Johnstone Legend – The Killing of Lord Maxwell

Johnstone crest

Johnstone crest

One of the visitors to our site told us about this great Clan Johnstone legend:

The Battle of Dryfe Sands on the 6th of December, 1593 saw the Johnstones and the Maxwells fight it out near the town of Lockerbie.

On the day of the battle Lady Johnstone went out with her maidservant to see how it was all going. She locked up the castle and took the castle key with her (which was a huge iron number). During her walk she came across a ‘regal looking man’, badly wounded and propped up against a tree. He stretched out a hand and begged for her help. He was Lord Maxwell.

Upon recognising her husband’s enemy Lady Johnstone promptly stoved the man’s head in with the castle key.

There is another version of how Lord Maxwell died that day.




Dryfe Sands battle site

Dryfe Sands battle site

The Maxwells were desperate to rid the land of their sworn enemy the Johnstones, and so decided to launch a surprise attack. However, fortunately for Sir James Johnstone, he was somehow warned of the approaching Maxwells. He knew that this was going to be a desperate fight for their existence and so hurriedly called for some assistance from the Grahams, Scotts, Carrutherses, Irvings, Elliots and others, and managed to raise an army of, perhaps, around 800 men.

It said that Lord Maxwell offered a reward to whichever man could bring either the hand or the head of Sir James. Upon hearing this Johnstone made a similar pledge.

On the 6th of December Lord Maxwell and his army approached the Johnstone town of Lockerbie, near a place called Dryfe Sands. Johnstone came up with a plan, and, as the Maxwells marched on, he kept most of his men hidden, only sending out a small number of horsemen to attract the attention of the Maxwell vanguard, and then rout.

The plan worked and the vanguard broke its ranks chasing after the Johnstone horsemen, allowing the main body of Johnstone men to make a surprise attack on the disorganised and surprised Maxwells.

The Johnstones went on to slaughter around 700 Maxwells, and those they didn’t kill were slashed in the face with a sword, recieving horrible wounds which were to become known as ‘Lockerbie Licks’.

During the carnage, it is said that Lord Maxwell begged for his life, offering to surrender. He stretched out his hand, and instead of accepting it, Sir James Johnstone cut off the arm and then killed him.

Legend has it that Johnstone kept the arm and head of Lord Maxwell as trophies, reminding everyone of their decisive victory against the Maxwells.

Whichever way Lord Maxwell did die, whether he was bludgeoned by Lady Maxwell and her castle key, or if he was slain by the sword of Sir James Johnstone, one thing that is for sure, it probably wasn’t a pleasant death.


About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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12 thoughts on “Johnstone Legend – The Killing of Lord Maxwell

  1. tommoss

    Good synopsis of the battle.It was a great victory for the Johnstone’s who were outnumbered three to one.Maxwell was sure of victory.

    It seems that Johnstone nailed Maxwell’s arm to the main door of the tower of Lochwood, his ancestral home.

    The tower is well worth a visit not just for itself but for the ancient motte (site of a former Johnstone stronghold) that stands nearby and the wood of very ancient oaks that just about hold on to life in the valley surrounding it. They are a truly awesome sight.

    Caerlaverock castle, the home of the Maxwells, is also a must if you like Scottish history and its rich heritage. It is in a wonderful setting on the Solway estuary.

    If you want to know more please see my article at

  2. David White

    Today, after many years I have just finished writing a 100,000 word novel about the Maxwell Johnstone feud ending at the battle of Dryfe sands. It has been an interesting and enjoyable journey especially with the increasing amount of interest in our Border Reiver heritage. I was born and raised on the Borders and until reading The Steel Bonnets, by the late George MacDonald Fraser in the early 1980’s, I knew little of our rich and fascinating history.

    David White (A decedent of the Hall family of the Redesdale Valley)

    • Steve Hall

      Hello Davis,

      Seeing you are a decedent of the Halls, I was wondering if you had any stories/information etc. of the Halls. I’m the Eastern VP of the Clan Hall Society and our VP is very interested in the Halls of Teviot and Redesdale, not to mention the Scottish side of them.

    • Shannon Whitney

      I just found out not long ago my great great grandma was a Maxwell. My grandfather’s middle name Maxwell. He had red hair. I would love to read your book on this. My grandfather said all the men were cursed to die at 60 yrs old. In doing some research I did find 60 men held off English and a few hung at Cleaverlock as example. Can you fill me in on more. I also saw border clans were cursed by church for guess.

  3. David K. Bell

    The “Others” that fought in this great battle, but is not often mentioned, is the great clan of riders, Clan Bell. In fact the Bells were a deciding factor in this great battle between the 300 hundred Clan battle between the Johnstones and Maxwells. Bells, have been were the great battles have taken place. Including fighting a long side of William Wallace, whom Wallace had said the Bells were great fighters. Known as one of the “Devils Dozen,” The Bells were brave, loyal, and most often called to take part in most dangerous tasks.

  4. Christopher Garrett Wright

    Interestingly, I have the same story but with different characters. My family is Gass/Gafs/Gask from Annandale through Kirkcudbright.. Our story says that Mathew of Gask sworded the Lord in revenge for the hanging of a relative. Obviously, several parties claim the event. You could find one version of it at

    The part that interested me was the Johnston connection. The ‘Gass” family spawned more females than males and never became a clan, although because of the training of the Gass girls, we connected into several clans. In the matrilineal era, the short life of battling males made for useful inheritances and options to employ your family. This is according to the rare book: “History of Luguen of Strathearn and His Children” by Robert Gass F.S.A Scot.

    Aside from that, it was the connections with the Johnstone clan that brought me considerable joy. We all know that finding any valid connections in Scotland at that time is rare, particularly if ones family is not famous, rich or Royalty. Once I followed my lineage over the Atlantic, there was a long direct line of Johnston/Johnstone/Johnstoun marriages and relations stretching from Gilbert in 1140 to Ann in the 1808 and mostly from Annandale through Crossmichael, Kirkcudbright. So, now I will be thrashing through these pages to learn what I can about a whole different lineage that helps solidify my Scot world.

    Christopher G Wright.
    Copper Center, Alaska

  5. Sheila Fergusson

    I found this looking for a connection to James Clerk Maxwell 1831-1879. My great grandmother was Jane Ann Maxwell, 1857 – 1924 born in Lockerbie. My grandmother’s sister, Frances Kerr, was engaged to 10812 Pte J Johnston who died in WWI not long before my grandfather Edward Petrie Fergusson (or Ferguson). My father was named Francis Petrie after his aunt, who never married, Petrie is via Jane Petters, another lost clan.

    I know about Pte J Johnston because I have a box made by him dated April 1915 with his name carved on the bottom. He gave it to my great aunt, it has F on the front. My father gave it to me and told me I must keep it, so I have!

    • Kristi Moore

      Wow! My mom was named after your great grandmother!! I believe she was my mom’s great-Aunt. Her Grandmother was Marietta Maxwell, born in 1865. Wow!!

  6. Josh Johnston

    Hi. Over the last couple years, I’ve become more curious about my family’s history, as we are not as connected as we apparently once were. I know almost none of my extended family and it makes me even more sad that we had so many important roles before coming to canada. I’m not even sure of when we came or what route we took. Either way, I enjoyed the story so thank you.

  7. Jeffrey Johnstone

    Please check out my 2021 novel, Dryfe Sands, now available in e-book, paperback and hardcover editions on Amazon. The e-book edition will be on sale for 99 cents for a limited period beginning in early May, 2021.


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