THE old Court-house of Ayr is crowded, every seat occupied, all the standing ground utilized. And that not by the degenerate crowd, which in the latter days of light and leading flocks to the halls of justice; but by an assemblage representative of the higher ranks and the historical interest of the early days of the sixteenth. Those who shall take their places at the bar are not the dregs, the off scourings of society, but men whose castles and towers dominate broad acres, and yeomen who follow in their train.
It is no disgrace to an Earl or to a Baron to have to appear before the Lords of Justiciary; on the contrary it is regarded as right and fitting that he should. The times are those of the strong hand and the strong will. Right is mixed up with might, and it is so difficult a matter for the feudal chieftains to discriminate between the one and the other that they do not hesitate in the exercise of their might to do what seems right in their own eyes. The Court is full of feudal superiors and inferiors, and outside on the causeway are their friends for whom there is no room within, and who are only prevented from flying at one another's throats by the knowledge that, inside the house of justice, Lord Andrew Gray is seated upon the bench, and that actual offending under his very, eyes might be regarded as a serious matter and worthy of punishment.
The Court constituted with all the old formalities, the Judge has time to look about him. It is a familiar scene he contemplates. Even in Edinburgh, where the law has its permanent seat and the crown is powerful, if it is powerful anywhere, he has seen the western lairds so threatening in their demeanour at the very bar of the Court of Justiciary that the judges were compelled to declare the sitting at an end and the king's advocate forced to ask an adjournment for an unspecified time. Clamour, and the display of power, therefore, are nothing new to Lord Gray, and he anticipates that ere the day is done the rival groups of lairds and squires may give indication of their dissatisfaction with his decisions, and attempt by the display of mingled force and influence, to divert the stream of strict justice from its accustomed channels.
Beneath him are the representatives of the Crown and of the Court, the king's advocate, the advocates depute, and the clerks and other officials of court, and sitting close by them are the advocates who are expected to plead the righteous, or unrighteous cause of their clients, as the case may be. The jury are in attendance, some of them lairds from the outlying parts of the shire and as good in the saddle or in the jury box, as their friends could wish to see or their enemies fear to encounter; some of them farmers, with sympathies not less keenly developed, within recognized lines of kinship and heredity, than those of the lairds themselves; and some, 'burgesses of the town of Ayr, or dwellers in the other towns of the shire, men of mercantile tastes and urban dread of the stormy petrels who keep the country side in unrest and disquiet.
But the "panels" as they are called, who are shortly to take their places at the bar, constitute the most interesting groups. There is Patrick Boyde, a brother of the Laird Rowallan, and twenty-six of his followers, who are there charged with taking part in a raid upon the Cuninghames of Cuninghamehead. Close by is another brother to Rowallan, indicted for oppression done to the Laird of Busby and one of his adherents, in the town of Stewarton. Their hereditary enemy, Cuninghame of Cuninghamehead, is waiting to account for his share in the strife and for a series of other offences against his neighbours. John Shaw of Haly, his brother, and eight others attend to make, amends for an outrage upon Margaret Montgomery, Lady Crechdow, and beside them David Craufurd of Kerse, stern defender of the Kyle marches against the stout lords of Carrick, ready to become surety for his followers. In addition to Craufurd himself, there is a large contingent from Kerse who will have to satisfy Lord Gray concerning various acts of oppression. The Earl of Eglinton is there also, to become surety for an offence against the old Lady of Home. Hamilton of Bargany has a raid to explain away, or for which to suffer; and there are one or two men of less importance, charged on various other counts. There is not much room left for spectators, and only a few of the more privileged have succeeded in securing admission. For these are the days when families and their adherents are brought to book at the same time, and when the names of the accused not unfrequently cover whole pages of the indictments.
The preliminaries over, the Court proceeds to hear three different cases all arising from a feud between the Cuninghames and the Mures. Old opponents these, and destined to be opponents for many years still to come. In the first of the three, Patrick Boyde, in all probability one of the Boydes of Kilmarnock and connected by marriage with the family of Mure, is charged, in company with Neill Smyth, the tenant of Girdrum, and twenty-five others, with having come to the Kirk of Stewarton in company with John Mure of Rowallan and there engaged in conflict with Cuninghame and his servants. The immediate cause of dispute seems to have been the office of parish clerk, the Mures, on the one hand, and the Cuninghames on the other, forcibly insisting on the appointment of their own nominees.
