The Valley of the Elwyn is by many, even in the Borders, comparatively unknown. The tourist "does" Abbotsford, Dryburgh and Melrose in a summer day, and in passing he has touched the edge of a curtain which today is seldom raised. The late John Freer, F. S. A., Melrose, has an excellent pamphlet on the subject, Elwyndale, and Francis Lynn, F. S. A. another for the Hawick Archaeological Society. Sir Walter Scott has not disdained the district, but other references are few.
The Elway joins the Tweed midway between Galashields and Melrose, and some three miles up the valley stand the three grey towers mouldering in the sun. They form a small triangle, and were built on the verge of three estates, as has been quaintly suggested, for mutual support in troublesome times. Sir William Borthwick’s explanation in a similar case was "We’ll breeze yont".
Langshaw never had much significance, and it may be passed over. Hillslap is the Glendearg of the Monastery, and Scott refers to it in the introduction of that book. Nicol Cairncross built it in 1585, and his initials and those of his wife, with that date, still remain above the door.
Colmslie dates back about 100 years previously. In both cases the roof has disappeared, and in the case of Colmslie, the neighbouring farm has been enriched by the Cairncross crest and by the dial before the door. North of the castle stands the Chapel Field, the old burying ground of the lairds. The valley is full of old memories; Colmslie deriving its name from Saint Columba or Saint Colm.
"Colmslie stands under Colmslie Hill,
The water runs by Colmslie Mill,
Colmslie stands in the lirk o’ the hill,
The water comes slowly don by the mill,
The willow waves fu’ wantonly
Atween Hillslap and Colmslie."
This was the home of the Cairncrosses, today a scattered and vanished race. The most noteworthy of the name was Alexander, who became Archbishop of Glasgow. It would appear that this representative, though the heir of the family of Colmslie, was at one time in such low circumstances that he was obliged to exercise the trade of dyer in the Canongate, by which means he recovered part of the estate of his ancestors. It may be questioned if Glasgow has ever had another Archbishop of that ilk. He was parson of Dumfries till 1684, when, on the recommendation of the Duke of Queensbury, he as made Bishop of Brechin.
In December of the same year, he was promoted to the Archbishopric of Glasgow. But in 1686, having strenuously resisted the projected repeal of the penal laws and the test, and having otherwise displeased the Chancellor, he was removed by the irregular mode of a letter from the King to the Privy Council, on January 13, 1687. After that he lived privately till the Revolution, when he showed a disposition to comply with the new Government and thereby to obtain his Archbishopric. Episcopacy was abolished, however, and he was made Bishop Raphoe in Ireland, in May 1689. He died in 1701.
So far back as 1390 there is a reference to a Simon de Cairncross in the Exchequer Rolls in connection with "Montross". Another under the great seal of Balmashannar in 1439 is granted land in Inverness, Forfar, Perth and Aberdeen. It is, however, between 1530 and 1630 that the name figures most in the history of the day.
Nicol is President of the Edinburgh Dean of Guild in 1538; Colmslie is granted to William in the same year. In 1586, Wilton Green and Wilton Burn are confirmed to William Cairncross and to Grizel Scott his wife, and it is interesting to find that in 1604 the lands resigned by them are granted by the King to Walter Scott, of Branxholme.
The name occurs often as caution or surety, but whether it is a matter of money lending or a kind of under-warden-ship it is difficult to say. Some of the references are interesting. As that of 1590, where Walter is cautioner to deliver under pain of rebellion and putting to the horn certain Armstrongs and Elliots to the English Warden. Or that of 1592, where the same Walter is surety for John Scott of Foulshields; or that of 1588, where Nicol Cairncross is surety for Hob Elliot, brother of John Elliot of Copshaw. Hob was in the Tollbooth, and he must have been a "caution", for he is rated at £2000, while Ker of Cessford is ticketed at £1000. Hob was worth exactly double of a Warden of the Middle March.
Walter Cairncross of Colmslie again is a witness of a discharge by Janet Scott to Sir William Ker, who paid 1000 merks for the failure of his son to face the alter with the aforesaid Janet. In the next year, William and John of Colmslie sign the bond of allegiance to the Queen Mother, among others.
