WHEN I started this series on the ancient towns of Scotland, I had about 16 or 17 of them in mind. I soon received suggestions for more and that’s why today I am going to be writing about one of the ancient royal burghs of Scotland, Rutherglen.

First of all, however, I just want to make it clear that when I asked last week that the Scottish Parliament look into the issue of royal burghs,

I did not ask for the entire system of local government to be restored. Far from it – I am with Lesley Riddoch in her call for local government to be more local.

I simply want former royal burghs to have the legal, copyrighted, legislated right to promote that they are royal burghs – created by pre-Union monarchs and preserved “forever” in the Act of Union in 1707, but which lost any status when the Unionist parties combined to end royal burghs in 1975.

It’s about preserving a huge piece of Scottish history and proclaiming Scotland’s uniqueness, and possibly creating jobs in tourism. We need to know our history before we can move into our future as a Scotland which has regained its independence.

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Returning to this series of articles, here’s an update on where we are. I have already written about Haddington, Tain, Elgin, Falkirk, Arbroath, Ayr, Brechin, Paisley, Dumbarton, Dumfries and Lanark, and still to come are Stornoway, Hamilton, Kilmarnock, St Andrews, Montrose, Forfar, Kilwinning, Irvine and Renfrew.

To be included in the list, towns have to have played a part in the history of Scotland and been established, usually a burgh, before the Reformation in 1560.

I earlier suggested that anyone who wanted to promote their hometown for a column in this series should email me at nationalhamish@gmail.com. I have received several impassioned pleas for Rutherglen to be included and that will be the ancient town I will write about today, thanks largely to regular reader Brian McGraw.

He said: “As a Ruglonian born and bred, I’d hoped to see a piece on Ruglen. I’d always heard the claim of Ruglen being the oldest royal burgh but this is hotly disputed by Lanark.

“It’s clear there was a settlement here since Roman times given the finds we had in our town museum, and boat building was an early industry as the Clyde was navigable and tidal up to this point. There was, I recall, until the 1970s a tumulus site (a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves) at East Main Street which also hinted at the long history of settlement here.

The National: Pupils at the Gallowflat School in RutherglenPupils at the Gallowflat School in Rutherglen

“Also I always understood that Menteith met and agreed with the English at Rutherglen Parish Church to betray and hand Wallace to them – and I’m sure there must be much more that I don’t know.

“It would be great to have your good self take a serious look at the town’s history. It was always a bustling place and deserving of the old rhyme ‘Ruglen’s wee red roon lums reek briskly’.”

How could I resist such an invitation – especially as Brian has called so much correctly, as we shall see.

Regular readers will already know that history writers such as myself depend on real historians for our facts. Rutherglen Lore: Story Of An 800-year-old Royal Burgh by William Ross Shearer, published in 1922, is an indispensable guide to the history of the town.

I also consulted the 1793 work by the Rev David Ure, History Of Rutherglen And East Kilbride, which I believe was the first published historical work about Rutherglen, and I acknowledge Rutherglen Heritage Society as a source and pay tribute to its work as one of the foremost local history groups in the country.

AS Brian McGraw suggested, Rutherglen is one of Scotland’s most ancient settlements. Its name has two possible derivations, either from the Gaelic for red glen, or from a legendary third-century king called Reuther who may have lived in the area. The latter is highly unlikely but a good story, while the former Gaelic derivation has much more credence.

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Shearer points out that over the centuries there have been 44 varieties of the name, but Rutherglen it is, though locals still call it Ruglen.

There was undoubtedly some sort of prehistoric occupation of the site, which sits adjacent to the River Clyde, as it is known that the Romans occupied the area in the second century.

The Gallowflat tumulus, a grassy mound used as a Roman burial site, as mentioned by Brian McGraw, dates from that era and can still be seen at the east end of the Main Street in part of what were the gardens of the long-since demolished Gallowflat House.

There is no mention of Rutherglen in Roman accounts of their occupation of Scotland, and nor is there any record of Rutherglen’s growth during the first millennium but, as we have already seen elsewhere in this series, that is not very surprising as the earliest histories of so many Scottish settlements are lost to the Dark Ages.

