Court Knowe

Place-name:Court Knowe
Suggested Meaning:a small hill where a justice court was held
Blaeu Coila (1654):No Entry
OS Name Books (1855-57):Court Knowe
Location:Ordnance Survey (1895)

Court Knowe

The Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-57) entry for Court Knowe reads –

A knowe upon which criminals are said to have been tried in ancient times by the Laird of Auchincross.

Court Knowe, with Scots knowe ‘hillock’ [1] is a variant of Court-Hill, the entry of which in Dictionaries of the Scots Language reads [2] –

COURT-HILL, n. comb. An assembly hill on which a court is held. Also dim. court hillock. Hist.

The Court Knowe stood some 180 metres to the south-east of the site of the Old Hall of Auchincross [3]. Although not marked on the Ordnance Survey map, a Gallows Knowe was situated some 400 metres to the south-east of the site of the Old Hall [4].

Map 1: Court Knowe | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Ayrshire archaeologist John Smith visited the site with some expectation it seems of finding an artificial or man-made mound erected to serve the purpose of a Court Knowe [5] –

There was a Court Knowe near the Hall of Auchincross, probably a rocky eminence on the North side of the Nith, a short distance from the river, as I could not find an artificial one.

John Smith, ‘Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire’ (1895)

Closer to home the Reverend John Warrick expanded on the presence of open-air courts across the barony of Cumnock, including one in the parish of New Cumnock [6] –

As the baron therefore had the power to try many civil and criminal causes it was needful to have one or more courts of justice in the barony. These courts met in open air, and the place, where they convened, consisted usually of a small eminence called a mote hill or a judgement hill. Many of these are to be found all over the country. There is one in New Cumnock, and in Cumnock itself there is a well known mote-hill on the banks of the Lugar.

Rev. John Warrick, The History of Old Cumnock (1899)

The ‘one in New Cumnock‘ is most likely the Court Knowe at the Hall of Auchincross and rather than considering it to be for the specific use of the Laird of Auchincross, as suggested in the OS Name Book, it should be seen as the baron’s court of justice.

The CANMORE entries for Hall of Auchincross includes observations on the Court Knowe [7] –

NS 5834 1407. A small irregular outcrop in a sloping field, with no appearance of antiquity, though growing crops prevented close inspection.

Visited by OS (JFC) 14 July 1954

Court Knowe: name verified. A low, rounded knoll, roughly 30m by 20m, under pasture. The farmer at Hall of Auchincross states that its profile was once sharper but that it has been reduced in recent years through land improvement. Nothing has been found.

Visited by OS (JL) 2 November 1981

In more recent times Oliver J. T. Grady (2008) in his PhD thesis ‘The Setting and Practice of Open-air Judicial Assemblies in Medieval Scotland: a Multidisciplinary Study‘ [8] researched ‘Place-name evidence and the setting and distribution of early medieval assemblies‘.

Although Court Knowe in New Cumnock did not feature in the study of 38 court- sites some of the findings are pertinent to the lands of Auchincross and Hall of Auchincross in that Grady identified ‘sites that have possible associations with early medieval features, including centres of secular and ecclesiastical authority and monumental sculpture’. For example at Court Hill, Dalry in Ayrshire ‘excavations during the 19th century have shown that this mound covered a possible early historic hall site‘ while Court Hill, Glasserton in Wigtownshire was ‘originally the location of the 9th/11th century Monreith Cross‘. Unfortunately the only evidence of a cross at Auchincross is suggested by its name Gaelic achadh crois ‘field of the cross’ while the ‘Old Hall’ although not a baronial hall, may have housed a baron baillie.

Six years later Joyce Steele (2014) in her PhD thesis ‘Seeking patterns of lordship, justice and worship in the Scottish landscape’ [9] considered the distribution of a number of topographical features in that landscape with a particular interest in court hills ‘open-air seats or courts of justice in bygone days‘ and ‘usually located upon some form of eminence, whether natural or artificial’.

