The Maxwell Johnstone Feud-The Theft of Ane Black Horse and the Aftermath

By 1593 the feud that had existed between the Maxwells and the Johnstones, the two most powerful families in south-west Scotland, was to reach its zenith. The feud was long-standing as it had existed for over a century.

Whilst the culmination of the feud would result in the Battle of Dryfe Sands which has already been well recorded in these articles, it is more than interesting to consider the events which would lead up to the battle, the biggest family ‘set to’ in British history.



The most powerful position in the Border Country during the turbulent times of the Border Reiver was that of March Warden. In the Scottish south-west it was a post which brought a spurious legality to the nefarious activities of the Maxwells and Johstones who vied with each other for decades to rule supreme in the Scottish West March.

The role of Warden was consigned on a too frequent basis from one to the other of the great Border warlords, Maxwell and Johnstone with the result that the Scottish south-west experienced nothing but upheaval, death and mayhem.

At one time, when the King appointed a Johnstone, the Maxwell Laird told his clan and followers to ignore the dictates of the new Warden. At another a Johnstone laird died, it is said, heartbroken that yet again Maxwell was to take the role.

There are thus many recorded instances of the hatred that existed between the two families during the sixteenth century but none would compare with the events that unfolded from the stealing of ‘ane black horse’.

In 1593 a small party of Johnstones, five in all, made their way to the head of Nithsdale in the twilight of a July evening, to the Crichton stronghold there, and stole a black mare from the stables. The theft was witnessed by Lord Crichton and his followers who immediately pursued the Johnstone raiders.

Whilst four of the five Johnstones easily evaded pursuit, their trustworthy nags more than a match for the uneven and rocky ground which confronted them in their descent down the valley, one, known as the ‘Galliard’, not content with stealing the black mare, had determined to ride it home to Wamphrey in Annandale. He little knew that the fine looking beast was partially blind and that it would stumble and fret and be unsure of its footing as he spurred it into action to distance himself from the chase.

He was soon ridden down, bound to his horse, and conveyed to the nearest tree where he was hanged without any ceremony.

The other four Johnstones, hiding nearby, witness to the summary justice and now led by Willie of Kirkhill, vowed vengeance for the death of one of their own.

Within a short time, without informing their leader, James Johnstone of Dunskellie, they had raided Crichton lands, burned farms and villages, stolen insight (household and farming gear) and murdered fifteen of the Crichton clansmen. The offenders then went into hiding, miles from their homelands of Wamphrey.

Lord Crichton, well aware of both the advantages and limitations of the Border Law, sought redress through advances to his March Warden John, Lord Maxwell.

Sir James Johnstone, holder of a special commission from the King for exacting justice among his own clan, vowed to try his recalcitrant kinsmen himself. He refused to hand them over to the Maxwells.

Though Maxwell had previously been keen to see an end to the Johnstones of Annandale, he was reluctant to act without due consideration of the amity that now existed between the two clans. Before the present trouble it seemed that their differences would be resolved thus he called for time to seriously consider the matter.

Crichton was infuriated at the dalliance and journeyed to Edinburgh to petition the King, James VI. He well knew of James’ penchant for prevarication, and seizing the issue with both hands, he advertised the crimes of the Johnstone clan in a novel way to the common folk of Edinburgh.

He spoke loudly and vehemently at the Mercat Cross, inviting the populace to listen to his plea for justice. Moreover, within his followers from Sanquar, were the wives and girl friends of the fifteen men who had been murdered in the Johnstone raids on his lands in reprisal for the hanging of the ‘Galliard’. They brought out the blood-stained sarks (shirts) of the dead ones and paraded them up to the castle and back to Holyrood House. By the time they arrived there, many of the Edinburgh folk had joined the throng. All bayed for justice.

James VI was now quick to act and a proclamation at the Mercat Cross seemed to seal the fate of Sir James Johnstone. The King demanded that Johnstone hand himself over to Maxwell before trial in Edinburgh. Should he refuse to be taken then Maxwell was given a free hand to use what force he saw fit.

Matters took a new turn when the Lairds of Closeburn, Lag, Drumlanrig and the Crichtons offered to be bonded to Maxwell in ‘manrent’ , in effect become his vassals. They were prepared to do this because, whilst outwardly throwing their force behind Maxwell and thus adding to his already almost omnipotent hold on the south-west of Scotland , they, themselves, wished to see an end to all the Johnstones of Annandale.

