If you're at all familiar with the play Macbeth, which Shakespeare wrote in 1606, you know that the main theme is "those who harbor excessive ambition will suffer terrible consequences." The play actually was written as a cautionary tale, warning people of their fate that if they attempted to assassinate the king, as is what happened in real life during the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, they would surely die a miserable death. The actual conspirators of this unsuccessful plot to murder King James were betrayed, and were horribly tortured on the rack until they confessed. Just as life imitates art, this true story of the battle over Ayrshire casts a familiar shadow on these Scottish aristocratic men with excessive ambition and a heart for revenge. The Ayrshire story actually began before Macbeth was written, but ended just after its completion, or else I might suspect that Shakespeare was actually writing about the Kennedy's of Ayrshire. Nevertheless, notice as you read the story that there is nothing so very different in these men than what lies in our own hearts and souls - yours and mine - save a certain amount of restraint of tongue and action. Regardless, it's that small amount of unrestrained greed that grows into lust, lust into obsession, and obsession into evil - an evil that lurked in the hearts of men like Macbeth, and apparently the Kennedy's. And so the story begins.
South Ayrshire, with its rocky outcroppings along the shoreline and emerald rolling hills and valleys farther inland, could bewitch the eye with its raw, magnificent beauty. Many a poet's heart has been pricked by its majesty, producing a line or two, such as this.
As the sky lark rises from her nest and shakes the sleep up off her chest, down, down she glides across the knoll singing a song to the ploughman below. Such splendor is found in these billowing fields alive with all that nature yields. Nowhere else can one man find what the ploughman enjoys straight in his mind. As he sows and grows and the flowers spring, the ploughman's as happy as a prince or king.
Perhaps it was the beauty of these rolling hills near Maybole, Ayrshire, and its stretching shoreline why the monks of Crossraguel Abbey chose it as home. Or it could be that it's the ideal location for cross-country travelers, between inland Maybole and Dunure’s Point on the coastline. Nevertheless, here is where the Abbey was built. Nestled in the heart of this paradise, among the rolling hills that God so graciously formed, the medieval stone structure still stands today (see picture below). In the early 1200s, when Duncan de Carrick (Donnchadh, Earl of Carrick) established the Abbey, he gifted it and its lands to the Church. Therein lived the monks and their groundskeepers for centuries to come.
Crossraguel Abbey - Maybole
By the late 1500s, in the town of Maybole lived the families of over twenty noblemen, all belonging to the Kennedy family, who looked upon the old town and surrounding areas as their kingdom. The Kennedy family, headed by the 4th Earl of Cassilis, Gilbert Kennedy, also known as the King of Carrick, had acquired most of the land between Dunure and Maybole, except for the one tract of land on which sat Crossraguel Abbey. In fact, Gilbert Kennedy was previously appointed as Abbot (overseer of the Monks) of Crossraguel Abbey by his uncle, Quintin Kennedy. But this appointment was never confirmed by the king. Instead, the king appointed Alan Stewart from the Stewart's of Cardonald, as Commendator, or caretaker of the grounds, which was more of a secular post. As Commendator, the Abbey was not only Stewart's home, but he felt it was his charge by God to take care of it. Stewart held the deed to the Abbey and the lands, and this made Gilbert furious.
The Earl tried to persuade Stewart to sell the deed to him, but he would have no part in it. Each time Gilbert inquired, Stewart’s answer was always a profound no. And now the calculating wheels that a simple desire had set in motion gained momentum, fueled by lust and greed. In the dark shadows of Gilbert's heart, he laid out a wicked plan. One summer evening in 1570, as the shadows grew longer and the days grew shorter, Alan Stewart went for a walk through the peaceful woods near the Abbey. Unsuspecting of anyone wishing him harm, he was taken captive by the Earl and some of his men and was imprisoned at Dunure Castle. Once a formidable fortress, it lies in ruins today, as shown below.
