Dinghy sailing on Castle Loch
'Marjory o' the mony Lochs' - that is Robert Burns's name for Lochmaben in 'The Five Carlins',
an election ballad in which the contested burghs were imagined as women. 'A Carlin auld and teugh [tough]',
he added with good reason. The auld burgh had to be teugh because its strategically vital position on the north-south
Annandale route meant that throughout the fourteenth century it was almost continuously fought over by the Scots and the English.
Scotland's Auld Enemy was always particularly keen to occupy Lochmaben because of its being the seat of the Bruce family, the Lords of Annandale whose aggressive ambition would eventually turn them into the royal family of Scotland.
As the poet said, the lochs are 'mony' in number. There are three particularly important ones:
Mill Loch to the north, Kirk Loch to the west and, biggest of all, Castle Loch to the south.
In the landward enclosure formed by this threesome the medieval town grew up and it was to here that the Bruces
re-located from Annan in the second half of the twelfth century. They built their first castle on the isthmus between Kirk Loch
and Castle Loch.
The mound on which the castle stood can still be seen: it is the green for Lochmaben Golf Club's second
('Bruce's Motte') hole. The club captain warns of 'severe trouble for any venture to the left' but is not referring to the hostile approach of the English.
What is now known as Lochmaben Castle, on a promontory jutting into the south end of Castle Loch, came later.
This 'Scottish' stronghold was in fact built by the English. In 1298 Edward I, 'Hammer of the Scots', captured the Bruce castle
and then looked around for a suitable site for a mightier fortification. The chosen spot was originally an island in the loch;
it was only later when the loch was partially drained that it turned into a peninsula. Edward's castle, made at first of timber
and subsequently upgraded to stone, yo-yoed between the opposing armies for the rest of the century.
The interludes of peace were
opportunities for extensions and improvements. In the late fifteenth century James IV of Scotland commissioned repairs and the addition
of a great banqueting hall. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the castle was never again garrisoned on any significant scale and by
the late seventeenth century it had fallen into disuse.
Thanks to the Bruce patronage Lochmaben was an early burgh of barony. It became a royal burgh in the 1440s.
The town's royal past was fittingly highlighted in a nineteenth-century change of street names:
the somewhat utilitarian West, East and Braegate were promoted to Princes, Queen and Bruce.
The statue of Robert the Bruce that commands the main street was erected in the 1870s at the same time as the Town Hall
was being re-built, incorporating part of the original civic building of the 1720s, including the steeple.
Pride of place in the central niche of the hall's front goes to a statue of Rev William Graham, author of Lochmaben Five Hundred Years Ago (1865).
Facing up the pleasingly wide High Street is the parish kirk, completed in 1820.
The medieval kirk, a Bruce foundation placed conveniently close to their original castle by Kirk Loch,
was demolished in 1818.
The Old Churchyard has massive memorials for two highly successful men born near Lochmaben:
James Mouncey, physician to Empress Elizabeth of Russia; and William Jardine, co-founder of the Far East trading company
Robert Burns was made a freeman of the burgh and was a frequent visitor.
He was particularly friendly with Provost Robert Maxwell, whom he described as 'one of the soundest headed,
best hearted, whisky drinking fellows in the south of Scotland'. When they drank together, their talk of women
no doubt had a lascivious aspect to it, so it seems appropriate that it was to Maxwell that Burns sent one of
his pieces of bawdry, 'I'll Tell You a Tale of a Wife', later included in The Merry Muses of Caledonia(but not for repetition in a family companion!).
It is more likely to have been a cup of tea with which the poet was entertained when calling upon his other Lochmaben friend,
the kirk minister Rev Andrew Jaffray, for whose daughter Jean he wrote 'The Blue-Eyed Lassie':
I gaed a waefu' gate yestreen,
A gate, I fear, I'll dearly rue;
I gat my death frae twa sweet een,
Twa lovely een o' bonie blue.
'Twas not her golden ringlets bright,
Her lips like roses, wat wi' dew,
Her heaving bosom, lily-white,
It was her een sae bonie blue.
The lochs used to be well known for containing a rare species of fish called vendace, which was considered to be such a delicacy that it was reputedly placed on the menu for the grand banquet held in Dumfries for King James VI's visit in 1617 (see Some Historical Background). According to tradition, the fish was not well received on the royal palate. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, as Dumfries's nineteenth-century historian William McDowell concedes, but it is worth repeating nonetheless:
James, thinking they emitted a peculiar smell, and that they had a suspicious appearance, viewed them with as much horror almost as was felt by his ancestor Macbeth when the ghost of Banquo glided in to disturb the feast at Glammis [sic]. Starting to his feet, he shouted "Treason!" and it was not till the offending dish was removed that he resumed his seat and his equanimity.
The story is an improbable one; and we must conclude in spite of it, that the Dumfries dinner to King James passed off not only without disturbance, but with complete success.
Fishing for vendace used to be a joyous social occasion. At first it was exclusive to the local gentry, who from around 1800 participated in a vendace association. In 1851 the St Magdalene Vendace Club was formed for a wider membership. The fishing officially ended in 1912. In the 1950s it was reported that 'in recent years, Dr H Slack of Glasgow University and other zoologists have spent some time trying to net vendace in the local lochs, but have not caught any.' However, one final catch was recorded in 1966. Scottish Natural Heritage is said to have plans for re-introducing the vendace 'if the water conditions become favourable'.