Feuds, Conspiracies, and Murders

Bloody Tales of Greenan Castle

by Suzy A Kelly

On 11th May 1602, Sir Thomas Kennedy passes the cap-house (guard room) in the north-west tower of Greenan Castle. He descends the spiral staircase, flanked by his servant Lancelot Kennedy, unaware that this day is his last. They emerge at the bottom as waves whip against the sea cliffs to the west. Four corbelled angle-turrets cast their shadows over the bustling courtyard in the centre of the castle complex. Here, wooden outbuildings with thatched roofs lean against the stone of the oblong tower house. The tower walls measure 35ft x 28ft and reach four storeys high: from the vaulted basement, storing provisions like food, ale, and wine, to living quarters in the garrets.

Sir Thomas Kennedy (c.1545-1602) was knighted in 1590. He is a slender, fair-haired man with a well-trimmed moustache and pointed beard. At age 57, his hair is cut short without a ‘lovelock’ hanging over his shoulder like the younger men. He is the youngest child of Gilbert Kennedy (1515-1558), the 3rd Earl of Cassillis, and Countess Margaret Sophia Kennedy (1517-1597).

The portrait of Sir Thomas (c.1592) by Adrian Vanson, the king’s painter, is on view at Culzean today. Thomas is dressed in black velvet knee-breeches with matching slashed doublet. The edges of both are trimmed with gold buttons. His leine (shirt) and hose are dark grey, like the stones of Greenan. He wears a tall, conical, black felt hat called a capotain. A golden handled rapier sits by his hip, hanging from a gold baldrick (belt).

On 10th May 1602, Sir Thomas travels with his servant Lancelot from his home at nearby Culzean, which is still an L-shaped tower house before Robert Adam’s redesign. Thomas’ stepbrother, John Kennedy of Baltersan, has asked him to stay with him at Greenan. This invitation is not extended to Sir Thomas’ wife Margaret since Thomas is leaving for Edinburgh the next morning to meet with his lawyers.

Sir Thomas wonders if his brother-in-law, John Muir of Auchindrain, wants him to deal with any business matters while he is in the capital seeing to his own affairs. Lancelot rides out around noon to a local schoolmaster, a relative of Auchindrain’s, and tasks him with writing a note to Auchindrain to convey Sir Thomas’ request for instructions. William Dalrymple, a young scholar, is tasked with delivering the note.

King James VI still resides in Edinburgh in 1602. He will transfer his court to London the following year upon the death of his English cousin, Elizabeth I. The Union of the Crowns will be completed on 25th July 1603 when James VI of Scotland is crowned James I of England at Westminster Abbey. Both countries will remain separate states with individual laws, languages, cultures, religions, and economies until their contested merger in 1707. Unlike Sir Thomas, King James will return home, albeit only once.

A meal is laid out by John Kennedy’s servants in Greenan’s great hall on the evening of 10th May 1602. Musicians play secular music on lutes and sing ballads. With full bellies and in good cheer, the brothers settle into talking. Sir Thomas was educated at St Andrews and Paris. Now a politician and a judge, he resembles other educated noblemen of early modern Scotland in that he is fluent in Greek and Latin. He takes another sip of wine and argues with John over the need for ad fontes in Christian doctrine, meaning a return to the original gospel sources. Thomas’ exposure to humanist thought in France serves to entrench his Christianity. He moves the conversation onto commerce while servants top up his wine.

Ayr is a major port in 1602. Indeed, with Culzean and Greenan perched on the coastline, the Kennedys are well-placed to take advantage of luxury imports like wine and cloth. The brothers soon retire to bed.

The next day, a groom readies the horses for Sir Thomas and Lancelot. The men ride out, passing the half-metre thick barmkin walls. Sir Thomas glances at Greenan’s crow-stepped gables for the last time before riding through the verdant countryside. He will stop near Ayr to see if Auchindrain has answered his note. He will continue on to Edinburgh from there.

Unbeknownst to Sir Thomas and Lancelot, a conspiracy is underway. A suspicious Auchindrain refused to accept his gude-brother’s note the day before. Instead, he sends William Dalrymple away, instructing him to say he, Auchindrain, is not at home. Auchindrain then writes to Thomas Kennedy of Drumurchie, instigating Sir Thomas’ murder and outlining his route. Auchindrain blames the Bargany/Cassillis feud, specifically that Sir Thomas Kennedy murdered Gilbert Muir of Bargany with a lance in the spine during a skirmish at Maybole in 1601. Gilbert was Thomas of Bargany’s brother and a relative of Auchindrain. Due to Sir Thomas’ royal connections, the killing went unpunished and was even celebrated by some.

So, when Sir Thomas and Lancelot reach the dunes by St Leonards chapel on 11th May, eight men, including Auchindrain’s eldest son, ambush them from behind the hedgerows. Lancelot is spared, but Sir Thomas suffers a cruel and bloody death. The murderers rip Sir Thomas’ gold ring with nine inset diamonds from his finger. They tear seventy-two gold buttons from his clothes and drag his sword and belt from his still-warm body. They steal his purse, which Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland (1833) calculates as holding ‘ellevin scoir rois-nobilis’ (two hundred and twenty gold coins).

Auchindrain is not done. He kidnaps and imprisons young William. When servants discover him, Auchindrain spirits William to Arran and then Flanders. When William Dalrymple returns to Scotland as William Muir, he is strangled on Girvan sands by Auchindrain senior and younger. It takes years for them to face the king’s justice due to plague outbreaks. They are imprisoned and tortured before being beheaded at Edinburgh market cross in 1611. The others are ‘put to the horn’ (outlawed).

What remains of Greenan today are the ruins of John Kennedy’s tower house constructed in 1603/7. This castle is built on the site of a medieval motte and bailey. A motte being the earthworks on which the keep, the imposing defensive structure of a castle, was built. The bailey, the courtyard surrounding it, housed outbuildings like stables and is where non-nobles took care of the many animals. It was a defensive site until a hasty retreat to the keep was needed. Greenan’s other defences include imposing curtain walls and ditches.

Like with Dundonald Castle, archaeological evidence suggests prehistoric settlement of nearby lands with the discovery of small flint blades at Greenan. Between 10,800 BCE and 4,100 BCE, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers navigated Scotland’s seas and rivers, moving between encampments in small, mobile kinship groups in accordance with the seasons.

Those interested in learning more about the Kennedy clan rivalries can consult William Robertson’s Ayrshire: It’s history and historic families (1908) and Walter Scott’s Auchindrain or the Ayrshire Tragedy (1830).

A traumatised Lancelot returns to Greenan to fetch a litter on which to convey Sir Thomas back to Culzean. There the Master of Cassillis’ family will grieve his ‘crewall, ungodlie, and barbarous murder’ while awaiting their revenge.

Greenan Castle ruins are free to visit at any time, but access is difficult for those with mobility issues.