Orchardton Tower, Parish of Buittle, Kirkcudbright.

Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. 3rd Series, Vol. XV. 1928/29.

It is difficult fully to appreciate a building unless we can associate it in our minds with the lives of the people who lived in it. Therefore I will begin this account of Orchardton Tower with a short history of the three families who have been connected with the property. 

The family of Cairns lived here for 150 years, from 1456 to 1600 The family of Maxwell owned the property for over 150 years, from 1600 to 1778, and they were followed by the family of Douglas, who are now in possession.

The "Cairns", from which the first of these families took their name, are situated in the parish of Midcalder, in Midlothian. The first member of the family directly connected with Galloway was Provost of Lincluden from about 1408 to 1422. His tomb was discovered during the excavation of the Abbey site, conducted under the guidance of this Society in 1882.

Two brothers of the Provost held important offices at the Royal Court. John was "custumar ‘ (what we would call today Chief Collector of Customs) at Linlithgow, and William was Constable of Linlithgow Castle. John developed abilities as a military engineer and builder, and in 1372 he was given the contract for the building of King David’s Tower in Edinburgh Castle. This tower was considered at the time a masterpiece of fortification and absolutely impregnable. It was the most striking feature of the castle until its destruction by artillery 1573.

John Cairns was succeeded in the office by his nephew, John the Second, and the Provost of Lincluden appointed this same nephew heir to his extensive properties in Galloway. John the Second appears to have made his home in Galloway, but the place of his residence is not known. He was succeeded as Collector of Customs by his son, John the Third. In 1456 (probably the date of his father’s death) John the Third left Linlithgow and went to live in Galloway.

The power of the Douglases, Lords of Galloway was overthrown in 1452, when Earl William was murdered by the King in Stirling Castle. Their stronghold of Threave was taken in 1455, and the Lordship of Galloway was annexed to the Crown by an Act of 1456. The King rewarded with grants from the forfeited estates those who had assisted him to overthrow the Douglases.

In these days this part of the county was known as Irisbuitle. The name no longer exists, but there is an entry, dated 1614, in the Exchequer Rolls, which reads: "Lands of Orchardton otherwise called Irisbuitle." The name means "the part of Buittle jutting out towards the sea," and its significance is plain to those who know the geography of the parish.

In 1456 John Cairns had sasine of the lands of Irisbuitle by the sealed mandate of the King, so it is probable that he received these lands in return for services rendered in connection with the overthrow of the Douglases.

This John Cairns erected the Castle of Orchardton with its massive tower shortly after 1456, and made it his home till his death in 1493. He was succeeded by his son William, who married a daughter of Agnew of Lochnaw. His mother-in-law was a sister of Gordon of Lochinvar. These details show why this William’s son (William the Younger) came to be present when Lochinvar and Agnew slaughtered M’Lellan of Bomby in the High Street of Edinburgh in 1527-1528. William the Elder died in 1555, and his son died three years later. The lands were partitioned amongst the three daughters. Alexander Kirkpatrick, the son of the eldest daughter, sold his share (which included the Castle) in 1616 to Robert Maxwell, a nephew of Lord Maxwell. Robert Maxwell’s family had already (about 1600) purchased the share of the youngest daughter from her son Edward Maxwell of Drumcoltran, and in 1640 Sir Robert Maxwell purchased the remaining share, and thus became the owner of the re-united property.

Sir Robert Maxwell of Orchardton (he was created a Baronet in 1663) married Marion, the only child of the first Lord Kirkcudbright. He died in 1671, and left two sons - Robert (the second Baronet), and Thomas, who married the heiress of Gelston. As Robert's son, George (the third baronet), died without heirs, the title and property descended to Thomas’s son, Robert, who succeeded in 1719.

I will give the history of Sir Robert Maxwell, 4th Baronet, and his heirs at greater length, because his will led to a case well known in Scottish annals, and also because the romantic circumstances connected with the succession of Robert, the 7th Baronet, are stated by Mackenzie to have given Sir Walter Scott the idea of the plot of "Guy Mannering."

Sir Robert Maxwell, as I have said, did not succeed until 1719. In 1680 he had married Barbara, daughter of George Maxwell of Munches. To them a son, George, was born in 1682. In 1697 (when George was 15) his father married a second time, and in this marriage settlement it was stipulated that all property acquired after the second marriage should be settled on the issue of the second wife. In 1700 a son, Mungo, was born. Mungo was therefore 18 years younger than his half brother. Then in 1719 the father succeeded his cousin in the Orchardton property. Under the marriage settlement Orchardton would devolve upon Mungo.

In 1723 the father declared himself a Protestant, but his two sons, who were then 40 and 23 years of age respectively remained true to the Roman Catholic faith. Their father executed a trust deed in 1727 disinheriting his sons and settling all his estates (that is both Gelston and Orchardton) on the heirs male of Mungo provided the heir was a Protestant, and failing this on the nearest Protestant heir.

