Battle of Lochmaben Fair


Battle of Lochmaben

Image by Andrew Spratt

The Battle of Lochmaben Fair was fought on 22 July 1484 in the town of Lochmaben in south-west Scotland. A party of cavalry led by the rebel Earl of Douglas and the Duke of Albany, crossed from England and clashed with local forces loyal to James III, the Scottish king. The raiders were defeated; and while Albany managed to escape Douglas was captured, spending what remained of his life as a royal prisoner.

By the middle of the fifteenth century the descendants of Sir James Douglas, the companion-in-arms of Robert Bruce, had become the dominant military and political force on the Scottish borders. While war with England might bring the crown some rewards, it was far more likely to increase the power and prestige of the Douglases, as the victory at the Battle of Sark in 1448 had shown. James II, who assumed full control of affairs in the early 1450s, was confronted by an even more worrying problem when William, 8th Earl of Douglas formed an alliance with two powerful northern noblemen-John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles and the Earl of Crawford. Under safe conduct Douglas was invited to meet the king at Stirling Castle to discuss the matter, and when he refused to break the bond he was murdered in a fit of royal passion.

This was the beginning of a drama that was to last for three years. William's brother, James, now the 9th Earl of Douglas, initially took up arms against the crown, though the two sides finally concluded an uneasy peace. Too unstable to last for long, it broke down completely in 1455, when the Douglases were defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm in May 1455. Prior to this the earl crossed the border, ready to hand over Threave Castle, his last remaining stronghold in Galloway, to Henry VI in return for English aid. Although the English government was later to conclude an agreement with Douglas, promising to assist him in recovering the lands taken from him by the "one who calls himself King of Scots", it was able to do little in the short term; for on 22 May 1455 the First Battle of St Albans signalled the beginning of an intermittent dynastic struggle, to be known in time as the Wars of the Roses.

In the years that followed, James, now an outlaw and a rebel, continued to make his case to any willing to listen. Depending on the political situation in England, and relations with Scotland, the 'Douglas card' was played from time to time as the situation demanded. Angered by Scottish support for the House of Lancaster, Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England, used Douglas to make contact with the Lord of the Isles, his old ally. A treaty was concluded at Westminster in early 1462 which envisaged the conquest and partition of Scotland. Nothing came of this grand scheme, which was little more than a gambit in a game of dipolomatic poker. That same year Edward reached an understanding with the Scottish government. Douglas was ordered south, and in the words of one contemporary account;

Earl Douglas is commanded to come hence, and as a sorrowful and sore rebuked man lieth in the abbey of St Albans; and by the said appointment shall not be reputed nor taken but as an Englishman, and if he comes in the danger of the Scots, they do slay him.

With depressing inevitability Anglo-Scottish relations, up at one moment, were invariably down at the next. The following year the 'sore rebuked man' was back on the border, armed with letters of assurance and plenty of money for any Scots who were prepared to join him. Soon he had managed to buy over "a great number of wicked people who did much damage." Basing himself in the hills of Galloway from March 1463 he soon enjoyed some notable successes, continually attacking his enemies, capturing the earl of Crawford, Lord Maxwell, and other notable prisoners in an encounter where many were slain. His depredations continued throughout the summer until September, when he was finally intercepted and defeated on the west march by a group of border gentry. His brother John, Lord Balveny, was taken prisoner and brought to Edinburgh for execution along with other captives.

Over the next few years Douglas was to act as a measure of relations between the two kingdoms, appearing when things were bad only to slip out of sight as matters improved. He was joined in exile by another great rebel, Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, the brother of James III. When Richard III came to the throne of England he initially planned an invasion of Scotland, and called on the aid of Douglas nad Albany. By the summer of 1484, however, his attentions were increasingly drawn to the possible invasion of England by his main Lancastrian rival, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. All he was now prepared to do was to give the two rebels permission to raise their own forces, with the intention of crossing the border and inciting rebellion against James.

With some 500 horsemen the exiles crossed the west march on 22 July 1484, advancing towards Lochmaben, where the annual fair was underway. This was once Douglas territory, and the earl clearly hoped that he would be able to count on the old loyalties towards his family; but he had been away too long, and his influence in the area had long since died away. When he and Albany entered the town people took to arms, believing this to be just another English raid. Soon a bloody battle was raging through the streets and the adjacent countryside, which continued from the middle of the day to dusk. News of the fight spread and the townspeople were reinforced by the local gentry, headed by Robert Crichton, Cuthbert Murray and John Johnstone. Unable to withstand the mounting pressure the English force broke and scattered. Albany owed his own escape to the swiftness of his horse, returning to his French exile, where he was accidentally killed the following year. Douglas was taken prisoner by Alexander Kirkpatrick, who was suitably rewarded by the grateful king.

Towards Douglas, now an elderly man, James behaved with remarkable compassion, overlooking his many treasons. He was sent to the abbey of Lindores in Fife, where he lived what was left of his life in peace, dying in April 1488, the last earl of Douglas.


•  This article bares a similarity to that on the Battle of Kirtle (q.v.)

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This page was last updated on 12 October 2021

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