Court Hills and Prehistoric Sites

Steele included Court Knowe, New Cumnock as 1 of 12 court hills in the study of the ‘Associations between Court Hills and Prehistoric sites‘,which if established could add antiquity to court hill sites. Lochside was identified as the nearest prehistoric site to Court Knowe, some 1600 metres away; the greatest distance between any of the court hills in the study and their partner prehistoric site.

Lochside is a reference to the discovery in 1788 of burial urns ‘betwixt the Lows and Lochsyde‘ [10] which is closer to 2000 metres from the Court Knowe. With a such a long distance, as well as no visual connection, between the two locations it is difficult to confirm any association. However close to Court Knowe is Cairn Knowe some 500 metres to the west and Cairn Hill some 500 metres to the east, but there are no records of any antiquities being associated with either of these cairn sites.

Court Hills and Rivers or Streams

Steele also included Court Knowe as of 1 of 53 court hills in the study of the ‘Associations between Court Hills and Rivers or Streams’. ‘The reasons for this association with water is a matter of some speculation‘ and included several criteria namely – communication, route guidance, source of water for drinking or ritual behaviour and assembly sites associated with a boundary defined by a river. Court Knowe’s association with a river was defined by its location ‘North of confluence of River Nith & Lane Burn; in “Y” formed by the two rivers‘.

The Court Knowe is located just over 1000 metres from the confluence of Lane Burn and the River Nith and it is a considerable climb from the confluence to the knowe. The relationship between the Court Knowe and the Nith seems to be rather tenuous. However the associations between Moat Knowe (Meikle Creoch) and Moat Knowe (Lanemark) [11] and rivers and streams appears to meet the assembly site criteria above.

Court Hills and Gallows

Steele did not include Court Knowe in the study of the ‘Associations between Gallows and Court Hills’, in which 17 other court-hill sites were identified, possibly because neither the CANMORE or Smith’s ‘Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire’ entries (see above) for Court Knowe make any reference to the nearby Gallows Knowe. Furthermore, although the Gallows Knowe is recorded in the Ordnance Survey Name Book Ayrshire (1855-57), it is not named on any Ordnance Survey map.

Nevertheless there were several observations in the study that were applicable to Court Knowe, none more so than ‘Gallows in the vicinity of a court hill would certainly seem to strengthen the case that justice was meted out at court hills‘ along with the following quote from Professor G.W.S. Barrow [12] –

Barrow suggests that a gallows site in conjunction with a cuthill* site and “a lord’s hall or castle” is significant; however, if cuthills and court hills are from an earlier era, then it might necessarily follow that they would have significance to later lordships.

G.W.S. Barrow “Popular Courts” 1992 Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages, 217-45.
  • cuthill is described as a grove within a wood which also served as a place of assembly.

The proximity of the Gallows Knowe to the Court Knowe and the site the Old Hall of Auchincross would appear to meet Barrow’s criteria of this being a significant site. However the Old Hall was not a ‘lord’s hall‘ for that honour fell to Cumnock Castle, the original baronial seat of the Barons of Cumnock.

Map 2: Court Knowe & Associations| Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

So who were the Barons of Cumnock?

Barons and Barony of Cumnock

It is not known when the Barony of Cumnock was created, however, references to the ownership of lands in Cumnock are identified in 13th/14th century records pertaining to the Earl of Dunbar. ‘Patrik de Comenagh, del counte de Are‘ was one of signatories of the Ragman Roll in August 1296 when the Scottish nobility and gentry swore allegiance to Edward I of England [13]. This may be a reference to Patrick IV, Earl of Dunbar or his heir the future Patrick V, Earl of Dunbar. Whatever the case, in May 1307 Edward I expressed his pleasure when the Bishop of Chester had ‘borrowed the Castle of Comenagh from its owner Earl Patrick‘, i.e Patrick IV [14].

