In Scotland’s West March, Clan Johnstone dominated. Arguably the most powerful of the families local to Annandale and Dumfriesshire, the Johnstones were often at odds with other clans in the area. None more so than Clan Maxwell. A feud arose between the two clans in the late-16th century, and whilst typically viewed through the lens of a classic-Border reivers’ feud, it may be better described as a struggle for the wardenship of Scotland’s West March.
In the hundred years preceding the Battle of Dryfe Sands, nine Maxwell men had held the esteemed post of Warden of the West March, whilst just one Johnstone man had claimed the title in the same period. This must surely have irked the Johnstones to no end. Add to this incursions on Johnstone lands made by the Maxwells, most notably their razing of the Johnstones’ Lochmaben Castle in 1585, and the later defeat and imprisonment of a Johnstone patriarch, and it becomes clear why tensions between the two clans ran so high.
In the early 1590s, a sleuth of local families hostile to the Johnstones pledged allegiance to Clan Maxwell, under terms of ‘manrent’ (a Renaissance-era Scottish contract made between a ‘weaker’ clan and a ‘stronger’ one, in which the weaker pledges full allegiance in return for protection). These families included: Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, Douglas of Drumlanrig, Crichton of Sanquhar, Stuart of Castlemilk, Stuart of Garlies, the Murrays, Lord Annandale, Grierson of Lag, Gordon of Lochmaben, and many others in the south-west of Scotland, all binding themselves as vassals of Maxwell.
Like America discovering the stockpiling of Soviet warheads on the nearby island of Cuba during the Cold War, the Johnstones soon found out about the mass-pledges of allegiance, made by detractors of theirs right throughout the West March. Fearing the worst, their feud with the Maxwells of eight years previous was immediately reignited. Buccleuch, chief of the Scotts, who was a near relation of Johnstone, came to his assistance with his clan, which not only included the Clan Scott but also the Clans Elliot, Armstrong, and Graham. Johnstone having been reinforced, he surprised and cut to pieces a party of Maxwells who were stationed at Lochmaben. Among the slain was Robert Maxwell, brother of the chief, who had burnt Johnstone’s castle at Lochwood in 1585. The Maxwells then took refuge in Lochmaben Church, which they defended for some time, until the Johnstones burnt the church and everyone inside it. The stage was set for the gory conclusion to this bitter feud, the Battle of Dryfe Sands.
Sir James Johnstone positioned his own and allied troops atop the high ground, on the plain near where the Dryfe Water meets the Annan, a stone’s throw east of Lochmaben Castle, on 6th December 1593. As the Maxwell force approached, outnumbering Johnstone by three-to-one, men from the Johnstone army taunted the Maxwells into battle. Charging downhill at the Maxwells, the Johnstones began a fraught and bloody engagement. Of the Maxwell’s two thousand men, some seven hundred were slain, including their Laird, and they were turned to rout. In the pursuit of the fleeing Maxwells, many were said to have acquired ‘Lockerbie licks’ (slashes across the face from the swords of mounted pursuers). Despite the Johnstone victory, their losses were proportionally much heavier. Of the seven hundred or so men they had began the fight with, only one-hundred-and-sixty survived.
The Clan feud was largely over, and yet the power struggle for control of the West March was not. A Maxwell still held that seat, and did so for two years until, following attempts to capture Johnstone followers, the King finally replaced him with a Johnstone. For a time, things settled between the clans, memories of the bitter fight at Dryfe Sands enough to keep further aggression at bay. However, desire to avenge fallen ancestors ran deep in the Maxwell bloodline, and in 1608 a cold-revenge was taken by the clan. John Maxwell, 9th Lord of Maxwell, met with the then Johnstone chief (and Warden of the West March) at Tinwald, for the purpose of settling the feud peaceably, once and for all. Instead, Maxwell shot and killed Johnstone, escaping then to France. Upon his return to Scotland in 1613, he was found guilty at Edinburgh of high treason, and for the slaying of the Warden of the Marches Maxwell was executed. Thus ended a long and bitter feud.