The ruined strongholds of many branches of the Kennedy family stand on strategic sights along the Stinchar Valley. They are all built in the Border Keep style – with a square tower rising to four or five storeys with narrow doors and windows. From the topmost battlements each castle is visible to the next – either for surveillance or mutual assistance! The power of that fighting clan was legendary and they held sway in Carrick over the centuries.
“The Kennedy’s wi’ a’ their power,
Frae Cassilis to Ardstinchar tower.”
The ruins of this imposing castle stand high above the Stinchar and dominate the village. It was built in the 13th Century by Neil, Earl of Carrick – the name probably coming from Craig (Gaelic for hill) and Neil who built the castle. The castle is a rectangular tower built on rock of mountain limestone. Owing to the manner in which the rock has been quarried, the castle has the appearance of being built on a ravine.
An unusual feature of the castle is the basement which is not vaulted as is customary. The principal hall is on the second floor, the roof of which is vaulted, and where the remains of a great fireplace may still be traced. The castle was a hiding place for Robert the Bruce on his many adventures, leading up to his campaign which was to culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn. For a time it was used as a feudal prison and place of execution. In the 16th Century it became an occasional residence of John, 5th Earl of Cassilis, in his journeys from Maybole to Castle Kennedy.
Not to be outdone by more famous castles, Craigneil is reputed to have a ghost – The Grey Lady who, at times, is heard to give three screeches at midnight. She was one of the Kennedy family believed to have been murdered in mysterious circumstances. In recent times, three young men were camping there when their peaceful slumbers were interrupted by three piercing screams. At that instant their tent fell on top of them on a windless night! – the story does not reveal whether they had visited the Boar’s Head that evening!!
Another story tells of ‘The Red Slap Fight’ which took place at the gates of Craigneil Castle. The Kennedys were residing in the castle, when on one occasion, a prisoner escaped and when the gaoler overtook him, he administered such a slap on the neck with a sword that the sanguinary name has remained!
In common with many other castles, there are stories of a secret passageway for escape. During quarrying operations early in the century, part of the castle collapsed unearthing a case containing a beautiful sword. This was taken away for identification and has never been seen again.
Craigneil Castle has been subjected to modern assault. On Hogmanay 1968, at two minutes to midnight, an explosion shook the village of Colmonell, cracking windows and shaking the houses. Explosives had been laid and detonated by a timing device, but no-one was caught and charged with this offence – thus a modern legend takes place!
Craigneil survives yet, and when mist lies along the river it has the strange eerie appearance of a ghostly castle!
Kirkhill Castle is situated within a stone's throw of the church on the northern back of the river and guards the ford and passage to the village.
The now ruined castle was built by Thomas Kennedy and his wife Janet in 1589 and their initials may be seen carved on a stone above the door. Having been built at a later date, the style of the castle differs slightly, being more of a fortified house with its crowstepped gables and angle turrets. An interesting feature of the external walling is the sight of two decorative stone heads. Internally the castle would be wood panelled and the great fireplace is still traceable. Close to the castle was the site of a hanging tree which no doubt had its uses in times of trouble.
A descendant and namesake of Thomas Kennedy distinguished himself by becoming Lord Provost of Edinburgh 1685-1686.
Kirkhill House, built in 1840 in close proximity to its predecessor, is a pleasant stone-gabled building with Gothic features, lying within attractive well-kept gardens. The house was built by the late Lt Col Barton who claimed to be lineal descendant of Booth de Barton, one of the military companions of William the Conqueror. He served under the Duke of Wellington, distinguishing himself at Waterloo. For many years the "Waterloo Dinner" was an annual dinner held at Kirkhill House, wine being served from a special commemorative cup.
In recent times the church has been much indebted to Dr and Mrs Scott who during their years at Kirkhill, greatly improved and beautified the gardens, opening them to the public during the annual church fete in August.
Situated a couple of miles over the hill from Colmonell. The castle is now a ruin, previously being one of a line of Kennedy watchtowers along the coast. The castle provided the setting where May Cullean, the eighth wife of the wicked baron who had disposed of seven wives by pushing them over the cliff, turned the tables on her lord, and threw him instead – a feat so deservedly commemorated in a well known ballad.
This early 17th Century castle is similar in style to Craigneil Castle, but it is in a very much better state of preservation. It stands guard above the river where the valley narrows between the rocky pile of Knockdolian Hill and the more gentle ridge of Sallochan Hill.
The Mermaids Revenge
When the old castle was occupied, a mermaid used to come of a summer evening and sit on a large stone in the centre of the River Stinchar, singing and combing her golden hair.
The Laird, at that time, brought a young bride home and, in due course, was presented with an heir. Many evenings the mermaid would sing to the babe, but the young mother did not appreciate the honour.
She ordered the stone to be broken up as the singing kept the child awake. When the faithful mermaid arrived to find her resting place gone, she sang her song of vengeance:
“Ye may think on your cradle, I'll think of my stane,
and there’ll ne'er be an heir to Knockdolian again!”
Some days later, the cradle was found overturned and the baby dead – another never came to fill his place and, since then, until recent times, there never has been a direct heir to Knockdolian.
The mermaid's stone, though split asunder, can still be seen, lying under the castle walls beside a deep pool, where many a fine salmon has lain.