Dunure Castle - Dunure, Ayrshire (just north of Ayr)
After letting Stewart languish for a few days in the dungeon, Gilbert tried to persuade him to sign over the deed once again, but Stewart refused. Gilbert then ordered his servants to take Stewart to a secret chamber known as the Black Vault, where Stewart was stripped of his clothes save only his sark and doublet (undergarments), and was bound above a fire which was then lit. The servants poured oil over him so that he would roast slowly, but not burn. When he cried out with pain he was gagged so he would not be heard. After roasting on the spit for several hours, in great pain, but still alive, Stewart was cut down and presented to the Earl. Again he was asked to sign over the Abbey, but again he refused. The roasting resumed and for the last time Gilbert asked Stewart to sign the Abbey over to him. Stewart, by now in extreme agony and out of his mind in pain, agreed and signed the document. Gilbert was heard to say to Stewart, "You are the most obstinate man I ever saw, to oblige me to use you thus. I never thought to have treated anyone as your stubbornness has made me treat you." [Yes, it was all Stewart's fault that he is now crippled for life and burned almost to the point of death.]
Obviously, the severely burnt Stewart couldn't be released until his injuries had healed, so later when Gilbert left the castle to file his claim to the Abbey and its lands, he ordered his servants to keep Stewart prisoner and tend to his wounds.
When Sir Thomas Kennedy, Earl of Bargany (a nearby castle), and Alan Stewart's brother-in-law, heard of this affair, he sent his servants under the banner of David Kennedy, his Page [a messenger or apprentice of a nobleman], to the Castle under cover of darkness. Although Sir Thomas Kennedy was a close cousin of Earl Gilbert Kennedy, by now they were feuding enemies. The reason for the Bargany-Cassilis Kennedy family feud had to do with Sir Thomas Kennedy's sister, Elizabeth Kennedy. Elizabeth was married to John Barde of Kilhenzie Castle. Sir Thomas felt that John Barde was not treating his sister well, so he had words with him. John Barde was a close friend and supporter of, you guessed it, Gilbert Kennedy, Earl of Cassilis, who resented his cousin, Sir Thomas, for having words with John.
Back to the story . . . being well acquainted with the castle's defensive weaknesses, David Kennedy (the Page) and Sir Thomas' men entered the chapel which led inside the main body of the castle. In the morning when the servants opened the main gates, the rescuers stormed the castle and gained control. When the Earl came to hear of this, he and some of his retainers returned back home to Dunure but were beaten back by Sir Thomas' men, who now had control of the castle.
Returning with an even larger force, Gilbert and his men set siege to the castle. They attempted to tunnel their way in, while Sir Thomas' men dismantled some of the battlements, dropping the masonry on the Earl's men below. In the vernacular of the time, it was written that "Bot the Lairdis menne, that was within, keist gritt stanes doune of the heiche battelling of the dungeoune; and so brak the ruiff of the chapell." (Both of the Laird’s men that was within cast great stones down off the high batteling of the dungeon and so broke the roof of the chapel.) Sir Thomas Kennedy, still at Bargany castle, realized that the rescue of the trapped Stewart wasn't going according to plan. He arrived with a far superior force, defeated Gilbert and his men, and finally released the captive Stewart. Alan Stewart told the story of his torture at the hands of Earl Gilbert Kennedy at Ayr's Market Cross, denouncing his persecutor to an indignant population. Alas, the Earl, who remember was like their King almost, was called before the Privy Council and fined around £2000. This was an enormous sum of money in 1570. And, of course, the document which Stewart had signed under duress was annulled.
Finally, troubled by a guilty conscience, Gilbert Kennedy ended up paying Stewart an annual pension. As luck would have it, only a couple of years later Stewart agreed to sell to the Earl the title to Crossraguel Abbey legally. The Earl then obtained by payment what he couldn't obtain through torture. However, his victory didn't last long. The 4th Earl of Cassillis, Gilbert Kennedy, died not long after. Two stories emerge here - either he was slain by Hugh Campbell, the Sheriff of Ayr, aided by a great number of followers, or his horse fell and he died of his injuries. Either way, The 4th Earl of Cassillis was gone, and his son, John Kennedy, the 5th Earl of Cassillis took over the title and the family lands.
The Cassilis-Bargany feud continues . . .
