AYRSHIRE ROOTS

Ayrshire Towns and Parishes

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HOW A SHEEPS HEAD BEGAT STRIFE BETWEEN AUCHINLECK AND COLVILL.

 

AYRSHIRE is full of beautiful scenery, in spite of its long undulating stretches. These have a sameness about them, but they are only the foreground of the picture, or, if the picture is a small one, they are the paths that lead to it. Sometimes it is a quiet woodland scene, where Nature seems ever to rest, and where a profound sense of stillness and of quiet is felt. Sometimes it is the sweeping bend of a river, its clear waters tumbling from rock to rock, rippling over the shallows, or flowing unbroken on in that ceaseless eternity of motion which a river always suggests, to that equal eternity of immensity that rolls round the globe. Above the river the trees droop gently, or the long bulrushes grow, and behind them the large, coarse fronds of the commoner ferns, if there is a coarseness in fern life at all, rise in their deep green, always refreshing to the eye and to the mind of the observer. Sometimes it is a, deep wooded dell, a cleft in the surface of the earth, down which a little brook wanders, its sides a strange succession of contrasts, the rugged rock softened by the lichen, its rudest boulders harmonised and beautified by the creeping moss, the trailing woodbine, or the enswathing ivy. Sometimes it is a hoary old ruin, where the past dwells, the past of humanity, where once our fellow-mortals lived their part on life's stage, where history found one of its chapters and romance one of its stanzas. Or if the pathway leads, like giant vestibule, to scenes beyond, it is to the rocky peaks, the gently rising knolls, the leafy forest, or, best of all, to the sea. The country is living with such pictures. There is no end to them. They are to be found on every river's side, in every parish. They stretch from the extreme south, where the shire merges into Wigtown, to its contact with Renfrew in the north, and from the sea-coast to the western borders of Lanark and Dumfries. Many of them owe their attractiveness solely to Nature, none to art, and many to the lustre in which antiquity and personal story have bathed them.

Everybody has heard of the Lugar. It is one of the. streams of song. Not a large river when it flows on a fine summer's day, but a beautiful. In its course it evolves a thousand scenic delights. Many a generation it has seen come and go, many a knight has ridden by its waters, many a lady of the olden times has pledged her troth to the accompaniment of its music. It flows to-day as ever, fresh and clear and bright, and in the murmur of its waters is heard the story of the past. And the chapter which follows is part of the story.

There stands on the bank of the Lugar, in the parish of Auchinleck, the remains of an old castle, the House of Auchinleck. It is the veriest of ruins. What still endures tells of a stronghold of five centuries ago and more, when Ayrshire was the battle ground of contending families, and when mansions were built for defence and for defiance. It is now the veriest ghost of its original. With its foundations deep in the old red sandstone, it occupies the crest of a high projecting rock, a point formed by the junction of the Hillend Burn with the classic Lugar. On two sides it was protected, when protection was needed, by the water and the cliffs, while access on the other sides was only to be had by a devious bridle path which wound up the steep ascent, and which practically set attack at defiance. Its walls were heavy and strong, and behind its battlements the dwellers lived without fear of the stormy world beyond. Not far distant is a second old house of Auchinleck, deserted like its progenitor, and within easy distance is the castle, still inhabited, a picturesque mixture of the comparatively old and the comparatively new. It, too, has its old-world look and story, its reminiscences of portcullis and drawbridge, its manor-house redolent of the changing times when society was in the crucible, and when strength of wall and of approach were still regarded as consistent with taste and convenience, and its Grecian structure with its suggestions of civil reformation and emergence from the crude times of barbaric feudalism. The immediate surroundings are charming. Here and there the cliffs rise sheer more than a hundred feet from the foot of the glen, while adown its sides, where these shelve and. slope more gently, luxuriant woodland and verdant turf give sylvan tone to the scene.

In the fifteenth century the old house of Auchinleck was inhabited by Auchinleck of that ilk. On the opposite side of the river stood the Castle of Ochiltree, another keep for the age of the strong hand, and habited by the family of Colvill. Both names have disappeared from the proprietorship of that part of the country, and both the families, at least in direct descent, are extinct. At the time mentioned, however, they were very much alive, and on the best terms with one another. So intimate were they that they had devised, by means of a rope, a regular communication between the houses, and when the one was desirous of telling the other anything, or sending something, in place of crossing the Lugar, they called their primitive postal system into exercise. This happy state of matters existed for long. Unhappily, however, the Colvills and the Auchinlecks came to words. What the immediate cause of the quarrel was cannot now be said, but that the strife was keen can well be believed. As the contention grew, all friendly relations ceased, and the heads of the respective families thought only how they could insult and offend one another.