Neither account comfirms Patrick IV, or his heir as the Baron of Cumnock at the time. However when his son succeeded as Patrick Dunbar V, 9th Earl of Dunbar & 2nd Earl of March there is no question that his title also included that of the Baron of Cumnock as witnessed through his resignation of the barony of Cumnock to George Dunbar, 10th Earl of Dunbar & 3rd Earl of March, who on 25 July 1368 received two charters from King David II [15] –

– the first of the baronies of Cumnock, Blantyre, Glenken, and Mochrum, in the counties of Ayr and Lanark, and sheriffdom of Dumfries,’ resigned by Patrick of Dunbar, Knight, last Earl of March, and the second of the earldom of March, also resigned by the last Earl.

Douglas R Scots Peerage Vol 3 1906

The charter of the barony of Cumnock included references to the legal pertinents as ‘cum furca et fossa socca et sacco thole et team et infangandthef‘ [16] in other words ‘gallows; infangthief; ordeal pit; sake and soke; toll and team’ [17] which are defined as follows [18] –

  • Outfangthief – the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside his own jurisdiction or the marches of his land and bring him back to be punished.
  • Pit and gallows (i.e. furca et fossa)– the right to cast felons into a water-filled pit and to sentence others to the gallows.
  • Soke and sake – literally ‘cause’ and ‘suit’; the right to hold court and receive fines and forfeitures, or other dues with a specific jurisdiction.
  • Toll and team – Toll is usually the right to take toll, or to tax one’s villeins; Team is possibly an obsolete term, but may refer to the right to hold a court in which persons not resident within the jurisdiction, may be vouched.

The gallows were typically reserved for condemned males while females were drowned in a water-filled pit or pool, seemingly a practice surviving from Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic law [19].

In 1375 George Dunbar, now referred to as 10th Earl of March, ‘resigned the very extensive territories of Cumnock, Blantyre, and other lands in favour of David Dunbar‘ [20], to Sir David Dunbar of Cumnock – the first of the family known as the Dunbars of Cumnock.

Some two hundred years later the Dunbars began to sell of their lands of Cumnock, the last of which were sold in the early 17th century. After resigning the barony of Cumnock it changed hands several times. The Reverend Warrick identified a number of barons of that period including William Cunynghame of Caprinton; William Lord Crichton of Sanquhar, afterward 1st Earl of Dumfries; Earl of Queensberry; James Crichton of Abercrombie* and William Crichton, 2nd Earl of Dumfries [6] –

Eventually in the reign of Charles II., the [2nd] Earl of Dumfries was invested with the baronial office, and he and his heirs kept it until it was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1747‘.

Rev. John Warrick , The History of Old Cumnock

*James Crichton of Abercrombie was a younger brother of 1st Earl of Dumfries. His son James Crichton of Castlemains succeeded as the Baron of Cumnock for a short spell [21]

Cumnock Castle served as the baronial seat of the Barons of Cumnock throughout the tenure of the Dunbars and for subsequent barons until the Crichtons, Earls of Dumfries became the established barons. In 1635 the 1st Earl of Dumfries had acquired the castle or ward of Lefnories (Lochnorris) 1.5 miles west of Cumnock Kirk, which served as their baronial seat through to 1757 when the grand Dumfries House was built nearby [6]. It may well be the case that the location of the open-air baronial court changed over time to reflect the residence of the baron of the day.

Regarding the extent of the barony of Cumnock it was noted in Douglas Peerage (1906) that it ‘embraced 50,000 acres of land‘ [20] which is significantly less than the 62,567 acres that made up the parish of Cumnock (New Cumnock 48,357.5 | Old Cumnock 14,209.5) given by Warrick (1899) [6]. The lands of Waterhead may account for part of the difference in acreage between barony and parish, for although they formed part of the the parish of Cumnock (and later the parish of New Cumnock) they also formed part of the barony of Dalmellington [22].

