Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: Maxwell and Johnston Feud.

The feud between the Maxwell and Johnston clans, supersedes even the infamy of the Hatfield- McCoy feud in West Virginia and Kentucky. It was also classed as one of the bloodiest in Scottish history. Being who we are, Carruthers played their part it seemed, and on both sides of the fence.

Battle of Dryfe Sands (Painting courtesy of Bill Ewart of Langholm)

The Johnstones along with Carruthers and 15 other Reiver families, were listed as troublemakers on the West March in the “Roll of the clannis that hes capitanes chieffis and chiftanes quhome on thai depend oftymes againis the willis of thair landislordis alsweill on the bordors as hielands and some speale personis of braches of the saidis clannis” which as appended to a 1597 Act of the Parliament of Scotland “For the quieting and keping in obedience of the disorderit subiectis inhabitantis of the bordors hielands and Ilis.”

In 1578 the “nayme of Johnnstounis” appointed a council of twelve arbiters to settle internal disputes, all under the leadership of their “chief and maister” the Laird of Johnstone. The council consisted of Johnstones of Carnsalloch, Craigieburn, Elsieshields, Fairholm, Fingland, Howgill, Lockerbie, Marjoribanks, Millbank, Newton, Poldean and Wamphray. During the sixteenth century, the clan was also organized in numerous gangs, which changed form over time. 

It was in this year that John Johnstone was not only knighted but also made Warden of the West March, a position of great significance in the Scottish Borders. He was now responsible for the actions all the clans who inhabited his March including the Maxwells, a clan equally, if not more powerful, than the Johnstones.

The Maxwells therefore seriously resented Johnstone’s appointment and were further angered at his candidacy for the position of Provost of Dumfries. This was an office usually held by a Maxwell or one of their supporters and only helped to rub salt on the wounds of their rivals, the Maxwells, which added to his position as Warden. It was this situation which set off the feud that had been simmering in the background between both families for nearly a century.

Maxwell then quarrelled with the favourite of James VI, Lord Arran, and interestingly, along with George Carruthers of Holmains, who was at the time Captain of Threave Castle, was put ‘to the horn’ i.e. declared an outlaw. Johnstone was ordered to arrest Maxwell and two bands of soldiers were sent to assist him to achieve this goal. They were met and defeated at Crawfordmuir by Maxwell’s half-brother Robert. Lochwood Tower, seat of the Johnstone’s was burned in the process.

Johnstone retaliated by attacking his rival Maxwell but his audacity failed and he was taken prisoner. Released within a year when James V1 sought to reconcile the two factions and resolve their stand-off and feud by a bond of Amity, George Carruthers of Holmains was one of the witnesses. Johnstone died soon afterwards and it often said that it was of a broken heart, at the shame that followed his defeat and imprisonment. The year was 1586. The feud continued and culminated in one of the worst recorded slaughters ever on British soil.

About 3 kilometres to the west of Lockerbie on 7 December 1593, Clan Johnstone fought Clan Maxwell at the Battle of Dryfe Sands. The Johnstones nearly exterminated the Maxwells involved in the battle, using a peculiar downward cutting stroke of their swords causing mayhem and damage, which lead to the proverbial expression “Lockerbie Licks”.

dryfe sandsBattle of Dryfe Sands

Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie, Chief of the Johnstones at the time, received advance warning of the approaching army and realized that his clan would soon have a desperate fight for continued existence. He had been warned by Johnstone of Cummertrees about the size of Maxwell’s army so he gathered around him a mix of other clans; Elliots, Irvines, Murrays, Scotts, Carruthers and Grahams.

Captain Oliphant, leading an advance Maxwell party, was beaten near Lochmaben by the Johnstones. In the skirmish, Oliphant was killed, the remainder of his forces sheltering in Lochmaben Kirk. However, some Johnstones set fire to the building, forcing the Maxwells to surrender.

Lord Maxwell’s main army camped near Skipmyre, on a hill. A day later, he took up the left bank of the River Dryfe. However, Sir James Johnstone’s men were on higher ground, and provoked Maxwell’s men, with the result of some of Maxwell’s men getting ambushed. This enabled Johnstone’s main force to attack Maxwell’s main army, which confused them. The Lairds of Douglas of Drumlanrig, Kirkpatrick of Closeburn and Grierson of Lag rode off the battlefield, presumably followed by many of their men. Maxwell’s army was destroyed, and Maxwell himself was killed by William Johnstone of Kirkhill, or possibly by Sir James Johnstone. John Pollock of Clan Pollock was killed supporting the Maxwells

As we have already seen Maxwell fell at the Battle of Dryffe Sands. It is said that as he lay, he put his hand up to surrender but no quarter was given, so deep was the hatred between the two families that it was cut off. His severed hand was nailed to the door of Lochwood Tower, seat of Clan Johnston in the upper Annandale. Some versions state that not only his hand was to adorn the massive oak door of the Johnstone stronghold, it is said his head followed suit.


James VI Scotland

John, Lord Maxwell, son of the Maxwell who fell in the savage encounter that was Dryffe, continued to nurse a hatred that all but consumed him, and vowed revenge, not only for the death of his father, but the callous, insensitive manner in which he was despatched. He waited for the day when he would exact his revenge.

He made no secret of his intense hatred of Johnstone and held no regard for the threats of the king, James VI who endeavoured to bring peace to the two families. Even entreaty and cajolement from a monarch who was not renowned for patience and subtlety fell on deaf ears. So much for the control of the Scottish monarch.

When Johnstone was granted the ministry of the Middle Marches, Maxwell, following some disturbances in which he was instrumental, was incarcerated in Edinburgh castle. He escaped and sought a meeting with Johnstone on April 1608 as a prelude to resolving their differences. This meeting very soon degenerated into a quarrel and Sir James Johnston was killed by Maxwell in the process, who shot him twice.

Escaping to France for a time he returned back to Scotland in 1612 and was caught in Caithness at the home of his cousin’s husband, George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness who betrayed him, and he was taken to Edinburgh for judgement. James VI and his judiciary convicted him of the murder of Johnstone, but added the charge of fire-raising which forfeited all his lands. Ever to his nature of benefiting his favourites, Maxwells lands were passed to Sir Gideon Murray. Maxwell was taken from the tolbooth to the market cross in Edinburgh where at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on 21st May 1613 he was beheaded, so ending one of the longest and bloodiest feuds in history.

Role of Clan Carruthers


William Carruthers, who was the first of Dormont line, received from his father a charter of the lands in 1552. His eldest son Christopher, married Margaret Johnstone and became on the death of his father, 2nd of Dormont. It is recorded that he favoured the Johnstone cause against the Maxwells. Both Christopher and his brother Hobie are specifically mentioned in a Respite (a reprieve) issued on Christmas Eve 1594, to Sir James Johnstone and eight score others, regarding the murder of John, Lord Maxwell, March Warden in 1593 by James VI.


The House of Holmains, being the senior house of Carruthers, took on the mantle of the Chiefship of Carruthers after the demise of the House of Mouswald.  As previously mentioned, George Carruthers of Holmains was a great supporter of Maxwell, although there is no evidence that Holmains fought beside him at Dryfe Sands.

Interestingly, George was listed in the Roll of Lundit Men in 1590 and was ordered; to find sureties for all the lawlessness done by those members of the family (Carruthers) for whom he was responsible.

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