The Judge hears the evidence, which is conclusive of the strife having, taken place, and imposes a fine; and the laird of Rowallan and Arnot of Lochrig having offered themselves in security for its payment, Boyde and his followers are let go. But another of the same party and a brother of Rowallan is waiting. He too has been in arms, on his own account, in the same, town of Stewarton, and has provoked a contest with John Mowatt, the laird of Busby, and with a certain Andrew Stevenston, and for him also the laird of Rowallan is accepted as surety for the payment of five pounds Scots, a sum regarded as sufficient to meet the ends and the claims of justice.
The Mures thus disposed of, Cuninghame of Cuninghamehead is called to the bar, first for engaging in the contest concerning the parish clerkship and, in addition, for other offences. Not only had he taken part in the fray, but, turning his attention homewards, he had set covetous eves upon a piece of land belonging to Lady Cuninghame. Apparently he seems to have been at variance with his relative concerning her right to the lands of Cuninghamehead, and to have thought that he had a right to share her possessions.
At any rate, he had forcibly occupied and manured for the purposes of cultivation a third of her lands, which were reserved to her under a special protection, or safeguard, from the king. And carrying his hostility to existing rights still further afield, he had sacrilegiously robbed the Abbey of Kilwinning, and the Earl of Eglinton as its Commendator of its Tiend sheaves. Lord Gray amerciates him in a sum of money, which the clerk forgets to insert in the sentence, and he goes from the bar satisfied that on the whole, and notwithstanding the conviction, he has had the better of the different transactions. The laird of Cuninghamehead is succeeded at the bar by one of his adherents who had taken part in the Stewarton fray and, when a conviction has been found against him, the laird offers himself as security and is at once accepted.
The diet is next called against John Shaw of Haly, William. Shaw’dwelling with him, and eight others, who have behaved themselves in an oppressive and unseemly manner towards Margaret Montgomery, Lady Crechdow. The story that is told is a strange one. About midsummer they had taken forcible possession of the lady's house. She had naturally objected, and her servants with her: but when the latter had resented the intrusion and endeavoured to drive their intruders forth from their mistress' dwelling, they had driven back blow for blow, and overpowered the domestics. This done, they had ransacked the house, which was under the direct protection of the King, and had spoiled it of its contents. Carrying their unlawful conduct still further, they had turned Lady Crechdow out of her house of Garlauche; and then, directing their attention to her stackyard and to her stock, they had thrown down stacks of hay and of bere, to the damage of the grain, and. driven off sixty-five cattle, shutting them up elsewhere than on her ladyship's lands. Worse still, when Lady Crechdow had remonstrated with them on their high-handed conduct, one of the accused had thrown a stone at her from the window of her own house, and had felled her to the ground. And having been convicted of all these offences, they were permitted to compound for their misdemeanours, and for general oppressions of the King's lieges in addition, and then dismissed, David Craufurd of Kerse becoming surety to satisfy the injured and the offended parties. Like all legal documents, the indictment is a bald, matter-of-fact statement of the case, but it nevertheless reveals in a very clear light the condition of western feudal society in the early years of the sixteenth century. The offence done-rather the series of offences is not the work of common, every-day offenders against the peace of the lieges. The misdemeanants are at feud with the family of which the Earl of Eglinton is the head. They know that the Place of Garlauebe is undefended, and that Lady Crechdow lives there in comparative seclusion. Being a woman, she thinks that her sex ought in itself to be her protection against outrage. But no. She is a Montgomery, and that is the head and front of her offending; so against her and against her dwelling come this party of the adherents of Kerse. They break into her house, assault her servants, throw her furniture out of the windows, overturn the stacks in her stackyard, drive her cattle from their pasture, and finally fell her with a stone as she raises her voice to denounce their conduct. So much by way of parenthesis, for the gallantry of the gentlemen of 1508 towards a lady of rank and position ! Nor is this an isolated case. On the contrary, such outrages of the period are so common that an individual case such as this is hardly worthy of a remark. And no adequate punishment follows. The parties are left to settle with one another for the oppression involved in the action of the strong against the weak.