John Strawhorn’s (1966) observation ‘In 1650 the parish of Cumnock, previously comprising the whole of the barony of Cumnock, was bisected‘ [23] could be expanded to read ‘comprising the whole of the barony of Cumnock and some other lands‘. His map of the approximation of the extent of the Barony of Cumnock ( i.e. based on the extent of the Parish of Cumnock) illustrates well the distribution of castles in the barony over a period of time, perhaps it is no coincidence that Waterhead Castle was missing and this has been added below. Dane Love’s later map also estimates the extent of the barony of Cumnock showing the useful division of the parishes of Old Cumnock (shaded) and New Cumnock and the addition of Waterhead Castle, Knockshinnoch Castle (tower) and the Hall of Auchincross [4] .

Waterhead Castle added to Strawhorn map

Court Knowe, Moat Knowes and Gallows

Dr. Steele in the course of her research observed that court hill sites could go by a variety of other terms that were equivalent and interchangeable [9] –

The antiquarian sources used several other terms as well as ‘court hill’ for this site-type and the implication from the bulk of their writings is that those various terms were considered to be equivalent and interchangeable: court knowe, mote, motehill, moot, moothill, mute, mutehill, moat, law, lawhill and tom a’mhoid

Steele, Joyce (2014) Seeking patterns of lordship, justice and worship in the Scottish landscape. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

With this in mind the following distribution of Court Knowe, Moat Knowe, Mote Hill , Castle Hill (referred to as a potential Court Knowe ) in the parish along with possible execution sites have been plotted on Strawhorn’s map above.

Court , Moat, Gallows etc.LocationParish
1. Court KnoweHall of AuchincrossNew Cumnock
2. Gallows KnoweHall of AuchincrossNew Cumnock
3. Moat KnoweMeikle CreochNew Cumnock
4. Moat KnoweLanemarkNew Cumnock
5. GallowhillMansfield RoadNew Cumnock
6. Yarngallows KnoweGlen AftonNew Cumnock
7. Witch Knowe & Witch PoolNear BlackcraigNew Cumnock
8. Castle HillWaterheadNew Cumnock
A. Mote HillLugar WaterOld Cumnock
B. Gallows KnoweBarrhillOld Cumnock

1. Court Knowe (Hall of Auchincross)

Map 5 : Court Knowe | Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The only occurence of a named court hill in the extensive barony of Cumnock is that of Court Knowe situated between the Old Hall of Auchincross and the Gallows Knowe. It is here that the baron of Cumnock and / or his baillies would assemble to dispense justice. It is located close to where the River Nith was forded on a crossing between the south to the north the barony.

Hall of Auchincross and possible site of Court Knowe (Robert Guthrie 2008)

In 1530 Patrick Dunbar, son and heir of the late Patrick Dunbar inherited the ‘12 merk lands of Auchincors and Corsincone‘ [24]. Undoubtedly relatives of the Dunbars of Cumnock and perhaps at some time, from the Old Hall, they served as baillies to their kinsfolk. However, by the beginning of the following century the Old Hall was held by the Craufurds of Auchincross, who appeared more interested in breaking the law than keeping it!

The Reverend Warrick gives an account of the trial of Gilbert Brown of Garlach (Garclaugh)who was found guilty of sheep stealing [6]. He may well have been tried at the Court Knowe and hanged at the Gallows Knowe.

On 24th June 1623 the Privy Council deputed Sir William Cunynghame of Caprintoun, who was the baron at the time, and his bailies at the time, to investigate the matter. In the commission they received under the royal signet, they were authorised to try Gilbert Brown of Garclach within the barony of Cumnock, who, having been long suspected of being a common thief, was lately apprehended “with the fang of a stolen scheip” by the said Sir William’s bailies and having “ryppit* the same, they fand the remains of the uther two scheip, quhilk he confest he staw fra James Tailfeir in Cumnok.”