Several years later, John Kennedy, rode out from Maybole Castle at the head of 200 armed followers to declare revenge against Sir Thomas Kennedy, the Laird of Bargany who had saved Alan Stewart and exposed the crimes of his father. On the farm of West Enoch, near the town, outnumbering Sir Thomas' men greatly, the new Earl of Cassillis, John Kennedy, attacked. Sir Thomas, mortally wounded, was carried from the scene of the battle to Maybole. John ordered that should he show any sign of recovery, he should be removed to Ayr, knowing the journey would end the deed began by his men. It was there in Ayr where Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany died a few hours later. Now, flagrant though the deed was, it not only passed unpunished - through bribery and state influence - but was formally noted by an act of council as a good service done to the King.
One dastardly deed deserves another . . .
Now, a gentleman by the name of Johnn Muir (or Mure), who was the Laird of Auchendrane and son-in-law of the slain Sir Thomas Kennedy, Laird of Bargeny, was one of the few remaining people who bravely dared to cross paths with John. Muir, along with Sir Thomas' son, Gilbert Kennedy, aged 21 and the brand new Laird of Bargany, vainly attempted to battle John and his men for revenge. At this battle, Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany was mortally wounded by the stroke of a lance thrown at him from behind. And Johnn Muir received some severe wounds in the encounter. Muir returned to Auchendrane to nurse his wounds.
Still thirsting for revenge, however, Johnn Muir learned that another Sir Thomas Kennedy, the Laird of Culzean, lived nearby. This Sir Thomas was the brother of the deceased Gilbert Kennedy and tutor and guardian of his son, John. So Muir gave up on killing John, but instead changed his plans for revenge slightly and focused his efforts on murdering Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean.
In the year 1597, Muir came with a party of followers to Maybole, where Sir Thomas of Culzean then resided, and he lay in ambush in an orchard, through which he knew his destined victim was to pass in returning from a house where he was to take supper. Armed with hagbuts and pistols, Muir and his men fired upon Sir Thomas of Culzean. Having missed their aim, they drew their swords to slay him. But this Thomas had the good fortune to hide himself in a ruinous house and thus escaped. Afterwards, Sir Thomas prosecuted Muir for this assault. Finding himself in danger from the law, Muir made a sort of apology and agreement with Sir Thomas of Culzean, to whose daughter he united his son in testimony of the closest friendship in the future. This agreement was sincere on the part of Sir Thomas, who, after it had been entered into, showed himself Muir’s friend on all occasions. But it was false and treacherous on the part of Muir, who continued his purpose of murdering his new friend and ally on the first occasion.
Now, to thicken the plot, Muir persuaded his son, Gilbert Muir, to thumb his nose, as it were, at John. As instructed, young Gilbert rode past the castle gates, without waiting on his chief, or sending him any message of civility. This led to mutual defiance, being regarded by the Earl, according to the ideas of the time, as a personal insult. Refusing to ignore the insult, both parties took to the field with their followers, about 250 men on each side. The action that ensued was shorter, and less bloody than might have been expected. Gilbert Muir, with the rashness of headlong courage, and his father, Johnn Muir, fired on the House of Cassillis, and declared an attack on John Kennedy, whose men were strongly posted and under cover. They were received by a heavy fire and poor Gilbert Muir was slain. His father was unable to sit on his horse because of a severe wound in the thigh, and with the leaders thus slain or disabled, their party drew off without continuing the action. It must be particularly observed that Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean (who was an uncle to Earl John, but whose daughter was now married to Muir's son) remained neutral in this quarrel, considering his connection with Muir too intimate to be broken even by his desire to assist his nephew. For this temperate and honorable conduct he met a vile reward, for Muir, in resentment of the loss of his son, and the downfall of his ambitious hopes, continued his practices against the life of Sir Thomas, though totally innocent of contributing to either. Chance favored his wicked purpose. Sir Thomas of Culzean, finding himself obliged to go on a particular day to Edinburgh, sent a message to Muir to meet him at a certain point in the road, for the purpose of giving him any commission he might have for that city, promising him that he would attend to the business as faithfully as if it were his own.
This suggested to Muir another diabolical plot. He instigated his brother to meet Sir Thomas at the place appointed and murder him, which they accomplished. Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean lay dead, shot several times in the back with pisolets. Now there was just one loose end to tie up – a witness who knew of Muir’s connection with Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean - a poor student by the name of Dalrymple. Dalrymple had been the bearer of the news which originally provided Sir Thomas Kennedy, the Laird of Bargany, with information that the Earl of Cassillis held Stewart captive and was torturing him for his Abbey. Dalrymple, who was by now an officer in the King's army, became the object of his fears. Muir felt that if Dalrymple ever came back to town, he would figure out that Sir Thomas was killed because Muir had it out for him. So Muir called on a friend, James Bannatyne, to entice Dalrymple to his house, situated at Chapeldonan, a lonely place on the Girvan shore. Bannatyne, accompanied by Muir, and Muir's other son, murdered Dalrymple there on the shore at midnight, then buried his body in the sand.