It occurred to Auchinleck to send the crowning mark of contempt. With a grim sense of the ludicrous, he one day collected the bones of a sheep's head of which he and his had partaken, and, rolling them up in a parcel, he adjourned to the window near to which the rope was attached. The parcel was formally addressed to Colvill. The signal was given, the opposing window of Ochiltree was opened, and the little bundle was sent across the river. On reaching its destination it was conveyed to Colvill. He was surprised at the audacity of the enemy across the water in venturing to send him anything whatever, and, when he undid the fastening and his eyes lighted on the collection of bones, his rage knew no bounds. Here was an insult, indeed, an insult that could not be wiped out save with blood. The more he contemplated the bones, the worse became his rage, until it culminated in action. He called about him his retainers and took counsel with them. One thing was clear, they could not carry Auchinleck House by storm. Its approaches were too craggy for that, and even if the heights were successfully scaled, they were not strong enough to overcome anything partaking of the nature of a determined defence. As the result of their deliberations, they resolved to effect by strategy what they could not do by force. Accordingly, when the time was ripe for action, they stealthily clambered up the rocks leading to the house. They went quietly, so that they should not be overheard, and they lay in wait under the walls until the strong door which shut out the world should be opened. Their patience was at length rewarded. Innocent of the armed men waiting on the door to swing open on its hinges, the warder undid the fastenings. No sooner had he done so than Colvill and his men sprang to their feet, and ere the mischief could be undone they were within the house. The Laird of Auchinleck heard the scuffle in the hall, and, realizing in an instant what it portended, he retired to a secluded corner of his dwelling. He had only a few attendants, not such a gathering, by any means, as to resist the armed men who, swarming upstairs, were soon in possession of the lower floors of the castle and of such defences as Auchinleck could boast. The laird armed himself as best he could, and waited, standing on the defensive. His retreat did not long avail him. The door of his room, oaken though it was, was burst open, and in rushed the avengers. The struggle was short. Auchinleck defended himself to the end, but he was speedily overpowered and slain. And Colvill, having had his injured honour appeased, retreated to his own dwelling, satisfied at having wiped out the terrible insult to which he had been subjected.

Auchinleck was an adherent of the Douglas, and when tidings were conveyed to that doughty chieftain of the outrage perpetrated on him, he took instant steps to mete out retribution. To Ayrshire he came with all the speed in his power, and with a sufficiently strong band to crush any opposition which he was likely to encounter. Colvill could not hope to cope with the Douglas. His was no large estate; no district of country looked up to him either as its feudal superior or its protector. All he possessed was, the lands of Ochiltree. So when he looked out of the windows of his castle and saw surround it the men who followed in the train of Douglas, he needed no Cassandra to warn him that his doom was sealed. Defence was out of the question. What could a few attendants do in opposition to the fierce warriors from across the march of the county ? He tried to make terms, but the refusal was curt. Douglas promptly told him to yield himself up to his tender mercies, and take his chance of life. He was not inclined to do this, so the door was forced, and he was speedily led out a prisoner. The house was given over to the flames, as many another castle in Ayrshire has been. Its day was past, its hour come. The torch was put to it. The trembling members of the family fled from it with the attendants, leaving Colvill himself in the hands of the enemy; and when they had put a sufficiently safe distance between themselves and danger, and paused to look back towards their dwelling, they saw the dark smoke beginning to wreath it. The pile was lit by the light of day, and all the country knew vengeance was being done. Its glare reddened the night sky, and when next morning broke, the sun, which these many years had been wont to cast his beams on the grey walls of Ochiltree, and light up the eastern windows with his earliest glances, shone on a heap of ruins. Walls, oaken beams, ceilings, furniture, all lay massed in common destruction, and from that day to this the Castle of Ochiltree has been a waste and a desolation.

The men of Douglasdale stood by while the flames caught hold, nor did they leave the spot until the conflagration had attained such fury as to warrant its running its destructive course unchecked. The laird was in their midst. In the scuffle in which he had been captured he had been slightly wounded, but he was able to be a conscious witness, and painfully alive to the destruction of his house and his household gods. Douglas meant to carry him along with him, and to transform him into one of his own retainers ; and accordingly, when the flames were bathing the topmost heights of the keep and roaring up the shaft of its four narrow walls, he ordered his men to retreat from the spot. They obeyed. Colvill was in close proximity to the chief. He was apparently a man of a communicative turn of mind, and he fell into conversation with the Douglas himself. The latter was taciturn, and he listened impatiently to the speech of his captive. As they pursued their way through the parish of New Cumnock they reached a stream known as the Pashhill Burn. Its waters recalled to Colvill a reminiscence which he could not but retail. One day he had been told by a sybil, or wise woman, that he would end his days by that burn. Whether he thought the prophecy would interest Douglas or not, or whether he related it with the view of ridiculing it, is a matter for speculation; but Douglas immediately resolved that it should be fulfilled. He accordingly gave orders to one or two of his followers to bring about the realization of the sybil's prediction; and so, by the Pashhill Burn, Colvill of Ochiltree was slain.

Douglas and his four brothers, Robert, Henry, Simon, and George, were summoned for their misdeed to appear at the bar of the Court of Justiciary, and were permitted to compound for the offence. Their followers were similarly called upon to make atonement. A hundred merks Scots was sufficient to purchase their release. Only one of their number failed to appear. Sentence of outlawry was pronounced against him and his goods and gear were forfeited to the King.

 

Source :- LEGENDS  OF AYRSHIRE

 

 

   

 

 

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