Mass Murder at Cumnock Kirk

The Barony of Cumnock

The early 16th century was a time of significant change and great optimism in the Barony of Cumnock. In 1509, James IV created Cumnock a Burgh in barony –

‘James, by the grace of God, King of the Scots, to all honourable persons throughout his realm, both among the clergy and laity, greeting.

John Strawhotm
A New History of Cumnock, John Strawthorn

Know that for the special favour which we beare towards our beloved James Dunbar of Cumnock, for the growth and good government of the barony of Cumnock, especially in the neighbourhood of the parish church, and also for the well-being and civil freedom of our lieges gathered there, we have made and created, and by this our present charter do make and create, the ecclesiastical lands and glebe of the said church of Cumnock, extending to two merk lands of old extent, with the adjoining grounds in the said barony of Cumnock within the county of Ayr, a free burgh in burgh to be called the Burgh of Cumnock in perpetuity’. Edinburgh, the 27th September 1509, and the twenty-second of our reign.”

The baron of the time was Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock and his baronial seat of Cumnock Castle stood on the castlehill overlooking the confluence of the River Nith and the Afton Water, at the heart of what is now the village of New Cumnock, while nearby was Cumnock Maynes (now Castlemains) and Cumnock Mill.  The parish church of Cumnock (for it would be 150 years and some before this parish was sub-divided into the parishes of Old Cumnock [OC] and New Cumnock [NC]) was located five miles to the north-west at the heart of what is now the town of Cumnock.

It was here in this church, two years after James IV, had granted the royal charter that the air of optimism was poisoned by a local feud which ended with the brutal murder of Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune while attending mass.

Armstrong Map of Ayrshire (1775): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Armstrong Map of Ayrshire (1775): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Writing many years later the Reverend John  Warrick [A History of Old Cumnock (1889) ] sets the scene of those feuding times.

The baron was not always able to keep order within his jurisdiction. Neighbouring proprietors resisted his authority and carried on those feuds among themselves, and even with him, which were so characteristic of our country long ago.’

The minister’s  summary of the events are given here –

We read that in 1512, Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune (Corsencon) when attending mass in Cumnock church one Sabbath, was murdered. Evidently this Patrick was a kinsman of the baron. At the time of his death people were gathered together for divine service. But they were powerless to present the foul crime. For we are told that “remission of blame” was given in the matter to “William Craufurd of Lefnoryis, Alexander Campbell of Skellington, parochinaris of the said kirk, and generally to all the remanent of the parichonaris tharof and utheris our lieges being their being assemblit, the tyme of the committing of the said slauchter. One of the actual murderers, Andrew Campbell, was taken and hanged, doubtless at the Gallows Knowe, while Duncan Campbell and John Stillie were put to the horn. Robert Campbell of Schankistoune, George and John, his brothers, James Campbell of Clewis and others were also denounced as rebels. The murder of this Dunbar in the sanctuary of God when the worshippers were assembled – a murder deliberately planned and carried out – opens a page in our local history, which we would willingly obliterate if we could.

The Reverend Warrick’s source was the ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ by Robert Pitcairn,Esq. and published by the Bannatyne Club (1833). Pitcairn having recovered the information from the Register of the Privy Seal.

Bannatyne Club
Bannatyne Club

The following Case is of a kind which, unhappily, was but too frequent in the district where the Slaughter took place, and, indeed, prevailed over a large portion of Scotland. The reader is referred to the ‘Historie of the Kennedys’, for illustrations of a similar nature’.


General remission to the Lairds of Lefnorijs and Skellingtoune, &c for the Slaughter of Laird of Corsintoune, Edinburgh 7th January, 1512.

The Victim

Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune

The remission of the Lairds of Lefnorijs and Skellingtoune was given at Edinburgh on 7th January 1512, so presumably Patrick Dunbar was murdered in Cumnock Kirk at mass the year before.  This branch of the Dunbar family is most certainly, as Warwick suggested, a kinsman of the Dunbars of Cumnock. Corsintoune is one of the early forms of the current name Corsencon and its variant Corsincon. The lands are situated on the east of the parish of New Cumnock on the border between Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire and today the farm of Corsencon lies on the lower slopes of Corsencon hill.

Blaeu Atlus Novus (1654): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland . Cumnock Castle to the west and Nether and Over Corsencon to the east.

