We WEre still wandering around Galloway, a very attractive part of Scotland, looking for tales to stimulate the imagination when I came across one concerning a famous piece of Scottish armoury.
The area around the Solway Firth was Douglas country as they were the dominant family in those far-off days. Threave Castle, a Black Douglas fortification, is thought to have been built by Archibald the Grim, who died there in 1440. He was nicknamed the Grim by the English, who knew him well in battle as he never smiled – even after victory.
The castle was more than 70 feet high, with walls eight feet thick; it could house in excess of 1000 armed men and dominated the countryside as it was considered impregnable. It was the last stronghold of the Black Douglases to hold out in the rebellion against King James II, and he was determined to lead the attack himself and to finally quell the rebellion. The King marched an army into Galloway and camped on land where the town of Castle Douglas now stands. The people of the countryside were fed up with the Douglases’ grinding despotism and welcomed the King, supporting him in the fight. They sustained the army and provided sufficient iron for the local blacksmith, Brawny Kim, and his sons to build a massive cannon which was christened Mons Meg.
The name came from the blacksmith’s wife, Meg, who had a very loud voice. Yes, this was the birthplace of the famous Mons Meg that now stands proudly on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. The Douglases were unaware of all this activity, thinking they were in an impregnable position as they awaited calmly for the usual attack by the King’s men and horses.
Mons Meg was loaded with a peck of gunpowder and a granite ball said to be the weight of a Cairsphairn cow and fired. The Douglas himself was not in the castle but his wife – known as “the fair maid of Galloway” – was and the cannon ball passed through the wall of the castle and took off her hand just as she was raising a glass of wine to her lips, or so the tale recounts. The castle did not withstand the battering of Mons Meg for long and the King won the day and kept his crown.
There was little regret throughout Galloway at the defeat of the Black Douglases, who were a cruel and ruthless family even in that age when cruelty was the norm. The 8th Earl boasted that the “Gallows Knob”, which stood at the gateway to the castle “had not been without a tassle for 50 years” – as if to say that if there were no miscreants to hang, then any passing serf would do.
Threave Castle is well worth a visit, standing as it does between two arms of the River Dee. A boat ferries you across and you will be cleared to land at the castle … as Mons Meg is safely in Edinburgh Castle. The dungeons still have an inmate serving his time to show the visitor what could have happened to them if they had passed that way in those ruthless times.
We learn a little more every time we hear these old tales. Mons Meg is well known to visitors to Edinburgh Castle but her origins perhaps not so well known.
There are more tales to come about this delightful part of Scotland – and not always as brutal as the one described.. Civilisation is always evolving and in those early years it took time for those in power to realise how dependent they were on the ordinary people who populated their lands. I look forward to entertaining you with more tales next week