Q. When is a Shire not a Shire? A. When it’s a Stewartry! Kirkcudbright in the 1650s

Continuing our series on Scotland, Dr Patrick Little, senior research fellow for the House of Commons 1640-1660 project, explores the attempts to accommodate an anomalous administrative area within the scheme which briefly saw Scottish seats represented at Westminster during the Cromwellian Protectorate…

The Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the south west of Scotland was the last of the medieval stewartries of Scotland – so-called because they were ruled on behalf of the crown by a steward rather than a sheriff. Despite its distinctive name, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright has always struggled to gain recognition, suffering from being sandwiched between the much larger shires of Dumfriesshire to the east and Wigtownshire to the west. In terms of representation, the Stewartry fared somewhat better, returning its own commissioner to the Scottish Parliament before 1707, despite repeated attempts to amalgamate it with Wigtownshire. After the Union it held on to its seat until 1918, when it was at last swallowed by its westerly neighbour. More recently, local government has also found the Stewartry an anomaly, and its administrative boundaries have first shrunk and then disappeared, according to the whim of bureaucrats in the vast and unwieldy region known as ‘Dumfries and Galloway’. Even the historic boundaries of the old Stewartry are now fading, with some residents firm in the mistaken belief that they live in Dumfriesshire; a belief reinforced by postal districts created for the convenience of the Royal Mail. (For the sake of clarity, the historic Stewartry is everything between the River Nith and the River Cree.)

Belted Galloway cattle breed

The anomalous position of the Stewartry was also something that puzzled the Cromwellians, during their brief occupation of Scotland during the 1650s. Admittedly, governing the Stewartry was not straightforward. The area had been home to some of the most militant covenanters before the civil wars; Anwoth near Kirkcudbright was the parish of the charismatic Presbyterian minister and controversialist Samuel Rutherford. On the other hand, the dominant landed family, the Maxwells, was headed by the earl of Nithsdale, who had sided with Charles I in 1640. As might be expected, neither radical covenanters nor crypto-royalists could be relied upon to support the Cromwellian regime. When asked to accept the ‘tender of Union’ in 1652, the reaction in the Stewartry was both divided and divisive. At first, a number of local hard-line covenanters rejected the Union out of hand, as inimical to the Solemn League and Covenant; but this was soon countered by two firm declarations of assent by other locals, headed by the Maxwells, who denounced the earlier refusal ‘by a part of the gentry assuming to themselves the representation of the whole Stewartry’ (Cromwellian Union ed. Terry, 133-4, 139-40, 152-3), and claimed the majority of the people would comply with Cromwellian rule.

Even when Cromwellian government was established, there were administrative problems. Although, in a foretaste of the 1918 reforms, the Stewartry was lumped together with Wigtownshire as a parliamentary constituency, in administrative terms it came under the jurisdiction of the commissary of Dumfriesshire. In January 1655 there were even plans to resurrect the Stewartry by appointing a new steward. The revival of this office was supported by the earl of Nithsdale, who ferreted out the ‘original writs of the Stewartry’ in the hope that one of his allies would be appointed (W. Fraser, Book of Caerlaverock (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1873), ii. 142). This attempt at self-determination was destined to fail, and there were on-going arguments within the government concerning the status of the Stewartry, and whether it should contribute to the assessment payments for Wigtownshire or Dumfriesshire.

In the meantime, the local lairds continued to demand the right to regulate their own taxes. They were a bolshy lot. In August 1655 General George Monck complained that he needed to consult with the lairds once again over the assessment, as if ‘he should give a positive order before the inhabitants of the Stewartry be heard it would occasion another complaint’ (Worcester College, Oxford, Clarke MS xlvii, unfol.: 1 Aug. 1655). Uncertainty fostered lawlessness. The Galloway hills had harboured royalist insurgents as recently as the earl of Glencairn’s rebellion in 1653-4. As late as December 1655 pockets and resistance remained, and the uplands became a haven for criminals. When in the autumn of 1656 the sub-collector for the Wigtownshire assessments, John Sturgeon, ran off with over £500 of the government’s money, he fled to the fastnesses of the Stewartry, where efforts to find him were still continuing in February 1658.

Kirkcudbright Tollbooth (Chris Newman, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps the people of the Stewartry had a right to be bolshy. Nowhere was the difficulty of their position seen more clearly than the elections for the Union Parliaments of 1654, 1656 and 1659. Under the ordinance for the distribution of Scottish seats, the Stewartry was subsumed into Wigtownshire. The constituency returned a single MP, but the place of election was not specified. This allowed the sheriff, Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, to manage the election to his own advantage, and it was no surprise that the successful candidate on each occasion was his political partner (and supporter of the government), Sir James McDowall of Garthland. The surviving election indenture, for 13 August 1656, confirms some kind of electoral management was being employed. The early date of the election – a week before most other Scottish constituencies – suggests that the sheriff was eager to prevent electors from the Stewartry from getting to the poll, and this is also suggested by the identity of the 14 voters named on the indenture, almost all of whom were from Wigtownshire. The 1656 election (and most likely those in 1654 and 1659, when McDowall was also returned) was a stitch up.

It was not until the Restoration of the Stewart monarchy, and the promise of a new Parliament in Edinburgh, that the Stewartry could hope to break free. Even then, it was not a done-deal. In August 1660 it was reported to the earl of Nithsdale that ‘those of the shire of Wigtown … are endeavouring to have the Stewartry still annexed by virtue of the new writs for this Parliament’ (Fraser, Book of Caerlaverock, ii. 148-9, 155). This latest attempt was foiled by the local gentry and nobles, and the autonomy of the Stewartry was assured, at least for another couple of centuries. 


Further reading

Frances Dow, Cromwellian Scotland (Edinburgh, 1979)

A further biography of George Monck is being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

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