The Accused I

Andro Campbell

The name Campbell was common in the district and it is likely he was related to one or other of the Campbells that appear below. He is recorded as ‘ane of the principall comittaris of the Slauchter of umquhile (late) Patrick Dunber of Corsintoune, committit at the Kirk of Cumnock’ and according to Pitcairn was executed after a legal trial. The Rev. Warrick suggests the execution took place at the Gallows Knowe in Cumnock, which later became the ‘burying ground’ (see Armstrong Map above) for the people of Cumnock. There was also a Gallows Hill in New Cumnock, coincidentally above the route from Corsencon to Cumnock Castle.

Duncan Campbell and John Stillie

Another Campbell involved in the slaughter and again possibly related to the other Campbells mentioned below. As for Stillie, the name was certainly known in the barony of Cumnock in the late 17th century. There is a reference in 1666 to Adam Stilly of Changue [OC] in the Testament of Charles Campbell of Garclaugh [NC] while John Stillie, Whitehill [OC or NC], William Stillie, Old Castle of Cumnock, [NC] and Alexander Stillie, Townhead of Cumnock, [OC] all appeared in the Covenanting records of that time.

Both Duncan Campbell and John Stillie were fugitives from the law and were ‘put the horne’  – declared outlaws.

General Remission

William Crawfurd of Leffnorijs and Alexander Campbell of Skellingtoune

“We have of our special grace, REMITTIT, and be thir Letterez frely Remittis to WILLIAME CRAWFURD of Leffnorijs, ALEXANDER CAMPBELL of Skellingtoune parrochinaris of the said Kirk, and generally to all the remanent of the parichonnaris’.

Effectively William Crawfurd and Alexander Campbell, principal parishioners were pardoned along with the rest of the other parishioners in attendance at mass that day, for not coming to the defence of Patrick Dunbar.

The Crawfurds of Leffnorijs [OC] emerged in the mid-15th century as a branch of the Craufurds of Dalleagles and Beoch [NC]. Leffnorijs or Lochnorris as it is often recorded developed as the main seat of the family. William Crawfurd was also designed of Beath (Beaux) an alternative form of Beoch (from Gaelic beitheach ‘a place of birches , birchwood).  He was married to Jonet Campbell and together they had four sons – George, William, Hugh and Matthew. An instrument of 1511 describes William as ‘sick of body but sound of mind’ and he passed away within a few years of his pardon.

The Campbells held the lands of Skellingtoune [OC], now known as Skerrington, since the 14th century. Alexander Campbell was married to the daughter of Campbell, 1st Baron of Cessnock – a family that would emerge as principal landowners in the parish of New Cumnock, these lands making up the Barony of Afton created the early 18th century.

Blaeu Atlus Novus (1645): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Blaeu Atlus Novus (1645): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland  Showing Castle of Lefnorris in the west and Skillintoun in the east

Two further entries associated with the murder of Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune appeared in Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Trials’, both in 1512, the first on the 6th December and the other on the 9th December.

The Accused II

Robert Campbell of Schankistoune and his brothers George and John

“ROBERT CAMPBELL of Schankistoune denounced Rebel and put to the horne, and all his goods escheated, for not underlying the law for the Slaughter of Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune. __ John Stewart of Torboltoune, cautioner for his entry, was amerciated 100l.; and because his goods were not distrainable, the goods of the Sheriff of Aire to be distrained therefor, because he took the said John as surety foresaid.

GEORGE and JOHN CAMPBELL, brothers of the said Robert, also denounced &c, as above; and the Sheriff of Air’s goods to be distrained for 200 merks of amerciament. __ ANDREW BOMBY is also denounced, and the Laird of Schankistoun amerciated 40l. as his cautioner. __ JOHN CAMPBELL, Parish Clerk of Cumnok replegiated by the Archbishop of Glasgow’s Commissary (Mr Richard Boithville) to his Regality.”

The Campbells of Schankston, like those of Skerrington above, are said to descend from the Campbells of Loudon, and the first in the property which lies just south of the town of Cumnock appears in the late 15th century.  Robert Campbell was denounced as a rebel and his goods confiscated. John Stewart of Tarbolton part, who acted as security for Campbell, was unable to pay a penalty of £100 and the Sheriff  of Ayr, Hugh Campbell of Loudon no less, compelled to pay the debts, since he had stood as security or Stewart. The Sheriff had to cough up or Campbell’s brothers George and John too – 200 merks on this occasion.