Another story similar to the Mermaid's Revenge is told of the Covenanting preacher, Alexander Peden. When in the district he had occasion to be hidden from the troops by McCubbin, Laird of Knockdolian. Unfortunately the Laird was fined for harbouring him! On again seeking sanctuary at Knockdolian the Laird refused to help and the prophet, in a moment of irritation, predicted that the estate would not be inherited by either of his sons – and indeed they both met their fate by accidental death.
Like Kirkhill, the present mansion house replaces the old castle, Built by Alexander Cathcart of Genoch and completed in 1847, the house is beautifully situated above the river with delightful views over the water and surrounding policies.
The steep terrain has been landscaped, making many interesting features, from the walled gardens above the house to the imaginatively planted river bank. Snowdrops grow in great profusion in the shelter of the many fine trees and at one time were the first to be sent to the flower markets – competing favourably with those in the south-west of England. Many fine varieties of daffodils, formerly grown commercially, provide a welcome splash of colour in spring along the waterside.
Knockdolian has been in the McConnel family for many years and the present owner is the Duchess of Wellington, whose son, Lord Richard Wellesley, lives with his family in the house.
During the Second World War, Knockdolian was beadquarters for the Woman's Land Army in the district.
The whole of the lower valley is dominated by Knockdolian Hill, 869ft in height. The oldest volcanic cone in Ayrshire and, indeed, in the Southern Uplands, reckoned to be many millions of years old.
Knockdolian Hill is called ‘The False Ailsa’ because of its resemblance to Ailsa Craig when seen from the sea. It is reputed to have deceived many an ancient mariner navigating the Firth of Clyde in bad weather. It is belleved smugglers placed a light on top of Knockdolian to mislead passing ships causing these ships to become shipwrecked on the beach. The smugglers would then take the cargoes and hide them in a Brandy Hole. A Brandy Hole still exists in a bank along the roadside from Balnowlart Farm, towards Ballantrae.
It is believed that in former times Knockdolian Hill was the start of a continuous wood up the valley to Barr – the picturesque village fifteen miles up the River Stinchar. Due to this wood, one would expect coal to be present in the area, but attempts have been made to discover coal without effect.
Along the Stinchar Valley, there were various small estates where houses stand to this day – Dalreoch, Bardrochat, Carig and Dangart (Lugervale Lodge). Formerly there was a house or castle at Dalreoch, dating from 1485, the property and seat of a family who held considerable possessions in Colmonell and neighbouring parishes – the MacAlexanders. The building disappeared, having been taken down, probably for the building of the present Dalreoch House.
In times of trouble, a cave on the hillside was used for shelter and was certainly used in Covenanting times. The circumstances gave rise to the belief among the village folk that the hill was the abode of fairies. The cave has now been expanded into a quarry.
Bardrochat is a very charming country house with a superb view over the valley from its prominent position, high in the hill above the village. It is perhaps at its most spectacular when the westering sun paints the windows a gleaming gold contrasting with the darkness of the valley below.
The house was built in 1893 by the local builder McQuaker of Sixpence, Pinwherry for Robert Finnie McEwen and his family. His great love for music was reflected in the music room, the largest in the house, where his grand piano and harpsichord are still to be found.
There is a private burial ground for the family, where in spring, azaleas provide a splash of colour. During the Second World War Bardrochat was occupied by soldiers from a mine detection unity and the area was out of bounds to the general public. The name ‘Bardrochat’ came originally from the farm now known as Burnfoot – the foot of the burn.
‘Behind yon hills where Stinchar flows
’Mang moors an’ mosses, O,
The wintry sun the day has clos’d
And I’ll awa’ to Nannie, O’
Thus wrote Robert Burns about our river. The name derived from the Gaelic ‘sting’ a pool – Stinchar means abounding in pools. The River Stinchar rises in the uplands of the Parish of Barr, flowing for thirty miles through picturesque countryside down to the sea at Ballantrae.
The river, in the 17th Century, spread over the valley in many channels. Gradually, banks were built up to contain the river and made available more land for crops and grazing. Tracks and bridges were almost non-existent. In 1651, a bridge was built by the Kirk Session “Over the Garnieburn for the greater commoditie of the people coming to preaching’. This shows the session were roadmasters in those days. No doubt, Andrew Snell made the iron clutches for the wooden bridge structure. The Kirk Session also owned a boat for ferrying people over the river for Divine Service. “Stilting” was a common method of crossing the river at one time and must have required some skill in the fast moving and stony river beds!
In the next century, according to a Minute of the Commissioners of Supply, a stone bridge over the Stinchar at Colmonell was ordered to be built in 1722. The bridge fell at first but the contractors were helped during the second bridge erection by parish churches throughout Carrick and Galloway. It is said stones from the ruins of Carleton Castle, Lendalfoot were used.
The Stinchar is one of the famous Scottish salmon rivers. Being a ‘late’ river it is very popular towards the end of the fishing season. In the 18th and 19th centuries, salmon were in such profusion that one of the conditions of employment on the various estates was that the number of times salmon was to be served at servants meals was limited to not more than 3 times a week!! Unfortunately, disease struck the river several years ago and stocks have been depleted. The wet summer of 1985 produced a record catch of salmon on Knockdolian Estate.
Knockdolian Estate has allowed Colmonell Angling Club to rent a stretch of river. This started in the early 1960s and has proved a very popular and flourishing club for local anglers.
As in the River Tay, small pearls have been found in freshwater oysters in the river at Colmonell.