The Craufurds of Kerse were ever a lawless family. Their domains were wide, and their influence, wider still. David Craufurd had only to send out his messengers, and replies came in, in the guise of horsemen and of footmen, from a range of country stretching from the upper waters of the Irvine to the mid-waters, of the Ayr, and reaching from these to where the Doon washed the domains of the Kennedys. The Craufurds played an important part in the national history. Sir Reginald Craufurd, the uncle of Sir William Wallace, was one of their forebears, and for a long series of years they held the hereditary sheriffship of Ayr. But they were feudal, and the Kerse of the early days of the sixteenth century, the chieftain of the house of Craufurd and the acknowledged leader of the men of Kyle when their interests were threatened, was never more at home than when, in the saddle, he raided the lands of Carrick, or turned his arms against the Montgomeries of Eglinton. He is waiting in court to stand trial, but ere he is called to appear at the bar, one of his followers, John Shaw, is examined on two separate indictments. He had slain with a stone a certain John Boyd, whether a scion of the house of Boyd or a man of no recognized family, we do not know. In all probability the latter, for the case is soon disposed of. Craufurd offers himself a surety to satisfy the parties, and his suretyship is accepted as a matter of course. But Shaw had performed a more serious and compromising action. Duncan Fergusson, the young laird of Kilkerran, bad been residing at Burnfoot, and thither Shaw had gone at the head of a party of the retainers of Kerse. They had broken down the walls of the dwelling and wasted it, and for the space of a year they had made periodical incursions on the lands of Burnfoot, and destroyed every attempt to cultivate them ; and to fill the cup of their vengeance, they had set upon one of the servants of the laird of Kilkerran with their swords, and had cruelly done him to death. But it was all in pursuance of hereditary struggle, and in conformity with the unwritten, yet fully recognized, laws of the blood feud; and therefore, when Craufurd offers again to become surety, Lord. Gray interposes no objection, and Shaw rejoins his friends.
The next case is of higher importance. Advancing without fear. Craufurd himself, he of Kerse, with three of his own family and other seven of his followers, comes to account for interference with the court of the Bailie of Carrick, the Earl of Eglinton. That court had met to deal with a matter touching the laird of Kilhenzie, but its proceedings had been rudely interrupted.
Kerse was displeased that Lord Eglinton should hold the office of bailie. He had no territorial influence in Carrick, and while Craufurd had none himself, for many miles and by many a stretch of the winding Doon his lands looked across to those of the baillary. And so it had come about that, while the Earl held court, the Craufurds, present in force, had so conducted themselves that the magistrate had not dared to adjudicate upon the affairs of Kilhenzie. Surely a serious offence, thus cavalierly to interfere with one of the judicatures of the country! Well, it may have been, but if a judgment on the regard in which the misdemeanour was held may be gauged by the sentence, it can hardly be that Lord Gray was inclined to see in it anything worse than an ordinary feudal offending. Kerse was fined in five pounds Scots, and the members of his family and his followers in forty shillings each.
A nominal fine is next inflicted on a Cuthbert Rotisoune, farmer in Auchentiber, for an assault committed on one of his neighbours and upon the son. The latter he had cast into the fire, burning him severely. Fine, five merks. He removed, the Earl of Eglinton stood forward to give monetary account of a raid committed by some of his adherents or friends. Their offence had been committed at a far distance from the castle of Eglinton. Away on a cattle-lifting raid, they had encountered, on the confines of Galloway, a party of men connected with the estate of Lady Home. These, guessing their purpose, had intercepted them and offered combat; but the followers of Eglinton had fallen amain upon them, had wounded their leader among others, and had robbed them of twelve horses, of their boots, their spurs, and their swords. Continuing their raid they had entered upon Lady Home's possessions, and had driven thence three and twenty cows, and had capped their offending by carrying off as prisoner a certain Arthur Boyde, whom they had detained for some time as a captive. The judge is not mightily concerned over the misdeed, and when the Earl of Eglinton, comes forward to offer satisfaction and to pay in hard Scottish coin for the horses and cattle, the boots, the spurs, and the swords, his suretyship is taken as a matter of form, and the next case is called.
It is the last, and, like the preceding, tells of the cattle raid. The accused is John Hamilton, one of the adherents of Kennedy of Bargany. In his search after the treasures of his neighbours he had taken whatever he could lay his hands upon. From the stackyards he had carried off corn and beans, and from houses, pots and pans. Four horses, eight cows, and four oxen he had driven homewards before him, and it is for the theft of the goods and gear, alive and dead, that he now figures as a panel at the bar of the Court of Justiciary. His crime is only a crime legally. The judge does look upon it in that light. As. he travels over the country from one assize to another he meets such cases every day on which he sits to do justice; and if he can only find some one to go bail that he will satisfy the parties, that is all he requires. In this case Kennedy of Bargany is the surety. The sentence, is filled up and formally pronounced, and the court rises.
It has not been a heavy assize. Lord Gray thinks everything has been somewhat common-place and uninteresting ; and as the dempster of court declares its formal rising the judge departs, satisfied that society is improving. In the evening the rival retainers of the great families of Ayrshire come into contact with one another on the streets of the town, and the douce burghers either stand aside to let them fight out their quarrels, or hurry home thankful that Ayr is a walled town and that these skirmishes are only, periodical.