Dunbar was an important town with a port, market rights and a dramatic setting. Old fishermen’s houses huddle along the waterfront, impressive cliffs guard the entrance to the harbour. And above all towers the ruin of the old castle of Dunbar. All together a perfect setting for a Disney film. But Dunbar is real!
In this seemingly perfect setting flourished a woman of exceptional spirit, Agnes Dunbar – Black Agnes. She was one of the Earl of Moray’s daughters and married to her cousin, the Earl of Dunbar, when she was a teenager. The couple’s marriage remained childless. She was called Black Agnes because she had a host of dark hair and her skin was not as pale as is common in Scotland.
Agnes was the daughter of a great father who had fought with King Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, and in the following decades, continued to make military forays into England. He was a hero. After Bruce’s death, he was Regent of Scotland for a while.
Like her father, Agnes’s husband was in constant combat against the English. If he was on one of his military forays, then it was up to Agnes to manage the castle, and if necessary, to defend it. She was put to the test in 1338, when an English army under the command of the Earl of Salisbury approached, trying to take castle. A castle with hardly any men left, just women and children.
the Earl of Salisbury
Salisbury started the first of four unsuccessful attempts to conquer the castle. With catapults, he had large pieces of rock hurled against the castle walls while Agnes and her ladies stood on the battlements, wearing their finest robes and waving silk scarfs casually over the battlements as if to wipe away the troublesome dust caused by these strange Englishman. That must have annoyed the soldiers below the castle immensely. Salisbury tried Plan B and sent the battering ram to break through the gate. However, the castle inmates threw rocks from above and quickly thwarted this attempt.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Salisbury tried emotional blackmail and had Agnes’ brother, John, whom he had captured, brought forward. Then he threatened to hang the young Earl of Moray right in front of Agnes’s eyes if she wouldn’t cede the castle to him immediately. Black Agnes smiled casually and said, Why don’t you? If her brother died, she would inherit his title, the estates and the men who belonged to it. Power enough to chase him back to England and have her revenge.
Salisbury saw the logic in that and let her brother go. To be sure, this woman could not be manipulated. This woman was at least as tough as he was.
never underestimate a woman
What to do? Salisbury, like so many before him, tried to starve the castle. The chance that the castle could get support from the south was zero, because the English were camped there. There was only the sea to the north of the castle. So, the English sat at the foot of the castle for three long months, waiting for Black Agnes to wave the white flag and surrender. But she didn’t even think about it. She had secretly received supplies from Bass Rock, the rocky island in the sea. At night, the garrison had received fresh supplies, and Salisbury hadn’t noticed. Agnes had bread baked and sent it down to Salisbury with a good bottle of red wine. That was the last blow the Englishman was willing to suffer. He gave the order to withdraw. Black Agnes had defeated him with silk scarves and bread. The woman had won.
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The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for my blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. Find treasure all over Scotland with my latest book. I am Nellie Merthe Erkenbach, journalist and author.The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.
My main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.
This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share my passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.