The old man died two years later. The brothers came to an agreement where they set aside their father’s will, and Sir George (he had become 5th Baronet on his father’s death) succeeded to two-thirds of the Orchardton estate, including the Castle, while Mungo received certain lands both of Orchardton and of Gelston including Glenshinnoch where he probably lived. Mungo seems to have been a recluse and Sir George probably managed the whole of the property and paid Mungo the proceeds of his share. At this time (shortly before the agreement to set aside the father’s will) a son was born to Mungo. This boy, at the age of seven, was sent to Douai in France to be brought up in the famous R.C. College where his father had been a student before him. Sir George’s own son, Thomas, was at this time 22 years of age, and he had been brought up not in his father’s faith but as a Protestant.

Mungo apparently did not keep in touch with his son at Douai. The boy tried to escape from the College, and his second attempt was successful. At the age of 15 he enlisted in a French regiment. He was present both at Dettingen and at Fountenoy. He obtained a French commission and landed with Lord John Drummond in Scotland in November, 1745. He was wounded at Culloden, and after many hardships was taken prisoner near Dumfries. Sheriff Goldie discovered the existence of the French commission, and treated the young man as a prisoner of war. The name, Robert Maxwell, naturally attracted attention. He was recognised as Mungo’s son, and was acknowledged later by his mother, who went to visit him on several occasions in Dumfries jail.

About this time, 1746, Sir George Maxwell, 5th Baronet, died, and was succeeded in the property by his son, the Protestant Sir Thomas, cousin of the young man in the jail. No question regarding the succession seems to have arisen at the time. Sir Thomas, if he thought of the matter at all, must have known that the agreement setting aside his grandfather’s will, when the heir under the will was a few months old, could not be legal, but he no doubt felt secure in the fact that Mungo’s son (the boy in jail) was a Roman Catholic, and that he himself would succeed as the nearest Protestant heir of his grandfather. As such he was entitled not only to his own lands but also to the lands of his uncle, Mungo.

The young prisoner of war was allowed out on parole, and appears to have visited his home at Glenshinnoch. In 1749 he returned to his military career in France, having been exchanged as a prisoner of war. He took leave the following year and paid a visit to Scotland, but from 1750 to 1753 he served in France. About this time he appears to have learned something of the terms of his grandfather’s will, and to have had it suggested that if he would declare himself a Protestant he could claim the Orchardton estate. He returned to Scotland, and made his demand to his cousin, Sir Thomas, "at the door of Orchardton Castle." Sir Thomas and his family not unnaturally resented this proceeding. The young Robert Maxwell thereupon resigned his French commission, declared himself a Protestant, and the lawsuit began in 1756. Sir Thomas died in 1761, and the claimant in ordinary course became Sir Robert Maxwell, 7th Baronet of Orchardton. He obtained possession of the estate, and soon after built the new mansion at Glenshinnoch (the present Orchardton House), but he was not confirmed in his title until the final decision in the House of Lords in his favour in 1771.

Those who have the plot of "Guy Mannering" in mind will wonder what all this has to do with the case of Harry Bertram, but it must be remembered that it was not the facts that were known to Sir Walter Scott but the romantic account of them told him by Joseph Train, and the accounts of the case which are found in Mackenzie and in M’Kerlie give some idea of how far rumour got from the truth.

Sir Robert Maxwell became involved in the Ayr bank failure, and was ruined. The estate was sold in 1785, and came into the possession of James Douglas, brother of Sir William Douglas, founder of Castle-Douglas, in whose family it still remains.

The remarkable round tower and the ruined walls at its base are all that remain of the Castle of Orchardton built by John Cairns soon after he obtained the estate of Irisbuitle in 1456.  The Castle was occupied by the Cairns family until 1558, when William the younger died. It is not likely that his daughter, Margaret, lived here, as she had her own home, but it seems probable that Sir Robert Maxwell, the first Baronet of Orchardton, made it his residence, at least for a time, although he is known to have resided also at his wife’s home in Kirkcudbright. It was probably the home of his son and grandson. Sir Robert, the 4th Baronet, lived at Gelston, but from the records of the trial it appears that his grandson, Sir Thomas, was living at Orchardton in 1754, for it is recorded that the claimant made his demand for the estates to his uncle "at the door of Orchardton Castle."

The Castle therefore appears to have been used as a residence by Sir Thomas, and in that case probably also by Sir Robert, the 7th Baronet, while the new mansion at Orchardton (built on the site of his mother’s home of Glenshinnoch) was being constructed, that is until 1765 or thereabouts.

The Tower is unique in Galloway, and (Mr Lawlor adds) almost so in all Britain. The circular form has troubled archaeologists. Joseph Train in his 'History of the Isle of Man' writes: " The Tower of Orchardton is a fine specimen of Danish Rath."   Dr. Trotter notes that Dr. Charlton considered it a specimen of the Bassle houses of the old Scottish lairds. Mr Lawlor regarded the Tower as "a massive circular Peel at the end of the main building." The fifth report describes the plan of the Tower as "most unusual, being circular in form, but in other respects closely resembling the arrangement to be found in the smaller castles of the 15th century." Since the publication of the report the remains of the enclosing walls have been excavated.