Dead men tell no tales . . . or do they?
It’s funny that justice always has a way of showing up when you least expect it. Seeing that Dalyrmple’s corpse had been unearthed by the tide, Bannatyne and Muir took him out to sea at a time when a strong wind blew from the shore. Thinking their deed was done and there were no witnesses, they returned home. As luck would have it, however, days later the body was brought back by the waves, and cast up on the shore at the very scene of the murder. Once Dalrymple's body was discovered, Muir and his son fell under general suspicion, and now endeavored to part ways with Bannatyne. However, it was too late. Bannatye made a full confession to the civil authorities of the whole ordeal. In 1611, Johnn Muir, the Laird of Auchendrane, son-in-law of the slain Sir Thomas Kennedy, Laird of Bargany, was arrested and tried for both murders - Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean and Officer Dalrymple. Muir's remaining son and Bannatyne were tried for only Dalrymple’s murder. Being found guilty, the three were taken to the Market Cross in Edinburgh, and there upon a scaffold, their heads were struck from their bodies. All their lands, heritages, etc., were confiscated for use by the Church. The end.
John Kennedy, 5th Earl of Cassilis, lived on to the ripe old age of 40 and died in 1615. His son, also named John Kennedy, became the 6th Earl of Cassilis. The Kennedy's retained their lands, the Cassillis House, and Culzean Castle until 1945 when Charles Kennedy gave Culzean Castle to the National Trust for Scotland in order to avoid inheritance tax, leaving Cassillis House as the major house remaining in the Kennedy family. Cassillis House was then put up for sale in 2008 with a guide price of £2.5 million. It was bought in 2009 by the Australian internet insurance specialist Kate Armstrong and her husband Malcolm. They set about restoring the castle back to its former glory, and it was featured in the BBC program Restoration Home in 2013.
Cassillis House - Maybole
Culzean Castle - Maybole
Backside of Culzean Castle
Players of the story:
4th Earl of Cassillis - Gilbert Kennedy aka "The King of Carrick" (not a nice guy, very greedy in fact) Either killed by Ayr's Sheriff or fall from horse
5th Earl of Cassillis - John Kennedy Killed Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany, his son, Gilbert Kennedy, and Gilbert Muir (out to revenge his father's name)
Earl of Bargany - Sir Thomas Kennedy Cousin to Gilbert Kennedy of Cassillis, but involved in feud (Rescuer of Alan Stewart, Commendator of Crossraguel Abbey) Killed by John Kennedy of Cassillis to avenge his father's death
Laird of Bargany - Gilbert Kennedy Son of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany (Battled with Johnn Muir to avenge his father's death, but lost his life in the battle) Killed by John Kennedy of Cassillis and his men
Laird of Culzean - Sir Thomas Kennedy Brother to Gilbert Kennedy of Cassillis. Tutor and Guardian of John Kennedy from Cassillis upon Gilbert's death Overall, a really good guy, a peacemaker and highly esteemed
Commendator - Alan Stewart Married to sister of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany
Officer Dalrymple As a young lad, he ran from Cassillis to Bargany seeking help to rescue Alan Stewart. Killed by Johnn Muir, Muir's son #2 and James Bannatyne out of fear that he knew too much
Laird of Auchendrane - Johnn Muir (or Mure) Son-in-law of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany Killed Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean to avenge the death of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Bargany, killed Officer Dalrymple to "tidy up" Found guilty of both murders and beheaded
Gilbert Muir Son of Johnn Muir Dies in battle helping his father attack John Kennedy of Cassillis
Johnn Muir's son #2 Helped his dad murder Officer Dalrymple Found guilty of his murder and was beheaded
James Bannatyne of Chapeldonan Friend of Johnn Muir Helped Johnn kill Officer Dalrymple Found guilty of his murder and was beheaded