The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes


It is often said that you are a true Scot if a) in childhood you always got the Oor Wullie annual for Christmas; and b) you can pronounce Ecclefechan. Actually, Oor Wullie, a cartoon character in the Sunday Post, once got a day off school as a reward for correctly spelling Ecclefechan. It is doubtful, however, that he would have known its derivation: the ECCLE is from Brittonic Celtic egles, 'church'; and the dedication of that church was to St Fechin.

Carlyle's House in the High Street is the tourist's principal reason for visiting the village nowadays. This was where the nineteenth-century literary colossus Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795. The house was built four years earlier by his stonemason father and an uncle.

Thomas Carlyle's birthplace

His family later moved to the farm of Scotsbrig, to the east at Middlebie. When Carlyle died in London in 1881 his body was brought back by train for burial beside his parents in the village cemetery.

The writer's statue was placed at the top of the village in 1929; it is a copy of the one erected beside the Thames at Chelsea, where Carlyle spent the greater part of his life (see The Sage of Ecclefechan).

The parish is Hoddom (sometimes spelt Hoddam) and there are many manifestations of this name hereabouts.

The site of Hoddom parish kirk in the village had been religious for a long time before the present building was put up, originally for the United Presbyterians, in the 1860s. The old parish kirk was about a mile out of the village to the south-west at the road intersection called Hoddomcross. This building of 1816 was destroyed by fire in 1975.

Further still to the south-west, by the River Annan, is St Kentigern's kirkyard, the county's most significant sacred site. Did St Mungo, as he was otherwise known, establish his simple wooden church here towards the end of the sixth century? The tradition is that on his way back from Wales he stopped here for a period before resuming his work in Glasgow, the city that has him as its patron saint. Since very little of certainty is known about Kentigern/ Mungo, there is no way of telling whether the story is fact or fiction.

Archaeologist Christopher Lowe, who investigated the site in the early 1990s, wonders if Dumfriesshire's attachment to the tradition is not just wishful thinking. His findings, published in Excavations at Hoddom, Dumfriesshire (2006), brought him to this disappointing conclusion: 'Material evidence for a sub-Roman, Kentigern-related foundation at Hoddom, however, must necessarily elude us for the time being' (see Some Historical Background).

More is known about the site's occupation in the eighth century by the Angles of Northumbria. They replaced the original church, whether Mungo's or somebody else's, with a monastery of their own. We know that because Christian stone crosses of this period, similar to the celebrated Ruthwell Cross, have been found in the area: fragments are held by Dumfries Museum and by the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 'For a time in the latter part of the first millennium AD, this [site] was the nucleus of a large, thriving, high-status settlement that dominated the day-to-day life of the inhabitants of southern Annandale, and perhaps beyond' [Christopher Lowe].

A post-Anglian kirk of the Middle Ages was finally abandoned in 1609 and its remains demolished in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Hoddom Castle

The earliest castle in the Hoddom area, probably a twelfth-century motte and bailey type, was at Hallguards, at the north end of Hoddom Bridge (built 1763-5). But it was on the opposite side of the river that John Maxwell, 4th Lord Herries built Hoddom Castle in the 1560s. He was a Warden of the Scottish West March (see The Border) who became the closest ally of Mary Queen of Scots in the terminal phase of her rule (see Some Historical Background).

The original tower house underwent numerous alterations and extensions in subsequent ownerships. In 1877 the estate was bought by Edward Brook, the Huddersfield industrialist who also acquired the Kinmount estate at Cummertrees (and tried unsuccessfully to turn Powfoot into a Blackpool of the Solway). In the manner of many Victorian plutocrats who purchased Scottish properties, he set about turning the place into a mock-castellated fantasy-world. The tower-house was almost entirely encased within a sprawling mansion in the Scottish Baronial style. The old castle was exposed once again when much of this Victorian extension was dismantled in the 1950s but it is now unoccupied and scruffy in appearance. What remains of the nineteenth-century part is where customers of Hoddom Castle Caravan Park now perform their ablutions.

At the same time as his tower-house Lord Herries also built on the top of Trailtrow Hill to the south the most intriguing of all the buildings in this area. Repentance Tower was never a residence but purpose-built as a watch-tower at the top of which a beacon fire could be lit. 'Repentance' is carved onto the lintel at the entrance. Puzzling over why Lord Herries incorporated this feature and what had apparently made him repentant has given generations of antiquarians many hours of pleasure, though the idea of a high-class hoodlum of his kind being conscience-stricken seems implausible.

Repentance Tower

The tower was constructed within the graveyard of Trailtrow chapel. To provide building material, the chapel was demolished. Did Herries feel guilty about what may have been viewed as an act of sacrilege? That is one theory. Another is that he regretted behaving in such a way as to lead on one occasion to the deaths of a party of Scottish prisoners of war for whom he had given assurances. Of course 'Repentance' may be nothing more than a conventionally pious exhortation to anyone visiting the burial-ground.

The whole conundrum appealed to the imagination of the antiquary Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781-1851) who was brought up at Hoddom Castle, his father having inherited it in 1769. Sharpe was a collector of traditional ballads but also wrote some of his own, including 'The Lord Herries His Complaint'. Sharpe favoured yet another theory, that the Herries conscience had been stirred after he cut the throats of prisoners and threw their bodies overboard to lighten the load of his boat during a storm:

Alas! twelve precious lives were spilt,
My worthless spark to save;
Bet [better] had I fall'n, withouten guilt,
Frae cradle to the grave.

Repentance! signal of my bale,
Built of the lasting stane,
Ye lang shall tell the bluidy tale,
When I am dead and gane.

How Hoddam's Lord, ye lang sall tell,
By conscience stricken sair,
In life sustain'd the pains of hell,
And perish'd in despair.

The Repentance Tower cemetery has the burial-enclosure of the Murrays of nearby Murraythwaite. Beside it is a 1776 gravestone for their servant Charles Murray, 'a native of Africa'. Though he bore the family name, he was evidently not quite good enough to be placed within his employer's space.

To the north of Ecclefechan, the nineteenth-century Kirkconnel Hall, now a hotel, was the home of Archibald Arnott, the military surgeon who attended to the dying Napoleon and lost no time in publishing his memoirs of this period on St Helena.

Arnott and Carlyle knew each other superficially. Scattered through Carlyle's correspondence are various references to Arnott as 'fat', 'stupid' and 'dull'.

To the west of Ecclefechan, the construction in 1777 of the house of Knockhill was a way of celebrating the return home of its proprietor Andrew Johnstone from a long punitive exile. He had been banished to the West Indies for his part in the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

The building displays an inscription: 'Too small for envy, for Contempt to[o] Great'. This is a quotation from 'On My Self' by the English poet Abraham Cowley (1618-67). The original poem continues:

My House a Cottage, more
Then Palace, and should fitting be
For all my use, not Luxury.

During the civil war between King and Parliament Cowley was a Stuart loyalist, a position that may have appealed to the Jacobite laird of Knockhill.

The traditional sweet dessert Ecclefechan tart is not unique to the village. The recipe for an all-butter pastry filled with eggs, dried fruit and almonds occurs in local cuisines all over the south of Scotland. Someone at some point must have thought that Ecclefechan made it sound particularly appetizing.

In the run-up to Christmas 2007 the supermarket chain Sainsbury's revived the delicacy as a seasonal alternative to the mince pie and claimed to have sold 50,000 of them in a month.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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