Andrew Bomby, also denounced as a rebel, where the name Bomby may be a reference to the barony of Bombie in Kirkcudbrightshire.

The parish clerk of Cumnock was also a Campbell and John Campbell was ‘replegiated‘ or withdrawn from the jurisdiction of Cumnock to the Regality of Glasgow. Cumnock being a prebend of Glasgow.

OS Map
Ordnance Survey Map (1854/69): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. Showing Shankston

 The Accused III

Campbells and Craufurds

Three days after the Campbells of Schankston appeared in the Criminal trial records  a collection of Campbells and Craufurds appeared, either denounced as rebels or earmarked for paying the rebels fines.

JAMES CAMPBELL of Clewis denounced as Rebel, &c. for the Slaughter of Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoun. __ George Campbell of Cesnok, surety for said John, was amerciated 200 merks. ANDREW CAMPBELL in Strade, Andrew C.  in Wodhead and William Craufurde were also denounced, &c. ; and George Campbell of Watterhede, Matthew C. in Trinzean, George C. of Cesnok and George Craufurd of Beaux, their sureties, were amerciated 200 merks for each of them. The following Warrant is engrossed in the Record.

In the barony of Cumnock there are Campbells of Straid [NC], Waterhead [NC], Woodhead [OC] and Trinzean [OC] and the Craufurds of Lefnorris [OC] and Beaux (Beoch) [NC] . Outwith the barony there are Campbells from Clewis [Mauchline] and Cesnok [Galston] recorded.

However, all charges are dropped and aforementioned forgiven.


CLERK of oure Justiciary. It is our will , and we charge zow, that the deseise, and draw furth of our Adjornall. George Campbell of Cesnok, George Craufurd of Beaux and Matho Campbell, quhilkis ar unlawit as plegis for the non-entre of William Craufurd, sone to William Craufurd of Lefnoris (and brother of George Craufurd of Beaux), James Campbell and Andro Campbell in Straide, and Andro Campbell in Wodhede, dilatit of the Slachter of umquile PATRIK DUNBAR of CORSYNTOUN. And alsua that ze draw furthe of our said buke all whether persouns that are under panis for the said Slachter and thaire souerteis and that ze deseise thaim thairof, becaus thai haif maid compositioun with us thairfore. For the quhilk caus, we REMITT, forgevis and dischargis the fornemmit personis and thair souerteis of the saide unlawis and thanis be ther presentis subscrivit with oure hande AT EDINBURGH, this vij of Januare, and our regne the xxv zere.  JAMES R

In summary those punished for the murder of Patrick Dunbar of Corsintoune were –

  •  Andro Campbell , executed
  • Duncan Campbell, John Stillie, Robert Campbell of Schankston and his brothers George and John, and Andrew Bomby – denounced as Rebels and put to the horne.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances of the murder of Patrick Dunbar –

  • Was it premeditated? Perhaps not, it seems an unlikely choice of venue, with so many witnesses present, to settle a feud in such a bloody way. There surely were more fitting places to carry out the deed during Dunbar’s 15 mile round trip journey from Corsencon to Cumnock kirk.
  • Perhaps, a scuffle broke out during mass and with those in attendance carrying arms for their own protection, matters inevitably ended with the loss of life.  What was the basis of the feud?
  • Was it part of an ongoing feud between a Campbell-Craufurd coalition and the the branches of the Dunbar family , including the baron’s, within the barony of Cumnock? Perhaps not for it seems the Patrick Dunbar, the son of the late Patrick Dunbar had his own battles to fight with James Dunbar, Baron of Cumnock.

 The Aftermath

Corsencon , New Cumnock

Five days after the Lairds of Leffnoris and Skellington were given remission for the slaughter of Patrick Dunbar, several instruments appear in Gavin Ros’s protocol book, a notary that worked chiefly in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.

This first series were ‘Done at Lamynton’, in Lanarkshire on the 12th January 1512, and relate Patrick Dunbar of Bogcorocht (Boig, New Cumnock), attorney for Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar of Corsincon, failed attempt to serve James Dunbar, baron of Cumnock, with an order from the King.