In addition, they acted frequently as members of assize, but were not above making a raid now and again to keep their hand in. We read of a raid by John of Earlstoun and Robert – called Meikle Hob – and their motto, "By doing right I fear no one", was certainly applicable to its last clause. Otherwise it seemed to be strained to the breaking point occasionally. There is a somewhat foxy entry in 1537, which we do not feel eager to translate, and which is as follows: - "Rox dedi literas legitimationes Johanni Andree et Isobelle Carncors bastardis fictis et filie naturalibus Roberti Abbatis S Crucis".
A James Cairncross is a member of assize when Lyell Hall is sentenced to be "hangit" for stealing "ane grey horse". A good deal of dirty linen seems to have been washed before the Privy Council of those days, and in one case "Agnes Cairncross declared that afore she sleepit she should give the said Agnes Lawder better cause to complain and that she should mak’ her to have a cauld airme-full of some of her bairns" – Agnes Lawder apparantly not having always persued the path of virtue. That very night, said the record, the said Agnes Cairncross "convenit" the Scotts, "dang the said Richard through the arme with a lance, chassit him and his brother about the house, etc". But the judges were not convinced of the assault and the amazing Agnes went "Scot" free.
Even in 1617 a Charles Cairncross makes a complaint against his son-in-law, William Borthwick, for having assaulted him after sermon, when goingabout his corn. The sermon of yore was not so soothing as that of today.
The Colmslie estate was valuable. In 1643 it amounted to £1630 fully. It belonged originally to the monks, and they could be depended upon for knowing "a good thing" in the matter of location.
Gradually, these old towers fell out of the Cairncross hands. Three ladies last occupied Hillslap. "On the death of the last of these a law-suit arose out of the Will, which gifted the state to other than the natural successor. It was of interest to know that the father of Sir Walter Scott was agent for the natural heir, who was a schoolmaster, and gained his case. When Colmslie was last occupied we cannot tell. According to tradition it was used in the end as a prison in the persecuting times, and people still think they hear a voice from the castle dungeon cry, "Woe, woe to the bloody house of Colmslie."
"All these ruins," says Scott, "so strangely huddled together in a very solitary spot, have recollections and traditions of their own," and both them and their traditions Scott knew well, for the towers were "within a mornings ride of his own house."
His quotation of the song varies from that of others: -
"Colmslie stands on Colmslie Hill
The water it flows round Colmslie Mill,
The mill and the kiln gang bonnily,
And its up with the whippers of Colmslie."
Sir Walter it may be added, was a warm admirer of the inscription at Langshaw, "Ut inum hanc etium veris implean amicis"; though for "veris" he reads "viris", a modest wish which I know no-one more capable of attaining upon an extended scale than the gentleman who has expressed it upon a limited one. We know that Sir Walter lacked neither for friends nor in the way of hospitality, and we are assured that he spoke sincerely, though the distinction between filling the house with true friends, and on the other hand showing hospitality to a full house, to put it roughly, is considerable.
"The name of Cairncross," says Nisbit, "In old charters writ ‘Carnea Crux’, of which there was a Bishop of ‘Ros’ and an Abbot of ’Holyrood House’ and other barons of the name carried the same arms with the Abbacy of ‘Holyrood House’ as Andrew Cairncross of Colmslie, argent ‘A Stag’s Head erazed" and between the ‘Attiring’ or ‘Horns’ a ‘Cross Crosslet fitchie’ surmounted on the top with a Mullet ‘Gules’. Motto: ‘Recte faciendo neminem timeo’."
The present writer imagines himself to be a descendant of this old house. His uncle tried to ‘read up’ the claim over half a century ago. His father’s family is registered in Stow, and his grandfather as a boy remembered the last laird of Hillslap being carried shoulder-high over the water to his burial, thus confirming the tradition of the Chapel Field. He has no other claim. In any case it would not matter much now, for this is a Border story with lost chapters and a Weir of Hermiston ending. It is the story of men who, while they brawled with one another, sat down with kings. Moreover, if their lines did not always fall in pleasant places, they had yet a goodly heritage. They lived also in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. And what need is there to say more?