Reverend John Warrick ‘The History of Old Cumnock’

*ryppit : to search a person’s clothes for something concealed illegally [25]

2. Gallows Knowe (Hall of Auchincross)

Condemned men would be hanged on the nearby Gallows Knowe and probably left hanging for a time as warning to others, visible from the crossing between the north and south of the barony. As for condemned women they were possibly drowned at the nearby River Nith. There are no named pools or pits in the vicinity and possibly hurdles were employed to hold the condemned under water; perhaps at the Moat Knowe on the banks of the Nith on the nearby lands of Meikle Creoch.

Hall of Auchincross and possible site of Gallows Knowe ( Robert Guthrie 2008)

Today the landscape looks very much different with the farmhouse of Hall of Auchincross and its neighbour Auchincross demolished following extensive opencast coal operations.

Path between Auchincross and Hall of Auchincross with both farms now demolished (Robert Guthrie 2022)

3. Moat Knowe (Meikle Creoch) and 4. Moat Knowe (Lanemark)

There are two named Moat Knowes in the barony of Cumnock, both in what is now the parish of New Cumnock. Typically the name suggests a hill where ‘moots‘ or assemblies are held. Further research is in progress [11].

5. Gallowhill (Mansfield Road)

Gallowhill is the nearest gallows-site to Cumnock Castle, the seat of the Barons of Cumnock. It was located close to the ancient route from Corsencon to the castle. Further research can be found here [26].

Gallowhill (Robert Guthrie 2008)

6. Yarngallows Knowe

Yarngallows Knowe sits at the head of Glen Afton some 5 miles from Cumnock Castle on the route south to Kirkcudbrightshire and beyond. Further research is in progress [27].

Looking north to Yarngallows Knowe in the distance with both the forest and dyke running through it . © Copyright Chris Wimbush and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7. Witches Knowe and Witch Pool

Witch Knowe and the adjacent Witch Pool are situated in an enclosure close to the banks of the Afton Water near Blackcraig farm. The pool may be a reference to a pit or pool in which condemned women were drowned. Further research can be found here [28].

Witch Knowe and Witch Pool (Robert Guthrie 2008)

8. Castle Hill (Waterhead)

Castle Hill stands on the banks of the River Nith a few hundred yards upstream from Waterhead Castle, home to the Cathcarts of Waterhead, baillies of the Cathcart barons of Dalmellington. Further research can be found here [28].

Castle Hill, Waterhead ( Robert Guthrie 2003)

A. Mote Hill (Old Cumnock) and B. Gallows Hill / Knowe (Old Cumnock)

Map 6: Mote Hill & Gallows knowe | Reproduced with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland

Mote Hill may have earlier been home to a hill fort and /or a later motte-and-bailey castle [22]. It was not uncommon for former fortified sites to be utilised as places where people were called to assemble. As noted above the Reverend Warrick identified the motehill on the banks of the Lugar served as was ‘one or more courts of justice in the barony‘.

Warrick also noted that the gallows hill, where condemned would be hanged, was nearby. As for condemned women, although he noted there was no tradition of a drowning pit in close proximity to the gallows, he considered that ‘one of the numerous pool in the Lugar, at the foot of the mote hill would serve well the ends of justice.’

The place of the gallows is referred to as Gallows Hill or Gallows Knowe throughout Warrick’s work. The name does not appear on Ordance Survey maps but it can be identifed by the name Martyr’s Grave in what is now Old Cemetery on Barrhill Road, Cumnock.

The martyr in question was the Reverend Alexander Peden, ‘Prophet of the Covenant’. For years he avoided capture by Goverment troops and died on 26th January 1686. Friends buried him in Auchinleck Kirkyard but ‘six weeks after his burial, troopers raised his mouldering body and carried it to the Gallows Hill of Cumnock‘ with the intention of hanging it from the gibbet. However, the Earl of Dumfries intervened “the gibbet was erected for malefactors and murderers and not for such men as Peden” and he was buried at the gallows foot. In the years ahead, when seeking a new burial ground the people of Cumnock “selected the spot which had been consecrated by the burial of the Covenanting ‘Prophet’.” Three other Covenanters were executed and buried at the Gallows Knowe the year before Peden died; not by hanging but shot by Government troops.

