Destruction of Munches House by Lightening
Reproduced from the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, of 20th May 1868.

On Monday evening, the storm which passed over Dumfriesshire and Galloway raged with a violence in the neighbourhood of Dalbeattie which far exceeded that of the severest of the elemental convulsions which have taken place in that locality within the memory of the oldest inhabitant ; and, we are sorry to say – in the almost total ruin of Munches House, the family seat of Mr Wellwood Maxwell, M.P. for Kirkcudbrightshire – it has distinguished itself by its destructive effects in a manner that will leave a lasting impression on the mind of the youngest who witnessed it. So far as we have been able to ascertain, the particulars of the disastrous visitation are these :

A close and sultry condition of the atmosphere which prevailed over the Sabbath night and during the whole of Monday had prepared everyone for a speedy explosion of electric matter : but it was not till shortly before eight o’clock that the first heraldic grumblings of the approaching storm were heard. So rapid however was its advance, that in little more than half-an-hour the air seemed to have become a palpitating element of liquid flame, and the firmament to rack in the throes of dissolution – man to inhale the breath of a furnace, and all Nature besides in a process of fusion. About twenty minutes to nine o’clock, one terrible peal of thunder, like the crack of doom itself, appeared to shake the earth to its innermost centre, and a ragged shaft of lightning was observed to travel from the west, make a circuit by the north and east, and descend to a point immediately above the mansion house of Munches.

The house is a massive granite structure, in the modern Gothic style of architecture, was built so recently as 1858, and has only been occupied since the following year. It has a frontage towards the north, and a western wing in which were the servants’ rooms. It consisted of four floors – namely, a sunk, a first and second, and an attic storey, the last of which was, however, rarely used. The dining room occupied the first floor to the west of the entrance, and the library to the east : the principal sitting room, on the same floor, was lighted from the eastern gable, and the southern or back part of the house immediately above, was the best bedroom, and, running the length of the rear of the building were Mr and Mrs Maxwell’s private rooms and some other sleeping apartments of the family. Close upon the west wing, on the first floor of the main building, and underneath the nursery, was the muniment room, looking towards the south ; and at the extreme of the wing are the laundry, larder, and dairy, which are lower than the rest of the structure.

Mr Maxwell was in London on his Parliamentary duties, and Mrs and Miss Maxwell were absent in Edinburgh : so that, besides the servants, the only members of the family who were at home were the four younger children, three of whom had already been put to bed. None of the inmates of the house saw the descent of the bolt, or heard any noise at all resembling what would be produced by the giving way of the roof : and indeed it would have been impossible to distinguish such a sound when their ears were filled with the rackit and din of the thunder. It is almost certain, however, that the lightning penetrated the roof directly over the nursery at the south side of the building, as the little girl who had not yet been put to bed shortly afterwards discovered fire in that direction, and moreover it is believed the house was struck at other two points almost at the same moment namely, above Mrs Maxwell’s bedroom, and the superior apartment at the east end of the building.

As soon as the young lady had discovered the fire, she gave the alarm to the other inmates of the house. Mr Denham, the butler, hurried to the spot, and found the place already in a blaze. The children were at once taken from their beds. The dinner bell was hastily rung, and everything done calculated to attract assistance, while at the same time the most strenuous efforts were being made to subdue the flames, and save the more valuable portions of the furniture. All the silver place which had not been deposited in the safe – including the magnificent piece presented to Mr Maxwell about two years ago by the Castle Douglas Railway Company – was secured at the outset by Mr Denham. An attempt was made to enter mrs Maxwell’s bedroom, but a wall of flame rendered it abortive.

Meanwhile Messrs William and John Kerr, who had seen the conflagration from their father’s farm at Little Richorn, on the Munches estate, hurried into Dalbeattie, a distance fully a mile, and there spread the alarm, the latter rushing up to the Established Church, and pulling at the bell till the iron clapper rang forth a note which made itself audible over the whole village. About the same time, Mr Platt of Kirkennan, who had been driving home, observed the fire, and turned, arrived in the town, and left instructions with Messrs M’Dowall and Muir, Innkeepers, to afford every convenience to parties going down to assist in extinguishing the flames. Mr M’Murtrie, station-master, also travelled up to Dumfries by the late train, and about eleven o’clock, Mr Malcolm, superintendent of the Dumfries burgh police, was requested to send along one of the water engines. With characteristic promptitude, Mr Malcolm got ready an engine and hose, and, per special locomotive, he and one of his officers, proceeded with it to Dalbeattie, and arrived at Munches a little before one o’clock. Mr Malcolm was also accompanied by Mr Paul, superintendent of the locomotive department, several tradesmen, and others.

