Subject: The Battle of Dryfe Sands
From: Jeffrey Johnstone <>
Date: 3/2/2021, 1:00 PM

The Battle of Dryfe Sands

Dryfe Sands

A Novel of Scotland's Bitterest Clan Feud

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The Battle of Dryfe Sands


   The Battle of Dryfe Sands was a full-scale military engagement involving thousands of soldiers near Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 6, 1593, between the forces of Clan Johnstone and Clan Maxwell. It was the climax of a deadly blood feud that had raged for nearly a century over which clan was to be the dominant power in the  Scottish West March.

   John, eighth Lord Maxwell and claimant to the title of Earl of Morton, led the Maxwell army. He was Warden of the Scottish West March. He had a commission from King James VI to arrest Sir James Johnstone of that Ilk and Dunskellie, Chief of the Johnstones, for not controlling some Johnstone reivers who had slain a number of Crichtons.

   However, Lord Maxwell was an opportunist and his motivation to pursue the Johnstones probably had as much to do with the chance to crush a rival as to carry out the King's directive. Although he and Sir James Johnstone had recently signed a Bond of Amity (non-aggression pact), when the powerful Douglases, Crichtons, Kirkpatricks and Griersons, all Nithsdale families with grudges against the Johnstones, agreed to become his vassals, he must have gloated in the realization that he now had sufficient power to invade Annandale and annihilate the enemy once and for all. 

   Sir James Johnstone had advance warning and summoned as many allies as he could muster: Irvings, Scotts, Grahams from the Debatable Land, and others. Although the Maxwell forces greatly outnumbered those of the Johnstones, the Johnstones soundly defeated the Maxwells by means of superior military tactics. Some of the description of the battle in my novel is simply conjectural.

   The actual engagement of the two armies was short, but the subsequent rout was prolonged, bloody, and resulted in the death of Lord Maxwell and the slaughter of 700 Maxwells. It is reported that the Johnstone cavalry inflicted ghastly head and facial wounds (“Lockerbie Licks”) on unhorsed Maxwells and their allies.

   One of the fighters in the Johnstone army was one Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch. This was not the Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch who died on May 10, 1592, a year and a half before the Battle of Dryfe Sands. It was his son of the same name who fought in the battle and who is reputed to have been only eleven years old at the time.  According to the History of the Johnstones, Robert was six in 1588 when he witnessed a legal document concerning his Chief, and was eleven when he fought at the Battle of Dryfe Sands. Robert's age is frequently cited as an example of how desperate the Johnstones were for help to stand up to the Maxwells.

   After the battle the Johnstones were outlawed, but a year later King James VI issued a Respite naming many of the fighters on the Johnstone side. This was not amnesty, but rather a  delay in prosecution pending further investigation. The offense was still on the books and could be resurrected at any time.

     Robert Johnstone of Raecleuch is the third person named in the Respite, after Sir James Johnstone of Dunskellie and John Carmichael of Meadowflat. Some other names listed in the Respite include Moffat, Jardine, Carruthers, Armstrong, Elliot, Murray, Chisholm and Stewart. The Respite does not name every person who fought with the Johnstones at Dryfe Sands, only those whose identity cold be determined.

   Robert's brother, Mungo Johnstone in Howcleuch, is also listed in the Respite. Since we believe that Robert was eleven at the time of the battle and we also know from events in 1608 that he was considered the closest adult male relative of Sir James Johnstone, either Mungo was younger than eleven when he fought at Dryfe Sands or, more likely in my opinion, he was older but did not qualify as Sir James's nearest male relative because he was born out of wedlock.

   John Johnstone in Craigieburn is listed in the Respite, but his apparent grandfather, Thomas Johnstone of Craigeburn, who is portrayed in my novel, was already dead by the time of the battle. If this lineage is correct, the John Johnstone in Craigieburn mentioned in the Respite was probably the brother of Francis, Symon and Gilbert Johnstone who are known to have emigrated to Samter (Szamotuly), Poland, in 1596.

   Another person named in the Respite is the famous Walter Scott of Harden, participant in the Raid of Falkland and the rescue of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle, as well as ancestor of the author Sir Walter Scott.

   One Bell of Albie is said to have fought with the Johnstones and to have perished in the battle.

   Although there was a historical General Carmichael (first name not known) who was a soldier of fortune in Russia, said to have been the uncle of Sir John Carmichael, there is nothing to show that he was present at the the Battle of Dryfe Sands. That part of my novel is pure fiction, and a nod to my interest in Russian history.

Electric Scotland Article on Dryfe Sands

Arial View of Battle Site

Battle of Dryfe Sands Poem by William M'Vittie


Jeffrey Johnstone | 62 Babcock Drive, Rochester
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