No one has been able to account satisfactorily for the unusable feature, the round Tower. That it was regarded as remarkable from a very early date may be inferred from the fact that the Cairns of Orchardton added a round tower to their crest and showed the usual "Martlet " perched on its top.

In 1912 ancient foundations, thought by some to he those of the once famous King David's Tower of Edinburgh Castle, were discovered under the Half-Moon Battery, and it was found that the Battery was built upon the stump of an old circular foundation. I had thought it possible that John Cairns had his great uncle’s famous work on his mind (and perhaps his plans in his hand) when he built Orchardton Tower. I have since been informed, however, that these old foundations are attributed to the Regent Morton subsequent to the destruction of King David’s Tower in 1573, and that King David’s Tower was not circular in form.

The circular form of Orchardton Tower therefore remains a mystery. Viewed from within, the Tower in other respects closely resembles the arrangement to be found in the small castles of the 15th century. The best example of these in this neighbourhood is the Castle of Cardoness. In the present case, however, there is a basement, which has an entrance from outside. It consists of a small barrel-vaulted chamber, oblong, not round. The in-goes on the two sides admitting light and air are fully eight feet in depth owing to the curve of the exterior wall. Mr Lawlor suggests that this chamber was a dungeon, entered by means of a trap door under a flag in the floor of the first storey. He suggests that this is proved by an examination of the masonry round the entrance doorway, which he considered of recent date. When I visited the Tower I did not examine this point, nor did I look for indications of an ancient trap door.

The present entrance is by an outside stairway on the east, but the present doorway would seem to have been originally a window. The original entrance was perhaps the window now closed up with iron stanchions. Below this window the recent excavations have disclosed part of a winding staircase, but from the curve of the stair it does not appear that this led directly to the Tower entrance. It seems more probable that at one time the Tower was entered by means of this door directly from the Castle, and that the winding stair led up from the cellars to the Castle.

On the west side, near the fireplace, are the remains of an ambry, with a pointed archway infilled with trefoil cusping. A circular piscina with a drain is worked on the sill, which the writer of the Fifth Report thought indicated the use of this apartment as a chapel.

Judging by the mouldings and construction of the arch head (cut out of two separate stones and meeting in a straight joint at the apex), he considered the work to be nearly contemporaneous with similar work at Cardoness. As Cardoness dates from the latter part of the 15th century, this conjecture would fit in with the known date on the Tower. A chapel in such a position is unusual. When Mr Reid and I examined the ambry we doubted whether there had ever been any egress for water from the hole, and a further examination led us to form the opinion that the carved freestone facing had been added as an ornament to a recess in the wall similar to the recess on the floor above. The ledge of the ambry would appear to have been struck off in order to make it flush with the stone work of the wall. If the carved corbel by the entrance to the stairway on the other side of the chamber (which, it has been suggested, is a lamp stand) be examined, it, too, will be found to have the appearance of having been inserted into the masonry at a later date, and possibly to have been the lower part of the same piscina.

The second and third floors were supported by beams. On the right of the door leading from the staircase to the second storey chamber there is a guarde robe, which contains what in these far-off days would have been described as modern conveniences."

The winding staircase (protected by a small guardroom in the thickness of the wall) communicates directly from this level to the two upper floors, and terminates in a cape house leading to the parapet walk round the top of the walls. This parapet is supported by moulded corbels, which may be seen from the outside.

The ruins of the rectangular Castle adjoining the Tower have been excavated since the Commission's report was published in 1914. I have not been able to procure any notes on these excavations. The foundations are massive, and seem intended to support a considerable structure. Nothing but the ruins of the cellars or storerooms remains, but the plan of the walls (especially where they approach nearest to the circular wall of the tower) indicate that the Tower was an independent structure. Mr Lawlor considered that the masonry of the rectangular structure was older than that of the Tower. This would indicate that the Douglases had a stronghold on this site before the days of the Cairns, a suggestion which for several reasons does not seem probable. It seems to me more probable that the Tower was built first, and that (not long after) the Castle was built adjoining, and in consequence an alteration was made in the means of entrance, the first floor of the Tower being utilised as the entrance hall of the Castle and decorated as such. A more prolonged examination than I was able to give, and more knowledge of 15th century castle building than I possess, is necessary to tackle the problems which these foundations raise.

Orchardton Tower was evidently regarded as a remarkable structure when it was built about 1456, and the state of Its preservation, for which we have to thank a long line of owners, renders it today one of the most interesting of the ancient constructions in Galloway.


1. The Fifth Report and Inventory of Monuments, 1914.
2. M’Kerlie’s Lands and their Owners, 1879.
3. Mackenzie’s History of Galloway, 1841.
4. East Galloway Sketches; Trotter, 1901.
5. History of the Family of Cairnes or Cairns; Lawlor, 1906.