Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for St Mary's Isle

St Mary's Isle, the seat of the Earl of Selkirk, in Kirkcudbright parish, Kirkcudbrightshire, 1¼ mile SSW of the town, from which it is approached by a long limetree avenue. It stands on a finely-wooded peninsula, projecting 11/8 mile south-south-westward into the head of Kirkcudbright Bay, and 1 to 3 furlongs broad. The retreat of the sea, so noticeable along the whole coast of Kirkcudbrightshire, is peculiarly observable in this peninsula. The sea, in former times, made the place literally an isle, and covered at every tide at least one-half of its present cultivated surface. The W side is high ground, defended by a border of rocks; but the E side visibly discloses from end to end, in large shellbanks, the former line of high water. The house, a rambling, old-fashioned building, with grounds of singular beauty, occupies the site of a priory, founded about 1129 by Fergus, Lord of Galloway. The original name of the island was Trahil or Trayl, and the priory was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whence we find it designated ` Prioratus Sanctæ Mariæ de Trayl. ' It was the seat of canons-regular of the order of St Augustine, and, being given by its founder to the abbey of Holyrood, became a dependent cell of that establishment. The prior was a lord of parliament. The priory was surrounded with high walls, which enclosed an extensive area. The outer gate was distant at least ½ mile from the priory, and stood at a place still called the Great Cross. The inner gate led immediately to a group of cells, the habitations of the monks, and was called the Little Cross. All the buildings were swept away towards the close of the 17th century, to give full scope for beautifying the ground as a noble demesne. A hundred years since, while the Earl of Selkirk was extending his garden, 14 human skeletons were discovered by the workmen, placed regularly alongside of one another with their feet to the E, occupying a spot quite different from the burying-ground of the monks, and all the remains possibly of persons interred previous to the existence of the priory. David Panther, or Paniter, was prior of St Mary's Isle, and afterwards commendator of Cambuskenneth. He was one of the most eminent literary men of his day, and wrote letters, published by Ruddiman in 1772, which afford a model of classical latinity. According, however, to Buchanan, he was a profane man, and instigated persons at court to all manner of impurities; whilst Knox says that ` eating and drinking was the pastyme of his lyif. ' He died at Stirling on 1 Oct. 1558. Robert Richardson, descended from a line of respectable citizens of Edinburgh, and previously promoted to the offices of lordtreasurer and general of the mint, was made commendator of St Mary's Isle in 1558; and he was so adroit as to hold all his lucrative situations under both Mary and her son. Large estates were purchased by him; and at his death, in 1571, were left to his two sons, Sir James Richardson of Smeaton, and Sir Robert Richardson of Pencaitland. On 22 April 1778 the famous Paul Jones made a descent on St Mary's Isle, with the view of seizing the Earl of Selkirk as a hostage during the war with America. His lordship being from home, all the silver plate in his mansion was seized and carried away; but it was returned uninjured and without cost seven years after the depredation. Lord William Douglas (1634-94), eldest son, by a second marriage, of the first Marquess of Douglas, was created Earl of Selkirk in 1646. He married Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, and in 1660 obtained the title of third Duke of Hamilton, at the same time resigning the earldom of Selkirk, which, however, by a new patent of 1688 was conferred on his second son. Dunbar James Douglas, present and sixth Earl (b. 1809; suc. 1820), holds 20, 283 acres in Kirkcudbrightshire, valued at £19, 770 per annum.—Ord. Sur., sh. 5, 1857.

(F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4); © 2004 Gazetteer for Scotland)

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "the seat"   (ADL Feature Type: "residential sites")
Administrative units: Kirkcudbright ScoP       Kirkcudbrightshire ScoCnty

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