The Wigtownshire Pages



Stranraer and the Castle of St. John
Stranraer, Wigtownshire
by Sam Heron
The Castle of St. John, referred to locally as the "Old Castle", was built for the Adairs of Kinhilt around 1510 as an L-plan stone medieval tower house. It represented power over the people and the land around it. The Scottish kings granted or "feued" land in return for loyalty, and in that period the Adair family head was Feudal Lord in this part of Scotland.

The Castle of St. John and other defensive tower houses in the area were built not as a defence against the English but for physical security in a community that was just as likely to use violence as the law to resolve issues. Stone tower houses were more comfortable and permanent than earlier timber structures. They also reflected where local power and influence lay. Over the years, the "Old Castle" saw use as a home, a local court, a military head quarters and a prison. Initially it was the Adair family home and the administration centre for the district, serving as the lord's court and for the collection of rents.

When the Burgh of Stranraer was founded in 1595, the Charter reflected that the Castle had changed hands and now belonged to the Kennedy family; it was then referred to as the "Place of Chapel". Sir John Dalrymple of Stair, a Covenanter, took possession of the Castle of St. John in the 1670s. In 1678 John Graham of Claverhouse, used the Castle of St. John as his base in the Stranraer district for his troops. It was common to use the premises of known Covenanters in an attempt to subdue them. Claverhouse was known in Scottish folklore as "Bonnie Dundee". However, in the south west of Scotland he was known as "Bluidy Clavers" for his persecution of the Covenanters. Sir John Dalrymple, the master of Stair, became the secretary of state for Scotland for King William II of Scotland (King William of Orange) and was his lord advocate. Dalrymple was instrumental in the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. In 1695, the government was condemned for the Massacre, Dalrymple was blamed and he resigned. He was later rehabilitated and created Earl of Stair in 1703. Sir John purchased Castle Kennedy and its estate in 1677. He died in 1707. The current Earl of Stair is Lord Lieutenant, for the County of Wigtown, Lochinch Castle, (Castle Kennedy) Stranraer.

It is claimed that in the latter half of the 18th century the then Earl of Stair maintained a town house on the site of the present George Hotel as Stranraer had become the centre of social life. This indicates he was probably not then using the "Old Castle" as a residence. In 1815, the Stranraer Council decided that the empty castle would make a good jail and purchased it for 340 Pounds. It continued in use as a jail until 1907, after which time it was used as meeting rooms, and as a storage facility. Eventually the Castle of St. John was restored in 1988/89 and reopened as a Visitor Centre in 1990.

The Castle of St. John no doubt encouraged settlement around it and in the 17th Century, there was what has been referred to as a hamlet or clachan. The little village community in early times was called "Chapel St. John" or "Chapel of Stranraer" or more shortly "Chapell", and eventually became known as Stranraer. There is mention of a proposal by Ninian Adair in 1595 to erect the community into a burgh on the narrative that the clachan of Stranraer was part of his barony. In 1617 King James VI granted a Charter to Stranraer "formerly called St. John's Chapel" and created it a royal burgh. In 1655 it was still being referred to as "Stranraer - otherwise called Chappell". In the year 1148, Soulseat Abbey had been built on Soulseat Loch - located between Stranraer and Castle Kennedy- by Fergus, Lord of Galloway, and dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. There was also a St. John's Chapel within the town area. It is believed that the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, in the 14th century, were in possession of lands in Wigtownshire including St. John's Croft, within the site of the present town of Stranraer. Throughout Europe, in particular around 1312, the Order was suppressed and properties confiscated, and only in Scotland and Portugal was there no active persecution. It is claimed Bruce gave them refuge in Scotland and that Knights of the Order fought for him at Bannockburn in 1314. Other references to St. John in the immediate vicinity are St. John's Well described in the Statistical Account of 1791-1799 for the Parish of Stranraer as follows "The only natural curiosity in this parish is St. John's Well, considerably within high water mark. It is flooded every tide by the sea; and in five minutes after the tide retires, it boils up in a copious spring of excellent soft fresh water." There is reference elsewhere to the fact that it was "a well of healing water". St. John is the Patron Saint of Stranraer.

Over the years, there was very little central government control over Galloway and when the powerful Douglas family was removed from the Lordship of Galloway in 1455 local power struggles and feuds intensified. There was almost anarchy and it was in this climate that defensive Tower Houses such as the "Castle of St. John" were built by those who had local power and influence. Wigtownshire was probably the last part of Scotland to succumb to central rule under either a Scottish or English king. Galloway did not embrace the cause of Scottish nationhood during the wars of independence from 1286 to 1314. Bruce's victory at Bannockburn allowed for an independent kingdom of Scotland but it did not bring an enduring peace. Wigtownshire in the remote south west was well away from the main invasion routes and was spared from being repeatedly fought over during the ongoing warfare that continued into the late 16th Century. Indeed Bruce who had been crowned King of Scotland at Scone on March 25, 1306 had attempted to gain control over the south west in 1307 and lost two of his brothers, Alexander and Thomas, in the attempt. On February 9, 1307, they were leading a seaborne expedition from Ireland when they were captured by Dougal MacDougall on landing in Loch Ryan, Wigtownshire. They were sent to King Edward 1 in Carlisle where they were hanged and beheaded. Later Bruce retaliated and avenged the death of his two brothers and left his other brother Edward in Galloway to extort protection money. Galloway in the extreme south west was still a law unto itself.
Sam Heron
March, 2003
Brisbane, Qld, Australia
Reference Sources:
Discovering Galloway: Innes Macleod ISBN 0 85976 1142
Scotland The Story of a Nation: Magnus Magnusson ISBN 0 00 653191 1
Stranraer Interesting Historical Facts: Reprinted from the "Wigtownshire Free Press," April, 1935.
Castle of St. John Stranraer: Wigtown District Museum Service Booklet.
A Brief Introduction to Wigtown District - Wigtown District Guide: Published by Steward Publishing Edinburgh
Statistical Account of Scotland; Account of 1791- 1799 Parish of Stranraer: University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow
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