A Brief History of the Royal Four Towns

Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, founded the Royal Four Towns early in the fourteenth century during the Wars of Independence against the English. They are the villages of Greenhill, Heck, Hightae and Smallholm in Annandale.

In each settlement portions of land were entrusted to experienced soldiers who had served in the ruler’s armies. They held their portions directly from the king and were known as the King’s Kindly Tenants. In addition they shared the use of common fields, meadows and mosses and the resources of woods and water. They were able to pass portions from one generation to the next indefinitely or eventually to sell them. These were rare advantages for ordinary people in the Middle Ages. The communities must have been virtually self governing and the inhabitants were secure in tenure and possessed of all they might require for basic needs. A very independent community resulted.

In return the Kindly Tenants were obliged to provide food and other supplies and garrisons for nearby Lochmaben Castle whenever it was occupied by the ruler or his representatives. Although such services were eventually unnecessary the families of the original settlers or later owners of portions enjoyed the rights originally granted. To this day the community’s fishing rights as permits are sold to visitors.

After the common lands were enclosed in the eighteenth century mixed farming provided work for most but new methods were introduced on the separate farms created. Stone cottages replaced those of mud and thatch and several bear dates in three of the villages alongside others built in the nineteenth century and modern homes including ‘prefabs’.

In the eighteenth century Hightae was known to house many craftsmen and cottagers were involved in producing woollen and linen cloths which were sold to the English. For a few years in the mid nineteenth century young women worked at home as ‘flowerers’ embroidering delicate white lace caps for babies. Local stonemasons and joiners were involved in building fine houses, churches etc. across the southwest of Scotland. A bacon curing business was established to process the carcasses produced by most families for the English market.

There was a parish school in Hightae from 1728 and the present building dates from 1876. Hightae Church was opened in 1798 and the Inch Burn Bridge was built in 1792 and repaired in the 1990s. In 1910 the Hall was built and financed by the local community with half the cost donated by Andrew Carnegie, the steel king.

Farmers built small round mills in their yards so the community mill was no longer needed.

Today few residents are employed in farming and some travel considerable distances to various towns. Others are retired from a wide range of occupations but most make some contribution to community life.

(‘Seven Centuries in the Royal Four Towns of Lochmaben’ by Anne Fairn is available in Dumfries and Galloway libraries).