Long before this, however, the fire had completely taken possession of the whole building with the exception of laundry, larder, and dairy, which were the only portions that escaped uninjured – and the scene became one of terrific grandeur. The conflagration, the surrounding darkness, over-and-anon rent by a vivid flash of lightning, the rattle of Heaven’s artillery, reverberating among the cliffs of Craignair and the hills of Kirkennan, the rapid movement of the multitude of people about the burning pile, their excited gestures, and inarticulate shouts, seemed almost to realise the Pandemonium of "Paradise Lost." and, remembering the solemn silence generally characteristic of the hour, and the wide expanse of blue through which, even on that afternoon, the burning chariot of Phoebus had been seen to pass, at once suggested the lines of Byron:

"The sky is changed ! and such a change ! Oh night.
And storm and darkness, ye are wondrous strong
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman ! Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among
Leaps the live thunder ! Not from one lone cloud
But every mountain now hath found a tongue
And Jura answers, though her misty shroud
Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud !"

Though there was no lack of assistance in the shape of willing hands, no impression could be made on the fire. We believe there is a reservoir in some way connected with the building, but, at an early stage, through the burning of a pipe, it became entirely inoperative: and they had to depend wholly on a supply of water in cans from the Urr, nearly two hundred yards distant. The result was that whenever a bucketful was thrown into the burning house, the flames spat it back, hissing and boiling, and oftentimes about the person of the thrower. All the more valuable furniture, paintings, &c., had however been rescued before the fire had asserted undivided dominion in the eastern end of the building: and about this time, as well as through the entire night, the exertions made by Mr Armsrtong, Mr A Thomson, Mr W Coutts, Mr A Meldrum, and Mr Pailing, Dalbeattie, and Mr A Carruthers, wood forester, Kirkennan, deserve to be spoken of in terms of the highest commendation.

When Mr Malcolm arrived with the engine, and it had been fairly set in operation, it was not long till the power of water in subduing fire began to be apparent. The men worked right heartily, and no engine could have done better than this one did. But still it was a puissant enemy they had to do battle with, and one which had strongly entrenched itself: and it was not till three o’clock yesterday morning that they really got a mastery over the flames. It was at a much more advanced hour in the day when they found themselves able to congratulate themselves on having brought the fire completely under : and it was found necessary to keep casting water into the ruins till late in the afternoon.

With the exception of the places we have mentioned, nothing but the naked walls of the once handsome structure remains. These are, however, in a greater state of preservation than could have been expected. They seem to be damaged only to a slight extent. They are very little blackened – almost not at all : and the only rents of any consequence are two or three which have rendered it necessary to remove the mullions and cornices of the bay window belonging to the principal sitting room and best bedroom. Mr Malcolm had early directed the hose on the muniment room: and it is believed that the contents of the safe, in which is most of the silver plate – are perfectly secure. But the inside walls and flooring of the house have vanished in flames and smoke and so, we regret to say, has all the property of the governess, the head nurse, and the kitchen maid : that of the other servants was rescued.

Nearly all the people who were on the scene of the fire during the night conducted themselves in a very orderly and laudable manner, but there are black sheep in every squad, and we had them here in the shape of a few disreputable characters, who seemed to have neither sense of shame nor feeling of decency, and acted more like animals than civilised men. With a true instinct, they had discovered the wine cellar, and plied themselves with liquor till they were perfectly wild in drunkenness. One or two of them had a narrow escape with their lives : overcome by the drink in the cellar, they happened to be discovered, and they were carried out on to the lawn shortly before the falling in of the floor. Besides these we have specially mentioned, the following gentlemen were present and rendered most active assistance: The Rev. Messrs Stewart, Grant and Inglis, Mr Platt of Kirkennan : Mr Murray, manager of the quarries : Mr Strong, Barlochan ; Mr Aitken, druggist : Messrs Ritchie, merchants : D. Clark : Mr Gordon, Barsyard : Mr Wright, Toul : Mr Ogg, granite works : Mr Williamson : Mr Ferguson, Mr Grieve, Mr Thomson, and quite a host of the inhabitants of Dalbeattie and and workmen in the quarries, whose names it were impossible to ascertain, much less publish. Constable M’Millan also distinguished himself by the way in which he behaved, while Mr M’Ewan, land-grieve on the estate, and the servants about the place, could certainly have done little more than they did. Superintendent Malcolm showed great tact and discernment in his management of the engine, restraining the fury of the flames at the first, and keeping playing the water in particular parts till the fire had there been subdued, and much is no doubt owing to him. Mr Davidson, chief-constable, was on the ground almost the whole of yesterday, and made himself useful in a variety of ways. Among the gentlemen who afterwards visited the scene of the conflagration, we observed Colonel Hyslop of Lotus, Mr A Jardine of Applegarth, Mr Skirving of Croys, Mr M’Kie, banker, Dumfries, and Mr S Adamson, agent for Mr Maxwell.

We understand the building is insured with Mr James M’Kie, banker, agent for the Sun Insurance Co., to the amount of £4000, and the furniture to the amount of £1000 ; the injury done is immense, but what will be the loss to the worthy proprietor, for whom the greatest sympathy is felt, it is of course impossible to say.

Telegrams of the disaster were at once sent off to Mr and Mrs Maxwell, and we believe they have both arrived at Kirkennan, to which place, we may add, the children were taken on Monday night.