23. Instrument narrating that (John?) Reid, servant of James Dunbar of Cumnok, and in his name asserted that (Patrick?) Dunbar in Bogcorocht persecuted the said James D. under darkness of night, and that James was afraid of the violent intrusion (“injectionem “) of Patrick. Done at Lamynton 12 January 1512. Witnesses, Sir Archibald Baize, Patrick Dunbar of Unthank, Patrick VVylie,.

24. Instrument narrating that the said John (Reid), in the name of James Dunbar of Cumnok asserted that the notary (could not see ? ) the said James. He granted he was in the house. . . . Dunbar asserted that James D. was closed in on all sides, so that the notary was unable to obtain access to him. .

25. Instrument narrating that Patrick (Dunbar) asserted that he pursued James Dunbar of Cumnock with no evil purpose, but as attorney for Patrick D., son and heir of the late Patrick D. of Corsincon, to present a certain precept directed from the King on the part of Patrick.

26. Instrument narrating that Patrick Dunbar, in name of Patrick D., son and heir of the late (Patrick D. of Corsin)coune, passed to the lodging of Barnard Galloway (where in a) certain chamber he asserted James Dunbar of (Cumnok) to be, and desiring to present to said James a certain precept obtained from the King by the said Patrick D., younger, sought entrance to the said chamber, but Archibald (Cunynburgh ?) held the door of the chamber firmly shut so that entrance could not be had, denying also that the said James was within. Moreover, there was display of a sword, knife and other war-like weapons.  Witnesses, Sir Archibald Baize, chaplain, Patrick Dunbar of Unthank, Patrick Wylie, 9b.

27. Instrument narrating that Archibald Cunynburgh denied that James Dunbar was in said chamber, and he asserted that it was not closed, &c.

Blaeu Atlus Novus (1645): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland  Showing Cumnock Castle and Boigcurroch
Blaeu Atlus Novus (1645): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland Showing Cumnock Castle and Boigcurroch

The setting now changes to James Dunbar’s baronial seat at Cumnock Castle and the following instruments give a fascinating insight into another failed attempt to present the baron with an order requiring him to give sasine of the lands of Corsencon to Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late ‘Laird of Corsintoune‘.

28. Instrument narrating that Nicholas Akynhed, sheriff in that part, in terms of the King’s letters under the signet directed to him, passed to the castle of … , the principal mansion of the lands of Corsincon, and gave the royal letters to the notary to be read in a loud and intelligible voice ; after the reading the said Nicholas diligently searched for James (Dunbar) in said castle, and because he could not apprehend him personally he affixed a copy of the royal letters) upon the gate, the tenor of the same requiring James to give sasine of said lands to Patrick Dunbar or his attorney. Done at the gate of said castle, . . . January 1512. Witnesses, Andrew Wood, Patrick M’Math, Andrew . . . and others,.

29. Instrument narrating that . . . Dunbar asserted that a certain precept of sasine left in the gate . . . Cumnok by Nicholas Akinhed, attorney of Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick D. of Corsincon, was directed to James Dunbar of Cumnok, which the said Nicholas clearly granted. Moreover, he asked from Nicholas a copy of the King’s letters according to usage in like cases, but Nicholas refused such unless Patrick would pay . . . , and this he asserted to be the just and wonted custom of the kingdom of Scotland. Same date and witnesses as preceding.

Incredibly the issue of giving sasine of Corsencon to Patrick Dunbar remained unresolved until 1530 at which time the sasine of  Auchincross [NC] , tenanted by James Dunbar (uncle of Patrick) , was also under dispute.

Pont 35 Nithsdale Nith (1583-1601)): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

1083. Instrument narrating that James Wallace, attorney, and in name of Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar of Corsincon, passed to the castle of Cumnoky, as the principal mansion of James Dunbar, baron of Cumnok, overlord of the lands of Auchincorse and Corsincon, and there required said James, in terms of a brieve from chancery in the third form, to give sasine of these lands to Patrick Dunbar, and because no one was present to give said (sasine), Patrick asked an instrument, protesting . . . Done at the castle of Cumnok 10 November 1530. Witnesses, James Dunbar, David . . . and John Wilson

1132. Instrument narrating that James Dunbar, brother of the late Patrick Dunbar of Corsincon, for herself and Marion Rede, his mother, and tenants of Auchincors, intimated a reclaiming made from a certain decreet-arbitral formerly given for John Dunbar of Blantyre park, and against the late Patrick Dunbar, by John Dunbar of Blafntyr, and Gilbert Kennedy of Kirkmichell, and confirmed by the Archbishop of Glasgow and Nicolas (?) Craufurd of Oxgangs . . . (T/ie rest is mutilated.) Last day of February 1 530. Witness, William Hamilton,

