Updated: Dec 16, 2021
In addition to continuing to introduce you to our members and board, we will begin sharing the stories of strong and remarkable women from Scottish history and lore. We hope you enjoy.
Born circa 1312, Lady Agnes Randolf was nicknamed Black Agnes due to her dark hair and olive complexion. In her youth she fought for her father’s uncle, Robert the Bruce, but Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, is immortalized in song due to her later exploits, successfully defending her castle against English attack without firing a shot. This is her story.
On the 13th day of January 1338, English forces numbering 20,000 strong and led by William Matagu, First Earl of Salisbury, arrived outside the gates of Dunbar Castle, in the town of Berwick, near East Lothian. Her husband, the Earl of Dunbar and March, had left for the northern region to fight with the Scottish troops against the English.
Agnes was now in charge of the castle, kept company by a few guards, as well as house and maid servants. The Earl of Salisbury, upon learning that her husband was away, set his sights on the strategically located castle, having every expectation for an easy victory. Well, not so much.
In response to his initial request for her surrender she is quoted as saying:
‘Of Scotland’s King I haud my house,
He pays me meat and fee,
And I will keep my gude auld house,
While my house will keep me.’
Not amused, the Earl opened the siege by hurling large rocks at the castle wall with his trusty catapult.
Agnes, showing her disdain, sent her maid servants out on the ramparts between attacks (of course dressed in their Sunday finest) to make a show of using their handkerchiefs to dust off the marks left by the rocks. But it did not end there. Over the next few months, she continued to foil and counter one attack and bribery attempt after another.
Dunbar Castle then & now.
By spring, with castle supplies running low, the Earl of Salisbury sensed victory was close. However, a neighbor, Sir Alexander Ramsay, snuck in supplies through the castle’s hidden waterway. To celebrate the occasion, Agnes graciously offered to share wine and fresh baked bread with the Earl. Infuriated by the news of her refreshed supplies, the Earl paraded her previously captured brother, and threatened to murder him if she did not surrender. Her response was for him to proceed with the execution as her brother had no children, and she would therefore inherit his title and become the next Earl of Moray. Caught off guard by her perceived indifference, the Earl of Salisbury spared her brother’s life.
Finally, in June 1338, after five months of siege, the Earl of Salisbury gave up and departed. It is said that as her would- be conquerors marched away, the men made up a song:
“She makes a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous, Scottish wench;
Came I early, came I late.
I found Agnes at the gate.’
But I think I prefer Sir Walter Scott’s sentiment when he said, “From the record of Scottish heroes, none can presume to erase her.”
To read a poem about Black Agnes that won first place at the 2017 Arkansas Scottish Festival Annual Celtic Poetry Contest, click here.
PHOTO CREDITS: Black Agnes: As depicted in a 1906 children’s book. Siege of Dunbar, from The Book of History, Vol. IX pg. 3919 (London, 1914) Dunbar Castle: Clan Dunbar website.
SOURCES: Wikipedia Historic Uk Lothene English Monarchs Seduced by History Celtic Nations Magazine Calandunbar