Rutherglen was probably a large village with an early strategic importance in the Clyde valley as the place where the tidal reach of the river reached its highest point. Coracles or even primitive sailing boats could move up and down the Clyde to and from Rutherglen, which was recognised as a township of sorts by the year 1126.

As part of his general revolutionising of the governance of Scotland, King David I created the feudal system which relied on landowners and burghs. He issued the charter confirming Rutherglen as a royal burgh in 1126, so the town must have been in existence for many years beforehand.

The National: A folk club in RutherglenA folk club in Rutherglen

All trace of the original Davidian charter has been lost for centuries but its existence has been attested to by so many authorities that there is no doubt that Rutherglen

is one of the most ancient of our royal burghs – and I am glad to see that it is still proclaimed as such on the signs as you enter “The Royal Burgh of Rutherglen”.

DAVID’S son, Malcolm IV, mentions “my burgh of Rutherglen” in one of his missives, while King William the Lion confirmed its status in a charter which is also sadly now lost.

That Rutherglen was in competition with Glasgow in its early days is proven by a charter to the city dated around 1226 in which King Alexander II decrees that Rutherglen’s bailies – leading citizens, usually merchants – might not take custom in Glasgow. This rivalry would be a recurring theme through the ages.

For the town of Rutherglen to develop enough to become a royal burgh, there must have been some sort of fortification, or religious foundation, around which the settlement grew.

Unlike Glasgow, Rutherglen did not enjoy the huge benefits of having a bishop or cathedral, but the Old Parish Church in the town is said to be the fourth religious institution on the site in a Christian history going back to the seventh century, and may have been linked to an Irish missionary, St Conval, who was active in the area.

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And there is no doubt that a later mediaeval church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was located in Rutherglen.

Rutherglen’s status was confirmed by King Alexander II early in his reign (which began in 1214), and the burgh entered national history with the building of Rutherglen Castle in the mid-13th century, probably replacing an earlier structure. No trace of the castle remains to be seen by visitors today, but it was known to be a massive fortress with walls up to 5ft (1.5m) thick.

It was here that, when King Edward I invaded and conquered Scotland in 1296, that an English garrison was established.

In Blind Harry’s epic poem about Sir William Wallace, it is stated that the hero met the English leaders to agree a truce, but the English broke it and Wallace promptly took his army to Stirling Bridge for that famous victory.

That the town of Rutherglen was an important place is shown by the fact the Scottish Parliament, such as it was, met there in 1300.

According to Blind Harry’s poem, it was in the kirk at Rutherglen that Sir Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, met Sir John de Menteith in the summer of 1305 and persuaded him to capture and imprison Wallace. Blind Harry says Menteith was promised that Wallace would not be executed – however, after Wallace was finally seized at Robroyston, the great warrior was taken to London to meet his hideous end.

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Rutherglen Castle was still an English outpost in 1309 when King Robert the Bruce first laid siege to it, though he occupied the fortress briefly before the English recaptured it. It was only in 1313 that the Bruce’s brother Edward finally took the castle.

King Robert recognised the burgh’s importance in April, 1323 when he issued a charter confirming the previous charters of William the Lion and Alexander II – this charter remains preserved in the archives of the town.

The Bruce also gave land at Rutherglen to his great ally Walter Steward, 6th High Steward of Scotland, (1293-1327) father of the first Stewart king, Robert II, and he caused Farme Castle to be built beside the burgh. It later became a stronghold of the Douglasses, but all trace of it has been lost.

All the while Glasgow was growing in importance but Rutherglen remained a vital political and commercial centre, with Rutherglen Castle being used as a royal residence – King Robert II lived there for three years during his reign.

At the battle of nearby Langside in May, 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have fled the scene southwards via the outskirts of Rutherglen after her forces were defeated by the army led by the Regent Moray, the Queen’s half-brother.

In retaliation for the Hamilton family’s support for Mary, Moray had the castle, which they had long occupied, razed to the ground.

One tower was rebuilt but it, too, disappeared in the next century, Shearer telling us of it “being ruthlessly shovelled away to build dykes, outhouses, rockeries, etc, until scarcely a trace was left to show it ever existed”.

I’ll continue Rutherglen’s story next week.