The Church in Scotland
A Tour of Wigtownshire
Ghosts in my Past
Counties, Countries, and other...
Geography of Wigtownshire
Origins of the People
Castle of St. John
Ghost of Galdenoch
Death and the IGI
Old Parish Records [OPR]
The Rover of Loch Ryan
Farm Servant vs Ag Lab
What can a Professional Genealogist do?
What Makes a Good Researcher
The Museum, Newton Stewart
|Stranraer and the Castle of St. John
|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.
Brisbane, Qld, Australia
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