the minister according to appointment spoke to Mr Monteith anent James Dallzell, who told him that he was not well looked upon by the people of Borg since the abuse he committed in Mr Hasty's House, late Incumbent at Borg."

Now, this Mr Hasty was an Episcopal curate, inducted to Borgue in 1682, and "rabbled" out in 1689. Hence probably the word "incumbent," unusual in Scotch church records. They would not admit he was "minister." Perhaps they looked upon "curate " as an illegal - at anyrate a very odious title. "Incumbent" was neutral. One would like to know what the "abuse" committed in his house was. If it refers to the "rabbling," it would seem that Mr Monteith and his people (strong Presbyterians though they were) did not approve of the violent and lawless expulsion of the curate. On the other hand, Monteith was himself an instigator of the mob in the dyke-levelling riots of 1724.

Perhaps an explanation of the mysterious "abuse " may be found in a minute of Session of the same year, 1701 - "Appoints John Aikine and John McKnay to wait on Fryday at the Gatehous mercat to take notice and delate such within this Parish as shall be found swearing or drinking, drunk, or committing any other abuse. And the rest of the Elders per vices thereafter." So after all the "abuse committed in Mr Hasty's house " may have been something of the nature of undue festivity. And I am afraid the zealous Presbyterians of 1700 were not likely to look with favour on a man who had been a companion of an "incumbent" before the Revolution.