Many thanks to Dr. Joyce Steele for permission to quote from her Ph. D. Thesis
Steele, Joyce (2014) Seeking patterns of lordship, justice and worship in the Scottish landscape. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
[1] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. | knowe
[2] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. | Court-Hill
[3] New Cumnock Place-Name | Auchincross, Hall of Auchincross
[4] New Cumnock Place-Name | Gallows Knowe
[5] John Smith, Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire (1895)
[6] Reverend John Warrick, The History of Old Cumnock (1899, reprint 1992)
[7] CANMORE National Record of the Historic Environment | Hall of Auchincross
[8] O’Grady, Oliver J.T. (2008) The setting and practice of open-air judicial assemblies in medieval Scotland: a multidisciplinary study. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
[9] Steele, Joyce (2014) Seeking patterns of lordship, justice and worship in the Scottish landscape. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
[10] Helen J. Steven, The Cumnocks Old and New (1899) | Antiquarian and Archaeological
[11] New Cumnock Place-Names | Moat Knowes (in progress)
[12] G.W.S. Barrow “Popular Courts” 1992 Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages, 217-45.
[13] Rampant Scotland Ragman Roll 1296|Comenagh, Patrik de (del counte de Are)
[14] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland Vol. 4, No.1829
[15] Douglas R Scots Peerage Vol. 3, 1906| George 10th Earl of Dunbar and 3rd Earl of March
[16] The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, A.D. 1306-1424 (1912) | NO. 291 [Carta Georgii de Dumbarre]
[17] Amanda Beam, John Bradley, Dauvit Broun, John Reuben Davies, Matthew Hammond, Neil Jakeman, Michele Pasin and Alice Taylor (with others), People of Medieval Scotland: 1093–1371 (Glasgow and London, 2019), [accessed 10 Jan. 2022] |PoMS Transaction no. 101051(; [accessed 10 Jan. 2022]
[18] Amanda Beam, John Bradley, Dauvit Broun, John Reuben Davies, Matthew Hammond, Neil Jakeman, Michele Pasin and Alice Taylor (with others), People of Medieval Scotland: 1093–1371 (Glasgow and London, 2019), [accessed 10 Jan. 2022] |PoMS Glossary of Terms (; [accessed 10 Jan. 2022]|
[19] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. |pit
[20] Douglas R Scots Peerage Vol. 3, 1906 |David Dunbar
[21] National Records of Scotland (1658-1665)| GD94/185
[22] New Cumnock Place-Names | Waterhead
[23] John Stawhorn, The New History of Cumnock (1966)
[24] Scottish Record Society (1908), Protocol Book of Gavin Ros 1512-1534 | No. 1169
[25] Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. | ryp
[26] New Cumnock Place-Names | Gallowhill
[27] New Cumnock Place-Names | Yarngallows Knowe (in progress)
[28] New Cumnock Place-Names | Witch Knowe and Witch Pool
[29] New Cumnock Place-Names | Castle Hill
Reproduced with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland
Map 1 | Ordnance Survey (1895) |Court Knowe
Map 2 | Ordnance Survey (1895) |Court Knowe and Associations
Map 3 | John Strawhorn, New History of Cumnock (1966)
Map 4 | Dane Love in John Warrick, ‘The History of Old Cumnock’ (1899, reprint 1992)
Map 5 | Ordnance Survey (1858) | Court Knowe
Ordnance Survey Name Books
By Permission of Scotland’s Places
Ayrshire OS Name Books (1855-57) Vol. 49| Court Knowe