Blaeu Atlus Novus (1645): Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland Showing Auchincross in the west and Corsencon to the east

1162. Instrument to the effect that James Tate, sheriff-depute of Air, having a brieve of sasine from the royal chancery in . . . form obtained on behalf of Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar of Corsincon, directed to the sheriff of Air and his bailies, by virtue of which the sheriff passed (and probably gave sasine to the younger Patrick of the lands of Corsincon and Auchincors). Done on the lands named 24 May 1531. Witnesses, Adam Stewart, William Craufurd of Watterheid and Andrew Rede, 148a.

Corsencon farm on the slopes of Corsencon hill overlooking the River Nith, New cumnock

Finally twenty-years after James IV, created Cumnock a Burgh in Barony, his son James V commanded that without delay sasine of the lands Corsencon and Auchincross to be given to Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of Patrick Dunbar of Corsencon – slaughtered at mass at Cumnock Kirk.

1169. Copy of precept by King James the Fifth directed to the sheriff of Aire, narrating that he had commanded James Dunbar, baron of the barony of Cumnok, that without delay (he shall cause sasine to be had to Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar, of the 12 merk lands of Auchincors and Corsincone, with mill thereof, lying in the barony of Cumnok, which unless they do, the king directs the sheriff to give sasine. At Perth . . . November A. R. 18 (1530).

Acknowledgements and Sources

  • ‘A History of Old Cumnock’, Rev John Warrick (1899)
  • ‘A New History of Cumnock’, John Strawhorn (1966)
  • ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ by Robert Pitcairn,Esq. and published by the Bannatyne Club (1833).
  • ‘History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton, Volume 1, Kyle, part two’ James Paterson (1871)
  • Protocol Book of Gavin Ros, 1512-1532. Editors Rev. John Anderson and Francis J. Grant (1908)
  • National Library of Scotland


  1. Dear Friends

    I did a wee bit of a study on this Cumnock Kirk murder some years ago because of its apparent connections with the McGachans of Cumnock, some of whom seem to have anglicized their surname to “McCowan” over the centuries.

    “…A family feud over land in Cumnock (Corsincon evidently) seems to connect with the McCowans through the marriage of Jonet McGachan to Patrick Dunbar. Jonet’s husband was probably the Patrick Dunbar who was attorney or notary for Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar of Corsincon who had been murdered several months earlier (in 1512) while attending mass at Cumnock church[38]. In this other incident, apparently related to succession to Corsincon estate, the first Patrick Dunbar was attempting to serve James Dunbar of Cumnock with papers from the king. In so doing, he intended “no evil purpose” but “there was display of a sword, knife and other war-like weapons”. John Reid, a servant of James Dunbar, testified that Patrick Dunbar “persecuted the said James Dunbar under darkness of night, and that James was afraid of the violent intrusion of Patrick”.[39] The question begs: how could there have been such a problem with the son and heir of the deceased landowner acquiring title to his late father’s land?

    Indeed, how did these personal bonds connect with the land — the lifeblood of the subsistence-based[40] economy? Surely the land was still a very major factor in the relationship between lord and vassal. Was an increasing personal connection between the great lords and those who served them (as suggested by the making of bonds of manrent,1450-1600) an attempt by the lords to make up for a diminishing personal connection between themselves and their lands[41]? It would seem that the lords felt that the bonds might minimize political undermining of their own local authority — the authority that had come with their land through feudalism…”

    Thanks for providing extra details.

    PS: I note the apparent connection between the lands of Auchincorse and Corsincone in terms of lairdship. William McCowan was tenant in Auchincorse in 1678 (Commissariot Record of Glasgow).

    D.B. McCowan

  2. This is a wonderful document thankyou. I am sure it will help me track where my husband’s Campbell’s and Dunbar’s intersect with this group.

  3. Excellent Article – I always enjoys your maps and photos. Were the Dunbars of Corsencon descended in the male line from the Old Dunbars of Cumnock and Blantyre? Perhaps there was a struggle between the incoming Morayshire Dunbars who had married the daughters of the last of the old line of Barons for control of the lands about Cumnock?
    Please keep up the good work! Tom Dunbar

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