Maxwell signed the deeds of manrent yet was not happy with his decision.



It was all to come to a head and lead to the Battle of Dryfe Sands when the parchment detailing the agreement between Maxwell and the scheming Lairds was found by a kitchen maid. She could not read but was entranced by the flowery writing and the magnificent colours used. Rather than burn it she took it to her uncle who recognised the name Johnstone on the parchment. Very soon it was in Sir James’ hands.

The die was cast. The result – the humiliation of the Maxwells at the ensuing battle. The story was not to end with Dryfe Sands in 1593.

Fifteen years later in 1608, the son of the John, Lord Maxwell, who was to die at Dryfe Sands held out the hand of friendship to Sir James Johnstone, still at that time, head of the clan, and requested that the latter meet him to resolve their differences.

There were only four men present; Maxwell, Johnstone and a servant of each. The servants drew aside whilst Maxwell and Johnstone talked of how to overcome the animosity which presided over the two clans.

All of a sudden the two servants started to argue and Johnstone walked towards them to intervene in their differences. As he moved he had his back to Maxwell who pulled a pistol from beneath his cloak and shot Johnstone twice in the back. He fell dead.

BORDER REIVERS AT LANGHOLM CASTLE. (Painting courtesy of Bill Ewart of Langholm.)

BORDER REIVERS AT LANGHOLM CASTLE. (Painting courtesy of Bill Ewart of Langholm.)

Maxwell fled abroad. His crime was that of treason as the meeting had been convened under terms which ensured the safety of all present. In 1612 he made his way back to the north of Scotland but was recognised and reported by a near relative. He was beheaded in Edinburgh. Thus in the short space of twenty-five years, between 1587 and 1612, four of the clan leaders of the Maxwells and Johnstones were to die because of a clan feud which took a century to resolve.


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15 thoughts on “The Maxwell Johnstone Feud-The Theft of Ane Black Horse and the Aftermath

  1. cheryl moir

    I am wondering if in your writings about this time period, you happened upon a mention of William Patton. William Patton was born 1590, became a reverend in the Presbyterian church 1616, married Margaret Johnstone and emigrated to donegal with “the Plantation”.

    I enjoyed your writings of the feud between the Maxwells and Johnstones very much.


    Cheryl MOir

    • Clark Scott

      I read your inquiry about William Patton. I descend (paternal lines) from Wm Patton who went to Donegal and Cavan. According to what our family has been told, his descendant Cornelius Patton’s sons immigrated to America – first to Pennsylvania but eventully to North Carolina where James Patton founded the city of Asheville, NC and left extensive writings about the family origins. We will be going to Asheville next week – July 2015 – before going on to the Grandfather Mt Scottish Games in Linville.
      I would be interested to hear from you about Patton ancestry. Regards aye,

    • Thomas Johnston

      Hello Cheryl,

      I am researching my family history as my ancestors took part in the Ulster Plantations and settled in Donegal. The first James Johnston appears on the early Scots settler list in Donegal in 1617. My father always said we were descended from Scottish horse thieves, who had the choice of taking part in the Ulster Plantation or getting hung in Scotland. I am astounded to find out the story was true after all. I too find this fascinating family history.

      Thomas Johnston

  2. Sean Johnstone

    Thank you for explaining this very interesting part of my family history. Although I was born in England, my father came from Co Cavan Ireland, this part of the Johnstone clan arrived there during the plantation.

  3. Maxwell Penfold

    A very interesting account of a feud that I knew nothing about. I have both Johnstones and Maxwells in my family tree and find all this fascinating stuff.

  4. stuart johnstone

    my uncle norman johnstone died on the hms prince of wales 17 year signal boy a war hero and a proud johnstone

  5. Doris

    I too thank you for the hx. The only words, about my Johnstone heritage, were my fa., George Cyrus Johnstone, saying “I come ffrom a long line of red-bearded Scotsmen.”

  6. Thomas Johnston

    My father often told me that our Donegal ancestors were horse thieves and had to go to the Ulster Plantation or get hung in Scotland. Did these men get sent to the Ulster Plantation? And were they brothers? If so, I would appreciate it if I could have the names of these horse thieves.

  7. Chris Johnstone

    Johnstone’s are second to none! in my world we hold a high regard for life and prosperity, and i have read a lovely quote “The Johnstone’s will rise and ride once again” anyone heard this before?


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